Reading the Bible: Dogmatically or non-Dogmatically, but Dogmatically

Is following a purported “Christ-centered” hermeneutic—of which there is more than one alternative—a dogmatic or systematic theological imposition, or even a “creedal” one over the text of Scripture? Is following a patriarchpurported methodological or principled Christ centered hermeneutic an artificial way to read the Scriptures, with the result of flattening out the various caverns and contours offered by the oft rough edges of Scripture? This is not so easy of a question for me to answer at the moment, but my inclination is to say, NO! It is not artificial, and it is not a theological imposition. Why? Because Jesus apparently offered this kind of hermeneutic himself (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24:44), and the early church seemed to follow an incipient confessional hermeneutic that saw all of the promises made in the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKh) as fulfilled in Jesus, which we now have deposited for us in the New Testament. Indeed what the early church seemed to have been operating with—early on—was a very theological (albeit pre-Nicene) Christ-centered, and quite apocalyptical hermeneutic and reading of the Scriptures. Someone who imbibes this kind of ‘rule-of-faith’ (the early Christ creedal approach) reading of Scripture is none other than Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 202); he was a second century biblical theologian who is known for his run ins with the proto-Gnostics (a dualist sect). As well, he is also known as a disciple of Polycarp, who is purported to be the disciple of the Apostle John; and so he has a rather unique Christian pedigree, and a closeness to the early church that is quite intimate. Irenaeus developed his own style of a Christ-centered hermeneutic in his recapitulation mode of interpretation (which he took over from the Apologist, Justin Martyr), which was given shape as a result of his frequent battles with these incipient Gnostics. Brevard Childs helpfully sketches the main contours of Irenaeus’ approach, which I want to share. Here is Childs on Irenaeus:

Central for Irenaeus was the biblical emphasis that God’s order for salvation had extended from creation to its fulfillment in Christ, as God progressively made himself known in creation, law, and prophecy through the divine Logos. Christian scripture bore witness to Jesus Christ as God’s son and saviour who was from the beginning with God and fully active throughout this entire history (IV .20.1ff). All the economies of God reveal this history of revelation according to its stages which led the church from infancy to perfection. Indeed in his doctrine of ‘recapitulation’ Irenaeus pictured Christ’s joining the end of time with the beginning and thereby encompassing within himself fully the entire experience of Israel and the church (III.21.10–23.8). Because of the unity of God’s salvation, it was absolutely essential to the faith that the two testaments of the Christian Bible be seen as a harmonious witness to the one redemptive purpose in history. Through his use of ‘types’ (IV .14.3) and prophecy (IV .10.1) Irenaeus sought to demonstrate that the two covenants were of the selfsame substance and of the one divine author (IV .9.1). [Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 1993), 31.]

So early on we see a kind of dogmatically rendered hermeneutic that starts with the reality of Christ as the center which serves as the substance and reality of both the Old Testament and what became the New Testament. For Irenaeus, the so called ‘rule-of-faith’ did not represent something that was in competition with Scripture, but in fact reflected apostolic witness to the reality of Scripture that bridged both the Old and New Testament.

What I am wrestling with, is a challenge I was recently given in this regard. I was actually moving along, happily on my way, with a certain constructive view toward a Christ centered (‘depth dimensioned’) hermeneutic that I thought had an ancient pedigree. Indeed, I still think this; but I am having to wrestle, still with what this means beyond principle, and in actual practice. And I want to wrestle with what this means in regard to dealing with the Bible as literature (even if it is unique and sacred). The Bible itself has an ontology (as John Webster likes to point out), and a dogmatic orientation and giveness and place; and so this placement itself supposes upon a certain dogmatic principle (i.e. that God is gracious, and that God has spoken and speaks; triunely so). I simply think it is impossible, and really not advisable, to try and engage with Scripture, hermeneutically, as if it can or should be done non-Dogmatically and non-Ecclesiastically; and more importantly, then, non-Christically. I think to approach Scripture through all of these “non” ways, is really more Englightenment generated, and thus anthropologically generated (which itself is a kind of naturalist Dogmatic approach), than my interlocutors would like to think. Really, though, I don’t think my interlocutors are all that Enlightenment formed; they are just Augustinian, and want to follow a certain salvation-history and pietistic relational reading of the text of Scripture. But let’s be honest, we all follow a dogmatically construed understanding of Scripture; that really isn’t the issue (it is an understood, or should be). The question is: Who is following a more faithful ordering of the dogma? And which dogma (or theological schema) is one following? I hate how this always has to come back to these methodological questions, but it does; and once engaged with at this level, we are better ready to engage the text on its given level—which is to do so ‘in Christ.’

In short: To presume that reading Scripture “Christ-centeredly” is an artificial theological imposition, would be a double edged sword; since reading Scripture as if God has spoken therein is just as much of a theological imposition, respectively. It is better just to be honest, to level the playing field, and admit that reading Scripture as Christians is a highly theological endeavor. The only other alternative, really, is to read it from a naturalist frame of some kind, and who wants to do that?