A Critical Review of Cornelius Trimp's Preaching and the History of Salvation
Preaching and the History of Salvation:
Continuing an Unfinished Discussion
by Cornelius Trimp
translated and published by Nelson D. Kloostermann, 1996.
distributed by Westminster Discount Books, Scarsdale, NY.
In his brief treatise Preaching and the History of Salvation, Cornelius Trimp desires to "continue an unfinished discussion."1 In this purpose Trimp is to be commended. For that is precisely what he does--re-open and perpetuate an unfinished discussion. Trimp does not presume to sound the final word--only to revive and further a debate, the outcome of which is crucial for the preservation and advancement of the Biblical discipline of preaching in the Reformed church.
Trimp's tone is simple and straightforward. His writing style (or that of Dr. Kloostermann) is very easy and accessible to all. This is in contrast to the erudite and elevated style of Geerhardus Vos. In this Trimp achieves readability at the expense of content. One gets the feeling that he is writing in his "preaching voice." I will not make more of this than simply to state the case, except to raise the question of his intended audience: is it intended for pastors? seminary students? laymen? I had expected something more academic--particularly in light of his purpose to engage in a discussion.
As a Dutch-Reformed pastor-theologian Trimp's position is best understood against the background of the ongoing debate in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The opponents Trimp has in mind as he writes are preeminently those whose influence is felt in Dutch-Reformed churches, and he writes pastorally to that particular ecclesiastical community. As members of the Reformed church in North America we are cordially welcomed to consider and respond to a single rhetorical act in the ongoing debate on the continent by Dr. Kloostermann, whose translation makes Trimp's essay available to the English-speaking Reformed churches.2 As outsiders to the Dutch-Reformed fray we need to be particularly sensitive to this fact, and as outsiders, welcomed into an intramural discussion we are compelled all the more to render the judgment of charity.3
All of this notwithstanding, the exegetical methodologies and theological ideologies Trimp identifies are universal. And the issues he raises are especially poignant in the Reformed church catholic which conducts its ministry in the dispensation of the Spirit between the close of the canon and the end of the world. Trimp writes a book which deals specifically with preaching the word. It is that written word, the prophetic word made more sure, that we are called to preach, a word which speaks the same story--addresses the same gospel--irrespective of the of cultural and historical particularities of local ecclesiastical interpretive communities. It is this objective and permanent word which provides the church universal with her charter for preaching, and this word which includes normative models for preaching--regarding both hermeneutics and homiletics, method and intentionality.
Furthermore, the temptations to preach amiss which Trimp identifies are common to man. The principal opponent which Trimp takes on within those circles which call themselves "redemptive-historical" are those, in whose zeal to eschew "exemplaristic"4 preaching, lapse into a purely descriptive homiletic, a preaching style which fails to direct the Biblical imperatives to the people of God. An imperative divorced from the indicative from which it flows is no Biblical imperative. Likewise an indicative divorced from the imperative which it issues is no Biblical indicative. Preaching which lacks the Biblical indicative (i.e. redemptive-history) is rightly denounced; but preaching which lacks the Biblical imperative is equally aberrant.
As regards the use of Biblical characters as moral examples Trimp's point is well-taken (if, perhaps, not so well-made). Biblical ethics is preeminently exemplary. The New Testament ethic may be summed up in the imperative to be Christ-like,5 to be conformed to Christ in His humiliation and exaltation. The New Testament authors themselves employed an exemplary hermeneutic against Old Testament figures.6 Trimp's point that a wholesale rejection of exemplary hermeneutics/homiletics is unbiblical is right on the mark. Perhaps Holwerda's coinage of the term was imprecise. Biblical preaching does not reject the use of moral examples but the abuse of moral examples--particularly the rejection of the reality of God--a reality appropriated by faith--the goal and impetus of Biblical religious morality.
A second strength in Trimp's argument is his focus on God. For Trimp God stands at the beginning and at the end of salvation history--its Origin and its Goal. It is God who is salvation-history's prime mover and central character, and it is God Himself who is the surety of the process. His great statement on pages 23-24 is one of the most simple and beautiful expressions of the Biblical history and religion: "God's people come forth from God; God's people are led and carried by God; and at the same time, God's people are traveling en route to God." [emphasis his] It is this kind of confession and this kind of focus that must temper our criticisms. Those criticisms follow.
I have chosen to compare Trimp's guidelines for the preaching of salvation history with Geerhardus Vos's preaching of salvation history in Grace and Glory in order to draw out the lines of theological comparison and contrast. The title of Vos's book is taken from Psalm 84:11. This phrase acquires a secondary history through its use in the Westminster Larger Catechism. Question 65 asks "What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?" The answer, "The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory." [emphasis mine]. The answer to this question is programmatic for the subsequent 25 questions, the section which outlines the Westminster Standards' soteriology.7 As a minister (preacher) in the Presbyterian church Vos's ministry (preaching) was governed by these standards. And, as I have argued elsewhere, in his original six-sermon collection to which he assigned the title, Vos self-consciously reflects the shape of the Westminster Standards' exposition of the phrase "grace and glory" from the Psalter.
We recognize Trimp's position as a departure from classic Vosian (i.e. Biblical Theological) preaching at two crucial points. These two points may be illustrated by Trimp's metaphor of choice for Biblical religion--namely "walking with God." His view of salvation-history is encapsulate in what he calls the "concourse" between God and man.8
Our first criticism is that Trimp lacks the historical and theological priority of God's mighty acts. That is, God (and Christ) precede the people of God (people of Christ) in all things. In both testaments God (Christ) is the pioneer of the way of salvation. That is, God (Christ) precedes His people in humiliation and exaltation. In Trimp's "concourse" model, there is no place for God's going-before, God is always "going-with."9
Our second criticism, closely related to the first--and here we will spend the majority of our time--is that in Trimp's concourse model, the heavenly goal of the journey is completely absent.10 This second deficiency is perhaps the more offensive. I searched through the pages of Trimp's short treatise time and again for some hint of the destination, but heaven was conspicuously absent from his salvation-history schema.11 Thus Trimp reduces the Biblical theme of pilgrimage to a destination-less Sunday stroll. The "other world" of Vos's "other-worldliness" has no place in Trimp's salvation-history schema.
Trimp goes to great lengths to dispel the "myth" of vertical eschatology. Beginning on page 24 he associates the idea of "supra-earthly regions" [his term] with "Gnosticism" and "allegory," what he calls in the subtitle to the section "the wrong track." For Trimp salvation history is the story of "the horizontal way between God and His people" (page 25). Against this "Biblical" [according to Trimp; i.e. "horizontal way"] people (read pagans) have "dreamed, fantasized, and philosophized about a vertical route...." (ibid) Again, according to Trimp, this idea has its origins in the Greek philosopher Plato. Needless to say, neo-Platonism and neo-Gnosticism are enemies which we share with Trimp; but Trimp, in his haste, ends up dismissing (even disallowing) the proper vertical dimension of the Biblical hope. Trimp would leave us with Adam in the Garden walking with God in holiness. He does not acknowledge that the Garden of Eden was a type and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, that archetypal paradise where Christ, our pioneer, has preceeded us. Among those who dreampt of this vertical route were none other than our Lord and His apostles.12 Moreover, our Lord not only dreampt of the vertical route, He travelled it! He traveled it bodily! He traveled it as the eschatological man, the last Adam. Christ, our forerunner, "entered into heaven itself" (Heb 9:24). Christ's ascension is an event in salvation history, albeit an oft-disregarded one. The ascension is the climax of Christ's own glorification, and Christ's glorification is the pattern of the Christian's glorification. He ascended in order to prepare a place for us. And His coming again is in order to receive us to Himself so that where He is, there we will be also.
Trimp's denial of vertical eschatology stems from his denial of the existence of the present heavenly realities. Trimp goes to great lengths to dispel the myth of any "higher reality." According to Trimp the "allegorical method of interpreting Scripture" is guilty of perpetuating this error. We may join into Trimp's tyrade against allegory to the extent that he is primarily concerned with losing history in order to gain principles or eternal virtues--allegory of the Philo / Origen ilk. Nevertheless, Trimp includes all notions of invisible, supra-mundane realities in his definition of allegory. Again, both our Lord and His apostles acknowledged the typological character of events and institutions in this creation and its history--that they are designed to direct us to unseen (read heavenly) realities. This typology was heightened under the old covenant and its administration of types and shadows (cf. Hebrews 10:1); but this typology is of a piece with the basic movement of Biblical eschatology: first the natural/earthly and afterward the Spiritual/heavenly. We continue to live in a world of shadows by which we, by faith, "see dimly" what we shall then see face to face.13
Given Trimp's denial of the heavenly reality, it is no wonder that Trimp completely misses the theology of Hebrews. According to Trimp "God wanted to walk with a people in the context of their own culture" (page 46)14 The author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham "waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God." He goes on to tell us that Abraham, "with Isaac and Jacob," wanted to dwell [with God as opposed simply "to walk"] in a "homeland," confessing that they were "strangers and pilgrims in the earth" and desiring a "heavenly country." And, he concludes that it is for this reason that God was not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Was the desire of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob's out of line with the desire of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob? Were they over-shooting their horizontal human boundaries "by faith" dreaming of a "vertical dimension"? Vos, on the other hand, points out that the faith which the author of Hebrews sets forth, exemplified by the patriarchs, is but another term for "other-worldliness."15
This grave lack of vertical eschatology (read glory), in turn, casts its dark shadow over Trimp's every point, flattening out the horizon of the Biblical faith and depriving "salvation history" of its end in glorification. For Vos there is no route to God save a vertical route. By eliminating the language of a vertical route to God (i.e. ascension), Trimp unwittingly impoverishes the Biblical conception of God's condescension. As he flattens salvation-history he flattens condescension (read grace). Grace minus glory = no true grace (i.e. no Biblical grace). In other words, "Christ in you" without "the hope of glory" is not Christ in you. Because of Trimp's lack of vertical eschatology he rejects the suggestion that any one epoch in redemptive-history is inherently any richer than another. It is for this same reason that he rejects the (Vosian) language of the organic progression of the history of salvation as "a viewpoint ultimately alien to the Bible" (page 56).16 And it is for this reason that Trimp cannot bring himself to consider the language of the suffering of God or Jesus Christ becoming the Son of God (page 57).17
This is a serious charge, and one that I trust does not apply to the man Cornelius Trimp; but it does apply to his book. A book on redemptive-historical preaching cannot fail to make mention of the heavenly goal of the way God Himself establishes for His people. Salvation-history constantly brings us in contact with the heavenly goal, thrusting heaven before our eyes--often at the most unexpected moments. Redemptive-historical preaching must preserve, even intensify, the hope of heaven. For to deprive redemptive-history of its telos in the heavenly places is to deprive history--and redemption--of its meaning. And the loss of this Biblical indicative invariably leads to an impoverished imperative.
In all fairness to Trimp, the battle he seems to want to fight is the battle for the objective historicity of Biblical narrative--and Old Testament narrative in particular. This battle is one which the Reformed church must fight. But the battle is ultimately not for the facticity of Bible narrative, but for the reality of the God of the Bible. And the upcoming generation of Reformed theologians--to the extent that they engage the critical juggernaut and critical sciences--is going to have a much more difficult time of it than any of the former. In the end this may be a losing battle--at least so far as Trimp appears to want to take it--and one that Vos himself was wont to fight. Vos makes a serendipitous escape for himself--and gives potential direction for us--when the title of his article "Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History" is understood against his own definition of "'True and 'Truth' in the Johannine Writings."18 For "Christian Faith" contributed to the formation of Bible history, and thus the heavenly reality--which is grasped hold of by faith--shapes the narrative of the event such that what we are called to believe and to affirm is not merely a plotted horizontal time-line of lower-register history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, but the revelation of things Spiritual in and through things earthy. Revelation, after all, is not the disclosure of world-history, but the self-disclosure of God in and through human history. In this regard it appears that Trimp, as many of us have already found, must lose redemptive history in order to gain it.
It is not because of Trimp's lack of vertical eschatology but because of his unabashed antagonism toward vertical eschatology, that I cannot bring myself to recommend his book.
1 "Preface," pp. 10-11.
2 I was not able to obtain the original 1986 Dutch manuscript Heilsbeschiedenis en prediking: hervatting ban een onvoltooid gesprek. I have no criteria by which to comment on the accuracy or quality of the translation.
3 The judgment of charity applies particularly in the definition of technical terms which may or may not have acquired particular connotations in the course of the Dutch-Reformed debate.
4 The terms "redemptive-historical" and "exemplaristic" derive from the German terms Heilshistorisch and Exemplarisch respectively. They are technical terms invested with much connotive weight through the Dutch controversy initiated during the 1940's. For background see Sidney Greidanus's Sola Scriptura, Toronto, Canada: Wedge Publications Foundation, 1970, pages 18ff.
5 Meredith G. Kline's point that the indicative of man's creation in the image and likeness of God has the force of the imperative (see Kingdom Prologue, pages 42ff.) applies to the believer's re-creation after the image of Christ.
6 Cf. positively: Hebrews 11, "the elders" (oi presbuteroi);" James 5:17ff., Elijah; James 2:25; Rahab; Rom 4:12, Abraham; etc.... and negatively: 1 John 3:12, Cain; Heb 12:16, Esau; Jude 11, Cain, Balaam, Korah; and, perhaps most evidently, 1 Cor 10:6-11, the wilderness generation, etc.
7 Question 66 asks "What is that union which the elect have with Christ?" Question 69 asks "What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?" and Question 82 asks "What is the communion in glory which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?"
8 See his section "The way of God and man," p. 17ff.
9 Trimp speaks about God leading the people of God (p. 21). His statement "God is their vanguard and their rearguard" is beautiful. Still, his conception of God's leadership, as he goes on to describe it, lacks the historical element. In Trimp's "walking after God" the "after" is not a historical designation; the phrase is simply a metaphor for obedience and fidelity (pp. 22-23). While we do not contest the ethical element which is patent in Trimp, for Trimp the imperative to follow God has, for all intents and purposes, lost vital contact with the indicative that God begins and completes the journey alone before the people of God even commence! This pattern is even more evident in the New Testament.
10 Two times Trimp refers to the goal of the believer's "walk." The believer is "en route to his eternal home" (page 17). The believer is "en route to God" (page 24). Taken in themselves these two statements concerning the goal of the Christian journey are excellent. It becomes evident, however, that Trimp does not conceive of arriving at God as in spatial terms, but purely in inward (moral and relational) terms. Similarly, it becomes obvious that Trimp does not conceive of the believer's "eternal home" along the lines of Vos's "higher world" (though it must be acknowledged that Trimp's "eternal home" does partake of some of the elements of Vos's "higher world.")
11 The only place the word "heaven" appears in Trimp's book (page 24) it is used in a perjorative sense. "We are not on a trip to heaven--a joyless journey across the earth toward a golden city above." The word "heaven" and its derivatives, by contrast, occurs over 600 times in the Bible. It is most often used to denote the place of God's glorious dwelling, a realm "above" the earth, as in the opening to the Lord's Prayer and in the third petition.
12 Cf. Jesus: Matt 5:12, 6:20-21; 19:21. Paul: Col 1:5; 3:1-2; Eph 2:6; 2 Tim 4:18. Peter: 1 Peter 1:4ff.; John: Rev 19:14; the author of Hebrews: Heb 11:16; 12:22ff.
13 Compare Trimp's characterization of Platonic thinking, "Ours is a kind of shadowy existence in which we try to discover the contours of the real world" (page 30); and his description of allegory, "Allegory is based on a 'vertical' dimension: the realm 'above' is the place of 'real being,' not 'here below'. What we have 'here below' is at best a shadowy pointer to what is real" (page 66) with Vos's "In heaven are the supreme realities; what surrounds us here below is a copy and shadow of the celestial things." (Grace and Glory, p. 113); and "When the Epistle speaks of shadowing this means shadowing down (from heaven to earth) [i.e. vertical], not shadowing forward (from Old Testament to New Testament) [i.e. horizontal];" (The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (hereafter TEH), page 58) and "Alethinos means not simply the true, but the real, the genuine, the veritable." (ibid) [italics his, comments mine.] It is this two-realm schema, I contend, that stands behind the entire system of Biblical metaphor. The heavenly reality that God is King, for example, finds shadowy expression in earthy kings and earthy kingship. The heavenly reality that God is Father finds shadowy expression in earthy fathers and earthy fatherhood. This is the case because the natural/earthy institution is patterned by God after "the real." Thus, so long as there are earthy kings and earthy kingdoms, earthy fathers and earthy families, we are compelled to excercise the faith which aims to discover the heavenly reality which casts its shadow down. Ironically, Trimp's own language of our "eternal home" betrays the typological character of every "home" which is natural/earthy. (Consider also: God is judge; God is light. God is a consuming fire. God is witness. God is a wall. God is the temple. God is a fountain. God is a lion. God is a green fir tree. God is our lord / master. God is our husband. God is our reward / portion / inheritance. God is our rock / refuge / fortress / shield. God is our strength / champion / warrior. God is our guide. God is our sun. God is our shepherd. God is our host. God is our glory. God is our helper. God is our shade. And the church is a family; The church is God's / Christ's bride. The church is the temple. The church is a field. The church is a body. The church is a house.) See my forthcoming article "The Power of Biblical Metaphor" on this website.
14 Trimp uses "people" in this sentence in parallel with the full expression "people of Abraham."
15 "Heavenly-Mindedness" in Grace and Glory, page 107.
16 This may reflect a misunderstanding of Vosian use of the terminology or a lack of familiarity with Vos's redemptive-history schema (though that is improbable). It appears that what Trimp is attempting to purge any notion of naturalism and associations with evolution (the movement from the lower to the higher) in the history of special revelation.
17 Here we should be careful to acknowledge that we share common enemies with Trimp (he mentions Moltmann and Sobrino). But again, in his zeal to keep good people from making bad mistakes, he discourages them from doing good exegesis. What we oppose is not talk about Jesus becoming the son of God, but rather unbiblical (impious) talk of Jesus becoming the son of God. For God Himself talks this way, "You are my son. This day have I begotten you." At this point, Trimp is making similar mistakes to his Dutch-Reformed predecessors (those he is criticizing for their imprecision); he is being imprecise in identifying violations.
18 The articles alluded to may be found in the collection
of Vos's Shorter Writings, Redemptive History and Biblical
Interpretation [ed. R. B. Gaffin], P & R, 1980:
pp. 458 - 471 and pp. 343 - 351 respectively.