Clowney review from 11 years ago

I found this in my old email archives.

Jacob Aitken

Sermon Preparation

Prof. Alan Hix

29 April 2005

Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1961), 124pp.

Biographical Information

The late Edmund Clowney is renowned throughout the Presbyterian world for his teaching and church leadership. Serving at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA for several decades, he has written largely on preaching and ecclesiology. His present book, Preaching and Biblical Theology, draws heavily off the theological method of New Testament scholar, Geerhardus Vos. Using such a method—which will be mentioned shortly—he analyzes the various attempts to integrate biblical theology into the life of the church.

Purpose of the Book

While appreciative of the necessary work of systematic theology, Clowney sees the danger in mere doctrinal moralizing and offers the pastor a fresh alternative that is faithful to the scriptures. He seeks to rescue biblical theology from false dichotomies with systematics on one hand, and liberal distortions on the other hand. Clowney also hopes the budding preacher will read the works of Geerhardus Vos.

Organization and Content

In lieu of recent liberal scholarship on biblical theology, Clowney does the necessary groundwork in providing the pastor with a working definition of biblical theology. Recent works had defined biblical theology along the lines of the “History of Religions” school of thinking. Or, the scholar might look at the text along evolutionary lines, thus negating the aspects of redemption and revelation. To have a working definition of biblical theology, Clowney notes, biblical presuppositions are necessary. Following Vos Clowney defines biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible” (15). This definition opposes any form of liberalism or neo-orthodoxy that denies prepositional truth. It also presupposes, against evolutionary views of revelation, a unity and objectivity in the Bible.

On the conservative side, some will object that such a definition will bring biblical theology into opposition with time-honored disciplines like systematic theology. Not so, Clowney argues, if the pastor recognizes the tension between the two disciplines as necessary. The tension can be properly understood when the pastor recognizes the distinct nature of both disciplines. Systematic theology approaches the text in a linear fashion, while biblical theology traces out the historical developments within God’s redemptive history. The tension can be eased, although never done away with, if the pastor sees the “sensitivity to the distinctiveness of both the form and the content of revelation in each particular epoch [in biblical theology]” (16).

If one is to write on preaching in the modern age, he must justify the authority of preaching over against the autonomy of the post-Christian West. Clowney then does a brief survey of New Testament scholarship with respect to the proclamation of the text. In each setting Clowney notes the challenges to biblical theology that current fads in New Testament studies would pose. Many liberal scholars saw their hope in the “kerygma” of the early church. The scholars sought to emancipate the kerygma of the New Testament form the myth the Church had placed on the gospels. Such thinking immediately led to the “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” which was more indicative of liberal presuppositions than it was of concern for the truth. Regardless of what shape the challenge might take, all presupposed an impossibility of prepositional revelation. God’s message to man was personal, not prepositional. Clowney refutes: “Personal communion with communication is impossible between human subjects, and it is a strange conception of revelation in Christ which denies to him revelatory communication in making known the Father” (27).

Having a covenantal groundwork in the Old Testament, Clowney applies this to the New Testament to establish authority for biblical theology and preaching. Christ is prophet, priest, and king in the New Testament—the self-interpreted Word of John 1 (51). Besides being the Son of God, his authority is first seen as that of an Old Testament prophet proclaiming the message of God. But not only is he a prophet, he is the fulfillment of prophecy. Furthermore, the apostles are endowed with authority as they, being witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, proclaim the whole counsel of God, which has been fulfilled in Christ. “Their apostolic ministry,” says Clowney, “is the foundation of authority in the New Testament church, for by their witness the word of Christ is given to the church” (59).

The character of preaching, if it is to be driven by biblical theology, must enrich the listeners with the full scope of God’s redemptive work. Such preaching is driven by biblical eschatology. The preacher thus realizes that he is living in the last days, knows Christ’s kingdom has been established, and is driven with an urgent message of the grace of God in the person of Christ. Clowney exults, “The evangel of the prophet Isaiah is that which is fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. The year of Jubilee has come, therefore we must proclaim liberty to the captive…the latter days have come, the days in which the Lord is glorified, and he has poured out his Spirit upon men” (67-68).

The only flaw in the book comes in the middle of this otherwise edifying chapter. Clowney notes the mission-orientation of the Church was lost upon the establishment of Constantine. He writes how the church has lost much of her vigor in missions. Clowney: “No doubt this came about through the confusion of church and state which began in the age of Constantine” (69). Now, one can legitimately roast Constantine on a number of issues, but this overlooks the gospel’s explosion on the island of Britain, for example. Granted, much of the Roman and Grecian church lost their power due to state control, but he tries to put too much historical commentary in one paragraph. Clowney ends his chapter on the character of preaching with a challenge to the pastor to balance the ethical and the redemptive element in his preaching.

What does a sermon driven by biblical theology look like? The pastor has two tasks before him. He recognizes the unity of God’s salvation throughout biblical history. He proclaims to his flock that Abraham rejoiced to see Messiah’s day and we too long to feast with the prophets when the kingdom of God is consummated at the end of the ages. He also notes the “epochal structure” of redemptive history. This prevents him from arbitrarily chopping unity of God’s revelation and redemption, as the early dispensationalists did (88). However, the pastor does pay attention to the historical nature of the God’s acts in history. The preacher who would preach along the lines of biblical theology takes note of symbolism and typology in the scriptures. God’s revelation is laden with types and shadows that point to the future redemption accomplished by Christ. “Until the heavenly reality is manifested, the covenant fellowship is mediated through earthly symbols, ‘like in pattern’ to the heavenly archetype (Heb. 9:24, 25)” (100). Clowney guides the bible student in interpreting symbols and types: 1) They symbol is distinct from that which it represents; 2) There is a relation between the symbol and the reality symbolized; 3) The reference of the symbols is divinely established in revelation; 4) The symbols may be classified in various groups (103-108).

Evaluation

Clowney’s book is written along the lines of heroic disorder. His thoughts and guidance to the reader are superb and Clowney himself appears to soar at times. His passion for his subject is not lost on the reader. Nevertheless, there were times where one wondered where he was going with an idea. He did repeat a number of times several of his best ideas and phrases throughout the book, although to the delight of the reader. Writing from what appears to be an amillennialist interpretation of scripture, it is curious as to why he did not address dispensational challenges more often than he did. The book is extremely edifying and relevant to the church at large. It is a book that will stay on the pastor’s desk as he searches the scriptures. Clowney achieves his goal in exciting students to take up the task of biblical theology.

Application

Clowney’s work is utterly relevant to the church and those who long for their sermons to be clothed with the Spirit’s power. What else could enflame preaching but the glorious proclamation of what God has done in Christ in history? Whether he goes into the pulpit or the lectern, Clowney provides both a tonic to the tired preacher and a caution to the theologian who might divorce systematic theology from biblical theology. It provides the bible student with a hermeneutic that sees Christ, properly interpreted, in all scripture, thus avoiding trite moralizing.

Review of Dennison on Van Til

Dennison, William.  In Defense of the Eschaton.  Wipf and Stock, 2015.

This is a collection of essays dealing with Van Til and Education, with a few other themes thrown in.   Some essays are quite good, particularly the one on Genesis 2:15.  Unfortunately, it manifests all the weaknesses of Van Tillian thought:  inability to interact with recent developments in philosophy, attacking other schools because they don’t use the same jargon, refusing to understand what other Christian thinkers are getting at.

Some flaws aren’t as serious.  In the chapter on Plato, much of it was good but I am not sure what the pay-out was.  We got a good summary of Plato’s view on the soul, and we saw that some philosophers weren’t “Platonic” (though he never says who).  But all of this could have been found elsewhere.  Other flaws are found in most Van Tillian works: broad-brushing all of the opposition as “autonomous thought” without always spelling out how it is bad.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note. Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult. So we commend Dennison for that. Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought? Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that. For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story. So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic? I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom. So what does this have to do with Vos? I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts. However, hee takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23). I’m not so sure. Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig. Where do they fit? They do not belong to either category. Even more, what does “Possible Worlds Semantics” have to do with Wittengstein or Vienna? Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach. Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some perceived problems with Reformed Epistemology. It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69). Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either. He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function. But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214). Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?. Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism. Okay, so what is the problem exactly? In fact, what is Common Sense Realism? How are beliefs formed? That’s the issue. Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed. And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.

Criticisms

His review of Keller’s book was fine and I agree with most of his concerns. It was odd at a point. Dennison attacks Keller for holding to the “neo-Calvinist” scheme (168ff). What is this scheme? It is the story-line of Creation-Fall-Redemption. So what is bad about this? I think he wants to say that it makes us lose sight of heaven as our homeland? Let’s look at it.

Neo-Calvinist: Creation-Fall-Redemption and Jesus came to put the world to right.

Puritan Pietist: Heaven is our true homeland.

As it stands there is no contradiction between the two statements. Maybe all he is saying is that some Neo-Calvinists denigrate heaven. I guess. That’s an entirely different argument.

I would take it a step further: what or where exactly is heaven? Is “heaven” the final destination? How does this tie in with the New Earth? Elsewhere Dennison says that we are already in the age to come of a sorts (107). I agree. If that’s so, then there is no contradiction between Neo-Calvinism and Vosian eschatology.

The Good

Despite my criticisms, several essays are quite valuable. His notes on anthropology highlight man as an image-bearer (39). The imago dei is often missing from treatments on man’s essence.

He has some outstanding suggestions on the role of the Reformed apologist in light of his eschatological existence (107ff).

Conclusion:

This collection of essays is strong where Van Tillians have always been strong: eschatology, piety, and culture. It is weak where Van Tillians have always been weak: interacting with recent philosophy, fleshing out their views, etc. This is actually a three-star book, but Dennison’s essay on Genesis 2:15 was so good I bumped it up a star.

Van til and analytic philosophy

This is from the first chapter of William Dennison’s In Defense of the Eschaton.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note.  Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult.  So we commend Dennison for that.  Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”  

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought?  Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that.  For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story.  So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic?  I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom.  So what does this have to do with Vos?  I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts.  Sadly, he went on.  He takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.  

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23).  I’m not so sure.  Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today:  Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig.  Where do they fit?  They do not belong to either category.  Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach.  Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some problems with Reformed Epistemology.  It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69).  Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either.  He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function.  But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214).  Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?.  Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism.  Okay, so what is the problem exactly?  In fact, what is Common Sense Realism?  How are beliefs formed?  That’s the issue.  Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed.  And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.