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