A Defense of Christ-Centered Exposition: A Friendly Response to Eric Hankins (Part 2)

This is part 2 of Jonathan Akin’s response to the recent post by Eric Hankins called “Jason Allen and The Gospel Project.” Part 1 of Jon’s response can be viewed here. Jon’s first point in his
response is:
  • Christ-centered interpretation was the method of Jesus and the Apostles
Part 2:
  • Christ-centered interpretation takes into account the dual authorship of the Bible and treats it as one book instead of a collection of 66 books.

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.