Evaluating Edmund Clowney’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching

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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, Clowney 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, Called to the Ministry, Christian Meditation, The Unfolding Mystery, The Church, The Message of 1 Peter, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, and How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments, along with numerous articles and book reviews.

John Frame said of Clowney, “Nobody had a deeper understanding of how all Scripture witnesses to Christ” (How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments, ed. Rebecca Clowney Jones (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), v.). Clowney influenced a generation of preachers to apply evangelical biblical theology to its preaching, treating the whole Bible as a narrative that finds its meaning in Jesus. As Harvie Conn recalls,

No one who studied under Ed Clowney from 1952 to 1984 ever missed that commitment. He brought to every course biblical insights shaped by his studies in the history of special revelation. Whether in homiletics or Christian education, missions or ecclesiology, each class moved from Genesis to Revelation, drawing together the whole of Scripture with new insights that pointed in a fresh way to Christ and His redemptive purposes (Practical Theology and the Ministry of the Church 1952-1984: Essays in Honor of Edmund P. Clowney, ed. Harvie Conn (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1990), xi.).

In Preaching and Biblical Theology (1961), Edmund 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” (“Making History: The Difference of Westminster,” 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.

Clowney describes but never offers a precise definition of biblical theology except for the one 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.” Clowney adds that biblical theology “must take seriously both historical progression and theological unity in the Bible” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 17).

He argued that the authority underlying faithful biblical-theological preaching is the Word of God written. Marten H. Woudstra notes that Clowney was contending against a notion of “God’s Word as deed rather than as objective communication of content” (review of Preaching and Biblical Theology, by Edmund Clowney, WTJ 24 (1962): 236).

Clowney denounced any suggestion that kerygmatic 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 (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 45).

Clowney asserted 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” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 61). His approach was built on the foundation that the Scripture represents God’s own infallible commentary of his deeds.

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” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 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 the Clowney, “Preaching that has lost urgency and passion reveals a loss of the eschatological perspective of the New Testament” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 67).

Clowney also asserts that the preacher must know “the place in which we preach” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 68). 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” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 69). 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 (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 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.

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” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 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” (“Systematics, Spirituality, and the Christian Life,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, 282).

In closing his volume, Clowney argues that biblical theology is “the key to new richness in sermon content” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 87). Clowney asserts that he is not advocating a particular mode of sermon preparation but rather highlighting an essential component of biblical interpretation as such. 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. Clowney emphasizes, “It must be stressed that this second step is valid and fruitful only when it does come second” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 88). In other words, every biblical passage must be interpreted in its textual horizon, epochal horizon and canonical horizon. Thus, he warns about the danger of attempting to apply biblical texts without understanding the text in its own biblical-theological context (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 89).

Moreover, the preacher may 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” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 101). 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” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 101).

Through his writing, teaching, and preaching Edmund Clowney influenced a generation of evangelicals to preach the entire Bible in a Christocentric way, and Preaching and Biblical Theology is the foundation of his influence. Clowney furthered the Vosian tradition of biblical theology but did so in accessible language, in service to the academy and the local church. Like many groundbreaking books, Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology is not comprehensive. It is more a manifesto than a manual. He did not emphasize a rigid methodology for exposing how the entire Scripture bears witness to Christ (though he did offer sound interpretive principles and guidelines), but he kept insisting and showing that it did. Consequently, the preacher reading Clowney might be convinced of what he should do but frustrated in its execution.

Clowney stands as a preeminent practitioner and champion of preaching and teaching Christ from all the Scripture. Reading Clowney and listening to his sermons will help any preacher cultivate the Christ-centered preaching instincts. He authored Preaching and Biblical Theology in 1961, during a time when the discipline of biblical theology had largely been cultivated by theological liberals who rejected the very idea of divinely inspired organic unity throughout the Scripture. The best these scholars could muster was biblical theologies and not a coherent biblical theology. But Clowney, following Vos, affirmed the inspiration of the Bible and asserted, “Biblical theology is a contradiction in terms unless the Bible presents a consistent message” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 13). Clowney’s writings and preaching ministry reinforced that preaching Christ from all the scriptures is not an automatic product of an abstract hermeneutical method but rather reading the Bible with Jesus the Messiah as the hero of the entire narrative.

Other posts in this series:

Evaluating Bryan Chapell’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching

Evaluating Sidney Greidanus’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching

Evaluating Graeme Goldsworthy’s Approach to Christ-Centered Preaching

By |January 21st, 2015|Categories: Blog|

About the Author:

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 blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today

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  1. Breakfast Blend 01.28.15 | Scribblepreach January 28, 2015 at 5:41 am

    […] A Summary of Ed Clowney’s Contribution to Christ-Centered Preaching – I say “summary”, because this isn’t really an evaluation. But it’s helpful. […]

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