Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively  and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

What Makes a Doctrine “Biblical”? On Method

I know some grow weary of debating the doctrine of the Trinity, and I understand that frustration. Social media and the blogosphere are not the best platforms to sort out a doctrinal debate as significant as our understanding of the Trinity. I do not intend here or in future posts to continue “debating” with anyone; instead, I hope to provide some constructive arguments for how we, as Protestant evangelicals  (and, for me, free church Southern Baptists) should go about formulating and articulating doctrine. I also hope in subsequent posts to use this method to demonstrate the inherent biblical nature of the classic doctrine of the Trinity, especially with respect to the doctrine of eternal generation.

The basic question at stake is, “What makes a doctrine biblical?” That question is of course important to Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike, but it is particularly important for us Protestants, affirming as we do sola scriptura. What I would like to do here is articulate an appropriate theological method that is faithful to sola scriptura in a robustly theological and historical manner (which, by the way, is how the Reformers originally articulated the idea). In contrast to a stark biblicism that sees theology as essentially an individual project whereby the reader exegetes a handful of passages and then makes theological conclusions, this method is, I think, more careful to understand that theology is not autonomous, it is not presupposition-less, it is not a-historical, it is not merely a matter of proof-texting or collecting a handful of texts, and it is not unmoored from other Christians’ reflection throughout space and time. With that said, then, what does an evangelical theological method look like?

(Note that this is a sketch and not intended to be exhaustive.)

  1. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine relies on the illumination of the Spirit. Our ability to understand and interpret the Bible in its fullest sense – as the Word of God for the people of God – is dependent upon the Spirit who inspired it illumining our hearts as we read. We must start by asking for the Spirit’s help.
  2. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis.  The study of doctrine is grounded in exegesis. If we miss this point, we’ve missed the point of doctrine. In theology, we are attempting to understand what God has said to us in a systematic fashion – that is, in an orderly way, not just by working through individual books but by organizing these disparate texts in a way that demonstrates their coherent and unified message about particular topics. That task always begins with exegeting particular relevant texts. So, when we talk about the Trinity, for instance, we are in part asking about what the Bible says about God, and for this there are a number of texts where we need not only to repeat what they say but be clear about what is being said. 1 Cor. 8:6 is a good example. Understanding this verse requires the tools of exegesis (historical background, literary criticism, lexical knowledge, grammar and syntax, etc. etc.), and in turn our exegetical conclusions inform our theological stances. The key point to note here, though, is that “biblical” means more than just exegeting particular texts. There are a number of other ways in which we rely on God’s revelation to us in his Word to formulate doctrinal conclusions. Further, there are some (many?) doctrines that require more than just exegesis of individual texts alone. Therefore,
  3. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine pays attention to the patterns of biblical language. The latter phrase is taken from David Yeago’s excellent little essay, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma.” In it he argues that doctrinal decisions in early Christianity, and particularly as solidified in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, were a) reliant upon and in accordance with Scripture and b) doing so via paying attention not just to proof-texts but to patterns of biblical language. The theologians’ task was and is to use appropriate conceptual terms to render accurate theological judgments about these patterns. For instance, with respect to the word “homoousios,” it is not biblical in the sense that it is not found anywhere in the Bible. But the pro-Nicene theologians saw that the New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, individually and collectively, and that in doing so it continues to affirm Old Testament monotheism. How do we render an accurate judgment about this pattern of language – not just a judgment about an individual verse or a collection of verses, but a pattern – that testifies to the divinity of three person and to the oneness of God? Homoousios. Notice my emphasis here on “pattern” and not just collecting verses; while the Fathers would point to particular verses in noting these patterns, it was never just about individual verses themselves or just collecting them, but about the pattern of language noticed across these verses when seen together. So, for instance, the Fathers noticed that the Son is called by the same names as the Father (and the Spirit). This nominal pattern (among other equally biblical reasons) led them to conclude that the Son is God in the same sense that the Father is God. They share the same names. This is a pattern, not just pointing to a particular verse, or just collecting a few verses that seem to indicate Jesus’ divinity. No, it is more than that; it is attending to patterns and shapes. Speaking of shapes,
  4. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is narratively shaped. The pro-Nicene theologians, and indeed the New Testament writers and apostolic fathers like Irenaeus, saw that the Bible has a particular shape or structure to it. This structure, commonly known as the “economy” of Scripture, is centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel, the good news of God’s work of redemption. Notice that for us evangelicals, this is just a way of saying that the Bible is focused on the gospel – the evangel – of Jesus Christ. Particularly important in this regard for our purposes, though, is knowing how to speak of the Son in his incarnation versus in the life of the Trinity ad intra (immanent; before redemption; the life of God before creation). This was especially crucial in the fourth century, as the Arius, Eunomius, Asterius, and other anti-Nicenes used texts that spoke of Jesus’ submission to the Father to argue for the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. the pro-Nicenes countered that no, one must read Scripture in a way that pays attention to its gospel shape, especially when speaking about the Son. Does a particular text speak about the Son’s incarnate form or his life with Father and Spirit ad intra? (Luke Stamps has already noted just such a reading in Nazianzen.) I will come back to this in a future post, but it is worth noting here that for the pro-Nicenes a text speaking about the Son’s submission was always one which spoke of the incarnate Son, not of the immanent Trinity. This talk of the economy and reading according to the Bible’s structure was part of the rule of faith. This is because, for the Fathers and for us,
  5. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is a ruled doctrine. The rule of faith is notoriously difficult to pin down, but in my opinion Irenaeus’ hermeneutical method gives us a good example of what it looked like for many early Christian readers. For Irenaeus, the Bible should be read with three things in mind (see on this O’Keefe and Reno, Sanctified Vision): the economy of Scripture, the hypothesis of Scripture, and the narrative recapitulation in Scripture. The economy we have discussed. The hypothesis of Scripture is its main idea. Irenaeus compares it to a mosaic; we might use the analogy of a puzzle. Just like the puzzle box top gives us a picture of how the pieces are supposed to fit together and the picture they are supposed to collectively form, so the hypothesis of Scripture tells us what its big picture is and how its pieces (texts) fit together to form that picture. For Irenaeus, that picture is Jesus. Every text fits into the puzzle in a particular fashion to create and point to the big picture, which is of Christ. (I cannot take the time to go into this here, but this is because the Son is the ultimate revelation of the Father, and we know the Son through the Spirit’s inspiration of God’s Word. See here for more.) The third foundation is recapitulation. By this Irenaeus means that every story, person, event, etc. finds their culmination in the person and work of Jesus. This is essentially recognizing that the Bible is typological; stories are shaped and patterned similarly, and each of those patterns leads ultimately to the story of Jesus. Notice that these foundations are a) thoroughly Christological and b) thoroughly biblical. Irenaeus is relying on texts like John 5:46 and Luke 24:27, 44 to inform his method, but he also demonstrates its validity in actual interpretation (see e.g. his On the Apostolic Preaching). This rule was passed down and informed subsequent readers of Scripture, and likewise for us, then,
  6. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is informed by tradition. I know that some of my Baptist brethren may, if they haven’t already, be cringing at the mention of “tradition” and “Scripture” in the same breath, much less at the fact that I am doing so positively. But hear me out. Tradition is not inspired; Scripture is. Tradition is not inerrant or infallible; Scripture is. Tradition is not ultimate in authority; Scripture is. But to the extent that tradition is faithfully and accurately representing what God has given us in his Spirit-inspired Word, it is *derivatively* authoritative. Thus the Creeds, for instance, are *derivatively* authoritative; that is, they have authority only insofar as they accurately represent the ultimate authority, Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying, Father-revealing Holy Scripture. Scripture is ultimate; the Creeds derivative. But that brings us to the second term, “authority.” If the Creeds faithfully distill the teachings of Holy Scripture, then they have a derivative *authority.* They teach us what all Christians everywhere ought to believe about God, salvation, the Church, & the last things. Again, this is not equating them with or placing them on equal footing with Scripture. We must understand “derivative” as Protestants. But the Creeds have been tried and tested for almost two millennia. Their derivation from Scripture is seen ubiquitously by Christians throughout space and time. We should thus be incredibly cautious when we begin to think that we have a new exegetical point overturning them. The Creeds are not infallible, nor are they inerrant per se. But that doesn’t mean they should be seen as merely “valuable” but not “authoritative.” I am a Protestant evangelical Baptist. I believe in sola scriptura. But sola scriptura has never meant nuda scriptura or the rejection of derivative creedal authority, either in what we confess or in how we interpret Scripture. I think of tradition as guardrails. It’s there for a reason. Sometimes guardrails can be adjusted, or moved, but to ignore or do away with them entirely is not wise. Speaking of guardrails,
  7. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is refined by dogmatic, philosophical, logical, and experiential questions. Sometimes when we make judgments about patterns of biblical language, these patterns reveal rather clearly the judgment we ought to make. Other times, though, other kinds of questions have to be asked, namely those of the systematic and philosophical variety. Another way of saying this is to say that sometimes choices are presented to us doctrinally that need systematic and philosophical help to answer. Both Luke and I have written on this previously here, so I’ll point you there. Finally,
  8. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is worked out in an ecclesial context. No man is an island, and no Christian does theology apart from the rest of the body of Christ. As we pursue theological precision, we do so with the communion of saints throughout space and time. This means reading the Bible in an ecclesial, and especially a liturgical, context, and asking how other Christians have read the same passages and formulated their own doctrinal conclusions.

Well this turned out to be rather long. If I’d known it’d go over 2k words I might have just asked Derek Rishmawy to write it, or propose it as an article somewhere.

I’ll conclude by summarizing a Protestant evangelical Baptist method thusly: it is illumined by the Spirit, rooted in biblical exegesis, governed by patterns of biblical language, shaped by the biblical economy, guided by the biblically-derived rule of faith, guarded by biblically-derived tradition, refined by systematic and philosophical reflection, and located within the communion of the saints.

 

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.

Daniel Block and Christ Centered Interpretation

Daniel Block has written Part I of his view of Christ-centered preaching on Ed Stetzer’s blog. While I appreciate Dr. Block’s desire to honor the Old Testament authors’ original intent, I do not think his articulation of what that means does justice to the messianic eschatological hope that colors the entire Hebrew Bible. While every text may not prophetically predict something about Jesus, each verse in the OT is part of a larger pattern that narratively, prophetically, typologically, and, sometimes, predictively points to Christ. To try and interpret any passage outside of that canonical context, e.g. without reference to this overarching messianic context, seems to me to ignore the intertextual and contextual matrix in which the OT authors place themselves.

I’ve written about this previously, so instead of repeating my position, here are the relevant posts:

Method (links to series embedded within this one; especially important here are the Christocentric, textual, and canonical posts)

Christocentric Interpretation and Application

The Bible is About Jesus

Christocentric Method

Last week I posted on theological method and outlined five foundations for Christian interpretation of the Bible. In the next week (or weeks depending on how busy I get), I hope to expand on each of those five in separate posts. Today I’ll expand on the first, which is that,

A Christian theological method ought to be Christocentric, but within a properly Trinitarian framework. That is, it recognizes that God the Father reveals himself to his people in God the Son and by God the Spirit.

When Christians say that God has given us revelation, we mean that God has communicated to us who he is through certain means. God has “at many times and many ways” spoken to us  (Heb. 1:1 – here namely through the OT prophets). These ways include general revelation, through which we can see that God is eternal and all powerful (Rom. 1:20); special revelation of himself in history, such as the burning bush episode (Exodus 3); special revelation of himself particularly in the incarnation (John 1:14; Heb. 1:2); and special revelation of himself through Scripture (2 Tim. 3:14-17).

Of these many ways of revealing himself, we should say first that general revelation does not communicate all that is needed for salvation or about God, but only that he exists and is powerful. Only special revelation communicates what is sufficient for faith. Of the three means of special revelation, only one of those is still accessible to the people of God – Scripture. Although Christians commune with the risen Christ through the power and indwelling of the Spirit, we cannot see, touch, hear, taste, or smell the incarnate Jesus (and the latter two would be weird anyway). In other words, there were only 30ish years when people on the earth could interact with the person of Jesus on a material/bodily level. Scripture is what the people of God are given, both before and after Christ, in order to know God and who he is.

The second and more fundamental truth we need to understand about revelation is that it is always Christocentric. That is, God the Father is known and perceived and understood by his creatures through seeing God the Son in the power of God the Spirit. God the Father “dwells in unapproachable light” and “no one has ever seen or can see” him. God the Son, though, is “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). To know, see, and understand God, then, is accomplished through knowing, seeing, and understanding the Son.

This puts a Christocentric reading on a Trinitarian path, but that Trinitarian nature of revelation is made even more clear through understanding the role of the Spirit. The Spirit’s role is to testify to the Son, both through convicting unbelievers of sin and to guide believers into all truth about the Son (John 16:4-15). In all things he glorifies the Son (John 16:14-15). To summarize, then, God the Spirit testifies to God the Son who makes God the Father known to his people.

This makes the call to a Christological reading of Scripture, including the ones by Jesus (John 5:46; Luke 24:27, 44, etc.) all the more intelligible. We as Christians confess that “the holy writings are able to make you wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:14-15; notice he’s referring to the OT here and Christ) because it is through Christ’s death and resurrection and indeed his entire person and work that we can gain access to God the Father. To know God the Father is accomplished by knowing God the Son, to whom the Spirit testifies in Scripture. Thus special revelation, and particularly the form to which Christians now have access, holy Scripture, is Christocentric because God is made known by his Spirit through Christ.

Additionally, general revelation is also Christocentric, as the cosmos is patterned after divine Wisdom (Prov. 8:22-31), the Logos, who is also the one by, through, and to which creation is made (Col. 1:16-18). Thus to say that “only some verses talk about the person of Jesus” is to miss the point of Christian Scripture. The nature of revelation is such that all Scripture speaks of Christ, because it is the inspiring Spirit’s job to make it so, since it is through the Son that we know the Father.

One final note: this claim of Christocentrism is not Christomonic; rather, as noted above, it is Trinitarian. Further, I am not here claiming that every verse of the entire Bible is prophetically pointing forwards or mimetically pointing backwards to specific events in the life of Christ. In other words, I’m not arguing for bad allegory, where we make every detail of a narrative mirror the events of Christ’s life. I am saying, however, that the message of every book in the Bible, both individually and collectively, is ultimately about Christ.

Method

Yesterday I posted a quote from Gordon Spykman on biblical exegesis. I’ve been asked to expand on that, especially in terms of what it means for a Christian theological method. In the first chapter of my book (excited that it came out today!), I outline tenets of a proper Christian theological method, and Spykman’s quote bolsters my claims there. I hope to expand on each of these tenets in future posts, but for now they are as follows:

  1. A Christian theological method ought to be Christocentric, but within a properly Trinitarian framework. That is, it recognizes that God the Father reveals himself to his people in God the Son and by God the Spirit.
  2. A Christian theological method ought to be pneumatological. This means it will recognize the role of the Spirit in both inspiration and interpretation, and notes the Spirit-generated ecclesial context (both historically and contemporaneously) in which interpretation occurs. It also recognizes both the contextual and presuppositional nature of all interpretation and the Spirit’s ability to confront our context and presuppositions.
  3. A Christian theological method ought to be canonical, in that it recognizes the Spirit’s inspiration of all of Christian Scripture and therefore the intertextual interrelatedness of it. This aspect also calls us to recognize the structure of the canon and its influence on interpretation of particular books and passages.
  4. A Christian theological method ought to be narrative, in that it frames interpretation of particular passages within the broader framework of the biblical storyline – Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. This aspect also recognizes that Christ stands as the goal of that story and that our lives need to be re-oriented within it.
  5. Finally, a Christian theological method, ought to be textual. This means that Christian interpretation ought to place primacy in hermeneutics on the text itself and not on reconstruction of a provisional, incomplete, finite, and uninspired historical framework.
  6. Although not on my official list in my chapter, I should also note here that each of these tenets is historically rooted in the history of interpretation.The previous five points have been the dominant stance of interpreters throughout church history until the Enlightenment. To privilege Enlightenment approaches to biblical interpretation, which are embedded in a serious mistrust of tradition, an elevation of human autonomy, a belief in the Bible’s lack of overall coherence, a desire for presupposition-less “scientific” objectivity, and a desire to break free from religious constraints, is, in my opinion, completely wrong headed. As a side note, in evangelical circles we have continued to affirm the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures while at the same time capitulating to Enlightenment-fueled methods of interpretation. We want to “be right”, focus on one passage without recognizing its place among the others, and jettison any sense of an appreciation of tradition when we interpret. As a result we have cut ourselves off from church history and the interplay of the Spirit-inspired canon and made interpretation into an exercise in which we crank the text through our method machine in order to “be right.”

Spykman’s quote primarily relates to #s 3 and 4 on this list. Christian interpretation must pay attention to the context of a passage. Ultimately this means giving priority to the context of the canon, and this context includes both the intertextual connections generated by the authorship of the Spirit (and the human authors’ use of previous Scripture) and the narrative context of the biblical storyline. Spykman also alludes to the Christocentric nature of the narrative, and this is key as well. Paying attention to the canonical context ultimately means giving credence to a Christocentric approach, since the canon as a whole and the narrative embedded in it are testimonies to Christ.

NOTE: my articulation of a theological method in my book is heavily reliant on Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God. If you haven’t read it, go buy it.

The Bible is About Jesus

The entire Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is about Jesus Christ.

Let me give a few reasons why I believe that is the case, as well as a few clarifications about what that means.

First, reasons:

  1. I suppose #1 ought to be the fact that Jesus says on numerous occasions that the Old Testament is about him. Below are a few examples:
    1. John 5:46 – “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.”
    2. Luke 24:27 – “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
    3. Luke 24:44-48 – “Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
    4. I am not saying here that literally every single verse of Scripture is about Jesus, nor do I think Jesus is, but more on that in the clarifications section.
  2. If the entire OT doesn’t point to Christ, then why should Christians read it? What makes our reading any different from a Jewish reading? This probably should be a guiding question in how we discuss what the Old Testament is about. At the end of the day, if we can stand up on a Sunday morning and preach a sermon from the OT that would sound exactly the same as a message from a motivational speaker, then we need to ask ourselves if it is a truly Christian message. And the fundamental distinction between the Christian message and all other messages is that we believe Jesus is Lord through his righteous life, atoning death, death-shattering resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and one day through his return and that the work of Christ has application for believers. If Christ’s person and work is not central to our message, and indeed to our Scriptures, what is the difference?
  3. The entire Bible points to Christ because it is the Spirit’s job to testify to the Son so that through the Son we might see the Father. The assertion that the Bible is about Christ is a Trinitarian one, not a Christomonic one. The reason why the Bible is about Christ is because it is through Christ that we know the Father. The Spirit inspires the written Word to reveal the Incarnate Word so that through him we might know the Father.
  4. 2 Tim. 3:14-15 clearly indicates that the Old Testament was able to make Timothy wise unto salvation in Christ. This is but one example in the entire New Testament where the authors of the epistles indicate that the Old Testament is a treasure trove of doctrine (not just Christology proper but also soteriology, hamartiology, etc.), doctrine that ultimately leads to Christ and salvation in him.
  5. A related point to the previous sentence is that theology finds its hub in Christ. Again, this is not to be Christomonic, but simply to note that if we are talking about human beings, our image is summed up in Christ. If we are talking about sin, it is dealt with in Christ. If we are talking about the Spirit, his job is to testify to Christ and apply his work to our hearts. If we are talking about the church, we are his body, bought with his blood. If we are talking about eschatology, from an Old Testament perspective we’re looking for Christ’s first coming and from a New Testament perspective we’re looking for his second coming.

Now for some clarifications:

  1. I am NOT saying that literally every verse in the Old Testament points to Christ. But that is also, in my mind, the incorrect way to phrase the issue. When the OT writers wrote their books, they were not splitting their work up into verses but instead viewed their book as an integrated whole with a unifying message. Further, they viewed their book as integrally related to whatever other parts of the OT were written at the time. They connected their books to previous Scripture and also connected the different parts of their own book(s) together. Both of these types of connections are textual – the authors of Scripture quoted, alluded to, and echoed previous Scripture to connect the message of their book with the message of the entire Bible. This means that even if one particular verse does not have much to say about Christ, it is still connected narratively and textually to the rest of the book and the entire Bible, which IS about Christ.
  2. Some would object and say that there are points at which the human author of a book may not have intended for the passage to be as Christocentric/eschatological as we are reading it. Two things here:
    1. Per the previous point, the writers of Scripture ALWAYS connect the smaller parts to the larger whole, and thus if we pay attention to the literary context of the particular passage, we recognize that context as eschatological and Christocentric.
    2. The ultimate author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, and he knows exactly why he’s inspiring the human author. Again, his job is to point to Christ, and so we should expect that he does so. Everywhere.
  3. Finally, a Christocentric reading of Scripture does not preclude an emphasis on application. To the contrary, reading the Bible Christocentrically actually gives us proper grounding for application. For it is through knowing, seeing, and savoring Christ that we can properly respond to (apply) the Word of God to our lives. When we divorce application from intent, we’ve missed the intent of the Bible – to transform us into the image of Christ. And it is by seeing Christ that we are transformed into his image (2 Cor. 3:17-18). So for the Bible to be properly applicable it must be Christocentric.