Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts, Sidney Greidanus, 1970; 251 pp.
This book, Greidanus’s doctoral thesis, is an important one for those who want to preach on historical texts of Scripture. Central to the study presented is a hermeneutical-homiletical controversy concerning the preaching of such texts. This conflict, known as the “exemplarist – redemptive-historical controversy” (“exemplarisch-heilshistorisch”) raged in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the opening chapters the author introduces the point at the heart of the controversy: in sermons, are the people mentioned in the Bible to be portrayed to the congregation as examples either to be emulated or avoided? Greidanus introduces the reader to many preachers on both sides of the controversy.
In chapter 3, the author shows the problems with the exemplarist approach. It leads to fragmentary, atomistic, biographical, anthropocentric preaching. One is led to ask an exponent of this method whether Scripture is optional. If the person is to be preached, how is the Bible different from the Koran, the Book of Mormon or a history text book? The method has other pitfalls in that it leads to psychologizing and moralizing. In this chapter Greidanus also has a helpful section on “discriminating preaching” with its multiple applications for the different categories of people (believer, unbeliever, hypocrite, struggling sinner, hardened sinner, etc.) in the congregation.
In chapter 4, Greidanus explains the redemptive-historical approach to preaching. Rather than focus on the human characters in the historical narrative, this method wants to show what God is doing in history in his program of salvation in Jesus Christ. It emphasizes theo- and christocentricity and the preacher's task as a herald of what God has done, is doing and will do in history.
In chapter 5, Greidanus offers a critique of the redemptive-historical method of preaching historical texts. He begins by agreeing with the approach at many crucial points: he appreciates that the exponents of the method freed historical texts from the constraints of those who read and preached them in a biographic, dogmatic and moralistic way and therefore did not let the texts say what they intend to say. However, he has substantial criticism for the redemptive-historical approach too.
He claims to have discovered a tension within the school, even a tension between exponents, e.g., between K. Schilder and C. Veenhof. In some ways, this chapter is both the strongest and the weakest of the book.
It is the weakest because it is not so much a critique of the redemptive-historical school but of Schilder’s method of preaching. Schilder can rightly be considered the catalyst of the school as it developed in the Netherlands, but others made significant contributions. It is surprising that Greidanus focuses almost exclusively on Schilder since, in chapter 4, he worked out in detail the contributions of Veenhof, Van’t Veer, Van Dijk, Holwerda, and others. Furthermore, Schilder was a dogmatician. Although a dogmatician must, as a preacher, first be a careful student of scripture, yet we would ask why the author did not focus on, say, Holwerda who was an Old Testament exegete.
Greidanus accuses Schilder of schematism, speculation and objectivism. Arguably, his criticisms are not far off the mark. He also accuses Schilder, and by extension, the redemptive-historical school, of preaching the fact under the text rather than the text. Whether this was in fact true of Schilder we will leave in the middle. To say that it was true of the whole school likely says too much. The point that the method has, in some instances, resulted in schematizing history is probably correct. Dr. C. Trimp made some valuable contributions to the discussion when he said that we must not forget the category of the ordu salutis when preaching historical texts.
This chapter is the strongest because of its emphasis on preaching the text rather than the facts behind the text. We have received the text of Scripture, and that is what we must preach. As we preach the text, we must do so first bearing in mind the original intent and audience of the author.
Although this chapter may be the strongest, it raises some questions. Does Greidanus care about the facts as they happened, or only about the text as various authors’ records of what happened? He has little use for harmonizing of texts. This, understandably, leads him to a discussion on inspiration and inerrancy. What do we do when confronted, e.g., with the two different accounts of the purchase of “the Field of Blood” and the death of Judas (Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-19)? Do we even attempt to bring some concordance to the story? Is there a specific way in which Judas, in fact, died? Who bought the field: the priests or Judas? Do we leave the questions in the middle or make an attempt at harmonizing?
In the final chapter, the author provides principles for preaching historical texts. One who would preach historical texts would do well to follow the principles put forward.