Review: The Imperative of Preaching by John Carrick

John Carrick.  The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. 202 pp. (hardback), $21.00.  Reviewed by Paul Shirley, Pastor of Grace Community Church at Wilmington, DE.

Certain books were written for certain times. Not many books are written for all times. The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric by John Carrick is one of the few volumes that was written for a certain time and will be valuable for all times. John Carrick is a graduate of Oxford University (BA, 1973; Certificate in Education, 1974; MA, 1978) and studied at London Theological Seminary, 1978-1980. He has served as a minister in local churches, as well as on the faculty of several reformed seminaries. He holds a D.Min. from Westminster Theological Seminary in California (2002), and The Imperative of Preaching (IP) was written as a part of that degree program.  In addition to IP and numerous articles, Carrick is the author of The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards, also published by Banner of Truth Trust.

IP is written based on the presupposition that the structure of Scripture is the basis for the method of preaching. That is to say, “it is precisely God’s method that constitutes the incontrovertible basis for a sacred rhetoric” (5). Building on this foundation, Carrick summarizes the thesis and structure of the book:

The central thesis of this book is that the essential pattern or structure which God himself has utilized in the proclamation of New Testament Christianity is that of the indicative-imperative. In other words, God himself has, in the gospel of Christ, harnessed these two fundamental grammatical moods and invested them with theological and homiletical significance. God himself has, in his Word, also made use of two other grammatical or rhetorical categories, namely, the exclamative and the interrogative. Clearly the scope of a sacred rhetoric is potentially much wider than that of these four categories; nevertheless, there is something quite foundational about them. Thus in this theology of the rhetoric of preaching we propose to consider the theological and homiletical significance and value of these four grammatical or rhetorical categories, namely, the indicative, the exclamative, the interrogative, and the imperative. (5)

The thesis of IP forms the structure of the book. Carrick uses the body of the book to define each of the grammatical categories, then exemplifies them from both the Bible and the sermons of five of the most outstanding preachers in the history of the church” (5-6). In addition to defining these categories, Carrick defends the strong use of the imperative mood in preaching. Understanding these categories is important for a preacher because they reflect the means by which the Spirit communicated in the Bible and promises to continue communicating through the preaching of the Bible. As Carrick reminds the reader,

The preacher must always remember that the Spirit of God uses and honors means, that the careful and deliberate use of proper means is not unspiritual or invalid, that the indicative, the exclamation, the interrogative, and the imperative constitute such means, and that our five preachers from the experimental Calvinistic tradition all made a deliberate and cogent use of them. We believe that both the Scriptures themselves and the history of preaching demonstrate quite clearly the validity of the concept of a sacred rhetoric. (6)

In chapter 2 Carrick defines the indicative mood and describes its place in sacred rhetoric. “The indicative mood. . . is unquestionably the fundamental mood of language. It indicates, it states, it declares; it announces, it asserts, it explains. It operates with simple declarative sentences and deals with objective facts” (8-9). The indicative mood has pride of place in the Bible and in the best preaching from church history. As Carrick points out,

The great centralities of the gospel – the pre-existence of Christ, his incarnation, his atoning death, his resurrection from the dead – are expressed in the indicative mood. These great central facts of the gospel are not – indeed, they could not be – expressed in the imperative mood which denotes a command, a request, or an exhortation; they are not – indeed, they could not be – expressed in the subjunctive mood which denotes that which is contingent, hypothetical, or prospective. No, these great central facts of the gospel are expressed in the Scriptures in the only mood consonant with them, namely, the indicative mood. Thus Machen’s observation, ‘Christianity begins with the triumphant indicative’, reveals the perceptiveness of both a grammarian and of a theologian. (10)

Due to the priority of the indicative, a preacher cannot apply the word until he has explained the word. He cannot make the transition to the imperative until he has explained the indicative.

In chapters 3 and 4 Carrick explains the exclamative and interrogative moods. These moods are not dealt with as extensively as the indicative and the imperative because they are secondary by comparison. Secondary, however, does not mean unnecessary. The exclamative mood is a subset of the indicative that communicates fact with emotion, emphasis, or excitement (31). The exclamative is necessary for preaching not only because it is found in the Bible, but also because “it is essential that the preacher preach from the heart and that he preach to the heart” (54).  “The interrogative does not so much assert objective fact as question objective fact. It searches and probes in order that it might establish the facts” (56-57). The varied uses of the interrogative mood are important for preachers because it helps them to connect the truth to individuals. Carrick makes this observation from the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, “by means of the interrogative in the second person, Edwards individualizes his hearers; indeed, there is a sense in which Edwards interrogates his hearers” (73). The interrogative is especially crucial in the application of the word:

The interrogative belongs to the applicatio verbi Dei [the application of the Word of God]. Indeed, whereas there is often something intrinsically comfortable about the simple indicative, there is generally something intrinsically uncomfortable about the searching interrogative. Thus the whole tendency of the searching interrogative is that of producing self-relfection and self-examination in the hearer. (79)

Chapters 5 and 6 contain the most important contributions to this volume. They deal with the imperative mood in the Bible and in preaching, especially how the indicative and the imperative interact with one another. This is an issue that contemporary preachers, in particular, have struggled with. “It is, however, vital to understand that, although ‘Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative’, it does not end with one” (83). The Bible uses the imperative to issue commands and directives and so must the preacher, if he wants to be biblical. The imperatives of the Bible have what Carrick calls two foci: the initial imperative to repent and believe, and the subsequent imperatives to follow Christ. As Carrick explains,

If the focus of the initial imperative in the New Testament is upon repentance and faith, the focus of the subsequent imperative is upon sanctification and the requirement of Christian ethics. It is no exaggeration to say that the New Testament teems with what have been called ‘imperatives of sanctification’, addressed, of course, to Christian believers. (86)

This is important to explicate because, as Carrick points out, certain elements of the redemptive-historical approach to preaching have had trouble making the transition from the indicative to the imperative. There is a danger in distorting the priority of the indicative into a false dichotomy between the indicative and the imperative. There is an equal danger in distorting the Christoncentricity of the Bible into a moratorium on speaking about man. However, “it is abundantly evident from ‘the Pauline theology’ itself that theocentricity and Christocentricity do not exclude the addressing of issues of morality or behaviour” (133). For all the benefits and contributions of redemptive-historical preaching this is a weak spot that Carrick seeks to sure up. He is right when he warns that

many preachers in the redemptive-historical school tend to emphasize the historia salutis at the expense of the ordo salutis. In other words, they tend to emphasize redemption accomplished by Christ at the expense of redemption applied to Christ’s people. In short, there is a tendency in the redemptive-historical school to emphasize the indicative at the expense of the imperative. (141)

For Carrick, this is not a reason to abandon the biblical richness found within a redemptive-historical approach to Scripture. But rather, it is an opportunity to strengthen an area of weakness and improve the way preachers transition from the indicative to the imperative mood. This is required because

true preaching… always involves a balance between the indicative and the imperative. True preaching always involves both proclamation and appeal. True preaching always involves explicatio et applicatio verbi Dei – it always involves the explication and the application of the Word of God. The indicative mood is the native sphere of the explication of the Word of God and the imperative mood is the native sphere of the application of the Word of God. It will be evident, then, that true preaching is not mere explication; nor is it mere exhortation. Explication and exhortation must co-exist in proper tension and balance. (145-146)

The final statement from this quote is the main contribution of this volume. It calls for a biblically balanced approach to explanation and exhortation. As Carrick goes on to say,

Therefore, the preacher, if he is to sustain a ministry that is balanced, must see to it that he preaches sermons that are balanced. The doctrinal must be balanced by the practical; the historical must be balanced by the ethical; historia salutis must be balanced by ordo salutis; the work of Christ must be balanced by the work of the Spirit. It is absolutely essential that the great indicatives of Christ’s accomplishment of redemption be balanced by the great imperatives of the Spirit’s application of redemption. (151)

The most significant critique of IP is that it only scratches the surface on a very important topic. Carrick does little to demonstrate the principles for moving from the indicative to the imperative. He offers only a tantalizingly small amount of information on the historical roots of the redemptive-historical school that led to some weaknesses in corners of the movement. None of these matters, however, are the purpose of the book. Carrick is addressing the issue and demonstrating the legitimacy of multiple mood preaching from the Bible and church history. This is why David King view the book so favorably,

Carrick has written a uniquely useful book. I haven’t read anything quite like it. His theology of sacred rhetoric provides a helpful method of evaluating Christian preaching. Preachers of all stripes would benefit from Carrick’s discussion of moods and why they are important. However, the preachers who will benefit the most from the book are those, like me, who love the redemptive-historical approach to preaching. Without trashing the method itself, Carrick sounds a needed alarm. And we must listen, because if he’s right, our faith itself is at stake. (David King, 9 Marks Journal, May-June, 2013, “Book Review: The Imperative of Preaching”)

Earl M. Blackburn similarly points out that “not only does he argue with those who would do away with preaching, he interacts with those who have abused it in one form or another. He counters that ‘the abuse of a thing does not invalidate the proper use of it’” (Earl M. Blackburn, Reformed Baptist Theological Review, 01:2 Jul 2004, “The Imperative Of Preaching: A Theology Of Sacred Rhetoric”).

There are times when the book is a bit pedantic with multiple quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary, and the author’s use of italics is almost dizzying. However, these minuscule details do not detract from the monumentally profound point of this book. IP is a book that should be read by anyone who preaches or, for that matter, anyone who listens to preaching.