Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 07/10/2007 by Tim Challies.
Recommended. Well worth reading for any preacher of the gospel.
“‘Don’t you know, young man, that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?’ ‘Yes,’ said the young man. ‘Ah!’ said the old divine, ‘and so from every text of Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ.’”
This sagely advice - offered by a veteran Welsh expositor to his fledgling understudy - is quoted with warm approval by Dennis E Johnson, early in his latest book. This is unsurprising, for if Dennis E Johnson’s sizeable tome, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All the Scriptures amounts to anything, it is surely the counsel an experienced homiletician to a fresh generation of preachers. The counsel is simple: that Christ is the supreme destination on the biblical map, and that preachers must find their way from every text to His redemptive person.
Johnson’s contention is not new, of course. In recent years a whole family of books has spawned on the subject of preaching the bible as Christian Scripture. Whether it be Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, Edmund Clowney, Sidney Greidanus, or Graeme Goldsworthy - the point has been similarly made, if differently expressed. Biblical history is HIS-tory. Christ is the centerpiece and culmination of holy writ. And this being so, no Scripture portion can be accurately interpreted nor adequately preached without identifying that text’s relation to Him.
However Johnson’s book is a thoughtful and articulate addition to his field. For one thing it rigorously argues that the NT itself (particularly evidenced in the apostle’s preaching) provides the paradigm for Christ-centered exposition of both Old and New Testament. Furthermore, Johnson has evidently taken on board some of the common objections to the approach he is advocating, seeking to answer these reservations with patience, and above all biblical warrant.
Because of Johnson’s commitment to interact with those who don’t share his view, the book is broken into two halves. The first - for would be converts - is titled The Case for Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching (ch 2-5). This is a more apologetic section which defends “apostolic” hermeneutics and homiletics “exegetically, historically, and polemically.” Here Johnson critiques those approaches which take apostolic doctrine seriously yet discard the hermeneutics they employed to get there. Johnson therefore challenges any approach that refuses to read ‘backward’ into Old Testament texts - particularly in light of our fuller revelation in Christ - for fear that biblical interpretation will cease to be ‘literal’.
Indeed Johnson suggests that some evangelicals are so committed to the grammatico-historical method that they cannot accept any meaning of an Old Testament passage that would have been beyond the knowledge of the original hearers and readers. However, according to Johnson, this is precisely what the apostles often assumed. So are we to suggest that we are wiser exegete’s than the apostles? Or are we to think it inconceivable - even as those who hold to a singular, divine author of Scripture - that the biblical canon could have been fashioned to have a Christocentric focus throughout its entirety (quite apart from any limitations in knowledge that Old Testament authors may have possessed regarding the Christ to whom they pointed)?
Johnson seeks to help us by way of illustration: the Old Testament is somewhat similar to a mystery novel. Early in the plot, none of the characters within the tale are fully aware of the final culmination of the story - after all, this is a mystery novel. Nevertheless, once the final page reveals the perpetrator, the book can then be read ‘backward’, and the various prior clues can be better understood with hindsight. So, says Johnson, “the New Testament’s handling of the Old Testament rather implies that God’s redemptive story is one that must be read ‘backward’ if we are going to make sense of any part of it.” (p 159) In our case, the Savior, Messiah and Fulfiller of God’s promises has been revealed, but the prior clues can now be re-examined and understood in light of our fuller knowledge.
Following on from this controversial section, The Practice of Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching (ch 6-10 ) moves from defense to offence. Now seeking to assist those eager to apply the ‘apostolic’ approach, Johnson constructs both a theoretical framework and concrete strategies for the aforementioned hermeneutic/homiletic. Johnson’s practical intent is confirmed by his closing sections which deal with preaching from various OT and NT texts, periods and genres - and not least by a final appendix that offers specific examples of Johnson’s own attempts to follow the apostolic preaching trail.
Within these two broad divisions of the book, there is a goldmine of individual chapters to be plundered. Chapter one, a study of Priorities and Polarities In Preaching, surveys and critiques those modern approaches to preaching that limit their purpose to edification, evangelism or instruction, and subsequently argues for a unified approach. Chapter four is a provocative consideration of the role of context in the history of biblical interpretation, which makes the suggestion that our unfailing commitment to the grammatico-historical method may have left us just as blinkered as the allegorical interpreters from the Patristics to the Medieval scholars. Also worth the price of the book would be chapter six, as Johnson considers the book of Hebrews, what he perceives to be a unique example of Apostolic preaching to believers.
Inevitably, not everyone will agree with Johnson’s argument - not least liberals who balk at the idea of a divine, singular authorship. Yet even within evangelicalism, some will demur from Johnson. For one thing, dispensationalists will take issue with much of what Johnson proposes, and indeed, the author seeks to parry several of their likely objections. Still others may take issue with the hermeneutic being proposed, particularly if they fear the danger of abandoning an objective, literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The readers of Him We Proclaim must weigh carefully Johnson’s arguments and apologetic to make up their own mind.
Undoubtedly, the greatest strength of this book is its comprehensive nature. Johnson both defends and promotes Christ centered preaching, and does so apologetically, theoretically and practically. Some might suggest that such a broad attempt is actually the weakness of this volume (Him We Proclaim could easily have been developed into a three volume set, and some sections are inevitably cursory), but personally I found the well-rounded nature of this work compelling. The fact that Johnson buttresses his argument from so many angles, builds something of a snowball of momentum. Johnson’s argument gains increasing credibility throughout.
In terms of readability, Him We Proclaim will present a high summit, especially for those with little prior knowledge of biblical theology and hermeneutics. But for every serious student of the bible - not least preachers - it is well worth the climb.