Friday, June 27, 2014

For Our Instruction

It seems to me that some advocates of a Christ-centered approach to the Old Testament (i.e. “every text is about Christ”) end up making Christ and the gospel one-dimensional. They criticize the more popular approach to preaching and teaching the OT, which largely draws moral lessons from OT characters and circumstances (“Dare to be a Daniel,” that sort of thing). Instead, they say, we need to be teaching Christ. “We’re not David the giant-slayer; Jesus is David, and we’re the terrified Israelites.” “Ruth isn’t about how to treat your family members; it’s about the kinsman redeemer, who typifies Christ,” etc.

And that’s all well and good as far as it goes. I enjoy hearing Christ preached explicitly from those famous stories. And he is the point of the whole Bible, to be sure. Christ is what makes the Bible one book, as Michael Kruger says. This is all true. Amen and amen. But on the whole, I think the “Christ-centered” approach, at least in its current manifestation around these parts, is more misguided than it is helpful.

Every text is about Christ, but texts are about him in different ways. For starters, it’s worth pointing out that the authors of the New Testament very often do precisely the sort of thing that the “Christ-centered” guys roll their eyes at. For example, the writer of Hebrews points to various OT characters as examples of faith and obedience (Heb. 11). Paul does something similar in 1 Corinthians, only there he speaks of the idolatry of the Israelites as an example of what not to emulate: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). Peter speaks to Christian women as the daughters of Sarah and exhorts them to follow her example of submission (1 Pet. 3:5). So anyone who is principially opposed to moralizing from the OT needs to read his Bible more.

But more fundamentally, behind this insistence on “Christ-centered” interpretation there seems to be an assumption that teaching Christ should be sharply distinguished from moral exhortation. But this is wrong-headed. When it comes to teaching Christ, there’s more to it than teaching about him. Consider Ephesians 4:19-20. Paul points to the godless Gentiles whose lives are marked by sensuality and impurity, but then he tells the Ephesians, “But that is not the way you learned Christ.” So when the Ephesians were going through their new members class, and were being taught to change their moral behavior, exercise self-control, and be pure, they were learning Christ. This means that moral instruction is part of what it means to teach Christ. So when we draw legitimate moral applications from the lives of Old Testament saints, we are in fact teaching Christ – the same Christ in whom those saints were hoping (1 Cor. 10:4; Heb. 11:26).

On a related note, the simplistic “Christ-centered” mindset that I’m critiquing strikes me as the same kind of thinking that would lead some to consider the book of James as being somehow light on the gospel, since it mainly consists of practical exhortations. But this too reflects faulty assumptions. Doug Wilson began a sermon series on James with this remark:
“Some Christians have found [the book of James] a little deficient in gospel, but this is largely the result of a deficient view of Scripture coupled with a deficient view of the nature of gospel.”
James is actually full of gospel. It’s a gospel that touches the ground; a gospel that has arms and legs. It isn’t confined to a set of theological truths concerning atonement and justification, as vital and essential as those truths are. The gospel isn’t just an indicative to be believed, but an imperative to be obeyed (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17). The gospel relates to all of life. It gets into everything. So if we aren’t exhorting Christians to be conducting themselves in step with the gospel (Gal. 2:14), then we’re not proclaiming the gospel anymore, and we’re not teaching Christ anymore.

No comments: