The Problem with Christocentric Readings

Christocentric readings of the Bible have been around for a very long time but they have fairly recently come in vogue among theologically erudite Christians. Now there are different understandings of what it is but it literally means seeing Christ at the centre of whatever you read in the Bible. While I have appreciated the sincere sentiment behind it I have always been suspicious of it.

I was very uncomfortable with the tendency of Christocentric approaches to de-emphasize the plain meaning of a text thereby sidelining the need to do cold, hard exegesis. Exegesis cannot be glossed over because it is how we recover the literal meaning of a text. I discovered that this was a common criticism of Christocentric readings. While trying to point this and many other problems out, I realised it was more complex than I had anticipated. What makes tackling it so hard is that Christocentric reading is a comprehensive paradigm for interpreting Scripture. Therefore, deconstructing this interpretive philosophy would take more than a single blog post. The goal of this post is to as concisely as I can outline why I think Christocentric reading is wrong.

It is usually the Hebrew Bible which is read in a Christocentric manner because unlike the New Testament it does not explicitly talk about Jesus. As such it is used to uncover the hidden Christological content that is supposedly found on every page of the Jewish Scriptures. To show how Israel’s sacred scriptures anticipate Jesus those who take a Christocentric approach often read it typologically. A type in Christian theology is a foreshadow, sign or symbol in the Hebrew Bible of something in the New Testament. There is of course abundant precedent in the New Testament for this and other Christocentric interpretive approaches. The problem is when they are extended to cover how the entire canon should be read. What happens is if the plain contextual meaning of the text is in the way of a Christocentric reading, which to be frank is always the case in the Hebrew Bible, the Christocentric interpreter will often decontextualise the text by symbolically interpreting it so it can then be typologically read as representing Jesus. Other interpretive methods used in the service of Christocentric readings involve decontextualising passages.

The pioneering work of Richard Hays and other New Testament scholars who have followed his lead has demonstrated there are discernible principles the New Testament writers used to read and appropriate the Hebrew Bible which were still undergirded by the plain meaning of the text. Hays calls this “figural” interpretation or “reading backwards.” This is part of a broader intertextual interpretive approach found throughout the wider Greco-Roman world. Figural reading is a form of typological reading however, it preserves the contextual meaning of the past event that is being symbolically reinterpreted for a new context. It therefore adds a new dimension of meaning instead of ignoring the previous one. In this intertextual dynamic the old adds depth to the new and the new adds depth to the old.

Within this framework it is evident New Testament writers were selective about which passages could be interpreted figurally or more broadly intertextually. This indicates they did not believe every passage could be interpreted that way. Whether the literal meaning of a text in the Hebrew Bible lent itself to a figural reading or not the literal meaning still remained and had to be reckoned with. This is true of all intertextual interpretations of the Old and New Testaments, we first encounter the plain sense of the text even if we later on jettison it. Since the plain sense is always there we cannot avoid doing the task of exegesis because that is how among other interpretive factors we recover the inherent meaning of any text, as intended by the author, within its original historical and social context.

Over 150 years of academic exegesis has definitively proven the literal meaning of ancient texts is not obvious to a modern reader. There are of course limitations to how well we can do exegesis but it is imperative if we want to actually know the plain meaning of a text, especially one from a distant land in the distant past. The Bible consists of a diverse range of texts written over a long period of time in diverse historical settings. Therefore, discerning the meaning of the canon as a whole is more than the culmination of the results of exegeting each individual passage. However, we do have to start on the solid exegetical ground of the literal meaning of each text because that is the first thing each text presents us. From there we can work our way up to added layers of meaning. For example, from a literal reading of the biblical texts there are various intertextual references that point to a unifying canonical metanarrative. Again this canonical interpretation is not a strict product of exegesis yet it depends on exegesis among other things to be a meaningful and valid interpretation.

I prefer exegetically grounded interpretations because they are based on data, in this case the textual data of what is actually written. Every interpretation, even exegetically creative ones, have to be consistent with the text. The text is a publicly accessible benchmark against which all interpretations can be measured. With this we can readily evaluate and distinguish what interpretations are valid or at least more likely than others. In other words we can find the most credible or plausible meanings of the biblical texts among the unending plethora of possible meanings.

Christocentric readings on the other hand are not strictly based on evidence from the textual data but rather the a priori assumption that we know all Scripture is about Jesus because God has divinely “authored” it that way. On a cosmic scale yes everything is about Jesus since “through him are all things” however, that does not tell us before hand what a text says. As I said before, there is no evidence that every single thing written in the Bible is Christological. In fact any time the common Christocentric approaches are applied such as typological, allegorical and symbolic readings, it is a tacit admission that what is written is not explicitly Christological.

Christocentric readings ignore the plain meaning of a text which violates the normal rules of human communication. For communication to work the sender and the receiver must both understand the language the message is encoded in. If God has “authored” Scripture in human language then we can safely assume the ordinary conventions of human communication apply to the text therefore, we should read and understand it accordingly. In other words a Christocentric reading fundamentally misunderstands what the divine word is, that it is God’s words in human words.

To say Scripture is “about” Jesus can mean different things. It’s very hard to prove the presupposition of a Christocentric hermeneutic that every passage is about Jesus, especially in the Hebrew Bible. It is much easier to demonstrate that Jesus, and those who followed him, fundamentally believed that the story of God and his chosen people climatically led to him. Instead of every passage in the Bible being about Jesus it is rather the canonical metanarrative that climaxes in him. This is known as a Christotelic reading, that is Christ is the telos or the end goal of the Hebrew Scriptures. We move from the Christotelic Old Testament to the Christocentric New Testament.

By first presupposing an overarching narrative, the writers of the New Testament were able to creatively interpret particular passages in the Hebrew Bible as anticipating Jesus in some form by drawing on the plain contextual meaning of the original text seen through the lens of the Christ event. That is how we should also read the Bible.


Header Image: The Road to Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell

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