Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 1)

This series is bound to annoy covenant theologians who stop by to read it. To them I want to say that my purpose here is certainly not to irritate anyone. If a CT has any problem with what is asserted in these posts he is very welcome to challenge it (giving proof where necessary).

For those readers who want a quick historical intro to CT perhaps my “A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology” will help.

First Things First

I have been reading covenant theology (CT) for many years; close to thirty. In that time, I have read numerous Systematic Theologies by covenant theologians, including Hodge, Dabney, Bavinck, Frame, Horton, Reymond, as well as expositions of CT by the likes of Warfield, Packer, Horton, Vos, Witsius, Owen, Turretin, and Robertson. I attended a staunchly Reformed CT seminary in England. I went to several churches where CT was preached for extensive periods. By far the majority of books I have read in the last thirty years have been written by covenant theologians. I know covenant theology.

But even though I am well acquainted with CT, I do not agree with it. I have been sympathetic for a long time to Dispensationalism (DT), and from there to construct Biblical Covenantalism. But Biblical Covenantalism could not have come into existence without CT and its emphasis upon teleology or purpose. I do respect CT and admire many of its adherents. At the real risk of losing many dispensational readers, I think CT is superior to DT is several respects: it is more Christological, more teleological, more cohesive, and more prescriptive. Because of all these things CT is theologically richer and deeper than DT.

I shall have more to say about that controversial statement further on. However, I want to go on record to say that if it had not been for the teleological (i.e., purpose-focused) genius of Covenant Theology I would never have come up with Biblical Covenantalism, for I would not have the perspective I needed to see things the way I needed to see them, nor know the question that needed asking.

This series will attempt to introduce Covenant Theology to the outsiders and uninitiated. I have found that among dispensationalists there is as much ignorance and misunderstanding of CT as there is vice versa. I have thought long and hard about the best way to present this study and the right sources to use. As far as presentation is concerned, I shall describe aspects of CT via quotations and summaries, which I shall then go on to critique. As far as the choice of authorities to employ, I think too many would muddy the waters, and too many quotes from the 16th and 17th centuries would lose half my readers. I have therefore decided to interact with five sources while adding material from elsewhere wherever necessary. My main sources are these:

  • O. Palmer Robertson – The Christ of the Covenants
  • Richard P. Belcher, Jr. – The Fulfillment of the Promise of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology
  • Guy P. Waters, J. Nicholas Reid & John H. Muether, eds., Covenant Theology: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives.
  • Michael Brown & Zach Keele – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored
  • Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man.

All these are relatively recent yet authoritative texts on CT. Of course, in the case of Baptist CT these books will have to be supplemented. For that purpose, I will repair to the excellent work of Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, and also to Greg Nichols’ Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants.

My procedure will be to provide an accurate statement of the aspect under discussion (e.g., covenant of redemption, covenant of grace, infant baptism, federalism, Israel and the Church) before giving a more in-depth description supplemented with quotations.

CT is usually tied to Calvinist Reformed Theology (indeed, R.C. Sproul said that Covenant Theology is Reformed theology1), but that is not quite true. Jacob Arminius was a covenant theologian as anyone familiar with his works is aware. But in the main Sproul’s conviction is correct.

In the First Place – Watch for Deductions!

Before moving into the first descriptive part of this study, I feel the need to make something clear. A person will not understand CT unless they grasp two basic things. Firstly, CT reads the OT through the lens of the NT. Actually, that is not quite right. I should say that CT reads the OT through its own understanding of the NT. Which brings me to the second matter. To understand CT, one must comprehend the reasoning. CT is heavily deductive in its approach to Scripture and Theology. Let me explain what I mean.

Covenant theologians tell “stories.” The stories are persuasive because they are God-centered, Christological, NT oriented, and coherent (at least apparently). But they are stories, nonetheless. Often bits of the story get interpolated into the exegesis and explanations, so that at one moment you are reading something from Genesis, and the next a theology of Calvary via Paul is freighted in. It is difficult to many to see but there is a theological agenda always running in the background. Occasionally the veil slips a little and the background assumption can be seen. When this happens, one must pay special attention. Certain things are being taken for granted. One of the best places to see this is when CT’s are dealing with the actual covenants of God mentioned in the Bible; the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New particularly. Covenant theologians major on “theological interpretation.” For example, in reference to Genesis 3:15 Brown & Keele say,

[God] promises to form a community of people for himself whom he will set apart from the offspring of the devil and one day rescue from the latter’s fierce hostility…This community can be traced throughout redemptive history…not by bloodline, but by those who believe in God’s promise. As Paul says to Gentile Christians in Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Thus, Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church.2

There are all kinds of assumptions inserted into this story. There is the assumption (based upon debatable exegesis) that the so-called “godly line” (which they will identify with the line of Seth), is set apart for God. There is the assumption that this “community of people,” though clearly a bloodline in Genesis, will become a community not based upon bloodlines, but is the same community, nonetheless. Then there is the drafting into the picture Paul’s words addressed to the churches of Galatia. Finally, there is the assumption that the church can, and indeed must exist prior to the resurrection of Jesus.

But let us remind ourselves of Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.

I realize that this “proto-evangelium” is supposed to promise a Savior, but does it? The remarks are addressed to the serpent and imply his doom. There is nary a word about redemption from sin. Satan’s conqueror will not be unscathed, but Satan will be destroyed. In the quotation from Brown & Keele above what is being woven into the fabric of Genesis 3:15 from the outside? Well, as a matter of fact, everything! There is not one assertion in the above quote which matches what is being stated in Genesis 3:15. The statement is setting you up for the story. Two groups are being set forth, a godly line and an ungodly line, the plan of “redemptive history” which the story will rely on is mentioned. Then the apostle Paul’s reference to Abraham in Galatians 3:29 is introduced and voila! the church is equated with the godly line of Genesis 3:15 and therefore “Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church.”

I have not begun to describe what Covenant Theology is, but I believe it necessary to put this “warning” before the reader’s eyes before doing even that. You will not be able to comprehend CT if you fail to grasp the deductive nature of its pronouncements.

One more thing: a look through systematic theologies by CT’s will reveal how important their theological covenants are to that discipline as well as biblical theology. he same cannot be said of the role of dispensations to Dispensational systematics! Think about that a while.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash.

Notes

1 R. C. Sproul, What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics, 117f.,

2 Michael Brown & Zach Keele – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, 62.

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There are 47 Comments

josh p's picture

Looking forward to this one Paul. I also read your "Very Brief History..." and enjoyed it. 
While I agree with you about the isogesis in Gen. 3:15, a principle of hermeneutics that we both share is "how would the original audience have understood it?". It seems that Satan would at least understand that the Seed of the woman would defeat him completely (head crushing is pretty permanent). It's also seems that he would understand the continuance of sin throughout the race. Maybe not all the way to a Savior exactly but he had to have known that his defeat would spell a defeat of the curse right? 

Paul Henebury's picture

I agree, with the exception of the fact that I personally would not describe it as a prot-evangelium, even though it is hinted at.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I've been mulling that statement for quite a while.  I've come to the conclusion that it is impossible to tell.  We can't talk to anyone to ask them, and it's unlikely that everyone in the "original audience" would understand it the same way.  What this boils down to is more akin to "what do I understand this to mean."  We assume that the original audience would have understood it the same way, but there is no way to know that.  I'm afraid it's closer to WWJD (what would Jesus do) than we care to acknowledge.  (I'm ducking now.)

G. N. Barkman

josh p's picture

Greg, I respectfully disagree. We can consider things like the original hearer's prior understanding, and culture to get a pretty decent understanding of what they believed. Especially in those instances where they say what they believe. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

How do we know the original hearer's prior understanding?  We can learn about his culture, but even then, can only speculate as to how that culture shapes his understanding.  It looks to me like 90% guessing with, perhaps, 10% accuracy.  I agree that we can know in those instances where someone tells us what they believe.  That's accurate and helpful.  Everything else is pretty much speculation.

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

Exactly.  That's what we want to know.  If our interpretation is accurate, it will correspond to what the author intended.  But experience tells us that our interpretations are not always accurate because we see too many examples of capable and thoroughly orthodox scholars who reach differing conclusions about the meaning of a passage.  They both believe they understand what the author intended, but it is impossible that both are correct.

We compound the possible error when we also assume that our interpretation is what the original audience understood.  Even if our interpretation is correct, we have no way of knowing if the original audience understood it the same way.  Unless they tell us, we are merely speculating.  They may have misunderstood it, but we understand it correctly.  Or they may have understood it correctly, but we misunderstand it.  But again, how do we know what they understood unless they tell us?  It appears to me that this is a fool's errand.

G. N. Barkman

J. Baillet's picture

By the way, the original audience of Genesis 3:15 was the Children of Israel under Moses.

JSB

josh p's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Exactly.  That's what we want to know.  If our interpretation is accurate, it will correspond to what the author intended.  But experience tells us that our interpretations are not always accurate because we see too many examples of capable and thoroughly orthodox scholars who reach differing conclusions about the meaning of a passage.  They both believe they understand what the author intended, but it is impossible that both are correct.

We compound the possible error when we also assume that our interpretation is what the original audience understood.  Even if our interpretation is correct, we have no way of knowing if the original audience understood it the same way.  Unless they tell us, we are merely speculating.  They may have misunderstood it, but we understand it correctly.  Or they may have understood it correctly, but we misunderstand it.  But again, how do we know what they understood unless they tell us?  It appears to me that this is a fool's errand.

I don't have time to respond in detail tonight but allow me a short response. The grammatical-historical method of interpretation calls for us to consider the original meaning (yes we are trying to discover what God intended) given the language used and how that would be understood at that time. What is a threshing floor? Would an inner-city teen understand that term without doing a historical study? How about wheat and chaff? The "horns of their altars"(Jer. 17)? Should we just say "I wonder if the people of that day could have understood? Oh well, no way to know." I don't see how we could ever really understand anything with that hermeneutic. It seems a pretty straightforward corollary of perspicuity that God communicated His word to people in a way that was understandable in their time/place. 

 

CTs are quick to point to "apocalyptic genre"'in interpreting Revelation. They do this because they claim that the Revelation reflects contemporary literature. They base a highly metaphorical interpretation on supposed affinities with literature of that genre at that time. How can they know how apocalyptic literature would be understood? 

josh p's picture

J. Baillet wrote:

By the way, the original audience of Genesis 3:15 was the Children of Israel under Moses.

Is it a historically accurate rendering of what God said to Satan though? If so, Satan was the first to hear those words. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

"What did the author intend?" and "What did the original readers  understand" should be the same thing. We should assume the author wrote with the intention that his readers understood what he was trying to say. So there is no dichotomy, or at least significant dichotomy, between these two.

Can we know this? Of course we can with a large degree of clarity. Perfectly? Perhaps not. But it is not so cloudy as some would have us believe. I think often the idea that "We can't really know" is code for "I don't believe what it seems clearly to say so it must say something else."

At the end of the day, if we can't understand the author's intention, what can we possibly do with the text? We are now in the position of reader authority where the text means whatever I think it does, and if you think it means something different, it is all good because there is no mediator to determine the meaning. 

And if we can't understand the author's intention, at what point did that start? The first reader? the second generation? the third? It seems to me that even by the time of Jesus (1500 years later), Jesus expected his contemporaries to understand what Moses intended them. And he held them responsible for it. 

So did the clarity of the author's intention end with the crucifixion? Or the resurrection? Where did it end? Or does it still continue?

The bottom line is that God held his people responsible for the meaning of the text. "I didn't understand it" was not an excuse for disobedience. "My neighbor thought it meant something different" was not an excuse for disregarding it. So if you think authorial intention and original hearers are not authoritative, then when did that stop?

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think one of the great downfalls of Covenant Theology is related to this question. The first Christians, the Jews, would not have seen Covenant Theology in the text (for obvious reasons). Kaiser puts it this way:

The first New Testament believers tested what they had heard from Jesus and his disciples against what was written in the Old Testament. They had no other canon or source of help. How, then, were they able to get it right?

Thus, from a methodological point of view, reading the Bible backward is incorrect historically as well as procedurally. ... [The early Christians] could not have tested what was established (and true) for them (possessing only the Old Testament) by what was being received as new (the New Testament). (Kaiser 2003, 26)

If the apostles were going to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah of the OT, they were going to have to use the OT in a way that made sense to Jews. You actually had the use the OT. The idea that we interpret the OT in light of the NT is a modern phenomenon. The apostles didn't do that because they couldn't. Jesus didn'dt do that. Neither appealed to some special hermeneutic or later revelation. Both said, "You should believe because you can see it there." And we should follow in their footsteps. 

When someone appeals to later revelation, they are doing something that Jesus and the apostles did not do. The later revelation most simply put, was, "See what was already said." 

G. N. Barkman's picture

...in light of what has now come to pass.  Much OT prophecy was Not understood by the Jews until it was fulfilled.  The use of the OT scriptures to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah was linked to NT fulfillment of OT prophecy.  There are so many examples of this in the NT that I find it surprising to have to argue this point.  One example:  Christ's apostles seeming inability to accept His pending death and resurrection.  The NT says that it was only after the resurrection of Christ that they "remembered" the prophecies regarding this.  It took the NT fulfillment to clarify the OT statements.  Yes, we should and must read the OT in light of the New.  Any other approach is to ignore divinely given explanation of the Old.

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

Larry is correct that what the author intended and what the original readers understood should be the same thing.  But that's not what we observe.  Sometimes, even the human authors failed to clearly understand what they wrote.  (What the ultimate author, God intended.  see I Peter 1:10,11)  The scriptures are replete with examples of people who failed to understand what was written.  Very few Jews understood that the promised messiah would be a suffering messiah, a major reason for the rejection of Jesus.  Did the OT fail to reveal this truth?  No.  It was plainly declared, but seldom understood.  How do we know it was not understood?  Because so many first century readers of the OT, both believers as well as unbelievers, failed to understand it.  We know what they understood (or failed to understand) because NT authors told us.  Otherwise, we can only speculate as to what they understood.  

Our supposed ability to know what the original readers understood is an illusion.  We don't know except when the Bible tell us.  To imagine that our understanding of an OT text is what the original readers understood is to nurture a false confidence in our ability to interpret scripture correctly.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

Brother Barkman, With due respect, I think you have to believe that given your theological precommitments. But remember the NT itself.

Jesus said, "These testify about me." In other words, it's already there and you should see it.

Or when he rebukes the two men on the road to Emmaus. He does not tell them it's unfortunate they didn't have the NT fulfillment. He condemns them for being slow and foolish not to believe all that the prophets had written. In other words, the problem wasn't lack of clarity. It was lack of belief. 

Even your reference to the disciples remembering was specifically connected to his temple comment (something not found in the OT), and when Jesus rose from the dead, "Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken." In other words, it was already there to be believed. The problem wasn't in some lack of clarity but in a lack of belief.

You cite 1 Peter 1:10-11 as evidence of a lack of knowledge, but did  you read the passage? (I speak as a fool. Of course you did. But let's read it again.) What they did not understand was the person or time. In other words, they didn't which baby was the fulfillment or the particular time of that baby's birth. It wasn't that they didn't understand what they were writing. They understood exactly that they were predicting the coming of  Christ, the sufferings of Christ, and his glory to follow. Again, there was no confusion as to what they were talking about. The "careful searches and inquiries" were simply about the person and timing. 

So I think you strike out on all these accounts.

But let's press in just another second here. You say,

Our supposed ability to know what the original readers understood is an illusion.  We don't know except when the Bible tell us.  To imagine that our understanding of an OT text is what the original readers understood is to nurture a false confidence in our ability to interpret scripture correctly.

If this is true, how do we know we understand the NT correctly? After all if the OT is not clear without the NT, what do we need to make the NT clear? Or is the NT sufficient on its own to be understood? And if it is, why isn't the OT?

Furthermore, if this is true how can we understand the vast majority of the OT for which there is no NT guidance? Let's face it, very little of the OT is cited in the NT. Some 600 times I believe EJ Young said. We might perhaps double or triple that in the interest of being generous. But that would be very generous because the NT is about 1/4 the length of the OT and contains much original material. Which means that there isn't much room for a lot of the OT. So how can we possibly know what that part of the OT means if we can't trust the words? And if we can trust the words for that part of it, why can we not trust the words for the other part of it?

If the OT is so confusing to people, then why does God condemn them for failing to believe something that they couldn't understand to start with? And why do Jesus and the apostles consistently point back to "what was written" or "what has been written" if it was unintelligible to begin with?

In sum, once you remove meaning from the words and put them in some later interpretation of the words, you have opened up a can of worms that will make communication impossible. You can't even really know what I am saying, or what you are saying. 

JNoël's picture

I have heard at least three different reasons for why Jesus wept.

  • He was sad because Lazarus was dead
  • He was sad because of the unbelief of the others
  • He was empathatic - he was "weeping with those who were weeping."

There are probably others.

Which is the correct one?

Does it matter?

If so, why?

Just a simple example of the reality that we imperfect humans will never know the exact, proper interpretation/application of large quantities of the Bible.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

T Howard's picture

JNoël wrote:

I have heard at least three different reasons for why Jesus wept.

  • He was sad because Lazarus was dead
  • He was sad because of the unbelief of the others
  • He was empathatic - he was "weeping with those who were weeping."

There are probably others.

Which is the correct one?

Does it matter?

If so, why?

Just a simple example of the reality that we imperfect humans will never know the exact, proper interpretation/application of large quantities of the Bible.

In this example, the Scripture isn't clear as to why he wept (although I believe John gives us some context clues). It is clear that he wept. The argument being made above transferred to this example would be to question whether we could know for certain that Jesus actually wept.

Paul Henebury's picture

On JNoel's point above I would reply that a passage may yield several possible interpretations (as your example shows), but all of them will be readily traced back to the text in context.  What is inadmissible in my opinion is to claim that the words of the text mean something utterly different than what the words together can logically yield.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Did the OT scholars of Christ's day expect the promised messiah to be a suffering messiah?  Did the apostles of Christ expect Jesus (whom they believed to be the messiah) to be a suffering messiah?  Quoting Christ chiding them for what they should have understood fails to address the reality of what they did understand.  Clearly the author's intent, and the readers understanding were poles apart.  That's reality.  We're not dealing with what should be.  We're dealing with was.  The OT was not clear to very many, if any original readers.  Certainly not first century readers.

Actually, we all import NT knowledge into our interpretation of the OT.  To interpret the OT without  NT knowledge would require no prior exposure to the NT.  I doubt that there is a Christian anywhere for whom this would apply.  The closest we can get is to see how an orthodox Jew who avoids exposure to the NT understands the OT.  By my observation, not very accurately.  We need NT understanding to help us understand the OT, and visa versa.

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Actually, we all import NT knowledge into our interpretation of the OT.  To interpret the OT without  NT knowledge would require no prior exposure to the NT.  I doubt that there is a Christian anywhere for whom this would apply.  The closest we can get is to see how an orthodox Jew who avoids exposure to the NT understands the OT.  By my observation, not very accurately.  We need NT understanding to help us understand the OT, and visa versa.

My understanding is that Orthodox Jews avoid reading Isaiah 53. A Christian Jewish friend once told the story of reading Isa 53 to some Jews and asking them who it was talking about. They correctly identified it with Jesus. Then he asked them who wrote it. They thought it was from somewhere in the New Testament.

So I don't know if the OT is all that hard to understand apart from the NT. No doubt there are nuances of prophetic fulfillment that become much more vivid and clear once you know the NT, but overall, I don't think the Jewish reader would be unable to confirm apostolic preaching with the OT Scriptures. The Bereans did just that.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

J. Baillet's picture

... were originally said by God as least in the presence of Adam and Eve as well as Satan.

JSB

J. Baillet's picture

josh p wrote:

 

J. Baillet wrote:

 

By the way, the original audience of Genesis 3:15 was the Children of Israel under Moses.

 

 

Is it a historically accurate rendering of what God said to Satan though? If so, Satan was the first to hear those words. 

Certainly Genesis 3:15 is an accurate rendering written by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of what God said to Satan in the presence of Adam and Eve. They were the original hearers of these words as well. However, there is no indication that it is an exhaustive account. Moses was not a witness to this encounter in the Garden of Eden. The only witness who has recorded the event is God. Subsequent revelation by God can shed light on what happened and the significance of what happened. For example, you recognize that it was Satan in the Garden to whom God was speaking. Yet, Satan is never mentioned in this account. Only "the serpent." You only know it was Satan because of subsequent revelation. Revelation 12:9, in fact. Therefore, all of Scripture is of use in interpreting Genesis 3:15.

JSB

Paul Henebury's picture

It really doesn't matter how exhaustive or inexhaustive the dialogue in Genesis 3 is.  what matters is that it is the Word of God to us.  J. Baillet is correct to say that Rev. 12 helps us identify Satan in Gen. 3, but the whole of Scripture does not do what Rev. 12 can do in this case, it is not true to say all Scripture helps us interpret Genesis 3 (I think I know what he means but I thought it right to qualify it).  

In this back and forth about original intent we must be careful to parse the text we have been given with the events themselves.  There can be a difference, as John Sailhamer always pointed out in his books.  Again, there may be several possible interpretations of authorial intent ("possible" here meaning "in semantic relation to the words employed"), but interpreting the text in context must be the rule of thumb.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

J. Baillet's picture

Dr. Henebury's qualification is well taken. All of Scripture does not directly help us interpret Genesis 3. There are passages such Revelation 12, Romans 5, and I Timothy 2:13-15 which are helpful.  "Jesus wept," not so much.

JSB

Larry's picture

Moderator

Did the OT scholars of Christ's day expect the promised messiah to be a suffering messiah? Did the apostles of Christ expect Jesus (whom they believed to be the messiah) to be a suffering messiah?

In both cases, they should have. And Jesus points that out.

With your emphasis on the NT, why aren't the words of Jesus about what they should have seen in the text not sufficient for you. If there was any doubt about it, I would think that would settle it. That is not intended to be smart aleck at all. I just don't understand. Jesus condemns but you are willing to give them a pass. Why?

Again, remember Jesus rebuke of them was based on a failure to believe what was written. In other words it was there and it was there clearly enough to warrant belief and to be judged for the lack of belief. 

When Jesus addressed the reality of what they did believe, he addressed in terms of foolishness, slowness, hardness of heart, etc., not lack of clarity. He did not allow them to say, "You know, it really isn't clear." In fact, in Luke 24, with the ability to point to his hands and feet and to reveal himself to them clearly and immediately, he instead takes them back to Scripture and what they should have believed first. He only revealed himself at the very end. 

Again, why do we think the OT is unclear? Jesus used it and condemned people for not seeing him in it.

Clearly the author's intent, and the readers understanding were poles apart.

First, I don't think that is true. Second, you left out a word ... "Original readers" or "original hearers." But even at that, the condemnation seems clear enough to rule this rationalization as out of bounds. And there were plenty who did see it, such as Anna, Simeon, John the Baptist, the prophets of old, etc. 

We're not dealing with what should be.

But Christ is dealing with what should be. So why aren't we?

The OT was not clear to very many, if any original readers. 

I have no idea how you can make this statement. How could you testify to this? Go back to Luke 24 again. Those two men understood quite a bit and understood it correctly. The condemnation is for failure to believe "all" that the prophets had spoken. They believed part of it. Their problem was not that they believed too much but that they believed too little. They got a lot right. They just didn't go all the way with it. I presume Jesus used the words of the OT to show what they failed to believe.

Actually, we all import NT knowledge into our interpretation of the OT.  To interpret the OT without  NT knowledge would require no prior exposure to the NT.

Of course, but that is to miss the point of the discussion. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Brother Barkman,

I would love to hear you respond to the questions i posed above and am repeating here. How would you answer this:

How do we know we understand the NT correctly? After all if the OT is not clear without the NT, what do we need to make the NT clear? Or is the NT sufficient on its own to be understood? And if it is, why isn't the OT?

How can we understand the vast majority of the OT for which there is no NT guidance? Let's face it, very little of the OT is cited in the NT. Some 600 times I believe EJ Young said. We might perhaps double or triple that in the interest of being generous. But that would be very generous because the NT is about 1/4 the length of the OT and contains much original material. Which means that there isn't much room for a lot of the OT. So how can we possibly know what that part of the OT means if we can't trust the words? And if we can trust the words for that part of it, why can we not trust the words for the other part of it?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Should readers of the OT understand the meaning?  Yes.  Did they?  Clearly, for the most part, No.  At least where we have a record of their understanding.  You interpret Jesus rebuke as saying they would have understood if they had paid more attention and taken the words at face value.  (As literal as possible.)  That's an assumption on your part.  You don't really know what Jesus meant about principles of interpretation.  He may have been saying something like, "If you had been more alert, you would have been able to understand the types and symbols better.  Your commitment to exact literalism had led you astray."  I know that sounds implausible to adherents of DT, but I think the evidence points in that direction.

Have you noticed how many times NT hearers misunderstood the meaning of Jesus words because they assumed a literal meaning, when Christ intended a symbolic one?  "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again."  Or, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees," which they interpreted as their failure to bring bread.  I don't have time to compile a list, but as I read the NT, I find a lot of them.  More often than not, the failure to understand is a failure to recognize a symbolic meaning.  (John the Baptist is Elijah, for another example.  I could list many more.)  When Jesus chided the disciple for failing to understand, He did not explain exactly why and how they failed to understand.  You assume it was a failure to take things in an exact literal manner.  There was a time I would have assumed the same.  My NT reading over the years has shown me another explanation which corresponds to the way so many NT authors interpret OT Scriptures.  Bingo.  I think the NT is showing us something important about the OT if we are willing to accept it.  IOW, you need to consider that it is DT which is ignoring Christ's rebuke by failing to learn from NT examples.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

With no sarcasm intended, I am not sure the average, original audience for the Torah would have drawn Paul's application from these two Genesis quotations:

Galatians 3:6–9: Understand that in the same way that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, those who believe are the children of Abraham. But when it saw ahead of time that God would make the Gentiles righteous on the basis of faith, scripture preached the gospel in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed.

Was there a meaningfully strong interpretive tradition that understood Gen 12:3, 15:6 to imply that Gentiles had an equal and honored place in Abraham's family?

Paul says the promise (which I presume to be Gal 3:8, cf. Gen 12:3) was made to Abraham and his descendant Jesus (Gal 3:15-16). So, everyone who belongs to Christ is a child of Abraham. Ethnic, socio-economic, and gender barriers to this community are vaporized. If you belong to Christ, you're an heir according to the promise (Gal 3:8).

There are hints of this inclusion in the Exodus (12:38), Rahab, Ruth, Moses' black Cushite wife (Num 12:1), God's assurances to foreign converts and eunuchs, and His care for women in the law.

But, could one get the full sense of Paul's meaning simply from the Old Covenant text? I'm not sure. I think a very perceptive reader could get on the road TOWARDS that understanding, but I'm not sure you could have had a proto-Paul in Joshua's day.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Don Johnson's picture

TylerR wrote:

But, could one get the full sense of Paul's meaning simply from the Old Covenant text? I'm not sure. I think a very perceptive reader could get on the road TOWARDS that understanding, but I'm not sure you could have had a proto-Paul in Joshua's day.

That's really not the point, though. Paul is making a theological point that validates his point, based on the literal meaning of the text. The word "seed" in the OT is used collectively and with reference to an individual. See Gen 4.25 for an example. Michael Vlach, drawing from C. John Collins,  points out that "seed" in Gen 22.18 is a dative sperma in the LXX, allowing particularly for a singular understanding. Psalm 72.17 appears to allude to this passage and says, "And let men bless themselves by him." (bold added). (See Vlach, The Old in the New, pp. 231-234)

Consequently, we don't have to accuse Paul of using the OT in a way that original readers could not understand. Ps 72.17 seems to demonstrate that someone, at least, did understand.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

pvawter's picture

When it comes to the question of how the OT Jews interpreted the OT,  e are not so in the dark about this as some would have us believe. We have the writings of the OT authors themselves which include many examples of Biblical exegesis. Abner Chou demonstrates quite effectively in The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers that they practiced normal, grammatical-historical interpretation when they read earlier Scriptures.

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