John Carrick on Sacred Rhetoric
John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 202pp., ISBN 0851518265.
The current emphasis on the ‘big story’ of Scripture, seemingly coming from all sorts of theological quarters, whilst enormously helpful, might be misleading on its own or if not carefully circumscribed in certain ways.
In some preaching, for instance, the ‘big story’ approach can end up with sermons that see everything in the context of the... well, ‘big story’... which means interpreting and applying every text in the light of Jesus and the gospel. No bad thing, of course. The kind of preaching that relates every text and every passage to Jesus is sometimes called ‘redemptive-historical preaching’, and those who preach this way are rightly concerned that congregations all the time be directed to Jesus and the gospel. So, they advise, if you’re preaching from Old Testament stories, you need to be careful to avoid moralising from those stories, and make sure – instead – that you set those stories in the context of the biblical story of redemption as a whole, which means directing people ultimately to Jesus. Again, no bad thing, you might think.
Without for a moment denying the significance of Jesus and the gospel and the ‘big story’ of Scripture, John Carrick here reflects critically on this sort of preaching, and he does so by reminding us that God speaks in different ways through his word. Carrick uses the notion of grammatical moods to speak about the variety in biblical texts, a variety which should be reflected in the way we preach and apply biblical texts. He focuses on four in particular:
• The indicative. The indicative asserts objective fact. This is what the redemptive-historical advocates are most interested in. Indicatives are statements like: ‘God so loved the world’; ‘God was in Christ, reconciling himself to the world’; ‘Christ died for our sins’ (9-10).
• The exclamative. Exclamations, says Carrick, presuppose an element of emotion (30). They often begin with words like ‘Oh’, or ‘How’, or ‘What’: ‘Oh, how I love your law’; ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity’; ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’; ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom of God’ (32-33).
• The interrogative. The interrogative is used in asking a question. It doesn’t assert, like the indicative mood, nor does it exclaim; rather, it questions: ‘Shall we go on sinning that grace might increase?’; ‘What shall we say to these things?’; ‘To whom will you liken God?’; ‘Am I not an apostle? Am I not free?’. Jesus, of course, asked lots of questions: ‘Who do people say I am?’; ‘Why do you call me good?’; ‘Which of these was the neighbour?’; ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’
• The imperative. The imperative mood expresses a command: ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’; ‘Believe and be baptised’; ‘Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice’; ‘Put to death what belongs to your evil nature’; ‘Walk worthy of the Lord who has called you’.
Carrick is particularly interested in the first and last of the moods, the indicative and the imperative. ‘Redemptive-historical preaching’, he says, tends to focus on the indicative of what God has done in Christ. But the indicatives of God’s dealings with men and women do not exclude the imperatives of ethics. The pattern is seen in the New Testament letters themselves, where Paul regularly moves from the salvation given us to how that salvation works out in our lives. Of course, the Christian faith begins with the indicative, with what God has done. However, some redemptive-historical preachers stop there, says Carrick, and don’t apply the imperative, because they’re afraid of heading down the path to moralism, for fear of putting the gospel at risk. But such preaching can, in turn be weak for leading a congregation to self-examination and repentance.
A sizeable chunk of Carrick’s study tracks the four moods in the sermons of five well-known preachers in the Reformed tradition (Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, Martyn Lloyd-Jones), and his book effectively calls preachers likewise to do justice to the variety of the moods in Scripture.
So he concludes: ‘It is a regrettable fact that much Reformed preaching operates in a virtual mono-mood – that of the indicative – to the virtual exclusion of the imperative... It is absolutely essential that the great indicatives of Christ’s accomplishment of redemption be balanced by the great imperatives of the Spirit’s application of redemption’ (151).
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