The Early Church Read Holy Scripture In A Principled Christ Concentrated Way, So Should We

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, –John 5:39

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. –Luke 24:25-27

The early Christians took these passages to heart. They believed that the Apostolic hermeneutic, the one that followed the teaching of Jesus himself, like we find in the passages mentioned, was a deeply Christ concentrated one. It is this approach that Martin Luther and John Calvin took to heart; in their respective ways. Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance et al. in the modern period have likewise taken this hermeneutic to heart. When Christians take a Christ conditioned hermeneutic seriously it does things to the way they read Holy Scripture. It takes the focus off of me-centeredness, or nation-centeredness (like we get in Dispensationalism), and instead places the primacy of focus on the primacy of Jesus Christ; as if God’s plan was to reveal Himself from the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:1; 3:15 etc.). JND Kelly comments on how this sort of hermeneutic took hold early for the Patristic Fathers of the Christian Church:

The inspiration of Scripture being taken for granted, the Church had to work out the methods of exegesis to be employed in interpreting it. The fundamental issue here, as was very soon perceived, was to determine the precise relation of the Old Testament and the New, or rather (since the earliest stage there was no specifically Christian canon), to the revelation of which the apostles were witnesses. As has already been mentioned, the solution arrived at consisted in treating the Old Testament as a book which, if it were read with unclouded eyes, would be seen to be Christian through and through. In adopting this attitude Christian theologians and teachers were merely following the example of the apostles and evangelists, and indeed of the Lord Himself. It is evident from every page of the gospel records that the incarnate Christ freely took up, applied to Himself and His mission, and in so doing reinterpreted, the key-ideas of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Kingdom of God, etc., which He found ready to hand in the faith of Israel. In harmony with this the essence of the apostolic message was the proclamation that in the manifestation, ministry, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord, and in the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit, the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. Whether we look to the fragments of primitive preaching embedded in Acts, or to St. Paul’s argumentation with his correspondents, or to the elaborate thesis expounded in Hebrews, or to the framework of the evangelists’ narratives, we are invariably brought face to face with the assumption that the whole pattern of the Christian revelation, unique and fresh though it is, is ‘according to the Scriptures’. In this connexion St. Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is highly instructive, for it presents a vivid picture of the primitive Church’s conviction that all the events of Christ’s earthly career, together with their profound redemptive implications, are to be understood as the fulfilment of what was written about Him ‘in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms’, and that the ultimate warrant for this conviction was His own express authorization.[1]

Kelly helps summarize the early Christ concentrated way of interpreting Scripture. It was the supposition that Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments were thoroughly about Jesus and His fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament Prophets. As a result of ‘critical’ biblical studies, and the naturalistic assumptions that attend this sort of Enlightenment project, this Christ-centered exegetical approach was lost to things like History of Religions, and reading the Bible in a de-confessionalized way. Ironically, this is the sort of mode that has not only produced things like the Jesus Quest, and Rudolf Bultmann, but indeed, it has just as readily produced hermeneutical approaches like we see in Dispensationalism (an approach that focuses on the nation of Israel as the key to biblical prophecy rather than Jesus Christ).

There are clearly various ways to be Christ-concentrated in approach. But it is in keeping, I’d argue, with the Dominical teaching, with the Apostolic witness, and the early Church Fathers to see Jesus in every nook and cranny of the text of Holy Writ. If we are going to err, let us err in this direction rather than in the alternative directions which read the confessional and canonical and covenantal Jesus out of the text, only to displace Him with their own culturally-conditioned lenses that end up looking like the collective-cultural-self.

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 64-5.

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