Christ as Hermeneutical Criterion–Part One

There are theologians who argue that Christ should be our hermeneutical criterion for reading and understanding the Bible.  That is, for example, when we read the Old Testament, we must constantly ask ourselves how would Christ have read these passages.  How would he have understood them?  Would he have approved of them?  To be more specific, in those passages in the Old Testament where it is recorded that God told the Israelites to engage in warfare, to drive out the Canaanites, even to kill entire populations (as was the case with Jericho, Ai, and Hazor), we should ask ourselves whether or not Christ would have approved of such actions, whether Christ would have recognized in those passages the God whom he would have called Father.  Or, in the New Testament, would Christ have approved of the things that Paul said, or the author of Hebrews, or the book of Revelation?

I am in complete agreement with this understanding of Christ as a hermeneutical criterion.  I definitely believe that Christ is the key to the interpretation of the entire Bible.  Where I would differ with some theologians, however, is with regard to the methodology by which this criterion is to be applied.   What many of these theologians mean when they set forth this criterion is that we have to allow the words and the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the four Gospels, to be the prism through which the rest of the Bible is to be interpreted.  These theologians would argue that we really should, in essence, have red-letter editions of the Bible.  And anything in the Bible that doesn’t line up with the red letters can safely be ignored, inasmuch as it really doesn’t really line up with the revelation given to us in Christ Jesus.  I’ll go ahead and state up front here that I regard this understanding to be completely wrong-headed, and one that, ultimately, fails to take the absolute and complete lordship of Jesus Christ into account.

In order to lay out just one of the reasons why I find this red-letter methodology to be so indefensible, I’d like to take a look at three red-letter passages in the Gospel of John.  All three passages occur in what has commonly been referred to as the upper room discourse, part of what Jesus says to his apostles on the night of his betrayal.  The first passage is John 14:24-26.

24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.  25 All this I have spoken while still with you.   26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

There are several things to be pointed out here:  First, note that Jesus says his words are not his own, but are given to him by the Father.  Second, note that Jesus makes a distinction between the things he has spoken while with the apostles, and the things that the Holy Spirit will speak after Christ has ascended.  Evidently, among the things that the Holy Spirit is going to teach them are things that go beyond what Christ has already taught them.  Third, this Holy Spirit teaching will also include reminding the apostles of everything Jesus has already said to them.

This third point is very important to keep in mind.  Whatever else Jesus’ words means here, and however else they are to be applied throughout church history, there is a specific application for the apostles.  They are the only ones who can be “reminded” of what Jesus said.  We were not there.  We didn’t hear Jesus say any of these words.  We can not be “reminded” of what Jesus said.  But the apostles can.  And Jesus is promising the apostles that when the Holy Spirit comes, he will remind them of the things Jesus said.  So Jesus’ words here have a kind of “historical-conditionedness.”  That is, in at least one respect, something is going to be happen to the apostles that cannot be repeated.  The Holy Spirit is going to remind them of all the things that Jesus taught.

The second passage is John 15:26-27.

26 “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.  27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

For a second time in this upper room discourse, Jesus tells the apostles about the Spirit with regard to some kind of message, the “testimony,” which the Spirit will bring.  He then tells the apostles that they too must testify, specifically because “you have been with me from the beginning.”  Note again how “historically-conditioned” this statement is.  We too, today, are witnesses who testify about Christ.  But we have not been with him from the beginning.  That could only be said about the apostles.  In the first century, it was especially important that the testimony of the Christian church come, in particular, from those who were with Christ “from the beginning.”  Jesus, here, promises the assistance of the Holy Spirit in that testifying task.

The third passage is John 16:12-15.

12 I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.  15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

Notice several things about this passage: First, just as in the first passage we looked at in John 14, Jesus again says that he has more things to tell the apostles, things that presently they cannot bear.  Second, those “more things” that he has to say to them, will be said by the Holy Spirit who will guide them into all truth.  Third, note that the Spirit will not be acting as an independent agent.  The things he says will only be the things that he hears.  From where does he hear these things?  Evidently, he hears them from Jesus, who himself hears them from the Father.  The Spirit will take from what belongs to Jesus, and make it known to the apostles.  And the things that belong to Jesus have come from the Father.  Fourth, note that the Spirit will tell the apostles about things that are yet to come.  Fifth, and finally, note again the specific application of what is said here with regard to the first-century context.  The apostles are the ones to whom this promise is given, specifically.  The apostles will be given Holy Spirit revelation with regard to things that Christ, during his earthly life, has not told them.  They will be guided into all truth.  They will be told about things that are yet to come.  And, in conjunction with the first two passages, we should understand that these things the Holy Spirit makes known to them will constitute a vital part of the content of the apostolic testimony.

Furthermore, note that we should not understand the term “apostle” to be simply a variant on the term “disciple.” The two terms are not synonyms.  When Jesus was here on the earth, he had many disciples.  He only had twelve apostles.  Almost certainly, the Greek word, apostolos, has a technical meaning in the Gospels, a meaning which corresponds to the Aramaic word which lies behind it, the word, shaliach.  This technical meaning has to do with the authority given to someone to act as a legally-authorized representative on one’s behalf.  The apostles were Jesus’ legally-authorized representatives.

Taking all of this material into account, then, notice the conclusion that Richard B. Gaffin draws in his article, “The New Testament as Canon” (in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate; edited by Harvie Conn; Grand Rapid: Baker, 1988):

The promise of the Coming of the Spirit as parakletos (Counselor-Advocate, Helper) in John’s Gospel . . . is not given directly and indiscriminately to all believers.  A specific historical qualification attaches to the “you” who are its immediate recipients.  The “you” who are to testify are those who have been with Jesus during his earthly ministry “from the beginning,” . . . .  These promises are to be understood (at least primarily) in a foundational sense, that is, in terms of apostolic witness-bearing.

Apostolic witness, then, is not merely personal testimony.  Instead, it is infallibly authoritative, legally binding deposition, the kind that stands up in a law court.  Accordingly, that witness embodies a canonical principle; it provides the matrix for a new canon, the emergence of a new body of revelation to stand alongside the covenantal revelation of the Old Testament.

In other words, we have here a chain of information, revelation, testimony, witness, inspiration which runs as follows:  Father → Son → Spirit → Apostles → New Testament.  And this New Testament, which many Bible versions, on their title pages, refer to as the “New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” takes on the character of “legally binding deposition.”  A red-letter New Testament encompasses the entirety of the New Testament.

Incidentally, with regard to what is “yet to come,” notice how this plays out specifically with regard to the book of Revelation:

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Rev 1:1-2)

9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” (Rev 1:9-11)

Notice, again, the chain of revelation:  God (Father) → Son → Spirit → Apostle → The book of Revelation.  Interestingly, an “angel” is involved in the chain as well.  But notice, again, that the book is a Trinitarian production, is given to an apostle, and constitutes a vital part of the New Testament canon.

Now, before I go any further, I should say something about apostolicity as a criterion for identifying what is canonical in the New Testament.  As I tell my classes at Taylor Seminary, there is no single criterion, nor set of criteria, which will definitively identify for us what is canonical or not—what is in or what is out.  “Written by an apostle,” perhaps, comes as close any suggested criterion, but is definitely not demonstrable.  But, as Gaffin argues, we should still understand apostolicity as the “matrix” out of which the New Testament comes.  The office of apostle was extremely important.  This is why Peter, in guiding the church to choose a new apostle to replace Judas, declares, “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22).  Paul’s apostleship is a special case in that he received a supernatural revelation of the risen Christ, a revelation which qualified him to be an apostle, yet as one who was “born out of the ordinary time.”  I believe it can be argued that all the New Testament books have a vital apostolic connection, though this claim is not absolutely demonstrable.  Nevertheless, whether they got it wrong or right, it seems that the early church, in attempting to determine what was canonical, was guided largely by this apostolic criterion.

In any case, hermeneutically, my argument here is that the attempt to use the red-letter teachings of Christ, as recorded for us in the four Gospels, as a criterion for understanding and evaluating what is written in the other books of the New Testament is completely wrong-headed.  It is Christ himself who, by his Spirit, has given us the books of Romans, and Galatians, and Titus, and Hebrews, and James, and Revelation.  These books are as authoritative as are the four Gospels.  They come from the very same Christ, and from the very same Spirit, who gave us the four Gospels.  Indeed, we must remember that even the four Gospels are not given us directly, dropped down from Heaven, as it were, in some manner different from other New Testament books.  They, too, are the result of the same chain:  Father → Son → Spirit → Apostles → New Testament.  The Gospel of Matthew is no more authoritative than is the book of Hebrews; the Gospel of Mark than 1 Corinthians; the Gospel of Luke than the book of Acts; the Gospel of John than 1 Peter.

To put this another way:   What Paul and Peter and John and James say is what the Spirit says, which is what Christ says, which is what God says.

But, what about the Old Testament?  Stay tuned for Part Two.

Jerry Shepherd
January 14, 2014

5 thoughts on “Christ as Hermeneutical Criterion–Part One

  1. Thanks for the informative post, I had not really viewed the NT books as being taught by Christ though the Spirit. I am going to contemplate this one for a while. This is actually very timely as I just took a break from reading my NT Textbook to surf the net a bit 🙂

    • Hi Dale. Yes, as I mentioned in the post, we can’t demonstrate apostolic authorship for all the NT books. However, I do agree with Bauckham, who has revived credibility for Papias’s attribution of Mark, in at least some respect, to the Apostle Peter. And I think there are some good reasons for associating Mark’s Gospel with Peter. Of course, Luke comes within the sphere of Pauline influence. As for Hebrews, as Origen said, “God only knows”! So precision is unattainable. You’ll, of course, remember, Poythress’s fuzzy boundaries.

  2. This discussion reminds me of someone that learned about while I was at Taylor. I think his name might have been something like Marcion. Funny how history repeats itself. Was that why I had to study church history?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *