Jason Allen and The Gospel Project
By Dr. Eric Hankins, Pastor
First Baptist Church, Oxford, Mississippi
Doctoral dissertations are typically not the stuff of widespread attention (mine certainly was not and rightly so!). However, in light of Dr. Jason Allen’s nomination and appointment to the presidency of Midwestern Seminary, his dissertation (http://digital.library.sbts.edu/bitstream/handle/10392/3722/Allen_sbts_0207D_10055.pdf ), finished just last year, has evoked quite a bit more than the normal interest. Because Dr. Allen is a fairly unknown commodity, I read his dissertation and found it to be a very relevant piece of scholarship for the present hour in the life of our Convention.
The dissertation is entitled “The Christ-Centered Homiletics of Edmund Clowney and Sidney Greidanus in Contrast with the Human Author-Centered Hermeneutics of Walter Kaiser.” I must admit that the title itself caused my ears to prick up just a bit. It is no secret that I am quite concerned about the advance of Calvinism in the SBC. Allen’s strong associations with Southern Seminary and Steve Lawson, for which he expresses great appreciation in his preface (viii-x), have raised concerns that he will be promoting Calvinism at Midwestern. The title, at first glance, appears to reinforce such concerns because “Christ-centered homiletics” is all the rage among Reformed preachers (http://thegospelcoalition.org/preaching-christ/ ).
Under the auspices of making sure that Christ is proclaimed in every sermon, the net effect of such an approach is often to pry texts out of their contexts in order to insert the preacher’s own theological pre-commitments. This ensures not only that every text might “preach Christ,” but also that every text might preach Calvinism. This sort of eisegesis is Walter Kaiser’s concern, and that’s why he’s spent his entire career honing the tried-and-true methodologies of biblical hermeneutics, especially with the regard to the OT, that take seriously authorial intent as the key to a text’s meaning. This approach drives great evangelical exposition. Certainly, Kaiser’s hermeneutics take into account the necessity of speaking of how any text, whether OT or NT, points to the grand redemptive history sealed in the pre-existence, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, reign, and return of Christ. What is different about the “Christ-centered” homiletic of Clowney is that it actually allows for a wedge to be driven between the meaning intended by the original author and the meaning appropriated by the subsequent interpreter. This, as Kaiser rightly points out and Allen duly notes, is highly problematic (79). When the intent of the original author can be dislodged from the meaning of text, the door to all sorts of trouble is opened.
Interestingly enough, Kaiser’s (and Allen’s) concerns about “Christ-centered homiletics” are exactly my concerns about LifeWay’s The Gospel Project. Just watch Matt Chandler’s promotional video (http://vimeo.com/34692625) of the curriculum, and you’ll see a first class example of the weaknesses of “Christ-centered” hermeneutics. The David and Goliath story is not about living faithfully as one faces giants; it is about how Jesus is our champion. Now, there is nothing inappropriate about seeing in this story an analogy to the Christ-event. There would be nothing at all wrong with emphasizing that analogy as a particular approach to interpretation or preaching. What is wrong is saying that, since the “Christ-centered meaning” of the text has been discovered, the narrative has nothing to say about faithful living, since the Bible, in Chandler’s opinion is not a “roadmap to life.” He seems to indicate that teaching people that the Bible is a roadmap from this passage actually harms them. In doing this, Chandler abandons the sound hermeneutics of, for instance, Fee and Stuart, who teach that every OT narrative has three interpretational levels: a “bottom level” which deals with the meaning of individual narratives, the “middle level,” which deals with the story of what God is doing in Israel, and the “top level,” which is God’s great plan of redemption, ultimately revealed in the story of Christ. Clearly, the bottom level of the David and Goliath story is demonstrating how David is the true Israelite, a “man after God’s own heart,” living fruitfully in the fullness of covenant fellowship. So, there is much instruction to believers about “facing the giants.” At this level, the story is not guaranteeing personal success; but it is a story about living sacrificially for the fame of God’s name in every circumstance. To eliminate this from the exegetical import of this passage is simply erroneous. And it ignores the fact that the NT regularly points us to the examples of OT characters as encouragement to faithfulness in times in trouble (He 11, James 5:13-18).
I say the Bible is a “road-map to life,” a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. Now, it is certainly more than that. The good news of God’s grace to sinners is the referent of every page of Scripture and should be proclaimed in every sermon. But, the goal of preaching is to expose the text as it stands, not make it say what we want it to say through allegorical manipulation.
I certainly appreciate the reminder from the Reformed guys that biblical preaching must be more than moral pep-talks and chicken-soup-for-the-soul because the Bible is much, much more than that. But anytime we decide it is okay to ignore the authorial intent of a passage, we are in dangerous territory. A case in point comes from the Calvinism Conference in Kentucky this past August. Dr. Hershael York (Allen’s dissertation committee chair) is giving a defense of Limited Atonement, and he places into evidence the Day of Atonement from the OT. He makes the inference that, since the High Priest did not make atonement for every nation on the earth but God’s chosen people, Jesus the High Priest did not make atonement for everyone in the world, just the elect. This is “Christ-centered” hermeneutics. Unfortunately, it is also bad exegesis. Following Kaiser, the question of the meaning of Day of Atonement is rooted in what Moses intended to teach the people of Israel. Was the point of the Day of Atonement passage to show Israel how God was excluding the nations from His redeeming purposes? Hardly. Israel’s vocation was to be a light to the Gentiles and kingdom of priests. Could a foreigner benefit from the Day of Atonement? Certainly (Lev 16:29). Also, the NT is clear in the book of Hebrews that the limited nature of the sacrificial system has been superseded by the vastly superior work of Christ, who provides atonement beyond anything offered in the OT sacrificial system. And, of course, 1 John 2:2 essentially settles the matter. But Dr. York has already decided that Limited Atonement is the truest understanding of the Gospel and reads it back into the texts concerning the Day of Atonement, rather than exegeting it from the text.
If The Gospel Project is intending to teach people to see how all of the Bible is related to the overarching story of God’s plan of redemption, that’s worthy goal, although I’m not sure why such a concept needs its own Sunday School curriculum. If it sets that hermeneutical layer above, outside of, or in opposition to the intended meaning of the author, then it is flat wrong, and more so if Reformed theology is loaded back into the texts because “Calvinism is the Gospel.” The disproportionate number of Reformed thinkers on the advisory board for the project and the curriculum’s frequent references to Reformed authors concern me that this could be the case.
All of which brings me back to Dr. Allen’s dissertation. Allen is actually arguing that Kaiser’s author-centered hermeneutics are superior to Clowney and Greidanus’s Christ-centered homiletics (11-12; 132). Allen’s style is, admittedly, oblique, but his point is clear enough: while Christ should always be exalted when preaching, authorial intent alone is the exegetical launch pad for any sermon (“Be Expositional First and Christological Second,” 145). Allusions to Christ may certainly be made when Christology isn’t explicit, but allusions are what they are and no more (144). Care must be given not to read any meaning into a text that is not rooted in the author’s intent. I hope the writers of The Gospel Project are listening to the new president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary because he is calling into question the conventional wisdom of “Christ-centered” hermeneutics.
 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 79-80
 Hershael York, “Calvinism: Dialogue from Differing Theological Positions,” recording from Calvinism: Concerned? Curious? Confused?, August 4, 2012, available at http//:kybaptist.org/calvinism; accessed October 12, 2012. York’s comments begin right the 30:00 mark.