WHAT IS CENTRAL IN OUR LIVES?
JACK COTTRELL – AUGUST 2014
For decades I have tried to expose and refute a theological error I call “the Christological fallacy.” It is indeed a serious error in Christology, or the true understanding of the person and work of Jesus. It is also a serious error in theological method, and as such it is the source of many other errors in the interpretation and application of Scripture.
What is this “Christological fallacy”? It is the attempt to make Christ an epistemological principle, rather than the Redeemer he came to be. It sees Jesus as mainly a source of revelation, rather than the source of redemption. Jesus was of course a Revealer, but this is not the main reason for the incarnation. The Logos came to die and rise again in triumph over sin and over all his enemies. This is something only the incarnate God could do. While Jesus may be the highest revelation, there are many other ways in which God can reveal and has revealed himself and his truth to the human race. Thus our knowledge of God and his works comes to us from God as God, and not necessarily from God as Redeemer. And because of the reality of revelation and inspiration, this knowledge comes to us in written form in Scripture. The Reformers are still right: the Bible is our “formal principle,” our epistemological principle. Jesus Christ is not.
I first began teaching about this many years ago in a seminary course on theological method. I wrote about it in my book, What the Bible Says About God the Creator (College Press, 1983; now available through Wipf and Stock), in the chapter on “The Implications of Creation.” The issue arises in connection with the question, what is the relation between creation and redemption? I.e., which of these is the primary framework of existence? Are God’s eternal purposes formed first of all in terms of redemption, or in terms of creation? Shall we interpret creation in the light of redemption, or vice versa?
Surprisingly, many have said that God created in order to redeem. His primary purpose is redemption. I cannot here begin to explain how wrong and how disastrous this idea is. Over against this, the fact is that God’s primary purpose is creation, to which redemption is applied once sin enters the picture. (See my book, God the Ruler, pp. 118-122.) But creation is still the ultimate framework of all things.
One of the main erroneous implications of giving redemption priority over creation is seeing God in his role as Redeemer as determining how we interpret everything. This leads, of course, to the isolation and elevation of Jesus and his redemptive work as the touchstone or central fact around which everything else revolves and must be interpreted. This is the Christological fallacy.
I saw an example of this fallacy in an article in Christian Standard (April 19, 1981,) written by Stuart Cook and entitled “Making Christ Central.” Cook states that “true restoration involves restoring Christ to His rightful centrality.” He says, “Every spiritual concept, practice, or deed must find its essential meaning and value in Jesus Christ—His identity, perfect life, atoning death, triumphant resurrection, and glorified status.” He continues, “If Christ is truly to be preached, then every doctrine and ordinance of the faith must be dependent on Him, His nature, character, and deeds, for meaning. . . . The ‘doctrine of Christ’ will be that doctrine which centers on Jesus Christ.”
When this is applied to creation, one result is that God is seen as creating the world SO THAT he could redeem it through Jesus Christ (which means that he had to intend for it to be infected by sin), and another result is that our knowledge of creation can come only through Jesus Christ. This whole approach must be vigorously rejected and refuted.
In my original discussion of this issue in God the Creator (1983), I attempted to set forth in a few paragraphs what I understood (and still understand) to be the proper interpretation of the nature of things, of the relation between creation and redemption, and especially of the idea of what is CENTRAL in our lives. (See pp. 188-190 in God the Creator; see also the condensed version, God Most High: What the Bible Says About God [College Press, 2012], pp. 66-67.) I will now simply copy these paragraphs below. (When I teach this material in my Doctrine of God course, I often say that in my own opinion, these ideas are among the most important I have ever written.)
When we ask the question, “What should be central in our lives?” we should see that this question must be answered in different ways on different levels. That is, central in what way? If we mean essentially central, the answer is that GOD THE CREATOR is central. That is, we can explain the essence of our existence only in light of the creation, and our primary relationship to God is to God as Creator. The creation-relation is the decisive reference point for the basic facts of our existence. For instance, our knowledge of God, as we have seen, comes to us from God the Creator. This applies not only to the written revelation of Scripture, but to the general revelation of God which comes through the witness of creation itself (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:18ff.). Also, the will of God (in the form of law) is known to us as the will of God our Creator. Thus ethics is grounded in creation, not redemption. Also, sin against God is sin against God the Creator; this sin-relationship with the Creator is what brings about the need for redemption. These are the points that have caused many theologians, especially those of Lutheran persuasion, to see that law (grounded in the creation-relation) must precede gospel (grounded in redemption).
Also, we should note that since man’s essential relation to God is to God as Creator, this is the universal God-man relationship. All men are related to God the Creator in that all know Him, all know His will, and all have sinned against Him (see Rom. 1:18-32; 2:14-15). But not all are related to God as Redeemer; this is an acquired relationship.
The question of centrality must also be asked another way. If we mean what is epistemologically central, then the answer is that THE BIBLE is central. It is typical today when such a statement is made for some observers to wax hysterical and accuse the speaker of “bibliolatry” or of elevating the Bible above the Lord of the universe Himself. This kind of response usually comes, however, from those who do not understand the primary role of epistemology and the difference between form and content. The question of epistemology is basic in any field of inquiry, i.e., how do we get knowledge about our subject matter? But this is only a formal question and is not in competition with the content learned thereby. When we say that the Bible is epistemologically central we mean that it and it alone is our source of knowledge about the One who is central in our lives. This is the meaning of the time-honored slogan, “The Bible and the Bible alone is our only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Faith in the Bible as our source of truth about Christ does not contradict our faith in Christ as the source of our salvation.
This leads to a final way in which the question about centrality can be asked, namely, what is existentially (or experientially) central in our lives? The Christian must answer that CHRIST is central when the question is asked this way. This means that our strongest felt relationship to God is the relationship we have with Christ our Lord and Savior. He is the One whom we know most about and to whom we feel the closest. As the One who has saved us from our sins, we owe Him more than we owe anyone else. He is usually central in our worship. We want our lives to be Christ-centered and Christ-honoring. Our very name is Christian. In short, all our conscious service to God is in the name of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17). This is the way it ought to be. But let us not demote Christ and distort truth by trying to make Him an epistemological tool.
In summary we are saying that the Creator is the essential center of our lives; the Bible is the epistemological center; and Jesus Christ is the existential (or experiential) center.