Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Word on the Rhetorical Use of the Phrase "Christ-Centered"

Working in a theology library, I see hundreds of new titles come in every year, and one of the benefits of this experience is noticing new trends in topics, controversies, and language. One such is the term "Christ-centered." Of course, this is no new catchphrase; it has been a catchall descriptor beloved by preachers and writers for dozens (hundreds?) of years. However, of late it has been claimed and propagated by one particular theological and ecclesial subgroup, and repeated nearly ad nauseam in a stream of publications by certain mutually reinforcing authors influenced and shaped by the same sources. In coming across these authors and works, I have constantly undergone the same pattern: noting the title with appreciative interest; opening the book to explore the contents; and closing it disappointed, realizing I had made wrong assumptions about what the title meant to indicate.

This has happened enough to demonstrate that my understanding of what "Christ-centered" means and that of this group were at serious odds with each other. However, I wasn't able to put my finger on it until recently.

What I was continually expecting was what we might call a Yoderian Christ-centeredness: Christ the suffering servant, Christ the proclaimer of the kingdom, Christ the friend of the poor and the teacher of Torah, the speaker of truth to power and the revelation of cruciform love. (Incidentally, "cross" may at times replace "Christ" in the oft-repeated phrase, but my expectations -- and the subsequent disappointment -- are exactly the same.) I would also -- reaching here beyond Yoder -- expect Trinitarian elements of making central the Son of the Father in the power of the Spirit. In short, I plainly and self-evidently took Christ/cross-centrality to be a proper explication of the gospel, one which made the life, death, and resurrection of the crucified Messiah of Israel -- him whose life and salvation are inseparable from the call of his followers to the same path -- the ineradicable heart of Christian faith, proclamation, and theology.

What I have finally come to understand, however, is that for these authors "Christ-centered" means something far different. Instead of the subversive political figure from Nazareth, instead of the incarnation as the fullest and most complete revelation of who God is precisely in the form of dejection and solidarity with the marginalized, "Christ" seems to be shorthand for a particular salvific theory: penal substitutionary atonement. Insert "PSA" for "Christ," then, and everything falls into place. What is meant by centering on Christ or Christ's cross is in actuality an exhortation to emphasize, for example, the satisfaction of God's wrath, or the enormity of human sin, or the punishment of sin through the incomparable pain of crucifixion, or justification by faith, or Jesus' taking humanity's deserved place, or the extraordinary cost of saving the elect from hell, or the necessity of blood sacrifice, and so on.

Now, it is an open theological question whether some or all of these conceptions of salvation are helpful or correct or biblical. They may all be. The problem is that it is simply taken for granted that "Christ" is shorthand for a (not self-evident, and historically and theologically contested) nexus of interpretation of the atoning significance of the cross. Moreover, not only is this extremely complex synecdoche taken for granted -- perhaps somewhat innocently -- it is accordingly not even noted! To be centered theologically, homiletically, doctrinally, and otherwise on Christ or the cross just is exactly equivalent to reading, filtering, and communicating the message of the New Testament as penal substitutionary atonement. In this way, subtly but to great effect, preaching or teaching that is not PSA-centered must therefore also not be Christ-centered. Thus adherents to this perspective as well as unassuming readers are formed rhetorically to equate central emphasis on the person and work of Christ with a single (disputed) interpretation thereof.

I realize that this is not new news. Every catchphrase, all popular language comes loaded with baggage and unspoken prior interpretive decisions. But it at least proves helpful to me: Whenever I see the phrase now, I remember not to impose my own presumptions upon it, but instead to superimpose "PSA-centered" over it, and to keep on moving. I find I am less often disappointed.


  1. Brad,
    Thanks for laying this out here. I am a part of local cluster of Evangelical pastor's and they will often say "well let's just make it about the Gospel" and what they mean is PSA. I have actually found it helpful to tell them let's make it about Jesus, in the realization that Jesus isn't contained in a theory or equation, but is much larger then how individually our churches define gospel. They don't seem to be getting very well but maybe I should forward them this.

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  3. Excellent post Brad!

    For my part, while I am willing to grant PSA a place among full-bodied accounts of the atonement's significance (and have worshipped most of my life with those who afford it a primary place), I must say that you've put your finger on a very disconcerting rhetorical and theological problem here. It is particularly bothersome when one wants to speak about more of what Jesus means but can't get past the narrowness of the rhetorical slant. (Of course, to be fair, those whose rhetoric is PSA-centered are still often better practicers of the social aspects of the gospel than I! But in those cases the rhetoric still needs to catch up to the practice, so that the link between orthodoxy and orthopraxy can be better defined, for the sake of ecclesiology and missiology and so on).

    Anyway, thanks for putting words to this. I will definitely be passing a link around.

  4. You've hit the nail on the head here Brad. As you know, a lot of this comes from a circling the wagons mentality - these folks perceive the evangelical consensus on penal substitution being chipped away or marginalised and so have engaged in a full-scale parachurch effort to reverse the trend. The problem is that most of their strategies seem to focus chiefly on reclaiming/establishing certain ways of speaking, such that complex biblical expressions tend to be stripped of their contextual meaning as they're deployed for the much narrower task of culture formation. What frustrates me is that I suspect many of the more educated leaders of these movements know full well of this complexity, yet nevertheless simplify things for the sake of sparking zeal and keeping the momentum going.

    But yeah - Christ-centred - Gospel-centred - God-glorifying - all these phrases seem to operate more as group identifiers than appeals to the deeper theological hallmarks of the Christian faith these days.