This is the first installment in a series of posts examining Christ-Centered hermeneutics. I have asked several leading theologians to examine and discuss Christ-Centered preaching over the next few weeks.
Dr. Daniel Block (Wheaton College) — part two
Dr. David Murray (Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) — part one
Dr. Walt Kaiser (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)
Dr. Bryan Chapell (Grace Presbyterian in Peoria, IL)
We will also post sections of a discussion panel between me, Trevin Wax, Dr. Eric Hankins, and Dr. Jon Akin that was hosted by The Gospel Project.
This is part one from Daniel I. Block (D.Phil., University of Liverpool). Daniel is the author of several books and commentaries and currently serves as the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.
Encountering Christ-Centered Preaching
I cannot remember a time in my life when Christ-centered preaching was not high on the agenda. Growing up in the home of a Mennonite Brethren minister in rural northern Saskatchewan, visiting preachers were regular overnight guests in our house. I remember well my father's conversations with some of them, focused particularly on preaching Christ.
My earliest concrete memory of the application of the concern involved a preacher we had at our church for our annual winter Bibelwoche (Bible week). The guest preacher spoke every night on Elijah and Elisha. I shall never forget my mother's response after one of these sessions in which he had waxed particularly allegorical and Christological: "I can't believe how he is able to get all that out of the text?"
For her this was a great gift; decades later, for me it became a great concern.
Is this exegesis [getting a message out of a text] or eisegesis [getting the text to say what you want it to say]? Even so, I am deeply grateful for my mother's piety and her spiritual concern for me and my ministry. Indeed one question she raised to me directly still rings in my ears.
Almost two decades after I had been teaching courses on the Old Testament at Providence College outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, and preaching in many churches, she asked me, "But do you love Jesus? And do you preach Jesus?" These questions have colored my life and ministry for more than forty years.
Actually, many if not most preachers in North America think little about Christ-centered preaching. Those who preach topical sermons tend to address felt needs and view their role as providing practical guidance for everyday life. They view their role as that of a motivational speaker or pulpit psychologist or economist, delivering modern versions of the message of ancient fertility religions. More serious expositors do not think enough about the question for more positive reasons; because they preach primarily, if not exclusively, from the New Testament their preaching is almost by definition Christ-centered.
However, the question concerns those who seek to give their congregation access to the entire Scriptures, including the First Testament. But not knowing what to do with much of it, they imagine "finding Christ in every text" to be the key to transformative preaching from the only Bible Jesus and the apostles had.
The Potential Benefits and Pitfalls of Christ-Centered Preaching
The benefits of Christ-centered preaching are obvious:
- Christ-centered preaching has a long history, beginning with the apostles, the church fathers, the reformers (especially Luther), and extending to more a recent revival Christ-centered preaching in some circles.
- It preserves focus and unity in our preaching.
- It satisfies our pietistic impulses to highlight personal spiritual relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
- It fulfills what many consider to be the Pauline mandate of preaching—to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2).
- It seeks to find and highlight the unity of the biblical message and to focus on the redemptive historical and theological theme of the Bible. The Scriptures describe the grand mission of God which finds its climax and fulfillment in Christ. Why would one not desire Christ-centered preaching?
However, preoccupation with Christ-centered preaching poses several serious dangers.
Christo-centric preaching often morphs into a Christo-centric hermeneutic, which demands that we find Christ in every text. On the surface it may appear spiritually edifying, but it is exegetically fraudulent to try to extract from every biblical text some truth about Christ. The Scriptures consist of many different genres and address many different concerns. Not all speak of Christ. We would improve our hermeneutic if we interpreted the Old Testament Christotelically rather than Christocentrically. While it is hermeneutically irresponsible to say that all Old Testament texts have a Christocentric meaning or point to Christ, it is true that all play a significant role in God's great redemptive plan that leads to and climaxes in Christ. This means that as a Christian interpreter my wrestling with an Old Testament text must begin with trying to grasp the sense the original readers/hearers should have got, and authoritative preaching of that text depends upon having grasped that intended sense first.
Christ-centered preaching may obscure the intent of the original author and in so doing may actually reflect a low view of Scripture. It will not do to cite Luke's statement in Luke 24:27 that Jesus explained to the Emmaus disciples "what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (NIV). This is not a declaration that Jesus went through the Scriptures and showed how each text spoke of him, but that he explained to them all those texts that spoke of him. Few proverbs in the book of Proverbs speak of Jesus; the author's intent in gathering these collections was to help a righteous person may make his way through life [the proverbs are addressed to a young man].
Rather than clarifying many First Testament texts, Christ-centered preaching may rob them of both their literary quality and their spiritual force. When we bury texts under layers of fanciful allegorical and Christological speculations people may actually learn more about the creative genius of the preacher than the divinely intended message of the biblical authors.