Reflections on Southern Seminary, part 3.

by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my visit to Southern Seminary last month. I had the honor of preaching in chapel, and I delivered a sermon called “A Great Commission Hermeneutic,” an idea[1] that had been developing in my mind ever since I engaged another debate in the SBC concerning “Christ-centered preaching” (CCP).

CCP is of a piece with the Calvinism discussion mainly because it tends, of late, to be the bailiwick of Reformed Bible scholars and homileticians. “Gospel-centeredness” and “Christ-centeredness,” as opposed to “man-centeredness” is typical of the terminology and trajectory of this movement. So, when LifeWay’s The Gospel Project (TGP) rolled out, it caused my ears to prick up. The wording, the focus on seeing Christ in all of Scripture (which, while crucial, can be exegetically unwieldy), the personalities used in its promotion, and an advisory team that was mostly Reformed, all contributed to the concern that TGP might be a new “Reformed” SBC Sunday School literature.

The coup-de-grâce for me was the promotional video by Matt Chandler that appeared to lay out the general shape of TGP’s hermeneutics, which, as I made clear in a blog post, were incredibly problematic, causing me to be concerned about the content of TGP. That post touched off a spirited discussion, eliciting a series of responses from Jon Akin and resulting in an invitation from Ed Stetzer to participate in a panel discussion at the SBC in Houston to talk about CCP.

In order to prepare for my part on the panel, I did a bit more study of CCP, which only further convinced me of the problems with the hermeneutics of Clowney, Greidanus, Goldsworthy, Chappell, Johnson, et al, the main one being that Reformed theology was presupposed in the exegetical process. I also, however, began to see some problems with Walt Kaiser’s approach (and my default position) along the same lines: a tendency to cram some texts into pre-suppositional molds ill-suited for them. I’m now probably closest to Darrell Bock, who advocates for a single meaning for texts but calls for a great deal of latitude and amplitude for how New Testament texts fulfill the Old.

The study of this whole subject gave me a greater appreciation of and, frankly, a better hermeneutic for OT narratives. As I shared in my chapel sermon, it’s easy to fall into therapeutic, deistic, moralizing (especially when preaching OT narratives) and forget the gospel. CCP has done evangelical preaching a great service in raising this criticism. Still, I felt that something was missing from CCP. Because of the emphasis on Reformed theology, I noticed a tendency in CCP to have too little to say about preaching for response and for how the paraenesis[2] of Scripture functions to instruct believers in holy living.

During this study period, I taught through a couple of installments of TGP in a Sunday School class for university students. Not only did I not find any Reformed bias in it, I was helped by the missional trajectory of the biblical interpretation. TGP bridged the gap between moralism and mission so that obedience stayed Christ-centered and others-oriented rather than me-centered and performance oriented.

When I preached on the subject of election for New Orleans’ Seminary’s chapel in September, I utilized this missional approach to avoid the strictures of Reformed exegesis in order to see the Bible-wide and world-wide trajectory of election. Trevin Wax listened to the sermon and heard in it a lot of what TGP was trying to do with its missional component. He also heard in it one of Stetzer’s favorite thinkers, Christopher Wright, who, in The Mission of God lays out a “missional hermeneutic.” I got a copy of Wright’s book, and the last piece of the hermeneutical puzzle clicked into place.

Wright’s proposal “proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”[3] Wright’s critique of CCR is that, while correct about many things, it tends to neglect mission, an insight that, after reading a number of works on CCR, I believe finds its mark. Supporters of CCP are fond of quoting Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” but Wright points out the payload of Christ’s “hermeneutics” comes just a few verses later in the conclusion of the gospel: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (45-47). Wright’s point is that both Jesus and the proclamation of Jesus to the whole earth are the interpretive keys to the Scriptures.

I believe Southern Baptists are particularly well-positioned for this missional hermeneutic and need to articulate it with this kind of critical clarity. What has made our preaching and praxis great through the years is that we not only move quickly to the cross but to the need for the cross to be proclaimed in all the earth. Our passion for evangelism and missions is driven by the fact that such passion is in the heart of God on every page of Scripture. What Wright so elegantly demonstrates is that we don’t need to look for a biblical basis for missions, we need to recognize the missional basis of the whole Bible. Of course, Christology sits right at the heart of this missional basis: if there is no Messiah there is no mission. But when the Messiah is encountered, mission is the result. That’s why, in my message at Southern, I borrowed an insight from Wright and turned John Piper’s adage around: “Worship exists because missions doesn’t.” The flow in the Bible is from encounter to mission (i.e. Is 6). A select portion of every nation isn’t sitting around waiting for us to help them discover their election. Every person on the planet is waiting for Spirit-empowered followers of Christ to flood the whole earth with the proclamation of God’s Salvation in Christ, a proclamation that is the only thing that can save.

So, for instance, the David and Goliath narrative doesn’t only point us to the Savior who wins the battle for us, it gives us the purpose of the victory: “that the whole earth would know there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46). This victory is ultimately fulfilled in Christ not only to save a people, but also to put them in pursuit of the nations not now for judgment (because Christ has been judged in their place) but for surrender and submission to life-giving salvation. Moreover, CCP often puts us in the position of the quivering Israelites, but we really should identify first and foremost with the Philistines, a people outside the covenant, the un-chosen blasphemers, pursued now in Christ in the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that “all the families of the earth would be blessed in you.”

I think this how Southern Baptists ought to think about the Bible. A Great Commission Hermeneutic (GCH) keeps mission at the core of exegetical outcomes, and I think this keeps us from getting lost in the labyrinth of Reformed exegesis before we get to the demand to respond to the gospel and the demand to be swept up into God’s gospel passion for the lost everywhere. I also think this GCH is what helps Stetzer and Wax to work “across theological lines” in TGP and in their wider ministries: because the mission of Christ is the point. People who are overwhelmed by God’s mission to them and through them to the world are people to whom they listen and with whom they want to work. Soteriological speculation certainly has its place in theological discourse, but not at the expense of God’s world-wide desire for the salvation of the lost, which sits right on the surface of the text from Genesis to Revelation. If TGP helps laypeople to read the Bible this way, then Southern Baptists ought to be for it, for, as I stated in my sermon at Southern, “You’re on message when you’re on mission.”[4]


[1] I actually got the term from an email exchange with Ken Keathley, and I just straight up stole it—thanks, Ken!

[2] an address or communication strongly urging someone to do something.

[3] Chistopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 51.

[4] Trevin Wax, Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scripture (Nashville: B&H, 2013), 97: “Teaching cannot properly be considered ‘gospel-centered’ unless it has a missionary shape to it. Unless the truths of God’s Word are leading us to mission, we are just studying the gospel as a closed-group of like-minded Christians, not an all-embracing group of fervent ambassadors for King Jesus. Miss the mission, and you’ve missed the point of gospel-centrality.”