B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

Book Review: Him We Proclaim by Dennis E. Johnson

Johnson, Dennis E. Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007.

Introduction

Him We Proclaim is a paradigm-shifting book which presents an extended case for Christocentric preaching as an entailment of an apostolic hermeneutic. The author seeks to build his homiletical practice upon a distinctive hermeneutical theory which challenges various other perspectives. This project is accomplished by appeal to the discernible hermeneutical practices of the NT authors.

Dr. Dennis E. Johnson is a professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. He is an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The concentration of his research, study, and teaching has been in the area of New Testament exegesis (particularly the interrelation of the two testaments of Scripture) for nearly two decades, but he has spent the latter portion of his career writing and teaching on the application of biblical studies to the practice of ministry within the local church and the larger culture.

Summary

Him We Proclaim is a two-part book with two valuable appendices included in the text. The first part seeks to build a hermeneutical case for what the author calls “apostolic, Christocentric preaching.” (Kindle Location 488) The case is built upon a consideration of the NT authors’ manner of reading, quoting, and applying the OT in their apostolic preaching and teaching—what emerges is a starkly Christocentric way of reading the OT canon. The second part of the book draws out and exemplifies homiletical practices from the hermeneutical principles detailed in the first section.

The first chapter highlights three ways in which a wedge has been driven between the Old and New Testaments in contemporary evangelical hermeneutics—one wedge from Enlightenment-influenced biblical criticism, the second from the literalistic hermeneutic of dispensationalism, and the third stems from religious pluralism. The author also introduces his thesis that while the theology of the apostles has been maintained their interpretive methods have been abandoned by contemporary evangelical scholarship. Finally, he discusses the breach between the academy and the church, addressing the divide between biblical scholarship and gospel proclamation. Having introduced these issues, the author seeks to reunite these estranged brothers by appeal to the hermeneutical and homiletical model of the apostles.

The second chapter seeks to set hermeneutical boundaries for the combinational approach suggested in the first chapter by considering certain priorities and polarities in preaching. This chapter lays the biblical foundation for the author’s walk through the hermeneutical spiral, from text-to-hermeneutics-to-homiletics and back again. It also “provides a sympathetic but critical hearing to rival homiletic approaches… noting both the strengths and potential weaknesses of each.” (530) The author surveys and evaluates a broad swath of evangelical homiletical practices using a taxonomy of three categories: preaching to convert, to edify, and to instruct. Everything from seeker-sensitive “felt needs” models to the homiletics of nouthetic counselors and redemptive-historical preaching models receives critical but fair analysis in this chapter. The author presents and promotes a combinational approach, using Tim Keller’s preaching as an example.

The next chapter considers the purpose of preaching by examining Paul’s theology of preaching. The purpose of Paul’s preaching (taken from Col 1) was to “present everyone mature [or ‘perfect’] in Christ,” (1108) which implies something about the identity and needs of his audience as well as the content of his gospel message. Paul also mentions the price of suffering paid by the preachers of the gospel, as well as the divine power operant within them. Drawing on Paul’s teaching in Col 1 while incorporating examples from apostolic preaching throughout the first century, Johnson presents the “four motifs—purpose, listeners, content, communication tasks—[which] are the heart of this book.” These four motifs, combined with the price, power, and responsibility of preaching, “are essential to a full-orbed understanding of apostolic preaching.” (1530)

The following chapter gives a historical survey of how this apostolic model of preaching has fared throughout the history of the church’s practice. Johnson outlines how apostolic preaching passed through stages of complication, chastening, rejection, and recovery. According to the author, this homiletical method was first “complicated” by the patristic and medieval penchant for an imaginative expansion upon the allegorical reading of the biblical text. The Reformation perspective is brought in to appropriately chasten the excesses which had already developed out of ancient exegesis, as well as to contradict the rising extremes of individualism which characterized the Radical Reformation. This individualistic reading opened the doors in many ways to the rejection of apostolic preaching by the influence of the Enlightenment upon various forms of biblical criticism. Apostolic preaching was eventually recovered in the twentieth century by Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos and has been preserved and developed since then within certain Reformed evangelical circles.

The final chapter of the first section is apologetic in nature and considers the various challenges which this preaching paradigm commonly faces. Most of these objections reflect contemporary iterations of the various schools of thought surveyed in the prior historical chapter, such as the influence of historical criticism or misgivings about the unity of Scripture. He directly responds to the various positions of Beale, Dodd, Longenecker, Gadamer, Enns, Kaiser, and McCartney, respectively, and concludes that even the grammatical-historical method needs to be corrected by apostolic interpretive methods.

The first chapter on the practice of apostolic, Christocentric preaching marks the Epistle to the Hebrews as an epistolary sermon, evaluating it as a paradigm case for preaching while the theological foundations of apostolic preaching are discussed in the succeeding chapter. The last three chapters of the book walk through the centrality of Christ in all of Scripture, giving specific aid in how to prepare and present sermons from each testament—preaching the promises of the OT and the Promise Keeper of the NT. These chapters demonstrate that the book’s theory is solid, its apologetic is reasonable, and the theory can be practically implemented by pastors within their own congregations. This section of the book strongly resembles a homiletical how-to manual, with many valuable principles and practices explained. Seeing the application of the author’s interpretive framework applied to the diverse literary genres of specific texts of Scripture is most helpful and persuasive.

Finally, two appendices are given. The first appendix walks through the author’s model “from text to sermon,” and the second provides several exemplary sample sermons which apply the methods outlined in the book.

Critical Evaluation

In evaluating Him We Proclaim two strengths and one weakness will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks which discuss the overall value of this book.

Strengths

This book will provide many readers with a paradigm shift in hermeneutics, homiletics, and the relationship between the two. Two strengths of this book are: the inclusion of condensed but significantly detailed conclusions at the end of each chapter, and the author’s concise but thorough reading of the history of biblical interpretation.

The inclusion of condensed yet significantly detailed conclusions at the end of each chapter. Each chapter in this book contained significant engagement with the biblical text, history, hermeneutics, theology, and the practice of biblical proclamation. The author is strongly suited for in-depth textual analysis as well as addressing the broad-reaching implications from the text for the theory and practice of preaching. His apostolic, Christocentric, redemptive-historical, missiologically-focused, grace-driven paradigm for interpreting and preaching the text of Scripture leads readers deeper into the text and more broadly across the theological landscape of contemporary preaching.

At the close of each of these significant and insightful chapters, the author manages to present a densely compressed outline of the chapter which still provides significant detail regarding the matters discussed in the chapters. The author has a gift for expounding upon biblical truths at length and with great benefit to the reader, then providing a brief conclusion which perfectly summarizes all of the complex issues already addressed.

The outlines in each conclusion are particularly helpful for students. This reviewer often creates similar outlines while reading books for reviews or studying for examinations, but soon discovered my own outlines to be superfluous given the author’s condensed, detailed concluding summaries.

Concise but thorough reading of the history of biblical interpretation. The fourth chapter of the book, “The Complication, Chastening, Rejection, and Recovery of Apostolic Preaching in the History of the Church,” is virtually worth the price of the book alone. In contemporary evangelical circles it is common to ignore or criticize the patristic and medieval readings of Scripture based upon caricatures and myths associated with the hyper-allegorization of those periods in the history of exegesis. Johnson does not present these reductionistic oversimplifications, but gives a sympathetic-yet-critical analysis of the history of biblical interpretation. In the use of a brilliant metaphor, he applies the term “complication” in a double entendre as a descriptor for the developments in exegesis in the church during its first millennium—complicated “in the sense of an increase in complexity of method and of meanings and, metaphorically, in the medical sense of an adverse development that threatened the health of the ‘patient.’” (1787)

Johnson recognizes the common convictions held by patristic, medieval, and Reformation exegetes regarding the divine inspiration of Scripture and the value of the entire canon as an interpretive horizon. He also notes appropriately that both “allegory and typology are subcategories of metaphor and points on a continuum.” (1854) He brings a fresh perspective to an analysis of the differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of interpretation while incorporating the Reformation perspective as a helpful chastening on the excesses which developed in medieval exegesis.

It is odd for some contemporary conservative scholars to focus so heavily upon the typological aspect of the OT while denying that the difference between allegory and typology is a matter of degree rather than kind. The author’s perspective on this subject is refreshing and a helpful corrective to certain imbalances in the larger Protestant tradition of biblical interpretation, remaining faithful to the teaching and example of the Apostles despite certain contemporary trends toward a merely literary reading of the text.

Weaknesses

Despite providing a depth of insight on the twin subjects of hermeneutics and homiletics, this book still contained certain weaknesses. One weakness of this book was its omission of any discussion of the role of ethics as derived from Scripture for the purpose of preaching.

The omission of any discussion of ethics as derived from Scripture for the purpose of preaching. Johnson presents a well-rounded, well-reasoned case for an apostolic reading and preaching of both testaments of Scripture, emphasizing Christ, redemptive history, missions, and the grace of God. The emphases appropriately reflect the canonical perspective of Scripture, but leave one glaring omission: ethics.

Many controversies have roiled in the history of the church down through to this very day regarding the relationship between law and gospel, the role of the OT law, the doctrine and various models of progressive sanctification, as well as the ethics of the NT, such as the role of the Sermon on the Mount in relation to the Pauline epistles.

Johnson advocates a redemptive-historical reading of Scripture and distinguishes it from the errors in certain dispensational approaches, but never refutes the Theonomic Reconstructionism still present within his own Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He condemns moralistic preaching, but provides little by way of an alternative method for grounding the imperatives of Scripture. He gives a brief discussion on “Preaching Christ to Effect New Creation Transformation” which contains the twin principles that “apostolic application builds exhortations on grace” and “displays the texture of renewal in the image of God,” (4727-4895) but such a brief treatment barely scratches the surface of the ethical questions mentioned above. Such a weighty and controversial subject deserves further treatment in an otherwise nearly comprehensive work.

Apostolic preaching must not only extol the grace of the gospel, but also must clearly explicate the nature of the ethical freedom found in Christ. While the author has given an excellent treatment of the subjects addressed, leaving the question of ethics largely untouched is a significant lacuna in a text on preaching the whole counsel of God.

Conclusion

Him We Proclaim is a well-argued, thorough analysis, apologetic, and exposition of a fully biblical school of interpretation which provides greater insight and clarity to the nature and the task of biblical exposition. The book is historically informed, exegetically-grounded, reasonable, and any interlocutor (from whatever perspective) will have a weighty task in seeking to refute Johnson’s strong case for apostolic hermeneutics and homiletics. God willing, this book will be widely read among the preachers of God’s Word to the benefit of His people.

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