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Christology and hermeneutics

It's common to see a link between christology and our approach to the bible.  There are limits to this but also benefits.  Our approach to both Christ and the bible requires us to encounter something fully human which nonetheless is the Word of God.  Christology can therefore teach us a great deal about how the bible as fully human can nonetheless be a fully divine revelation.

In my last post I discussed christology.  Namely, the (chronological and methodological) priority of Nicea over Chalcedon.  What this means is that we must linger long over Nicea's declaration that Jesus (born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate) is of one being with the Father (homoousios).  The Man Jesus exists wholly within the triune relations which constitute God's being.  Whatever else Chalcedon protects - it does not protect Christ's humanity from that Nicene homoousios.  The fully human Jesus is a full participant in this divine nature.  In this way we protect against a Nestorianism which always threatens to divorce the humanity from the divinity.

What we can then say is this:

  1. Nestorianism is rejected: In Jesus' humanity (and not apart from it) God is revealed.  To put it another way: As the Man Jesus (and not in some other realm of locked-off deity) He brings divine revelation and salvation.
  2. Adoptionism is rejected: It is not the case that the humanity comes first and is then taken up into deity.  The Word became flesh, not the other way around!
  3. Docetism is rejected: It is not the case that the humanity is an unreal facade which we must push beyond to get to the real (divine) Jesus. 

What would this mean when applied to biblical interpretation (i.e. hermeneutics)?  Given our OT focus in the last few posts - what would it mean in particular for OT interpretation?

I suggest it means this: 

  1. Nestorianism is rejected: In the humanity of the OT (it's immediate context, complete Jewish-ness, thorough Hebrew-ness) its divine Object (Christ) is revealed.  As the prophetic Israelite Scripture that it is (and not in some other locked-off realm of meaning) it is Christian, i.e. a proclamation of Christ.
  2. Adoptionism is rejected: It is not the case that a lower-level of Jewish meaning comes first and is then added to as it's adopted as Christian Scripture (by the NT).  From the beginning, at the very roots of its being, the OT is Christian/Messianic.  It is not first Hebrew Scripture and then Christian revelation rather it is Christian revelation that presupposes and brings about the Hebrew Scriptures.
  3. Docetism is rejected:  Having said all this I'm in no way denying the distinctly Israelite/Hebrew/pre-Gentile-inclusion/Mosaic-administration ways in which the Christ is proclaimed.  In its own context and on its own terms the OT will proclaim Christ to us.  We do not ignore contemporary details - rather we take them very seriously as that in which Christ is made known.


If the christological analogy holds and if this christology is right then I think we need to rule out certain brands of hermeneutics.  In particular we should be wary of any theory of interpretation that separates out Jewish-ness and Christian-ness in the OT.

On a similar note, I recently found a great short article on this hermeneutical issue by Nathan Pitchford.  His argument is that the reformers' notion of the literal meaning of the text was not something different to its christological meaning. It was the christological meaning.  You can also check out his excellent OT series here.



0 thoughts on “Christology and hermeneutics

  1. Steve

    Great stuff, Glen. I've been wading through Brevard Childs. His 'Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture' seems to exemplify the problem. In it he very self-consciously treats the OT as scripture... but not Christian scripture! He argues that we must listen to 'the discrete witness' of the Old Testament and then listen to it in the wider canonical context created by accepting the NT. He draws the logical (though terrifying) conclusion to his own approach that the fact that Christ is not mentioned in the OT [his claim] serves to limit the extent to which it can be said that God is known in and through Jesus Christ. Another consequence for him is that OT texts have two meanings, according to which canonical context they are being read it: as Hebrew Scriptures or as Old Testament! It seems to me that the notion often pushed that the prophets spoke better than they knew is only another version of Childs' basic problem: his Christology. As you say, Christ is not just the content of the Scriptures, but our logic also!

  2. glenscriv

    Wow. I'm sorry for your 'wading'. That's why blogging is so much more fun than a PhD. No 'wading' for me to do if I don't wanna. Just endless unsubstantiated pontifications! But I'm very glad you can bring in Childs as exhibit A.

    Do you think it's too much to say 'discrete witness' in OT hermeneutics goes hand in hand with 'discrete humanity' in christology? I see the two going together pretty universally. So with Childs we've got nestorianism and then we 'progress' to adoptionism when we get to 'the wider canonical context created by accepting the NT.' And all because there's an underlying suspicion that the humanity (either of Scripture or of Christ) is incapable of truly revealing the divine - hence we're all docetic's. That's why I picked on those three heresies (but I'm sure we could come up with many more).

    And throbbing away is this belief that you identify: God is not known in Christ alone - Christ is not *the* Word of God (merely the seal of a series of improving revelations). Is Childs dispensational pre-mill by any chance? (All this 'discrete' Jewish stuff that runs on parallel tracks points strongly in that direction). It's often difficult to figure out which belief is informing which - is it a denial of revelatory solus Christus => dispensationalism or vice versa. What do you think?

  3. Phil Sumpter

    Steve, I'm writing my doctorate on the “canonical approach,” and having read almost nothing but Childs for the past year I find your comments surprising indeed! Childs totally affirms everything Glen posted here, and explicitly so (though perhaps not all in his Introduction).

    He explicity says that the literal sense is Christ (though in an unpublished dialogue), he has argued the very category “Hebrew Bible” is untenable for the Church, and that the OT is a witness to a single reality which is Christ. Childs was profoundly Barthian.

    In relation to the “discrete” witness of each Testament, this is an affirmation of Glen's comments that the NT alone is not the Gospel, but rather a witness to the one Gospel that stands behind both testaments. To say that there are two levels of meaning, the sensus literalis and the sensus spiritualis is to affirm the incarnational theology Glen speaks of. It is through the sensus literalis (i.e. the discrete witness of each testament) that the sensus spiritualis is made clear. They are both part of the same reality, not two distinct realities tacked together. The analogy is with the Gospel of Mark: the author makes clear from the outset that he understands Jesus from a post-resurrection perspective (the deeper “spiritual” understanding of his identity), yet nevertheless he makes clear that it is through his humanity that the resurrected Christ is made known. Respecting the literal sense of the OT and a vehicle for the spiritual is not “adoptionist” or “nestorian,” is incarnational.

    The best place to read this is Childs' Biblical Theology, which puts the Introduction in its place. You can also read three essays of his on this issue here.

  4. glenscriv

    I haven't read Childs myself so I'll just pick out what I see to be two issues in the overall discussion.

    1) Is Christ *the* Word of God or just the ultimate word?

    2) Does 'discrete witness' mean simply that we take the context seriously; or does it mean there is a separable prior-step in biblical revelation that does not already set its sights on Christ?

    It sounds like all three of us want to take the former position on both those points. The latter position would make us Arian (on 1) and (hermeneutically) Nestorian (on 2)

    It sounds like Steve's reading things in Childs which have sounded like the latter positions. I.e. regarding 1), Because Christ is not in OT this limits the extent to which we can say God is revealed in Jesus. And regarding 2), there are two meanings in the one text.

    But Phil, you're saying Childs makes it clear in 'Bib theology' that he means the former on both those issues. Is that fair?

    Like I say, I can't comment - but perhaps you two doctoral students can sharpen each other.

    I've found Barth in 'Homiletics' (p80-81) helpful:

    “the literal sense” does not exclude Christ but has its “sights [set] on Christ. As a wholly Jewish book, the Old Testament is a pointer to Christ.”

    “the natural sense is the issue… [we do not] give the passage a second sense... this passage in its immanence points beyond itself… The Old Testament points forward, the New Testament points backward, and both point to Christ.”

  5. Phil Sumpter


    I'm - unfortunatley - not a dogmatician, so I'm not sure what you mean by Christ potentially being "the ulitmate word." For Childs, Christ is the ultimate referent of the text. Here's a quote from one of his older works, where he talks of the inbreaking of a vision of a broader reality in the Old Testament:

    "The ultimate criterion for determining the new reality does not lie within the Old Testament. In Jdesus Christ the new reality has appeared as the self-authenticating 'New Israel'. As the truly obedient man Jesus is the new existence in its fullest and most concrete form. 'Indeed an Israelite in whom there is no guile'. Not just in his teachings or in his particular actions, but in the total existence of the Jew, Jesus Christ, the entire Old Testametn receives its proper perspective. It is fulfilled in its odedience, but judged in its disobedience." (Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, 1960:4).

    Discrete witness means that there are multiple ways of witnessing to Christ and they need to be taken seriously on their own terms. Thus, for example, reading Jesus into the OT narrative is a mistake as it violates the narrative integrity of the Old Testament. That is not to say, however, that there is an ontological relation between the narrative and Jesus. It also belongs to the character of the OT that it is primarily "promise," whereas the NT is "fulfilment." These are two different modes of witnessing to the one reality. If we are to take Barth's insight seriously that the reality which is witnessed to is outside the text, then we need to posit different levels of meaning. The point is not that these levels exist, but rather the nature of the relationship between them. In Childs essay "Does the OT witness to Jesus Christ" (1997, I believe), he talks of a movement from concrete witness on its own terms, to is place within the total canon, to its place within the dogmatic construals of the church (the reality itself). But they don't occur in succession, rather they are dialectically related to each other. And the key point is that they are part of one process, and not different levels of meaning disconnected with each other, as happened in the medieval period.

    Steve said: Because Christ is not in OT this limits the extent to which we can say God is revealed in Jesus. I don't know where Childs says this. It sounds very un-Childslike to me.

    Childs' Biblical Theology is a different genre to his Introduction. He deals with different questions, such as the nature of Chrsitian truth, meaning and the function of canon. He makes what I have said quite clear there - I think at least.

  6. Phil Sumpter

    On this issue, it may be interesting to compare a "Chrisotological" hermeneutic with a "trinitarian" hermeneutic. I believe the latter goes some way to explaing the need for the discrete witness of the OT. James Barr has a great quote on this here.

  7. glenscriv

    Interesting Phil, really appreciate those quotes. I'll come clean and say I'm naive enough to believe in (and champion in my own very limited way) an inherent christological witness - intended from the outset by Moses and the Prophets and comprehended by the faithful even in its own context and on its own terms.

    I go into this in some detail in this series:

    I argue this since:

    1) Solus Christus in revelation applies in both testaments (which I believe is a position well supported by the early church and reformers, and is the proper understanding of such crucial scriptures as Matt 11:27; John 1:18; 14:6; Col 1:15)

    2) The NT speaks of authorially intended OT witness to Christ (eg Acts 2:30-31)

    3) The OT is misunderstood on its own terms if its inherent trinitarian/christological witness is ironed out (this last point is the burden of the posts in this series).

    Given your particular interest in the Psalms, I speak about them here:

    I fear you may see my position as 'reading Jesus in' to the OT (though I claim He's already there). But I am glad to see you championing the ontological link b/w narrative and Christ (I'll have to read more of your blog to see you fill out what that means). I'm also glad to see you rejecting 'successive' meanings and 'different levels'.

    I'll be very interested to explore more of your own site.
    Thanks, Glen.

  8. Phil Sumpter

    I'm sorry it's taking me so long to reply to this; I can't seem to stay on top of things. I'd be delighted of course for your critical response to my posts: don't hold back, just dive in!

    I noted your thread, which looks fascinating. I intend to get into it soon. Till then, some brief comments:

    - I don't see how the verses in 1) justify seeing authorial intention in the OT referencing Christ. Even if they did, it depends what one means by "Christ." Christ as his disciples knew him, Christ in his fullness as the second person of the Trinity (which his disciples did not fully comprehend)? The real Jesus, i.e. not the Jesus of individual texts but rather the Jesus of the whole text, explodes the categories of each part. Thus we need to be clear when we say the authors of the OT were consciously referencing Christ. Who is Christ?

    - Concerning point 2), I think we need to be clear about figures of speech etc. This kind of language is used all over the NT, but often it assumes a more typological link rather than a consciously intended one. And even if the NT authors did think that, I'm not sure we are required to ... but I'm still trying to get my head round that.

    - Concerning point 3): sure ... we just need to be careful about what mean mean by those realities and how witnessing works ...

    I don't reject different levels of meaning, I believe they are theologically required (see my comments on the gospel of Mark). The point is that the different levels need to be intrinscially connected to each other such, that the there is a smooth movement (e.g. understanding the resurrected Christ through the earthly and not collapsing the two into one category. They are connected, yet distinct, and importantly so. This, for me, is the beauty of incarnational theology. To say that Jesus himself is present in the OT in the same way he is present in the NT would - as far as I can see- mean that we only have the spirit and no longer the earthen vessels).

    I look forward to interacting with you more! Thanks for taking the time.

  9. glenscriv

    Hi Phil, thanks very much for the comments. I'm tempted to respond now but I should really get on with the sermon I'm writing. Revelation 22. Enjoying it greatly! I'll be in touch later though.


  10. Steve

    Glen, Phil

    Apologies for my previous 'hit and run' approach to posting! Was busy with a deadline (now past). Phil, it's good to hear from you. Thank you for your comments and for helping me understand Childs a little more clearly. Also, by way of apology I need to clarify that the point I attributed to Childs (re. the way in which the lack of OT's explicit mention of Jesus Christ limits the extent to which we can say God is known in/through Christ) was actually from Francis Watson's critique of Childs. Lesson learned: always good to check your sources before ranting online!

    Okay, as I understand Childs he says that Jesus Christ is 'in' the OT in that He is the fulfilment of prophecy: what we might call both verbal and phenomenal... and that there is an ontological link between these 'types' (perhaps not his word!) and Christ Himself. Is that a fair representation?

    I struggle with some of the implications of Childs' comments, such as:

    'If one takes the Old Testament genre of the story seriously as one form of its witness, then to read back into the story the person of Jesus Christ, or to interpret the various theophanies as the manifestation of the second person of the Trinity, is to distort the witness and to drown out the Old Testament’s voice. There is no way of removing the Old Testament’s witness from its historical confrontation with the people of Israel… In classical terminology it is the appeal to the sensus literalis of scripture.' (BTONT, p. 379)

    It seems to me that Childs is operating on a different understanding of 'literal sense' from what pre-Enlightenment thinkers assumed. In C18 the literal sense was divorced from historical referent in the text and was wedded to critically-reconstructed authorial intention. If that's a fair depiction, then I have some concerns here.

    Childs also says things like, when Christians read the OT we come to God we already know - as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But as with the quote above, I have concerns as to how Israel has access to this unmediated Person. If we are to hear the discrete witness of each Testament as Childs argues, it seems that there are points at which these witnesses seem to clash... as in John 1:18; Col. 1:15 etc.

    Does Childs himself speak of the two Testaments witnessing dialectically to Christ? (I seem to remember that kind of language). How does that fit with reading the OT in the light of the 'divine reality' that he advocates in BTONT? Is one reading (i.e. reading the two Testaments' discrete witness cf. reading Scripture in the light of the incarnation)to be prefered over the other? If the latter is prefered, where does that leave the discrete witness? I've read and re-read BTONT and confess I genuinely find this puzzling.... and any help would be appreciated.

    Best wishes,


  11. Phil Sumpter

    Steve, now it's my term to apologize for the late reply. I'm also finding it hard to keep on top of my dead lines. I appreciate your interaction with my comments. Here are my thoughts, for what they're worth:

    as I understand Childs he says that Jesus Christ is ‘in’ the OT in that He is the fulfilment of prophecy

    I don't think he thinks that Jesus is "in" the OT in the sense that you could delineate some texts that refer to him from those that don't. Jesus fulfills the whole of scripture and not just a few future orientated messianic prophecies. How he does that is a the complex matter and involves recognising a depth dimension to meaning. It also involves recognising a depth dimension to Jesus. The Jesus that fulfills the OT is not reducible to the Jesus' of the four gospels. They too are only witnesses to the true Jesus, who in his full identity is the second person of the trinity. So saying that the OT witnesses to Christ involves taking into account at least these two dimensions of the matter. Childs wrote an article on this called "Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?" It was a critical response to Rendtorff, who, despite his commitment to final-form canonical interpretation, distinguishes himself from Childs by arguing that christological exegesis only obscures the OT.

    For a brief online overview of the stages Childs proposes that are involved in "theological" exegesis, see Ollsen's article in the PTR here: My article represents my attempt to come to terms with his overall approach.

    It seems to me that Childs is operating on a different understanding of ‘literal sense’ from what pre-Enlightenment thinkers assumed.

    Childs has written on the development of the meaning of sensus literalis (in "The problem of the >sensus literalis< of Scripture"). He seems to pretty much follow Frei in saying that before the Enlightenment the literal sense was whatever the text said, there being no disjunction between text and reality. Afterwards the literal sense was shifted to its referent, understood either historically critically, i.e. the text meant whatever actually happened, or idealistically, i.e. the text meant whatever the interpreter felt was its deeper meaning. His call to read the final form of the text in its own integrity is an attempt to return to the older way of reading, i.e. the literal sense is the literary sense. He also agrees with pre-Enlightenment interpretation in seeing different levels of meaning. Origen, for example, was aware of different levels and attempted to interprete Scripture by holding them together. Theological exegesis should move through the text to its referent, who is Jesus, but in order to get through the text the text needs to be taken seriously on its own terms. This is what Childs means by taking this particular form of the OT witness seriously. He believes it references Christ as much as Luther did, but how it does that is more complex then Luther anticipated.

    I have concerns as to how Israel has access to this unmediated Person. If we are to hear the discrete witness of each Testament as Childs argues, it seems that there are points at which these witnesses seem to clash… as in John 1:18; Col. 1:15 etc. </em<

    I'm afraid I'm not entirely sure of your point here. Childs believes in progressive revelation. Each part points imperfectly to a single reality. It is in the interplay of parts that the whole emerges (the unity of the manifold, as Barth, or at least his translator, put it). Israel didn't know God the way the early church did, but they didn't know him perfectly. Neither do we. It's an ongoing process, but the way that process proceeds is through a constant syn-opsis (Zusammensehen, again Barth) of the parts in relation to a construal of the whole (the regula fidei). This is to read the two Testaments dialectically, as you say.

    How does that fit with reading the OT in the light of the ‘divine reality’ that he advocates in BTONT?

    You read the OT on its own terms, the NT on its own terms and see how they fit together. This is never done from scratch but involves an assumption concerning who they do actually fit together. The church testifies to one possiblity, the "meta-narrative" of salvation form creation to new creation (á la Irenaeus). This metanarrative (the "divine reality") helps us coordinate the parts, but the parts help us understand this reality in all its depth. The whole process is, well, a whole. No one reading is prefered over another, they are all held in dialectial tension.

    If the latter is prefered, where does that leave the discrete witness?

    Again, the point is that the discreet witness, on its own terms, witnesses to the divine reality. Yet this reality is bigger than the individual part and provides its ultimate context of meaning. The discreet witness has value at one level of interpretation, but unless it is brought into play with the other parts, we are not pressing "through" the text to its referent, Jesus. We need the letter in order to get to the spirit, but without the spirit the letter is dead. It is a multi-level process.

    This is all very abstract and I have to admit I've also struggled with it. I feel I'm making process, but as I read through Childs' Isaiah commentary I'm still being made aware that there are dimensions to Childs' approach that I still haven't grasped. It would be best if I could back all this up with some concrete examples, but unfortunately I don't have any to hand. I believe there is a chapter on Jesus Christ at the end of BTONT. It even starts with the OT and not the NT!

    I hope this helps somewhat. I appreciate being pushed on the subject. If you feel that I'm not being clear or am avoiding your point I'm more than happy to be challenged!

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