Sidney Greidanus’ work Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts is a masterpiece—but more because of the questions it raises than its own conclusions. His aim is to consider how to preach historical texts faithfully. He does this by using a pre-war homiletical[1] kerfuffle in the Dutch church as a foil—specifically by contrasting the strategies of (1) exemplary, and (2) redemptive-historical modes of preaching.

The redemptive-historical model is predicated on biblical theology; “[w]e must, therefore, try to understand all the accounts in their relation with each other, in their coherence with the center of redemptive history, Jesus Christ.”[2] The exemplary method often uses bible persons as illustrations, mirrors and models for our own behavior. Thus, “young David was brave and trusted in God, and so must we!” etc. The champions of the exemplary method are not opposed to the idea of an over-arching redemptive framework, but “their basic motive [is] a concern for the relevance of the sermon.”[3] So, one advocate explains:[4]

… they still feel felt free to treat separately (using biblical givens) certain persons described in Scripture, to picture them psychologically, to speak of their struggles and trials, their strengths and weaknesses, and then to draw parallels between the experiences of the Bible saints and the struggles of believers today. Without hesitation our fathers held up the virtues of the biblical persons as an example to all, but also their sins and weaknesses as a warning.

The problem, Greidanus believes, is that by following this exemplary method one employs a dualistic approach to homiletics—using contrasting preaching methods that do not easily mix. So, one might preach objective facts for the sermon proper, then pivot to “imitate this guy!” for application.[5] Indeed, Greidanus even rejects the common “explain the text, then apply it” method.[6]

Greidanus embarks on a detailed survey of both approaches, which I cannot relate here. The critiques from both sides are very instructive because, despite the passage of perhaps 90 years since that kerfuffle in the Netherlands, the homiletical problem is perennial. He settles on a cautious redemptive-historical approach, but protects his flank by leveling some critiques against excesses from his side. Intellectual sermons are a problem; “conceiving of revelation as a number of theological propositions which can be fitted neatly into a dogmatic system.”[7] A sermon can degenerate into a lecture; “would reading a decent commentary at home not fill the bill?”[8] When one preaches nothing but “facts,” then “[t]his must lead to objective preaching, which is, strictly speaking, no preaching.”[9]

He concludes the book by suggesting some principles for preachers:

  1. Historical texts are proclamations of God’s acts in history. So, one must examine the text itself in proper context. All texts are theocentric, and “people have been taken up into the scriptural narrative not for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them.”[10] Application can only properly flow from the nature of these historical proclamations directed to specific people—we cannot add relevance that is not there.[11]
  2. Select a preaching text from one single composition. Preach a pericope, not an isolated verse from a larger passage unit. And, do not stitch a sermon together from a collection of isolated texts. Use one passage.[12]
  3. Privilege historical context. What did it mean to the original audience? But, this does not mean the redemptive-historical approach should be a dry recitation of “facts.” Do not “relativize” the message, but make application from the context of your passage.[13]
  4. The bible is one story. “The historical text must be seen in an expanding context: its immediate context, the book, the Testament, the Bible—in that order.”[14] This means one must place the text in a Christocentric framework.[15] “[I]t must be seen as a constitutive part of a larger whole.”[16] It is difficult to reconcile this with Greidanus’ previous advice about privileging context in application. What if the pericope’s place in the redemptive story is largely irrelevant to the point the biblical author is making (like, say, in Song 4)? His clarification that this overarching motif “is not so much a progression to Christ (the Incarnation) as the progression of Christ”[17] helps, but does not explain the disconnect (or, more ironically, the dualism) in Greidanus’ method.
  5. “Big idea” preaching. Greidanus anticipates Haddon Robinson here.[18] “[T]he sermon will be limited in scope: it has one focal point, one message to drive home.”[19] He recommends preachers structure their sermons to follow the flow of the narrative. However, he allows for re-arranging to suit the theme.
  6. Mind the gap. Greidanus closes by suggesting the preacher bridge the continuity gap between “then” and “now.” The application should follow the “big idea.” There is no explication then application, but rather an “applicatory explication of God’s word.”[20] This application is only possible because of a “progression in redemptive history,”[21] which is Christ.

Greidanus’ suggestions, in the end, closely anticipate both Robinson and Bryan Chapell. Each text has a context, but the preacher must situate it in the larger bible story. Yet, Greidanus does not go so far as to recommend the pastor buy a pair of “gospel glasses.”[22] Still, this disconnect results in the very dualism Greidanus is so anxious to avoid.

The “big idea” motif forces another straitjacket over top of the passage’s own organic context. God did not give us scripture as a bullet-point series of propositional statements, and a passage may well be more complicated than a single distillate.

It is difficult to see how a text can “speak” at all when it bears the weight of two different, contradictory frameworks. A sermon has one “big idea,” and each one is also about Christ’s progression through history, and each passage has a specific context one must “bridge” over to today. That is a tall order. Perhaps it is best to just let the text speak and donate the straitjackets to Goodwill?

[1] Greidanus sees this as a hermeneutical issue (Sola Scriptura [reprint; Eugene: Wipf, 2001], p. 5). I disagree and believe, at heart, it is homiletical.  

[2] Ibid, p. 41.  

[3] Ibid, p. 43.  

[4] Ibid.  

[5] “Here the two methods stand in stark contrast to each other. Though they can be combined in theory perhaps, in the practice of preaching the combination is often infelicitous because of the inherent dualism,” (Ibid, p. 47).  

[6] Ibid, pp. 91-93.  

[7] Ibid, p. 183.  

[8] Ibid, p. 189.  

[9] Ibid, p. 191.  

[10] Ibid, p. 215.  

[11] Ibid, p. 216.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 217-218.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 219-220.  

[14] Ibid, p. 222.  

[15] Ibid, pp. 223-224.  

[16] Ibid, p. 135.  

[17] Ibid, p. 143.

[18] Greidanus even refers to a poor sermon a “buckshot” (Ibid, p. 227), which is perhaps where Robinson got his infamous “a sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot” line (Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001], p. 35).

[19] Sola Scriptura, p. 227.  

[20] Ibid, pp. 230-231.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 229-230.

[22] Bryan Chapell writes, “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (in Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.], p. 16).

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