This article addresses a focus in preaching that is practised in the Reformed churches, and which I also much utilize in my own sermon-writing.
Redemptive-historical preaching is neither a preaching style nor a homiletical method. The adjective “redemptive-historical” expresses the homiletical and exegetical concern that full justice must be done to God’s great plan that spans all of history and is centred on Jesus Christ. A deliberate effort is made to explain and apply the sermon text in its proper place within the redemptive-historical narrative: the text in its past context, the application in its present context.
This does not necessarily mean that the overarching redemptive-historical framework itself is the focus of the sermon. If that were the case, all sermons would be essentially the same. Rather, the sermon text is located within this framework, and this location sheds light on the importance of the text and its possible applications. This approach avoids the arbitrariness of “exemplaric preaching”, that is, preaching in which Biblical characters in isolation are understood primarily as examples of good or bad behaviour. (In the 1930/40s this was precisely the reason for the deliberate development of redemptive-historical preaching.)
Benefits of a redemptive-historical approach
In what follows, I will highlight a number of features and advantages of redemptive-historical preaching.
A redemptive-historical approach presupposes a profound unity of all of history, and therefore an essential continuity between the sermon text, its entire Biblical context, and the congregation today. In spite of the (often felt) distance of time, place, culture, and language between the Bible text and us, there is a basic relevance because the past events belong to the same trajectory as our own lives. Biblical characters are not examples from a galaxy far, far away; but they are our ancestors as human beings, as human believers, as fellow recipients of God’s mercy. More than any other approach to Scripture, the redemptive-historical angle requires the historicity of the narrative and the Biblical authors. It gives the Old Testament its full due, not as a closed book but as a closed chapter of an ongoing story. It emphasizes that the God who fellowshipped with Adam and revealed himself to Abraham is the same today. Contrary to what opponents suppose (e.g. John Carrick’s The Imperative of Preaching), a redemptive-historical approach can result in more vivid application because of the profound connection between past and present.
At the same time, a redemptive-historical framework helps account for the differences between the various stages of the Biblical history, as well as the current “last days”. Every narrative, every poem in Scripture has a specific redemptive-historical “index”, locating it in the progression of God’s unfolding plan. While this plan is a unity, its various stages or dispensations have distinguishing features. Awareness of this prevents making inappropriate connections. For instance, direct application of the principle of Israelite tithing to church member’s “budget” giving would fails to recognize that the Mosaic dispensation and the church today have different redemptive-historical indices. While principles do not change, practices do; not only because of cultural change but also because of the progression of God’s redemptive work.
The question of typology and analogy (especially between Old and New Testaments) is also helped by a redemptive-historical approach. A type is a historical person or event that may viewed as a lesser anticipation or foreshadowing of a later person or event. The progression from type to antitype is closely related to the corresponding progression in redemptive history. Some Bible writers appear to be very fond of this kind of analogy. It is well-known, for instance, that Luke-Acts echo “exodus” language in reporting the New Testament events. Clearly, the author views the ministry of Jesus and the development of the early church as an analogy of the ministry of Moses and the settling of the Promised Land.
When the sermon text is viewed in the redemptive-historical framework, the resulting sermon will have a natural dynamic. In the sequence of creation, fall, covenant, Christ, and consummation there is a forward-pointing arrow that affects our exegesis and preaching; and redemptive-historical preaching accounts for this movement. There is little room left for preaching about static principles, universal ethics, or timeless examples. Just like the Bible itself, redemptive-historical preaching will teach general principles (such as covenant) not in abstraction but in the concreteness of history.
Likewise, redemptive-historical sermons are likely to recognize the redemptive-communal aspects in the Bible, instead of falling into the individualism common among evangelicals of our time. Hannah, for instance, is not merely a desperate woman whose prayer was heard; she is member, representative, and metaphor of a corrupt covenant community, and the son she receives guides that community to a better life under God’s anointed king. The application of sermon does not translate individuals to individuals, but members of the covenant community past to members of the covenant community present.
Redemptive-historical preaching is also Christocentric, because Christ is the obvious cornerstone of redemptive history. The covenants, laws, and prophecies of ancient Israel pointed forward to his coming. The gospels highlight his words and work. The epistles reflect on his accomplishments and significance. The redemptive-historical preacher will never approach an Old Testament passage without accounting for its forward drive toward Jesus Christ. This Christological reference may be explicit in prophecies, suggestive in types, but always at least implicit in the historical setting. The book of Judges is hardly useful for positive moral examples, but like no other Bible book it brings out the need for the coming of Christ. The psalms leave people in the roller-coaster of positive and negative experiences, unless we drive home their fulfillment in Jesus’ deepest suffering and highest exaltation. Today’s listeners can identify with the psalms, not only because of common human experiences expressed in them, but also and especially because of the focus on Christ that we share with the psalmist. (Mutatis mutandis, of course, since we can look backward to his completed work.)
The redemptive-historical approach to preaching is a natural partner of the so-called Biblical theology of Geerhardus Vos c.s. Whereas systematic theology often highlights timeless doctrines, Biblical theology seeks out themes found in the narrative of Scripture, which naturally carry the dynamic mentioned above. It is possible to preach redemptive-historically without the notions of Vos and Ridderbos, but not vice versa.
Finally, redemptive-historical preaching has great practical eschatological relevance. It actively recognizes the New Testament listeners as living in the “last days”, between Jesus’ ascension and his final coming. While there is much reflection back on the central events 2000 years ago, there is also anticipation: there is still a forward direction of the redemptive-historical dynamic, toward the final close of the great narrative. This focus is an indispensable antidote for so many Christians today who live almost entirely for the here and now. The current redemptive-historical index of “already, but not yet” is the proper context for sermon application. Our congregation lives out of the resurrection power and Spirit of the Lord (already) and is headed for his ultimate revelation (not yet). If that is the basis of the sermon’s application, there is little room for shallow and nearsighted moralism.
In his classical book (Sola Scriptura), S. Greijdanus indicates that there are pitfalls associated with redemptive-historical preaching, and later authors echo this. The problems arise when the approach is misunderstood and therefore abused. Sadly, these abuses have given redemptive-historical preaching a bad name in some circles.
While the redemptive-historical framework is a necessary perspective for making a good sermon, it is not the only perspective from which the text must be viewed. The Bible text is not only part of an overarching narrative, but also has experiential, ethical and liturgical aspects (to name but a few). If a preacher spends 90% of the sermon in establishing redemptive-historical connections, there is likely insufficient room to develop these other aspects; the sermon will be one-sided.
One examples of abuse is when the preacher reduces a Biblical character to merely a step in the overarching historical narrative. Deborah, for instance, was instrumental in the LORD’s care for his Old Testament people, and as a temporary savior she prefigures the greater salvation we have in Jesus Christ. But she is also a woman who speaks up when male leaders are dropping the ball, and it is undeniable that Judges 4 deliberately highlights this aspect of the story, even though it is of little redemptive-historical interest. In 1 Samuel, both Michal and Jonathan save David from assassination attempts, thus helping protect the ancestor of the Lord Jesus; but it is equally valid and necessary to see Michal as the queen with little respect for true liturgy, and Jonathan as the shining opposite of the royal failure his father was.
Thus we must reject the false dichotomy between a redemptive-historical perspective and the use of Biblical characters as examples for believers today. An “exemplaric” application is not bad, provided that we do justice to the historical contexts to both parties, to similarities and dissimilarities. For instance, in the story of Abimelech and Abraham (Gen 20), Abraham intercedes for Abimelech. We may rightly reject the shallow reasoning that this is an example of the importance of praying for each other. On the other hand, Abraham acted as a covenant member with a prophetic-priestly office; and members of Christ’s church today are likewise covenant members with a prophetic-priestly office. With all the differences between our situations, we resemble Abraham in that respect; and based on this consideration, even our redemptive-historical sermon may make the application that as Christians, we are called to intercede for a world that denies and opposes the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.
In conclusion, a redemptive-historical awareness will be of great help in making sermons. It anchors the Biblical text and our listeners firmly in the same history, but also makes the necessary distinctions. It protects from the arbitrary analogies and moralism that characterize many sermons today. And it invites to a fulsome and wholesome application of the Bible text to God’s people today.