Reading the Bible with Christ as Our Lens

I’m regretting a near-omission in my last post. (It was quite long already.) I want to address that and then follow with a more detailed post about biblical interpretation.

In my previous post on Adam Hamilton’s method of reading the Bible, I focused on the interpretive rubric he proposes: love, mercy, and compassion. I relegated to a couple of brief footnotes any discussion of his appeal to Christ as interpretive lens. Because of the significant place that takes in Hamilton’s proposal, I should say more about this––both in praise and critique.

I write this in response to some specific statements by Hamilton, but my interest isn’t so much to criticize him.[note]Adam is a quite prominent public theologian, at least in the UMC. Public debate and discourse are important and helpful and don’t have to reflect any animosity between the persons involved. I have no animosity toward Adam. I disagree with some of his ideas. I worry that our society has come to such a point of confusion about the difference between love and affirmation that we believe any criticism of someone’s position is an attack on that person. If you see anything here that reads as ad hominem and not critical engagement, I’d be happy to know and correct it.[/note] I think he represents a common approach to Scripture, one that’s convincing on the surface and well-intentioned but on closer inspection inadequate. What I’m looking to do here is to propose a better way of reading Scripture for all of us.

Christological Reading

After his appeal to love, mercy, and compassion, Hamilton says, “Most importantly as Christians, we are to read all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ, his life, teachings, ministry, death, and resurrection. He is the only unmitigated Word of God.”

Reading all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ — YES!

We believe that all of Scripture is directed to Christ, the Word of God. He is, as Robert Jenson says it, “God’s agenda in Scripture.” [note]In Canon and Creed, p. 82[/note] I love the way The Jesus Storybook Bible represents this: “Every story whispers his name.”

I didn’t give this much time in the previous article and instead jumped to a discussion of canonical reading. I did that because I believe Hamilton’s version of christological reading is insufficient and one-sided. It appears to give permission to dismiss certain biblical texts if they don’t align with one’s perception of Christ.

Look at this penetrating description from Jenson for a better way:

“[We must teach] with the ancient church, that when God revealed himself to old Israel’s lawgivers, prophets, and sages, it was ‘in the person’ of that same Christ that he was present to them. The indeed singular revelation in Christ includes his presence in the Old Testament: the Word that ‘was in the beginning’ and is incarnate as Jesus (John 1:1-14) is the very Word that ‘came to’ the prophets (e.g., Ezek. 1:3), is offered back to God in the Psalms, and moves Israel’s history (Isa. 55:11). If Christ interpreted the old Scripture ‘with authority,’ as if he were the author, it was because, in the final ontological analysis, that is what he is.

Robert W. Jenson, Canon and Creed, p. 22, emphasis mine.

The kind of christological reading Jenson describes is not one that uses Jesus to judge which portions of Scripture are divine revelation. Instead, it expects to find him in all of Scripture. He is the Word come to the prophets of the Old Testament and proclaimed by the apostles of the New Testament.

So the only proper christological reading of the Bible is a canonical reading. To understand who Christ is, we must consider all of Scripture. And to understand any Scripture, we must consider it in light of Christ, its author. Do you see how this is different from using Jesus to determine which portions of the Bible are divine revelation?

A simple example:

Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” [note]Matthew 7:1[/note] Later, Paul writes about a man in the church committing sexual immorality: “I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.” [note]1 Corinthians 5:3[/note] If we don’t accept all of the Bible as divine revelation, we’re likely to dismiss Paul’s words as merely human. We might even scoff at Paul’s inadequate understanding of his Lord, who taught us not to judge.

If we read the Bible christologically and canonically, we’ll instead ask how the mind and will of God are expressed in both statements. That’s harder work than choosing one passage and dismissing another. And I don’t suggest that it will lead us all to the same conclusions. But it will lead us to better conclusions than assuming we can dismiss any portion of Scripture as less than divine revelation.

I write this to prevent any over-corrections or misunderstandings from my previous post, which nearly neglected christological reading. Christ and canon are both essential sources for biblical interpretation. But there are two more. I’ll discuss them in the next post: Essential Sources for Biblical Interpretation: A new quadrilateral?”