Preaching and Biblical Theology by Edmund Clowney
Edmund Clowney died in March of 2005 at eighty-seven years of age. He was ordained to the preaching ministry in 1942; and, from 1952 to 1984, he served as professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Clowney served as president of Westminster Theological Seminary from 1966 to 1982. He was a theologian, educator, pastor, and churchman who continued to be active in writing, teaching, and preaching after his retirement from seminary. At age eighty-two, he accepted a call to become associate pastor at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas; and, at eighty-four, he became theologian in residence at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Clowney authored Preaching and Biblical Theology in 1961.
In Preaching and Biblical Theology, Clowney desired to bridge the gap that often exists between study and pulpit. William Edgar writes, “His book Preaching and Biblical Theology (1961) revolutionized the way preachers presented Christ in their sermons, avoiding both moralism and lifeless doctrinal preaching” (Westminster Today, Spring 2008, 8). Clowney argued the necessity of biblical theology for the faithful preaching of the Word of God. He noted that, while the biblical theology movement was often cultivated by theological liberals, the concept of biblical theology is hollow without an inspired, infallible, unified revelation from God (13, 18). Clowney affirms the definition of biblical theology put forth by Geerhardus Vos in his Biblical Theology: “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible” (15). Clowney adds that biblical theology “must take seriously both historical progression and theological unity in the Bible” (17).
The preacher is bound to the Word of God written
Clowney argues that the authority underlying faithful biblical-theological preaching is the Word of God written. He was contending against a notion of God’s Word as deed rather than as objective communication of content and denounced any suggestion that proclamation itself possessed an authority greater than the content of the proclamation in the Scripture:
The amazing chain of reasoning that argues from the scriptural premise that the word of God is efficacious and active to the contradictory conclusion that it is an act rather than a word has no support whatever in the Bible. The theory of preaching based upon it is equally contradictory (45).
Clowney concluded that the preacher is bound to the Word of God written because “In our hands we hold the inspired kerygma and didache of the witnesses who testify of Christ” (61). The Scripture represents God’s own infallible commentary of his deeds.
The preacher must know the time in which we preach
In discussing biblical theology and the character of preaching, Clowney highlights the eschatological situation of the act of preaching, which is to say the recognition of “the time in which we preach” (68). We preach in the last days, the age of fulfillment, the time of the coming of the Kingdom with power, the already but not yet of the eschatological kingdom of Christ. According to Clowney, “Preaching that has lost urgency and passion reveals a loss of the eschatological perspective of the New Testament” (67).
The preacher must know the place in which we preach
Clowney also asserts that the preacher must know “the place in which we preach” (67). He calls for recognition of a biblical text’s place in redemptive history and an understanding that “The whole world, then, is the place where the gospel must be preached” (67). According to Clowney, it is biblical theology that aids the preacher in understanding that preaching is both kerygma and didache and must take place in the church and the world. Clowney reminds his readers that God did not give us the Bible in the form of a textbook but that the revelation unfolds in progressive epochs in the history of redemption (75).
The epochs of revelation are connected by an organic unity that runs through redemptive history and centers on Jesus Christ. Therefore, biblically faithful expository preaching has one essential message—Jesus Christ (74). Clowney notes that there are many who would affirm the assertion that all preaching must be Christ-centered, “[y]et even where this principle has long been acknowledged, the practice of preaching often falls short of this ideal” (74). The brand of preaching Clowney puts forth rejects simplistic moralizing but recognizes that there is no antithesis between redemptive-historical preaching and preaching the ethical imperatives of the Scripture. Clowney argues that “The redemptive-historical approach necessarily yields ethical application, which is an essential part of preaching the Word” (80).
Christ-centered biblical theology is the key to richness in sermon content
In closing his volume, Clowney argues that biblical theology is “the key to new richness in sermon content” (87). Clowney asserts that he is not advocating a particular mode of sermon preparation but rather highlighting an essential component of biblical interpretation for faithful proclamation (87). The component has two steps: first, to interpret the text in its immediate context and historical period; second, to interpret the text in the biblical-theological context of the entire canon (88). Clowney emphasizes, “It must be stressed that this second step is valid and fruitful only when it does come second” (88). In other words, every biblical passage must be interpreted in its textual horizon, epochal horizon and Christ-centered canonical horizon. Thus, he warns about the danger of attempting to apply biblical texts without understanding the text in its own biblical-theological context (89).
Moreover, the preacher should exploit symbolism from the entire canon to deepen his sermons since biblical symbolism is not an accidental literary feature but rather a unifying structural element: “Symbols abound in Scripture, not incidentally, but because of the structure of the history of redemption which is at once organic and progressive” (101). For Clowney, to properly interpret biblical symbols one must recognize that the symbol is distinct from that which it represents. Second, there must be a relation between the symbol and what is being symbolized. Third, the reference of the symbols is divinely established in Scripture. Fourth, the symbols may be classified in various groups (100-106). Further, Clowney explains the relationship of symbolism to typology. He writes, “[symbolism involves] a vertical reference to revealed truth as it is manifested in a particular horizon of redemptive history. Typology is then the prospective reference to the same truth as it is manifested in the period of eschatological realization” (110).
A manifesto for Christ-centered expository preaching
Through his writing, teaching, and preaching Edmund Clowney influenced a generation of evangelicals to preach the entire Bible in an expository and Christocentric way. The message of Preaching and Biblical Theology forms the foundation of his influence. Clowney furthered the Vosian evangelical tradition of biblical theology but did so in accessible language, in service to the academy and the local church. Like many groundbreaking books focused on a particular topic, Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology is not comprehensive. It is more a manifesto than a manual. Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology is strong at the very point that much preaching today is weak and I do not hesitate to assert that it is one homiletics book that every evangelical preacher should own.
About: David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today. He received his M.Div from Southwestern Theological Seminary and his Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.