Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics Part 1

Print

(Volume 24, Issue 4, August/September 2018)

Redemptive-historical hermeneutics (RH), sometimes called Christocentric hermeneutics, has gained a lot of traction in recent years, almost exclusively within Reformed circles. It is the interpretive system used by those embracing Liberate Sanctification and is important to understand in light of recent TOTT papers on that subject.  RH is also accepted by a broader spectrum of theologians, many of whom reject Liberate Theology, but to my knowledge virtually all would be adherents of Covenantal Theology.  It seems to have emerged, in its modern form, from Reformed churches in the Netherlands in the 1940s in an attempt to understand how the narrative and historical sections of the Old Testament should be understood and preached. It appears to be a reaction to those who viewed the stories and individuals within Scripture as merely examples to imitate or shun.  Instead the RH founders saw these narratives, and in fact all of Scripture, as speaking directly of Christ. While stopping short of returning to the old allegorical hermeneutic that virtually shipwrecked early Christianity, these theologians relied on “types” in which they interpret OT persons, events and activities as shadows pointing to the person and work of Christ.  Luke 24:27 has long been the central verse of Scripture undergirding RH.  Here we are told that Jesus, on the Emmaus Road, spoke to two disciples: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”  Rather than understanding this text to state that many places in the OT are Messianic, as has historically been assumed, RH followers believe that it meant that Christ is found in every text, whether directly, typologically, or metaphorically.[1]  Thus the task of biblical interpretation and teaching becomes the effort of trying to find an allusion to Christ and the gospel in every passage of Scripture, Old or New Testament. Promoters of RH today include Westminster Theological Seminary, Westminster Seminary California, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Calvin Seminary, and some professors from Southern Seminary, among others. Important Reformed leaders include Sydney Greidanus, Graeme Goldsworthy, Tim Keller, John Piper, Dennis Johnson and most importantly Bryan Chapell.

It is interesting that in 1992, The Master’s Seminary faculty published a book entitled Rediscovering Expository Preaching, which made no mention of redemptive-historical hermeneutics or the preaching that results from its use.  In 2002 Robert Thomas, long-time professor at Master’s, published Evangelical Hermeneutics which discussed and critiqued virtually every popular form of hermeneutics found in modern evangelicalism, but no reference was made of the Christocentric interpretative position. This does not mean that RH has been totally absent in church history.  Luther seemed to take this approach (at least in the area of sola fide), Spurgeon has often been cited as one who made a beeline to Christ and the cross in every sermon, and Princetonian professor Gerhardos Vos (1894-1932) systematized the methodology.[2]  But it was Bryan Chapell’s book, Christ-Centered Preaching, which seemed to be responsible for popularizing RH more recently.  Published in 1994, with a second edition released in 2005, Christ-Centered Preaching introduced to modern preachers an innovative form of homiletics based upon the idea that Christ could be found in, and should be preached from, every text of Scripture.  Chapell’s thesis is that “to some degree, all Christ-Centered preaching advocates argue that a sermon without Jesus Christ, the gospel, and the grace of God being mentioned is sub-Christian.”[3] With such inflammatory language, RH proponents do not seem to want to be part of the theological discussion, or to offer balance, but to overthrow all other views, especially the literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics which has become the standard among most conservative exegetes.[4]  This is why RH is a thoroughly Covenantal hermeneutic as it would be impossible for a Dispensationalist, at least a consistent one, to adopt this position.  This is true because RH rejects or modifies two of the three so-called sine qua nons (necessary components) of Dispensationalism and distorts the third.  The sine qua nons, according to Charlies Ryrie, are 1) the distinction between Israel and the church; 2) a literal or grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and 3) the underlying purpose of God in the world to be His own glory.[5]  All, or at least the vast majority of Covenantalists, reject point one because of their inconsistency with point two, having a duel hermeneutic in which most of Scripture is taken literally, while other parts are interpreted allegorically.  For this reason, Dispensationalists and Covenantalists are in substantial agreement concerning almost all of the essential doctrines of Scripture, while coming to different conclusions where hermeneutical approaches differ. It is the second sine qua non that distinguishes RH thinking from other systems, even many within Covenantalists.[6]  RH teachers accept literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics to a point, but then insist that it does not go far enough in rightly understanding Scripture.  Covenantalism also sees soteriology (Christ and redemption) as the unifying theme of Scripture, rather than the glory of God.  The Dispensationist would see redemption as a means by which God is glorified, not the central theme.  Thus the third sine qua non is modified as well.

Hermeneutics

In truly understanding Scripture there is virtually nothing more important than one’s hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is of course the science, perhaps the art, of interpreting Scripture. Since at least the time of the Reformation the literal-grammatical-historical approach has reigned supreme within conservative Protestantism.  This means we read the Bible according to the rules applied to the understanding of any literature, including reading in context, using normal rules of grammar and observing the facts of history as they apply to the text. The basic quest behind this method is to discover the author’s intended meaning.  That is, what did the writers of Scripture mean by what they wrote?  Once this is discovered various applications might be appropriate, but only after the authorial intent is discerned.  By literal, it is not meant that obvious use of metaphors, symbolism, and the like are ignored but that these types of speech are recognized for what they are within the intended meaning of the author.  The literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic then is a means by which the biblical text is allowed to speak for itself.  It has long been claimed that when this interpretative methodology is consistently applied throughout the Bible, i.e., the Bible is allowed to speak for itself, the interpreter will accept the Dispensational scheme.  It is when another approach is used for certain portions of Scripture that the interpreter comes to different conclusions.

In other words, how Scripture is interpreted is determined by the hermeneutical lens that the reader has adopted. The lens used will regulate the outcome. Let me give some examples: The Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel teachers place over the reading of Scripture the lens of prosperity – that is, God wants us to be healthy, successful and prosperous. Any biblical text to the contrary is twisted to conform to their hermeneutical lens.  The allegorical method, which can be traced to the earliest days of post-apostolic Christianity, does not deny literal interpretations but teaches they are inferior to allegorical ones that supposedly unearth deeper hidden meanings.  The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) scholars believe that the church has misunderstood Paul’s writings almost from the beginning.  Apparently Paul was not concerned with justification in Romans and Galatians, but with how Gentiles and Jews could fellowship within the same church body.  The NPP lens changes the clear meaning of the theology of Paul and in essence renders the New Testament speechless on salvation.  The Hebrew Roots Movement takes a similar approach claiming that the New Testament has been misunderstood for almost 2000 years because readers are not using a Jewish lens, or reading the Bible from a Jewish perspective.  The post-Reformation pietists at first simply wanted to find more application in the preaching of Scripture than the Lutheran church was offering, but soon the lens of their extra-biblical revelations, supposedly from God, caused them to reinterpret the Bible from its obvious meaning.  The Enlightenment thinkers used the lens of reason and science to expunge the Bible of the extraordinary and soon all miracles including the incarnation and resurrection of Christ were eliminated.  Romanticism used the lens of experience to rule over the teachings of Scripture.  Combined, the Enlightenment and Romanticism led to theological liberalism which rejected, ultimately, most of the cardinal doctrines found in the Bible.  Clear theological teachings were denied because they were filtered out by the lens of science, reason or feelings.  Postmodern hermeneutics uses the lens of deconstructionism to proclaim that no matter what words we read in the Bible we really can’t understand them anyway, so why worry?  Everyone comes to Scripture with their own presuppositions so interpretation is impossible. Each of these lenses, and more could be added, when applied to Scripture determine how we understand the written Word.

All this brings us to the subject at hand.  The RH or Christocentric hermeneutic uses the lens of Christ and redemption to understand Scripture.  Its teachers have decided that Christ is found in every text of the written Revelation and it is therefore our job to dig out what is being said about Him no matter what the text says.  In other words, in a clear rejection of literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics, the Bible is not allowed to speak for itself.  We are no longer to look for the author’s intent and meaning; we must now discern the “real” meaning, the deeper meaning often hidden in passages that do not say a word about Christ.  Because these interpreters come to the Bible with this preconceived lens, they are able to take virtually any verse of Scripture and massage it into meaning something about Christ or the gospel.  Thus authorial intent is ignored while more esoteric interpretations are sought.  In the process Scripture loses its clear meaning in many places.  It must be understood that RH adherents are not saying that the main theme of Scripture is Christ and the gospel.  They want to go much further and say that the only theme in Scripture is Christ and the gospel. Every proposition, every story, every proverb, every historical event, somehow speak of Christ and/or redemption. As we will see, this robs the Word of its true meaning and forces interpretations on Scripture that reflect the reader’s presuppositions rather than God’s intentions.

For those who might think I am exaggerating, we turn to instructive examples of this approach. Dennis Johnson, professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California and a leading proponent of RH, suggests that the authors of Scripture, both human and divine, “intend us to discern a typological parallel between the purification of ancient Israel though the death of Achan and the purification of the new Israel through the death of Ananias and Sapphira.”[7] Through the use of similar typology (note the constant use of types, typology and typological by RH teachers) Johnson sees a connection between Moses’ tabernacle and Mary’s womb.[8]  While Johnson himself warns of excesses and the need for “guardrails,” it would be impossible to discern where these limits occur, since supposed typological connections are being made by the interpreter that are not in fact being made by the Scriptures. In such a system authorial intent of the biblical writers is at the mercy of subjectivism of the human interpreters. The theological lens of the readers determines the meaning of the biblical text, no matter what the original authors intended.  Who decides if Rahab’s scarlet cord is a typological picture of the blood of Christ, or perhaps of sin, or of neither?  If Scripture is not allowed to speak for itself then the human authors, armed with whatever theological lens they choose, do.

RH seems to be an overreaction against some of the abuses commonly found throughout much of evangelicalism. Too often the Bible is used as a self-help book, a tool for teaching morality and social concerns, a legalistic manipulation, a narcissistic and therapeutic means of satisfying the self.  All of these are exploitations of the biblical text; they are wrong and they must be called out.  But an overreaction is seldom the cure for anything. To impose upon Scripture an interpretive “lens of Christ in every text,” as a means of correction of these abuses, is just as deadly.[9]  To be clear, I see the Bible as largely centered on Christ and redemption. I agree that often the Scriptures are mishandled and the clear teaching about our real problem (sin) and our real need (reconciliation), and our real solution (the gospel) and our real Savior (Christ) are ignored or pushed into the background as the Bible becomes the ultimate manual for moralistic, therapeutic, deism.  I am in agreement with our RH brethren over these issues. But laying the Christocentric grid over the whole of Scripture has serious problems.

While I will explore other concerns with RH, I would see this as the fundamental problem with the system.  Only literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics allows Scripture to speak for itself.  It is the biblical hermeneutic.[10]  All other hermeneutics are an artificial layering of theological constructs over the inspired words of Scripture.  While using such approaches does not always cause serious immediate damage (who has not heard an inspiring sermon that had absolutely nothing to do with the biblical passage used?), these interpretative methods distort what God intended to say, lead to faulty ways of handling Scripture and, in general, open the door to further abuses.

The Basis for Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics

With these serious concerns, why are an increasing number of preachers and theologians being drawn to RH?  The support for Christocentric hermeneutics could be broadly broken into two categories: biblical and theological.

Biblical
While RH proponents might point to a biblical backing from many places, the primary support is drawn from a handful of verses.  Bryan Chapell in his book Christ-Centered Preaching writes, “True Biblical preaching must center on the cross of Jesus Christ.”[11]  He then cites Luke 24:27; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24; 2:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:4-5; 15:4; Galatians 6:14; and John 5:39, 46. Do these verses support Chapell’s thesis?  Let’s take a quick look.

Luke 24:27 – “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.” Chapell interprets Jesus’ words to the Emmaus disciples in this manner, “Jesus said that all Scripture is about him…Such an understanding compels us to recognize that failure to relate a passage’s explanation to an aspect of Christ’s person or work is to neglect saying the very thing that Jesus said the passage is about.  Jesus said the passage is about him.”  If Chapell’s interpretation stands, then he has proven his case, but even a simple reading of the verse shows that Jesus never claimed that every text of Scripture is about Him.  Rather Jesus expounded on those OT passages that did speak of Him.  When this is observed, RH promoters lose their key scriptural support and this leads to a vastly different understanding of biblical interpretation and preaching than they suggest. Those who take a literal-grammatical-historical stance, such as myself, would agree to a “Christoletic” viewpoint.[12]  This means that the interpreter holds to the original meaning of a text while acknowledging a text’s implication may ultimately link with Christ.  That is, when we zoom out far enough we agree that the Scriptures point to Christ, but every individual passage of Scripture does not.  This is in contrast to the Christocentric view which sees Christ in every text and the subject of every passage.

Lumping several of Paul’s statements together that supposedly supports RH we see the same thing.  First Corinthians 1:23, “But we preach Christ crucified;” 1 Corinthians 2:2, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified;” 2 Corinthians 4:5, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord;” Colossians 1:28, “We proclaim Him,” Galatians 6:14, “May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  RH leaders read these verses to mean there is only one theme in Scripture, Christ and His redemption plan.  But even within the movement itself the ability to hold this line is most difficult.[13] When Paul told the Ephesian elders that he had declared to them the whole purpose or counsel (KJV) of God, was Christ and the cross his only subject?  Does not the Bible teach many other themes such as the nature of God, His glory, holiness, wisdom, might and sovereignty?  How about the resurrection and return of Christ, the coming of the kingdom, the establishment and function of the local church, unity within the body, church discipline, Israel’s future, family life and the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit?  Certainly, but men like Chapell choose to broaden and flatten out the teaching of Scripture to somehow include everything under their rubric of Christ and redemption.  In the RH system, “Christ and Him crucified” becomes shorthand for every theme addressed in Scripture.  When you get to define your own terms you can make this work but it is highly inconsistent.  The better approach is to recognize that such statements are located within a context of specific issues Paul was dealing with at the time. Found in RH’s supporting verses within those contexts Paul’s statements make perfect sense, but to use the Christological hermeneutic as the code by which all other scriptures must be deciphered is a dangerous reductionism. As Abner Chou recognizes, “Taken in their original context and purpose, these statements do not rule out other biblical and theological discussions.  They rule out worldliness, pride, and human wisdom. Accordingly, these verses do not imply all the Christocentric hermeneutics infers.”[14]

John 5:39, 46, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me…For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.” These verses suffer the same fate as Luke 24:27. No one questions whether the OT spoke of Christ, the issue is whether Christ claimed that every text in the OT spoke of Him.  This He does not say.

Chou sums up well his concern about the biblical support for RH:

The problem with their proof texts is that they have inferred ideas that go beyond what was stated and why it was stated.  The meaning of the text does not justify the full extent of the implications they have drawn.  This is the exact problem the approach has had all along.  For this reason the particular passages cited by the Christocentric hermeneutic do not support their goal of making every text speak of Christ.  To the contrary, their use of Scripture only illustrates the problem of their approach.[15]

Theological
However, there is another source from which RH draws and that is theological presuppositions. I want to concentrate on two of these.  First is the copious use of typology.

Typology
RH leaders have a massive problem at this point, one which they themselves recognize.  Chapell asks, “How do expository preachers infuse the redemptive essentials (i.e., Christ-centeredness) into every sermon without superimposing ideas foreign to many texts?”[16] The danger of eisegesis become very real at this point. Even Dennis Johnson, one of the strongest advocates for the RH position, is concerned about the

dangers of eisegesis, “reading into” a text our own ideas, though foreign to the passage in its original context.  At some points the line between typology, parable, and allegory may seem exceedingly fine, and the history of exegesis, particularly in the patristic and medieval periods, provides ample examples of biblical students who started with a sensitivity to biblical symbolism and ended with detailed, multi-layered readings of biblical texts that, despite the best intentions, vitiated both the clarity and the author of the Word they sought to expound.[17]

With this concern I most whole-heartedly concur.  Johnson seeks to resolve this tension through the use of typology.  While he and other RH teachers reject the allegorical hermeneutics stemming from Origen and others, Johnson is far too friendly with allegoricalism for my taste quite frankly, and, it is most difficult to distinguish typology from allegoricalism in much of RH writings.[18]   Chapell is more cautious and implies that certainty in the use of types is dependent upon their identification in the NT, a concept with which I would agree.  Chapell says “typology as it relates to Christ’s person and work is the study of correspondences between persons, events, and institutions that first appear in the Old Testament and preview, prepare, or more fully express New Testament salvation truths.”[19]

Yet despite this warning, typology of a suspect and exaggerated nature is necessary for the RH system to function.  It is the primary way in which Christ can be forced into every text, even those that do not allude to Him.  And without great care typology differs very little from allegorizing and is just as concerning.  For example, Chou documents RH leaders who see the darkness surrounding Abram in Genesis 15:12 as paralleling Christ’s experience of darkness on the cross, Israel’s exodus as a faint shadow of the spiritual exodus believers experience in Christ, Achan’s trouble and death correlating with Jesus’ own death, Samson’s rejection by his tribe mirroring Jesus’ rejection, of David and Goliath picturing the ultimate David vanquishing sin, Satan and death and so forth.[20] Dennis Johnson, in an effort to demonstrate how such preaching is to be done, offers a sermon on 2 Samuel 16:5-8 wrapped around three persons.  His first three points are:

  1. Shimei, Saul’s cursing kinsman, the insolent subject who lies about his king (as you have done).
  2. Abishai, David’s killing kinsman, the loyal soldier who would defend his king for the wrong reason, in the wrong way (as you have done).
  3. David the king, falsely and truly accused.

“Yet, in order to preach this text in the context of 2 Samuel and the completed canon, we must add a fourth point.”

  1. Jesus the King, falsely accused, condemned and punished for the charge that was true of David (and of you).[21]

Through this “Christ-centered preaching,” in which Christ must be found in every text, the authorial meaning of this passage is obviously distorted.  Johnson has added his own imaginative content to the inspired text of Scripture. Johnson does the same with other texts claiming typology allows him to find Jesus’ death in Naboth’s[22] and Esther’s willingness to die foreshadowing Christ’s willingness to die.[23] In a sample sermon on Joshua chapter four Johnson draws the conclusion: “We who trust Jesus Christ have been set free in an even greater exodus, have been bound to God in a greater covenant than Sinai’s Law, and have tasted a greater homeland than Canaan.”[24] While each of these points is true, none is found in the text, nor are they the intended meaning of either the human or the divine authors. Typology becomes virtually indistinguishable from allegoricalism in these examples.  Allegoricalism ruined the early church, plunging it into theological darkness, all in an attempt to find meaning in Scripture that the Lord did not intend.

Context
Chapell admits, “How one gets redemptive truth out of a text and into a sermon can stretch both exegetical and preaching skills.”[25] He is right, as the above examples from Dennis Johnson, a leader and teacher of RH, have demonstrated.  Nevertheless, Chapell insists it can be done if we will just broaden the context enough.  Chapell admits the difficulty of the process and wrestles with the fact that “texts that specifically mention Jesus or reveal him typologically are few relative to the thousands of passages that contain no direct reference to Christ.”[26] What’s a preacher to do?  “When neither text nor type discloses the Savior’s work, a preacher must rely on context to develop the redemptive focus of a message.”[27] By this, Chapell does not mean the immediate context, or even a broad biblical context, but the theological context invented by RH.  Having already predetermined that Christ is found in all texts of Scripture, and must be preached from all texts of Scripture, no matter what the authorial intent, this theological construct now becomes the template by which all texts are interpreted.  Rather than allowing the Bible to inductively speak for itself, RH has deductively placed its own theological and hermeneutical lens over the words of Scripture to force a meaning that is often not found in the text.  If one begins with the presuppositional conviction that if by zooming out far enough Christ is found implicitly, if not explicitly, in every text of Scripture, one will in fact find a way to discover Him in every passage. If, on the other hand,  we allow Scripture to speak for itself, via the use of literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics, Christ is honored throughout the Bible and found in the exact places the Holy Spirit has placed Him.  We need not distort Scripture to honor Christ through the reading and preaching of the Word, rather we honor Him in the exact ways intended by the Lord.

Part two in this series will detail other concerns with the RH system.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel


[1] Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim, Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), pp. 49, 96, 272).

[2] Ibid., p. 47-48.

[3] Keith Essex, The Master’s Theological Journal, Vol 27 #2, “Editorial” p. 111.

[4] Dennis Johnson, pp. 153-158.

[5] Charlies Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), pp. 39-41).

[6] Coventantalists also modify the third sine qua non, but discussion of this will await part two on this subject.

[7] Dennis Johnson, p. 213.

[8] Ibid.

[9] More on this subject and possible excesses will be developed in Part 2 of this series.

[10] See Abner Chou’s book, Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, which develops this view.

[11] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994, 2005 2nd edition), p. 277.

[12] Dennis Johnson, p. 140.

[13] Bryan Chapell, p. 278.

[14] Abner Chou, “A Hermeneutical Evaluation of the Christocentric Hermeneutic,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 27/2, 2016, p. 125.

[15] Ibid., p. 127.

[16] Bryan Chapell, p. 275.

[17] Dennis Johnson, p. 141.

[18] See Dennis Johnson, pp. 98-110.

[19] Bryan Chapell, p. 281.

[20] Abner Chou, p. 118.

[21] Dennis Johnson, p. 288.

[22] Ibid., p. 311.

[23] Ibid., p. 279.

[24] Ibid., p. 415.

[25] Bryan Chapell, p. 280.

[26] Ibid., p. 282.

[27] Ibid.

Print