Preaching: Moods and Methods
Recently I received a book to review. It was written by John Carrick and is called The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002).
At first sight the title comes across as rather imposing. Words like "imperative" and "rhetoric" sound quite formidable and dated. Nevertheless, once one gets beyond the title and starts into the book proper, it has to be admitted that Carrick is not only dealing with a vitally important subject, namely preaching, but he also has some worthwhile things to say about it.
For openers Carrick explains that the very idea of rhetoric has fallen on hard times. People identify it with bombastic speech. Originally, however, rhetoric was a term that had a lot to do with the art of persuasion and was considered to be at the heart of every preacher's task. It was the duty of those who brought the gospel to persuade people about the truth of the Christian faith.
Four grammatical categories
Carrick is convinced that this is still the case and he tries to advance it by asserting that "the essential pattern or structure which God himself has utilized in the proclamation of New Testament Christianity is that of the indicative-imperative." (p.5) In particular, he believes that the best way to persuade people is by using four grammatical categories: the indicative, the exclamative, the interrogative and the imperative. To clarify these various categories he makes use of illustrations and examples taken from the sermons of five well-known Calvinistic preachers: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
The triumphant indicative
With respect to the indicative, Carrick makes much of the famous statement by J. Gresham Machen that "Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative." It begins not with telling the sinner what he or she must do, but rather it commences with telling them what God has done. It starts with the great deeds of salvation.
In this connection a close look at the book of Acts is very instructive for in such chapters as Acts 2, 3, and 10 we hear Peter begin his sermons with recounting the central truths and events of the gospel. The emphasis is first on the redemptive facts. Before everything else the preacher needs to explain the Scriptures. First he needs to instruct, to inform, to teach, to explain and only thereafter is he ready and able to apply. To support his argument Carrick points the reader to the book of Romans in which, he says, the dominant mood from ch. 1:1 to 6:10 is the indicative, and only in 6:11 do we come across the first exhortation. True preaching, then, must initially concentrate on the explication of the Word of God.
From the indicative, the author moves on to the exclamative and he cites many examples to show that the Bible makes ample use of exclamatory words like "how," "what," "oh," and "woe." Turning to the famous preachers mentioned above, Carrick shows that they made use of the same rhetorical devices. The fact that both they and the Bible do so illustrates that preaching the Word of God has to do with passion. A sermon is neither an essay nor a lecture. It is characterized by certain levels of tone, feeling and emotion. It is "the language of passion" and this comes across in the preacher's use of exclamations (p.54).
Having thus dealt with the indicative and the exclamative, Carrick proceeds to the interrogative. As such this mood is an aspect of the indicative but it also has certain distinct characteristics. For example, it replaces the note of certainty with a note of uncertainty. Often it does so by asking one of three types of questions: analytical, rhetorical or searching.
What is an analytical question? Carrick cites Rom. 3:1-2, where Paul asks, "What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?" and others found in 3:9; 27-28; 31; 4:1-3; 9‑10 and so forth. With such questions Paul enters into the minds of his hearers and anticipates possible objections. He is entering into a dialogue with them.
What is a rhetorical question? It is used not to garner information but for effect. A fitting example of this can be found in Isaiah 40:12-14, 18 and those well-known questions, "who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, who has understood the mind of the LORD?" Other examples of this type of writing or speech can be found in Matt. 6:25-27; Rom.10:14-15; 1 Cor. 9:1-14. Often this kind of question functions as a forceful statement.
What is the searching question? Carrick says that this is a question that does not have an answer which is a foregone conclusion or is self-evident. He refers to Matt 16:13-16 where our Lord asks, "But what about you? Who do you say I am?", as well as to Matt. 22:41-46; Rom. 2:3-4, 21-23.
Of these different types of questions, Carrick maintains that it is the searching question that has "the greatest value for preachers and it is this that homileticians invariably have in mind when they discuss the interrogative." (p.68)
Having thus explained the meaning and use of three grammatical categories, there is one left, and it has to do with the imperative. From the fact that this last category is found in the title of his book and that it receives more attention than the other three combined we can conclude that it represents the author's principal concern. Indeed, he even divides his long treatment of this category into two parts.
In part 1 dealing with the imperative he reminds his readers that "the indicative needs to be complemented and supplemented by the imperative; proclamation needs to be complemented and supplemented by appeal." (p.83) He quotes Sinclair Ferguson with approval to the affect that "indicatives lead to imperatives." (p.83)
In connection with this, he also shows that the focus of the moral imperative is usually upon repentance and faith (cf. Mark 1:14-15; Acts 2:22-24, 37-40; 3:12-15.) At times imperatives are addressed to unbelievers and are evangelistic in nature. At other times they have to do with sanctification. Noteworthy examples of this can be found in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.
Carrick also says that "the relationship between the indicative and the imperative reflects the relationship expressed in the Bible between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. In other words, the indicative mood expresses the action of God — the imperative mood expresses the action of man."
Later on Carrick asserts, "clearly, then, the imperative mood has played a very significant and vital role in the theory and practice of some of the greatest preachers in the history of the church."
Furthermore, he is of the conviction that all of the great preachers cited recognized "both the irreversibility and the inseparability of the indicative and imperative moods."
Critiquing the redemptive-historical approach
Having laid down these basic principles, Carrick comes next to what many preachers who are familiar with and practice the redemptive historical approach will consider perhaps the most interesting part of this book.
In the longest chapter called "The Imperative: Part 2" Carrick deals extensively and critically with this approach.
He begins by sketching the historical background in which this approach emerged in the Netherlands during the 1930s and 1940s. He briefly mentions the position of both the "exemplary" and "redemptive-historical" schools. Thereafter Carrick moves quickly to the contention that "one of the central issues in this controversy was the issue of application." (p.112) He shows that while the redemptive-historical school accused the exemplary school of being atomistic, subjectivistic, anthropocentric and moralistic, the exemplary school accused the redemptive-historical school of being objective, intellectual and scholastic.
Still, Carrick does not leave the controversy in the 1930s and 1940s. He draws the lines to North America and to people like Geerhardus Vos, Edmund Clowney, John Frame, Richard Gaffin and James T. Dennison, Jr., and to theological schools like Westminster-Philadelphia and Westminster-California.
In the process of doing so, it becomes clear that while Carrick compliments the redemptive-historical school for its "holistic, integrated approach to the Scriptures" (p.110), he is of the opinion that the Achilles' heel of this approach "is to be found in the failure of some within the redemptive-historical school to grasp fully the biblical concept of example." (p.128) As support for his contention Carrick quotes liberally from the writings of Gaffin and C. Trimp, and less so from those of Clowney and Frame.
Of particular interest is the fact that Carrick often quotes Trimp with approval. He says, "we believe that Trimp is correct when he charges the redemptive-historical school with operating 'under the influence of exaggerated sensitivity regarding the word "example"'."
He also states, "we believe that Trimp is again correct when he alleges with regard to the redemptive-historical school that 'there was a certain narrowness of perspective in dealing with the important passage of Hebrews 11'."
Criticizing Schilder and the more extreme
While approving of Trimp's statements, it is also obvious that Carrick is not nearly so approving of K. Schilder. He views Schilder's opposition to automatism and moralism as bordering on paranoia. (p.130) He alleges that Schilder's preaching is "characterized by an almost complete absence of the imperative mood." (p. 131)
If Carrick is critical of Schilder, it needs to be said that he is even more critical of James T. Dennison Jr., the journal Kerux and the more extreme North American members of the redemptive-historical school. He claims that they over-emphasize the eschatological and under-emphasize the ethical. As well, they idealize, if not idolize, Geerhardus Vos.
About this trend Carrick quotes John Frame, who says, "Some redemptive-historical preachers seem to have an antipathy to the very idea of application — I get the impression that some who stress redemptive history really want to avoid 'practical' application. They want the whole sermon to focus on Christ, not on what works the believer should do. They want it to focus on gospel, not on law. So they want the sermon to evoke praise of Christ, not to demand concrete change in people's behavior. In their mind, Christocentricity excludes any sustained focus on specific practical matters."
Back to the indicative-imperative
So what does all this have to do with the main thesis of this book concerning the indicative and the imperative?
Carrick says "there is, interestingly, a very significant connection between the concept of example and the concept of the imperative. Certainly the vast majority of biblical examples are expressed in the indicative mood; consider, for instance, the great catalogue of examples found in Hebrews 11, But if the letter of biblical examples is generally that of the indicative, the spirit of biblical examples is always that of the imperative. There is within the positive examples of the Bible a tacit exhortation which says, in effect, 'Go and do likewise!'"
Perhaps the best words in this connection are the words of Gaffin whom Carrick quotes at the end of ch. 6. Gaffin says, "If the indicative is permitted to predominate to the exclusion of the imperative, the preaching will inevitably tend in the direction of quietism and antinomianism. If the imperative is permitted to predominate to the exclusion of the indicative, the preaching will inevitably tend in the direction of moralism and legalism. It is vital to the health of preaching and it is vital to the health of the church that this delicate relationship between the indicative and the imperative be implemented and maintained."
We give the final word to Carrick, who says, "explicatio verbi Dei is not enough; it is essential that explicatio verbi Dei be complemented and supplemented by applicatio verbi Dei."
True biblical preaching thus remains a matter of explication and application of the Word of God.
Evaluating Carrick's contribution
After such an extensive overview some comments are surely in order. In the first place, let it be said that we need to complement John Carrick on the clarity of his style, the thrust of his argument and the value of his contribution. It will be of benefit for all preachers to reflect seriously on these four grammatical categories, and then especially on those of the indicative and the imperative.
Another plus in this work is that Carrick builds his preaching model on the Scriptures and the sermonic material that he finds in Acts, Romans and elsewhere. Instead of imposing a preaching framework on the Scriptures, he tries to get his framework from the Scriptures.
Having said that, however, one cannot avoid making some remarks of a more critical nature. These remarks have to do especially with his treatment of the dispute between the exemplary and redemptive-historical schools of preaching in the Netherlands during the 1930's and 1940's.
It is unfortunate that in dealing with these two schools Carrick relies exclusively on second hand sources. It would appear that he was not able to read any of the original works of the men he quotes whether Schilder or Holwerda on the one side or Douma and Huyser on the other. Carrick is completely dependent on the information provided by Sidney Greijdanus and his book Sola Scriptura.
That this represents a problem becomes apparent when he has to deal with Schilder. The only representative sample of sermons that he is familiar with are the ones found in Schilder's trilogy on the sufferings of our Lord. But are they really representative of Schilder's preaching? (Or for that matter, are they really sermons? Most have treated them more as theological reflections or meditations than as sermons.)
The sermons of Schilder
What this means is that we need to look for a moment at what are considered officially to be sermons of Schilder. Are they purely objective or deeply intellectual, and thus impersonal? Furthermore, while filled with the indicative, are they really lacking in the interrogative and the imperative?
For answer I turned my attention to the three volumes of sermons by Schilder called Preken and published in the Dutch language by Oosterbaan and LeCointre. What did I find? I discovered that time and again Schilder makes use of both the interrogative and the imperative.
In an Easter sermon on Matthew 28:2-5a he concludes his first point by asking: "congregation, the angels are so joyful, are you joyful too? You have more need of Easter than the angels. You have more things to sing about. Do you sing even more? Do you come with even more haste to the grave? Does that apply to you? That angel remains saved even without the open grave. But not you! You need to be spared from the wrath through it. Let the morning star not bring you to shame. Go to the Easter garden and fall at the feet of Christ! The quick Easter journey of the angel is for you a proclamation."
In a sermon on Mark 6:27, 29 he asks his hearers, "Do you know this shout of triumph? The first Christians did! The dying days of the martyrs were celebrated as birth days. Will your dying day be for you a day of birth? How is it with you? You will only receive John's blessing if, like him, you die to this world and come to serve."
What these sermons, and others in these volumes indicate is that it is unjust to depict Schilder as if he had no eye for application or for driving the message of the sermon home with imperatives and interrogatives. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that these were among some of Schilder's favourite rhetorical devices.
Now, in discussing Schilder, we have not even dealt with the name of the other leader of the redemptive-historical school mentioned by Carrick, namely B. Holwerda. A close look at his sermons reveals an even warmer personal style than that of Schilder. True, he does not seem to use the interrogative and imperative as much as Schilder, but he yet has a special way of applying the message of his text to the hearts of his hearers.
There could have been more
Asserting this, however, does not mean that there could at times not have been more application in the sermons of Schilder and Holwerda. There is some truth to the complaints of Jay Adams and H. Krabbendam, who Carrick cites, to the effect that at times some redemptive-historical sermons give the impression that one is on a tour of Europe or flying in a Boeing 747. (p. 119) Still, one needs to take into account both the sermonic style that had dominated in much of the Reformed Churches at that time, as well as the serious attempt to produce a corrective to the exemplary approach which was often guilty of making the most superficial of applications. If redemptive-historical preachers of that day erred it can be said that they erred on the side of too much indicative preaching. Their passion was to present God the Father in all of His sovereign saving majesty, God the Son in all of His sacrificial and redeeming work and God the Holy Spirit in all of His renewing and recreative power. The "delicate relationship" that Gaffin speaks about was not always maintained.
Unable to deal with the original sermons of Schilder or Holwerda, Carrick has another problem in that he is also unable to deal with the original sermons of men in the exemplary camp. If he had been able to read some of their sermonic excesses, he would be in a better position to understand why Schilder and others reacted so negatively to their atomistic and moralistic approach.
Another matter that deserves at least a passing remark is that Carrick always quotes C. Trimp with great approval. Is he also aware that Trimp is a disciple of Schilder and Holwerda and considers himself a redemptive-historical preacher?
When all is said and done, it needs to be conceded that the correctives of Trimp and others are necessary ones. As a life-long student of Schilder and Holwerda, as well as an aspiring redemptive-historical preacher for more than 30 years, I have always tried to base my preaching on the indicative, to make effective use the interrogative and the exclamatory, and to drive it all home with fitting imperatives. Carrick is correct when he stresses that true preaching is still a matter of explaining and applying the Word of God.
May God always see fit to bless such preaching, even when done by men who are but jars of clay.