[K:NWTS 4/3 (Dec 1989) 30-43]

Building the Biblical Theological Sermon
Part I: Perspective

James T. Dennison, Jr.

What is biblical-theological preaching? Let me provide an overview of the biblical-theological approach. By biblical theology, I do not mean a theology based on the Bible. In Reformed circles all theology should be based on the Bible. Thus when I am talking about the biblical-theological style, I am assuming that we are going to use the Scriptures as the basis for the theological enterprise. Biblical theology is a particular part of the theological encyclopedia. In his Sacred Theology, Abraham Kuyper has divided the theological encyclopedia into four parts. By theological encyclopedia, Kuyper meant the whole scope of the theological endeavor. There are four divisions within the science of theology and they are: (1) exegetical theology, (2) historical theology, (3) systematic theology, (4) practical theology. Under the heading historical theology, Kuyper subsumes what we would call church history, history of doctrine or history of dogma (as van Harnack would have called it); under systematic theology he puts dogmatic theology or catechetical theology, i.e., what we tend to think of in terms of the dogmatic system of the church; under practical theology is the applied discipline of theology to the life of the church

Biblical Theology and the Theological Encyclopedia

Now where does biblical theology fit into the encyclopedia? It is a subdivision under exegetical theology. Why? Because biblical theology, as its parent, exegetical theology, deals with the datum of revelation. Datum comes from the Latin word dare meaning "to give"a given, like a piece of data. I emphasize the fact that it is a datum because revelation is a given; it is given because man is passive before revelation. The Bible is not a religious text, for by religion we usually mean man's subjective appropriation and witness to some kind of spiritual exercise. Christianity is a revelation given from without man, from outside of the creature. Thus exegetical theology which studies this deposit in the Scriptures, emphasizes to the recipient (to you, the pastor; to you, the student of the Scriptures) that you are passiveyou stand before the ipsissima verba Dei ("the very words of God"). God speaks and you listen. He is active and distributive; you are passive and receptive. Biblical theology emphasizes this datum, this character of exegetical theology as it is a given part of God's revelation

But biblical theology wants to concentrate on that datum, wants to concentrate on that revelation as it occurs historically and progressively. It is not that biblical theologians are merely interested in the Scriptures as a deposit of revelation; they are, but they are interested in that revelation as it is historically and progressively unfolded, interrelated and interconnected. The divine self-disclosure, the divine self-revelation, the datum of revelation occurs in time and space, it happens in a continuum and therefore it has a progressive historic or organic interconnectedness about it. When we begin to work on the Scriptures, we must remember that we are working with a revelation which has occurred in history. It is organically connected with all of that redemptive history. Thus the biblical theologian emphasizes (even as the dogmatic or systematic theologian does) the fact that this datum of revelation is preeminently supernatural; it is a divine self-disclosure. Yet more than that, this divine self-disclosure occurs in an historical sequence. It occurs in Adam, before Noah, before Abraham, before Moses, before David, before Christ, before the eschaton. Therefore when we come to Adam or to Noah or to Abraham or to Moses or to David or to Christ at the eschaton, we cannot forget the rest of that progressive history.


This divine self-disclosure, this divine revelation is both word and deed revelation; it is both speech and act revelation. God not only delivers his word, he also reveals his mighty arm, he displays his actions, he displays the Magnalia Dei. Latin phrases often say things very crisply. Magnalia Dei"the mighty acts of God." Not only does God reveal by his word, but he reveals by his mighty acts, his mighty deeds. Read the Psalms and begin to search them for references to God's mighty acts. It is not only that the psalmist gives us God's word; the psalmist also looks back to the mighty deeds of God. Biblical theology traces this continuitythis continuity through the history of word and deed revelationthis continuity of the nature of the historic aspect of revelation.

The biblical theologian asks himself, "What is the connection between the self-disclosure of God to Adam as that is related to the self-disclosure of God to Noah, to Abraham, to Christ, to the New Testament church, to uswhere do we fit in the continuum?" And it is the study of these relationships which reveals what I have already mentioned as the organic character of revelation.

The revelation of the mind of God is like an organism. You are an organism; you are composed of various parts, but all of your parts are interrelated and so it is with the datum of revelation. It is historical, organically interrelated and interconnected. All the parts fit together. So it is with the revelation of God in history. Revelation from God in Adam is interrelated with the revelation of God in the new Adam. There is a connection between the divine self-disclosure to the first Adam and the divine self-disclosure to the second Adam. The revelation of God to the first Adam has a prospective dimension and the revelation of God to the second Adam has a retrospective dimension. By these two terms, we draw together this organic or progressive character of redemptive history.

While I emphasize that the first Adam is prospective of the second Adam (i.e., the first Adam points beyond himself) and while I emphasize that the second Adam is retrospective to the first Adam (i.e., he points behind himself), I don't want to minimize the fact that there is in a real sense a retrospective dimension in the case of the first Adam. He points back to the creationhe comes out of the created order. There is also a prospective dimension to the ministry of the second Adam. He points beyond himself to the eschaton. In the structure of the history of redemption it is the first Adam anticipatory of the second and the second Adam (to use Irenaeus' term) "recapitulatory" of the first that is the emphasis in the history of redemption.

Therefore, the biblical-theological method attempts to ascertain this organic relationship. It attempts to uncover this retrospective and prospective dimension. The first Adam is not abstracted nor isolated from the second Adam and the second Adam is not abstracted or isolated from the first Adam. Biblical theology does not allow one to look at Adam without also looking to Christ. You simply cannot do it if you are a biblical theologian. Nor does it allow one to look at Christ without looking at our first father. The church cannot learn her identity by isolating texts or by abstracting topics. The church's identity is (in our example) in the first man of the earth, earthy and the second man, the man from heaven. I will state this forcefully (I will even state it dogmatically} any preaching which proclaims Adam in the garden without also proclaiming the second Adam in the resurrection garden is unbiblical! And I call the apostle Paul as witness on my behalf for that statement (cf. Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). I care not what explicit verbal allegiance you may give to the doctrine of inerrancy and I care not what confessional allegiance you may give to orthodoxy. Any preaching that isolates Adam in the garden from Christ in the new garden of the resurrection is simply unbiblical and has been constructed on the basis of a private ecclesiastical agenda.


On the contrary, the church must find her life in her two covenant headspreaching on either the one or the other must display the misery and the glory which the bride of the second Adam finds in the one and in the other. Let me put this another way. In the case of Adam, first and last, protology is related to eschatology. I trust that you understand that eschatology is not, biblically speaking, merely a matter delayed until the eschatonthe last day. There will be a last day, we heartily affirm that, but that is not all of the eschatological drama or the eschatological dimension to the Scriptures. Eschatology (and especially eschatology in the New Testament) is a matter inaugurally or provisionally fulfilled while at the same time something not yet consummated. To use Geerhardus Vos's term, eschatology in the New Testament is conceived ''semi-eschatologically". It is conceived in terms of the "now" and "not yet". It is conceived in terms of the overlap of the two agesthe present age and the age to come. It is here; the eschaton, the eschatological, is here in measure, provisionally, now! It will yet be perfected consummately at the end of history.


From the stand point of the Old Testament, this eschatological dimension is typically displayed. I trust you are familiar with that term "typology". It is a very useful way of describing a method of looking at the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. I would like to suggest, however, that typology is only half of the story. I hope to make it clear that as biblical theologians we must take a step beyond mere typological exegesis. The Old Testament does have this topological dimension. The tabernacle, for example, is the house of God. It is a miniature heaven on earth. Hence entrance into the life of the tabernacle (this also applies to the templeby atonement, by fellowship (you ate a meal) and by cleansingis in fact an earthly realization of heavenly realities by means of symbolic ritual. Now it was the error of Israel, particularly at the time of Christ, to immanentize these eschatological symbolsthe immanentization of the eschaton. What do I mean by that? Israel at the time of Christ absolutized the tabernacle, they absolutized the theocracy, they absolutized the nation of Judea as if the eschaton were contained in them! And therefore any announcement of the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven in the preaching of Jesus was automatically rejected because the eschaton was contained in the immanent aspects of Jewish religious life. Israel failed to comprehend what even the law and especially the Old Testament prophets had disclosed so clearlythe prospective nature of that entire Old Testament dispensation. It was provisional; it was never final. It was only typical in the sense that it pointed beyond itself. It was never to be the immanentization of the final dimension of history.

The Eschatological Perspective

The prophets continually project the eschatological dimension. And so for example, the projection of a millennial temple by Ezekiel was not an absolutization of the second temple (that post-exilic structure of Zerubbabel). No, Ezekiel projects an anti-typical temple not as an absolutization of the building on Mount Zionfor Ezekiel's temple was far too perfect to have been an absolutization of what was on Mount Zion. Rather Ezekiel projects his temple as a realization of the eschatological dwelling of God with man. A heavenly templean eternal templea final templea temple beyond which there will be no replacement. Jesus comes claiming to be the embodiment of that temple structure in the second chapter of John's gospel. We do not say to Jesus, "You don't know what you are talking about Jesus of Nazareth! There is yet to be a post-tribulation, dispensational temple in the kingdom age!" In John 2 Jesus says, "I am the temple." We fall down at his feet and we humbly say, "Yes, Lord Jesus you are the final temple; you are the dwelling of God with man. Yes, Lord Jesus you are the locus where God and man meetLord Jesus you are priest and victim once and for all." Why would the church even want another temple beyond the Lord Christ? Are you not content with Jesus? Do you hanker after some block of stone on Mount Zion? I askis Jesus not enough for you? Be content with the temple who has come in all of his gloryfor with the apostles we have "beheld his glory." And therefore when that temple ascends to heaven, we are not surprised to read that there is no temple in that eternal city for the lamb is the life thereof (Rev. 22).

It is this eschatological perspective which is so peculiar to Reformed biblical theology. We want to ask the question about the eschatological dynamic. We are not merely devoted students of redemptive-historical relationships, these retrospective and prospective connections (what John Murray calls the historico-genetic progression of the history of redemption). We are not merely interested in parallels typologically conceived. Adam parallels Christ. Moses parallels Christ. David parallels Christ. We are not merely interested in linear comparisons. We want to know what has come down from above. We want to know what has come out of the heavenlies. We want to know the eschatological dimension of Adam and Moses and David.

Hence my criticism of typology is that it does not go far enough. Patrick Fairbairn, that great Scottish Presbyterian, writes his Typology of Scripture. In many ways, it is a ground-breaking book well worth having, but it is not Vos. And so from Fairbairn, you must graduate to Vos. From Matthew Henry you must graduate to Ridderbos. Typology yes, but more than typology. The error of our fundamentalist and dispensational brethren is they are content with wooden and sterile parallels. They tend to have no understanding of the eschatological dynamic which is breathing and seething within those parallels. We must go beyond typos We must go into the heavenlies. And so, we are those who look for the "end of the ages." We are those who taste the powers of the world to come. We are those who with both Peter and Paul realize that whatever was written aforetime was written for "our instruction." The Old Testament is not a dead letter! It has passion and power for us. And weyes we!we see mysteries which the angels have tried to peer into and to comprehend.

Eschatology More Than Typology

The eschatological perspective then is not only viewed typologically, that is in terms of this historical or linear progression. But the eschatological perspective is also related vertically and transcendentally. We have two dimensions of every text in the history of redemption. We have its linear or historical axis. What is its connection with the rest of historical time and space? But we have more than that. We are asking ourselves the question, "What is the relationship of this text to its vertical or transcendent dimension?" Or perhaps we should reverse the direction of the arrow, "What is the relationship of the heavens come down to earth?" There is eschatological progress in time historical and linear. What else is it for the second Adam to be described in terms of the first Adam? That is a horizontal or linear eschatological progress, organically related to God's self-disclosure as Creator and Redeemer. Is this progress through time? No one will deny that. We join with the apostle Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 when we view Adam eschatologically in this sense. And indeed evangelical fundamentalism has gotten that point very well and reduced it to a topological correspondence. But the linear-eschatological second Adam is also vertically and transcendentally the Lord from heaven. And we, in seeing the first Adam, see something of the second because he is displayed from heaven in the first. Now it is dim, I confess that. It is seen from a dark glass, I confess that. The angels try to pull back the veil and inquire, and even the prophets didn't understand completely, I confess that. But that's the reason you and I, brothers and sisters, have the advantage over them and the least of us is greater than John the Baptist. We see what they could not see clearly.

It is not only that linear and historical aspect, but it is that vertical and transcendent dimension where the Lord of heaven, the Lord from heaven touches the history of redemption. It is the resurrection of Christ which justifies him as such in time and space. You perhaps have never really thought about that. But ponder it for a moment. The apostle tells us Jesus was declared to be the Son of God, by the resurrection from the dead (1 Tim. 3:15,16). Jesus was justified. You say, "Almighty God, I need to be justified! I need to be right with you!" Yet Jesus too needed to be justified because vicariously he took sin upon himself. If the grave holds him he is a condemned sinner. But he is declared right, he is justified by resurrection. So that the resurrection of Jesus is the cosmic justification of the Son of God!

Jesus of Nazareth is the razors edge. If, as the apostle Paul realized on that road to Damascus, resurrection is the common history of the world, then men and women, brothers and sisters, we are at the parting of the ages. A man would live again? If a man die, shall he live again? Jesus of Nazareth says, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Yes, Jesus is justified. But from the very beginning, the Adamic covenant is vertically related to that transcendent Son of God, son of Adam, who is before the face of the Father forever and ever. Thus we have anticipation all through the history of redemption of the justification of the Son of God. Like good Sherlock Holmes detectives, you've got to start looking for clues. Hence, we have two dimensions of eschatologica1 moment: we have that linear or historical dimension, and we have the vertical or transcendent dimension.

The Two Ages

Geerhardus Vos has given us a famous diagram of the overlap of the two ages. If you haven't read that chapter in the Pauline Eschatology you might take it down. In that book, you will remember that Vos talks about the age to come and he talks about the present evil agethe two ages. You will also notice that he describes the relationship from the stand point of Paul's eschatology. In fact for the whole of the New Testament, he describes the relationship between those two ages as one of an overlap. The age to come moves forward to invade or overlap this present age. I would like to take Vos a step further. I would like to suggest to you that the age to come, eschatologically, overlaps even the whole Old Testament period. And that what we are observing, both in the New Testament era and in the Old, is the penetration or the intrusion or the vertical arrival of eschatological realities. The marvelously gracious thing which God has done is to penetrate or to intrude these eschatological realities into the Old and New Testament history of redemption. We seek the eternal in the temporal as it progresses historically and as it displays the abiding and final character of the acts and works of God.

The Biblical-Theological Difference

Well Mr. Dennison this is all very good theory, but what difference does it make in preaching? I believe it is the cure for the topical drivel that flows from more and more Reformed pulpits. It is the remedy for the increasing misapplication of Scripture in so called "practical" Christian sermons. And it is the solution to dull, boring and trivial doctrinal or catechetical preaching. In sum, if biblical-theological preaching is the method of correctly exegeting the plan of God, both historically and eschatologically conceived, than biblical-theological preaching is the most biblical, the most theological and the most exciting preaching of all.

The biblical-theological preacher is like the scribe in the kingdom of heaven who brings forth things old and new from the "thesaurus"from the treasures hidden in Christ, in God. The pulpits of the modern church are full of those who have read The Lazy Man's Way to Preaching. What is heard from many modern pulpits is the pop-theology of the day. That was once the cornerstone of liberal pulpits. Harry Emerson Fosdick packed them in at Riverside Baptist church in New York City because he knew what sells, he new what tickled the fancy of upwardly mobile New York socialites from the 20's to the 50's. With the coming of age of American Evangelicalism, you can't tell the conservatives from the liberals, methodologically speaking anymore. If its upbeat, positive, brimming with gush about human love and mush about raising social consciousness, it is as likely to becoming from a Baptist pulpit as from a new wave Reformed pulpit as it is to be emanating from a modernist or Barthian pulpit. I admit the sarcasm, but I predict my sarcasm will be justified. I simply point out that the verdict of history will be very much in accord with the verdict of James Davison Hunter's book American Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation.

Preaching is work, hard work. It takes real work with the text, real work with the context and real work with the redemptive-historical context. Preaching is not the calling for the man who spends the bulk of his weekday afternoons at Kiwanis, Rotary or Chamber of Commerce luncheons. Nor is preaching the calling for public relations types who are advancing their images with promotional campaigns which look like Madison Avenue or worse. What a pity that the Lord Jesus did not have a New York executive managing his "style". And oh, the poor apostle Paulhe was born too early for the Church Growth Movement.

The Modern Preaching Crisis

This is a throw away generation and preaching has been infected by the contagion. Most of what Christian America hears on a given Sunday morning has little to do with the Bible, much to do with the personal agenda of ecclesiastical moguls parading in black robes, three-piece suits and make-up. Preaching is so much glitter and glitz or else it is trivial and banal. But biblical preaching requires work with the sources; hard work with the text, commentaries, journal articles, lexicons and a host of other resources. I had a friend who has been in the ministry for twenty-five years and liked to brag that he hadn't read a theological book since he graduated from seminary. What a tragedy! If you are not now purchasing and learning to use the basic tools for working with a biblical text, then you are not learning what to preach. If you have no commitment to working at your preaching and working 20 hours per week in your study, then you are not working hard at mastering the content of the text of Scripture. If you believe that you are proclaiming the word of life and it is the difference between heaven and hell and that it is the building of the congregation in the fullness of the stature of Jesus Christ, then you will have 20 hours because that's what it is going to take. You are going to have to work with books. You are going to have to work with the gold of God's word. Like the Marine's, the church needs a few good menand your study is boot camp. You are on a battle field. So get yourself in shape now and start to begin to pay the price to be a herald of the word of life. It simply can't be done with 2-5 hours of preparation a week

First and Last

I mentioned above that protology is related to eschatology. I explained that protology is related to that which stands in the beginning and eschatology is related to that which stands at the end and I used the first and second Adam motif to illustrate that relationship specifically. There is in fact a complete display of the history of redemption in the protological aspect of Genesis 2 and 3. Think about itcovenant; covenant mediator; victim and victor; justification; faith; vicarious death; excommunication; consuming fire; probation; inability; works vs. graceit's all there. And that is the reason the fathers called Genesis 3:15 the protevangeliumthe first gospel. As the history of redemption advances from Genesis 3, the protological elements make prospective contact with developments in the law and the prophets and the apostles. The relationship of subsequent events in the history of redemption (i.e., the incarnation of the second Adam bruising the head of the serpent while receiving a lesser wound) is retrospective. Therefore we are reminded once again of the organic or the innate relationship between the moments of redemptive history. Biblical-theological preaching attempts to describe this organic relationship as it unfolds in a particular text or pericope. That is your goalto understand the redemptive-historical relationship. The biblical-theological preacher is seeking the prospective, retrospective relationship and the vital union of the people of God with that motif.

I mentioned above that the preaching on Adam which does not bring one's audience into the sense of union with our first parent is abstract, mere symbolism and irrelevant to the biblical history of redemption. Furthermore, preaching on the first Adam which does not open up the drama of union with the second Adam is moralism, historicism and also irrelevant. Our life is in that first man and, by the grace of God poured out on his elect, our life is gloriously hidden in that last man. In the preaching moment then, we are asking ourselves, "What is the connection of this revelation of God with what goes before it and what comes after it?" "What is the relationship of this pericope to what is around it?" And what is the nature of life for the people of God revealed in that organic connection? How is the life of the church (i.e., the people of God of the former covenant and the people of God in the new covenants)how is the life of the church revealed by this passage?

I trust you begin to understand what we are doing. We are reversing the way in which a modern congregation listens to a sermon. We are not asking the man in the pew to "get something out" of the sermon, whether we have given him an outline in the bulletin or whatever. We are proclaiming to the man and the woman and the child in the pew that his or her life is found in the text of the Scripture and in that text-word there is a self-disclosure of the life of God himself, the life of Jesus Christ, the life of the Holy Spirit. And what's more God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost invite that man, woman and child in the pew to participate in their life! To come into that heavenly life! To move into the age to comeinto the life from aboveto experience what it means to live in the not yet now! We are not imposing upon the pew so that the pew sits to extract something from our message. We are saying to the pew, "Come up to the heavenlies in Christ Jesus; come and find your life hidden with Christ in God in this text." Here is your life. We do not ask you to derive lessons from the life of Adam. We proclaim that your life is in Adammiserable, sinful, rebellious, selfish, autonomous, hellish but we plead with men, women and children everywhere to find their life in that second Adam, to find themselves in Christ Jesus a new creation clothed upon with the righteousness of the Lamb of God, ushered into the paradise of God by the one who has tasted the flame and felt the edge of the sword of divine justice. We preach to you life in Christ Jesusyour life hidden with Christ in Godfrom first Adam to second Adamfrom Adam protological to Adam eschatologicalthat is our method, that is our message. And now the work begins! Now, you must learn to build a biblical-theological sermon.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California