Much of the popularity and passion for this discussion has centered on the question: what is the biblical and theological basis for Christ-centered hermeneutics? The issue of context is important here, especially for understanding the meaning of a biblical passage.
Some who advocate for a Christ-centered approach to interpreting Scripture talk about the concept of redemptive-historical, or Christocentric interpretation. Which, according to Sidney Greidanus, asks the question: What does this passage mean, not just in the immediate context, but in the context of the whole Bible, and specifically in light of Christ (See Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 230-236)?
The supporters of the Christ-centered method would not belittle the historical grammatical work in studying a biblical passage; they view it simply as one step in the process of biblical interpretation.
A great illustration of the philosophy behind Christ-centered hermeneutics came from Jonathan Akin during our discussion panel, relating to the children's book series Encyclopedia Brown.
"These stories focus on a fifth grader who had his own detective agency and solved mysteries. After you read the story, he solves the case at the end, but the question is always how did he do it? You've got to flip to the back of the book to see how he figured it out. And I was never smart enough to figure out ahead of time myself, so I'd flip to the back and read it. I would then go to the beginning and read the story again. The clues were so clear once I knew the end of the story!"
With that illustration in mind, the question came out as to how one should approach the story of Samson? Obviously, Samson is not about hair, but what is it about?
What Should We Do with Samson?
Akin explained his approach to Samson:
"When you start reading stories like Samson you will see, this is the savior of Israel who is being betrayed for silver by one who is close to him with a kiss. Then he's arrested, mocked, and gains a greater victory through his death than he did in his life. You should read that and say, 'That sounds familiar.'
One of the problems with the other hermeneutic methods is either Samson's a bad figure ('don't be like him') or he's a good figure ('be like him'). Maybe he's just an example of what lust will do to you, or some other moral lesson?
When you look at this story, however, you see a man whose birth was foretold by an angel. His parents weren't naturally able to have children.
All of this is happening in Judges where you have the Exodus being replayed typologically over and over again. They're crying out to God. God hears their cries, sends a deliverer to rescue them. What you're seeing in Judges is that God can deliver through Gideon and an army of 300 people. That is incredible. By the end of the book, however, He's delivering through one man. He's delivering his people through one Spirit-anointed savior.
So, you're going to preach that God raised up this man who is a deliverer, but he fails. He is sinful. He doesn't live out the Genesis 3 kind of hope. He is not the one who is going to completely push back death and completely push back sin and Satan. While Samson was a type, there has to be an escalation to a better."
Generally speaking, we'd all agree with the fact that there is a continual picture of the failure of leaders that points to a leader who would not fail. The difference is in the details. Could it just be that there were a lot of kisses and a lot of silver in the times of the Bible's writing? Are there hermeneutical grounds to make the typological connection that each of these things in the story are hints, like a detective novel pointing to what happens later to Jesus?
After Akin described his method for approaching the story of Samson, Hankins jumped in and argued that typology is just one of several useful hermeneutical tools that you ought to have in the bag.
"But, one can't find typology everywhere. The principles we can draw show the main reason why those earlier saviors wind up as they do. It is because we are sinners in desperate need of God's grace."
All in all, most would agree that the trajectory of Old Testament stories aim us toward Jesus. Goldsworthy has referred to the stories of the judges as 'mini-salvations'. And the flaws of the judges only underscore, as Michael Williams has said:
"…the fact that it was ultimately God who was doing the delivering. And the depressing cycle of rebellion and rescue in the book of Judges only underscores the fact that there needs to be an ultimate divine rescue from the source of that rebellion" (Reading the Bible Through the Jesus Lens, 38).
Another interesting take on Samson comes from Bartholomew and Goheen, who argue:
"Samson is himself an image of what his nation has become: set apart for service to God, yet fatally attracted to paganism…Yet God uses Samson's life and death to deliver Israel" (The True Story of the Whole World, 68-69).
Finally, Ed Clowney's approach would be closest to the hermeneutic Akin argued for. In his little book The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament, he wrote:
"As we have seen, the appointed roles of God's servants point forward to their fulfillment in God's final servant Jesus Christ. They have a symbolic function, providing a key to the way in which the historical narratives of the Old Testament demonstrate types of the work of Christ…[Samson] is to show how God can bring judgment on the foes of His people through one man, equipped by the Holy Spirit…Like Samson, Jesus was bound by the leaders of His own people and handed over to the Gentile oppressors. Like Samson, too, Jesus was mocked as helpless; not blinded, to be sure, but blindfolded; he was made the sport of His captors. Jesus willingly gave up His life. In His death He wrought a deliverance that exceeded the deliverances of His life (135-142)."
A powerful comparison for sure, but is it hermeneutically warranted?
In the end, I would argue that we must look at the immediate and canonical context of a passage to preach it in a hermeneutically responsible way. I also think we can pull principles from Old Testament stories and characters, but that is only one dimension of the story. Consider Trevin's words here:
"You cannot just take these heroes of the faith and only use the moral examples and the principles from these stories. They are telling this bigger story. The reason why it's important is because we want people in our churches to be formed by a biblical perspective on the world. They're not going to be formed by the story—the grand narrative that the Bible tells: creation, fall, redemption, restoration—unless we are constantly giving them that.
If not, they're only going to remember the principles that we pull from a hero. They're going to go to the Bible the way we've conditioned them to go to the Bible. If we establish the wrong pattern, they'll be looking for five steps to this or three steps to that kind of approach to Christianity. They'll go to the Bible looking for themselves rather than looking for Christ."
I would love to hear how you would approach the stories of David and Goliath, and Samson. Join the conversation! Next week Walt Kaiser will add his thoughts, followed by Bryan Chappell. I look forward to seeing where the discussion takes us.