“Biblical-Theological Preaching” and the problem of application

Conservative biblical-theological preachers, sailing in the wake of Gerhardus Vos, tend to ignore (or even oppose) the use of application in a sermon. They expect the listener to make his own application (if any) of the sweeping truths they set forth on their excursions from Genesis to Revelation as they chase down a figure or a theme. Or, like Barth, they leave the application to God. The two major differences between some present-day preachers and Barth is that the former (1) do not hold to the neoorthodox “encounter,” and (2) are less concerned about the contemporary scene than Barth.

Abhorrence of direct application leads biblical-theological preachers of this sort into common ground with many liberals who believe that the use of the indicative alone, to the exclusion of the imperative, is adequate. At best, such preaching is applied (if at all) by implication; at worst, only by inference. Application becomes the task of the listener rather than the preacher.

~Jay Adams, Truth Applied, 20-21.


11 responses to this post.

  1. Very well said. Another mistake is to use illustration as application. To refer to another similar passage or situation is not the same as an application.
    I enjoyed Don Sunukjian’s chapter on application in his very well written “invitation to biblical preaching”.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. If application is left out, it is by no means the fault of the redemptive-historical method. It is the fault of the preacher. One only needs to look at how RH preaching is being done today by the likes of Sinclair Ferguson, Phil Ryken, Rick Phillips, Iain Duguid, Dan Doriani, Lig Duncan, Derek Thomas to find that charging RH preaching with lack of application is not accurate today. It may have been when Jay Adams wrote, but it is no longer accurate in the slightest.

  3. Lane,

    To say that it is “no longer accurate in the slightest” is no longer accurate in the slightest. I understand there are a number of preachers in the redemptive historical tradition who would seek to apply Scripture. I would add that there were some when Vos was around as well. This still does not deny the fact that with the revival of Vos’s literature there is also a return to some his problems in preaching. Adams understanding is still very relevant, which is a careful reading of Vos will not lead one to make specific applications (if true to his scheme).

    Charles Dennison has recently criticized Sidney Greidanus because he detects the same methodology as Rudolf Bultmann. Dennison argues against application as detailed by Greidanus. Additionally, Gary Findley has rejected the “two-world” view of Stott and Chapell and gone after Chapell because he focuses on building bridges rather than preaching Christ (according to Findley).

    Both Dennison and Findley are clearly in the redemptive historical movement and Dennison is leading the charge with his journal, Kerux.

    On a different but related note, Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman recently wrote an article defending systematic theology against some of the assertions of Graeme Goldsworthy’s “big picture themes” noting that they often lack application and specificity.

    For the record, I do not embrace the redemptive historical model so its a moot point for me personally. Nevertheless, I have watched the revival of Vos (Goldsworthy, Greidanus, etc.) and have observed how some of the original flawed methodolgies have either been uncritically embraced or on the other hand overlooked.

  4. It was also interesting at the last T4G conference to hear Ligon Duncan defend his belief in application against those within his own tradition who would accuse him of moralism when preaching. If it’s no longer an issue it would seem strange that he would address it at such a large and mixed conference [See Duncan’s “Preaching Christ in the Old Testament” in Preaching the Cross (2007), 63-64].

  5. Posted by jdf833 on April 3, 2008 at 12:04 am

    It seems that some of the discussion may have a little bit to do with criticisms of the nouthetic counseling movement, which I like in many ways. However, some within the camp do a lot of proof-texting to claim certain moral standards while ignoring the broader context before making application.

  6. Posted by Dante Spencer on April 3, 2008 at 1:23 am

    Cut to the chase:

    Go here http://www.two-age.org/online_sermons.htm and listen to the lectures by Rev Clawson and to the one by Bill Baldwin. The one by Bill can be read online at Kerux instead. These are two very godly men.

    Then go here http://bettercovenant.org/ and read the sermons on Psalm 1 and Mk 10:35-45. Full of grace and heavenly wisdom that exalts Christ and nourishes faith.


  7. idf833(real name please),

    I think the struggle with application is not unique to one particular system or methodology. We all struggle with it at various levels. The point of my posting the quote was to show that there are some who outright oppose the use of application as it is normally understood by representative homiletic textbooks and by many expositors. A sub point to my post is that the roots of some systems were constructed with an anti-application emphasis (i.e., Vos’s “biblical theology”).

    As Lane rightly pointed out above, it would be unfair to broad brush an entire movement with this problem but it is something its adherents should be privy to some of the problems inherent in the system.

    The above quotes are not in reference to the nouthetic movement even though they come from Adams. The problem you allude to with nouthetic counseling is not one of no application but over application through misuse of the Scriptures. Again, it would be unfair to characterize an entire movement with this problem even though some may tend toward proof-texting (who doesn’t?). One of my fellow elders is the North Alabama representative for NANC and he handles the Scriptures as well as anyone I know and is very sensitive to Scriptures being marshaled from their context just so a moral point can be scored.

  8. Posted by Taj M. Eaton on April 4, 2008 at 4:53 am


    Would you mind posting a link to the above article by Carl Trueman that you referred to?

    Thanks for this blog!

  9. Posted by jdf833 on April 5, 2008 at 2:19 am

    (Jeff Fogle)

    Thanks for your response. I agree with you about the nouthetic counseling movement, as I know some who handle the Scriptures in such ways as I would like to. I intended to convey that by my short quote above. My intention was to point out some evangelicals have bounced back toward Vos in the attempt to be very careful not to proof-text.

  10. Jeff,

    That’s a good point and one I had not considered before.


  11. Posted by Tom Shuck on April 5, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    That is a good quote from a good book.

    I hope to do a chapter in my dissertation on the history of anti-application in preaching. Vos, to a degree, and Barth are sources of this thinking. Fred Craddock and David Buttrick might be recent sources.

    A helpful paper on application in exposirory preaching is Hershael York’s: Is Application Necessary in the Expository Sermon? One draw back of the article is the lack of interaction with Scripture. There are some helpful insights that given in the article however.

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