Seeing Christ in All of Scripture, Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary Edited by Peter A. Lillback
Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) is at the heart of the so-called Christocentric hermeneutical approach to Scripture in which Christ is found in every text, Old and New Testament. This short and general book written by five professors at the seminary, documents what WTS now teaches concerning Scripture and its interpretation, especially since 2006 when distinctive lines were drawn (p. 80). As Kevin Vanhoozer writes in his endorsement, “This is as clear a statement of the ‘Westminster way’ of reading Scripture of which I am aware.” It should be noted that Vanhoozer is not necessarily in agreement with the “Westminster way”, he is merely stating that this little volume explains it well.
Much of what Seeking Christ in All of Scripture outlines would be accepted and appreciated by any who take a conservative view of inspiration and inerrancy. Also, most of the hermeneutical principles mentioned are agreed upon by all who embrace the literal-grammatical-historical approach to biblical interpretation. For example, there can be no reasonable argument with the progressive nature of biblical revelation (pp. 14, 21, 75, 83, 85), or that biblical exegesis is the attempt to determine the author’s meaning in the immediate context (pp. 25, 27). Agreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (p. 44) will find no debate among conservative theologians. Appendix A, containing J. Gresham Machen’s address at the opening day of WTS, is a joy. Appendix B clearly states what the current board of WTS believes. All of this, and much more, is encouraging.
The reason for publishing the book, however, has to do with the WTS development and promotion of their unique hermeneutical approach known as Christocentric or redemptive-historical. While only generally discussed, with virtually no examples and little specifics, enough is given to reveal a handle for understanding this interpretation methodology.
- Christocentric hermeneutics teaches that Christ is not only the overall theme of Scripture but the central message on every page, and the central thrust of every passage is the gospel (p. 19).
- In fact, “The Old Testament is a book about Christ and more specifically, about his suffering and glories that will follow” (p. 17). This assertion is proven, it is claimed, by Jesus’ comments to the Emmaus Road disciples in Luke 24:25-27.
- Christocentric hermeneutics is developed out of the unifying principles of Covenant Theology (pp. 4-6). Therefore this approach is decisively covenantal and only those who hold to Covenant Theology would be inclinded to accept the system.
- This is because only under covenantalism does Christ represent true Israel of the OT, and only under conventalism is the church the true Israel of the NT (pp. 29-30, 81). Under this system Israel, as a specific nation and the chosen people of God, is a reference to Christ in the OT and has been absorbed into the church in the NT. Concrete promises made to Israel concerning land and physical blessing have been spiritualized and given to the church. Thus promises of future deliverance and a physical kingdom cannot be taken literally. Rather they are types of Christ and the gospel, and now fulfilled in the church.
- Those embracing the Christocentric approach do so because they believe the Bible requires a special hermeneutic and cannot be read as other literature (p. 10). This hermeneutic is circular in nature as opposed to linear. Those who prefer a line, including all who accept consistent literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics, teach that we “first establish sound hermeneutical principles. Then interpret the Bible. Then form a systematic theology” (p. 11). The circle methodology begins with the Bible to derive hermeneutical principles. “Then we use hermeneutics to interpret the Bible…the third stage to the circle [is] systematic theology” (p. 11). This might sound good on the surface but it amounts to imposing upon Scripture a theological system. The presupposition is that Christ is found in every text of Scripture and spiritual redemption is always the theme. With this grid the student reads the Bible always looking for what they have already predetermined they will find. Thus, the Bible is not allowed to speak for itself.
- Not every covenantalist adopts Christocentric hermeneutics. As a matter of fact there has been much division even within Westminster over this subject. Some WTS professors (and most Reformed theologians elsewhere) would accept what is call a Christotelic approach. This system is dependent upon a “first read-second read” treatment of the OT in particular. “The first read seeks to establish the original historical meaning or original human author meaning…the second read of the passage then seeks to show how in the light of the NT it is about Christ, to disclose its Christotelic content” (p. 84). But this is not enough for the Christocentric school of thought, and those professors accepting it have been dismissed by the school (pp. 79-80). Christotelic teaches that the authorial intent of much of the OT was not Christ-centered. With progressive revelation we can now see how some, but not all, OT passages spoke of Christ. Christ is still the overall focus of Scripture but every text does not speak of Him. Christocentric by contrast, claims every part of Scripture speaks of Christ and redemption (see pp. 86-87).
The “Westminster way” of reading Scripture is described well in this small work. It is a system that requires adherence to Covenantal Theology, a presupposition based on a misreading of Luke 24:25-27 that everything in Scripture is about Christ forced on to all biblical texts, a reliance upon typology and allegoricalism to find hidden meaning behind authorial intent and a rejection and replacement of consistent literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics. The danger is Scripture is being interpreted through a theological lens rather than being interpreted in alignment with the intent of the Holy Spirit inspired authors. Other such approaches have been used in the past with devastating results. I would give this book four stars for content and one star for the Christocentric hermeneutical system it promotes.
Seeing Christ in All of Scripture, Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary edited by Peter A. Lillback (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2016) 87pp., paper $9.99.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel