Joe sits down at his desk. He is planning to preach an Old Testament book for the first time to his new congregation. He prays over his passage, notes the genre as a narrative, outlines the scenes and plot, and makes exegetical notes about the passage’s substance. After reading a few commentaries, all his preparations are done. He is ready to begin crafting his sermon. But, he has one question left to answer. Should the death, resurrection, and return of Christ be a major theme of his sermon for that Sunday? And if so, how?
One method of preaching Christ from the Old Testament is Christotelic preaching. Christotelic proponents present their method as a correction to Christocentric preaching. However, this need not be the case. The major issue in the debate revolves around proper definition. Many writers incorrectly define what they mean by Christotelic and Christocentric preaching. In the end, very little difference exists between the two approaches as long as both methods agree to two truths: historical-grammatical exegesis is necessary for rightly understanding a passage, and every thought unit of Scripture ultimately relates to Christ in some way.
Christotelic preaching claims that Christ is the end or the goal of the Old Testament. The Bible follows a historical-redemptive story that finds its climax in the death, burial, resurrection, and second coming of Christ. The key for the Christotelic method is that Christ is not within every passage but rather the ultimate end of the Old Testament. Therefore, Christotelic preaching places a heavy emphasis on the original audience’s understanding of a passage and on the biblical progression of redemptive theology. The theology of the text might not speak about Christ directly, but it finds its ultimate purpose in Christ’s works which were to come later in redemptive history. The problem Christotelic preachers have with the Christocentric method is that they believe it can jettison the original meaning of a text in an attempt to move to Christ. However, this accusation misunderstands Christocentric preaching. As far as I am aware, no work on Christocentric preaching advocates jettisoning the original author’s intent in order to preach Christ. In fact, they agree that the author’s original intent must be the foundation of good exegesis and that speculative methods such as allegorization ought to be rejected. Furthermore, both Christotelic and Christocentric methods rest on the assumption that the Bible’s metanarrative tells the story of redemptive history. When asked the question, “Is this Old Testament passage ultimately about Christ,” both methods would answer, “Yes!” Both approaches can, therefore, use similar methods to preach Christ. After all, how is it possible for Christ to be the end of Scripture and yet not the center of it as well? The major difference between Christocentric and Christotelic preaching is one of semantic emphasis and not method.
While similar in many ways, Christotelic preaching emerged as a response to an aberrant view of Christocentric preaching that neglected authorial intent in order to focus on Christ. Unfortunately, some Christotelic proponents remain so bound to the historical setting that they too say Christ can only be preached from texts that are clearly messianic. In other words, most of the Old Testament should be preached without explicitly reference Christ’s death, resurrection, or second coming. Their argument presents numerous weaknesses. First, some argue that Old Testament authors did not understand that what they wrote related to Christ. However, we cannot assume to know the minds of the Old Testament authors outside of what they wrote. On the contrary, numerous New Testament passages testify that the Old Testament prophets and the righteous within Israel understood that what they wrote ultimately pointed to the New Testament era, and they longed to experience that New Covenant reality (Matt 13:17, 1 Pet 1:10–12, Heb 11). They might not have known every detail, but they knew enough to understand and desire the salvation that came with Christ’s atoning work. Second, some Christotelic preachers say that a Christocentric interpretation neglects a Jewish understanding of the text. Yet, Christ and the apostles constantly rebuked the Jewish community for misunderstanding the Scriptures. This misunderstanding is due to God’s own work in partially veiling the truth—that the Old Testament is about Christ (Matt 13:10–17; Rom 11:25). Attempts to read the Old Testament without Christ is like trying to put together a puzzle without knowing the overall picture or trying to see through a camera lens that has not been focused. Third, Christotelic preachers sometimes interpret the Old Testament’s original meaning as if the Old Testament can be directly applied to contemporary believers. The church, however, is a part of the New Covenant. Everything is different now that Christ has come. An Old Testament passage cannot be applied to contemporary Christians without first filtering it through Christ’s work, or the preacher runs the risk of assuming that Old Covenant Israel and the New Testament church are identical. If not for Christ, how does God’s promise of physical blessings in Joshua 1 relate to Christians today? If Christ is not included, then Christotelic preaching runs the risk of presenting law without grace or physical blessings rather than spiritual benefits. If an abuse of Christocentric preaching is allegorization, an abuse of Christotelic preaching is moralizing the Old Testament law and narratives.
Be that as it may, the debate between Christocentric preaching and Christotelic preaching ultimately is a question of correct definition rather than a conflict over mutually exclusive hermeneutics. As long as Joe the preacher believes that the text’s meaning is grounded in the author’s original intent and that every passage in the Old Testament ultimately leads to Christ, Joe can learn from both the Christotelic and Christocentric supporters in how to preach Christ.
Mike Mills is the Associate Pastor of Families and Music at First Baptist Church in Princeton, Texas, and is a Ph.D. student in Southwestern’s School of Preaching.