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The Theocentric view as a powerful hermeneutic

This essay will critically assess the theocentric view of preaching as put forward by Langley. It will explore the strong biblical rationale for the hermeneutic that is apparent in the writings of the prophets, the law, wisdom literature and gospels.  With a particular focus on Pauline theology, the essay will conclude that Langley’s definition of the theocentric view is hindered by a strong focus on only the first member of the Trinity. The theocentric view prevalent in both the Old and New Testaments is better harmonised in Piper’s work.

 

Theocentric view of the Prophets

 

Langley begins by outlining his biblical rationale; he first focuses on the writings of the Old Testament. In selecting Isaiah. 40:9, Langley seemingly stands on firm ground when he states, ‘the bible’s own preaching is God centred’.[1] It is hard to contest that the focus of the ‘writing prophets’ was theocentric. When the prophets spoke, they indeed ‘spoke of the future of God’; however, Langley, more in discussion of the ‘former prophets’, but in a statement that equally applies to the ‘writing prophets’, correctly identifies that the interest of the Prophets went beyond mere history or storytelling: they disclosed God and God’s will, and that their agenda was theological.[2] This helps to simplify some of the debate found in liberal Christianity as to the role of the prophets;[3] were they intending to be forth-tellers or foretellers? Is the primary function of the ‘writing prophets’ to be the voices of social critique or predictors of what God shall bring to bear in the future? Looking at the debate through Langley’s theocentric lens, these questions become moot, simply put, the prophets preached the will of God; this transcends any specific timeframe, be it immediate or long term, that may have been on the mind of the prophets. Mickelsen is credited by Greidanus with the astute observation: ‘Whether he is discussing the past, present, or future the prophet is seeking to make God the most genuine reality that man can know and experience’.[4] This does, however, ask the question of the theocentric preacher: if the minister engages as such, are they by extension taking on the role of prophet? This seems a bit of an overreach if applied to ordinary clergy, and Langley suggests no such thing, however it does bring to light a criticism that can be levelled against the theocentric framework: theocentric language can be a stumbling block for the average Sunday worshipper as much as it can be for the average Sunday worship leader. With such grandiose themes and language, how does one fully express the will of God to the congregation, especially where only God the Father is the focus of the sermon? Isaiah 55:8-9 confirms the difficulty in conveying the God of Israel:


For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.

This is the Lord’s declaration.

For as heaven is higher than earth so My ways are higher than your ways,

and My thoughts than your thoughts.

 

Piper, in his book The Supremacy of God in Preaching, outlines his manifesto for theocentric preaching by also quoting from Isaiah 55; although, tellingly he does so by beginning the biblical quote from verses 10-11; this sidesteps the issue at hand by reconciling the theocentric framework within a more trinitarian view of the God head.[5] Before moving into the New Testament and God’s further revelation by means of a Son, Langley continues in the Old Testament. There remains little debate in scholarship that the essence of Biblical prophecy was a ‘message from God about God’ but the Old Testament has more to offer than just the writings of the prophets.[6]

 

Theocentric view in the Law and Wisdom literature

 

Langley affirms that the Wisdom literature ‘also preaches a theocentric message’ where the emphasis is on coram deo.[7] He affords little space in his writing to the

Psalms as he makes the case for the theocentric view; this is a weakness in his argument, as the psalms at their core point man towards God and are theocentric in nature. Long writes that ‘the words [of the Psalms] penetrate directly to that place where we visualise our primary relationship to God.’[8] As Westermann worked through his ways in which to categorise the Psalms, he wrote of the Psalms of descriptive praise:


It does not praise a unique act of God that has just occurred but summarises his activity in its fullness and praises God in the totality of his dealings with men and of his being…. It looks at ‘the mighty God’s deeds’ in all times and in all places and praises him for them all.[9]

 Langley gives more space to the ‘theocentric nature of the Old Testament legal material’.[10] He argues that God’s law given to God’s people is firmly theocentric. Although true for the Old Testament revelation, this neglects the progressive nature of the fulfilment of the law: the expansion of God’s purpose of the law. This can be found in the gospels and Pauline writings, which challenge Langley’s assertion. In summing up his use of the law for his theocentric ends, Langley writes: ‘ethical behaviour is defined by the character of God and flows from the relationship with God’.[11] Paul, who Beker identifies as an ‘apocalyptic theologian with a theocentric outlook’,[12] is widely accepted in scholarship to have drawn on other sources to form his ethics too, particularly the household codes in the epistles.[13] This is contra to Langley’s narrow view of the law, i.e. it need not solely be theocentric in nature. The theocentric framework of the bible is more easily illuminated by the Old Testament, but there remains more to explore in the New Testament.

 

 

 Theocentric View in the New Testament

 

The gospel according to Mark is a good starting point for Langley. Langley highlights that the ‘proclaiming of the good news of God’ in Mark 1:14 is expanded upon throughout the gospel; this ultimately was intrinsically concerned with the reign of God, the will of God, the ‘concerns of God, faith in God and the love of God.[14] All of Jesus’ parables are about the Kingdom of God; however it must be noted that where Matthew’s gospel favours the nomenclature ‘Kingdom Heaven’, we gain a small insight into the dynamic nature of the Kingdom: although associated with God’s spiritual authority in the lives of people, it may not be wholly theocentric.  Strauss remarks: ‘the apocalyptic Judaism of Jesus’ day acknowledged the present reality of God’s sovereign authority but placed greatest emphasis on the future eschatological dimension of the kingdom.’[15] Part of that dynamic reign included a static realm, which Strauss ascribes to the messianic kingdom centred in Jerusalem.[16] Even in the gospel of Mark we read of people celebrating ‘the coming kingdom of our father David’ (Mark 11.10). This minor excursive aside, what we see more prominently throughout the gospels is the theocentric nature of Jesus’ ministry. Langley states that Matthew’s summation of the sermon on the mount is ‘so theocentric, so Father-centric’ that its revelation is the ‘Fatherhood of the holy creator’: words lifted from J.I Packer in abridging the entirety of the New Testament.[17] Langley believes that the Gospel of John is more theocentric than even the synoptics. He writes: ‘Everything Jesus says and does, he says and does to glorify the Father’.[18] This is an accurate statement attested in John 17:1-5, which leads to Langley’s extortion ‘if this is the burden of our Lord himself and the evangelists who told his story, should it not be ours as well?’[19]

 

 

 Theocentric Reconciliation in Pauline theology

 

The theological viewpoint that Paul holds, provides for the theocentric preacher the best way in which to navigate the ‘God-centredness of the bible’s own preaching’.[20]Langley states that the ‘theocentric emphasis is not more narrowly christocentric’.[21] However, we must recognise that the grandeur and transcendence of God is only rectified with the imminence of Jesus. The grandiose themes and language associated with God, and mentioned before in the context of the average worship time, may not necessarily speak to the relational qualities of God; these qualities we find more forthcoming in the second and third members of the trinity. Paul managed to straddle this divide by having a Christocentric focus with a theocentric mind. Horrell writes:


Although the central focus of Paul’s gospel seems to be Christ, and specifically his death and resurrection, we should not ignore the evidence which indicates that Paul’s theology is profoundly focussed on God.[22]

 

What Langley perhaps does not express clearly enough in his argument is the need to open the theocentric view by incorporating the full character of God: that at the heart of His very being is the triune community. It would be too far to suggest that Langley divides the Doctrine of the Trinity, but the criticism put forward by both Chapell and Kuruvilla is indicative of his lack of clarity. Chapell writes that it is not God the father alone who is the main character in redemptive history.[23] Likewise, Kuruvilla with an emphasis on scripture notes that the pericopes are not simply theocentric telling the reader something abstract about God’s character, but implicit in them is the portrayal of the second person of the Trinity- fully God, but also fully man.[24]


It is Paul who reconciles the theocentric view fully. Dunn makes a profound statement with a view of Paul’s writing in Rom 11:26-36:


It is in Christ that God’s purpose reaches its climax. Similarly in Rom 11:26, the hope of a final deliverer (Is. 59:20) Is transferred from Yahweh to Christ, though the focus in the remaining verses is solely on God. This ‘christologizing’ of traditional theistic eschatology is the best example of a more diffuse phenomenon in which ‘God-language’ becomes implicitly Christological, without Christology ceasing to be theocentric.[25]

 

In his section God the Son? Langley takes up a defensive position against a seeming assault from high Christology. He posits that a lofty enough Christology can potentially supplant theology, and thus render it dispensable. It is this rather bullish approach to the issue that causes Wilson to ask: do theocentric and christocentric need to be such stark alternatives?[26] Langley worries that a christocentric focus, which privileges redemption, reduces the impact of God’s work in creation; that wisdom themes, more prevalent in the Old Testament, are overlooked; and that the first line of the Nicene Creed becomes nothing more than a preface.[27] The opening four verses of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us how closely aligned the theocentric and christocentric views are in the witness of the New Testament; it even alludes to wisdom themes from the Old Testament. Both the work of God and the work of Christ fully overlap in the redemptive-historical narrative; Langley’s expression of the christocentric view does threaten the coherence of  biblical witness, but equally as much as the theocentric view, one that only attests the Father also does: the work of God cannot be preached fully without the words of the Son, the work of the Son cannot be understood fully without the words of the Father. It is the Holy spirit that makes us listen to both.

 

Conclusion

 

Both Langley and Piper, take their inspiration for a theocentric view from the Scottish preacher James Stewart, both use the same quote as the foundation for their ministry.[28] Langley provides a strong biblical rationale but his, at times bullish, emphasis on the first person of the Trinity diminishes the true glory of the complete picture. The shorter catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith states that the chief end of man is to glorify God, and as Langley notes, this was also the motivation for Jesus; but God’s work also led to the glorification of Jesus. A theocentric view is an excellent hermeneutic for biblical interpretation, but it cannot be used in exclusion of any member of the Trinity. Piper harmonises the idea in a manner more complete than Langley’s. He posits an outline for the supremacy of God in preaching that is intentionally Trinitarian:


The Goal of Preaching: The Glory of God

The Ground of Preaching: The Cross of Christ

The Gift of Preaching: The Power of the Holy Spirit[29]



It is Piper who more closely aligns with the biblical example of Paul and of the unknown preacher in the epistle to the Hebrews when he writes ‘God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are the beginning, middle and the end in the ministry of preaching.[30]

 

Theocentric Hermeneutic
Preaching God

 

Bibliography

 

Beker, Johan Christiaan, Paul the Apostle: the triumph of God in life and thought, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) < Paul the apostle : the triumph of God in life and thought : Beker, Johan Christiaan, 1924- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [24/11/23]

 

Chapell, Bryan, Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23]

 

Dunn, James D.G., The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) < ProQuest Ebook Central - Reader (oclc.org)> [25/11/23]

 

Greidanus, Sidney, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: interpreting and preaching biblical literature, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988)

 

Horrell, David G., An Introduction to the study of Paul, 3rd Edition, (London: T&T Clark, 2012)

 

Kuruvilla, Abraham, Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23]

 

Langley, Kenneth, ‘Theocentric View’ in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23]

 

Long, Thomas G., Preaching the literary forms of the Bible, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989) < Preaching and the literary forms of the Bible : Long, Thomas G., 1946- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [24/11/2023]

 

O’Brian, Julia M., ‘Forthtellers Not Foretellers: The Origins of a Liberal Orthodoxy about the Prophets’, Religions, 13.4 (2022), 298 https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13040298 [23/11/2023]

 

Piper, John, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004)

 

Standhartinger, Angela, ‘The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the letters to the Colossians’, Journal for the study of the New Testament, 23.79 (2001) pp. 117-130 < https://doi-org.uhi.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0142064X0102307910> [24/11/23]

 

Strauss, Mark L., Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007)

 

Westermann, Claus, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) < Praise and lament in the Psalms : Westermann, Claus : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [24/11/23]

 

Wilson, Paul Scott, Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23]

 

 

 


[1] Kenneth Langley, ‘Theocentric View’ in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23] p. 49

[2] Langley p.49

[3] Julia M. O’Brian, ‘Forthtellers Not Foretellers: The Origins of a Liberal Orthodoxy about the Prophets’, Religions, 13.4 (2022), 298 https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13040298 [23/11/2023]

[4] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: interpreting and preaching biblical literature, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) p. 229

[5] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004) p. 22

[6] Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and Ancient texts p.229

[7] Kenneth Langley, ‘Theocentric View’ in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23] p. 49

[8] Thomas G. Long, Preaching the literary forms of the Bible, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989) < Preaching and the literary forms of the Bible : Long, Thomas G., 1946- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [24/11/2023] p. 45

[9] Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) < Praise and lament in the Psalms : Westermann, Claus : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [24/11/23] p. 32

[10] Langley p.49

[11] Langley p.49

[12] Johan Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: the triumph of God in life and thought, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) < Paul the apostle : the triumph of God in life and thought : Beker, Johan Christiaan, 1924- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [24/11/23] p.362

[13] There is wide attestation to this beginning with the Haustafeln work of Kurt Weidinger; provided here is Angela Standhartinger, ‘The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the letters to the Colossians’, Journal for the study of the New Testament, 23.79 (2001) pp. 117-130 < https://doi-org.uhi.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0142064X0102307910> [24/11/23]

[14] Langley p 50

[15] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) p. 199

[16] Mark L. Strauss p.199

[17] Langley p. 50

[18] Langley p. 50

[19] Langley p.50

[20] Langley p.51

[21] Langley p.49

[22] David G. Horrell, An Introduction to the study of Paul, 3rd Edition, (London: T&T Clark, 2012) p.93

[23] Bryan Chapell in response, in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23] p.61

[24] Abraham Kuruvilla in response, in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23] p.63

 

[25] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) < ProQuest Ebook Central - Reader (oclc.org)> [25/11/23] p. 44-45

[26] Paul Scott Wilson in response, in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: four views on preaching today, ed, Scott M. Gibson, and Matthew D. Kim, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) < EpubReader (vlereader.com)> [24/11/23] p.64

[27] Langley p. 53

[28] Langley p. 58, Piper p. 23

[29] Piper p. 23

[30] Piper p.23

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