[K:NWTS 11/1 (May 1996) 37-41]

Book Review

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994, 375pp., cloth. ISBN: 08010-2586-9.

Kerux V11N1A5

If the title of this book itself (Christ-Centered Preaching) is not enough to cause the avid biblical theologian to applaud, then certainly what is written in the preface makes such a response all the more tempting. For in the preface, Chapell insists that only Christ-centered preaching is able to redeem the expository sermon from its two chief enemies, erosion of authority, and mere moral instruction.

However, a closer examination of this book shows that such unqualified approval would be both premature and unwarranted. The things within this book that can and should be applauded are: the author's sincere desire to preach Christ from every text of Scripture; his emphasis on salvation by grace alone; his desire to avoid moralistic and legalistic preaching; and his desire to uphold the integrity and authority of Scripture. However, what becomes clear in reading this book is that one man's notion of Christ-centeredness is not necessarily another man's notion.

I feel safe in saying that Chapell's idea of "Christocentricity" is quite different from that of Geerhardus Vos. Chapell's two-world cosmology along with his method for applying the Scripture, are inconsistent with the views that Vos held. They appear to be identical to the views held by Sidney Greidanus (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text) and J. R. W. Stott (Between Two Worlds).1 His twenty-one references to the writings of Greidanus, along with sixteen references to Stott (which permeate the book's entire 375 pages), contrasted with four references to Vos (all located in but one chapter) tend to demonstrate with whom Chapell's loyalties lie.

Chapell believes there are two worlds (ancient and contemporary) between which a cultural gap exists. He insists that in order to preach Christ, one must extract the redemptive truths from past Biblical history and contextualize them for today's modern listener. Moreover, he insists that the foolproof method for properly extracting relevant redemptive truths is by focusing each sermon on some portion of man's fallenness. Chapel states that Fallen Condition Focus "is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage" (p. 42). Chapell continues: "Our hope resides in the assurance that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus" (p.41). Chapell further believes that the discovery of a passage's Fallen Condition Focus is what naturally leads to (even drives home) the sermon's application: "Facing the fact that every passage was written to address a fallen condition in its original context and in our present situation" (p. 265).

Application is the subject that he immediately addresses following his description of Fallen Condition Focus. "Clear articulation of a [Fallen Condition Focus] drives a message's application and insures the Christ-centeredness of the sermon" (p. 45). Furthermore, "the preacher who identifies a passage's [Fallen Condition Focus] for his congregation automatically gears the listener to consider the Bible's solutions and instructions for contemporary life" (p. 44).

Chapell tells us that the application of the sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it but is the main thing to be done in preaching. Thus it would appear that Chapell's goal is for the preacher to drive redemptive truths out the door of the ancient text across the Fallen Condition Focus bridge and to place them in the homes of, and to match them with the decor of, the contemporary audience. Fitting these redemptive truths (as if they were furniture) into the homes of the contemporary audience is evidently what Chapell has in mind when he speaks of application. These applications, extracted from the ancient text and driven across the Fallen Condition Focus bridge are apparently our only relevant way to connect with our post-enlightenment listeners.

The difference that exists between Chapell's view and Vos's view of the world need now to be identified. Both agree that there are two worlds that are separated by an enormous gulf. But there is no agreement as to the nature of these two worlds, or as to the nature of the gulf between them. Chapell's two worlds are the non-contemporary (i.e., ancient) and contemporary worlds with their conflicting cultures. Thus, according to Chapell time is the gap that separates the modern day believer from the Biblical world. The preacher's job is to somehow make the ancient Scriptures timely. To do this one needs a bridge— the Fallen Condition Focus bridge.

The two worlds of Vos are very different from those that Chapell describes. Vos believes in the world that is and is to perish, and the world that is to come. Sin has taken its toll on the former world corrupting it and alienating from God those who belong to it. Thus, it is reserved for destruction. The latter world is heavenly, eternal and incorruptible (i.e., imperishable). What separates the perishable from the imperishable world is man's sin (see The Pauline Eschatology, chapter one—"The Structure of the Pauline Eschatology").

While Chapell remains forever busy looking for a bridge with which to apply ancient principles to the modern world, Vos finds the ladder that connects heaven to earth, God to his people. Christ is that ladder!

These contrasting two-world cosmologies inevitably lead to contrasting methods for applying Scripture. Chapell's method of application works both against his sincere desire to maintain Biblical authority and to preach Christ from all the Scripture. It undermines Biblical authority for several reasons. 1) It views the Bible as old and antiquated (an implicitly liberal notion). 2) It violates the notion that all Scripture (not just the relevant applications) are profitable (see 2 Tim. 3:16). 3) This method of application forces both preacher and audience to disregard the organic unity of Scripture. For it is an atomistic and fragmentary approach that encourages us to look for mere chunks of Scripture that can somehow be recast to serve us in this day and age. 4) Very dangerous is the way this approach removes the meaning of Scripture as well as the contemporary audience from its history.

Chapell's method of application also undermines the Christ-centeredness of preaching because it attempts to build bridges instead of holding on to God's eschatological ladder. This bridge-building enterprise further suggests that the ladder is somehow insufficient, which is an implicit denial of Christ's sufficiency.

Application sets itself on the wrong course each and every time it tries to draw hard lines of distinction between a present and an earlier audience. When proper attention is being paid to the unity of the human race, the one covenant of grace, the promises of God, the Church universal, and the eschatological age in which all saints live, we then realize that all of God's earlier and present audiences are essentially one in the same. We were in Adam. Thus legitimate application of the Scripture causes us to feel the guilt that Adam felt, to see ourselves as Adam saw himself standing outside of Christ. It also causes us to see ourselves in Christ, as Christ saw himself—a Son bent on pleasing his heavenly Father. We see ourselves in Abraham whose covenant, journey, inheritance and destiny are the same as ours connected to the city whose builder and maker is God.

Therefore, legitimate Biblical application must cause people to identify with Biblical history (must join them to it) and must connect them with God's visitations to earth throughout its history. Such application preserves the integrity of Scripture so that each and every passage carries us to Christ—the ladder on which we are carried heavenward to God.

Most homiletitians (including Chapell) use the terms "application" (singular) and "applications" (plural) interchangeably. However, a true appreciation for Christ-centered preaching may actually require us to view these terms as antonyms rather than as synonyms. Regarded in this fashion, Biblical "application" has the ability to accommodate the two-world cosmology of Vos, whereas "applications" can never accommodate his cosmology. For these applications are forever being driven by the very cosmology Chapell endorses.

Application of the text belongs to the text as text, involves bringing the listener into the text to experience its history, to see himself there, to locate the ladder that brings him heavenward to God, the very same ladder (Jesus Christ) that God uses to climb down to visit man. Applications on the other hand, belong neither to the text nor to its redemptive and historical context. Applications (we might say amputations) result from surgically severing portions (principles, truths, solutions) of a passage from their historical context, and then recasting (we won't say demythologizing) them into what is said to be a vastly different contemporary situation. 

Christ-Centered Preaching is a wonderful name for a book! If only this book were as wonderful as its name. If only this book were satisfied to have men hold the eschatological ladder and not build any more unnecessary bridges. Pray that a book is soon written that promotes for us true Christ-Centered Preaching.

Gary Findley
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Prescott, Arizona

1 See the book review of Greidanus's, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature by Charles G. Dennison in Kerux 4/3 (1989): 44-52.