Christ-Centered Interpretation: Responding to Daniel Block

Dr. Daniel Block, acclaimed Old Testament scholar and professor at Wheaton College, has written a two part essay on Christ-centered hermeneutics (Part I and Part II). The essay is posted on Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today blog, and is part of a larger conversation between Block, David Murray, Walt Kaiser, and Bryan Chapell about the topic. I wrote a brief response to Block after his first post, and have also written a number of times on this issue previously (start here, here, and here). Here I want to more substantially engage each of Block’s arguments and provide a defense of Christ-centered interpretation. Before I begin, I do want to say that I appreciate Dr. Block, his willingness to converse on this subject, his prolific and outstanding contribution to evangelical scholarship, and his love for Jesus. I also don’t intend the post below to be anything other than a blog post – it’s incomplete, slightly off the cuff, and very much situational.

Before I begin with a point by point rejoinder to Block, in my opinion this conversation must start with a theologically and therefore hermeneutically foundational understanding of revelation. Revelation is given, as is implied by the word itself, to reveal. Specifically, the Bible reveals God. Because God the Father, who is “the invisible God,” “dwells in unapproachable light,” “no one has seen the Father.” The epistemological means of knowing God the Father is God the Son, the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3), and the one who allows us to see the Father through seeing him (John 12:45; 14:9). Part of God the Spirit’s work is to testify to the Son (John 16:4-15), and thus because the Bible is Spirit-inspired (2 Tim. 3:16) it is able to make one wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:14-15). This is why Jesus can declare that Scriptures testify to his person and work (Luke 16:31; 24:27, 44; John 5:46). God the Son is the image of the invisible God, and the Spirit-breathed Scriptures are the means by which we see him. To know God the Father we must come to know God the Son through the Spirit-inspired testimony of him.

Given this Trinitarian foundation for the doctrine of revelation and therefore for our interpretive approach to it, it is my opinion that our instinct ought to be toward seeing Christ on every page and not away from it. But what does that look like in practice? This seems to be where Block and I differ substantially. For Block, there is a Christotelic bent to Scripture, and on this I heartily agree. The story culminates with Christ, and therefore the entire narrative movement is toward him from Genesis to Revelation.

1) But Block does not want to go beyond this to “say that all Old Testament texts have a Christocentric meaning or point to Christ.” In fact, according to Block, this is hermeneutically irresponsible, because it fails to grasp the intended meaning given by the OT author and understood by the original hearers. This is his first objection to a Christ-centered hermeneutic – “it is exegetically fraudulent to try to extract from every biblical text some truth about Christ.” This to me is both a straw man argument and also a passing over of the contextual nature of biblical data. First, it seems to me to be a straw man in that I am not sure contemporaneous supporters of a Christocentric interpretive model would articulate themselves this way. Does every verse in the Bible have a direct statement about Jesus? No. If by “text” Block means a singular verse or even a small group of verses, then in my opinion this does not accurately reflect the position of those against whom he is arguing. Further, perhaps I am misreading Block here, but there seems to a sense in which Block takes “points to Christ” as primarily predictive or typological. But I do not think a particular passage has to be either predictive or typological in order to be Christocentric. Rather, the context of the entire Hebrew Bible, and each book in it, can be categorized as eschatological messianic hope, and therefore that literary context ought to color our interpretation of individual passages. Additionally, the entire Hebrew Bible is an intertextual web of quotations and allusions, and so each part is connected to the larger (eschatological messianic) whole. This, coupled with those predictive and typological passages, give each individual text in the Hebrew Bible a messianic thrust. That is the literary context in which a single verse or group of verses is placed, and we cannot ignore either the micro- or macro-context of individual passages in our interpretive practice. In short, I think Block may be missing the forest for the trees here.

2) Block also objects that a Christ-centered hermeneutic “may obscure the intent of the original author and in so doing may actually reflect a low view of Scripture.” He specifically points to the book of Proverbs here, saying, “Few proverbs in the book of Proverbs speak of Jesus; the author’s intent in gathering these collections was to help a righteous person may make his way through life.” Poor Proverbs. It and Songs are always the whipping boys in this discussion. My question here is why we shouldn’t take Proverbs as Christocentric, both because of its author’s own intention and because of the larger canonical framework. Proverbs is written to make wise the son of the Israelite king, and presumably the son of David. This wisdom is characterized throughout as the ability to discern and choose good instead of evil. Further, wisdom is a “tree of life” and personified as Lady Wisdom. There is a covenantal bent to the book at the very beginning, as those who follow wisdom have God’s spirit poured out on them (1:23 – New Covenant language!) and those who don’t will be “cut off from the land” (2:22). This is not just good advice; it is covenantal instructions for the Davidic kingly Son that can only be followed by the Spirit and that helps one discern between good and evil. Further, in the context of the Hebrew Bible and in the Hebrew order, Proverbs follows Psalms and Job, as well as the Latter Prophets, and in all of those books we are looking for a wise Davidic king who, even in the midst of suffering, chooses wisely. We could analyze each book as such, and in my opinion in each we would find the same thing – every OT book is searching for the seed of Gen. 3:15, the new Moses, the Davidic son, the personification of wisdom, the new Exodus, etc. That eschatological messianic hope contextually colors every verse in the OT.

3) Block’s third and final objection rests on understanding allegory and typology. He claims that many times Christ-centered preaching only results in fanciful allegory rather than interpretation that is respected by the author. While Block at least doesn’t throw Paul completely under the bus for Gal. 4:21-31, as many do, he does state that Paul does not exegete the Sarah/Hagar and Sinai narratives but only uses them for rhetorical purposes. But this again ignores the intertextual nature of the Hebrew Bible. These two narratives are actually integrally connected by Moses using a string of quotations and allusions. Paul isn’t doing anything fanciful there; he’s paying attention to the details to get to the larger point of them. In other words, the textual connectedness of the OT gives believers warrant, authorially intended warrant, to connect the dots, so to speak.

Additionally, Block’s understanding of typology seems to skew the issue. Typology is first of all also a textual, not just historical, phenomenon – the OT authors deliberately connect characters between books. So, for instance, Joseph is textually tied back to Adam (discerns between good and evil, clothed like the king, given a wife by the king, given authority over the land, etc.). Moses doesn’t just coincidentally present Joseph in the same way as Adam; he seems to deliberately connect them to help his readers understand where their hope lies. The same could be said of Moses or Daniel or Ezra or any number of OT figures. They are presented as a second Adam (or Moses or whomever) not because the author wants to only remind us of what God did in the past but because by reminding us of the past they are pointing us toward the future. Finally, to say that the New Testament is not all about Christ is, to me, to divide where we ought not do so. Ecclesiology is “in Christ.” Eschatology culminates in Christ. Soteriology is centered on Christ. Anthropology is summed up in Christ. Sanctification happens in Christ. Etc.

To summarize an already too lengthy essay, the Hebrew Bible is narratively, contextually, and textually connected and, as one book, is characterized by eschatological messianic hope. This does not detract from the author’s original intent, as their own intertextual reflections on previous Scripture link their individual book with the larger whole. Two final points not discussed so far – first, as Block himself notes, Christocentric interpretation is well attested in church history, and second, we ought to remember that there is not single authorship of Scripture, but dual. The Spirit is ultimately the author. And as we said in the beginning, his goal is to testify to Christ.

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13 thoughts on “Christ-Centered Interpretation: Responding to Daniel Block

  1. This post gave me a lot to think about Matt.

    I think the suspicion comes when you use phrases like “eschatological messianic hope.” I can see a path where Block’s approach to Scripture leads to a low view of the bible, a negative bibliology as we’ve discussed, but I think it’s questionable to see the Hebrew Bible writers as all messianic, pointing to a messiah. Correct me if I am wrong here, but the way I see it, there are truths about the Messiah that Jesus embodies from the Old Testament. I mean, I like the idea of looking at Christ Jesus’ three offices, Priest King, and Prophet, and look how passages in the OT relate to these offices (for example, Judges, everyone is their own king pointing to a need to YHWH as King, and therefore Jesus as King).

    I like where you’re going Matt, I just have lingering questions about this escatological messianic hope thing.

    • Thanks for the comment Rod. I certainly see where you are coming from, but I’d have to again say that each individual book, as well as the canon as a whole, can be characterized as eschatological messianic hope. So, for instance, Genesis is a “search for the seed” of Gen. 3:15, Songs presents a portrait of the wise king and his virtuous bride in the restored land, Jonah shows that the salvation of the Gentiles comes through the death and resurrection of a repentance-preaching Hebrew prophet, etc. Obviously it would take monographs to support this, but I believe the evidence is there and can be demonstrated.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your response. I think you’ve set out a good theological foundation to a Christological hermeneutic. I wondering if what is a hermeneutical defense of the Hebrew Bible as “inter-text?” What kind of hermeneutical decisions are being made when we adopt such a reading?

    • Thanks Luke – I guess I’d begin by saying that intertextuality can be narrow or broad, and either tied to authorial intent or not. While I adopt the narrower and authorially intended sense of the word, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to do so in order to recognize that the biblical text continually resonates with itself throughout the canon through echoes, allusions, direct quotations, and narrative recapitulation. So, in one sense, the hermeneutical decision I’m making is to pay close attention to the words, phrases, and plots a particular author uses, and specifically to how they quote, allude to, or re-narrate another passage of Scripture. In another sense, though, I’m also making a hermeneutical decision to grant authorial intent, indeed ultimate intent, to the divine author – the Spirit knows the whole and connects it textually as well. I hope that hits at your question.

      • Thanks Matt. I think the distinction between what you call broad and narrow views of “intertextuality” are helpful.

        I think we need to be sure to examine the philosophical roots of “intertextuality” just as we do the methods and results of Higher Criticism. I think grounding our interpretive decisions in historical and textual plausibility can help validate an interpretation and distinguish it from a reader-response type reading (even if it happens that reader response is “Christological”).

  3. Matt,

    Great thoughts here. Just a small dogmatic quibble about revelation and the Trinity that, I suspect, will actually strengthen your case:

    Unless we want to follow some of the more radical 19th-20th century revisions of the Trinity, we have to be careful not to ‘functionalize’ the persons of the Trinity. What this means is that we don’t equate invisibility with one person (Father), visibility with another (Son), and the ‘sublation’, if you will, of the two in a third moment of recognition (the Spirit). Father, Son, and Spirit are equally invisible because equally God and so forth. The Son’s unique role in revelation pertains strictly to the flesh he assumed and therefore the Son’s incarnate state. Jesus Christ is fittingly the revelation of God because, from all eternity, the Son is begotten as the exact likeness of the Father. In other words, there is analogically an affinity or correspondence between the Son’s temporal, revelatory mission and His eternal identity. However, this ‘fittingness’ is not, strictly speaking, grounded in Jesus Christ’s ‘mission’. The function of Christ’s temporal mission must not be confused with some supposed ‘function’ obtaining in the Son’s eternal mode of subsistence.

    Therefore, I would change the following sentence: ‘God the Son is the image of the invisible God, and the Spirit-breathed Scriptures are the means by which we see him’ to ‘Jesus Christ is the revelation of the invisible God, and the Spirit-breated Scriptures are the means by which we know God in Christ’. Technicalities, I know. It’s complicated territory, but I hope that makes some sense.

    With regard to your own concerns, I think keeping the revelatory significance focused squarely on the Son’s *incarnate* mission, rather than an ontological function of his eternal existence, helps reinforce the focus of Scriptural revelation on Jesus Christ – much like a circle has a center. [I’m not saying that revelation tout court *requires* or is *uniquely identified with* the incarnation (pace Barth), only that, in God’s sovereign wisdom, revelation is focused on Christ.]

    Tyler

    • Tyler, as long as we’re quibbling over finer dogmatic points…The “image of the invisible God” language is taken from Colossians 1:15. Interestingly, v. 14 makes it clear that the subject of this predicate is God’s “beloved Son.” So we are at least looking at an example of the communicatio idiomatum: even if it is Jesus Christ (that is, the incarnate Son) who is in view here, he is named according to his Sonship. So basically my point is Cyrllian: The person of the Son *is* the person with whom we have to do in the incarnation. So it is appropriate, provided we make the caveats you have made about the invisibility of all three Persons, to say that the Son is the image of the invisible God. Just as it is appropriate to say that God shed his blood (Acts 20:28) or the Lord of glory was crucified (1 Cor. 2:8).

      Still, I wonder if it is not appropriate to speak about the eternal Son *as such* as the “image of the invisible God,” where “the invisible God” is a stand-in for the Father and the “image” language is just a way of expressing the Son’s sonship. So I don’t think the traditional Trinitarian understanding of the Persons is necessarily threatened in such a locution. His existence as “image” in this eternal sense is just another way of expressing his begottenness.

      Matt, sorry we have co-opted your biblical theology post for our own selfish dogmatic ends 🙂

      • Luke,

        I’m not trying to deny that kind of predication; I’m comfortable with Chalcedon and a broadly Cyrillian take on predication. I’m simply trying to draw out the distinction between God-in Himself and God-for-us carefully. From eternity, the Son is the ‘radiance of the glory of God’ (Heb 1:3), which the Fathers intimated with ‘Light from Light’. In his eternal identity as this ‘radiance’, it is fitting that He assume flesh and reveal God: the latter movement corresponds to the former; as He is Light from Light in Himself from eternity, so he becomes a light in the darkness (John 1:5). That said, God doesn’t need to reveal Himself to Himself, nor is one person invisible to another in God’s immanent, perfect life: ‘God is Light and in Him there is no darkness’ (1 John 1:5). Only by holding these together can we affirm that, having seen the Light, we have not ‘seen God’ (John 1:18) and have ‘seen’ the Father (John 14:7) alike.

        While we can appropriately speak about Christ revealing the ‘invisible God’, invisibility is ‘appropriated’ in this case to the Father. All along, we have to realize that appropriation is a manner of speech and not an ontological statement: invisibility belongs to the Son as much as to the Father and Spirit. Even in the incarnation, where we have to do with the person of the Son *as such*, we ‘have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest’ (Heb 12:18). We agree on all this, no?

        All that to say, we have to be careful not to reduce the immanent persons to a certain ‘function’: that way ‘der absolute Geist’ lies (and madness too).

    • No real disagreement here. I knew you affirmed Ephesus and Chalcedon! Good news. And I am with you on the dangers of equating the Persons with functions. Better to stick with the traditional personal properties. And yes, appropriation has to be balanced with the unity of Trinitarian operations. So we agree on all points. Why are we debating again? Oh yeah, I started it.

  4. What seems to be the difference between your position and Block’s is that you are arguing for a Christo-centric interpretation while Block is arguing against more of a Christo-exclusive interpretation. I haven’t read Block and have only encountered him through what you have posted here, but I don’t really see where the two of you would actually differ on that point. Regarding the “inter-textuality” of scripture and the use of type and allusion, I see a couple of different things at play as they relate to authorial intent. Your example about the the story of Joseph reflecting Adam doesn’t seem to help me since both stories are compiled and written by Moses, and he intended for the link between the two. Later typologies may be revealed by God to later authors (Samuel, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, whomever) to see how this new development or character is illustrative of God’s work as shown in the past. This kind of typological use of Scripture goes “back in time” so to speak and looks at the past to help explain the future. Interpreting something in Leviticus or Deuteronomy or Judges as specifically being a type or foreshadowing of Christ might be appropriate only when placed alongside the measure of God’s revelation available at that time of the author’s composition. Samuel couldn’t see Ezra, but Ezra could see Samuel. The NT writers were able to look back and see Jesus as the Supreme in which all of God’s history was pointing, but I think Block is right (at least in what I see in how you project him) that it is “exegetically fraudulent” to use some text in Joshua, Exodus, Genesis, or Samuel to point to Jesus outside of the progressive revelations previously given. It may indeed point to a further understanding of the promised seed (which Jesus eventually is shown to be), but it needs to stay within the context of the author, his hearers/readers, his pre-understanding, and the like. Now, that all being said, I will fully hold that God’s providential working in history and/or his method of inspiring the biblical writers (bringing things to mind or otherwise guiding the writer to emphasize certain points over others) may indeed play a major role for how an earlier writer composes his work so that God purposely creates a text that allows for a later writer to see how his theme/character/setting/story/purpose corresponds, but placing a “type of Christ” in the pen of an earlier human author may not be always be expedient unless that human author is simply developing more about the future promised seed at that point.

  5. Luke, excellent point about the philosophical roots of intertextuality. There is much to be gained from that method, but we also need to be careful of some its foundations.

    Tyler, thanks for the clarification, and I’ll be sure to be more careful in my articulation of that particular point in the future. That’s what happens when you have a biblical theologian talking about dogmatics.

    Kevin, thank you for your comment. First, I think it would be beneficial for you to read Block’s posts, as I think when you do you’ll see there is substantial disagreement between him and me, namely on the three points I mention. As far as typology is concerned, certainly we need to situate the author’s intention within their historical framework, which includes what previous Scripture was available to them at the time. But this does not negate the fact that the OT authors consciously pattern their books after previous books; they are interpreting contemporary events through the lens of previous Scripture. Further, as you noted, this continual repetition of particular patterns (Moses, the Exodus, etc.) does help Israel see what they are looking for in the future. That being said, we also need to give the divine author credit – he does know the end from the beginning, a fact which ought to guide our understanding of typology and how it works.

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