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The Reformers and the Centrality of Christ

The Christocentric nature of the Church’s hermeneutic approached a zenith in the Protestant Reformation. While Luther and Calvin rejected allegorical interpretation, in theory if not in practice, they nevertheless relied on typology and other creative hermeneutical strategies to discern how Christ was the subject matter of the OT.

For Luther, Jesus was “the Word” in the most fundamental sense of the term, while the Bible was “the Word” in the derivative sense that it bore witness to him. In his famous preface to James, Luther went so far as to claim that the “proper touchstone for judging all books” is the extent to which they proclaim Christ. “Since all Scripture witnesses to Christ (Rom. 3:22ff),” and since “Paul is determined not to know anything save Christ (I Cor 2:2),” it followed for Luther that any book “that does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.”[1]

On this basis, Luther infamously concluded that the book of James was “an epistle of straw” in the original 1522 version of this preface. Reiterating the same point, a common refrain running throughout Luther’s writing is that, when properly interpreted—viz. with the eyes of faith and in light of Christ— one can discern not only that all Scripture is about Christ, but that it is about Christ alone. “The entire Old Testament refers to Christ,” he proclaims.[2] “Take Christ out of the Scriptures,” Luther rhetorically wonders, “and what else will you find in them?”[3] Similarly, it is for Luther “beyond question that all the Scriptures point to Christ alone.”[4] Like a letter a man first closed but then “afterwards broke it open,” so too, Luther says, “the Old Testament is an epistle of Christ, which after His death He opened and caused to be read through the Gospel and proclaimed everywhere.”[5]

Likening Scripture to the cloth the baby Jesus was wrapped in, Luther at one point states that “[t]he law and the prophets are not rightly preached or known save we see Christ wrapped up in them.”[6] Indeed, “when viewed aright,” he states, “all stories in Holy Scripture refer to Christ.”[7] His most powerful Christocentric statement, reflecting Paul’s profession to know nothing except Christ crucified, is found when Luther boldly proclaims: “I see nothing in Scripture except Christ Crucified.”[8]

Though he is certainly less rhetorical than Luther on the topic, Calvin also strongly affirmed a Christocentric hermeneutic. Commenting on John 5:39, for example, Calvin states: “We ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them,” he asserts.[9] So too, the one thing “we should…seek in the whole of Scripture,” Calvin avers, is “truly to know Jesus Christ.”[10]

The Reformers clearly confessed that in Christ we find the foundational unity of both Testaments, for both are portraits of Christ, the only difference being in “the manner of painting.”[11]

[1] “Preface to James”, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, Word and Sacrament, ed. E. T. Bachmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 396.

[2] WA 11.223.

[3] WA 18.606.

[4] WA 10.576.

[5] WA 10:11.181.

[6] Sermon on Luke 2:1-2, WA 10.11.80.

[7] WA, 4.153.

[8] WA 4.153.

[9] Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, tran. W. Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 219 (see fn. 141)

[10] Preface to French translation of the NT, cited in Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 141.

[11] Calvin. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to The Hebrews , tran. J. Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 222. See S. Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 168–81 and E. J. Alexander, “The Supremacy of Jesus Christ,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology (ed. Burk Parsons; Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 109. Barth notes that, in contrast to the liberal theologies of Ritschl and Schleiermacher, Luther and Calvin didn’t have to try to be “Christocentric,” for their theologies were grounded in Christology from the outset, which, Barth rightly contends, is the only way a theology can be truly Christocentric. CD I/2:350–51

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