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).
Great post, brother Jim! May we all read the OT with our Jesus-glasses on!
Thanks for this post, Jim. You helped clarify some things for me. I look forward to reading some of these articles you have linked.
Martin Luther was known for being Christ-centered, but he also tried to be so Christ-centered that he put Jesus in the Old Testament where he probably was not meant to be. I too want to be Christ-centered in all that I do and that means in reading my bible, preaching, or teaching. But as preachers and teachers of God’s Word, how do we stay Christ-centered and at the same time not read our presuppositions back into the Old Testament?
Thanks, enjoyed the post
Your question is a good one, and it is helpful to think of past interpreters who have abused valid interpretive methods. The truth is that all methods and all approaches have been abused, but we don’t let the fact that someone else wrecked their car keep us from driving ours.
So I would say that what we want to do is try to read the OT in such a way that we come to understand how the messianic expectations that are attested to in the NT came about. In other words, what was it in those OT texts that caused Jews in the second temple period to develop the hopes they had for the coming Messiah?
Then we balance that approach by trying to figure out what the OT would have meant in its own context, but we can’t reject the way that the authors of the NT interpreted the OT because we think there are other valid interpretations of the OT–other ways to take the OT text when it was originally written. . . So I guess I’m advocating a “two way street” from OT to NT and back. . .
Hope this helps,
What is your view on reading OT texts in light of the progress of revelation in NT. I am thinking of passages in the OT that are read as having trinitarian implications (Gen. 1:26-27, etc.). Would Luke 24:25-27 apply to such passages?
Your reminiscence of your class with Tom Schreiner took me back my days in Louisville.
First, I remember Tom preaching through Isaiah at Trinity Baptist, when coming to the infamous ‘almah/parthenos/young woman/virgin issue at Isiaih 7:14. He argued that in Isaiah the correct understanding was “young woman” but that Matthew typologically interpreted it as “virgin,” with Christ’s virgin birth being the fulfillment of the OT type (since you wrote on the subject, I’m sure you could state the idea better than I). Well, right after the sermon I put the question to him about whether it was an inspired interpretation by the apostles, and how we couldn’t do the same. Just as he said in your class, he told me that he thought the apostles show us how to interpret the OT.
Second, I remember the two exegesis classes I had with Tom. We were mere MDiv. students, but we would pepper him with questions and opinions all the time, even disagreeing with him sometimes. I have to laugh now at our audacity. But Tom never took umbrage, in fact he always took our comments seriously, at times saying that he could be in error. What humility and confidence at the same time! Tom Schreiner really is a great example of what a scholar should be.
Great post. I’m glad you’re doing such work in the academy. May God raise up pastors to follow through in the church!
ps – I agree with you and Les on Dr. Schreiner. What a model for us to follow!!!
Another thought on people who say, “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.”
Doesn’t that argument buy into an understanding of inspiration in which God by-passes humans thought and understanding, using them as a machine to put words on a page.
If we believe that God worked through the apostles so that their thoughts, study, reasoning, etc. resulted in the very words that God wanted, then I think we have the right to follow their model.
The DTS, I went to believed this about the OT. “We believe that all the Scriptures center about the Lord Jesus Christ in His person and work in His first and second coming, and hence that no portion, even of the Old Testament, is properly read, or understood, until it leads to Him.”
Judging by your post, I’m assuming that your experience was different.?
I think you have quoted to me the words of the DTS doctrinal statement. As I noted in my post, there was a certain deference given to this position, just as there is a certain deference given to the pre-trib rapture, which is also part of the DTS doctrinal statement. As I noted in the post, those who taught me OT would often say that we should eventually trace our interpretations of the OT through to the NT, but we never did much of that. Similarly, and maybe your experience was different than mine on this point, I didn’t feel like I heard a consistent, thorough-going defense of dispensationalism during my time at DTS. I don’t mean this as a critical comment of the school, but my experience was that their positions were more reflective of the main-stream evangelicalism at ETS than they were of the DTS doctrinal statement (except in the BibEx department).
Was your experience from the OT Department such that they read every part of the OT as only being interpreted correctly when it leads to Jesus (paraphrasing the words you quoted)? If that was the way you were taught to read the OT at DTS, then I think that one of the following two possibilities holds: either (a) we interpret that phrase (“no portion, even of the Old Testament, is properly read, or understood, until it leads to Him”) differently, or (b) we had different experiences.
I am very grateful for the way the Lord used the professors at DTS in my life, but I think that some who taught me OT at DTS would object to the way that I interpret the OT in the essays I linked in the post. I say that because of what I have heard them say in class and at scholarly meetings such as ETS. That’s fine. I like scholarly debate.
Hope this helps!
It helps me laugh. I wrote one sentence and pasted another and got you to right a thorough defense of your position. I respect you deeply and enjoy reading the posts.
I can’t really remember what they taught me as it was much like drinking from a fire hose.
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