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...


Glen said...

Thanks for interacting. Not got long right now but three thoughts spring to mind...

1) Absolutely the divine and human authorship need to be held together (by parallel with Christ's two natures). I just wonder what adoptionism or nestorianism would look like when it comes to the Scriptures. And I think it would look like, either a) thinking that the Christ-centred meaning comes *after* limited human intentions or b) that the Christ-centred meaning must be held apart from the human intention.

2) I agree that we must read different Psalms differently. But I don't think the difference needs to be in the awareness or otherwise of Christ and His future work. I've written a short post on the four main players of the Psalms: http://christthetruth.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/psalms-the-players-repost/

Basically the four main characters are the LORD, the King, the righteous and the wicked. And different Psalms involve different interactions between these 4 groups.

3) 2 Samuel ends with David admitting that, as he spoke by the Spirit, the LORD's word was on his tongue (2 Sam 23:2). We know (and they knew) that the kings were intentionally established by God as throne-warmers for Christ (Genesis 49:10). I think it's reasonable to believe that faithful kings went about their Israelite duties conscious that they were picturing something bigger about the Coming King. i.e. their human responses (and in David's case, human words) and conscious faith in Christ are not at all contradictory.

4) It seems to me that once you've admitted that God's King is His Son in whom you must take refuge (Psalm 2), He is the ascending LORD (Psalm 24), God's Divine, Anointed King (Psalm 45) and enthroned at the right hand of the Sovereign LORD (Psalm 110) you have a conceptual framework which is essentially "Christian" (or insert your own favoured equivalent). This is what I mean by conscious knowledge of Christ in the OT authors. Once this is granted - of course the horrors of sin and suffering can be engaged. And engaging this might sound 'faithless' but we don't need to assume that they are ignorant of *Christ*. It seems that knowledge of Him is pretty inescapable in those Psalms listed above, and I don't think knowledge of Him is forgettable. Therefore...

5) I'm not sure why Psalm 44 can't be an entering into the dread of suffering with a knowledge that Psalm 45 is coming (or that Psalms 1&2 have been). Not sure where you stand on Romans 7, but I'm perfectly comfortable seeing it as the present experience of the Christian: the scene of a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. Paul can engage the wretched state of his flesh without it being a denial of the eventual victory of Christ.

6) The Psalms are not hermetically sealed theological worlds of their own but belong together and inform each other. Not every Psalm needs to say everything. Nor should we assume that the Psalmist has forgotten an earlier truth when making a later lament.

Man I'm verbose! I was only gonna make a coupla short points.

Anyway, thanks for engaging. Love to hear your sermons if they're available somewhere?

in Jesus,

John said...

Thanks Glen - lots to engage with...

Psalm 44 sermon

Psalm 45 sermon

Joshua 2 sermon

1) I don't have a problem at all saying that they were conscious that the Christ was coming (clearly from Gen 49 onwards; at least something from Gen 3 onwards). David of course describes Saul as the Christ (e.g. 1 Sam 26:23), and therefore refuses to strike him down. I think it's clear too that he knew there was a greater king coming after him (e.g. 2 Sam 7); I'm not sure whether or not he thought that greater king could well be Solomon.

2) I guess it's the difference between a conscious knowledge that there is a Christ coming (obviously true) and a knowledge of the details of that Christ. Did they know that the Christ would rise from the dead, for example? That seems a pretty essential component of NT faith, but seems to be missing in chunks of the OT. It's that faith in the Resurrection of the Christ which is missing from Ps 44 but is present in Romans 7.

Or did they understand before Isaiah that the Christ was more than an eventual holder of the temporal kingship of Israel? I'd be inclined to say that Isaiah's (new) realisation that the temporal kingship and the physical nation can't bear the weight of the prophecies of Deuteronomy and 2 Samuel is one of the key factors in his writing.

3) I'm not convinced that Psalm 24 equates the temporal kingship with being the ascended LORD, just as I don't think Psalm 23 is primarily about the Resurrection of the Christ. But I've not done enough work on Ps 24...

4) I don't think saving faith in the OT is faith explicitly in the Christ. It is faith in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but does not require that they understand the Trinity. I think that's fairly clear with Rahab, for example, which is part of what I want to say in my next post.

Glen said...

Acts 2:30-31:

"David was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay."

A number of things to note: David knew that his throne was really *God's* throne and that one of his descendants would occupy it for real. Also, he knew and spoke about Christ's resurrection.

On another note: Saving faith doesn't need to be "in the trinity" per se, but it does need to be trinitarian. i.e. it does need to be the Father known in the Son and by the Spirit. God must always be known in Christ.

Calvin, commenting on John 1:18 (which, historically, has always been so important in these discussions) said:

"The fathers, when they wished to behold God, always turned their eyes to Christ. I mean not only that they beheld God in his eternal Logos, but also they attended with their whole mind and the whole affection of their heart to the promised manifestation of Christ." (Commentary, John 1:18)

The level of *detail* to their knowledge I'm not so hung up on (though the NT constantly insists it was knowledge of His sufferings and subsequent glory). But the fact that they knew the Most High in the Mediating LORD Christ, I take to be vital.

John said...

David knew that his throne was really *God's* throne and that one of his descendants would occupy it for real. Absolutely, uncontestably.

Acts 2:25ff is an interesting passage. Where is Jesus, and where is David in Ps 16 as quoted? The "I" seems to be David, and the "Lord" Jesus. Ps 16:10//Acts 2:27a is then saying that God won't let David die and b looks a lot like simple parallelism (remember that David was the Christ too).

It looks therefore as if David is speaking primarily about himself being rescued from death in Ps 16. But Peter tells us in v30-31 that David saw what was to come and is speaking about the resurrection of the Messiah.

How does that work? I think saying that Ps 16 was originally primarily about Jesus does violence to Ps 16, but saying that it isn't about Jesus clearly does violence to Acts 2. So what if it's about David in his role as Messiah? David's confidence in Ps 16 is grounded on him seeing Jesus with him; David's rescue from death in Ps 16 is archetypal of the Messiah being rescued from death; Jesus more than fulfils that thereby demonstrating that he is the Messiah. He fits into David's shoes better than David did.

David sees what is to come, and predicts it, but how clearly does he see it? 1 Peter 1:10-12 claims both that the prophets predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories to come, and also that they didn't fully understand them. Hence the need for the gospel to be proclaimed to Peter's readers in v12 - they didn't know fully otherwise.

On another note: Saving faith doesn't need to be "in the trinity" per se, but it does need to be trinitarian. i.e. it does need to be the Father known in the Son and by the Spirit. God must always be known in Christ.

Saving faith needs to be in the God who is Trinity, even if it doesn't always recognise that he is Trinity. In the same way, it is faith in God known in Christ by the Spirit, even if neither Christ nor the Spirit are explicitly recognised.