One objection to Christ centered hermeneutics I often hear is that it negates or lessens the applicational force of the text. What seems to be assumed in this objection is that a) a text can only speak of one thing at a time, e.g. application or Christ in this case, and that, therefore, b) Christocentric interpretation can only be doctrinal and not practical. It appears to me, though, that this objection fails to consider the fact that proper application must come through a proper understanding of Christ. Without knowing who Christ is, what he has done, and how he has empowered us through his Spirit, we cannot properly apply a text at all. Without approaching Christ in the power of his Spirit, we cannot be transformed by him. Without seeing him, we cannot be like him.
Todd Billings makes this point eloquently in his The Word of God for the People of God:
. . . the basic assumption is that knowledge of God is an abstract affair that has little to do with our practical lives. Since direct talk about God is impractical (if not presumptuous), we read Scripture and write songs in a way that focuses on what is under our control – our own will, our own decisions. God has given us a revelation in Scripture, and that may include abstract things about God, the nature of who Christ is, and so on. But functionally speaking, God has given us messages about how to succeed, how to make good decisions, how to have a happy future, and so forth. The error of this approach is not that it sees the Christian faith as having practical outcomes; that is true of a living faith. The problem is that it sees Scripture’s witness to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as incidental to these outcomes rather than central to how we are changed and who we are called to be. This pragmatic form of Christianity, which writes off Trinitarian language as “abstract,” fails to recognize that all true Christian transformation takes place through the power of God, in Jesus Christ, enabled by the Holy Spirit” (87, emphasis mine).
9 thoughts on “Christocentric Interpretation and Practical Application”
Very valuable point, Matt. I think this is really important…I tried to take a stab at it in my book.
Thanks Jason – are you referring to The Messiah and His Brothers or your upcoming book on imitation?
FYI I’ve got a deadline of Feb 15 to review The Messiah and His Brothers for BTB…be nice to me until then.
I think it’s a vitally important point, and one which reminds me of the helpfulness of the fourfold sense. The Fathers and Medieval theologians recognized (albeit inconsistently in practice) that the tropological sense could only be understood after understanding the spiritual sense. We seem to have lost in modern interpretation the integral connection between knowing Christ and being like him and also the idea that the text has more than one sense to it.
It is also interesting to note that the two places where Paul explicitly says that the Old Testament serves as “instruction” for believers both involve Christological interpretations. Romans 15:4 (“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction”) comes on the heels of Paul’s Christological reading of Psalm 69:9: “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” Similarly, 1 Corinthians 10:11 (“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction”) comes in a context in which Paul says that the Rock following Israel in the wilderness was Christ.
Great points Luke. I also think about Psalm 110, which is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament, including both to explain Christology and for practical application.
Hi Luke, we can add 2 Timothy 3:15-17 to that list as well…OT is for wisdom unto salvation as well as exhortation, instruction, reproof, etc. To choose one path and not the other is a very poor exegetical-hermeneutical diet!
Hi Matt, I was referring to Imitating God in Christ, due out in June this year. (There are hints in the LNTS volume, but only hints.) Glad you are reviewing the dissertation when you are! It’s about to come out in PB…I hope you got the infinitely more valuable HB version!
Oh I definitely got the HB version. I mean if you would sign that I could be a millionaire.
In all seriousness, I’m very excited about your book on imitation. Probably my favorite book from last year was Pennington’s book on the Gospels, and while he continually advocates a reading that leads to transformation, I’m glad you are fleshing that idea out in much more detail.
And one more (again I cite this in my book): Jesus is the Paschal Lamb…and we are also, even if in a lesser sense, “sheep to be slaughtered,” per Romans 8. I could go on…and on…
Thanks for your excitement, Matt. I’m a lifelong believer in low expectations myself!
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