Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics – Part 2
(Volume 24, Issue 5, October/November 2018)
As stated in Part One of this series, redemptive-historical (RH), or Christocentric hermeneutics, is becoming increasingly popular, especially within Reformed and Covenantal theological circles. In short, RH is the idea that all of Scripture speaks of Christ. This does not mean that Christ is found under every rock but that all Scripture concerns Christ. The Bible should be read through the lens of Jesus and Christ should be preached from every text. Christ and His redemption plan, therefore, become the rubric through which all Scripture is to be interpreted and preached. In the previous paper I challenged these assertions, pointing out that once we accept this hermeneutical system the exegete no longer uncovers the meaning of the original authors (both human and Divine), but now imposes upon the text a forced meaning that is often not there and not intended. To be sure, a great deal of God’s Word focuses on Christ and redemption, but that is a far cry from claiming that this is the only theme and that every passage must somehow be interpreted around that theme.
I have already identified some of the dangers of the Christocentric approach such as:
- Layering an artificial theological construct over the words of Scripture.
- Forcing biblical texts to say what was never intended by the author.
- Resurrecting a dangerous system of allegorizing disguised as typology.
- Misinterpreting Luke 24:27 and then attempting to wrap the rest of the Bible around this misinterpretation.
- Minimizing essential themes such as the glory of God, the Trinity, the kingdom, Godly living, the church, etc., in order to elevate what is considered the only true theme of Scripture.
- Manipulating texts in order to somehow take them back to Christ and the cross when that was not the intention.
These are serious concerns but I will now expose some others.
Replacing exegesis with imagination
Charles Simeon, a faithful expositor in England from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, had it right when he stated,
My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be in the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.[i]
This quote is taken from David Helm’s book, Expositional Preaching, which is one of the books in 9Marks Building Healthy Churches series. Helm is both a pastor and the chairman of the Charles Simeon Trust which promotes practical instruction in preaching. Helm, in fact, endorses the expository style of preaching, grounded in historical-grammatical hermeneutics, that the above quote by Simeon would champion. At least he does so for about half the book, but then inexplicably shifts to the Christocentric approach and trots out everybody’s favorite preacher (or so it seems), Charles Spurgeon, as his support. The Spurgeon quote he uses is both extremely well known and indicative of the problem:
Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?… And so from every text in Scripture, there is a road to…Christ. And my dear brother, your business is, when you get to a text, to say, “Now what is the road to Christ?” … I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one.[ii]
While I respect Charles Spurgeon highly I believe this quote serves notice that something has gone terribly wrong. By what biblical mandate does Spurgeon take an exegetical detour from any and every text of Scripture and make a beeline to Christ and the cross? And if he happened upon a text that had no such road, Spurgeon is determined to make his own. While I would hope that Spurgeon would not consistently follow his own advice, nevertheless I believe this is what the Christocentric adherents are doing. They have decided, based upon faulty interpretations of a few NT passages (see the first article on this subject), that every text, no matter what the actual subject, is really a reference to Christ and redemption. And if such a link cannot be sustained by the inspired Word, they will simply create their own link. Interestingly Helm, while agreeing with Spurgeon’s thesis, admits that he does not always agree with Spurgeon’s interpretations.[iii] Of course not, for Spurgeon often comes up with very creative and questionable interpretations, as might be expected when the biblical text is not allowed to teach what it obviously is teaching (for a prime example see Spurgeon’s devotional, Morning and Evening which repeatedly spiritualizes and misinterprets the Song of Solomon, as he seeks to find a road to Christ). And right here, my friends, lies the real danger with RH. Once it is determined that the contextual meaning of a biblical passage does not suit the reader and that another interpretation, one often drawn from the reader’s imagination or allegorical twist, is preferred, has not serious damage been done to the doctrine of biblical revelation? The reader now reigns supreme over the Author of Scripture.
Hopefully, I am not being too reductionist to suggest that the Christocentric method has caught traction at the same time that postmodern views have infiltrated the academic world and filtered down to the Christian community.[iv] Kevin Vanhoozer writes his massive tome, Is There a Meaning in this Text?, to document, examine and challenge the encroachment within evangelical scholarship of the postmodern understanding of meaning as found in the writings of deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish. He writes,
According to Fish, there is no such thing as a meaning “in” the text “outside” the readers. Meaning is not prior to, but a product of, the reader’s activity… Fish’s approach to hermeneutics effectively removes authority from the Bible or, for that matter, from any text. Interpretation ultimately takes its cue not from the text, but from the reader’s identity. It is not the canon but the community that governs the reader’s interpretive experience…[v]
As I ponder, and am perplexed by, the interpretative grid of Christocentric scholars, I can’t help but think that some components of deconstructionism have found their way into their thinking. If a biblical text is not allowed to stand on its own and speak for itself, if instead professors and pastors change the meaning according to their own preconceived hermeneutical lens and determine the meaning independently of (and often contrary to) the intention of the author, are they not drinking from the well of postmodernity? At issue is, who gets to interpret a text? Do the authors, both human and Divine, or do the readers? Said another way, if the biblical authors want to speak of Christ and/or His redemptive program, they can certainly do so. And they do often both directly, and indirectly through legitimate means of typology and analogy. But if they do not do so, what right does the reader have, as scholarly and well-intended as they may be, to impose upon the text what they want it to say? Is authorial intent to be overruled by the sovereignty of the reader, or the reader’s community, in this case those who have embraced redemptive-historical hermeneutics? Sadly, this is no doubt the inadvertent consequences of the Christocentric approach to the Scriptures.
A couple of examples from David Helm, a pastor who spends much of his time training other pastors and teachers how to preach, might be insightful. He warns, and rightly so, that “it is easy to go overboard. Once you become comfortable with the jargon of, say, typology, everything you see gets framed in typological terms and everything you preach gets squeezed into an ill-fitting jumpsuit of typology, whether it actually is or is not typology.”[vi] This is a serious concern, especially since typology is perhaps the key means by which Christocentric interpreters get from a biblical text to their “Jesus is found in every text” theory. Given Helm’s own hermeneutical views this is an astounding and curious admission. And it is an excellent warning. But how does he apply this warning in practice? He provides his own example a few pages later, when he attempts to make the case that King Saul was a type of Christ (or perhaps a type of anti-Christ), and Saul’s last meal on earth a type of the upper room meal Jesus ate with his disciples on the night He was betrayed. He admits some might argue for other interpretations (after all, the OT account in question does not actually admit to being a type of anything, so the reader apparently gets to choose). “However you categorize the correspondence,” Helm writes, “the analogy between the two situations greatly deepens our understanding of 1 Samuel 28 and how it ultimately is reversed in the glorious sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”[vii] Or does it? It seems to me that Helm has recognized a couple of similarities between Saul’s last night on earth and Jesus’. He then chooses, without direct biblical warrant, to connect the dots, draw some analogies based on possible types, and proclaim that he has discovered deeper meaning in the story of Saul than we ever recognized until now. On top of that, Saul’s tragic end, Helm assures, somehow informs us of Christ and the cross. None of this attempt at interpretation is drawn from the actual narration found in 1 Samuel 28, nor is there any mention of any connection between Saul and Jesus in the New Testament or of Saul’s meal at the witch’s house and the Last Supper. This is not “deep” Bible study, it is allegorizing of the Scriptures. Call it typology if you like, but I see no distinction between this approach to biblical interpretation and that of the early church allegorizers such as Origen. To be clear, if the Holy Spirit had intended such interpretations, He would have indicated His wishes. Since He did not, neither in the OT narrative nor in NT references, this Christocentric attempt to find Jesus everywhere not only falls flat, even at the hands of men as able as Helm, but it actually distorts the intended meaning of both the Old and New Testament accounts.
In an effort to support their position the RH teachers will claim that Christocentric preaching is modeled by the apostles and the other preachers in the NT, including Jesus. Inevitably they turn to the book of Acts and cite the sermons of Peter or Paul as proof texts. For example, David Helm does this using Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 at the Areopagus as his prime example. In his Expositional Preaching Helm repeatedly draws on this sermon to the Athenian philosophers to show that all preaching in the NT is Christ-centered, and Christ should be “preached from all the Scriptures.”[viii] What Helm and many others miss is that these sermons were evangelistic sermons, preaching the gospel to unbelievers. For that reason, they logically focus on Christ and redemption; they are not examples of teaching taking place within the body of Christ. Acts 2:42 simply says the first believers gathered to be instructed in the apostles’ teachings, among other things. When Paul described his previous instruction to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17-32, he included his proclamation of Christ and the gospel, as should be expected (vv. 21, 24, 28), but his teaching/preaching ministry was much broader than that. He declared to them everything that was profitable (v. 20); he specifically claimed he preached the kingdom (v. 25); he “declared the whole purpose of God” (v. 27); he admonished the elders to guard the church (v. 28); he warned of false teachers who would ravish the flock (vv. 29-31), and he commended them to “God and the word of His grace, which is able to build you up…” (v. 32). Without question Christ and His redemption plan was an integral part of what Paul preached. I certainly do not want to be put in a position in which it seems I am denying the importance of Christ and the cross. But Paul’s teaching within the boundaries of the local church was far more varied than that. There is no hint that every sermon he preached to the church was a gospel message in which he demonstrated Christ throughout the Scriptures, as he did with unbelievers. He obviously taught on many themes: salvation, the kingdom of God, grace, protection of the flock, in fact, the “whole purpose (KJV: ‘counsel’) of God.”
The Old Testament
One of the fundamental debates concerning Christ-centered preaching is the concept that Christ is found and must be preached from every Old Testament text. Richard Mayhue, in an article published by The Master’s Seminary Journal, provides some insights on this subject. He documents that there are 360 direct OT quotes in the NT, drawn from 24 OT books. Yet almost 88% of those quotes come from seven OT books and none from 15 other OT books. If Christ is found in every passage in the OT it would be expected that far more quotes from a wider variety of OT Scriptures would be found. Mayhue’s conclusion is instructive. If asked, “Do you believe that Christ should be preached from every text in Scripture that contains Old Testament, God-intended references to Christ?” his answer would be, “Of course, the answer is ‘Absolutely!’”[ix] By implication, he is saying that where Christ is found in the OT He should be preached, but where He is not found we have no right to implant Him in the text. The only way to do so is through illegitimate means of allegorical interpretation.[x] Mayhue continues,
It is improper to interpret an Old Testament passage as though it is about Christ when in fact it is not. It is wrong to find types of Christ in the Old Testament that God did not intend. It is erroneous to find allegories in the Old Testament that God never intended. Daniel Block renders a straightforward, blunt assessment regarding these interpretive blunders. “It is exegetically fraudulent to try to extract from every biblical text some truth about Christ.”[xi]
When RH leaders teach that Christ is the point of every OT text, and therefore should be the point of every sermon, they also ignore clear statements found in the NT as to the purpose of the OT. For example, Christocentric adherents have a strong aversion to using the OT events and persons as examples for us to follow, and yet the NT says otherwise. In 1 Corinthians 10, in referencing the sinful actions of OT Israel in the wilderness, the inspired apostle Paul writes, “Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we should not crave evil things… Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (vv. 6, 11). Hebrews 11 catalogs numerous OT persons who modeled faith. These individuals were certainly imperfect models and struggled with sin, often failing miserably. But that is the point. Despite their failures and inadequacies, at certain points in their lives they exhibited faith. In Hebrews 12:1 we are told these examples are to encourage us onward in our walk with the Lord, yet not fixing our eyes on the imperfect persons of chapter 11 but on the perfect example of Christ (12:1-3). Romans 15:4 specifically says, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Paul boldly told the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, just as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) and encouraged the same people to simply be “imitators of me” in 1 Corinthians 4:17. Much of the OT Scriptures were written to teach Christians, by examples, both positive and negative, how to walk with the Lord. The second letter written to Timothy is about as clear as possible, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (3:16-17). The sacred writings are not only adequate to lead us to salvation (3:15) but to equip us for godly living.
We need to also recognize that there is a diversity of purpose in the different genres of OT literature. There are many prophetic statements, some of which speak of Christ but others of Israel’s future or the coming kingdom age. Wisdom literature offers a practical understanding of living in a fallen world, as is the stated purpose of Proverbs (see 1:1-7). Historical and narrative sections, while at times pointing directly to Christ, most often lay the background for understanding God, people, sin and a host of other important matters. Bryan Murphy sums up well how the OT should be preached in a NT church context:
Preach it in its biblical context and then relate it to the church today. If it points to Christ, make Christ the point of the message. If Christ is not the point of the text, then do not force it. There are many ways that NT believers can benefit from a faithful exposition from an OT text.[xii]
The New Testament
Finding and preaching Jesus from the NT is a far simpler task. He dominates the NT, being found in all 27 books. Still, every book does not have the same purpose or focus. For example, Colossians and Hebrews present the superiority of Christ, while Romans most systematically lays out both the need and provision for our redemption. But even within these epistles, there are many other themes and some of the epistles are more attentive to other issues. The two epistles to the Corinthians are primarily concerned with handling sin issues in the local church. Then there is the curious example of the letter of James. Christ is only mentioned twice in the five chapters of this epistle, once in the greeting and once in reference to not practicing favoritism. There is no mention of salvation or redemption or the cross at any point, and grace is found in only one verse (4:6), and that not in reference to salvation. James is concerned with the working out of our faith in the context of the Christian life and his “sermon” is certainly not Christocentric. But who would dare challenge the content of a Holy Spirit inspired epistle? Surely James knows and loves Christ, believes in the gospel, and would preach the cross. Yet, in this important letter, he is concerned with other matters and does not deem it inappropriate to not preach Christ. Was James’ message sub-Christian? That he did not make a beeline to Christ or explain redemption certainly was not an oversight.
In addition, as we examine other epistles, even those wrapped around Christ, we find many other important topics. The Pastorals outline the life of the church and how it should function. Titus mentions Christ only four times, salvation only once, and never speaks of redemption. While epistles such as Ephesians and Philippians make much of Christ, they also offer large sections concerning practical application. The point is, that while the NT is centered around Christ, it also addresses many other areas of theology and Christian living. If we reduce even the NT to one theme, Christ and redemption, we effectively eliminate the many other topics that the Holy Spirit determined as necessary for our understanding of the “whole counsel of God.”
Improper View of God
It must ever be remembered that the Christian faith is Trinitarian. Serious theological damage has resulted historically when there has been an overemphasis on one member of the Godhead above the others. Arianism elevated the Father, devalued the Son and ignored the Spirit. Traditional Pentecostalism elevated the Spirit and minimized the Father and Son. Oneness Pentecostalism eliminates from the Trinity both the Father and Spirit while retaining the Son. Christocentric theology is in danger of so honoring the Son as to reduce the importance of the Father and Spirit. When sermons, say from the Psalms, which magnify God the Father, yet fail to mention Christ and the Cross, are called sub-Christian or even anti-Christian, we should know that something is out of alignment. This is a serious danger that can be traced to an arbitrary and misguided presupposition that all of Scripture speaks of Christ and redemption.
Richard Mayhue reminds us that “Scripture is exclusively theocentric in a triune sense, not limited to Christ alone. To focus on CCP [Christ-Centered Preaching] is in effect to ignore or seemingly demote God the Father and God the Spirit in importance. All three members of the Godhead are to be preached as revealed in Scripture, not just one [member] in isolation from the other two. To artificially inject Christ into every text/passage makes this error.”[xiii]
Abner Chou warns that RH can confuse and distort the Trinity. “Concentrating on Christ alone can cause one to neglect discussing the Father and the Spirit. It can even lead to confusion of the roles within the Godhead. Even more, it can distort the gospel… After all, the gospel is Trinitarian in nature (Eph 1:3-14)… Christocentricism can create a canon that can deemphasize the Trinity.”[xiv]
Carl Trueman warns that under this emphasis “Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism.”[xv] These are serious accusations that need careful consideration. No teacher of RH would deny the Father or the Spirit but, by implication, they are reducing Their importance and roles, and they are not receiving the attention afforded to Them in Scripture.
One of the disturbing aspects of RH is the arrogance of some of its leaders which inevitably leads to division. Statements such as the one made by Brian Chapel, that any sermon which does not take us back to Christ and redemption is sub-Christian, are guaranteed to draw battle lines. Instead of graciously entering the debate and offering corrections and adjustments, the Christocentric teachers have claimed the high ground from which they look down upon and condemn those who have not yet “seen the light.” Seminary professors have lost their jobs, congregants are leaving their churches, and theologians are making accusations – all unnecessary when one realizes that this view is not nearly the slam dunk that its supporters claim it is.
For example, below are a number of prominent theologians who hold to the same essential orthodox positions that the RH leaders hold but who disagree with Christocentric teachings. In addition to Block, Mayhue, Chou, and Murphy quoted above enter:
Dale Ralph Davis: in explaining why he did not take a Christological approach to explain some of the psalms in his commentary, says he did not
because I do not think Jesus wants me to do so… Jesus did not say [in Luke 24:25-27] every Old Testament passage spoke of him; he rather took the apostles through the plethora of passages in all parts of the Old Testament that did speak of him or point to him in some way.[xvi]
John Frame writes,
I get the impression that some who stress redemptive history really want to avoid “practical” application. They want the whole sermon to focus on Christ, not on what works the believer should do… But it is simply wrongheaded to deny the importance of concrete, practical, ethical application. Such application is the purpose of Scripture itself, according to 2 Tim 3:16-17. And since Scripture contains many practical “how tos,” our preaching should include those too. To say that this emphasis detracts from Christocentricity is unscriptural… Some pastors not only preach redemptive history, but they condemn as moralistic anybody who fails to emphasize it as much as they do.[xvii]
Carl Trueman lays down this challenge,
The biblical theological revolutionaries have become the new establishment. It is time for those of us rebels who think that the Bible raises more than just redemptive-historical questions, and that the creedal tradition of the church gives important insights on this, to raise our voices in dissent, to highlight the very real dangers of making this insight into an ideology and to do our best to bring the pendulum back a little.[xviii]
Rick Phillips, writing for The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, muses over the Gospel of Mark wondering if even Jesus had a “gospel-centered” ministry, as defined by Christocentric theologians? He concluded that,
Under the “gospel-centered” rubric, a true ministry must constantly and almost exclusively hammer home the free offer of forgiveness through faith alone in Christ’s blood. Teaching theology is deemed irrelevant, instruction is legalistic, and confronting false teaching is ungracious. In this approach, the biblical evidence shows that Jesus did not have a “gospel-centered” ministry. In fact, most of what Jesus did in Mark’s Gospel involves messages that a “gospel-centered” ministry does not approve.[xix]
Walt Kaiser is clear that this methodology is “neither the theocentric method of teaching and preaching advocated by John Calvin nor the Christological method used by Luther. Instead, it is a redemptive-historical-Christocentric method of preaching that views the ‘whole counsel of God’ in light of Jesus Christ…[xx]
Kaiser is concerned that when we preach Christ from the Old Testament from places where He is not found, we have actually distorted expository preaching. He writes,
But what has happened to expository preaching in that case? It appears to begin with the text of the Old Testament, but it appears to rely on the New Testament for the real solid stuff, that is, the theology and principles we can apply directly to our lives.”[xxi] [He continues], Old Testament texts yield Old Testament sermons! But who said that was bad or undesirable—as if someone other than God were the source and author of the Old Testament or that these texts had such temporality written over them that almost all of them are now passé and useful only as primers or sermon starters?[xxii]
Bryan Murphy suggests three real dangers to the “Christ-Centered” paradigm:
“It models bad hermeneutics… the saints who sit under a ministry like this will begin to
- follow those same practices. They will look to find Christ in every OT passage and fail to learn sound hermeneutical principles of letting the text speak for itself.
- It rejects the biblical model…Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:2, “preach the Word.” He does not say, preach Christ. He says, “preach the Word.”
- It fails to fully equip the saints, because it fails to teach the whole counsel of God.”[xxiii]
Hopefully, these two articles on redemptive-historical hermeneutics have shed some light on the very real concerns of traveling down this road. While it sounds hyper-spiritual to exalt Christ in all of Scripture the danger is distorting Scripture by infusing something not in the text and even taking away what the Holy Spirit intended. It teaches a faulty hermeneutical system, minimizes the Trinity, ignores important themes and leads to a truncated form of sanctification which teaches that if we major on the greatness of Christ the believer need not discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness (I Tim 4:7). All conservative Christians see the centrality of Christ and the cross. We love Him and want to honor Him with our lives. But we do not do so by altering the teaching of Scripture by reading it through the false lens of a theological system. As stated previously in these two articles, I believe the literal-historical-grammatical hermeneutic is the biblical method of interpretation. And, when followed, will lead Christians to both exalt Christ and read the sacred text accurately.
[i] As quoted by David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching, How We Speak God’s Word Today, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), p. 12.
[ii] Ibid., p. 64.
[iv] See David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, Reformation Faith in Today’s World, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) for documentation of postmodernity’s influence on evangelical thinking and theology.
[v] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and Morality of Literary Knowledge, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 24.
[vi] David Helm, p. 79.
[vii] Ibid., p. 82.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 63, 92, 93, 95-96, 103.
[ix] Richard Mayhue, “Christ-Centered Preaching: An Overview,” The Masters Seminary Journal, Fall 2016, 27/2, pp. 151, 154-155.
[x] Ibid., p. 152.
[xi] Ibid., p. 156.
[xii] Bryan Murphy, “From Old Testament Text to Sermon,” The Masters Seminary Journal, Fall 2016, 27/2, p. 150.
[xiii] Mayhue, p. 156.
[xiv] Abner Chou, “A Hermeneutical Evaluation of the Christocentric Hermeneutic,” The Masters Seminary Journal, Fall 2016, 27/2, p. 133.
[xv] Carl Trueman, “The Trueman-Goldsworth Debate, a Revolutionary Balancing Act,” p. 3. http://www.theologian.org.uk/doctrine/trueman-gosworthy_trueman.html.
[xvi] Dale Ralph Davis, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life, Psalms 1-12, (Geanies House: Christian Focus, 2011), pp. 8-9.
[xvii] John Frame, Ethics, Preaching, and Biblical Theology, https://frame-poythress.org/ethics-preaching-and-biblical-theology/.
[xviii] Trueman pp. 3-4.
[xix] Rick Philipps, “Did Jesus Have a ‘Gospel-Centered’ Ministry?” http://www.reformation21.org/blob/2015/10/did-jesus -have-a-gospelcenere.php., p. 2.
[xxiii] Murphy, pp. 149-150.