Sunday, April 9, 2017
The Old and New Testaments: Understanding Scripture with Scripture
Graeme Goldsworthy writes, “Neutrality and complete objectivity are the presuppositional myths of the modern secular outlook, and they are also the assumptions, sometimes unexamined, of many Christian thinkers.” The art and science of biblical hermeneutics is by and large a task within the discipline of Christian theology. This unavoidable fact has significant implications. To begin with, hermeneutical method is a derivative of theology. This is the same problem of the criterion the philosopher encounters in epistemology. Our theology is supposed to be shaped by a sound biblical hermeneutic. But theologically speaking, we must know something about hermeneutics if we are to know how to formulate a model of hermeneutics that is biblical, and hence, up to the task. In other words, we must already have in mind that which constitutes a good hermeneutic model before we embark on the hermeneutic enterprise. But how can we have such a model in mind prior to engaging in theology, the progenitor of hermeneutics to begin with? I am not going to settle this matter here, in a blog post. What I am going to do is talk about how Christians ought to approach the Bible in order to better understand why God gave us what we have and how we can best understand it and allow it to change our lives.
This post is mostly in response to my very good friend Paul Henebury’s post over at Dr. Reluctant on the subject of replacement theology. [CLICK HERE] The point I am attempting to make is that if one approaches the Old Testament by looking at it through or in the brighter, clearer light of the New Testament to which it points, it is much easier to understand! I will then defend the idea, as Dr. Henebury calls it, of “reading the Bible backwards.” In fact, that sounds like a great book title to me. My thesis is that the New Testament is the accurate and proper interpretation of the Old Testament. The New Testament is that to which the Old Testament points again and again. Second, another presupposition I will defend is my view that the entirety of Scripture centers around the Christ event. Everything we read in the Old Testament, at the upper level of revelation, is pointing to Christ. In other words, nothing revealed in the Old Testament should be understood as an end in itself. The Old Testament is the servant of the fuller revelation of God we would see in the Christ-event. The Old Testament shares with the gospel of John, the same purpose for its existence: but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31). The Old Testament is given to us so that we may believe the gospel!
The documents that make up the Bible are about God. The Bible contains a set of documents, best viewed as one book, given to reveal things about God. Theologians often call the Bible the history of redemption. Through this unfolding drama of redemptive history, God reveals himself to his people. Hence, the Bible is divine communication. It is God speaking. Communication, like teaching a class, describes not only what is transmitted by the text, or the source of the subject matter, but also what is conveyed to, and understood and appropriated by, the reader or “target” audience. In the Bible, God communicates to an audience. From an interpretive standpoint, there are two audiences: the primary target and the secondary target. The primary target is the audience to first receive the divine communication in its immediate historical setting. The secondary target audience is everyone who is not in the primary target audience. The work of interpreting the text comes with varying degrees of difficulty. While the primary target audience has some advantages from a cultural and social standpoint, from a language standpoint, it may sometimes have disadvantages due to the spiritual aspect of the text in question. The virgin birth of the Messiah may be more difficult for the original audience to interpret than it is for the secondary target audience for the simple reason being that the secondary target audience has more light when that audience has been 1) enlightened by the Holy Spirit and 2) are situated after the brighter revelation of the New Testament text. The primary target audience may understand the historical Moses more readily than someone in the secondary target audience while the reverse is likely true in terms of Christ being the actual anti-type to which Moses was the type.
For hermeneutics to be gospel-centered, it must be based on the person of Jesus Christ. This begins at the fall of man where God immediately issues the protoevangelium. Genesis 3:15 informs us that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. An overly literal reading of this text would never lead one to believe that God was actually informing Adam and Eve of a bloody cross where the Messiah would atone for the sins of his people. It is only from the vantage point of New Testament revelation that we can read that wonderful text and understand what God meant. From the beginning of history itself, it was redemptive. Sandwiched between the gospel of grace first announced and the last words of the divine communication, which read, The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all, are the unfolding acts of God in redemptive history as He makes himself known to his chosen people. From beginning to end, the Bible is about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace reveals, redeems, and resurrects God’s people. Grace provides for the conditions necessary for all these things. The Bible is a display of God’s amazing grace!
With this approach to the Bible in mind, we are in a much better position to understand and interpret the acts of God not only in Acts, but in Nehemiah, Kings, Exodus and everywhere else. The Genesis account of the curse and the promise of redemption is clear once we read the gospels back into Genesis 3. In fact, it couldn’t be clearer for the enlightened mind. And that brings me to my first point: biblical hermeneutics requires regeneration. In order for one to understand the revelation of God in Scripture, their mind must be opened to the supernatural revelation therein. This would not be necessary if the standard dispensational view of interpreting the Scripture were true.
The Nature of Divine Communication
Divine communication comes to us by way of what is termed “special revelation.” God especially, and supernaturally reveals himself to his people. But this is not as simple as you and I communicating with one another. The supernatural aspect of divine communication must not be overlooked. Poythress was right when he wrote, “The Bible gives us not merely information, but a knowledge of God. This knowledge, in turn, influences how we read and understand the Bible.” The Bible is not just a natural piece of literature or literary communication. It is a miracle. It is supernatural communication and it requires supernatural reception. Luke is clear about what is required for a proper interpretation of Scripture: Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Lu. 24:45-47) My mind does not have to be opened in order for me to read grammatically correct words on a page. If the grammatico-historical method is correct, why does one need to have their mind opened? It seems to me that there is something much more to interpreting Scripture than grammar and syntax and philosophy of language. Much more. What I am saying is that while it is true that grammar and syntax are necessary for the proper understanding of Scripture, they are not, in and of themselves sufficient for the proper understanding of Scripture. The cognitive function of human beings has been damaged by the noetic effects of sin. This makes it impossible for the natural mind to receive the things of the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 2:14) A radical change is needed.
The promise begins in a garden, thousands of years ago. From that point in time, onward, everything that would unfold in the history of Scripture would center around and point to the movement of history toward the fulfillment of that promise. Far too often we get entangled in the details of the history, forgetting that much of those details may be intended for the primary target rather than the secondary target. What the Ark was for Noah’s culture it is not for ours. But we both have the same story. To be sure, there are components of that revelation that are shared with both audiences, but not all these components are the same and they are not always shared equally by both audiences. God’s word is sufficient to the audiences for which it is intended and it is doing something specific with those audiences. Too often Christians fail to take this into consideration when reading the text.
The promise in the garden is restated to a man specifically selected by God to be the father of the faithful: Abram. God renewed his promise to our first parents when he promised Abraham that through his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Failure to understand the Abrahamic covenant as anything other than God’s promise of a New Covenant that was to come has led to unnecessary confusion. The physical seed of Abraham was never the end game in the divine council. All one has to do is examine Romans 4, 9-11, Gal. 3-4 and Hebrews to see that God’s covenant with Abraham was much more than an agreement concerning his physical seed.
We see Israel’s calling out of Egypt, through the waters into the wilderness, and eventually into the promised land as the foreshadow of Christ who would be called out of Egypt as a babe, baptized, driven into the wilderness, only to finally take his place after his resurrection and ascension. The covenant given to Moses was a covenant designed to tutor the Jews, pointing them to Christ as its main goal. The Davidic covenant and God’s promise that David would always have a Son who would sit on his throne is clearly fulfilled in Christ. Repeatedly we see Israel, a predominantly idolatrous nation, for most of her history rejecting God, rejecting God’s law. This they did repeatedly.
From Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the exile and return, the entire Old Testament is pointing men to the Messiah. If we read the acts of these men through the lens of the New Testament revelation, we are able to see the lessons from the Old much more clearly than we could have otherwise. A interpretive grid that places physical Israel at the center of the Old Testament and that insists on removing the typology that even the New Testament writers clearly see leads to a gross misunderstanding of the redemptive work of God in the earth. I will provide a second part to this post that will aim to provide numerous examples of this method of reading the Bible backwards and why I think it is the best way to understand the divine revelation therein.
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