Christ-centered Hermeneutics: Prospects and Challenges for Adventist Biblical Interpretation
In recent times some theologians have proposed a Christological approach to biblical hermeneutics; where Jesus Christ, the gospel, the message of justification by faith, or some other central theme of Scripture becomes a key for interpreting the Bible.1 This approach seems attractive for several reasons. Jesus is central for our salvation and faith. Why shouldn’t Jesus be central for our understanding of Scripture as well? Isn’t this commanded by Scripture itself and practiced by the Gospel writers and the apostles who present Jesus as the explanation of the Old Testament (cf. Luke 24:27, 44, 45; John 5:39ff.; Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 1:20; 3:14–16; Gal. 3:24; Col. 1:25–2:3)? Isn’t Jesus the One who unites both Old and New Testaments? Doesn’t Jesus have priority over the Bible because He is the revelation of God? Furthermore, would a Christ-centered hermeneutic not dispel any charges of being sectarian by having Christ firmly established as the interpretative key for the understanding of Scripture?2
We cannot understand some of the issues involved in gospel-centered hermeneutics without looking first to Martin Luther, who has left us a lasting legacy with this approach.
Martin Luther and his Christological hermeneutics
Martin Luther, while affirming the authority of Scripture and heralding the sofa scriptura norm, also proposed another hermeneutical principle that can be termed the “Christological principle.” This principle has been instrumental in bringing about a subtle, yet significant shift in the understanding of theological authority and the hermeneutics of the Bible. While affirming the divine authority of Scripture and the priority of the Bible over church tradition, Luther’s theological authority was closely connected to his understanding of the gospel. For Luther, it was Christ and the gospel of justification by faith alone, to which Scripture attests, that constituted the theological center of Scripture and thus ultimately its final authority.
Here Luther’s famous preface to the epistle of James comes to mind where he claims that whatever does not point to Christ or draws out Christ is not apostolic, even though Peter or Paul would teach it. On the other hand, whatever “drives home” Christ is apostolic, even though it would come from Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod.3 Thus, for Luther the content of Scripture is Christ, and from this fact, he seems to repeatedly assign its authority. All Scripture revolves around Him as its authentic center. This “Christological concentration” can be seen as the decisive element in Luther’s interpretation and use of Scripture.4 Thus, Luther actually contended not “for the primacy of Scripture in the strict sense, but for the primacy of the gospel to which Scripture attests and hence for the primacy of Scripture as the attestation to the gospel.”5 Luther valued the Bible “because it is the cradle that holds Christ. For this reason, the gospel of justification by grace through faith served as Luther’s hermeneutical key to Scripture.”6 If Scripture does not refer to Christ, it must not be held to be true Scripture.7 Luther’s understanding of the gospel became the basis for determining the relative authority of the various canonical writings.8 If Scripture is queen, Christ is King—even over Scripture!9 This means that if a passage of Scripture seems to be in conflict with Luther’s Christ-centered interpretation, his interpretation becomes “gospel-centered criticism of Scripture.”10
Christ and Scripture can be set over against each other because Luther ultimately ranked the personal Word (Christ), the spoken Word (gospel), and the Written Word (Scripture). Such ranking leads to a canon within the canon, which compromises the strength of the Scripture principle, where Scripture is the sole source of its own exposition. For “if Scripture is interpreted either by a doctrinal center or by a tradition it is no longer Scripture that is interpreting itself—rather it is we who are interpreting Scripture by means of a doctrine or tradition, to which Scripture is in practice, being subjected.”11 Thus, it is not surprising that Luther’s Christological method “sharpened into a tool of theological criticism”12 where ultimately the interpreter becomes the judge and stands above Scripture. The irony of this theological criticism is that it is done in the name of Jesus Christ and the gospel.
The relationship between Christ and the Bible
Eventually, the issue in any gospel- centered hermeneutic boils down to the issue of the proper relationship between Christ and the Bible. Of course, Jesus Christ is central to our redemption. Without Him we could not and would not be saved. This we gladly acknowledge and grasp by faith. Christ Himself showed the disciples how Scripture pointed to Him (Luke 24:25–27). Scripture testifies about Christ (John 5:39). But the decisive question is: How are we to understand the relationship between Christ and Scripture?
The living and speaking God of Scripture has chosen to reveal Himself through the Word. God has seen it fit to commit His spoken word through the biblical authors to the medium of writing, thus generating the Bible, the Written Word of God. It seems that one has to believe Scripture before one can believe the Christ of Scripture. The Word Incarnate (Jesus Christ) cannot be separated from the Word inscripturated (Holy Scripture). Jesus Himself turned to Scripture to make Himself known. When He met the disciples on the way to Emmaus, He began “with Moses and all the Prophets” and explained to them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, NIV). Later that night, Jesus again pointed to Scripture when He made it clear to the disciples that everything written about Him “ ‘in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ ” (v. 44, NIV) must be fulfilled. “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (v. 45, NIV). Without Scripture providing a reliable account of Jesus’ ministry and death, the gospel of Christ would not be known to us and be of little use.
Jesus Himself repeatedly referred to Scripture as authoritative norm for faith and practice. He asked the lawyer, “ ‘What is written in the Law? . . . How do you read it?’ ” (Luke 10:26, NIV). When the lawyer cited Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, Jesus commended him for having answered correctly (v. 28). In similar fashion, Jesus made the same point: “ ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures’ ”? (Matt. 21:42, NIV); “ ‘Haven’t you read . . . ?’ ” (Matt. 12:3, 5, NIV; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3); “ ‘Let the reader understand’ ” (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). Whether Jesus spoke to scribes or common people, He always assumed the full authority of all of Scripture. For Jesus, Scripture was the sole authoritative source whereby we can discriminate between right and wrong. When Jesus said in Matthew 5:21, 22, “ ‘You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . . ’ ” (NIV), He did not discredit the authority of Scripture nor did He put up His word over, against, and in contradiction to the words of Scripture. He did not abolish Scripture but rather intensified what God had committed in His Written Word. In fact, He Himself abode by Scripture. Jesus quoted the Scriptures and referred to Scripture, rather than His personal word, to refute the devil during His temptation (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Speaking about the proper faith response to Him as Messiah, He said, “ ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him’ ” (John 7:38, NIV; emphasis added). Scripture authenticated Jesus as the Christ. When Scripture is not the context for an understanding of Jesus Christ, Jesus becomes the pretext for judging Scripture. Never do we find Jesus criticizing parts of Scripture. Neither do we find the apostles doing so. Not once do they insinuate that parts of Scripture are not trustworthy or lack divine authority. Jesus does not abrogate the Law and the Prophets; He upholds them. Can we be more Christian than Christ Himself? Can we be more apostolic than the apostles?
Symphonic theological perspectives or monophonic theological center?
We have to carefully distinguish between a central theme in Scripture and postulating a theological center that functions as a hermeneutical key whereby other portions and statements of Scripture are relegated to a secondary or inferior status. A theological center that functions as a hermeneutical key leads to a canon within the canon that does not do justice to the fullness, richness, breadth, and scope of divine truth as we find it in all of Scripture.
A monophonic center leads to a criticism of the content of Scripture. To postulate a “gospel-hermeneutic” where Jesus Christ functions as hermeneutical key for the interpretation of Scripture, is reductionistic. The biblical material is too rich and multifaceted to limit it to one theme or center. Rather than a monophonic center, the Bible presents us with a more encompassing “symphonic” theological perspective.13
To the perennial question as to what constitutes the central element of Scripture, we respond by posing another question: “Where does one find the central point of a symphony or play? Of course there are central themes, but no single point can be taken as the center, unless it be the unity of the whole.”14 We need to allow Scripture in its entirety (tota scriptura), in all its multifaceted voices and genres to reveal the richness and depth of God’s wisdom to us. To insist on Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is more than giving Scripture primacy over other sources in theology. Sola scriptura affirms that Scripture is the sole source of its own exposition. This makes Scripture foundational for theology. Only a symphonic reading of the whole Bible will do justice to the multiplex phenomena of Scripture under the unifying guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Ellen G. White and Christological hermeneutics
Does Ellen White advocate a Christological hermeneutic? A close reading of her writings reveals that she acknowledges central themes in Scripture, such as the plan of redemption: “The central theme of the Bible, the theme about which every other in the whole book clusters, is the redemption plan, the restoration in the human soul of the image of God. From the first intimation of hope in the sentence pronounced in Eden to that last glorious promise of the Revelation, ‘They shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads’ (Revelation 22:4), the burden of every book and every passage of the Bible is the unfolding of this wondrous theme,—man’s uplifting,—the power of God, ‘which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ ” (1 Cor. 15:57).15
Similarly she writes: “The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption—the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every discourse given by our ministers.”16
A careful reading of Ellen White’s literature reveals, however, that central themes are never used by her as a hermeneutical key whereby she criticizes Scripture and relegates some parts of the Bible as more inspired than others. Notice how she mentions a great central theme and in one breath also affirms that all Scripture is inspired and that Scripture should be compared with Scripture: “The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. . . . Every part of the Bible is given by inspiration of God and is profitable. The Old Testament no less than the New should receive attention. As we study the Old Testament we shall find living springs bubbling up where the careless reader discerns only a desert.”17
Ellen White did not mean to separate Christ from the Scriptures.18 When she wrote: “the sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster,”19 she was not proposing a theological center that would function as a tool for theological criticism, a canon within the canon, whereby important statements of Scripture can be distinguished from allegedly less important passages or even wrong teachings. Rather “every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, is to be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary.”20 And even where she describes “Christ as the living center”21 who unites the biblical doctrines, she at once affirms “the truth for this time is broad in its outlines, far reaching, embracing many doctrines.”22 While Christ certainly remains central to Ellen White and her religious thought,23 she never ceases to emphasize that all of Scripture is to be followed and that no part of Scripture is to be neglected. In this sense, Ellen White can affirm the centrality of certain biblical themes without denigrating other parts of Scripture as unimpor tant. According to her, no one has the right to judge Scripture by selecting those passages that are deemed more important than others. She writes: “Do not let any living man come to you and begin to dissect God’s Word, telling what is revelation, what is inspiration and what is not, without a rebuke. . . . We want no one to say, ‘This I will reject, and this will I receive,’ but we want to have implicit faith in the Bible as a whole and as it is.” 24 To use Ellen White in support of a Christological hermeneutic, where Christ or the gospel functions as a hermeneutical key, is to misuse her and to distort her numerous clear statements to the contrary.
God has arranged to use His Holy Spirit to lead us to the Living Word (Jesus Christ) through the Written Word (Holy Scriptures). This shows how God in His wisdom has chosen to make His revelation universally available. Scripture is central to our faith and devotion to God because there is no other witness to Jesus Christ than the Written Word of God. We have no other Christ than the One the biblical writers present to us. Submitting to Jesus Christ, the living Lord entails our faithful submission to the Written Word of God. This is what Jesus did. Individually as well as corporately, we stand under the authority of Scripture because Jesus is known authoritatively only by Scripture. We do not worship paper and ink or idolize a book, but simply acknowledge that the Bible is the source that tells us all about Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Scriptures we have learned to know and love Him (1 Pet. 1:8).
To say so is not bibliolatry but Christianity in its most authentic form. The Spirit of Christ who indwells Christians never leads them to doubt, criticize, go beyond, or fall short of Bible teaching. The Holy Spirit never draws us away from the Written Word, any more than from the Living Word. Instead, He keeps us in constant, conscious, and willing submission to both together. Sola scriptura without Christ is empty, but Christ without Scripture, whose Son is He? Without Scripture we would not know Jesus as the Messianic Christ and He could not be our Savior. Thus, our loyalty to the Bible is part of our loyalty to Christ. We do not need our human criticism of Scripture—not even in the name of Christ!—but the critical examination of ourselves, the church, and all other areas by Scripture, for which the biblical text alone is divinely fitted.
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1 See Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000); Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007); Siegfried Zimmer, Schadet die Bibelwissenschaft dem Glauben? Klärung eines Konflikts (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007); Rolf J. Pöhler, “Die Rechtfertigung durch den Glauben als hermeneutisches Prinzip: Christologische Schriftauslegung und adventistische Theologie,” Spes Christiana 11 (2000): 46–60 and idem., “Does Adventist Theology Have, or Need, a Unifying Center?” in Christ, Salvation, and the Eschaton: Essays in Honor of Hans K. LaRondele, eds. Daniel Heinz, Jirí Moskala, and Peter M. van Bemmelen (Berrien Springs, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, 2009), 205–220. See also Frank M. Hasel, “Presuppostions in the Interpretation of Scripture,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, ed. George W. Reid (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), 27–46, esp. 40–43 for a brief critical engagement with gospel-centered hermeneutics.
2 It seems as if Norman Gulley favored a Christological arrangement of biblical faith for this very reason (see Norman R. Gulley, “Toward a Christ-Centered Expression of Faith,” Ministry 70, no.3 (1997), 24–27.
3 Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), vol. 35, 396 (hereinafter LW); and D. Martin Luthers Werke. Deutsche Bibel (Weimar: Bohlau, 1906), vol. 7, 385 (hereinafter WADB).
4 Cf. Frank M. Hasel, Scripture in the Theologies of W. Pannenberg and D. G. Bloesch: An Investigation and Assessment of Its Origin, Nature and Use, European University Studies, Series XXIII Theology, vol. 555 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1996), 44–46.
5 Grenz, 57, 58.
6 Grenz, 58.
7 Cf. D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Bohlau, 1883–1983), vol. 18, 607 (hereinafter WA); LW 34:112 (Theses Concerning Faith and Law).
8 Luther called the book of James “an epistle of straw,” meaning it is an empty, useless, worthless epistle, because he could not find Christ and the gospel of justification by faith alone in the book of James with his emphasis on the importance of works. Cf. Martin Luther, “Preface to the New Testament” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Lull (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 117.
9 In his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, while replying to opponents who adduce biblical passages stressing works and merits, Luther emphasized the following point: “You are stressing the servant, that is Scripture—and not all of it at that or even its most powerful part, but only a few passages concerning works. I leave this servant to you. I for my part stress the Lord, who is the King of Scripture” (LW 26, 295; WA 40, I, 459, 14–16). In the same year, Luther again underscored Scripture’s servant status relative to Christ when he wrote: “Briefly, Christ is Lord, not the servant, the Lord of the Sabbath, of law, and of all things. The Scriptures must be understood in favour of Christ, not against him. For that reason they must either refer to him or must not be held to be true Scriptures. . . . Therefore, if the adversaries press the Scriptures against Christ, we urge Christ against the Scriptures. We have the Lord, they have the servants; we have the Head, they the feet or members, over which the head necessarily dominates and takes precedence. If one of them had to be parted with, Christ or the law, the law would have to be let go, not Christ. For if we have Christ, we can easily establish laws and we shall judge all things rightly. Indeed, we would make new decalogues, as Paul does in all the epistles, and Peter, but above all Christ in the gospel” (LW 34, 112, 40–53).
10 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 81.
11 Brian Gaybba, The Tradition: An Ecumenical Breakthrough? (Rome: Herder, 1971), 221.
12 Werner Georg Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, trans. S. McLean Gilmour and Howard C. Kee (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1972), 24.
13 Cf. Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987).
14 William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 19.
15 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 125, 126.
16 White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 315.
17 White, Education, 190, 191.
18 “Her emphasis on the fact that Christ is the Author and culmination of divine revelation does not lead Ellen White to deny or downplay the crucial role of the Holy Scriptures as a revelation from God.” Peter van Bemmelen, “Revelation and Inspiration,” in Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 55.
19 White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 190.
20 Ibid.; emphasis added.
21 White, Selected Messages (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), vol. 2, 87 (hereinafter SM).
22 Ibid.; emphasis added.
23 Cf. her statement that “of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world” (Evangelism, 188). See also the valuable study by Peter van Bemmelen, “ ‘The Matchless Charms of Christ’: Theological Significance of This Phrase in Ellen White’s Writings,” in Daniel Heinz et al., eds., Christ, Salvation, and the Eschaton: Essays in Honor of Hans K. LaRondelle, 231–240.
24 White, Manuscript 13, 1888, as quoted in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. Francis D. Nichol, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 7:919; emphasis added; similarly she writes: “Many professed ministers of the gospel do not accept the whole Bible as the inspired word. One wise man rejects one portion; another questions another part. They set up their judgement as superior to the word; and the Scripture which they do teach, rests upon their own authority. Its divine authenticity is destroyed.” White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 39; cf. also idem., SM, 1:17, 42, 245; and idem., Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1946), 5:700, 701; 8:319.