A Christological Hermeneutic: Crisis and Conflict in Hermeneutics

The following was Chapter 5 in Robert K. Johnston, The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options, John Knox Press, 1985).


Donald Bloesch's christological hermeneutic emphasizes the need to go beyond the literal sense of the text to discern its larger significance. Theology must show forth Christ.

This is a test of the discipline of biblical hermeneutics, which deals with the principles governing the interpretation of Scripture, is presently in crisis. For some time it has been obvious in the academic world that the scriptural texts cannot simply be taken at face value but presuppose a thought world that is alien to our own. In an attempt to bring some degree of coherence to the interpretation of Scripture, scholars have appealed to current philosophies or sociologies of knowledge. Their aim has been to come to an understanding of what is essential and what is peripheral in the Bible, but too often in the process they have lost contact with the biblical message. It is fashionable among both theologians and biblical scholars today to contend that there is no one biblical view or message but instead a plurality of viewpoints that stand at considerable variance with one an other as well as with the modem world-view.

 There are a number of academically viable options today concerning biblical interpretation, some of which I shall consider in this essay. These options represent competing theologies embracing the whole of the theological spectrum.

 First, there is the hermeneutic of Protestant scholastic orthodoxy, which allows for grammatical-historical exegesis, the kind that deals with the linguistic history of the text but is loathe to give due recognition to the cultural or historical conditioning of the perspective of the author of the text. Scripture is said to have one primary author, the Holy Spirit, with the prophets and Apostles as the secondary authors. For this reason Scripture is believed to contain an underlying theological and philosophical unity. It is therefore proper to speak of a uniquely biblical life and "odd-view. Every text, it is supposed, can be harmonized not only with the whole of Scripture but also with the findings of secular history and natural science. The meaning of most texts is thought to be obvious even to an unbeliever. The end result of such a treatment of Scripture is a coherent, systematic theological system, presumably reflecting the very mind of God. This approach has been represented in Reformed circles by the so-called Princeton School of Theology associated with Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield.

 In this perspective, hermeneutics is considered a scientific discipline abiding by the rules that govern other disciplines of knowledge. Scripture, it is said, yields its meaning to a systematic, inductive analysis and does not necessarily presuppose a faith commitment to be understood. Some proponents of the old orthodoxy (such as Gordon Clark and Carl Henry) favor a metaphysical-deductive over an empirical-inductive approach, seeking to deduce the concrete meanings of Scripture from first principles given in Scripture.

 A second basic approach to biblical studies is historicism in which Scripture is treated in the same way as any worthy literature of a given cultural tradition. The tools of higher criticism are applied to Scripture to find out what the author intended to say in that particular historical-cultural context. Higher criticism includes an analysis of the literary genre of the text, its historical background, the history of the oral tradition behind the text, and the cultural and psychological factors at work on the author and editor (or editors) of the text. With its appeal to the so-called historical-critical method for gaining an insight into the meaning of the text, this approach is to be associated with the liberal theology stemming from the Enlightenment.

 Historicism is based on the view that the historicity of a phenomenon affords the means of comprehending its essence and reality (H. Martin Rumscheidt). It is assumed that meaning is to be found only in the historical web of things. The aim is the historical reconstruction of the text, in other words, seeing the text in its historical and cultural context (Sitz im Leben). Historical research, it is supposed, can procure for us the meaning of the Word of God.

 Ernst Troeltsch articulated the basic principles of historicism, but this general approach has been conspicuous in J. S. Semler, David Friedrich Strauss, Ferdinand Christian Baur, Adolf van Hamack, and, in our day, Willi Marxsen and Krister Stendahl. A historicist bent was apparent in Rudolf Bultmann and Gerhard Ebeling, especially in their earlier years, though other quite different influences were also at work on them.

 It was out of this perspective that the quest for the historical Jesus emerged, since it was believed that only by ascertaining by historical science what Jesus really believed in terms of his own culture and historical period can we find a sure foundation for faith. Albert Schweitzer broke with historicism when he discovered that the historical Jesus indisputably subscribed to an apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God. Finding this incredible to the modern mind, he sought a new anchor for faith in the mystical Christ.

 A third option in hermeneutics is the existentialist one, popularized by Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Fuchs, Gerhard Ebeling, and Fritz Burl, among others. This approach does not deny the role of historical research but considers it incapable of giving us the significance of the salvific events for human existence. It can tell us much about the thought-world and language of the authors, but it cannot communicate to us the inferiority of their faith. Demonstrating an affinity with the Romanticist tradition of Schleiermacher and Dilthey, these men seek to uncover the seminal experience or creative insight of the authors of the texts in question, the experience that was objectified in words. Only by sharing this same kind of experience or entering into the same type of vision do we rightly understand the meaning of the text. Drawing upon both Hegel and Heidegger, these scholars affirm that real knowledge is self-knowledge and that the role of the text is to aid us in self-understanding.

 In existentialist hermeneutics history is dissolved into the historicity of existence. The Word becomes formative power rather than informative statement. The message of faith becomes the breakthrough into freedom. Jesus is seen as a witness to faith or the historical occasion for faith rather than the object of faith. It is contended that we should come to Scripture with the presuppositions of existentialist anthropology so that the creative questions of our time can be answered.

 In contradistinction to the above approaches I propose a christological hermeneutic by which we seek to move beyond historical criticism to the christological, as opposed to the existential, significance of the text. The text's christological meaning can in fact be shown to carry tremendous import for human existence. I believe that I am here being true to the intent of the scriptural authors themselves and even more to the Spirit who guided them, since they frequently made an effort to relate their revelatory insights to the future acts of cosmic deliverance wrought by the God of Israel (in the case of the Old Testament)i or to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ (in the case of the New Testament). This approach, which is associated with Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, and Wilhelm Vischer, among others, and which also has certain affinities with the confessional stances of Gerhard van Rad and Brevard Childs, seeks to supplement the historical-critical method by theological exegesis in which the innermost intentions of the author are related to the center and culmination of sacred history mirrored in the Bible, namely, the advent of Jesus Christ. It is believed that the fragmentary insights of both Old and New Testament writers are fulfilled in God's dramatic incursion into human history which we see in the incarnation and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection.

Here the aim is to come to Scripture without any overt presuppositions or at least holding these presuppositions in abeyance so that we can hear God's Word anew speaking to us in and through the written text. According to this view, the Word of God is not procured by historical-grammatical examination of the text, nor by historical-critical research, nor by existential analysis, but is instead received in a commitment of faith

 This position has much in common with historical orthodoxy, but one major difference is that it welcomes a historical investigation of the text. Such investigation, however, can only throw light on the cultural and literary background of the text it does not give us its divinely intended meaning. Another difference is that we seek to understand the text not simply in relation to other texts but in relation to the Christ revelation. Some of the theologians of the older orthodoxy would agree but others would say that what the Bible tells us about creation for example, can be adequately understood on its own apart from a reference to the incarnation. With the theology of the Reformation and Protestant orthodoxy, I hold that we should begin by ascertaining the literal sense of the text— -- what was in the mind of the author— -and we can do this only by seeing the passage in question in its immediate context. But then we should press on to discern its christological significance— -- how it relates to the message of the cross of Jesus Christ.

 In opposition to liberalism, I believe that the text should be seen not simply against its immediate historical environment but also against the background of Eternity. To do this, we need to go beyond authorial motivation to theological relation Moreover, it is neither the faith of Jesus (as in Ebeling) nor the Christ of faith (as in Bultmann and Tillich) but the Jesus Christ of sacred history that is our ultimate norm in faith and conduct.

 According to this approach, God reveals himself fully and definitively only in one time and place, viz., in the life history of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the primary witness to this event or series of events. This revelation was anticipated in the Old Testament and remembered and proclaimed in the New Testament. The testimony of the biblical authors was directed to this event by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet this relationship is not always obvious and must be brought home to us and clarified by the illumination of the Spirit of God in the history of the church.

 The Word of God is neither the text nor the psychological disposition of the author behind the text but is instead its salvific significance seen in the light of the cross of Christ. The criterion is not the original intention of the author as such but the intention of the Holy Spirit. This can be found to some degree by comparing the author's meaning to the meaning of the whole; yet even here the dogmatic norm, the very divine word itself, can elude us.

 Although in the mystery of God's grace his Word is assuredly present in Scripture, it is nonetheless veiled to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 3:I4-I6; 4:I-6). It is not always obvious even to the people of faith, and this is why it must be sought in Scripture. This Word finally must be given by God alone and not until this bestowal of divine grace can we really hear or know.

 It is not only what the Spirit revealed to the original author but what he reveals to us in the here and now that is the Word of God. Yet what he teaches us now does not contradict what he taught then. Indeed, it stands in an unbroken continuity with what has gone before. A can never come to mean B or C, but it can come to signify A + or A + + .

 This is to say, a text can have more than one meaning in the sense that it can be used by the Holy Spirit in different ways. Certainly in his prediction of the birth of the child Immanuel in Isaiah 7, the prophet did not consciously have in mind the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; yet this text points to and is fulfilled in the virgin birth as this is attested in Matthew 1:23. The text had both an immediate reference and an eschatological significance, but the latter was, for the most part, still hidden at the time of Isaiah. The many texts about false prophets and antichrists in the New Testament have been used by the Spirit to refer to various adversaries of the faith in all ages of the church. The meaning of the text is thereby not annulled but expanded.

 Under the influence of the philosopher Gadamer, the new hermeneutic today is concerned to merge the horizons of the

 text and of contemporary humanity. But this fusion of horizons can take place not by a poetic divination into the language of the text, nor by a mystical identification with the preconceptual experience of the author of the text, but by the breaking in of the Word of God from the Beyond into our limited horizons and the remolding of them, in some cases even the overthrowing of them. I have in mind not only the horizons of the exegete also those of the original authors who may have only faintly grasped what the Spirit was teaching them to see (cf. I Peter 1:10-12 We should remember that some prophecies in the Bible were corrected or reinterpreted by further illuminations of the Spirit in later biblical history. To insist on a literal fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies, as dispensationalists do, is to contradict the New Testament assertion that the church is the New Israel and that at least some of these prophecies have their fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.

 The christological hermeneutic that I propose is in accord with the deepest insights of both Luther and Calvin. Both Reformers saw Christ as the ground and center of Scripture. Both sought to relate the Old Testament, as well as the New, to the person and work of Christ. Their position, which was basically reaffirmed by Barth and Vischer, was that the hidden Christ is in the Old Testament and the manifest Christ in the New Testament.

 Luther likened Christ to the "star and kernel" of Scripture, describing him as "the center part of the circle" about which everything else revolves. On one occasion he compared certain texts to "hard nuts" which resisted cracking and confessed that he had to throw these texts against the rock (Christ) so that they would yield their "delicious kernel."

 The orthodox followers of Luther and Calvin did not always retain this christological focus, although most of them remained fairly close to their heritage. Philosophical speculation was the source of some of the deviations. Among Lutherans there was a drift toward natural theology in which the existence of God and the moral law were treated apart from the special revelation of God in Jesus Christ In Reformed circles, there was both a fascination with natural theology and a concentration on the eternal decrees of God. Reprobation was located in the secret will of God, which stood at variance with his revealed will in Christ. Jesus Christ was reduced to an instrument in carrying out this decree rather than being the author and finisher of our salvation (Heb. 5:9; It:). Scripture was used to support the idea of a God of absolute power, thereby obscuring the biblical conception of a God of infinite love whose power was manifest in his suffering and humiliation in Jesus Christ.

 Christological exegesis, when applied to the Old Testament, often takes the form of typological exegesis in which the acts of God in Old Testament history as well as the prophecies of his servants are seen to have their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Such an approach was already discernible in the New Testament where, for example, the manna given to the children of Israel in the wilderness was regarded as a type of the bread of life (John 6:31, 32, 49-50, 58). Typological exegesis differs from allegorical and anagogical exegesis in that it is controlled by the analogy of faith, which views the events and discourses of the Old Testament in indissoluble relation to Jesus Christ, to the mystery of his incarnation and the miracle of his saving work (cf. Acts 26:22; I Peter 1:10-12).

 There are other hermeneutical options which cannot be covered in a brief essay of this kind, but at least two should be mentioned here. The liberationist hermeneutic draws upon Scripture to support the current struggle of the dispossessed for justice and liberty. In this view there can be no meaning apart from praxis, and liberationist theologians endeavor to show that the theology of the Old Testament prophets was articulated in response to economic and political upheavals.

 Process theology tries to draw upon Scripture to undergird the modern world-view, which admits of only one reality, a world process in evolution. The language of Scripture is that of poetry and myth, but it needs to be given theoretical content if it is to have relevance for the "man come of age." It is held that the intuitive experiences of the prophets and Apostles, though not their limited understandings of God and the world can be reconciled with similar experiences of geniuses and prophets of all religions throughout history.

 In the case of both these hermeneutical approaches Scripture is no longer normative in any basic sense. Instead it is reduced to an aid in understanding either the unfolding cosmic drama (as with process thought) or the class struggle of history (as with liberation theology).

 An Exposition of Some Key Texts

 In this section I intend to illustrate the christological hermeneutic by showing how it bears on scriptural exposition My aim is not to give an exegesis of the texts in question but simply to show the kind of approach I would use in discovering the meaning of Scripture.

 (1) The curse of the serpent in Genesis 3:I4-15 must be understood first of all as belonging to the saga that purports to describe events in the primal history of humankind. Saga as a literary genre refers to the total historical recollection of a particular people, a recollection expressed in poetic form. It pertains not to history as a firsthand description or recording of actual events (Historie) but to history in the sense of the phenomenal life of humankind in the world (Geschichte). The narrator, whom biblical scholarship generally identifies as the Yahwist, is concerned to show that through sin both the lower and higher creation carry a divine curse. Drawing upon an aetiologicaI myth supposedly explaining both why snakes craw! rather than walk as other animals do and why, as it was thought, they eat dust, the author sees in the serpent a representation of prehuman evil, though very probably he does not have in mind the devil of later Hebraic speculation.

 The church through the ages has discerned in these verses a proto-evangelium, a primitive form of the gospel. From my perspective the Fathers of the church were basically correct, even though it is unlikely that the narrator had in mind the victory of the future Messiah of Israel over the demonic powers of darkness. Yet our task is to discover not only the intent of the author but also the way in which the Spirit uses this text to reveal the saving work of Jesus Christ. First of all, we seek to ascertain how the meaning of the serpent evolved in Hebraic history and how she serpent was regarded in the New Testament. Isaiah associated the serpent with Leviathan, the sinister monster of the sea, whose destruction will take place on the eschatological day of the Lord (Isa. 27:1; cf. Ps. 74:14). In Revelation 20 2 the serpent is expressly identified with the dragon, Satan and the devil, who is thrown into the Abyss by an angel from heaven. Thus it is in basic accord with the wider perspective of biblical faith to see in the serpent a primal symbol of the demonic adversary of God and humanity.

 The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent becomes apparent in the ongoing struggle between the devil and the human race. The prophecy in verse I S that the seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent can be held to be fulfilled in the overthrow of the devil by Jesus Christ, through his atoning death and glorious resurrection from the grave. This victory is carried forward in the obedience of Christians to the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. I6:20).

 (2) in Genesis 4:1-16 we are introduced to a related saga describing one of the most dreaded consequences of sin murder— which goes back to the very beginnings of humankind. Historical criticism tells us that Cain was considered the embodiment or ancestor of the Kenites who, though they worshiped Yahweh, were never included in the covenant community nor were they heirs of the promised land. The curse that fell on Cain is considered by some commentators to be a curse that fell on the Kenites.

 Some liberal scholars find the significance of this story in the tension between farmers (represented by Cain) and seminomads (represented by Abel). But this is a sociological or cultural-historical explanation of this ancient tale and certainly does not do justice to the theological concerns of the Yahwist.

 Theologically considered, the story has two points of significance. First, the fact that the Lord accepted Abel's sacrifice over Cain's is not to be attributed to any higher intrinsic goodness on the part of Abel. At the same time, this may have been the Spirit's way of showing that a blood sacrifice was necessary as an expression of true faith, and therefore Abel's sacrifice was honored by God (cf. Heb. II:4). Or it may underscore the truth that the sacrifices we offer to God are acceptable only on the basis of grace, not human merit. The saga itself does not indicate any reason other than God's good pleasure for the preference of Abel over Cain, though the wider Old Testament context gives priority to blood sacrifice as a means of countering the effects of sin. In the New Testament perspective only the blood of Christ cleanses from sin (I John I:7). Abel can be considered a Christ figure, since he offered the sacrifice pleasing to God. New Testament faith regards him as the first martyr (Matt. 23:35), and the epistle to the Hebrews likens his death to the death of Christ (Heb. I2:24).

 The second significant point of this saga concerns the sign that was placed on Cain to protect him from robbers and marauders. This sign is to be regarded as a type of the sign of the cross, as Wilhelm Vischer rightly points out,3 for the cross signifies that Christ died for the whole world, for both the Cains and the Abels. Those who choose the pathway of sin, as did Cain, are still protected by the grace of God, despite the fact that they do not deserve this.

 But the deepest christological significance of this story is that God's grace covers the sins of all people, for we are all Cains in the sight of God before whom we are all guilty of the murder of his Son. Yet despite our sin and guilt, we are accepted by God because his Son has borne the penalty of our sin in our place. The sign of the cross fulfills and renews the deepest symbolism in the sign of Cain. The sign placed on Cain points to the gospel of the justification of the ungodly.

 Unlike fundamentalist scholars whose primary concern is the historical veracity of this story rather than its christological significance, I am not troubled that the author employs a poetic narrative to convey deeper truth. Scholars who adhere to a more conservative persuasion are bent on explaining how Cain found a wife in a land where, so it is recorded, other people dwelt. [hey are intrigued by the question: how can this be if Cain was one of the three sons of the original first couple? I would be willing to entertain the possibility that both Cain and Abel were historical figures in one of the tribal ancestries of ancient mid eastern culture, but the intention of the author is not to convey Actual information on the first murder but instead to show how murder is endemic to sin and how grace is available even to the worst of sinners.4

 In relating this saga to the contemporary situation we can immediately see its christological relevance for such social issues as capital punishment and for such enduring psychic realities as the inner torment and rootlessness that sin fosters. It is interesting to speculate on what the Spirit of God would have us preach today on the basis of this passage, but because God's Word is always concrete and specific, in an essay such as this we cannot judge absolutely what God's Word might be in the existential situation of a particular congregation.

 (3) Isaiah is a prophetic depiction of the return of the exiles from Babylonia to Palestine. Scholars are uncertain as to its precise dating, but most agree that together with 34:I-I7 it probably belonged originally to chapters 40-66 and is therefore exilic rather than pre-exilic. At any rate, it was not the product of the hand of Isaiah of Jerusalem, though some might wish to contend that the reference is to the return of the people of the Northern Kingdom to their homeland from Assyria.

 Whatever the case, the context indicates that the author, who stands in the so-called Isaiah tradition, is envisaging a return of the chosen people of God to the land of Israel. The desert in verse I refers very probably to the wilderness area in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. The prophecy is eschatological in the sense that Isaiah is foretelling the ransoming of the people of Zion who are now in captivity.

 From the perspective of the New Testament we see this prophecy fulfilled in the advent of Jesus Christ. He is the "holy way," and through him we enter into the glories of Zion.  Christ has opened to us a "new and living way" (Heb. 10:20). Jesus Christ is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). The "haunt of jackals" in Isaiah 35:7 now becomes the habita­tion of demons as Christians make their pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4). The vision of the lame leaping like a hart and the tongue of the dumb singing for joy seems to prefigure the healing ministry of our Lord. Jesus' min­istry is also anticipated in Isaiah 29:18-19. It seems, moreover, that Jesus had in mind these very Isaiah passages in his an­nouncement of his mission (Luke 7:21-22).

To hear the Word that God wishes us to hear in this passage for today, we can surmise that the return of the ransomed of the Lord to Zion could refer to the gathering of the elect into the covenant community of faith. Or it might also be a portrayal of the journey of believers, living in the exile of a fallen world, to the New Jerusalem, their final destination. The New Jerusalem is depicted as coming down out of heaven at the second coming of Christ (Rev. 21:2, 10). The waters breaking forth in the wil­derness could well be a type of the living water, the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost (cf. John 3:5; 4:10-15).

When this passage is applied to the religious and cultural sit­uation today, we can perhaps hear a call to endurance and hope as we travel the holy way to the New Jerusalem, to the heavenly Mount Zion. This passage will have a different impact and sig­nificance for persecuted Christians behind the Iron Curtain and in the impoverished nations of the Third World than it has for affluent Christians in the West. Here again, we cannot presume to know what God will disclose through his Word to people today, but we can prepare ourselves to hear what he has to say to us as individuals and to our churches in our own cultural contexts. The one conclusion that we can safely draw is that God's Word in this Isaiah passage will be a word of hope and comfort, for its deepest intimations are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ who personifies and embodies the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5). Indeed, it is possible to use this passage for a sermon on the Gospel itself

(4) The prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 is incontestably a messianic one concerning the restoration of Israel and the coming day of the Lord. Joel undoubtedly did not consciously have in mind the coming of Jesus Christ, but his predictions about the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood are associated in the New Testament with the glorious advent of Christ (Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25; Rev. 6:12). His prediction in vss. 28 and 29 about the sons and daughters of Israel prophesying and the old men dreaming dreams are regarded by the Apostle Peter as being fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21). Joel envisaged a restoration of an earthly temporal kingdom, but in the light of the New Testament we see his prophecies concerning the resto­ration of the people of God being fulfilled in the inbreaking of the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Fundamentalists generally be­lieve that the present kingdom of Israel is foretold in these an­cient Old Testament prophecies, but this is to apply to these verses a dispensational as opposed to a christological hermeneutic.

When we read this passage in the light of the situation today, our eyes are opened to the amazing inroads of the church of Christ in the Third World nations, which may indicate a new Pentecost, a sign of the last times. Joel himself distinguishes be­tween the early rain and the latter rain (2:23; cf. Hos. 6:3; James 5:7-8), and it could be said that the early rain occurred at the first Pentecost while the latter rain is now or will soon be de­scending upon us. This is a common Pentecostal interpretation of Joel, and it may have some validity. It should be remembered that in biblical usage the Day of the Lord can refer to both the coming of Jesus Christ and the judgment of God upon the na­tions at the end of time.

The Apostles of the New Testament felt free on many occa­sions to expand the prophecies of the Old Testament on the ba­sis of the new light that was given to them. For Peter, on the day of Pentecost, all flesh included all nations (Acts 2:17). For Joel, on the other hand, all flesh (2:28) meant the Jews only.


As we try to relate this passage to the current situation, we are first reminded of the day of Pentecost, the second stage of the Parousia (according to K. Barth) when Jesus Christ came to dwell within his people by his Spirit and empower them for his service. But we are also called to contemplate on the renewal of Pentecost in our time as a sign of the coming again of Christ in power and glory to set up his kingdom that shall have no end. The signs and portents in the heavens can rightly be associated with both advents of Christ, and in every generation we should look for signs of the day when he will reveal his power and glory to all nations.


This passage might also be used by the Spirit in our time to extend the privilege of the public preaching of the gospel to women, since Joel says that both sons and daughters, both men­servants and maidservants will prophesy. In some situations God's Word may be that women should keep silent in the public services of worship (1 Cor. 14:34) but in others that they should preach and prophesy.


(5) As we move on to the New Testament, we find ourselves in a qualitatively different situation, for the Apostles were eye-and earwitnesses of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, the rev­elation that fulfilled the partial revelations of the divine mercy in Israel's history. Yet the sad fact is that even New Testament passages are often interpreted without any real reference to the saving work of Christ on the cross.


Turning to the beatitudes, we can understand how easy it is to interpret these sayings of Jesus in such a way that an ethical style of life takes precedence over God's work of reconciliation and redemption in Jesus Christ as the Son of Man. To ethicize Jesus' teachings is to make Jesus into a sagacious teacher, a spir­itual master, the greatest of the prophets, but this is not yet to acknowledge him as the divine Savior who rescues us from sin.


The beatitude as recorded in Matthew 5:9 reads: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." In exe­geting this passage I would first concentrate on grammatical-historical criticism, contrasting the meaning of makarios (blessed) with eudaimōn (fortunate or happy). I would also explore the meanings of the Hebrew shalôm and the Greek eirēnē  in an attempt to show that the pursuit of peace in the biblical perspective entails more than a spiritual or inner peace. It means to restore right relationships between people and between fallen humanity and the living God.


I would then move on to what is commonly called higher criticism and try to ascertain whether the beatitudes were spo­ken on a single occasion or whether they represent teachings of Jesus delivered on various occasions. I would also delve into the differences between the versions of the beatitudes in Matthew and Luke. Did the theological outlook or psychological dispo­sition of the two authors color their perceptions of these say­ings? Is this why Matthew's emphasis tends to be more spiritual and Luke's more social?


Now we are ready for a genuine theological treatment of the text in which we view it in the light of the wider message of Jesus and, even more, of the apostolic witness concerning the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. When we relate this text to Jesus' understanding of the kingdom of God, we see that the beatitudes represent guidelines for the style of life that is to characterize those who live in the new age of the kingdom. The way of the cross is the way of nonviolence, the way of suf­fering love, even nonresistance, whereas the way of the world is governed by the lusts of the flesh and the use of the sword.


When we proceed to relate this text to the apostolic testimony concerning the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we begin to see its christological import. The New Testament makes clear that there can never be peace in the world until people are in union with the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, a union effected by the Holy Spirit and realized in the decision of faith. The key to real peace is the preaching of the gospel of regeneration by which the spirit of peace is imparted to those who believe. The cross of Christ signifies not only the way of peace but the way to peace, for it is only as we grasp the meaning of the cross that we are enabled to die to the passions of the flesh and live and walk in the way of righteousness.


To be a peacemaker is a privilege granted by the free mercy of God, not a meritorious work entitling us to special rights in his kingdom. Our peacemaking is the evidence but not the ground of our adoption into the family of God, which rests solely on his grace.

 But we are obliged to say something more. It is Jesus Christ who by his atoning death and vicarious love reconciles a fallen human race to the God of infinite holiness and mercy. He alone is the perfect peacemaker, and therefore he alone is perfectly blessed. It is he who has torn down the walls that separate sinners from one another and from the holy God. We are all brought closer together by the shedding of his blood on the cross. "For he is himself our peace," declares Paul. "Gentiles and Jews, he has made the two one, and in his own body of flesh and blood has broken down the enmity which stood like a dividing wall between them (Eph. 2:14-15; To).

 To be at peace with our Maker as well as with ourselves is to know that our sins are covered by the righteousness of Christ. To know love in its supreme radicality is to experience the forgiveness of sins available to us through the death of Christ on the cross. It is only when we have this kind of peace that we can be peacemakers in the church and in secular society. To be a peacemaker is not only to walk in the steps of Christ, to be a reconciler where discord reigns, but it is also to direct people to Jesus Christ who alone imparts the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). Our deeds of peacemaking will therefore be understood as signs and parables of the passion and victory of Jesus Christ. By paying the penalty for sin he made peace between God and sinful humankind. By putting sin to death in our own lives through the power of the cross of Christ we can be instruments of Christ's peace in the world.

 (6) The parabolic statement of the binding of the strong man in Mark 3:27 affords another opportunity to see Jesus Christ as the hidden and sometimes the explicit meaning of the scriptural text. In its immediate context it is clear that Jesus is referring to the overthrow of Satan by himself. It is Jesus who binds the strong man and plunders his house. A parallel image is the casting down of Satan to the earth (cf. Luke IO:I8; Rev. I2:9).

 The idea of the binding of the evil powers should be viewed in the context of the eschatological message of the kingdom (cf. Isa. 24:21-23; Rev. 20:1-3). This binding is already noticeable in Jesus' ministry of exorcism, but it becomes a cosmic reality when he dethrones the principalities and powers through his atoning death on the cross and his victorious resurrection from the grave (Col. 2:15). The New Testament pictures Jesus as leading a host of captives into the heavenly paradise by his resurrection from the dead (Eph. 4:8-IO; cf. Ps. 68:I8). The binding of Satan does not mean the destruction of the demonic force, but it does mean that his power is now significantly curtailed, since he is unable to block the advancement of the gospel in the world. He is like a barking dog that is chained (Augustine). He is able to inspire fear and thereby cause disruption in the world, but actually his real power has been taken from him. His "Titanic" scheme to gain mastery over the world has been irrevocably shattered, though he can still keep the world in confusion. By the gift of the Spirit we now come to realize that the power of the devil resides primarily in his ability to deceive. Only God has the power to cast into hell (Matt. IO:28), and Satan is an unwilling instrument in the hands of a holy God who uses evil to overthrow evil.

 To affirm the christological meaning of the binding of the strong man entails a belief in a personal demonic adversary of God and humanity, called in the Bible Satan, Leviathan, Beelzebul, and the devil. While acknowledging that much of the depiction of the devil and his activity in the New Testament is in the form of myth or picture language, we cannot deny the supernatural reality which is the focus of the myth. We deny the presuppositions of historical positivism in which the life of humanity is portrayed as a closed system of historical causation. We must be willing to learn what historical and literary criticism can tell us about the construction of the text and the psychology of the author, but it is Scripture itself or rather the Spirit acting within Scripture that gives us the theological significance of the text.

 When we deal with the question of the contemporary relevance of this particular text, we are reminded that the church continues its warfare against the principalities and powers. These powers have been dethroned, the dragon has been mortally wounded, but in his death throes he can be even more dangerous than before. Yet in the knowledge that his days are numbered, that his real power has been taken from him, we can, on the basis of this take heart that the church cannot be defeated in its mission to bring the whole world into subjection to Jesus Christ. Insofar as people continue to live according to the lie that the devil promulgates, they still need to be delivered. Exorcism should be part of the ministry of the church today. But we should bear in mind that it is the power of the gospel itself that frees people in bondage to the forces of darkness. It is not any special ritual of exorcism, though this may be appropriate in certain instances, but the preaching of the gospel itself that brings to a lost and helpless world the fruits of Christ's cross and resurrection victory.

 (7) A text that has lent itself to much controversy in recent years regarding the role of women in ministry is I Corinthians 14:33-34: "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says" (NIV). A comparable injunction is found in I Timothy 2:II-I2, though the Pauline authorship of that particular epistle is questioned by many scholars, induding some conservatives.s What is perplexing about I Corinthians 14:34 is that in the same epistle Paul acknowledges the right of women to pray and prophesy publicly in the assembly of the congregation (II:5, I3). Some critical scholars have concluded that these verses are an insertion of a later writer and reflect a hardening of attitudes on this question in the Christian community. I believe, on the contrary, that Paul's remarks are best understood in the light of a particular problem in the Corinthian church of this time, namely, women glossolalists who were causing disturbances in suggests, it may well be that, as Paul was trying to bring to a close this particular portion of his letter, new reports came to him of further commotion caused by overzealous charismatics who happened to be mainly women. He then felt constrained to curb this growing anarchy in worship by issuing an injunction forbidding women to preach publicly and to be subordinate, probably to their husbands and perhaps also to the elders or pastors.

 Yet, that Paul was not making this an unconditional or universal command is obvious from the fact that in other epistles he speaks highly of Priscilla and Phoebe both of whom carried on an active teaching ministry. In Romans 16:2 Paul urges the entire Christian community in Rome to be at the disposal of Phoebe "in whatever she may require from you." In the same epistle he asks Roman Christians to greet "Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles" (Rom. 16:7 KJV). (It is becoming more widely accepted in scholarly circles that Junta was a woman, not a man as suggested by the "Juntas" used in most translations.)

 Yet we still do not grasp the christological significance of our text until we view it in the light of Galatians 3 :26-29 where the essential equality of the male and female members of the body of Christ is affirmed.. Sexual differences are not annulled, but they are relativized by faith in Christ, for in Christ all are "sons of God" (Gal. 3:26).

 Further illumination is given to the Corinthian text when it is related to Ephesians 2:14-22 where Christ is pictured as breaking down the walls that divide Christians from one another by abolishing "the law of commandments and ordinances" (vs. I5). The promise of woman's call to ministry in Acts 2:I7-I8 will also figure in a fuller theological exposition of this passage.

 What our text seems to tell us is that in some situations women should keep silent in the church and let men assume control. In other situations, however, there may be a real place for women in the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. The barriers to women's ordination are sociological more than theological.

 We should also say something about the principle of subordination. This is not overthrown in the Pauline epistles but given a new meaning or thrust. This principle, too, must be interpreted christologically, as Paul does in Ephesians 5:21-33. Just as Christ gave himself for the church, so the husband must give himself to the wife. His headship is realized in service. Her subordination is realized in her respect for and loving assistance to her husband; together they work out a common vocation under the cross.

 Both men and women in ministry are called to practice subordination to one another and to the congregation which has called them. Subordination, indeed is the law of the kingdom of God, but it must now be understood not as servile submission to authority but as service in fellowship. This is how Paul understood the team ministry of Priscilla and Aquila (note that in Rom. 16:3 he places Priscilla first); this is also how he conceived of his own ministry in relation to Lydia, Phoebe, and Priscilla.

 The law of subordination is based on God's gracious condescension to a sinful humanity in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. It is also anchored in the subordination that Jesus practiced in relation to his disciples. It was he who washed their feet and not vice versa. It was he who suffered and died for them, not vice versa. He realized his headship in the role of a servant, and we are called to do likewise. His exaltation was manifest precisely in his humiliation, and this is true for his disciples in every age and race.

 Word and Spirit

 It can legitimately be asked whether I am operating with a canon within the canon. This is not the case if it means interpreting the whole from the vantage point of select books in the New Testament (in the manner of Kasemann). It is the case if it implies understanding the whole of Scripture in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but this gospel is either explicit or implicit in every part of Scripture. I here concur with Luther who contended that every scriptural text can be law or gospel depending on how we relate it to Jesus Christ.

 The gospel of the cross is indeed the hidden and not so hidden meaning of all the Scriptures, but this gospel cannot be extracted from Scripture as something apart from or independent of its context. Forsyth has cogently observed:

 The Word is not in the Bible as a treasure hid in a field so that you can dig out the jewel and leave the soil. It grows from it like a tree. It breathes from it like a sweet savour. It streams up from it like an exhalation. It rises like the soul going to glory from its sacred dust. The Word of God is not to be dissected from the Bible, but to be distilled.6

 Because the gospel is basically a mystery of which we are stewards (I Cor. 4:I), we can point to it but we cannot possess it. Our formulations cannot be identified with the gospel itself, but they should be regarded as a sign and witness of the gospel. They become the gospel when God unites his Word with our broken words by his Spirit. This is not mysticism, for I insist that meaning shines through mystery. Though our understandings are always partial, they are nonetheless valid for they have their basis in the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

 The gospel as the transcendent Word of God will appear somewhat different to the church in every age, since the Spirit always has a fresh message for the churches. It is the same message, but it is revealed in a new way. For Augustine, at least in one stage of his ministry, the principal theme of the gospel seemed to be the vision of God (cf. Matt. 5:8; I Cor. I3:I2). Luther perceived the essence of the Word to be justification by faith alone. For Calvin it was the life of regeneration based on the remission of sins gained for us by the death and resurrection of Christ. In the theology of Karl Barth, it was the theme of reconciliation and redemption revealed and enacted in Jesus Christ. For the Pietists it was personal conversion through total surrender to the will of God. For Ritschl and the liberal theologians who followed him, it was the proclamation of the kingdom of God. For us today, it might well be the call to obedience and perseverance amid growing persecution. This call is always grounded in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ which makes our partial obedience possible.

 Historical research can be used to discover the literary background and cultural context of the passage in question, but it cannot procure for us the meaning of the Word of God. What historical criticism can give us concerning the events of sacred history mirrored in the Bible is a knowledge of probability, not certainty. It can throw light upon the Sitz im Leben of the text, but it cannot lay hold of its theological and spiritual significance. Does this mean that we should then move from a historical to an existential understanding of the text? In one sense this can be affirmed if it implies that we must now discover what the text means for us personally. On the other hand, we dare not tread this path if it signifies that our goal is simply to arrive at a new awareness of human existence in the light of the text. Against existentialist theology, I contend that what the text conveys to us is not simply a new self-understanding but information about the will and purpose of God, knowledge of the plan of salvation.

 The revelatory meaning of the text cannot be procured by any technique, including that of existential analysis. It can only be conveyed by the action of the Spirit upon the text and within our hearts. The key to the mystery of the meaning of the text lies not in a poetic divination into the language of the text but in the gift of divine illumination. We must pray as Solomon did for an "understanding heart" (I Kings 3:9-I2; NKJ). We must ask the Spirit to teach us the mystery of his law (Ps. II9:I8, 130). We must pray that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened so that we can understand the meaning of our hope in Jesus Christ (Eph. I: I 8).

 What I am advocating is not a pneumatic or devotional exegesis in which we simply read meanings into the text under the inspiration of the Spirit. Instead, we are called to discover the intent of the text by comparing it to other texts and relating it to the meaning of the whole— -- the proclamation of "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:2). We rely ultimately upon the guidance of the Spirit in this task, but this does not lead us to substitute feeling for reason. On the contrary, we seek to use our reason in the service of the Word.

 Christological hermeneutics presupposes that Scripture was written within a community of faith. We cannot really grasp the various nuances of meaning that a text carries unless we stand in this community, unless we share in this faith. Our criterion is not the consensus of the community, but the Spirit of

God working both within the text and within the community enabling us to understand— -- dimly but truly (cf. I Cor. I3:I2). Our partial understandings will always be in continuity (though not necessarily in total agreement) with the basic understanding of the prophets and sages of the church throughout history.

 It behooves us to avoid the perils of both subjectivism and objectivism. We should neither seek a higher spiritual meaning divorced from the text nor rely on the common sense meaning of the text available even to the "natural man." The Word of God is not self-evident in Scripture; it must be sought, but it must be sought in Scripture, not beyond it.

 It is important to distinguish carefully between the culturally conditioned form of Scripture and its divine content. We should take pains to avoid both a fusion of form and content (as in the older orthodoxy) and a separation of form and content (as in liberalism). Our task is to penetrate through the form to the divine content, but this is not possible apart from a special divine illumination.

 The challenge today is to regain confidence that the living Word of God will manifest himself in and through his written Word. It is not whether we have the right tools to dig out the Word of God in Scripture but whether the Spirit of God is ready to act to reveal his Word to the searching heart. No amount of exegetical dexterity or theological acumen can give us the revelatory meaning of the scriptural text. This is a gift bestowed only on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, and a simple believer may find this meaning before a hermeneutical expert. This is not to deny that those who are educated in biblical studies and at the same time enlightened by the Spirit are able to understand the cultural and theological ramifications of the revelation of the Word of God far better than those who are illiterate in these areas. What I am saying, however, is that we cannot take pride in our ability to master the text, for its revelatory impact is available to us only when the text masters us. The revelation of the Word of God is a matter of the free decision of God, not a matter of bringing to the Bible the right kind of pre-understanding or the latest findings in form and redaction criticism. God is still sovereign even in the science of biblical interpretation, and both liberal and conservative exegetes need to acknowledge this anew.




I. In later Israelite history it came to be believed that Yahweh would complete his work of redemption through a Messiah figure whom Christians naturally associated withjesus Christ.

2. See Jaroslav Pehkan, From Luther to Kierkegaard (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), pp. 24-75.

3. Wilhelm Vischer, The Witness ofthe Old Testament to Christ, trans. A. B. Crabtree (London: Lutterworth Press 1949), pp. 68-81. Vischer is adamant that the story of Cain and Abel refers not to the Kenites of the days of David but to "an event of primeval times-the original event which prepares the way for the special history of God's revelation within fallen humanity and for the election of one race of mankind to be the bearer of the special revelation of God" (PP. 79-8o). For Vischer this is an event in Urgeschichte (pre-history) and not Historie (the area of world occurrence accessible to historical investigation). It is a poetic elaboration of that which is hidden from the purview of historical research but which is kept alive in the memory of the race through the illumination of the Spirit of God.

 4. One might argue (as does Vischer) that the more specific intent of the text is to point out how the original fall or original sin gives rise to a primal murder, though it is impossible to ascertain what is genuinely historical in this saga, nor should this even be attempted if we are to remain true to the central thrust of this passage.

 5. To question the direct Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles does not take away their divine inspiration, but it means that they have to be treated in a different manner. I believe that there are genuine Pauline fragments in these epistles, though they were probably written by a disciple or disciples of Paul.

 6. Quoted from Harry Escort (ed.), The Cure of Souls: An Anthology of P.T Forsyth's Practical Writings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, I97I), p. 70.