While nearly everyone claims Christocentric exegesis, very few put this interpretative principle into practice. There are two ideas behind Christocentricity: order and focus. To understand the concept of order, the scriptural description of Jesus as the cornerstone proves useful. The cornerstone is the very first stone set in a building, which all subsequent stones are set in reference to. If the cornerstone is set later, it cannot be a cornerstone.
This cornerstone concept bears resemblance to a non-commutative operation in mathematics. A commutative operation, such as multiplication, is something in which the order does not matter. Two times three gives the same result as three times two. Division, however, is non-commutative: the order matters. Two divided by three is not the same as three divided by two.
The interpretation of Scripture is a non-commutative operation: order matters. A somewhat technical example illustrates the importance of sequence. In dispensational eschatology, the Old Testament promises to Abraham and Israel are fixed as the starting point. Dispensationalists thus believe that ethnic Israel will receive the promised land at a future date. Jesus' and the apostles' teachings are subsequently aligned with those promises. This order generates a vastly different eschatology than classical amillenial theology, which begins with the words of Jesus on the two ages.86 By starting with the Old Testament, one arrives at a different conclusion than starting with Jesus' words.
The apostles themselves begin with Jesus in their reading of the Old Testament. Many people have struggled with how quotations from the Old Testament are carried into the New in ways that appear not to square with the original context. A well known example is Matthew's citation from Hosea, "Out of Egypt I called My Son" (Matt. 2:15). While some have argued that Matthew was drawing from Hosea in a way that violated the Old Testament context, this fails to account for the radically Christocentric way that the apostles read the Old Testament. "Christ as the centre of history is the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the Old Testament and its promises."87
Order effectively dictates what is a fixed point (that is, the cornerstone), and what will be cast in reference to that point. With this background, the contrast between the Anabaptist and Protestant understandings of Scripture is more easily understood. Anabaptists have generally begun with the Gospel accounts—Jesus' teachings and examples—while Protestants have generally begun with the epistles, particularly the book of Romans. Neither side claims one set of books to be less inspired, but vastly different theologies emerge because of differing starting points, different cornerstones.
The impact of Romans on Luther's theology is well known. Calvin was similarly affected, as illustrated in his magnum opus. One of Calvin's translators into English has noted that his Institutes of the Christian Religion "may be thought of as an extended commentary on Romans."88
The early Anabaptists viewed Paul's letters as an infallible exposition of Jesus' words and deeds. But they preferred to begin at the Gospel accounts themselves. This manner of reading more appropriately uses canonical and covenantal structure as a hermeneutical lens. Using the covenantal language described in chapter 2, Anabaptists "begin at the beginning" of the covenant (preamble, history, and stipulations) rather than the later "prosecution of God's covenant lawsuit" found in the epistles. They also distrusted some of the conclusions arrived at by the Protestants on the meaning of Romans. They recognized that the book had multiple interpretations. "It is common to list saints and Christian leaders whose lives have been changed by reading [Romans]; the catalog could be balanced by a similar number who have radically misunderstood it. Troublingly, the lists would overlap."89
Christocentric interpretation involves focus as well as order. Jacobus Arminius, who trained in Geneva at Calvin's academy under Theodore Beza, rejected Calvinism because it was not adequately Christocentric.90 He and the Remonstrants felt that for the sake of their theological system, the Calvinists had lost Christ-centered exegesis.91
The distinction between the Anabaptists and Protestant thinking has been characterized as Christocentric (Anabaptist) versus Christological (Protestant).92 For the Protestants, the doctrine of salvation, especially justification by faith, provided the starting point for their theology, and formed the lens through which the rest of Scripture was read. "Anabaptist hermeneutics, however, were not only Christological but Christocentric in the sense of focusing on Jesus himself instead of a doctrine describing the effects of his redeeming work."93
The Protestants spent a great deal of time on the historic creeds of the church. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is organized around the structure of the Apostle's Creed. In contrast, the "Anabaptists acknowledged the Christ of the creeds, but they were captivated by the Jesus of the Gospels."94
Consistent with a Christocentric approach, simple obedience to the Sermon on the Mount characterized persecuted churches like the ante-Nicene church, the Waldensians, and the Anabaptists. In contrast, because of their prior commitment to the church-state union, the Protestants severely weakened obedience to Jesus' teachings on matters such as war, oaths, and wealth: "In Protestantism we meet with a celestial Christ, a cosmic figure who through his self-sacrifice makes possible the salvation of the soul. In Catholicism Jesus is frequently and boldly encountered in the Mass, where he is constantly offered up again for the sins of man. In Anabaptism... Jesus is all that the historic creeds claim for him but he is also more. For he is also the example for the Christian... He is not only the centre of a theological system to which one gives assent. Rather he is the centre of a way of life."95
Protestant churches have greatly suffered without a Christocentric interpretation to ethics:
That Christ alone is Lord and Saviour was, although it is the most precious insight of the Reformation, limited by the Reformers to one field of application. In soteriology and church order, Christ's uniqueness enabled a polemic against the mass, against hagiolatry and the hierarchy. Yet Christ's authority remained strangely circumscribed; He could not be normative for ethics. Christ's perfect obedience is, for orthodox Protestantism, no criterion for the obedience of the believer, but merely the prerequisite to an innocent and therefore vicariously valid death. The guide for ethics for the Reformers was neither Christ himself, nor the New Testament, but the `Rule of Love.' `Love' in this usage signified for them not that quality of God's Being which is seen in Christ, but rather whatever seemed to them to be required by the best interests of the social order. They assumed with touching naiveté, that the precise requirements of the Rule of Love were self-evident, and could be doubted only by the willfully recalcitrant ... [For the Protestants], giving immediate ethical relevance to the human obedience of Christ, so that the Christian should love as He loved, be persecuted as He was persecuted, was at the best pride, and at the worst blasphemy. The Reformers were so fully conditioned by their anti-Catholic polemic that they fell prey to the temptation to affirm simply the opposite of what the Roman Church has taught. Against Catholic immanence they leaned toward an almost Docetic transcendentalism; against Catholic legalism they tended toward antinomianism. They were far too close to the Gospel to be frankly antinomian; but they had enormous difficulty in finding a place to attach ethics to the rest of their doctrine. Having thus thrown out the baby with the bath, they condemned Protestantism to a centuries-long pendulum movement between ethical liberalism and nonethical orthodoxy. There being no essential structural connection between Christ and ethics, except the negative one that we are saved by Christ instead of by works, Protestants have had to choose between a high Christology and a high ethic. The Anabaptist claim that Christ is authoritative in ethics in the same way as for soteriology, so that only the disciple can really know him..., avoided such a posing of alternatives, and perceived that a high ethic and a high Christology are possible only together.96
Kuruvilla, Finny. King Jesus Claims His Church: A Kingdom Vision for the People of God (Kindle Locations 1278-1344). Anchor-Cross Publishing. Kindle Edition.
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