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The Key to Understanding the Bible

In yesterday’s post we discussed how Jesus is the starting point for interpreting Scripture. If this is the case and Jesus is the subject matter of all Scripture, then the ultimate challenge is to disclose how each aspect of Scripture bears witness to his subject. To state it otherwise, if the intended function of all Scripture is to mediate the revelation of God in Christ, then the ultimate task of interpretation is to interpret Scripture in a way that discloses how it performs this function. The theologian T. F. Torrance goes so far as to say that the “real text” of Scripture is “not documents of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, or the Prophets or the documents of the Gospels and the Epistles,” but the “the humanity of Jesus” that mediates God’s Word to us while vicariously mediating our response to God’s Word.

While I am in full agreement with this perspective, I see it as halting just short of the finish line. The “Christ” that Torrance appeals to as the subject matter of Scripture is not self-interpreting, which is why the “Christocentric” orientation has so often been construed as being compatible with non-Christ-like, horrifically violent, portraits of God in the OT. I would thus supplement this Christocentric perspective of Torrance by arguing that the thematic center of the revelation of God in Chris is the cross. Our task, therefore, is to interpret Scripture through the lens of the crucified Christ, not in the sense that we myopically focus on the Crucifixion, but in the sense that the cross is the quintessential expression of the self-sacrificial love that characterizes everything Jesus was about.

If the cross is the thematic center of God’s self-revelation, and if everything in Scripture is to be interpreted in light of its fulfillment on the cross, then it follows that we must read Scripture with the awareness that the One who “breathed” it possesses a cruciform character and that he “breathed” it for a cruciform purpose.

God didn’t begin to be Christ-like with Jesus, for if Jesus reveals who God truly is, he reveals who God has always been. It is surprising how rarely this basic point is applied to our reading of Scripture or to our understanding of Scripture’s “God-breathed” nature. For it means that we must assume that the cruciform manner in which God fulfilled his covenant with Israel reveals the true character of this covenant all along and the true character of every aspect of the “God-breathed” witness to this covenant.

When we read Scripture through the lens of the cross, we can find confirmations of the correctness of our cruciform perspective throughout the broader canonical witness.

To begin, we can discern a foreshadowing of God’s other-oriented self-emptying and God’s self-sacrificial sin-bearing in the incarnate and crucified Christ in the way Yahweh often set aside his ideals to accommodate the sin and weakness of his people. By and large, Goldingay argues, Israelite law “starts where people are as sinners, and starts where they are in their cultural context.”

The same may be said about the fact that Yahweh’s covenantal commitment to his people throughout the OT was such that he was, to some extent, willing to leverage his own reputation on their behavior and welfare, for better or for worse. As Blank notes regarding Isaiah 52:5, “God is disgraced because of the disgraceful condition of his people.” It is evident that God did not first become a sin-bearing God on the cross.

The profound covenantal interconnectedness of Yahweh with his people is also reflected in the way various authors or biblical characters frequently appeal to him to intervene or alter a plan for the sake of his reputation (e.g. Ex. 32:12; Num. 14:15-16). Moreover, throughout the OT narrative we find Yahweh allowing himself to experience profound pain at the hands of, and for the sake of, his rebellious people. And even when Yahweh felt he had no choice but to chastise his people, he did so reluctantly and often while expressing a grieving heart.

God didn’t begin to be a God who stoops to accommodate the sin and weakness of his covenantal people when he became Incarnate and bore our sins on the cross. God rather became Incarnate and bore our sins on the cross because this is the kind of God he has always been. The cruciform God is the thematic center of Scripture and is therefore the key to understanding it.

Image by MattLake via Flickr.

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