There is more ways than just one to be Christ-centered or Christocentric in approach, hermeneutically, or biblically interpretively. Yesterday I had an exchange with T.C. Moore on Facebook that was prompted by my last post. His contention was that he believes N.T. Wright has struck an excellent balance between the employment of historical studies with a Christ-centered focus. And I might be inclined to say Yes and No. I might say Yes and No, because to use the language of “Christ-centered” has expanse to it, it is not monolithic, but instead, multi-valent; and this is something that we did not address in our quick exchange, but should have. So I am extending that exchange, and quickly touching on it in this venue.
Marc Cortez, former Dean of Academics at Western Theological Seminary in Portland, OR, and now professor of Theology at Wheaton University (at their seminary), has provided an essay that explores just what in fact using the language of “Christ-centered” entails, in particular, in the theology of Karl Barth. Unfortunately I have not been able to read it yet, but I have come across reference to it in David Gibson’s published PhD dissertation: Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth. I mention Cortez, because, among others he has apparently identified how to understand what Christ-centered means by way of approach, especially when this designation is applied to Barth. The point is this though; that to say that someone is Christ-centered almost, in our day and age, is almost meaningless; it is like saying someone is an “Evangelical.” Until we define what we mean by “Christ-centered” (or ‘Evangelical’ for that matter), it could mean almost anything. It could be referring to someone’s intention, it could refer to a piety someone has, it could refer to a basic assertion (without explanation), it could refer to a mystical desire, or it could refer to an intentional and principled methodological approach in someone’s hermeneutic. Indeed, it is this latter way of being “Christ-centered” that I refer to when using the language of Christ-centered. It is the way that Karl Barth and the tradition he has spawned employs such language. Bruce McCormack describes what it means for Karl Barth to be Christ-centered in his method and hermeneutic:
‘Christocentrism’, in Barth’s case then, refers to the attempt (which characterized his mature theology) to understand every doctrine from a centre in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; i.e. from a centre in God’s act of veiling and unveiling in Christ … ‘Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule – not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ – in accordance with which one presupposes a particular understand of God’s Self-revelation in reflecting upon each and every other doctrinal topic, and seeks to interpret those topics in the light of what is already known of Jesus Christ. [Bruce McCormack, Critically Realistic, 454 cited by David Gibson, Reading the Decree, 9.]
Gibson correlates this with Richard Muller’s distinction between Barth and Calvin’s respective ‘Christocentric’ approaches; Muller label’s Barth’s approach as principial (or principled) and Gibson adds to this as ‘intensive’, while Muller labels Calvin’s as ‘soteriological’ Christocentric, which Gibson adds to as extensive—I have written more on that here. Suffice it to say, it is not as simple as asserting that N.T. Wright is Christ-centered, what this post should at least illustrate, is that it is possible to be Christocentric in at least two discernable ways, if not more (and probably more).
The question that was driving the exchange between Moore and myself, on my side, had to do with whether or not N.T. Wright was sufficiently Christ-centered in approach or not. If we use my definition of what that entails, as described of Barth by McCormack, above, then I don’t think N.T. Wright’s approach is sufficiently Christocentric. And this because N.T. Wright, as I understand him, does not intentionally work from a hermeneutical practice and methodology that is robustly or principally Christo-centric. Wright, might be Christocentric in the way Calvin is construed by Muller and Gibson; as ‘soteriologically-extensively’ so (as I described in that linked article). But I am not sure Wright even meets these standards. What I see funding Wright’s approach is a kind of naturalist-historical approach to Scripture that he employs as a ‘Christian’ person, and with the goal of edifying the body of Christ. But again, I don’t see how we can say his approach is Christocentric, if in fact his method is primarily funded by tools that are public and without primary resource to a principled Christological approach.
In the end, I can still learn from Wright, and have! I know NT Wright is a smart guy, with good intention, and has laid bare many many interesting things about the social-historical context of Christ. But for my money, there is much more Christian depth available in the text of Scripture, much more devotional depth, that Wright’s approach necessarily leaves dangling, and for me, empty.
PS. To simply relativize my points above by asserting “well, you are just making your judgements about Christocentrism from your “Reformed” bias,” is neither here nor there. To make such an assertion is not an argument, it does not have legs, it doesn’t go anywhere, it is, in short: a non-starter. All that such a statement is is an exercise in description, it is an observation about a formal situation (i.e. that I think from a Reformed direction). What this statement does not undercut, is the material points that I am suggesting. It does not matter whether or not a point is made from a “Reformed”, “Arminian,” “Greek Orthodox”, “Roman Catholic,” “American Evangelical” perspective; what matters is whether or not the point is true, and thus sound.