BY RICH LUSK
Jesus Christ is the heart of God’s plan for creation and history. There is no “hidden plan” or “hidden God” lurking behind Christ; rather, in and through Christ God has revealed himself and his intentions towards the world. In Christ, the Father has made known the mystery of his will, which is to gather up all things into a gift for his Son (Eph. 1:3-14).
If Christ is at the center of God’s plan for the ages, he must be at the center of the Bible. The entire message of Scripture is about Jesus Christ, his person, his sufferings, and his glory.
But Christ can never separated from his people. To say the Bible is Christocentric is to say it is ecclesiocentric. Again, Augustine’s first rule of biblical interpretation is totus christus. Christ-centered and church-centered hermeneutics are one and the same. To find Christ in the pages of Scripture is to find his bride.
To understand why a Christocentric reading of Scripture is so important, we need to understand why a Christocentric view of God is important. It is not enough to read the Bible as a book about God; we must learn to read it as a book about God-in-Christ, lest we fall into moralizing and doctrinalizing patterns of interpretation. (Fundamentalists are usually guilty of moralizing OT narratives, while Reformed preachers are more likely to doctrinalize them.)
Jesus Christ reveals the very character and nature of God. To see Jesus is to see what the Father is like. The life of Jesus unfolds for us the very life of God. In the incarnation and the cross, God is not acting out of character; rather this is what he’s really like from the inside. Jesus is the revelation of God in human form.
All this means we must not contemplate God apart from Jesus. All theology is Christology. But it also means we read the Bible as a book about Jesus – or more pointedly, as God’s revelation of himself in and through Jesus. A Christocentric theology feeds into a Christocentric hermeneutics.
However, we can make a brief qualification at this point. To speak of a “Christocentric” approach to Bible reading is fine, as far as it goes. But it also risks the danger of falling back into a flat, abstract, a-historical interpretation of Scripture. For this reason, I agree with Peter Enns (in a recent Westminster Theological Journal article) that it is actually better to speak of Christotelic interpretation (invoking the Greek word “telos,” meaning “end” or “goal”; cf. Rom. 10:4). As Enns points out, the apostles exemplified a Christ-driven interpretation of the OT. The label “Christotelic” reminds us that Scripture is a narrative that is going somewhere – and that “somewhere,” that goal, is Christ himself. The death and resurrection of Christ complete the OT story, just as the OT story prepares the way for the story of Christ. Jesus is the key to biblical interpretation; the whole of Scripture is to be read through a Christotelic, eschatological lens.
The testimony of church history bears this practice out. The best patristics insisted on a Christotelic, typological reading of Scripture. Likewise, the best medieval theologians found the unity of Scripture in Christ. Their fourfold method (the “quadriga”) found Christ in layer upon layer of Scripture’s sensus plenior. Luther and Calvin restored and carried on this heritage of finding Christ in all of Scripture. Other theological giants have done the same in more recent times.
We must read the Bible Christotelically because all of Scripture is held together by its testimony to Christ. The Old Covenant Scriptures foreshadow his coming, often in puzzling and paradoxical ways. The New Covenant records his coming and unpacks its meaning. All the types and shadows of the old aeon converge upon him; from him emerges a new creation and a transformed Israel.
Finding Jesus in the OT is not a matter of picking out isolated prooftexts. When Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 that the death and resurrection of Jesus took place according to the Scriptures, he’s not pointing to one or two random passages; rather, he’s claiming the entire story of the world up to that moment was driving towards these climatic events through which God has punctuated the covenant narrative.
The NT writers essentially retell the story of the world and Israel in light of Christ. Or to be more exact, they draw out what was implicit but hidden in the Old Covenant Scriptures all along, only coming to full light in Christ.
How does Christ fulfill all that went before? Like a prism breaking light up into a beautiful spectrum of colors, the Old Testament presents Christ to us in a wide range of shapes, hues, and tones. Consider a sampling:
And on and on we could go. All God’s promises are yes and Amen in him. Everything written in Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets is fulfilled in him. He is all in all.
Note that reading Christocentrically/Christotelically does not allegorize or de-historicize the text. Rather, as the biblical narrative unfolds, God is gradually maturing his people and preparing them for the coming of his Son. By building certain patterns (or types) and symbols into creation and providence, he paved the way for the revelation of Christ. God’s prior work in history serves as the matrix for understanding his work in Christ’s career.
The Shape and Structure of History
The Bible gives us several different ways of “rightly dividing the word” – that is, of slicing up the basic phases of history. Several examples are plainly given in the NT:
Adam – (law) – New Adam
2 Peter 3
creation – flood – 70 A.D.
Abraham – David – exile – Jesus (14 generation blocks, 6 7 generation periods)
Old Covenant (Moses) – New Covenant (Christ)
Depending on the interpreter’s purpose, one can use any number of structuring devices to look at the architecture of the biblical narrative.
The biblical story is given its shape by the various covenant renewals God makes with his people. Ultimately, there is one covenant – the Triune God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit. God created humanity in order to expand and share the Trinitarian ring of fellowship, love, and joy. Through Christ, humanity has been integrated in the divine family as both bride and daughter. The Triune Covenant between Father, Son, and Spirit, now includes redeemed humanity (Jn. 17).
Thus, the various covenants and covenant renewals we find in Scripture (Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc.) are all manifestations of this one covenant. The covenant matures, or develops, through the course of history, moving from glory to ever greater glory. The story of the covenant is the story of God.
The fact that the covenant finds its basis within the Trinity does not force us into a static “monocovenantalism.” Indeed, the various covenants of history, while partaking of a basic unity in Christ, are also quite diverse. Each covenantal administration has its own integrity, its own unique features.
These covenant renewals in Scripture fall into a pattern, showing both continuity and progress. Each covenant renewal event includes the previous history, but also transforms that previous history into something new. Thus, history has a sort of spiral shape (“eschatologized replication,” I sometimes call it). Understanding this fact enables us to understand the rhythms God has built into history.
The Rhythm of History: Spiral Theology
We can map this out quite simply in several different ways, keeping in mind the major covenant heads (Adam [both pre-fall and post-fall], Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the Restoration Era after the exile, Jesus).
The upward spiral of redemptive history as a whole (focusing on old covenant as preparation):
The pre-fall Adamic covenant + six sub-covenants of the old covenant era + new covenant = eight covenant administrations/epochs
The pre-fall Adamic covenant + priestly-kingly-prophetic cycle x 2 + the new covenant (in which Christ is our priest, king, and prophet) = eight covenant administrations/epochs
Let us look at the pattern in detail, noting that the old covenant era holds together both progress and deterioration. Each covenant administration is better than the previous one, though each one eventually fails until the new covenant is finally inaugurated in its final form.
The original covenant God made with Adam before the fall is described in Gen. 1-2. It is something of a prototype for all later covenants in history. Adam was created to serve God as priest, king, and prophet. As priest, he was to guard the garden-sanctuary as well as his bride. As king, he was God’s vice regent, overseeing God’s earthly kingdom. As prophet, he received God’s word and was to interpret and transform the world accordingly. These three offices constituted Adam’s sonship.
This original covenant did not last long. Adam failed to guard the garden from the serpent, he became discontent with the high position of royalty God had bestowed upon him, and he put the serpent’s word over God’s, changing the world for the worse rather than for the better. As a result, he was cast out of the garden. But before leaving the sanctuary, God promised Adam and his wife a son who would act as redeemer and restore paradise (Gen. 3:15). He sealed this promise with a typological sacrifice and invested Adam and Eve with special garments (which simultaneously humiliated them, by making them look “bestial,” while also encouraging them with the hope that their sin, shame, and nakedness would be covered/atoned).
The covenantal promise of Gen. 3 emphasizes Adam’s ongoing priestly role. Kingly and prophetic roles have been diminished, but the fact that God teaches him to sacrifice indicates that Adam will still serve God as a priest (albeit a priest in exile). We see the outworking of the almost immediately in the Genesis narrative, as Cain and Abel offer sacrifice. Cain does not act as a faithful priest and so his offering is rejected. Later, the Sethites are characterized by their priestly worship, as they called upon the name of God.
But this priestly post-fall covenant begins to go bad when the Sethites (“the sons of God”) begin to intermarry with unbelieving women (“the daughters of men”). Eventually God brings the flood to cleanse the defiled earth and start anew.
After the flood, we find another covenant renewal with Noah. This time, God adds back in kingly prerogatives, as man is given the right to execute murderers. (Remember, earlier, no one could exercise this kind of rule and punish Cain.) This is a sign of greater glory and maturity in the covenant.
This kingly power is abused at Babel, as man tries to raise his throne to the heavens. The Noahic, kingly covenant begins to break down, so the Lord brings judgment. He confuses the people’s language, culture, and worship, scattering them across the earth.
God calls Abraham in the aftermath of the curse at Babel. The family of Abraham is given special rights and privileges, in order to perform their special calling. This calling emerges in Gen. 20, when Abraham becomes the first man in the Bible to be called a “prophet.” Abraham receives a word from God, but is also allowed to speak a word that shapes history. This prophetic wisdom continues to be on display in the careers of Jacob and Joseph.
This completes the first covenant spiral: there is a priestly Adamic covenant, a kingly Noahic covenant, and a prophetic Abrahamic covenant. Then the cycle repeats itself, but with greater power and glory (and greater failure and deterioration).
God’s people fell into bondage in Egypt, but God rescued them through Moses. Through Moses, a new covenant order is established, forming the people into a theocratic nation. But the real focus of the Mosaic covenant is priestly, centered round the tabernacle and the priesthood.
The Mosaic covenant began to break down in the days of Eli. After the ark is lost to the Philistines, it is never returned to the old Mosaic tent. Instead, God moves history forward again by establishing the Davidic covenant. While David and Solomon made important liturgical reforms (e.g., creating the Levitical choir and building the temple), the focus is clearly on kingship and dominion. God promises a Davidic son who will establish a worldwide empire.
But the kings after David and Solomon failed to remain faithful. Finally the north, then the south, faced the curse of exile. But after 70 years of exile (for Judah), God renewed his covenant with them. This is the so-called “Restoration Covenant.” The people returned to the land in a new exodus and a new temple was constructed. But this “new covenant” clearly has a prophetic focus. The prophets dominate this period of Israel’s history. We also find God working on a more international scale (e.g., Daniel, Mordecai), as he did in the earlier prophetic phase of history (e.g., Joseph).
But even this restoration covenant fell apart. The Jews tried to keep covenant blessing and privilege for themselves (e.g., Jonah, Esther, Galatians) rather than offer these gifts to the nations. Finally Jesus, the Covenant Incarnate, entered history. He established the definitive and final new covenant, fulfilling all previous covenantal administrations. In Christ, all God’s people are now priests, kings, and prophets in the fullest sense.
However, the rhythm of history established in the canonical books carries on beyond 70 A. D. The same typological patterns continue to reverberate; the spiral continues to climb. It seems the same priestly-kingly-prophetic cycle is found in the first 2000 years of church history. The early church is a priestly phase, focusing on worship. The church had no political clout, but she faithfully centered her liturgy around the glory of Christ. She focused on priestly concerns of community and mercy. The medieval church was a kingly phase, in which the church exercised political power and enjoyed cultural dominion (though it often abused those privileges). It was a time of flourishing Christian civilization (“Christendom”). The Reformation era was another prophetic epoch, in which the focus was on missions and the power of the word to create new cultures. Luther, and especially Calvin, created the “modern era,” though a counter-word was also spoken by the likes of Darwin, Marx, and Freud. The modern tussle has largely been over whose “word” will shape culture, the believers or the apostates. The break down of modernity and secularization is now giving way to post-modernism, and a new priestly epoch for the church, as faithful Christians are more and more exiled from positions of cultural influence, power, and prestige.
If this sequence is correct, we have much to gain by recognizing that we are probably on the verge of beginning the cycle anew. By discovering where we are in the spiral, we can know what God would have us do. We can dance to God’s rhythms built into the fabric of history. If a new priestly phase is about to begin, our focus should be primarily on faithful worship, teaching, mercy ministry and community formation. These are the needs of the hour. Perhaps is this why, in the providence of God, there has been an explosion of interest in matters of ecclesiology and liturgical theology in the last forty years. It’s a “sign of the times.”