By Guest Writer
Imagine for a moment that you have just finished an entire year in Sunday school studying through the Old Testament. Your teacher has asked the class plenty of questions about the various texts you studied; and while you are grateful your peers are not dead silent, you cannot help but notice that some of your peers love a particular one-word answer: “Jesus!” Jesus, they say, is what Scripture is ultimately about. Therefore Jesus, they say, is the subject and theme of every text in Scripture. If it’s not obvious, you just have to look hard enough.
How does this strike you? How would you evaluate your peers’ response? Should this kind of rhetoric be commended? While there is nothing wrong with focusing on Christ and the gospel, the question must be asked: is this done at the expense of being hermeneutically responsible?
Those who claim that every text of Scripture (in particular in the Old Testament) presents itself directly in relationship to the person, and work of Christ employ what some call a Christocentric (or redemptive-historical) hermeneutic. They use a grammatical-historical hermeneutic as a starting point, but are guided by a theological method to conclude that Jesus Christ is what every text of Scripture is about. This theological method is driven by the New Testament emphasis of preaching and teaching Christ (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2; Col 1:28). Thus, Samson’s triumphant death foreshadows Jesus’ death (Clowney). David and Goliath paints a picture of how Jesus will overcome sin, Satan, and death (Goldsworthy). Esther laying down her life for her people points to Jesus doing the same for His own (Johnson). But there are a few problems with this approach to Scripture:
- It is reader-driven, not author-driven. The basic rule of interpretation is to identify meaning based on authorial intent, not on what the reader imposes upon the text. If the biblical author does not suggest that the subject of his writings are about the person and work of Christ, where do we find warrant to do so? The problem with the Christocentric approach is that it often generates meaning foreign to the text. In doing so, it actually obscures the intent of the original author.
- It creates a canon within the canon of Scripture. It “may unwittingly overemphasize certain biblical truths at the expense of others, subordinating or even explaining away passages that do not easily ‘fit’ the slightly distorted structure that results” (Carson). Our theology proper could become imbalanced. Our eschatology could be impaired. The richness of Israel’s background could be under-appreciated if its details are allegorized.
- It, thus, can actually diminish the glory of Christ. Chou said it well:
“Put simply, by not expositing the entire Scripture, one cannot see the full picture Christ fulfills, and so He is less glorious. For example, if one merely focuses upon His soteriological work in the first advent, then he fails to see the eschatological glory of Christ. One does not behold His eschatological majesty as King (Rev 19:11-13) who is exalted as the climactic hero by heaven and earth (Rev 4-5) as well as restores the nations (Isa 60:3), Israel (Isa 2:2-4), and creation to rights (Isa 11:1-10). By not teaching eschatology or other doctrines, we see less of Christ.”
Some justify the Christocentric hermeneutic by pointing out that this is how Jesus interpreted Scripture. In Luke 24:25-27, “[Jesus] said to [two disciples], ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The conclusion is drawn here that Jesus interpreted all Scripture in light of Himself. But notice that Jesus was simply explaining the things concerning Him—which is to say that He was discussing how Old Testament texts were about Him, not reinterpreting every text to be about Him. It is helpful here to distinguish between a Christocentric and a Christotelic hermeneutic. While the former assumes that Christ is the subject of every text, the latter acknowledges that a text’s subject is not always about Christ, but its implications are ultimately linked to Him. A consistent grammatical-historical method will ultimately result in a Christotelic hermeneutic.
How, then, can we study the Bible Christotelically? Below are a few tips for how we can do so while being faithful to its grammatical and cultural context:
- Consider what each text meant in its original context. Who was the author? Who was he writing to? What was the occasion of his writing? Why did he communicate what he did to them? What did he want his audience to understand? What is his main point? Remember that there is one meaning to the text
- Remember that while there is one meaning to the text of Scripture, there are several implications. What does this text reveal about the character of God? About the plan of God as it unfolds in redemptive history? About His requirement for men? About the nature of man? These implications may lead to the person and work of Christ.
- Interpret Scripture with Scripture to determine how these implications lead us to Christ. But do this after you’ve established the context of the passage. We, unlike Old Testament saints, have the full counsel of God to illuminate the Scriptures for us. This means that while we do not read Christ into all Old Testament passages, we do so as far as Jesus and the apostolic writers would suggest (1 Cor 10:1-4). Fee & Stuart are helpful here: ““We…are simply not inspired writers of Scripture…The allegorical connections [Paul] was inspired to find between the Old Testament and the New Testament are trustworthy. But nowhere does the Scripture say to us, ‘Go and do likewise.’ Thus the principle: Sensus plenior (fuller meaning) is a function of inspiration, not illumination.”
- Remember the purpose of the Old Testament: it prophecies of Christ, it prepares the way for Christ, and it shows how Christ participated throughout human history.
When we apply a consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutic in our Bible study, we will more richly and deeply mine the treasures of Scripture. And as we better understand the details, and intricacies of God’s redemptive story, we will be able to more fully appreciate who Christ is, and what He has done for us.
Carson, Factors Determining Current Hermeneutical Debate in Biblical Interpretation and the Church, 21
Chou, “A Hermeneutical Evaluation of the Christocentric Hermeneutic” in The Master’s Seminary Journal 27, no. 2 (Fall 2016), 134-135
Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 17
Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, 30
Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 311