Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How conscious were the Old Testament authors of Christ?

There's a bit of a debate about preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture (which of course it is) - specifically whether we should preach as though the Old Testament authors knew they were writing about Jesus.

Here's an example of what I mean from the frequently excellent Glen Scrivener:

So how do we keep those two things together: Christ-focus and authorial intent? Only by saying that the OT in its own context is consciously a proclamation of Christ – His sufferings and glories. Without an insistence that the Hebrew Scriptures are already and intentionally Christian – without maintaining that ‘the lights are already on’ – then the “true and better” typology stuff will be good for a sermon or two, but it won’t transform our preaching or our churches.

Are "the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian"? I don't think it's as simple as yes or no, and I'd like to illustrate it from three passages I've preached on in the last few months.

Psalm 44 - they can't be!

Psalm 44 is one of the darkest passages in the Old Testament. I don't think that the human author of Ps 44 can have been conscious of Christ when he was writing, otherwise he was being unfaithful.

In v1-8 the Psalmist looks back at God's past action in history, and praises him for it. It's centred on v4 - “You are my king and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob.”
v9-16 are then a series of accusations levelled at God – that it feels and looks like he has taken them to a charity shop and dumped them there.
v17-21 are the Psalmist pointing out that they had not done anything to deserve this punishment.
v23-26 are the Psalmist therefore asking God to wake up and help them because of his unfailing covenant love.

v22 is really interesting. “Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” There are definite echoes of all sorts of things, but the core idea is that the people are suffering and dying for God's sake – because of him. Perhaps it is opposition to them because they follow God faithfully, and he does not seem to be protecting them.

In Romans 8, Paul takes v22 and quotes it. He treats it as an example of the kind of sufferings which Christians experience in this life, and then goes on to say “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

My point is this. I do not doubt that Psalm 44, rightly understood is about Jesus. It is really helpful to see it as a song that Jesus sings, speaking of his undeserved suffering for the sake of following God. It is wonderful to notice in v22 that even when we suffer like sheep to be slaughtered, we are following in the steps of the one who became like a sheep to be slaughtered for us. But a Christian take on it requires a stronger vision of God's final victory. All that Psalm 44 has is confidence in God's character on the basis of past action; it is a backward-looking faith rather than the resurrection faith which looks forwards to God's final victory and restoration of all things. That's why the way Paul uses Ps 44 in Romans 8 is so significant – Paul shows how the wonderful truths he has been writing about transform even the darkness of Psalm 44.

Psalm 45 – they must be!

The very next Psalm is a complete contrast in lots of ways. It is a wedding Psalm, which transforms the darkness and despondency of Ps 42-44 into the triumph and security of Ps 46-48. The first half of the Psalm (v2-9) are praising the king, and his language gets more and more exalted, famously reaching the heights of v6-7.

Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.

Some people try to weasel out of the king being called “God” here, generally unsuccessfully. Perhaps the best such suggestion is that v3-6 are a prayer to God, which happens to be in the middle of v2-9 addressing the king. But there's no textual evidence for it, and in any case Hebrews 1:8-9 treats it as a continuous section addressing Jesus.

At the very least, you end up with something like G.H. Wilson's position in the NIVAC commentary, where he argues that this Psalm was kept even in the exile because Israel were holding onto God's kingship and marriage to his people even after earthly kings and royal weddings had ceased. In any case, it looks very much as if the Psalmist sees through the earthly royal wedding he is writing for to the wedding of God and his people – of Christ and the Church.

Are "the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian"?

I think the best way to answer this question is to recognise the dual authorship of the Scriptures. There is the human author (and sometimes editor too!), and there is the divine author. The same passage can be rightly attributed to both David and God, as with Psalm 110.

Given that, it makes perfect sense to say that for the divine author, the Hebrew Scriptures are already and intentionally Christian, since the author of them is God the Holy Trinity. Certainly to preach them in a way which does not point to Christ is to ignore their significance, and is a fundamentally non-Christian hermeneutic.

But are the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian in the mind of the human author? I'd want to say “sometimes, but not always”. What does that mean for preaching? It means we have to work at it!

The third passage is Joshua 2, and I'll try to cover that next time...

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