Him We Proclaim by Dennis E. Johnson
Reviewed by Shaun D. Lewis, Director of Civil Servant Ministries, Springfield, IL
It is humbling that the sovereign God of the universe chose to redeem sinners with the precious blood of His Son. Adam’s fall was not the end of man, but the beginning thread of a rich redemptive tapestry that would reveal the Messiah.
Christ must be proclaimed from the Gospels and Epistles, but the Law and Prophets look forward to His coming and proclaim Him as well (Lk 24:27). What does it mean to preach Christ from these? Him We Proclaim by Dennis Johnson seeks to answer this question by drawing from the insights and disciplines of the apostles (2). Rather than focus on homiletics, the author provides a theology of preaching. Since God is sovereign over history and His Word is an inspired unity, the author contends that preachers should emulate the apostles’ doctrine and hermeneutics (often called redemptive-historic) in their preaching (9-11).
Johnson is a professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California and an associate pastor at New Life Presbyterian Church. Firmly planted both in academia and pastoral ministry, he has provided a work worth consideration. Him We Proclaim should receive a warm reception among those who see great continuity throughout God’s Word. For those, such as this reviewer, who see a bit more discontinuity than Johnson, his work may raise concern.
Him We Proclaim is divided into two major parts starting with: “The Case for Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching.” Johnson’s includes an overview of contemporary homiletic emphases followed by a study of the apostle Paul’s preaching. A survey of hermeneutic controversies throughout history and an examination of objections complete his case.
Johnson submits three purposes for preaching: to convert, to edify, and to instruct (27). He observes in chapter two that preachers tend toward one of these three purposes. For instance, Bill Hybels emphasizes preaching to convert, whereas Jay Adams preaches to edify. The author offers Tim Keller as an example who seeks to convert, edify, and instruct (54-61).
Chapter three anchors the author’s case in an excellent exegetical study of Colossians 1:24-2:7. Paul preached to convert, edify, and instruct. He knew the needs of his hearers as he proclaimed Christ. He sought to teach and admonish, knowing the price to be paid as a minister. His authority and empowerment came from God (64-65). Johnson provides bullet points at the end of the chapter, observations that help define apostolic preaching (95-96).
The author’s outline of Paul’s preaching is helpful and, on this basis, he submits that preachers should expound a passage “in relation to its integrating center—Christ” (95). Certainly the center of the entire canon is Jesus Christ, but Colossians 1:24-2:7 does not indicate exactly how to preach Christ. Johnson rightly goes no further than the text, but his overall work does go further. He believes Christ should be preached, in part, by revealing hidden typological meanings from the Old Testament (198-99) and his work rests upon a redemptive-historical hermeneutic. By devoting much ink to Paul’s preaching and then proposing these other elements, he links the two as if the Colossians passage supports all of his work. It does not.
The fourth chapter is a historical survey of the complications, chastening, rejection, and recovery of apostolic preaching. Johnson persuasively argues that “the question of whether and how the Old Testament, in particular, bears witness to Christ turns on disagreement over the weight to be accorded to various concentric circles of context…” (98-99). Should the immediate context determine a text’s meaning? Should the broader context given by later revelation take precedence? The author surveys the Patristics, Protestant Reformers, and Enlightenment theologians before positing Geerhardus Vos as a model. He maintains that Scripture as a whole is the context for any passage. Thus, the New Testament should shed light upon the meaning of the Old as the Old sheds light upon the New.
At the end of Johnson’s case for apostolic preaching is an apologetic, chapter five. He overviews the misgivings of apostolic preaching: misgivings about biblical unity, interpretive accountability, and interpretive credibility.
The author understands not all who view Scripture with a degree of discontinuity are liberal theologians; some, for example, are dispensationalists (133-34). For these, a grammatical-historical approach to the Old Testament does not dismiss the apostles’ use of a different hermeneutic. Many dispensationalists believe the apostles could interpret a text typologically because of their unique gifting and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God revealed to them a Christocentric pattern in the Old Testament. The question remains: Do more patterns exist that God did not explicitly reveal? If so, is the modern expositor able to see them?
Johnson contends that preachers today should emulate the apostles (167). Yet, if these men were uniquely gifted, and none is alive today, what are the limits of the non-apostolic preacher? A helpful addition to Him We Proclaim might have wrestled with these limits, but the author barely scratches the surface (141). To Johnson, the entire debate is a matter of context. To others, such as this reviewer, it is a matter of spiritual gifting.
Scripture is the inspired Word, God sovereignly directs history, the Old Testament points to the Christ, and He is the context of Scripture (151). Typology rests upon these pillars, but one could largely agree with each while maintaining a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Johnson goes too far when he says those who disagree fail to see Jesus as the “indispensable context” of Scripture. As a result, they are as guilty of being “as reductionistic in one direction as Origen and his allegorist successors were in another” (151). If preachers today are limited due to spiritual gifting, Johnson has widely missed the mark.
The second major part of Him We Proclaim is: “The Practice of Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching.” Here the author examines the foundation “in which Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament” (164). He presents Hebrews as an example of apostolic preaching followed by an examination of typology and Christ as the head and mediator of the New Covenant. A series of case studies comprises the final two chapters.
Hebrews refers to itself as a “word of exhortation” which is a first-century equivalent for “sermon” (172). Johnson beautifully explains how this sermon preaches Christ from the Old Testament. His insights and commentary make this chapter a good resource.
Chapter seven surveys the New Testament’s typological interpretations from the most explicit to the most subtle. Romans 5:14 is an explicit example where Adam is identified as a type of Christ (202-3). However, as Johnson’s examples become increasingly subtle, they seem increasingly eisegetical.
A type is “a ‘pattern’ that points to the coming redemptive event and to the Redeemer who will accomplish it” (131). Types foreshadow the future; they are prophetic patterns (202). The author offers a host of Old Testament allusions he views as types, but it remains unclear when to interpret an allusion as no more than an allusion. Are all allusions prophetic?
Narratives with clear parallels suffered from the same lack of clarity. Johnson posits Achan as a “typological parallel” for Ananias and Sapphira (213). The parallels are obvious but, if types are inherently Christocentric, is this a legitimate type? One should also question Johnson’s claim that the tabernacle is “typologically connected” to Mary’s womb (213).
Earlier in his work the author rightly criticized Origen and the abuses of Alexandrian allegorism (106). “The preacher who seeks to serve the Word submits his expository reflection to the restraining discipline of biblical texts’ original context and to the clear apostolic warrant defined in the New Testament…” (107). Johnson’s restraints seem loose and the apostolic warrant for some of his alleged types seems murky. Caution is advised.
The author then examines the Old Testament’s foundations for redemptive-historical hermeneutics. He says events and institutions held symbolic significance, used imagery to portray the coming messiah, and testified to incompleteness (219). These observations are necessary for understanding typology in general. Johnson builds upon this and submits that typology is the key to avoiding allegorism and moralism when preaching Christ from the Old Testament (230). This seems overstated, particularly in light of the author’s expositions in chapter nine. Some, such as his exposition of 2 Samuel 16:5-14, are altogether without types.
Him We Proclaim turns in chapter eight to study the motifs of new creation and new covenant, which undergird the whole redemptive agenda (242). Johnson rightly concludes from Ephesians 1:9-10 that “no event of history is adequately interpreted apart from its relation to this cosmic agenda of God” (243). When preaching the Old Testament, one should zoom out to see how a particular event fits within the broad scope of redemptive history.
Chapters nine and ten provide outlines with discussion for preaching apostolically in each genre of Scripture, Old Testament and New. After much discussion about the place of typology, it was ironic to find some of the sermons proclaiming Christ with no typological connections. Second Samuel 16:5-14 is one example (284-93). Johnson’s sermon is structured around the three main subjects: Shimei, Abishai, and David. In light of this “morally mottled portrait,” what hope does this text afford? Thus, the author adds to his outline: “Christ the King, falsely accused, condemned and punished for the charge that was true of David (and of you)” (288).
Johnson studied the immediate context of the 2 Samuel passage, identified the fallen condition, and preached Christ as the solution. A similar approach was followed with Proverbs 15:27 (303-13). In these cases, one does not need a redemptive-historical hermeneutic to follow in the author’s footsteps. The grammatical-historical is sufficient for the task.
Other examples of preaching the Old Testament included Deuteronomy 6:20-25, Psalm 42-43, and Isaiah 43:1-7. Though Johnson proposed various typological connections, even those who disagree will appreciate much of the discussion and the homiletical outlines he provides.
Moving into the New Testament, the author demonstrates apostolic preaching using the genres of gospel, parable, epistolary doctrine, epistolary exhortation, wisdom, and prophecy. Johnson’s handling of Luke 16:1-13 is an excellent example for preaching the parables (341-50). His exposition of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 is helpful for seeing how to preach imperatives without falling into the trap of moralism (360-67).
The Bible is a unity, inspired by a sovereign God who has made His Son the focal point of revelation. Him We Proclaim exhorts the reader to preach all of God’s revelation with this Christ-centered focus. The book has a logical flow from one chapter to the next, makes a good case for apostolic preaching, and is well-researched and practical.
Though most readers will embrace the apostles’ doctrine, not all will be persuaded to emulate the apostles’ hermeneutic. Nonetheless, Christ must be preached and Johnson’s work challenges all who take it seriously to do so. This exhortation is the book’s greatest asset for expository preaching.
Him We Proclaim by Dennis E. Johnson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007) 493 pp., Paper $16.99
Reviewed by Shaun D. Lewis, Director of Civil Servant Ministries, Springfield, IL