The Christological Hermeneutic (2)

What’s My Problem Anyway?

So, you ask—and rightly so—“Why do you, as a follower of Jesus, have any problems whatsoever with the Christological Hermeneutic?” Let me say at the outset, I’ve been a follower of Jesus for 46 years and I plan to be a follower of Jesus for the remainder of my life. My reservations about how most Christian scholars utilize the Old Testament as a witness to Jesus and then Jesus as the lens through which they interpret the Old Testament have to do with the fact that most ignore—minimize or attempt to explain away—the obvious polyphonic nature of the Old Testament texts, and the implications of that nature.[1]

On one side of Christological Hermeneutic continuum are those who, like Greg Boyd and Brevard Childs—and so many others—insist that the only way to read the Old Testament is to see Jesus/Christ in virtually every passage. They believe that the New Testament authors took a very creative approach to interpreting many Old Testament passages as prophecies of Jesus Christ. And because they believe these authors were led by the Holy Spirit to do so, we must imitate their example and take it even further than they did; that is, to see that the entire Old Testament’s goal and purpose was (and is) to be a witness to Jesus Christ.[2]

Now, to begin my answer to that very legitimate question, I will borrow some thoughts from the well-known and highly respected Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann:

To limit the reading of the Old Testament text to what is useful for Christian theology— that is, for witness to Jesus Christ—means that much in the text must be disregarded … [and thus] such an overtly christological reading of the Old Testament is not credible or responsible. … In my judgment, an Old Testament theology should make texts and their claims available for Christian theological usage, but with the clear and modest recognition that they are not exclusively available for Christian theological usage, and with an awareness that Christian theology may be allied with and instructed by the ways these same texts are taken up by others.[3]

I find the claim of many Christian scholars to be untenable and insulting[4]—that is, that the Christological Hermeneutic is the only correct lens through which to interpret Scripture and that somehow it “magically”[5] solves virtually all the obvious inconsistent, contradictory, and objectionable portraits of God in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is untenable because such a view portrays God as one who lies (or allows lies) about the divine nature and will to confuse people. Yet, that very same “inspired” scripture teaches that God cannot lie and that God despises, opposes, and will judge all liars.[6] It is insulting because it implies that anyone who doesn’t see Christ in virtually every passage of scripture is just too lazy to dig deep and correctly understand what these texts reveal about God’s nature, working and will.

For those zealous apologists who hold to the inspiration of the biblical texts and/or the biblical authors, editors, and creators of the canon, their application of the Christological Hermeneutic creates more problems than it solves. To explain away the past or predicted violence attributed to God in the biblical texts as an example of divine humility or of God’s attempt to weed out and expose those who are too lazy to dig deep is not only not helpful, for me, it is intellectually and spiritually indefensible. Either God is a divine warrior who commits, commands, and condones acts of violence or the creators of the biblical texts often got God wrong in that they portrayed their God in ways comparable to how their Mediterranean and Near East neighbours portrayed their gods.

I agree with Brueggemann as he states,

[I]t is not surprising that Old Testament theology has been conducted on the assumption that the Old Testament is integrally and exclusively aimed at the New Testament … [and thus] it is altogether understandable that Old Testament theology should have become a major contributor to supersessionism, whereby Jewish religious claims are overridden in the triumph of Christian claims.[7]

However, while it may be “not surprising” and “altogether understandable” it doesn’t mean readers of the Bible are intellectually or spiritually forced to accept such an exclusive hermeneutic. Again, in agreement with Brueggemann it is also clear to me “that the Old Testament does not obviously, cleanly, or directly point to Jesus or to the New Testament.[8] Therefore, he suggests that Christian interpreters of the Old Testament ought to consider the following maneuvers:[9]

  1. One must recognize that the Old Testament is powerfully polyphonic in its testimony … Nothing about the theological claims of the Old Testament is obvious or one-dimensional. They remain remarkably open.
  2. The elusive quality of the text, moreover, invites interpretation that is free, expansive, and enormously imaginative. Thus, I insist that expansive, imaginative interpretation is not an illicit abuse of the text. It is rather activity permitted and insisted on by the text.
  3. With the recognition that the text is polyphonic and elusive and insists on imaginative construal, it is then credible and appropriate to say that the early church, mesmerized by the person of Jesus, found it inescapable that it would draw this elusive, polyphonic text to its own circumstance, close to its experience, its memory, and its continuing sense of the transformative presence of Jesus. Thus as a confessing Christian, I believe that the imaginative construal of the Old Testament toward Jesus is a credible act and one that I fully affirm.
  4. However, to insist that the Old Testament is available for theological interpretation only in light of the New Testament—as most Christian interpreters I’ve read either state or imply—“is inherently reductionist, because it reduces the polyphonic, elusive testimony of the Old Testament to one single, exclusivist construal, namely the New Testament-christological construal, thereby violating the quality of generative openness that marks the Old Testament text. … The Christian imaginative construal of the Old Testament moves well beyond anything to be found in the Old Testament.

Brueggemann insists,

[I]f the church has no interpretive monopoly on the Old Testament, then it must recognize the legitimacy of other interpretive communities, of whom the primary and principal one is the Jewish community.[10]Thus our most passionate affirmation of Jesus as the ‘clue’ to all of reality must allow for other ‘clues’ found herein by other serious communities of interpretation. And of course this applies to none other so directly as it does to Judaism. Thus Christians are able to say of the Old Testament, ‘It is ours,’ but must also say, ‘It is not ours alone.’[11]

So, what’s my problem with a Christological Hermeneutic? My problem is that when this lens is zealously presented as the only true way to correctly read and interpret the biblical texts, it is exclusivist, supersessionist, reductionist, inspirationalist, canonical, anachronistic, and ignores—explains away or minimizes—the reality of biblical polyphony. So much more could be said—and probably should—but I’ll close out this brief two-part series with a quote from the late Rachel Held-Evans.

In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.[12]

[1] I have written several articles on the concept of biblical polyphony, so I’m not going to explain or justify that conviction here. If that concept is new to you or you need a refresh, then please read one or more of the following articles on my blog: “Brueggemann and Fretheim on Biblical Polyphony,” “Jewish Theologians and Biblical Polyphony,” “Pinnock and Held-Evans on Biblical Polyphony,” “Factors Which Produced Biblical Polyphony,” “New Testament Polyphony Explained,” and/or one of five articles on “Thoughts on Gillingham’s book, ‘One Bible, Many Voices,’”.

[2] Please go back to the previous article and read the selection of quotation from Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God of how dogmatically he insisted that the only correct way to read the Bible is to see Jesus Christ in virtually every passage of the Old Testament. He makes the following bold claim: “Christian thinkers after the fifth century generally did not appreciate the intensity of the NT’s Christocentric orientation as profoundly as Origen and other Christian thinkers before this time. This present chapter is designed to address this longstanding oversight!” (Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 93)

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 93.

[4] Sharon L. Baker Putt states, “But what about the violent passages? How do we find purpose in those, and how should we interpret them? Again, we turn to Origen for some answers. He believes that the treasures of God’s wisdom are hidden from slothful people who do not want to take time to dig for it.” (A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostles’ Creed [Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2021], 82.) Several other scholars also look to Origen’s belief that inconsistent, contradictory, and objectionable portraits of God are included in “inspired” scripture in order to frustrate lazy Bible readers who are unwilling to invest the time and energy to dig deep!

[5] As Boyd states, “I will argue that when the Christocentric norm is understood in this cross-centered fashion, it functions as the “magic-eye” that reframes all of Scripture’s violent portraits of God, disclosing how even portraits of God commanding genocide and smashing families are “God-breathed” for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to the cross.” (Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 140).

[6] For example, read Proverbs 6:16-19; Hebrews 6:18; Revelation 21:8. According to “inspired” scripture, God cannot lie! Also, God hates and will punish all liars in the eternal lake of fire! For God to “inspire” the biblical writers to promote false portraits of the divine nature and lie about God’s involvement in acts of extreme violence is simply unbelievable.

[7] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 729.

[8] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 731.

[9] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 731–732.

[10] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 733.

[11] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 735.

[12] Rachel Held-Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012, Kindle Edition), 17.

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