Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jesus in the OT

Let's take it as axiomatic that the OT, as Christian Scripture, is about Jesus.  Of course there will be those who dispute this, but let's assume it for the time being.  The question then becomes: how do I see Jesus in the OT?  I think you have two basic approaches, which I will call the one-step and two-step interpretations.  The one-step interpretation goes straight to Jesus; the two step-interpretation stops off somewhere else along the way.  The one-step approach sees Jesus as the immediate meaning of the OT; the two-step approach sees Jesus as the ultimate meaning of the OT.

To illustrate, imagine you have just read Psalm 1.  You ask yourself: who is this blessed man?  The one-step interpreter says - this is Jesus.  This description could never match anyone but Jesus.  And then they will usually draw a link straight in to Psalm 2 and make the anointed man in that Psalm equal the blessed man in the other, and both of them identified as Jesus.  The two-step interpreter is more likely to read Psalm 1 as a wisdom Psalm - a text which establishes the categories of blessedness and wickedness, into which all people could broadly be allocated.  And then they would make the second step, pointing out that Jesus is of course the ultimate fulfilment of what it means to be the blessed man, and that this Psalm which deals in general categories only finds its grounding in human reality through Christ.

Or another example - suppose you are reading the Song of Songs (it's Solomon's, you know).  The one-step interpreter says that this whole Song is about the relationship between Christ and his church, and sets out to show how the details match up with that relationship.  The two-step interpreter says that the Song is an (often highly erotic) love song, telling the story of the relationship between a man and a woman.  And then they would make the second step, showing that marriage itself is a picture of Christ and the church, and therefore seeing Christ in the Song.

I've been back and forth on this, but I'm now pretty firmly in the two-step camp.  Here are some reasons why:

1.  One-step interpretation leaves us open to the charge that we are just making stuff up.  If we end up saying stuff which anyone with a basic grasp of comprehension would be able to expose as 'reading in', I think we're in trouble.  So, when Moses struck the rock he was really striking Jesus was he?  Then why is there no indication of that in the text?  Why do we have to explain (away) so much of the Song in order to make it about Christ, or resort to arbitrary allegorising?

2.  One-step interpretation undermines the uniquely revelatory character of the incarnation.  When Christ came into the world, so did light - see John 1.  The implication of this, and numerous other parts of the Old and New Testaments, is that the OT is full of shadows, which the one-step interpreter wants to disperse prematurely.

3.  One-step interpretation seems to want to make the Scripture about Christ by denying that the Universe is about Christ.  This is a bit obscure, but it's clear to me from the treatment of the Song.  Is marriage - all human marriage - ultimately about Christ and the church?  The Apostle says it is.  Well then, what is the difficulty with saying that the Song is about human marriage?  It shouldn't undermine the Christological and gospel importance of the Song in any way, unless you have a sneaking doubt that marriage really is about Christ, and feel that there is some need to short circuit this.

There's more, but I wondered if anyone had any thoughts on those?


  1. Hi Daniel,

    It occurs to me that everyone's two-step. The question is, which step is first. I also believe that Psalm 1 has plenty to say about blessedness (but of course there's every blessing in Christ) and that the Song of Songs has plenty to say about marriage (but that this Solomon, Priest-King with Shekinah Glory is straightforwardly portrayed as the Ideal Bridegroom).

    1. First there's just the question of exegesis. I'd say, for Psalm 1, that the singular and 'ish' and fruitful trees and daily bible meditation push you strongly in the direction of Ideal King. At that point there's the question of whether OT Israelites thought in Messianic categories. If they did then the first step of reading this is to say it's Messiah.

    2. John 1 is a funny place to go! The eternal Word (i.e. revelation of the Father) becomes flesh. The Light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. The incarnation is about salvation - the One promised comes and actually performs what has been sketched out in shadow form. And remember that 'shadows' refers to the 'law'.

    3. Again, I'm not one-step - I'm just saying the first-step is Christ. I figure good Barthians should join me in that ;-)

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Great post as always. I am defo two-step, and will be preaching in that vein on Sunday night from Psalm 15.


  3. Thanks for comments, gents, and apologies for not responding to them - it's been a busy few days.

    Glen, I thought you'd have something to say about this! On your three points:
    1. Something I try to do, as an exegetical exercise, is think: what do I know if I've only read this far in the canon? Of course to stop at that point would be arbitrary, and theologically nonsensical, but I think it makes a good starting point. On that basis, I've never been able to see Ps1 and the Song (for example) in the way the average Blackhamite does. People often say the language pushes us in that direction; it doesn't push me. Maybe I just don't understand it. But things like the singular use of 'man' seem like pretty widespread literary devices to me, which are only invested with Christological significance later (or perhaps 'only have their Christological significance revealed later' would be better).

    2. I think we read John 1 differently. The chapter is full of before and afters, I think - so the true light enlightens every man, but how? By coming into the world. It seems to me that John's gospel is all about the revelatory significance of the incarnation. This would be an interesting one to explore further at some point.

    3. Maybe if I'm less of a good Barthian, I can claw back some soundness points with the generality of evangelicalism? ;o) But more seriously, I don't see Barth making these exegetical moves - I wonder why not?

  4. Hey!

    1. A) Don't think that's possible (we bring a whole freight-load of assumptions to Gen 1:1, the question is which not whether.)

    B) Why would we bring sub-Messianic assumptions to any part of Scripture? (And I mean in the original context, why assume that David was not Messianic and consciously so?)

    C) Even if someone did just read from Genesis to Psalms, picking up theology as they go, they shouldn't be able to read about "the man" who is a tree who is a bible-meditator, without thinking of the King. If they don't see the King, then maybe it's cos they're looking for the wrong thing in the bible.

    2. I definitely read Light differently to you. The Light enlightens and then comes into the world. But even if you don't agree about that, surely you agree that one thing that is emphatically "before" is the Word. Revelation does not begin with the incarnation. Revelation is beginningless - a major point in John 1. And the end of the prologue reinforces this - God the Unseen has only ever been revealed by God the Word. Calvin, Owen and Edwards took John 1:18 as axiomatic about Christocentric revelation in the OT. Carson's attempts to wriggle out of it are completely unconvincing.

    3. What about this from Homiletics:

    “The Old Testament is witness to Christ, before Christ but not without Christ… As a wholly Jewish book, the Old Testament is a pointer to Christ... [he then goes on to deny that this is a sensus plenior]... the natural sense is the issue… [we do not] give the passage a second sense… This passage in its immanence points beyond itself… The Old Testament points forward, the New Testament points backward, and both point to Christ.” Homiletics, p80-81.

    That seems to be the consistent Barthian position - there is not a gradual ascent *to* Christ, rather we begin with the gracious revelation *of* Christ. There are not sub-Christian foundations that Christ then builds on, He *is* the Rock.

  5. Anonymous10:32 am

    Hi Daniel,

    I find myself in-between the two positions in your post. Is that even possible? Or maybe it's just that I don't fully identify with either.

    Take for example, your description of the one-step interpretation of the Song of Songs. I don't recognise myself in there and yet I imagine you'd want to identify me as a 1-stepper. I certainly don't think the *only* reason it is about Christ and the Church is because all marriage is, which I guess rules me out as a 2-stepper. I'm convinced that its language & imagery, even if interpreted only from within the context of the OT, indicate that it is clearly intended meant to be understood as being about Yahweh and Israel. It's from there that I'd move to Christ and the Church in the NT (though even then there's exegetical evidence that Israel would've understood their relationship with their King/ Messiah in husband-wife terms as well, which of course makes this move even more of a no-brainer).

    What's more - at least in part for the reason you cite (all marriage is about Christ & the Church) - I don't see this as being in competition with the Song being about human marriage. This has to be the case for the sustained metaphor to work.

    So, is that one or two steps? Is that seeing something that the ordinary OT reader wasn't meant to/ was unlikely to see or not? Maybe it's what you describe as the 1-step only not as *dumb* as your description makes out? Or maybe it's that there are more than one way of meeting the concerns of a 2-step approach?


  6. Hi Pete,

    I've neglected the old blog a bit lately, but your comment has woken me up from my hibernation. I really wasn't trying to make what I've called the 'one step' approach sound dumb - I was telling the truth when I said I'd been back and forth on it. Of course I was fairly un-nuanced, as one must be when writing briefly and trying to highlight a contrast rather than the numerous similarities.

    On the Song, I suppose it comes down to the fact that some people say 'the language makes it clear it's about Yahweh/Israel', and I just don't see that. Wider interpretive paradigms are doubtless having an effect here, but there is also and always the question of detail. It could be that it doesn't hugely matter, and it could be that it is a valid reflection of what different people see in the verbal picture being painted. Who knows.

    Still thinking it through. Theologia viatorum etc.