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The Drama of Preaching by Eric B. Watkins: A Review Article

Alan D. Strange

The Drama of Preaching: Participating with God in the History of Redemption, by Eric Brian Watkins. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016, xviii + 255 pages, $33.00, paper.

Eric Watkins, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Florida, has written an eminently readable and useful book, The Drama of Preaching: Participating with God in the History of Redemption. It is a version of his doctoral dissertation from the Theological University in Kampen, The Netherlands; as such, it is well-researched and carefully reasoned. It does not have the drawback, however, of excessive academic and technical jargon that burdens so many theses. It is thus accessible to any thoughtful pastor or educated layman. We can be thankful that it is, because the subject matter and his treatment of it are of the greatest importance. If the faithful preaching of the Word of God is, as Reformed confessions teach, the Word of God to us here and now, a proper understanding of what it is and how it ought to be done is of great importance. Therefore, we are in the debt to Dr. Watkins for being such a sure guide in this most significant of enterprises.

Watkins introduces his work by simply declaring, “Preaching is dramatic” (xiii). My first thought was “it is if it’s any good,” not because the preacher makes it so by great oratorical skill, but simply because he exposits the greatest story ever told, the one that gives meaning to every other redemptive tale; and without which there is no meaning, purpose or love in the world; all is rather “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Since all things were created by speaking, God, in a sense, “preached the world into existence” (xiii). The Bible records this story from creation to consummation, and it is this dramatic tale, having Christ and the redemption that we have in him at its center, that furnishes the preacher with his subject matter.

Before further examining the drama of preaching, it might be helpful to note that we often speak in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles of preaching as being “redemptive-historical.” One of the central themes of the book is that the drama of preaching and its redemptive-historical character are not in tension with each other but complement each other. The pedigree of the notion that proper proclamation ought to be redemptive-historical, rightly understood, is as ancient as the recapitulation theory (ca. AD 140–160),  of Irenaeus not to mention many biblical antecedents (notably, the New Testament use of the Old). The more recent roots, however, stem from the debates in the 1930s in the Dutch church leading in no small measure to the formation of a new denomination in the Netherlands in 1944, the “Liberated” church, particularly indebted to the leadership of Klaas Schilder (2–8).

Schilder and company particularly objected to preaching that employed “exemplaristic” application, “which reduced biblical characters to moral examples in abstraction from the person and work of Christ” (xiv). In contrast, the redemptive-historical preachers of the Liberated church “pushed back strongly, arguing that . . . the intention of the biblical text . . . was to display the redemptive work of God in history” (xiv). However, many then and later perceived the redemptive-historical approach as overly objective in its reaction against other approaches as overly subjective, “perceived as flying high over the hearts and lives of God’s people without necessarily touching down upon the practical realities of daily life” (7). As Watkins notes, that was a charge levied not only at the time of World War II but more recently by critics like Henry Krabbendam and Terry Johnson (14).

While Watkins, and this reviewer, ardently support what the best of a redemptive-historical hermeneutical approach yields (full disclosure: I am deeply influenced by the biblical theology of Richard Gaffin and the preaching of Edmund P. Clowney), Watkins recognizes that the Dutch redemptive-historical homiletical approach (which is related to, but distinguished from, the biblical-theological hermeneutics of Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, et al.) sometimes suffered an unintended consequence: it yielded preaching that ossified the religious life of its auditors by failing properly to engage their hearts. Watkins wants to retain all the objectivity of setting forth Christ and his redemptive work, both prospectively in the Old Testament and retrospectively in the New Testament (certainly we want Christ central in our preaching). Yet, he also wants to discover a better way to connect with one’s auditors and to elicit their participation in the text (something that he thinks superior to the older “application of the text” model).

Watkins believes that the more recent “drama of redemption” paradigm (as seen in Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Horton, Dennis Johnson, et al.) may serve to advance the whole discussion and move us to a place in which the auditor in the pew can see “the Bible as a unified, redemptive drama in which God is not simply the author but the main actor.” At the same time, the auditor can see himself and his fellows as a participant in that drama (God has “granted the church a scripted role that she must learn faithfully to perform on the world stage”). Thus, the drama of redemptive history (to meld the phrases) is one that not only sets forth Christ’s work for us in history objectively but subjectively draws us in so that our story is woven into his (xvi). Bringing the two together brings the historical and the existential together, making sure that historia salutis and ordo salutis are properly integrated. This is the burden of the book, one that Watkins ably bears.

In chapter 1 Watkins sets forth the contours of the redemptive-historical preaching debates, treating first the debate in the Netherlands, particularly those surrounding the Liberated Church (1944), and then the debate outside the Netherlands, especially among the heirs of Vos. Before proceeding to acknowledge that the discussion continues (and can be seen in the approaches of contemporaries like Brian Chapell and Tim Keller), Watkins has sections discussing homiletics vis-à-vis other disciplines (exegetical theology, systematic theology, etc.; also the distinction between a redemptive-historical hermeneutic and homiletic) and one that deals with the contention that redemptive-historical preaching is rather new in the church (as compared, certainly, to other older methods).

Watkins explores and defines the drama of redemption paradigm further in chapter 2, noting the drama of Scripture itself (furnishing us with several examples of how Scripture can be viewed as acts, pages 4–7, with additional scenes, pages 31–34), including its striking imagery and typology. Watkins then explores the historical use of the drama metaphor, moving us from ancient times to contemporary ones, surveying a variety of partisans of such. Finally he seeks, while offering appropriate cautions (some push the drama of redemption metaphor too far; Watkins, anchored as he is by the Reformed confessions, never does), to “connect the dots between the [drama of redemption] paradigm presented thus far and [redemptive-historical preaching]” (55–63). Watkins makes connections not to be missed, that must be read and pondered, that this review cannot capture, with payoffs like this observation: “A sermon is much more than a creative display of God’s redemption as something merely to be believed; it is also a summons to active participation in the drama of redemption by the life giving Spirit through the preaching of the Word” (58).

Closely connected with this is the postmodern appropriation of the metaphor and how a fitting use of it can be made in preaching to the postmodern, which Watkins treats in chapter 7. If modernity champions the propositional and postmodern the personal, then properly preaching the gospel suits both. Preaching the Word is by its very nature propositional, since the Word, and all exposition of it, is in the form of propositions; it is also personal, since the truth that we preach is a person (John 14:6). Only the Christian faith and its proper proclamation overcomes the false dichotomy of propositional v. personal (modernism v. postmodernism). Our times have not rendered preaching passé, as many have claimed in recent decades. Rather, preaching that understands the drama of redemptive history and seeks to bring the hearer, with his own narrative, and situate him in the grand meta-narrative seems quite appropriate for both the modernist (who lacks the personal) and the postmodernist (who lacks the truth, having only his own perspective).

Participation has been cited before as a necessary connection between objective redemptive history and the spiritual life of the congregant in the pew who hears the sermon. Watkins devotes an excellent chapter to that (chapter 5), entitled “Application or Imitation? Reconsidering the Sine Qua Non of Preaching” (114–34). All agree, or should, that preaching is more than exposition of the text employing a sound redemptive-historical hermeneutic (that by itself is a lecture); the distinctively homiletical move always involves some sort of application to the lives of the hearers. In other words, it is never enough to give a sound treatment to only the first horizon (a sound exegesis of the text in its context) but there must be a lively engagement of the second horizon (what does this mean to me as listener here and now?). So much application, however, appears contrived, an excuse for the preacher to say what he wants, whether riding a hobby horse or addressing current events. Watkins wants a more organic approach, one that lets the text and its context truly dictate the significance of this part of the Word of God for the hearers. His treatment of participation/application shows us a better way.

We have Watkins’s theses advisors to thank for the application of his work to even the postmodern context. This was their insistence and not his original intent. His original intent was to see how the two approaches (a drama of redemption one and a redemptive-historical one) might best work together, particularly in the service of sermonizing in a significant text like Hebrews 11. Chapter 3, 4, and 6 manifest Watkins’s interest in Hebrews 11, with chapter 3 setting the stage for the great “faith” chapter, chapter 4 dealing with the “theatre” of martyrs presented in the faith “hall of fame,” and chapter 6 (picking up from chapter 5 on imitation) dealing with application as imitation of the saints (which differs from mere exemplarism). Watkins’s treatment of Hebrews 11, apart from all his theoretical engagement of this subject, already discussed, makes this worth the price of the book.

Watkins covers a good deal in this work and these following observations are not so much a criticism of his omissions but that which comes from thinking within and beyond his work. It’s interesting that a number of sound Reformed men, like Horton and Watkins (not only those of other traditions), have come to stress the drama that Scripture contains: Reformed Christians, as much as any, have been historically opposed to drama and the theatre. This was marked among the Westminster Divines, who not only opposed performances of Shakespeare, but whose era gave us William Prynne and his inimitable Histriomastix, undoubtedly the most massive attack on the theatre ever penned. This is true in succeeding centuries: Charles Hodge, for instance, in his travels in Europe (1826–28) was proud that he never went to the theatre, though often invited, and as late as 1928 the Christian Reformed Church still dismissed the theatre and movies as “worldly amusements.”

It’s only comparatively recently that Reformed and Presbyterian folk have embraced the dramatic arts. How we’ve arrived at a point of embracing drama and seeing Scripture as presenting a drama of redemption seems worth exploring, particularly in light of the fact that more conservative homileticians may remain wary of the drama metaphor, suspicious that it hides some lurking liberal agenda. More work needs to be done here in exploring the historic allergy of Reformed and Presbyterian believers to drama and the claim that redemption itself is the grandest drama of all.

Watkins also advocates imitation (especially in keeping with Hebrews 11) over the kind of strained moralistic application that many texts have suffered at the contrivance of preachers. One might think that Watkins would mention the Brethren of the Common Life and Gerard Groote (since Watkins otherwise mines well the Dutch context) as antecedents for such, since, at the heart of this Devotio Moderna was Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Others before Watkins, in other words, have emphasized imitation and participation and it would be interesting to know how this all might play or fit into what Watkins here calls for.

Watkins does cite the dynamic of the Holy Spirit in preaching, but I think that more could be made of the work of the Holy Spirit in preaching, both liturgically and historically. One thinks, for instance, not only of the real presence of the Spirit in the sacraments but in preaching, as some have particularly noted. Additionally, when it comes to application, or imitation (to stick to his preferred term/approach), one might fear that Watkins remains, as is often charged by critics of a redemptive-historical homiletic, rather underdeveloped here. For instance, in discussing Genesis 22 (God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac) as part of Hebrews 11, Watkins tells us several things that the preacher should not do by way of application (138–40). He does this frequently in this chapter, in fact. I generally agree with him, but am often left wondering what he thinks correct application/imitation of the passage would be. Genesis 22 has some especially rich lessons (teased out by Edmund Clowney, for example), but these are not produced by Watkins. Perhaps the volume would be improved by two or three sample sermons on Hebrews 11 (in appendices) in which a rich application can be shown to cohere with a drama of redemption and redemptive-historical approach.

Finally, when it comes to application/imitation I think that the spirituality of the church, rightly understood, might help (and, rightly understood, it’s closely tied to a proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit). That we must preach the ethical imperatives of Scriptures is patent. Paul’s teaching, for instance, is fraught with such. But how one does it properly, even prophetically (in challenging wickedness in both the church and the wider society), without doing it politically, and I mean by this without doing it in a way that divides persons of the same confession, is a challenge. We must not preach a political or social message. This is not to say that preaching God’s Word may never have political or social implications. It does mean, however, that we should be guided by a healthy spirituality of the church, one that understands the spiritual character and calling of the church as an institution. A proper spirituality of the church is one in which the church distinguishes itself from the world, while giving itself to the world, holding out our Lord Jesus Christ as the only hope of a needy and dying world.

These observations spring from Watkins’s fecund theory of preaching. The book should be read by all who preach and who aspire to preach. It should also be read by well-informed laymen who wish to know more about the elements that comprise good preaching. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, April 2018.

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