What is Wrong with Redemptive-Historical Preaching?

            Redemptive-Historical preaching is a school of thought that began in the 1940’s, but really dates back to the Dutch Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century. There are many modern Reformed authors and theologians who vouch for Redemptive-Historical preaching as the only correct model for preaching the Scripture. I realize that there are probably many people on this email list who are unaware what Redemptive-Historical preaching is and what is wrong with it. I am writing this article today to show what is wrong with Redemptive-Historical preaching.

            Before we consider the errors of such, we first must define what Redemptive-Historical preaching is. Basically, it is a system that sees all of Scripture in terms of the unfolding revelation of God’s covenant of grace which culminates in Christ, the Messiah and Mediator of that covenant. Certainly, it is true, as Augustine often said, “the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed; the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed.” There is continuity between the two testaments for that reason. There is also discontinuity between them because they are not exactly alike. The problem of Redemptive-Historical preaching goes deeper though because they see the unfolding revelation of the covenant of grace as the only narrative of Scripture. Thus, every sermon must point to the fulfillment of that Scripture passage in Christ. Certainly. Christ is in the Old Testament by type and prophecy and theophany and promise and other ways. But the people of God and their experiences are not absent from either Testament.

            I have never been a Redemptive-Historical preacher, so I never really studied it until of late. It is very likely that many of you have sat under such preaching and could not quite place your finger on what was/is wrong with it. When I began looking at it what jumped off the page at me was the very close similarity in several respects between Redemptive-Historical preaching and that pesky heresy, the Federal Vision. Here are a few things I noticed:

            First, both Redemptive-Historical preaching and the Federal Vision are attempting to restore the objectivity of the covenant. In his inaugural address to the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, Geerhardus Vos set forth his view of the Old Testament revelation as follows:

            “The revelation of God being not subjective and individual in its nature, but objective and addressed to the human race as a whole, it is but natural that this revelation should be embodied in the           channels of the great objective history of redemption and extend no further than this.”[1]

            It is certainly true that God’s Word is objectively true, but there are also great truths that are subjectively experienced by God’s saints in both the Old and New Testaments. There are great truths of Scripture that find their fulfillment tangentially in Christ, but are not primarily or solely confined to Him as the great object of the covenant of grace. We will point out some of those ways that truth was subjectively experienced in the Old Testament at a later time.

            The Federal Vision and Redemptive-Historical preaching are united in their eschewing of subjectivism and the objective nature of the covenant, but they differ on the revelation of God’s covenant also. The Federal Vision focuses almost all of its attention on the question of who is truly in the covenant—a question that belongs to the secret counsels of God according to Deuteronomy 29:29 and can never be completely discovered this side of eternity. On the other hand, Redemptive-Historical preaching focuses their attention on the covenant to the great point of proving that Christ is the great fulfillment of it. Yet, the Federal Vision and Redemptive-Historical preaching both make the mistake of reducing Scripture too singly. There is more in the OT, much more, than just Scriptures that point to Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant of grace. There is more in the Scripture, much more, than verses that prove who are true members of the covenant. Both views are very myopic in the extreme and that is their common failure. And they both are myopic about the Scriptural emphasis on true subjectivism. God did not wait until Jesus finished redemption before He began applying salvation and the application of salvation is always subjective.

            Second, both the Federal Vision and Redemptive-Historical preaching are based on Biblical theology—not systematic theology. Vos, great man that he was, did not want to depart from systematic theology in his work on Biblical theology. For that reason, he referred to the pre-redemptive special revelation as the covenant of works and the redemptive special revelation as the covenant of grace. Other theologians that both preceded and followed Vos were not as careful. The covenant of works-covenant of grace distinction was dropped by even many sound reformed scholars. Professor John Murray referred to God’s covenant in the garden as the Adamic Administration. Doug Kelly has written that modern reformed theology has mostly settled on the idea that there is only the one covenant of grace which the covenant with Adam also was. My professor at Reformed Theological Seminary referred to all God’s covenants as “living, loving, life-bonds.” The problem with Biblical theology is and has been that it tends to lead to mono-covenantalism. It reduces God’s covenants to one covenant of grace. It does away with the idea of a covenant of works. Thus, it fails to take appropriate consideration of the problem of the entrance of sin into the world through the fall. The conflict between Biblical theology and systematic theology is the problem of who is to navigate and who is to steer. Vos rightly told the Princeton faculty that both systematic and Biblical theology should come to the same place in their understanding of Scripture, but that has not always proved to be the case. The Federal Vision is a wrong view of Biblical theology and opposed to systematic theology. Redemptive-Historical preaching has the same problem in general.

            Third, both the Federal Vision and the Redemptive-Historical preaching have grown out of liberal or rationalistic theology. Before Vos, most of the voices in the Biblical theology movement were rationalistic and denied the verbal inspiration of Scripture as Richard Gaffin notes. That fact led to suspicion on the part of reformed scholars prior to Vos. Likewise, the New Perspectives on Paul and its close kin, the Federal Vision, have grown out of liberal theology which also denied the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. Those facts in themselves do not mean that either the Federal Vision or Redemptive-Historical preaching is wrong, but it should give us pause to consider that possibility.

            Next week, I hope to deal with some of the specific problems with Redemptive-Historical preaching.

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery

Contributions to Vanguard Presbytery to enable us to build up this new denomination and start new congregations may be made to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

[1] Gaffin, Richard B. Jr., ed., Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2001), 8.  

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