Saturday, January 5, 2013

Is Scripture Fully Trustworthy or Does the NT Pervert the OT?

If Scripture is to determine how we live and regard life, others and even ourselves, it must be trustworthy. However, many, even within Evangelical circles, are contesting its trustworthiness.

In The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Biblical scholar Peter Enns writes:

·        If we begin with assumptions about what inspiration “must mean,” we are creating a false dilemma and will wind up needing to make tortuous arguments to line up Paul and other Biblical writers with modes of thinking that would never have occurred to them. But when we allow the Bible to lead us in our thinking on inspiration, we are compelled to leave room for the ancient writers to reflect and even incorporate their ancient, mistaken, cosmologies into their scriptural reflections. (94-95)

Enns claims that Scripture can be fully inspired and yet “even incorporate their ancient, mistaken, cosmologies.” However, can Scripture be fully God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17) – inspired - and yet be mistaken in certain ways? Hardly! Besides, if this were so, how would we be able to make use of Scripture, not knowing which parts or aspects are trustworthy? If we don’t know, how then can we stand upon it and apply it with any confidence to our lives?

In contrast to Enns’ claims, Scripture instructs us to regard it all as the actual Words of God:

·        "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

·        Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4)

·        Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. 21For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

·        The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8)

Despite these assertions, theologians have confidently claimed that not all of Scripture need be trustworthy. Instead, the Holy Spirit can give us discernment to know what is trustworthy and what isn’t. The late Clark Pinnock claimed:

·        “What keeps us sound in the faith will not be our strenuous rationalistic efforts to make the case for the Bible air-tight. It is the Spirit of God in mighty power moving through the church.”

However, it’s not a question of choosing between the Spirit and fully trustworthy, God-breathed Scriptures. Thankfully, we don’t have to make such a choice, since it is both. However, if we did have to rely exclusively on the Spirit to determine which verses to trust, several problems arise:

1.      We are often wrong in determining the leading of the Spirit.
2.      Well-intentioned people disagree about His leading. Without a fully trustworthy Bible, there is no way to settle differences.
3.      This places us in the unfortunate position of ultimate judge. We have to judge what the Spirit is telling us regarding which verses are trustworthy. Consequently, instead of Scripture judging us, we place ourselves in role of judging the Spirit’s guidance and Scripture. Besides, if we have such wisdom, then we don’t even need Scripture. We can just read the New York Times.

How do these “Evangelicals” prove that certain aspects of Scripture are errant? They might point out that certain verses, namely in Genesis 1 and 2, fail to conform to the theories of mainstream science, namely evolution. They also might try to demonstrate how the New Testament (NT) writers have twisted Hebrew Scripture (OT) to conform it to their New Testament theology.

For instance, Matthew 2:14-15 quotes Hosea to demonstrate how the life of Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that God would call Him back to Israel from Egypt:

"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  (Hosea 11:1)

However, it seems that Matthew used this verse wrongly:

1.      Hosea mentions “Israel” and not the Messiah, as Matthew had indicated.
2.      The surrounding context is all about Israel and not Messiah.
3.      Hosea writes it as history not prophecy. There is no indication in this context of the coming Messiah.

Enns therefore writes:

·        It would take a tremendous amount of mental energy to argue that Matthew is respecting the historical context of Hosea’s words, that is, there is actually something predictive in Hosea 11. (Inspiration and Incarnation, 133)

Matthew might not have respected the “historical context” of Hosea, but is this a problem? Is it too much of a stretch to hold that “there is actually something predictive in Hosea 11?”

Matthew seems to have taken an interpretation from Hosea’s account that Hosea never intended. For many critics, this is evidence that, although the NT writers might have been inspired in some sense, their cultural and human limitations led them to misuse historical and Biblical material (namely, the OT) but in an inspired manner.

This, of course, is oxymoronic – misusing Scripture in an inspired manner! Consequently, some critics simply dismiss Scripture and its trustworthiness in its entirety.

However, there is a better way to explain this phenomenon – the NT use of OT verses in ways that the OT writers never intended – in a way that is consistent with divine inspiration.

It is unscriptural to expect to unlock the totality of the meaning of a verse by merely apprehending the intent of the human author. This is because the primary author is God Himself. It is His intent that counts, and it might not coincide with the intent of the human author! Consequently, the human authors might not have understand the totality of what they were led to write or even speak.

The Prophet Jeremiah admits as much. God had surprisingly told him to buy a field which would soon fall into the hands of the Babylonians (Jer. 32:25). Jeremiah didn’t understand this waste of money. However, God subsequently explained this oddity to Jeremiah (Jer. 32:36-44).

The author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly admitted his perplexity about life. God never explained to Job why He had allowed Job to suffer so. In does not seem that the Psalmist David was ever given an adequate answer to his question, “Why have you forsaken me.” Likewise, the prophet Habakkuk remained in perplexity regarding his question: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

Such examples are so common that it hardly is necessary to mention any more. Obviously, the Prophets – the writers of the OT – didn’t understand everything that the Lord had instructed them to say, write and perform. Consequently, the NT interpretation of OT verses shouldn’t be bound by what the original OT writers had intended. This is because they only had a limited understanding of what they were writing. Instead, it is obvious that Scripture has far more depth than what the writer could possibly have conceived. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the NT has interpreted their verses in ways that the OT writers never intended. After all, the Prophet was never the primary author. Instead, it is the God who inspired them.

Nevertheless, the historical context is very important. However, Scripture acknowledges that there are deeper meanings that transcend the immediate historical context. (However, we should not assume from this that we have the liberty to interpret Scripture apart from its Scripture-imposed limits. We have to let Scripture interpret Scripture. We must not go beyond what has been written – 1 Cor. 4:6)

The NT confirms that the Prophets were aware that much of what they were writing was beyond their understanding:

·        Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. (1 Peter 1:10-11)

The Prophets knew that what they were writing had been inspired by the Spirit. Consequently, even they sought to penetrate the depths of what they had written and proclaimed. However, they couldn’t understand everything embodied by their writings:

·        It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:12)

Their prophetic writings would not be understood, even by angels, until later. It is therefore reasonable to assume that much of what the Prophets hadn’t understood about their own writings had been later revealed to the writers of the NT:

·        Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him. (Romans 16:25-26)

The “prophetic writings” contained mysteries that were finally revealed by the Apostles. Therefore, our understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures shouldn’t be limited to their original historical contexts. Instead, we need to understand that these Scriptures were multi-layered and contained transcendent truths, truths that eluded even those who penned them.

God purposely hid certain truths. They were hidden beyond the historical context but in plain sight:

·        We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age. understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:6-8)

The “rulers of this age” had this wisdom, in the form of Scripture,  in front of their eyes but did not understand it. It awaited Apostolic revelation. Similarly, Paul argues that, while Israel had the Scriptures, they didn’t understand them:

·        But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Cor. 3:14-16)

Intelligence alone couldn’t penetrate the deeper meanings of Scripture. They remained hidden until the veil was removed by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore the charge of the critics and the Rabbis – that the NT often fails to respect the historical context and the intent of the OT writers – lacks sufficient merit.

Nor is their insistence that interpretation should not go beyond the original intent and context, a Biblical insistence. Clearly, there is much that God has kept hidden from His Prophets (Proverbs 25:2; Deut. 29:29; Psalm 25:14). However, Hebrew Scripture does reveal much in a hidden manner, in the form of symbols and shadows, which later would be fully revealed.

His Temple revealed hidden truths in plain sight. The Temple curtain separated Israel from the presence of God. This symbolized the fact that, before Jesus died for our sins, we could not bear to be in His presence or He in our presence. The Cherubim spread their wings to obscure the central truth of God’s plan – the mercy seat covering the Law. Even the high priest was prevented from seeing the truth of this provision (although it had already been cryptically revealed in many instances):

·        He [the high priest] is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony [Law], so that he will not die. (Leviticus 16:13)

The “incense,” which also served to “conceal the atonement cover,” symbolized the fact that the way of mercy had not yet been revealed.

There is no indication that Moses understood everything that he was writing. If this is so, then:

  1. There is much that awaited subsequent illumination.
  2. The scholarly insistence that proper interpretation should not go beyond the historical context and the intent of the author is misguided and denies the possibility of further OT illumination.

Instead, we need to, first of all, understand the intent of Scripture’s heavenly Author. How do we do this? Primarily from NT revelation! This revelation informs us that God’s truth – His Gospel – has been revealed in the OT, but in a cryptic form, later revealed in the NT, apart from the historical context of the OT:

·        In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. (Ephes. 3:4-5)

The revelation was made know to the OT Prophets but not with the fullness with which it had been revealed to the Apostles. Hence, there is much truth in the proverb:

·        The NT is the OT revealed; the OT is the NT concealed!

Why then should the critics insist that the NT writers be restricted to what the OT authors understood and intended?  There is no Scriptural basis for this insistence.

What “mystery” had not been understood? - “The mystery of Christ!” (Isaiah 49:2; 51:6; 52:10; 53:1-3). Jesus informed His pharisaical adversaries that their Scriptures were all about Him (John 5:39). He is the fulfillment of all the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20). He is the reality behind all of the Hebrew symbols (Col. 2:16-17). Consequently, the entire law is just a shadow of His presence (Heb. 10:1). Of Him, all the Prophets bore witness (Acts 3:24; 10:43). Why then shouldn’t the NT illuminate what it was that cast the shadows?

I had reacted strongly against Martin Luther’s assertion that, in order to understand Scripture, we had to perceive Christ in them. Instead, I thought, “How contrived!” However, this is the very thing that Scripture affirms.

Often, types, things, or institutions cast a reflection of Messiah. Even a bronze serpent served as a shadow of the healing of the cross:

·        Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. (John 3:14) 

There are hundreds of such examples that demonstrate a deeper meaning beyond the historical context. Even people are types of the One to come. Jonah swallowed by the big fish was a foreshadowing of Christ:

·        For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)

However, these many examples transcend the historical OT context and the intent of its writer. We can therefore ask, “Are NT writers deriving interpretations that the Hebrew Scriptures never intended? Perhaps Scripture contains only the explicit superficial meaning?” However, these questions fail to perceive the depths of meaning embedded within the OT, where we sometimes find history serving as prophecy. Let’s take an example from the Prophet Zechariah, where the Prophet is invited to observe the hidden purposes of his God:

·        Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him…Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, "Take away the filthy garments from him." And to him He said, "See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes." And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head, and they put the clothes on him. And the Angel of the Lord stood by…'Hear, O Joshua, the high priest, You and your companions [other priests] who sit before you, for they are a wondrous sign; for behold, I am bringing forth My Servant the BRANCH [of David, the Messiah]…And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.” (Zech. 3:1-8).

This example is interesting because it demonstrates, as do so many prophetic passages, that the Prophet wrote about something that transcended the historical context, penetrating to a depth beyond a simple inauguration ceremony for the high priest. It also reveals the Messiah. As the Angel of the Lord cleansed the high priest Joshua from sin, so too would the BRANCH cleanse Israel.

Did Zechariah understand everything about which he wrote? Did Moses? Certainly not! Zechariah’s revelation is even punctuated by his own questions about what God was showing him! Therefore, there is no adequate reason to limit the interpretation of what the Prophets wrote to what they understood.

Zechariah recorded as history what he had seen. However, this history also served as prophecy - a shadow of the coming Messiah. Perhaps we should also understand Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in this manner:

·        So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son." (Matthew 2:14-15)

The high priest “Joshua” embodied a double meaning. His cleansing also reflected the cleansing at the coming of the Messiah. According to Matthew, “my son” also had a double meaning. In the historical context, it referred to “Israel.” However, the inspired Matthew was shown through “Israel” her ultimate Son and Savior, the seed or descendent of Abraham, through whom all the nations would be blessed.

Is such an interpretation illegitimate? If the entire NT is the disclosure of the OT – and it was awaiting disclosure - then it can’t be illegitimate in the way that Enns suggests.

The critics want to prove that the Bible is not entirely trustworthy and God-breathed. They cite the NT’s use of the OT as evidence, claiming that the NT writers didn’t care about the facts or the context. Instead, it seems that the NT writers were illuminated by different facts and a transcendent context.

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