Or should the Old Testament be interpreted in its own light?

An important issue confronts the person who studies the Old Testament today: should the New Testament influence the way he interprets the Old Testament? On this issue Bible scholars are divided.

In 1859 Benjamin Jowett, then Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford, published a justly famous essay on the interpretation of Scripture. Jowett desired to be left alone in the company of the prophets by brushing aside or severely discounting what later writers said the prophets meant. “Scripture,” he said, “has one meaning—the meaning which it had in the mind of the Prophet … who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it.”

In 1981 Walter Kaiser, academic dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, came close to concurring with Jowett: “In no case must … later teaching be used exegetically (or in any other way) to unpack the meaning … of the individual text which is the object of our study.”

I want, however, to defend the church’s traditional view. The New Testament has priority in “unpacking” the meaning of the Old Testament. According to the Reformers, the whole of Scripture interprets the parts of Scripture. For them and their modern successors, especially the Barthian school, the entire Bible is the context for each passage. Therefore they do not hesitate to bring the New Testament into their interpretation of the teaching of the Old Testament.

On this question rests the issue of whether or not the Old Testament should be interpreted “spiritually.” If the Lord Jesus Christ and his church fulfill the promises of the Old Testament, as the New Testament affirms (see Acts 3:24–25), then those promises, expressed in terms appropriate for the earthly form of God’s kingdom in the old dispensation, find their literal fulfillment in the spiritual form of the kingdom in the new dispensation.

For example, when David as a prophet represents the Lord as saying about his royal Son. “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill …” (Ps. 2:6ff., NIV), according to the New Testament the text points to the ascension of Christ to the heavenly Mount Zion and his taking possession of the nations now (cf. Matt. 28:18–20: John 17:2; Acts 13:33: Heb. 12:22–24: etc.). Without the New Testament one might have supposed that the text meant only Mount Zion in the Jerusalem where the Dome of the Rock is presently situated. It makes all the difference in the world whether the preacher proclaims a heavenly “thus saith the Lord” that Christ is now taking possession of the nations from his heavenly Jerusalem, or whether he explains that David was speaking of a historical or future earthly kingdom, but that he thinks it has significance to the church today.

The Christian doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture demands that we allow the Author to tell us at a later time more precisely what he meant in his earlier statements. I recall when I first read Aristotle’s Poetics. I could scarcely make heads or tails of it until, like the Ethiopian eunuch. I found a commentator who, knowing all of Aristotle’s works, explained his terms and meaning to me. Heidegger said, “Every poet composed from only a single poem.… None of the individual poems, not even the total of them says it all. Nevertheless each poem speaks from the whole poem and each time speaks it.”

The doctrine of canon, a correlative of the doctrine of plenary inspiration, also demands that we use the New Testament in deciding the meaning of the Old. De Sausurre, the father of modern linguistics, likened the meaning of a word to a chess game. No single piece on the chess board, he explained, has value or meaning apart from the others. Some moves, he elaborated, are inconsequential, but others decisively change the value of the other men. So also words have meaning only in relation to clauses, and clauses in relation to paragraphs, and paragraphs in relation to books. So likewise in the Bible no book has final meaning apart from the other books. The Bible is not like a bookcase with each book standing as a separate entity in itself. As the Jesuit scholar Norbert Lohfink pointed out, “the taking up of a new book into the canon was, among other things, an ‘act of authorship.’ ”

The intention of the Author is found not in the parts but in the whole. In the words of Tony Thistelton, senior lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, “The total of any theological utterance is hardly less than Scripture.… In Heinrich Ott’s words on the subject, ‘Scripture as a whole constitutes the “linguistic room,” the universe of discourse, the linguistic net of coordinates in which the church has always resided.…’ ”

In sum, let us join Jowett in his desire to be alone with the author and hear his words, but let us keep in mind that the Author is Christ, who spoke through the prophets.

BRUCE K. WALTKEDr. Waltke is professor of Old Testament at Regent College. Vancouver. British Columbia, Canada, and coeditor of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and the Expositor’s Bible Commentary.

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