The Doctrine of Christ (3): The Center of Christology
In our first ‘meating’, to study the doctrine of Christ, we considered the nature, task and method of systematic theology itself. We saw that systematic theology is about revealing the unity that is present in the text of all the scriptures as God speaks in it to particular topics. That is, Systematic Theology is a Topical Approach to the Whole of Scripture
In our second ‘meating’, we placed Christology within Systematic Theology. We saw that the Whole of Scripture is about Jesus. Therefore, nothing can be excluded from our inquiry … every jot and tittle is relevant. Christology, in short, is at the center of all systematic theology, because it is at the center of God’s revelation.
But within that “center of the center”, there is something that lies yet further in … at the heart of the heart, so to speak.
The “Center” of Christology — Christ in the New Testament
☞ “the death and resurrection of Christ.” That is the center of the center.
The focus on the one hand is not the person of Christ. Not, more particularly, the deity of Christ, particularly as that might be considered apart from His work. Nor, looking in another direction, is the center a particular benefit that flows from the death and resurrection …
- The forgiveness of my sins.
- The experience of being forgiven.
Now, that is absolutely crucial to the reality and significance of the Gospel, which we must maintain against all forms of denial. But the benefit flowing from the death and resurrection … that’s not what’s central … Neither the true deity of Christ nor the true experience of the benefit constitutes the center of our concern, but the death and the resurrection.
Again, our method is radically non-speculative … so where do we get that?
The Four Gospels
It’s easy to see that in all four Gospels the death and resurrection are the heart of the message — the culmination of the narrative, the target of the narrative flow as a whole, where the whole Jesus story is headed: the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels have been called “passion narratives with lengthy introductions.”
But we are concerned with what the whole of scripture says lies at the center of the center … So let’s keep working through the New Testament …
Paul … 1 Cor. 15
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:1–4 ESV)
This is the most explicit summary Paul provides of his gospel preaching as a whole. And he tells the Corinthians what is most important, at least to him … ἐν πρώτοις, “as of first importance” — “Here is what is most important to me”. What is it? The death and resurrection of Jesus.
But it’s not just of private importance … important to Paul … It is of first-order importance because Paul recognizes Christ’s death as fulfilling the scriptures, and therefore lying at the very center of redemptive history as a whole.
We see this developed in the first three chapters of the book (1 Cor. 1:18-3:23) Take a look, for example at what he says in the second verse of chapter 2:
For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)
We see this again in Gal. 3:1, where he says that what he exhibited publicly before them is Jesus crucified. Again in Gal. 6:14, he says that he has no boast to make except in the Cross of Christ. Also, 2 Tim. 2:8 — “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.”
With regard to the verses that have a single referent — cross or resurrection — we need to remember that in the New Testament a reference to the death alone or the resurrection, these references are always synecdochic. That is, a reference to the one always implies the other.
When you come to the rest of the New Testament, while there may not be expressions that are explicit or programmatically clear, yet unmistakable indications are there.
Hebrews is concerned with God’s last days’ speech — God’s eschatological speech in His Son (Heb 1:1-2). But as the writer goes on to develop in the light of this opening statement, it is clear that this last-days’ speech centers in the High Priestly ministry of Christ. It is particularly as Christ is the great High Priest that He is God’s speech in these last days. That High Priestly ministry of Christ, he makes clear, has two facets — sacrifice on earth in the past and present heavenly intercession. Christ as High Priest is to be seen in His suffering and glory. This is how we should understand Heb. 13:8 (Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever) — this is not to be taken as a proof text for an affirmation of the eternity of Christ in terms of His true deity — though that is true –but as an affirmation of His fidelity as High Priest. As High Priest He is constant. In the past on earth, in the present in heaven, and in the future in His return to earth forever.
In a passage obviously dear to Living Hope, as our very name is taken from it, Peter provides us with a message, according to 1:3, that turns on a birth to hope … a new birth unto a living hope that the church has been given in terms of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Everything, the hope of the church, flows from the crucified and resurrected Christ.
All the various visions of Revelation flow out of the great vision of Revelation 1:12-17 … A vision of the GLORIFIED Son of Man in the midst of the seven golden lampstands (i.e., in the midst of the church). Everything flows out of what is true of the exalted Christ in the midst of the Church — that is the central reality of the Book of Revelation: Who the exalted Jesus is in the midst of the Church.
So … we can say that the New Testament in its various parts, in its center on Christ, is centered more particularly on His death and resurrection, His suffering and glory.
The “Center” of Christology – Christ in The Old Testament
The death and resurrection of Christ as the center of the Old Testament is a much more problematic point. It is widely denied, by modern theology and by modern dispensationalism — viewpoints that, in other respects are poles apart from each other.
For Modern Theology (in the historical-critical tradition): The Old Testament is sub-Christian, or even more radically, anti-Christian.
For the other extreme, Modern Dispensationalism (at least in its most consistent forms): The death and resurrection of Christ, (especially as they give rise to the church) along with the New Testament church itself, is an essentially unforseen mystery in the Old Testament. For the Dispensationalist … so far as Old Testament revelation is concerned … death, resurrection, and particularly church represent a great gap especially where the Old Testament promises are concerned (addressed to Israel as a nation). On some constructions there are typological allusions, but they are peripheral to its central concern which is promise and realization of national promises. So what takes place at the cross and empty tomb, is seen to be distinct from God’s dealings with Israel. That is, for the dispensationalist, Death and resurrection are virtually unrelated to God’s Old Testament plan:
- the destiny of the church is parallel, within the mind of God, but not integral to the promises of God to the nation of Israel.
- What happened was for them because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah.
The writers of the New Testament, in contrast see no such disjunction in the Old Testament, but rather that the suffering and glory are at the center of the Old Testament. The’re not just there, but at the center.
The angle we will take to look at Old Testament is the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. That is, we will see how the apostolic age understood the the work of Christ vis-à-vis the Old Testament.
- Luke 24:44-47
1) Introductory comments on the passage:
These verses are important, standing as they do at the close of Luke’s Gospel, and intended to give us a cross-sectional view of the time between the resurrection and the ascension, to show what was typical of Jesus’ teaching during this 40 day period of time. We have here a succinct account of the Post-Resurrection teaching of Jesus. What went on during those 40 days have been compressed into the span of a few verses.
Now what supports this understanding, is that in terms of the time markers, everything through v.43 clearly happens on the day of the resurrection. On the other side of our unit we are at the account of the ascension. But our unit is without time markers.
So in an unspecified way, this falls within that period, It can be taken, then, as a summary, what was typical of the time. I want to accent this here, because it will reinforce a later point.
2) Vv. 46, 47:
46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46–47 ESV)
This is a clear reference to the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah. And coordinate with it, is the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins to the nations. There are 3 Elements to the Old Testament teaching, according to Jesus: Death, resurrection, preaching to the nations. What is the consequence of preaching the gospel to the nations? Church. So … “It is written…Death, Resurrection, Church.” That’s the Old Testament.
Death, Resurrection and Church are syntactically dependent on “is written” (gegraptai). Grammatically, this form introduces a construction in which the subjects are in the accusative and the verb is in the infinitive. Like, “it is written him to die and to rise, and the gospel to be proclaimed” Suffer, Rise, and Gospel preached, are all dependent on ‘it is written’. And this form “it is written,” a Perfect Passive Indicative (γέγραπται) is one of the standard formulas for citing Scripture, to introduce quotations from the Hebrew Bible.
So Jesus is telling the disciples, “This is what is written in the Old Testament, messianic suffering, resurrection, and Church”.
Where? In what sense?
We can’t find a particular passage, or a particular set of verses that expresses all of this. Now, certain psalms and the latter part of Isaiah surely picture the individual elements. But no passage captures them all together. So we have to take Gegraptai, then, in a more general sense here.
In what sense is it more general? How much looser, more general, is it? Here is where the immediately preceding verses help us (vv 44,45).
6) Vv. 44, 45:
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (Luke 24:44–45 ESV)
Jesus is speaking as he had not previously, but in a post-resurrection perspective, from the vantage point of the death and resurrection being behind him. And what he is doing is recalling his teaching to his disciples “these are my words” during the period of his ministry prior to the resurrection. The resurrected Christ looking back synoptically. “While I was still with you” brings out the climactic character of the resurrection. It is as if he were no longer with them, even though he is there talking to them. This does not represent a stable state of affairs redemptive-historically. These 40 days are temporary; the Resurrected Christ must go to a place of glory, at the right hand of God. What is implicit is the transitional nature of this period (You may remember Joh 20.17 – to Mary Magdalene – do not cling to me).
Jesus’ point here concerns what is the sum and substance of his teaching while he was with them. That substance is caught in a “that” clause at the end of v. 44: These were my words … THAT FULFILLMENT WAS NECESSARY … The necessary fulfillment of all the things that were written in the Law, Prophets and Psalms concerning Jesus himself. What Jesus is reminding his disciples here is how the Old Testament in all its subdivisions prophesies concerning Him. Look back to v. 27, And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27 ESV) There we have the same description (not as fully expressed) as what Jesus gave on the Emmaus road. So Jesus is saying, “What I taught you (as a whole) is what the Old Testament in all its parts teaches concerning me”.
What is the force of “in” in v. 44? Does the prepositional phrase (which controls at least to the end of psalms) circumscribe the entire Old Testament in all its parts with no remainder, or only to certain strands of the Old Testament, along with other teaching? That is, is Jesus leaving any material out? No … this is comprehensively inclusive.
At least two considerations support this:
First, verses 44-49 are Luke’s way of summarizing what happened during the 40 day period, in terms of teaching, and he wishes to show that it was a period of comprehensive instruction.
If this is so, it is not very likely that parts of the Old Testament would have remained pushed to the side, that sections would have remained a closed book.
Secondly, and more decisively, what is said in v. 45 “he opened their mind to understand the Scriptures”. The movement in thought from 44 to 45, that helps us understand the mind opening experience, is this: What Jesus had taught during his earthly ministry is now made clear to the disciples. The gospel record gives several indications that the disciples (earlier) were not able to comprehend, even afraid to ask what Jesus meant by death and resurrection (Lk 9:22, 44-45; Lk 18: 31-34). What the disciples were then unable to comprehend, that is now made clear to them. The resurrected Jesus opens their minds. He brings them to understanding.
Notice, now, how v. 45 describes their understanding. It is said to be an understanding of Scripture. V. 45 does not say he opened their minds to understand these Scriptures, a particular aspect of Old Testament revelation, a set of Scriptures within the Old Testament. Rather, he opened their minds to understand THE Scriptures. The entire Old Testament, as a whole. Tas grafas (the scriptures) is a term that always refers to the whole of the Old Testament (even in extra-biblical judaic writings). See, e.g., Mt 22:29; John 5:39; Acts 17:2.
In other words, in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of fulfillment in Christ, the disciples are now, for the first time brought to an understanding of what Jesus had all along been saying in his earthly ministry about the necessary fulfillment of Scripture. And their new understanding is said to be an understanding of the Scriptures. Putting it anachronistically, Jesus opened the mind of the disciples to understand the consent of all the parts the scope of the whole (WCF Ch. 5). The are brought to understand how it all holds together, the coherence, the unity of the Old Testament (which, you may recall, is the goal of Systematic Theology).
Coming back to vv. 46-47, these verses add, by way of further specification, further focussing what it means that they understand the Scriptures. That focussing is the death, resurrection and church-building gospel. So Death, resurrection and church-building gospel are at the center, the heart of the overall message of the Old Testament. This is the focus of what the Old Testament is all about.
2. The apostolic preaching in Acts:
This preaching always culminates in a call to repentance. In biblical categories, faith is included in repentance … Turning from/Turning to … We can make distinctions in theology, but we cannot force the biblical text to use our dogmatic vocabulary with the same semantic delineation.
More importantly, though, that call always flows from a focus on the death, but especially the resurrection of Christ. The repeated emphasis in this gospel message is that it is preached on the basis of Scripture.
It is a message based on the Old Testament. Examples:
1) Acts 3:18ff (Peter).
18 But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. 23 And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ 24 And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 26 God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” (Acts 3:18–26 ESV)
The things which were previously proclaimed through the mouth of all the prophets that his Christ must suffer, these things are now fulfilled. So the messianic suffering of Christ is a matter that came through the mouth of ALL the prophets. That way of putting it is even more emphatic when you move to v. 24: Jesus is identified as the great prophet promised in Deuteronomy.
All the prophets…also proclaimed these days. Surely “these days”, in the context, are the days of Jesus Christ, the days of the activity of this great prophet foreseen by Moses.
Prophetic tradition going from Moses through the former and through the latter prophets. As many as spoke. Whatever prophet ever opened his mouth, this is what he spoke about…”these days”.
You can find a similar statement from Peter in Acts 10:43.
2) Acts 26:22-23 (Paul).
22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:22–23 ESV)
Therefore, having obtained help, the help which is from God, until this day, I stand testifying both to small and to great (insignificant and significant) saying nothing except those things which Moses and the Prophets said would come to pass: that Christ would suffer, rise, and then proclamation would be made to the Gentiles.
The setting is a point where the bulk of Paul’s missionary activity is behind him. He is in interrogation before Agrippa. And he is taking his whole missionary activity in view.
“In the final analysis, all that I stand for, all that I have been testifying to, is nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen, (this is the heart, thrust of what Moses and others, said) namely, that Christ would suffer, be first to be raised, and proclamation would be made”
Similarly Acts 13:27; 17:2-3.
3) 1 Peter 1:10-12.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10–12 ESV)
We can look at this from several mutually related angles. But first, Peter is reflecting concerning the salvation that he’s been describing fully in vv. 3-9, the salvation that is predicated on the resurrection of Christ (v. 3).
Now he wants to say something further in 10-12. Let’s pick up on 4 things:
First, This salvation is said to be a concern or preoccupation of the prophets (v. 10).
It is not a passing curiosity of them, but an intensive concern (ek compounds on the verbs that have to do with investigating, searching, inquiry–ek intensifies). The NIV and ESV are good here, NIV “intently” … ESV “carefully”.
In view of the scope of the salvation, we can say that this intense concern was also a central concern, an all-embracing preoccupation that they had. It’s fair then to suggest at least that, even though Peter is referring specifically to prophets, that reference is synecdochic, representative of the whole. So what he is saying would apply more broadly to the Old Testament. We see such a synecdochic reference in 2 Peter 1:19-21. We don’t want to push it, but it seems to be a fair proposal.
Secondly, What the prophets in their plurality say is unified, integrated.
And we can say that because as v. 11 makes clear, in what the prophets in their plurality are concerned about, that is ultimately a matter that the one Spirit is disclosing, indicating through each of them.
We get an anticipation of our third point in the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. Christ’s Spirit, the Spirit as associated with the messiah is who is at work in the Old Testament prophecy.
Thirdly, In v. 11 we have further an indication as to where the sum of the prophetic concern can be located, the focus. We saw Peter’s reference in v. 10 as, on the one hand, comprehensive of the prophets, then integrated/unified. Now we see the focus of this body of prophecy is specifically the sufferings of the Christ and the glory that would follow, death and resurrection. So again in this context, humiliation/exaltation is central to what the Old Testament is teaching.
Fourthly, Notice what is brought out in v. 12. Perhaps most emphatically in New Testament, Peter is now saying, “they did it for you.” They were not ultimately serving themselves, although they were intensively involved (v. 10). Their ministry is not for the Old Covenant “we”, but the New Covenant “you”. Which is to say then, that it is ultimately considered the New Testament Church that is served by the Old Testament prophets.
This is one passage that makes a point that we must never lose sight of: The Old Testament belongs to the Church, not to the Jews (whether Dispensational Christian structure or Zionistic Jewish).
According to the New Testament, the Old Testament is one large witness to Christ. The Old Testament taken as a whole, we’ve been able to see from the vantage point of the New Testament is one large prophetic witness to the Christ, centering on the messianic suffering and glory, death and resurrection. The Old Testament has its integrity in terms of this death and resurrection focus. This is how the various parts hang together/cohere.
So, reflecting on this, we need to avoid two extremes …
On the one hand, we must avoid restricting reference to Christ to a limited number of passages (those that are seen from a New Testament point of view to be clearly messianic) as though the rest of the Old Testament has nothing to do with these passages … as if, alongside the message of Death and Resurrection of Christ is a message that is unrelated.
On the other hand, we must also avoid viewing every Old Testament text as if it had a Christological message of its own; or even more problematic, treating every Old Testament text as teaching some specific point about the death and resurrection. This sort of outlook inevitably results in uncontrolled allegory that is always looking behind things in the Old Testament for a presumably deeper meaning. On this approach, Old Testament interpretation becomes a kind of Old Testament scavenger hunt. Who can discover the most subtle Christological types and allusions?
Is Christ in every sentence of the Old Testament? … Yes and No. If we mean that in the atomistic sense, that every text has a Christological message all its own, then the answer is no. However, every sentence is in a context. That context, as we have already discovered, is a history. Every sentence is embedded in the ongoing history of God’s covenant dealings with his people Israel, as that can involve the various genres. That history has only one direction/purpose, which centers in the sufferings and glory of Christ. So in that sense, we must say Christ is in every sentence of the Old Testament.
So … Christology is at the center of Systematic Theology, because Christology is the foundation, center, and end or purpose for the whole of scripture.
And what lies at the heart of Christology is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the establishment of his church through the call to repentance and faith.
Questions we discussed:
How does the fact that death/resurrection/church encompass the warp and woof of scripture, the fact that every jot and tittle of scripture is driving toward or reflecting on the death and resurrection of Christ, and the church that is founded on it … How does that affect the way you read your Bible?
How does Dispensationalism’s failure to see the unity of scripture at this most central point affect the way it reads prophecy particularly? How does that affect their conclusions in the very field of dogmatics for which they are most famous ( eschatology)?
How does the fact that the proclamation of the gospel is as central to the whole of history and scripture and life and hope … as is the death and resurrection of Christ … How does that fact affect your desire to proclaim the gospel to family, friends, co-workers, strangers?