Back when I was a neo-Calvinist, there was a lot of talk about a “Christological” hermeneutic – or, in laymen’s terms, a Christ-centered interpretation of the Bible. The big idea was that we needed to “see Christ in all of Scripture,” including the Old Testament, in order to get the Bible right.
And this seemed really good and even exciting for a while as we all tried to rethink our understanding of Old Testament stories and characters.
King David, we all knew, was a “type” of Christ. But so were Abraham and Jacob and Moses and Joshua, at various times and in various ways. And we pored over every scenario in the Torah for evidences of a Christ-centered theme – even that time when the sons of Jacob slaughtered a bunch of dudes who were recovering from spur-of-the-moment circumcision. Our pastor preached a sermon on that, focusing on the fact that the sons of Jacob, of Israel, the “seed of the woman,” had plundered the heathens (you know, after murdering them while they were still “in pain“). And this plundering is redemptive, foreshadowing Christ.
Because Christ is all about redemption.
But that’s when the underlying flaw began to emerge. In this version of being Christ-centered, the assumption was that Christ is really just code for penal substitutionary atonement. That is, what we were really looking for in the Old Testament was not a glimpse or precedent or unfolding narrative of the Person of Jesus so much as stories that fit the pattern of a highly Reformed and Calvinistic vision of the atonement.
Because for neo-Calvinists like us, that’s all there really was to understand about Jesus. He’s the one who dies. He’s the one who satisfies the bloodthirsty hellbent wrath of God that we deserve, by letting God torture him on the cross in our place. And yes, he’s the one who rises, but that’s just a sign of his divinity and an afterthought to his real purpose for existence – which is to redeem the elect (the “seed of the woman”) from hell.
That Jesus redeems us from hell with a payment of his own blood is the very essence of the gospel, we thought, and that’s what we were looking for in the Old Testament. Any evidence of this formula. And I tell you, we were finding it everywhere, in all kinds of places, even the most blood-drenched ones.
I had a conversation with that same pastor one time, after my wife and I had decided to leave the church and found ourselves led to plant a new one. He was curious about what I was going to preach in our early services. I had planned on preaching through the Gospel of Luke.
He pressed harder, asking which commentaries I would be using. I don’t think my answer was up to his neo-Calvinist standards because he proceeded to give me a hushed and deep-toned warning.
“Be careful preaching the Gospels,” he said. “They scare me to death.”
In that moment it hit me – the Christ-centeredness preached so adamantly by this pastor was really not Christ-centered at all.
Or more particularly, it was not Jesus-centered.
And, while this pastor and this church were proudly part of The Gospel Coalition-led Gospel-Centered™ movement, they were really not gospel-centered at all.
Or more particularly, they were not Gospels-centered.
I am increasingly convinced that the church will not be able to survive the challenges of the coming century unless we get a lot more Jesus-centered.
Being Jesus-centered is a way of seeing God, Scripture, and all of life that is deeply rooted in the Person of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
With God the Father, we acknowledge (along with the Beloved Disciple) that only Jesus has revealed him to us, and if we’ve seen Jesus, we’ve seen everything the Father is. God is like Jesus – in his life just as much as his death. Really! Truly! And as my friend Brian Zahnd says, God has always been like Jesus. Maybe we haven’t always known this, but now we do.
If God is like Jesus, can God be the bloodthirsty hellbent wrath-venting redeemer depicted in the “Christ-centered” vision above? May it never be! Jesus shows us a God whose love for friends and enemies overcomes all, who sacrificially settles our debt to sin with the poured out gift of himself. And who rises to give us the greatest gift of all – life abundant and eternal when sin demanded death.
With Scripture, we then center the whole narrative, all 66 books, on the Person of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. This does not make any other part of the Bible less true, but defines its truth based on how it connects to and reflects on the Truth embodied in the Person of Jesus. As N.T. Wright has often said, this means we read Paul in light of Jesus and the Gospels, not the reverse. And the Old Testament is completely valid insofar as the Spirit inspired its witness to the Person of Jesus.
If Scripture is centered on Jesus, can we really “see Christ” in the murdering and plundering of Jacob’s primitive and violent family? May it never be! Jesus never lifts the sword and chooses the way of peace when confronted by his empire-enemies – even to the point of death. God was not redeeming the elect ones through bloodshed but redeeming the whole world despite it, giving narrative glimpses and Spirit-spoken whispers and progressively unfolding hints of his full revelation in the person and work of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. (Those glimpses and hints are what we should be looking for in the Old Testament, rather than imposing some other formula.)
Finally, in all of life, we seek to make the Person of Jesus the main thing, shaping our views of self, others, and the world with the mold that he gives us in the Gospels. This doesn’t mean we become passive hippies seeking to avoid the world’s pain, because Jesus didn’t do that at all. Jesus confronted it all head-on, calling spades spades, and swords swords. His was a courageous kind of peace, one that stood against the evil of the empire and the abuses of the religious establishment, yet one that would not participate in the violent political “othering” of Romans or Samaritans – or Rome’s “othering” of everyone else. And the violent empire, along with the violent religious establishment, executed him for it.
If all of life is centered on Jesus, can we really justify any other way as those who claim to follow him, who bear the name Christ-ian, or want to be centered on his gospel? May it never be!
And may it never be that we promote or tolerate those other ways, powerful though they may seem as supposed Christians run for president and advocate deportation and war – because they are passing away.
And the church simply won’t survive unless it gets a lot more Jesus-centered.
(And it will survive, for that very reason.)