Many have attempted to discover the centre of Scripture by reading it according to its own terms, idioms, and storyline. In this attempt, however, theologians have differed on what that centre is. Proposals include justification, God’s glory in salvation through judgment, and God himself. That so many disagree on the centre suggests that such an approach has yet to discover the centre.
Despite the seeming impossibility of discovering the centre, it is possible to name it. In my view, the discipline of biblical theology can grasp the centre only through first considering key apostolic comments on the relationship between Christ and Scripture. Only then does the centre become manifest.
Let me explain.
In the first century, Scripture meant the Old Testament. Everyone preached Christ from the Old Testament. It was the only option available. And it was not an obligatory second choice (as Christians waited for the New Testament). The scriptures truly and in fact did speak of Christ through-and-through.
Yet virtually no one recognized this until after the Resurrection. Even Peter was confused about what the empty tomb meant. Only John is said to have “believed” when he saw the empty tomb. And it took Christ appearing to persuade the rest of the disciples. Even then, it was a shock.
After spending many years at Jesus’ feet, why couldn’t the apostles understand what the Scripture plainly said: that Christ would suffer and rise from the dead? Why were they so blind to the obvious?
Even today, many academics and non-Christian faiths (judaism, lslam, etc.) read Scripture (the OT) without seeing the Christological centrality of it. Why is this?
The apostolic writings actually attempt to explain why such a blindness could cover the eyes of the religious leaders of Israel as well as the disciples of Christ. Paul, for example, concludes Romans with one of the most undervalued passages in Scripture:
Now, to the one is able to make you stand according to my Gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the mystery that was hidden in the ages through time but now has been made manifest and made known through the prophetic scriptures according to the command of the eternal God for the obedience of faith to all the nations (Rom 16:25–26).
Here, Paul correlates his Gospel and kerygma to a hidden mystery. Yet the mystery that was hidden in the past ages has now been revealed according to the apostle. How exactly? The manifestation in the present has to be linked to Christ’s incarnation. And its being “made known” happens “through the prophetic scriptures,” that is, the Old Testament.
Put very simply, the hidden mystery has now been made manifest by Jesus and made known through the Old Testament. Something therefore has changed. The hidden is now manifest. The mystery is now revealed. Christ lies at the centre of this mystery since he manifests the mystery and makes known the hidden mystery in the Old Testament.
One can see how this works in Luke 24 when Jesus meets Cleopas and another disciple. He teaches them how to read the Scripture (the law, prophets, and psalms) to see himself in them. Likewise, Paul speaks of those who read the Scripture with a veil over their eyes, unable to see the glory of Christ in the text of Scripture.
That veil remains over all our eyes without Christ “because only through Christ is it taken away” (2 Cor 3:15). Until then, the mystery remains hidden in the field of the Old Testament. Only a revelation of Jesus Christ can make the hidden manifest, the unknown known, and so unveil us to see what is there.
Christians recognized the revelatory nature of Christ and Scripture. Ireneaus (2nd ce.) famously described Scripture as a mosaic whose stones can be arranged in various ways. Yet only one hypothesis rightly orders Scripture, orders the stones to create the image of truth that the Scripture presents.
A similar metaphor can work that may be more familiar to us. Picture the Mona Lisa. Now imagine that the main figure (Lisa) has black paint spread over our visage. Now, someone who first sees this picture will certainly know the background, the colour scheme, and various aspects of the painting.
But everything will feel displaced, out of order, not entirely clear because the centre has entirely been blotted out. The black paint has veiled it. It’s there underneath the paint, but hidden and mysterious.
In this sense, an observer may make many true observations about the quality of the painting and its details. But the centre is simply not there, hidden away.
Now imagine Leonardo da Vinci returns and peels off that top layer of paint. Then you see the centre. You see Mona Lisa. All the prior details that you noticed remain but have a new central referent that makes better sense of the whole.
Scriptural revelation works in a similar way. The Old Testament has a coherent picture, but it is missing something. Everything thus hints at and looks to the full picture. It needs completion. Without the unveiling of the central character, everything has the sense of shadow cast by the image whose body blocks the son. That shadow looks very Christ-like, but it remains dark, obscure, and hidden.
Until Christ manifests himself on earth. The hidden then becomes manifest. Now, in this age, Christ has made known the mystery hidden for ages to the gentiles “through the prophetic writings,” that is, the Old Testament.
Like da Vinci in the metaphor above, Christ peels back the layer of black paint. He removes the veil because “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:16).
Imposing the centre to reveal the centre
Some interpreters may feel uncomfortable following this approach because it sounds like we would be imposing the meaning of the New Testament unto the Old Testament. We are. And we must because that is the only way to understand the Old Testament in its fullness.
Yet this imposition does not mean adding something foreign to the Old Testament texts. The Old Testament as prophetic writings that are inspired by the Holy Spirit has a built-in sense of expectedness. It requires an unveiling, a revelation, to make the hidden manifest in the final ages as Paul notes.
Elsewhere, the apostle makes an analogy between a body blocking a light source and the shadow cast by this blockage to explain the Old Testament’s relationship to Christ. He writes of certain Old Testament practices, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the [body] belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). Old covenant practices are a shadow cast by Christ’s body, representing him but only dark and unclear ways.
Elsewhere, Hebrews calls the tabernacle a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5). The analogy here is similar. The heavenly tabernacle blocks a light source, and its shadow casts down to earth in the form of the earthly tabernacle. Yet it goes beyond Colossians by calling the earthly tabernacle a replica or image of the original form, that is, the heavenly one.
The point of these analogies is to convey that heavenly realities, that Christ himself, precedes and supersedes the scriptural patterns. He is before and above them. He is the archetype that they copy.
Consider the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says we are created in the image of God. Yet Paul clearly states that Christ is that Image (Col 1:15). Hence, even in Genesis 1, humans are cast as the image of Christ who precedes and supersedes us.
It is not as if he begins to exist when the Holy Spirit knits him together in the womb of Mary. Christ pre-existed, being the true archetype of existence. The Father, after all, created by the Word (Ps 33:6).
To impose Christ upon the Scripture is actually to reveal him in all his fullness since he is the babe wrapped in the swaddle hidden in the manger of the Old Testament, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther. Or to use the language of Ireneaus, Christ is the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament.
Hence, by imposing the centre upon the Scripture, we in fact reveal the centre of the Scripture. It is Christ. It always has been. Yet it has been so in a mysterious and hidden way. Until he revealed himself, we only knew him in shadow and type. But now we know the body that cast the shadow, the archetype of the types—Christ himself.