The Old Testament in the New

Justin Taylor recently posted on Greg Beale’s question, Did the Apostles Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text?, and that prompted me to ruminate on the progress of my thinking about the use of the OT in the NT.

When I was introduced to the academic study of the Bible, the focus of those who taught me the Old Testament was definitely on the meaning of OT texts in their original, ancient near Eastern context. From time to time one of my profs would acknowledge that our interpretation can’t stop there: we have to trace things through the New Testament. The problem was that we never got around to actually doing that. We always stopped in the ancient near Eastern context of the OT. Not only did we always stop there, on plenty of occasions it was communicated in various ways that the authors of the NT were not doing the kind of exegesis that would earn “A’s” at most institutions of higher learning!

The standard line was, “The apostles did what they did with the OT because they were inspired. You are not inspired, so you are not in a position to interpret the OT the way they do.”

I’ll never forget the Sunday morning I visited a church pastored by Joe Blankenship. I don’t remember if he was preaching Luke 24 or if he just read the whole chapter (a very good thing for pastors to do in church, see 1 Tim 4:13), but when he got to Luke 24:25–27 I felt like I had been slapped! Then I got slapped again when he got to 24:44–46. I was stunned. The question ringing in my ears was, “Do my OT profs know these verses are in the Bible!?”

Why did these verses take me by surprise? Hadn’t I read them recently? Well, seminary is a very busy time. Between class and work and a new wife, I didn’t always have time to sit still and read the Bible slowly and compare what I was hearing in class to what the text said.

So I started to question the standard “the apostles were inspired but you’re not” line, but I really didn’t know of any alternative ways of approaching the issue.

Then, in the mercy of God, I went to Southern Seminary to do a Ph.D. under Tom Schreiner. I took a course from Dr. Schreiner on 1 Peter, and when we came to 1 Peter 1:10–12, something happened that was very much like the Sunday morning slap from Luke 24. There we were in class, diagramming the Greek text and tracing its argument, and Dr. Schreiner said something like, “The apostles set an example for us as to how we should interpret the OT. We should pattern our reading of the OT after theirs,” and as he went on to his next thought, I almost fell off my chair! He saw my surprise and asked me why I looked so astonished. I blubbered out something to the effect of, “Well, I guess I’ve never heard anyone legitimate say something like what you just said about how we should interpret the OT!” Dr. Schreiner is so humble, he replied, “Maybe I’m not legitimate!” We all laughed, but that incident fired my interest in this topic once again.

Thankfully, the Ph.D. program at SBTS was unlike my masters program in that I was not running from assignment to assignment, class to class, meeting to meeting. I had time to explore topics that were not assigned, time to sit still and read the Bible and meditate on it. I also read about the OT, about the OT in the New, and about the NT.

I have come to the conclusion that people who question the way that the apostles interpret the OT, for all their protestation about reading it “on its own terms” and “in its own context,” have actually failed to understand the OT itself! I agree with John Sailhamer’s argument that the OT is not the national literature of Israel, rather, it was written to sustain the messianic hopes of the messianic remnant in Israel. The whole of the OT, I would argue (following Sailhamer), is messianic.

Showing the plausibility of such a claim, to say nothing of substantiating it, will require at least a whole volume. I hope the Lord grants me time and energy and insight to eventually pull that off, but for now I can offer some initial forays into the question.

Can the thesis that the OT is messianic be sustained without recourse to “allegorical” methods of interpretation? Can we come to a book like the Song of Solomon and read it messianically without allegorizing it? A few years ago at SBL I presented a paper titled, “The Messianic Music of the Song of Songs: A Non-Allegorical Interpretation.” This essay should be published in the fall 2006 issue of the Westminster Theological Journal.

What about a text like Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Matthew 1 as being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus? The difficulty with this is that in the context of Isaiah 7, this looks like a prophecy that applies to Ahaz’s lifetime (see esp. 7:16). Last summer at the Biblical Theology Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship in Cambridge, I presented an essay called “The Virgin Will Conceive: Typology in Isaiah and Fulfillment in Matthew.” This essay is due to be published in a volume forthcoming from Eerdmans called Built upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, edited by Dan Gurtner and John Nolland.

The thesis that the OT is messianic through and through depends, of course, on the existence of a promised deliverer from the very beginning. In other words, this thesis depends on a messianic reading of Genesis 3:15. Many conclude that the so called protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15 cannot, in fact, be a protoevangelium because they do not see it exercising wide influence in the rest of the OT, nor do they see it cited in the NT. In an essay called, “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” I try to show that while there might not be explicit quotations of Genesis 3:15, imagery from Genesis 3 is used across both testaments. This essay will be published in the Summer 2006 issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

In another attempt to demonstrate the wide influence of Genesis 3:15 on the rest of the Bible, I argue that the blessings of Abraham in Genesis 12 is a direct answer to the curses of Genesis 3. This essay, “The Seed of the Woman and the Blessing of Abraham,” was presented to the Southwest Regional meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research in March 2006.

May the Lord open our eyes to see wonderful things in his law, and may we search these Scriptures that testify to Jesus (cf. John 5:39).

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