Book Review: Him We Proclaim, by Dennis Johnson

Review
03.05.2010

A few weeks ago I read an essay by Carl Trueman in The Wages of Spin where he argued that many preachers employ biblical theology with disastrous results:

One of the problems I have with a relentless diet of biblical-theological sermons from less talented (i.e., most of us) preachers is their boring mediocrity: contrived contortions of passages which are engaged in to produce the answer ‘Jesus’ every week. It doesn’t matter what the text is; the sermon is always the same.[1]

Ouch! It reminded me how hard preaching can be, especially preaching from the Old Testament. But to help us become better preachers of the whole Bible, Dennis E. Johnson, academic dean and professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary in California, has just written an excellent book on the subject aptly titled, Him We Proclaim.

WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK UNIQUE?

There are a myriad of books on preaching, but Johnson believes that the Bible is finally the best guidebook for preaching the Bible. More specifically, the New Testament apostles teach us how to preach:

This book makes the case for imitating the interpretive and communicative methods employed by the apostles to proclaim Christ to the first-century Greco-Roman world as we minister in the twenty-first century world (3).

In an age where so many communicators are interested in style, dress, and tone, Johnson challenges preachers to consider what the apostles thought of preaching. They regarded it as a supernatural endeavor designed to change men through communication of the written Word of God (Col. 1:24-2:7).

Johnson also points the reader to an example of apostolic preaching, arguing on the basis of internal evidence that the letter to the Hebrews is actually a sermon—the author described it as a “word of exhortation” (13:22). Hebrews is of unusual help to the preacher because, whereas most of the sermons in Acts were preached to a non-Christian audience, Hebrews was written to believers. Not only that, it combines Old Testament interpretation and Christian application: “our one New Testament example of apostolic preaching addressed to an established congregation illustrates the integration of Christ-centered biblical interpretation with hearer-contoured communication and application” (248).

The New Testament authors were preachers whose treatment of the Old Testament is worthy of emulation. To those who object that the apostles were inspired while preachers today are not, Johnson replies,

Precisely because we lack the extraordinary and mysterious operations of the Holy Spirit that produced the New Testament documents, should we not be guided by the hermeneutic method exemplified in their Christological and redemptive-historical interpretations when we approach the Old Testament texts that they did not explicitly address, rather than turning to useful but, ultimately, a sub-apostolic methodology? (178).

WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK INTERESTING?

Pastors will find many things in this book thought-provoking. For example, Johnson surveys the current trends in preaching. Pastors tend to preach to convert, preach to edify, or preach to instruct. Johnson suggests a fourth category, a hybrid of sorts, with a not-so-catchy name: “Evangelistic, Edificatory Redemptive Historical Preaching.” He references Tim Keller as the contemporary exemplar of this type of preaching.

Another notable section is Johnson’s survey of the history of biblical interpretation and his discussion of why some pastors and theologians are put off by redemptive historical preaching. While the brevity of this history forces him to gloss over historical nuances (for example, there was more diversity among interpreters in the Middle Ages than Johnson notes) he makes a very provocative point: the Enlightenment led many interpreters to treat the Bible as any other book, and this still affects some conservative theologians today:

Scholars influenced by Enlightenment naturalism are bound to be suspicious of approaches to biblical interpretation that seek to relate every text to Christ and his work, if the latter dares to allege that a Christological fulfillment of an Old Testament passage was in any sense intended by the text’s human author (since the possibility of a divine Author must be left out of the picture) (152).[2]

Those wanting to understand why biblical theology is not accepted by all will be especially interested in the chapter, “Challenges to Apostolic Preaching.”

WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK HELPFUL?

To help make better preachers, Johnson gives preachers tools for approaching their sermon texts with a right understanding of redemption history. Worth the price of the book, the chapter entitled “Theological Foundations of Apostolic Preaching” presents five ways in which New Testament authors demonstrate the Old Testament’s fulfillment in Christ:

  • Typos texts – These are texts where the Greek word typos (or type) is actually used. For example, Romans 5:14 describes Adam as a “type” of the one to come.
  • Old Testament quotations applied to Christ – For example, Matthew 2:15 directly applies Hosea 11:1 to Christ—”Out of Egypt I called my son.”
  • Unmistakable allusions to Old Testament events, applied to Christ – For example, references to Jesus’ body as the “temple” (John 2) or Jesus as “manna” (John 6) are unmistakable allusions to Old Testament events.
  • Subtle and debatable allusions to Old Testament events, persons, and institutions – Consider a possible connection between the Mount of Transfiguration and the Lord’s indwelling of the tabernacle in Exodus 40:25 based on the overshadowing cloud in both events. The allusion, as Johnson notes, has to do with the Gospel writers’ decision to use the same word for “overshadow” found in the Septuagint account of God’s indwelling of the Tabernacle.
  • General Old Testament patterns fulfilled in Christ and his work – Though there is no direct link between an Old Testament and New Testament text, a connection can still be drawn based upon “a pattern (typos) embedded in redemptive history” (272). For example, Psalm 88 is not quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. However, as a psalm of lament—like Psalm 22—it is reasonable to conclude that it can be interpreted along those same lines, as also alluding to Christ. As Johnson puts it, “we have good reason to believe that the New Testament interpretation of Psalm 22 teaches us to read the whole genre of lament psalms as revelatory of the anguish and abandonment of the ultimately Innocent Sufferer” (273).

It’s far too easy, as Trueman has noticed, for preachers to simply assert that a text points to Christ. The question is, “how?” The answer requires a theological foundation, and that is what Johnson gives.

We must consider the relationship of our particular text to other portions of Scripture . . . Preachers who recognize the divine authorship of Scripture and divine sovereignty over history realize that these relationships cannot be random, accidental, or arbitrary; rather, they must reflect the manifold wisdom of God as they disclose the marvelously diverse and unified plan of God for history (309).

Him We Proclaim ends in the most helpful way possible, with Johnson applying his principles to eleven texts in the Old and New Testament. For any preacher who has ever stared at a text and wondered, “What in the world am I going to do with this?” these chapters are gold. This is not because Johnson offers some magic bullet; no, there is no special trick or formula. It is simply helpful to see how he walks through a passage, accounts for a text’s historical context, accounts for where it falls in the context of the Bible as a whole, and then translates all these factors into a sermon outline.

WHY IS THIS BOOK NECESSARY?

There are other books like Him We Proclaim in print today. Here’s how Johnson’s book compares to two of them:

1) Sidney Greidanus’ Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method is very similar to Johnson’s. Both aim at a recovery of redemptive historical preaching, both look to the New Testament for principles on preaching Christ from the Old, and both offer practical suggestions to the preacher. Nonetheless, pastors and theologians unconvinced about the importance of redemptive-historical preaching will find that Johnson is more of an apologist than Greidanus. Furthermore, Johnson assumes less, as his chapter devoted to an outline of redemptive-history attests. Furthermore, while Greidanus’s history of biblical interpretation is more detailed, most will not mind Johnson’s more cursory treatment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Johnson does not limit his work to preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Thus he includes an entire chapter on preaching from the New.

2) Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, like Him We Proclaim, aims to connect biblical theology and preaching, to drive home the point that every sermon must preach Christ crucified, and to give the pastor practical tips on the redemptive-historical context of the different genres of Scripture. However, Johnson is slower to show the reader his conclusions. He works very hard to make his thought process transparent as he works through the different genres of Scripture in the final two chapters. Preachers may be anxious to flip ahead and see, “How does he preach Christ?” But this, of course, would miss the point entirely.

The utility of Him We Proclaim is Johnson’s commitment to help a generation of preachers figure out for themselves how to preach Christ and, Lord willing, avoid the trap that Carl Trueman described where, “[i]t doesn’t matter what the text is; the sermon is always the same.”

Footnotes:

1. Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Scotland: Mentor, 2004), 171-172.

2. Generally-conservative scholars like the German Johann Ernesti and the American Moses Stuart both affirmed divine and human authorship and yet allowed the Enlightenment’s rationalistic principles of interpretation to govern their reading of the Bible. Nonetheless, it is no small thing to argue that evangelical scholars today are influenced by “Enlightenment naturalism” and I think Johnson needs more evidence for that connection to be convincing.