We should hold no modern hermeneutic as superior to that of Jesus and the Apostles. If I have to choose between modern method and that of Jesus, then I’m going with Jesus!
The historical-grammatical method of interpretation is a good and right starting point. It is foundational! However, you cannot stop there. You must move to the level of pattern, promise and typology, reading the Bible as a whole document (Leithart, “A House for My Name,” 27). As Jesus and the Apostles did, you must read the OT through the lens of the NT.
Many who adopt Dr. Kaiser’s method seem to say about the hermeneutic of the Apostles that we shouldn’t try this at home. We can’t do what they did. I can’t accept that. At times it seems that biblical scholars think they need to defend the interpretive method of Jesus and the Apostles to prove that they used the methods that we have deemed correct in our day, instead of allowing the interpretive method of Jesus to be the criterion by which all other methods are measured.
A strict approach to historical-grammatical method runs the risk of interpreting the Bible as if it was merely a human book written by a human author. Kaiser argues that we can only interpret a text based on texts that were chronologically prior to that text and that the authors could’ve drawn from. He says that it is wrong to use the completed canon as the context for exegesis, and that is eisegesis to borrow freight that appears chronologically later and transport it back to interpret a text. Kaiser also rules out the analogy of faith in exegesis, limiting it to texts that antecede the one being interpreted (Kaiser, Exegetical Theology, 82; contra Vanhoozer who argues in favor whole canon interpretation). So, Dr. Kaiser argues that the only biblical texts that can be used to clarify the meaning of a given passage are those that come before the text, and this rules out reading the OT from the lens of the NT, which Dr. Kaiser thinks does injustice to the OT.
I see several problems. This method primarily approaches the Bible as if it is a human book only, as if the Holy Spirit couldn’t have known what was coming later. It also approaches the Bible as a collection of 66 books and not one book. Dr. Kaiser says the Bible was meant to be read forward not backward. Says who? The NT’s use of the OT means that we have to read it backwards to make sense of it. The example I often use when teaching this is a mystery novel. The first books I can remember reading cover to cover, and then reading them again was Encyclopedia Brown. Those books let you be the detective and try to figure out how the case was solved (the answers were in the back). Once you read a story and knew the end, you could never read it the same way again. When you read it again all of sudden you see clues and hints that point you to the final outcome. That is the way the Apostles tell us to read the OT and see all the shadows of Christ! The OT cannot be read merely on its own terms because it leaves too many issues unresolved in terms of the one grand redemptive story.
Eric’s concern throughout this piece (he mentions it many times) is that in our interpretation we take seriously the authorial intent as the key to the text’s meaning. Should we do this? Absolutely! But, that does not mean that we interpret the Bible like any other human book with simply a human author. There is a dual authorship to the Bible. We have to take into account the Divine Author. Certainly, this doesn’t mean that there is a contradiction or tension between the Divine and human author, but it does mean that the human author could’ve been inspired to write more than he knew at the time (though I think the OT authors had great awareness of Messianic expectation but they also knew there was a deeper meaning to what they were writing than what they fully grasped at the time). First Peter 1:10-12 tells us that prophets who wrote the OT inquired about these things, what person it would be, and that it was revealed to them that they weren’t serving themselves but US!
The criterion of Dr. Kaiser and others that says valid interpretation of a text can only be the meaning intended by the original [human] author and the understanding he expected his first readers to derive from the text within their shared horizon doesn’t do full justice to the unique nature of the Bible (I’ve been greatly helped by Johnson’s critique of Kaiser; cf. Him We Proclaim, 138-160). It doesn’t make sense of multiple claims in the NT that the OT documents weren’t ultimately written for the original audience but also for “our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). It doesn’t handle well 1 Peter 1:10-12 that says the authors longed to understand what they were writing in its fullness. This criterion also falters when we consider that we don’t always know who the author or audience was!
This approach strives to be objective, which is a commendable goal, but it doesn’t account for a Divine Author “who knows exhaustively” how the text will fit into the larger pattern of the plan of redemption fulfilled in Christ (Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 138-39). The human author may not know all the fullness of what he is writing, but the Divine Author does!
For example, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:4 that the rock that spewed water in the desert was Christ, are we to assume that Moses intended in Exodus 17 to say that the rock was the Messiah? If that was Moses’ intent, then why didn’t he mention it? Or, should we assume that Paul is reading something in that is not there (a reader-response sort of hermeneutic that Eric charges Clowney with)? Or should we assume that God was revealing through the human author a pattern of how God rescues His people that was ultimately fulfilled in Christ? What was a shadow is fully explained later when our salvation comes through Christ being struck on the cross causing blood and water to flow. We have to see that Paul intends in 1 Corinthians for us to read this account in a Christocentric way. He intends for us to read the OT through the lens of the NT.
So, there is a dual authorship to the Bible, and we must take into account the Divine Author as well as the human author. What the human author knew in shadow, God knew in fullness. The intention of the human author and divine author do not contradict, they complement each other. BUT, we can’t read the Bible as if it were merely a collection of 66 books with over 40 authors; it is also 1 Book with 1 Author telling 1 story and should be interpreted like that. You don’t interpret texts out of their contexts; you do see the context as larger. You interpret it in its context in that book, in that testament, and ultimately in the context of the whole Bible. There is your checks and balance.
Eric actually does a great job of what he is arguing against when he mentions the Day of Atonement. He does a masterful job showing that the OT sacrificial system is superseded by and fulfilled in the work of Christ (Hebrews; 1 John 2:2). That is the way a Christ-centered expositor would approach the texts in Leviticus. I don’t intend here to argue the merits or demerits of limited atonement as Dr. Hankins did in his paragraph. I happen to agree with Eric on unlimited atonement. I do want to show that this is the way to approach the text in a Christ-centered way. Dennis Johnson points out in his book that Kaiser treats Leviticus 16 the same way because Christian expositors often can’t help themselves! (Him We Proclaim, 158-59). This is as it should be.
At the end of the day we should not let modern hermeneutical methods allow us to disqualify the approach of Jesus and the Apostles. Johnson writes, “If these commonsense checks on interpretive innovation preclude aspects of later Scripture’s handling of earlier Scripture, they do not deserve the status of ruling norm” (Him We Proclaim, 139). People want to know where are the breaks on Christocentric preaching that keeps it from sliding into allegory? I would ask, “Where are the commonsense checks on reading the Bible like a Pharisee, or on explicitly rejecting the method of Jesus?” The Christocentric approach starts with the historical-grammatical method but it doesn’t stop there. Sadly, many evangelical interpreters are held captive to Enlightenment reductionism that would elevate modern hermeneutical methods above the methods of Jesus and the Apostles. We must be diligent to escape this captivity.
I am wholeheartedly committed to the Christ-centered exposition of the entire Bible, primarily because of biblical reasons (see below). But, as a pastor, I also have practical reasons for preaching an explicitly Christ-centered message every week. I remember preaching a message from Proverbs on the use of the tongue (in a gospel-centered way but not as explicit as it should have been), and a lost man approached me at the end to thank me and to assure me that he would do better in the way he talked to his wife. So, he marched off towards Hell being nicer to his wife. I don’t want to preach in a way that produces Pharisees!
Because I think Christ-centered exposition is the best model both biblically and practically I was a bit disheartened to see the recent post by Eric Hankins called “Jason Allen and The Gospel Project.” Much could be said in critique of this post though I have no doubt about Eric’s sincere concern. It was quite a feat to jump from Calvinism to Jason Allen to Christ-centered exposition to The Gospel Project (TGP). Also, this potential critique of TGP lives up to every other critique so far levied against TGP because it doesn’t deal with the primary source (I will offer a future post dealing with TGP).
My main concern in this post is the critique of Christ-centered exposition. Far above any concern about Calvinism or non-Calvinism should be a concern that we interpret and preach the Bible rightly. The discussion that Eric raises is an important one. Too many SBC preachers misunderstand and misuse OT texts. I have heard too many sermons from the Prophetic books on the New Temple that devolve into a pitch to spend millions of dollars on building a new auditorium! I am concerned, as Eric is, that pastors rip texts out of their contexts in order to insert the preacher’s own theological pre-commitments – or to insert his own agenda. This is not just a problem for reformed or Christocentric preachers, it’s a danger for any preacher. I’ve heard non-Calvinists preachers say that dead doesn’t mean dead in Ephesians 2. So, the issue of interpretation and exposition is a very important one, and I am glad Eric, a pastor I consider to be my friend, raised it.
However, while I appreciate him raising the discussion, I would differ with his conclusions. Eric states that Christ-centered exposition is all the “rage” among reformed preachers. Actually, it should be the rage among all Christian preachers. After all, Paul said that it is “Him we proclaim” (Col 1:28). Let me flesh this out in three posts.
Christ-centered homiletics may not honor the “tried and true” hermeneutic that recent exegetes (Eric mentions Walter Kaiser Jr., a man from whom I have learned a lot and for whom I have great respect) have honed for us after millennia of church life and biblical interpretation, but it does honor a far more important hermeneutic, that of Jesus and the Apostles.
It is quite clear that Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Bible as all about Jesus. In Luke 24, Jesus says that each division of the OT (Law, Prophets, and Psalms) was about him. In fact, Jesus rebukes the 2 disciples on the way to Emmaus for not seeing this in the OT. “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26). They took a Bible study class on the road, and reflected on it by saying, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was…explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Jesus tells the 11 that the OT is about the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah, and then the Great Commission out of that (Luke 24:44-49). Jesus’ explanation of the OT in Luke 24 no doubt laid the foundation for how the NT authors read the OT.
In John 5, Jesus tells his opponents that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46). These men were experts in the OT and probably had much of it memorized, and yet they didn’t read it rightly because they didn’t see that it was all about Messiah Jesus.
What made Saul, a man learned in the OT, go from being a persecutor of the church to its greatest theologian and missionary? He met Jesus and that revolutionized how he read the OT. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all of God’s promises are yes in Jesus. He says in 2 Timothy 3:15 that the purpose of the Holy Scriptures, specifically the OT in that context, is to make one wise for salvation through faith in Jesus. So, the point of Leviticus, Numbers, Proverbs, Esther, and more is to bring you to saving faith in Jesus. In Luke 16:19-31, Father Abraham tells the rich man in Hades that Moses and the Prophets are enough to lead to saving repentance that avoids the wrath to come!
Jesus and Paul tell us to read and preach the Word in this way. Paul says of his preaching and ministry that he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). We see this fleshed out in his epistles where he grounds gender roles, marriage, forgiveness, giving, etc. in the gospel. Each sermon of the Apostles in the Book of Acts is a Christ-centered proclamation of the OT. As Dennis Johnson argues in his book “Him We Proclaim,” the Book of Hebrews is a Christian sermon. This sermon masterfully shows how Jesus is the fulfillment of OT promises, institutions, types, etc. There were shadows and hints in the OT, and now we know them fully in Christ.
Christ and the Apostles are the ones who interpret and preach the OT as a Christ-centered text.
Part 3 to follow…
At this year’s Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, B21 hosted another panel discussion. The topic for this year’s discussion: The Conservative Resurgence, the Great Commission Resurgence, and the Future of the SBC.
The panelists included: Danny Akin, JD Greear, Fred Luter, Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, and David Platt.
The topics for the panel focused on:
- The necessity of the Conservative Resurgence
- Whether there are areas of SBC life that might indicate we haven’t fully grasped a recovery of the Authority and Sufficiency of the Scriptures
- The current debates over Calvinism and statements of faith
- Traditions and Traditionalism
- Moving forward as a people committed to the Scriptures
So thankful to our sponsors who made this event possible:
- Adoption Journey (a partnership of Bethany Christian Service, Lifeline Children’s services, and Lifesong for Orphans)
B21 is grateful to be able to share a guest post from Dr. Chuck Lawless, the Vice President for Global Theological Advance for the IMB. In this post Dr. Lawless outlines why the conservative resurgence was absolutely vital for the missions task of the SBC, and he encourages you to join this conversation at the B21 panel in New Orleans. B21 is excited about what God is doing at the IMB, and we are grateful to be able to partner with them.
I became a follower of Jesus at age 13. The first church I attended was a small Southern Baptist church in southwestern Ohio. That church gave me a strong, unshakeable confidence in the Word of God that has grounded me to this day. What they ultimately gave me was a theology for doing the Great Commission. I have learned since then just how important that theology is: a biblical theology should drive us to get the gospel to our neighbors and to the nations.
That theology is unquestionably clear. All human beings are separated from the one and only true God, desperately lost and destined for hell. No person is good enough in his nature to inherit heaven, nor can any person do enough good works to get there. Apart from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, no man has any hope.
Jesus, though, is indeed the answer. He willingly bore the sins of the world, paid the penalty for our wrong, and broke the back of the Enemy through his death. In his resurrection, he overcame death and now offers life to all who turn to him in repentance and faith. That message is amazingly good news.
Five times in the New Testament, this same Jesus—the perfect eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity—is recorded as telling us what we must do in response to this message. He who has the authority to do so mandated that we proclaim this message to all the people groups of the world. That we must do, for no one can be saved apart from a hearing of the gospel.
At any given point in this task, however, a faulty theology will lead to diversion from the Great Commission and disobedience to God. If, for example, the Bible is not the Word of God, why follow its teachings at all? If there is more than one God, why should we assume a need to proclaim the God of the Bible? If this God is not a perfectly holy God, why worry about sin at all?
Deny the lostness of human beings, and evangelism becomes only a politically incorrect religious confrontation. Assert that Jesus is a way to God—not the only way—and missions is then only a costly and arrogant cross-cultural endeavor. Reject the truth about divine judgment, and hell is explained as a faulty first-century worldview rather than the eternal judgment of a holy God. The cross itself becomes only a bloody means of death in an ancient city if the story of the gospel message is not truth about the one who is Truth.
Thus, I am deeply indebted to Southern Baptists who led the Conservative Resurgence. As a pastor since the early 1980s, I have reaped the benefits of men and women who stood for the Word, refused to compromise, and proclaimed the truth that my home church had taught me. I pray that future generations will always learn from me what others taught me by their courage and obedience.
Here is what frightens me, though: I know very few churches that would reject the biblical message, yet I know many who live as if the message does not matter. Most of us have more Bibles than people in their homes, but we seldom think about 1.7 billion people of the world who have little access to the gospel. Dollars given to missions are often leftover funds, not a sacrifice to support God’s work among the nations. And, actually going to the nations is, of course, someone else’s calling. In fact, crossing the street to speak to our neighbors is sometimes seemingly too far to go. We Southern Baptists have stood faithfully for a message that we have chosen to keep to ourselves.
Our inattention to the Great Commission is, despite our arguments otherwise, a practical denial of the very theology we claim to believe. Theology that does not affect the way we live is only an academic exercise—often a prideful one. Biblical theology lived out, though, will result in denying ourselves and taking up the cross. The Conservative Resurgence rightly applied should compel us to the hard places for the glory of Christ and the sake of the nations.
If you want to hear more about how the Conservative Resurgence should fuel Great Commission passion, plan to attend the B21 luncheon at the SBC in New Orleans. Be sure, too, to experience the TENT at the IMB booth in the exhibit hall. Join us in making disciples among the nations – no matter what the cost of Great Commission obedience may be.
Chuck Lawless is VP for Global Theological Advance of the International Mission Board.
Pastor J.D. Greear is at the Summit Church in Raleigh, NC. He had his views challenged in college by liberal theologians and attended Southeastern Seminary during the Conservative Resurgence. Hear J.D. talk about how the CR has impacted him, whether Southern Baptists are consistently applying the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, how this generation of Baptists can be good stewards of work brought about in the CR, and why you should come to the B21 panel in New Orleans. You can register for this discussion here.
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