Tamar Was Righteous

Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, gets a bad rap. Often cited as one of the “scandalous” women in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:3), she’s famous for tricking her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by veiling herself and presenting herself to him as a prostitute (Gen. 38).

Admittedly, this is not the usual way of going about things and you can see why preachers tend to skip it in the middle of their series on the life of Joseph or whatever.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. Er is wicked in some unspecified way, so God puts him to death before he had given Tamar any children. At that point, it falls to Onan, his brother, to fulfill his obligation according to the levirate marriage laws and go in to her to give her a child so she could raise him up as offspring in Er’s name (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth). Wanting to avoid having to care for another heir, Onan famously only does a half-way job of it, for which he is also struck dead (Gen. 38:10). From there, it falls Judah to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar so that she can have a child by him–which he promises to do–but then reneges on because he’s scared that Shelah might be the hat-trick of dead sons married to Tamar.

After a while, Tamar comes up with her plan. She’s living at home with her parents, but she dresses up like a prostitute, veils herself so no one will know who she is, and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. He does and she persuades him to come into her. (Incidentally, the fact that she knew this would work speaks loudly to Judah’s character at the time.) He has no money, so she accepts his signet, a cord, and staff as a pledge that he’d pay later. Then, she ghosts with them.

Months pass and she turns up pregnant. At this point, Judah is indignant and calls for her to be stoned for she has been “immoral.” So she sends him his signet, cord, and staff and asks for him to identify him. Caught with his metaphorical pants down, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar is vindicated and gives birth to sons, Perez and Zerah.

The story is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that this is part of our Savior’s lineage, but in the 20th Century it might be referenced most frequently in debates around the meaning of the term “righteousness” in the Bible.

I won’t summarize the intellectual story here, but at the tail-end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century there has been a move to define righteousness as a relational concept instead of a “norm” concept. I first encountered it in the recent work of New Perspective scholar like James Dunn or N.T. Wright who likes to talk about righteousness as “covenant-faithfulness,” but the argument really took off over 100 years ago when Herman Cremer argued that the concrete, Hebraic conception of righteousness was a relational one as opposed to the abstract, Greek normative one. On this view, someone was defined as righteous, not because they measured up to some abstract, universal, ethical standard or norm, but because they had kept up their end of the bargain, been true to their word, or kept faith in the context of a relationship. Roughly.

Now, there are all sorts of shades and variations on this that develop after Cremer with different nuances and emphases, but most tend to trade on this same, basic assumption. (On all this, see Charles Lee Irons’s excellent dissertation The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation). While there all sorts of lexical and conceptual arguments made that I won’t go into, the Tamar escapade has been used repeatedly to illustrate the rightness of this basic approach. Why? Because at the end of the story, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Folks like James Dunn will point out that it seems pretty obvious that dressing up like a prostitute and tricking your father-in-law to get you pregnant can’t be seen as conforming to some abstract rule, or a even a public norm governing society. Instead, it must be read in terms of the relational righteousness reading. Judah was less righteous in keeping up his end of the bargain. She is more righteous than I, even if she’s not ultimately morally righteous.

But is that really the case? After reviewing the story in detail and revisiting the levirate laws, Irons makes a convincing case that Tamar basically did nothing wrong. I’ll quote part of his argument at length:

But is it true that Tamar formally violated the moral law? What action of hers could be construed as such? Perhaps it might be thought that she engaged in prostitution. But her “prostitution” was a one-time act for the purpose of getting pregnant in order to raise up seed in the name of Judah’s firstborn, Er, in fulfillment of the levirate obligation and, even more importantly, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham that he would have an innumerable seed who would inherit the land God had sworn to give to Abraham. Perhaps it might be argued that she committed sexual immorality by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. That is not quite accurate either, since she slept with Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. Obviously, it would not have been an act of sexual immorality to sleep with Shelah, since she was in fact legally betrothed to him the moment her second husband died. Since Judah was the one who obstinately refused to fulfill his duty and give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, Tamar took matters into her own hands and got herself pregnant by Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. This was not sexual immorality; it was the fulfillment of the aim of the levirate institution, namely, the production of an heir. As Dvora Weisberg states, “There is no indication that the union between Tamar and Judah is not a levirate union.” The only act, so far as I can see, that could in any way be construed as a violation of the moral law was Tamar’s act of procuring Judah’s seed by means of deception. Tamar deceived Judah into thinking that she was an ordinary prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law, and such deception is technically a sin. (173-174)

Thinking it through further, Irons notes Tamar isn’t even charged with deception. And beyond that, she only resorted to deception because Judah failed in his obligations (leave aside how often deception for lawful cause seems to be viewed lightly in the Old Testament). In the context of judicial case Judah brings against here, Irons says, “Tamar…is totally vindicated.”

What’s the pay-off here? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting for the sake of the broader conversation around righteousness in the Bible. I remember first encountering this argument in seminary and finding the Tamar incident to be a plausible illustrative case to drive home a broader lexical and conceptual argument I didn’t have the capacity to follow at the time. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in that and you have library access, Irons’s book is well worth your time). I’m foreshortening Irons’s argument here by a lot. He does say that the relational and saving righteousness reads do put their finger on some of the biblical data that should be considered part of our overall concept of righteousness, while nevertheless maintaining that the lexical meaning of righteousness having to do with a forensic status or ethical conformity to a norm.

Second, I’m tempted to see three connections to the gospel here (though I’m open to correction and expansion here).

On a first read, Tamar’s actions are scandalous and possibly immoral. Yet upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1). Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One. Third, I am increasingly convinced it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!

To sum up, Tamar was righteous. Thank God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Peter Pan’s Shadow And the Promises of God

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:17)

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. (Hebrews 10:1)

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5)

Clearly, one of the New Testament writers’ favorite images for relating the truth of the Gospel in the NT to the revelation of the Old Testament was that of “types” and “shadows.” The images are rich, intuitive, and quite helpful in explaining the issue of continuity between the Old Testament and the New. For that reason, Christian theologians of all ages and ecclesiastical persuasions have fastened on these two metaphors and methods of relating the truths of the two covenants, as well as the problem of progressive revelation. As we saw earlier, Turretin leaned on the idea heavily in his defense of the Old Testament’s authority.

The relationship between type and antitype is suggested by the roots of the terms with the idea of stamping or making an impression of an image on a coin or something. There is a correspondence between the stamp and the thing stamped. In the same way, an Old Testament type links up with its New Testament antitype by serving as a preview or advanced model of the coming reality.

peter's shadow 2Picking up the second image, everybody knows that a shadow is not the same thing as its object. It doesn’t have the same substance, weight, or reality. And yet, at the same time, it is dependent upon and similar to the thing that it is a shadow of. My shadow is similar, yet different from me. Its shape is determined, yes, by the light and the distance I am from the ground, but also, in a deciding sense, from my own shape.

So looking at some examples in the Old Testament, Hebrews indicates that the sacrificial system, with its various kinds of sacrifices for thanksgiving, atonement, cleansing, and so forth, all point forward to different dimensions of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ offered upon the cross. Moses was a type of Christ in the liberation and Exodus for the people of God he brought about, which prefigured the New Exodus Christ was to bring about. They are not the substance that is Christ, but they point forward in a way that is determinatively shaped by the substance that is Christ. They are the promises that are copies and shadows of heavenly and better things.

The history, practice, and theology of biblical typology is complex, storied, and well worth pursuing at length. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, so I am not going to do that. All I want to do is follow up and make one brief, particular point about how we should think of how these metaphors function for expressing continuity and discontinuity.

A Different Type of Type

In some recent discussions regarding issues like atonement or the doctrine of God, I have seen some more progressive theological types refer to the metaphor of types and shadows in order to justify a particular kind of overturning or undermining of the Old Testament revelation. Alongside what we’ve called the Jesus-Tea-strainer hermeneutic, some have argued that now that Christ has come he has revealed the true, hidden nature of these types and shadows. Instead of coming as their more straightforward fulfillment, though, he comes as their abolishment. Or, he comes to reveal how screwed up our understanding has truly been up until this point.

Peter's shadowAs an example, when it comes to the sacrificial system, some will say that Christ served as an antitype by being an altogether different kind of sacrifice. Israelites may have offered sacrifices in the OT as propitiatory, concerned with putting away wrath, but Christ as the antitype shows that the types were distorted refractions of the reality of a God beyond the economy of sacrifice and exchange. Yes, the OT pointed to God’s salvation and victory, but the antitype of Christ shows that all of those OT victories were just shadows pointing forward to the non-violent victory of a God who would never engage in tribal warfare.

On this view, the shadows and types actually distort the reality of the original. Instead of being proper shadows, they are more like Peter Pan’s shadow, running around, behaving in ways that give a false impression of the original. Types end up, less like helpful, advanced signposts, and more like funhouse mirror perversions.

A Promising God

Now, there are multiple problems with this hermeneutic, but the first is that it actually imputes falsehood and unintended deceptiveness about God to the Old Testament authors. Of course, humans are finite and liars, to boot, much of the time. The problem is, of course, that this turns into a functional denial of God’s proper inspiration and authorship of the Old Testament and its authority. Or at least a serious demotion of it. My concern here isn’t that we’re left with a less than perfect book on our shelves. My concern is that our view of inspiration is caught up in your view of God with respect to his trustworthiness as a communicator, as well as his faithfulness as a covenant-keeper. 

Classically, Christian theologians have seen God’s history with Israel, the signs, the symbols, Temple, Tabernacle, priesthood, kingship, and the whole of it, as the divinely-intended matrix of meaning prepared with care for Jesus’ entrance into the world. Jesus fulfills the promises and signs God has made to Israel, just as he said and predicted. It is God, so to speak, setting his own expectations for what he’s going to do to save Israel. As Kevin Vanhoozer says:

Yet Jesus’ story neither begins nor makes sense apart from the broader canvas of God’s prior speech and activity in the history of Israel. Who God reveals himself to be is the one who in Jesus keeps his word to Israel. God’s speech in Jesus Christ may be definitive, but it presupposes prior divine communicative action. The God whose nature is displayed in the history of Jesus Christ is the same as the God who declares his nature by his name in Exodus 3:14 and 34:6–7: merciful, gracious, steadfast love. –Remythologizing Theology, pg. 215

On this other view, though, we come to see Jesus’ story as the last step in a valiant attempt by God to get his message across, that finally (mostly) broke through, correcting all of his earlier communicative misfires. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets”, but apparently he was stuttering up until the time he said “Jesus Christ.” Not only does this rob us of the comfort of understanding God’s promise and fulfillment, it leaves us in the precarious position of having to make sense of which bits of the OT are revelatory or not, which we should discard as false or still hold as true, according to our own lights. We can’t see which promises God intends to keep, and which were simply the flights of fancy of an ancient tribal people.

Again, ultimately, what it robs us of is confidence in the communicative efficacy of our Promising God. For the life of me, I can’t see how that view of Scripture is supposed to sustain the kind of faith that Jesus spoke of when he said, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matt. 4:4).

Soli Deo Gloria

One Simple Meaning, Multiple Meanings, Or One Complex Meaning? A Little Typology

abraham and isaacMonday we looked at Turretin’s argument for the continuing doctrinal authority of the Old Testament for Christians. Many of his answers depended on the idea that the Old Testament contains by way of prophecy, type, and shadow, the same substance as the New Testament. Today I want to look at a section in related question that may shed some light on Turretin’s understanding of prophecy, types, and shadows.

In question 19 he takes up the issue of whether or not Scripture has more than one meaning. Or rather, whether the classic fourfold meaning–literal, allegorical, anagogical, and tropological–was admissable. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, Turretin explains:

In order that the Roman Catholics may force upon us another, visible, judge of controversies-the church and the pope-besides the Scripture and the Holy Spirit speaking in it, they invent a multiple meaning in Scripture, and from this conclude that the meaning is doubtful and ambiguous. So they distinguish between literal and mystical meaning, and further divide the mystical into three parts: allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. They call it allegorical when the sacred history is applied to doctrines of the faith, like what is said in Galatians 4:22 concerning the two covenants or Sarah and Hagar; anagogical when the words of Scripture are applied to events of future ages, like what is said in Hebrews 4:3 concerning rest; tropological when applied to conduct. All this is expressed in the familiar jingle:

Facts the letter teaches; what you’ll believe, the allegory;
What you’ll do, the moral meaning; and where you’re bound, the anagogy.

Now, whether that’s an accurate take on Roman Catholic usage, I’ll leave it for others to decide, but it gives you an idea of what he’s worried about. Turretin goes on to explain that the Reformed hold to a single meaning per text. Now, while that may initially sound like a recipe for flat readings, he goes on to explain that this single meaning might be “simple or composite”:

A simple and historical meaning is one which consists of the statement of one fact without any further significance either as commandment or as dogma or as history. This can be one of two kinds, either strict and grammatical or figurative. The strict meaning depends on the exact words; the trope on the figurative language. A composite or mixed meaning is found in oracles containing typology, part of which [oracle] is type and part antitype. This does not constitute two meanings, but two parts of one and the same meaning intended by the Holy Spirit, who covered the mystery with literal meaning.

So the literal meaning is the only meaning, but that does not rule out that the Holy Spirit may have intended that same single meaning to have layers and dimensions to it. What’s more, the “literal” meaning does not mean a literalistic, or idiot-literal meaning. The literal meaning can comprehend metaphors, figures of speech, differing genres, etc. Indeed he quotes Aquinas and Salmeron here:

“literal meaning” describes not only that which is based on the strict, not figurative, meaning of the words, by which it is distinguished from “figurative meaning,” as was often done by the Fathers, but it also describes the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit and expressed either strictly or in figurative language; thus Thomas [Aquinas] defines the literal meaning as “what the Holy Spirit or author intends,” and Salmeron “what the Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture, wishes primarily to say, whether by the strict meaning of the language or by tropes and metaphors” (1.7)

His intention is to rule out the sort of exegesis that appealed to the “mystical” meaning that included allegories that were not governed by the literal meaning. Allegorical meanings hidden underneath the literal meanings, to be revealed by the discerning or authorized teachers made it easier to twist texts to fit doctrines, rather than norm doctrines by texts:

The mystical meaning may be either sacred or ecclesiastical. The sacred is that which the Holy Spirit sets forth through the Holy Scriptures, and which is therefore based on Scripture itself. Of this sort are John 3:13[14], concerning the bronze serpent; I Corinthians 10:1 – 4, concerning the baptism of the cloud and the sea, and the Israelites’ spiritual food and drink; Galatians 4:22, concerning the allegory of Abraham’s two wives; and I Peter 3:[20 – ]21, concerning the ark and baptism. The ecclesiastical is that which is developed by ecclesiastical writers, either for the sake of illustration, or of embellishment, which Philo Judaeus first attempted, in two books of allegories. Many of the Fathers followed him, especially Origen, who used this form of interpretation more than any other, so that he often fell into extremes, for which reason Jerome, in his letter to Avitus and Amabilis, rightly rebuked him: “Origen thinks that the brilliance of his mind is a sacrament of the church.” In the latter sense, although it can be used for illustration, [the mystical meaning] has no force for proving [doctrine], because it is a human interpretation, not divine [teaching], which can suggest probabilities but not convince (probabiliter suadere, sed non persuadere). But the former sense has the force of proof in the teachings of the faith, because it has the Holy Spirit as author and hence is part of his intention. Therefore what is said popularly, that theology is symbolic but not scientifically demonstrative (argumentivus), is true only of allegories and of parables that are of human, not divine, origin.

He clarifies:

It is not a question whether there is only one idea (conceptus) in the meaning of Scripture; we grant that the one meaning often yields several ideas, but they are mutually dependent, especially in the composite sense composed of type and antitype. The question is whether there are in the same pericope (locus) different meanings not dependent upon each other, as is the opinion of Azorius (Institutio moralis 1.82), Thomas (1.1.10), Lyra, Gretserus, Becanus, Salmeron, Bellarmine, and others.

Even more, Scripture having a single meaning does not mean that it cannot be applied in several ways, whether at one time for apologetics, others instruction, and still others for comfort. Scripture might have one meaning, but its significance in application can be varied.

So the allegorical, anagogical, and tropological are not different meanings, but applications of the single literal meaning; allegory and anagogy apply to instruction, and tropology applies to discipline.

So how does all of this cash out with respect to typology? What does this look like in Turretin’s mind? Well, in a stunning passage, Turretin gives us a crash-course in exegetically- and contextually-sensitive typological exegesis.

Since Scripture, which contains much more than words, is very rich in meaning, it is not absurd to say that the Holy Spirit wanted to give many teachings to us in the same word, but [always] one subordinated to the other so that one is the sign and figure of the other, or that they have some connection and dependency. Thus the promise given Abraham concerning his descendants refers both to Isaac as type and to Christ as antitype (Gal. 3:16). The oracle forbidding the breaking of the bones of the lamb (Exod.12[:46]) refers both to the paschal lamb as a figure and to Christ in mystery (John 19[:36]). The promise given David, “I will be a father to him” (II Sam. 7[:14]), refers both to Solomon and to Christ (Heb. 1[:5]). The prediction in Psalm 16[:10] that the holy one will not see corruption applies both to David, although incompletely, and to Christ, completely (Acts 2:29 – 30). There are any number of such texts in Scripture, which have various aspects (sceceis) which must be held together in order to have the full meaning of the oracle, and they are fulfilled not all at once, but in stages over a period of time. Thus many of the ancient oracles had three aspects: for the dispensation (status) of the law in the Jewish church, for the dispensation of grace in the Christian church, and for the dispensation of glory in heaven. Thus Isaiah 9:1, about the people who walked in darkness and saw a great light, has three stages of fulfillment: the liberation from Babylon, the proclamation of the gospel (Matt. 4:[14 -16]), and the final resurrection, through which those who were living in the valley of the shadow of death will see the great light of the glory of God. Likewise in Ezekiel 37, it can be observed concerning the dry bones that the oracle had already been fulfilled when the people went out from their most bitter captivity in Babylon as from the tomb (v. 12), it is being fulfilled today in the spiritual resurrection (Eph. 5:14), and it will be perfectly fulfilled in the final resurrection (John 5:25).

Here we see Turretin’s approach to typology on full display. In each case, he has a clear view of the multiple layers of meaning within the single “literal” meaning. The mystical, or typological significance is married to and dependent on the initial, contextually-defined, historical base. All the same, it rich, textured and sensitive to the Christological and redemptive-historical import of each text. Reading through a passage like this, we see a couple things worth highlighting.

Paying careful attention to the structure of types and shadows helps demonstrate the clear unity of Scripture from Old to New Testament. Yes, the Bible is 66 books and thousands of micro-stories and texts, but it is one grand drama authored by the Lord of History, recorded under the inspiration of the Spirit.

Second, once again, a “literal” reading of Scripture according to the Reformers and the tradition that followed them did not mean “flat”, rough, or literalistic. This is not mere proof-texting that runs rough-shod over context. Reformed scholastics like Turretin were actually sophisticated and careful exegetes. Systematic theologians can be responsible interpreters of the text no matter the style of theological argumentation they engage in.

May we learn to walk in their footsteps.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus, the Greater Daniel

daniel-in-the-lions-den-briton-riviereI’m a sucker for biblical typology. I’m not an expert at it, but seeing the way every story, trope, theme, or event either directly, or as part of a broader whole, points to Jesus Christ as the center of Scripture is one of my greatest joys in reading biblical theology. This is why, despite the many merits of James Hamilton’s book-length study on the biblical theology of Daniel With the Clouds of Heaven, this little chunk might be my favorite:

Daniel, who was righteous, was accused by those jealous of him on a trumped-up charge (Dan. 6:4-13). The king recognized the injustice of Daniel’s condemnation and sought to deliver him (6:14). Nevertheless, Daniel was condemned, given over to certain death; then placed in a pit with a stone laid on the opening and sealed by the king (6:15-17). At daybreak those who lamented the way Daniel was treated came and found that his God had delivered him (6:19-23).

Jesus was also declar4ed innocent (Matt. 27:24; cf. Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22, 41) but accused by those jealous of him (Matt. 27:18) on trumped-up charges (26:59-61; 27:15-19). Pilate recognized the injustice and sought to release Jesus (27:15-19). Nevertheless, Jesus was condemned to death (27:26), and after they crucified him he was put in a new tomb, with a stone rolled over the entrance (27:60), which was later sealed (27:66). At daybreak on the first day of the week those who lamented the way Jesus was treated came and found that God had raised him from the dead (28:1-10).

These points of historical correspondence, and the obvious escalation from Daniel to Jesus, constitute grounds for considering Daniel as a type of Christ.

With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 191

This is the sort of passage that enables to see the deeper dimensions of Scriptural fulfillment when Paul says that  “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Christ dies and rises again, not only in fulfillment of specific prophecies, but as the culmination of every thread and storyline of Scripture.

Jesus truly is the greater Daniel. He was thrown into the pit, not only because of his great faithfulness to God, but for the salvation of his people from the lions of sin, death, and hell. He not only risked death, but was consumed by and still emerged victorious.

Soli Deo Gloria

It’s all the Aragorn Parts

aragonrSo, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the way I read fantasy or sci-fi novels (aside from the fact that I have less time to read it). Whenever there is a multi-thread plotline, with the author following multiple, inter-connected story-lines, I tend to have one or two favorites that I follow very intensely, and one or two that aren’t quite as compelling.

For instance, when reading the Lord the Rings Trilogy, in the later books when the Fellowship breaks up and we split to follow the various story-lines of Frodo and Sam, and Aragorn & Co. I always found the Aragorn bits far more compelling. I’m not saying that the Frodo thread wasn’t fabulous as well, but, let’s be honest, the Dead Marshes can be a bit…well, less lively than one of Aragorn’s romps through Rohan.

Interestingly enough, I found early on that my reading habits were much the same way with Scripture. There were passages and threads that were enticing and compelling, and some that…well, while still God-breathed, seemed like he wasn’t breathing as hard.

What do I mean? Well, while the Chronicles have their moments, the Gospels capture our attention from beginning to end. Jesus’ doings and saying are never boring, or tedious, or to be suffered though in order to get to the good part. In this way, and, actually, in many others, the story of Jesus is the Aragorn bits of Scripture. The rest of it, well, I might get that they’re necessary and, yes, good, but at times I feel myself ‘getting through’ them. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Now, the funny thing about this is that ever since I listened to Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney’s lectures on preaching, I’ve been an advocate of a Christ-centered hermeneutic of the sort taught to us by Jesus, the disciples, the Fathers, and the Reformers, emphasizing both the redemptive-historical and typological reading of Scripture. In other words, to read and apply the text properly you have to see how this somehow this leads, points, foreshadows, or is fulfilled in Christ.

For example:

  • Adam- Jesus is the Second Adam who brings righteousness with one righteous act.
  • Abraham and Isaac- Jesus is the only Son, sacrificed by the Father for us to provide salvation.
  • Moses- Jesus is the Greater Moses who brings his people out of a greater Exodus, not from slavery to Egypt, but out of slavery to sin and death and the devil.
  • Passover Lamb- Jesus is the greater Passover Lamb whose blood was shed to cover you so that the destroyer would passover.
  • Day of Atonement- Jesus is the Great High Priest who enters once and for all to offer up sacrifices, as well as the final sacrifice offered.
  • David- Skipping ahead, Jesus is the greater Son of David, who, like David, defeats our enemies in single-combat, winning a great victory for his people.

We could go on for days here, but those are some easy and obvious ones to give you a picture what I’m talking about. If you’re looking at it from a canonical perspective, everything points to Christ, whether law, prophets, wisdom literature, or poetry.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, it struck me the other night as I was teaching my college students about this way of reading Scripture that, essentially, when read properly, it’s all the ‘Aragorn bits’. There isn’t any bit that somehow isn’t connected, or can’t be seen in light of Christ.

This is why it pays to not skim, to eventually read and study it all. Admittedly it takes a bit more work for some to see Christ in Leviticus, or a genealogy in the Chronicles. But as any mountain-climber knows, when the hard work is done, when we scale the summit of the text, the view we get of Christ is spectacular.

For those interested in learning more about how to read the Scriptures with Christ at the center I’d recommend these resources:

The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund Clowney
Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David P. Murray

Soli Deo Gloria

That Time Calvin Disagreed with Augustine (Or, How to Read the Fathers Like a Protestant)

Augustine-JohnCalvinIt doesn’t take a specialist to know that Calvin loved the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. After the Bible, he quotes Augustine more than anybody else in the Institutes (I think, but don’t quote me on this) more than all the other Fathers combined. Whenever he wanted to establish the antiquity of a doctrine, or its soundness with the interpretation of the Church universal, it’s a safe bet he’s going to pull out an Augustine quote, especially since he was an authority both he and his Roman interlocutors agreed upon.

Calvin’s Quibbles

That said, Calvin wasn’t a slavish admirer of the great bishop as we see here in his comments on the story of Pentecost:

And when. To be fulfilled is taken in this place for to come. For Luke beareth record again of their perseverance, when he saith that they stood all in one place until the time which was set them. Hereunto serveth the adverb, with one accord Furthermore, we have before declared why the Lord did defer the sending of his Spirit a whole month and a half. But the question is, why he sent him upon that day chiefly. I will not refute that high and subtle interpretation of Augustine, that like as the law was given to the old people fifty days after Easter, being written in tables of stone by the hand of God, so the Spirit, whose office it is to write the same in our hearts, did fulfill that which was figured in the giving of the law as many days after the resurrection of Christ, who is the true Passover. Notwithstanding, whereas he urgeth this his subtle interpretation as necessary, in his book of Questions upon Exodus, and in his Second Epistle unto Januarius, I would wish him to be more sober and modest therein. Notwithstanding, let him keep his own interpretation to himself. In the mean season, I will embrace that which is more sound.

-Commentary on Acts 2:1-4

While according him great respect and noting his interpretation, Calvin says that the great Augustine has put forward what he considers to be a less “sober” and “modest” interpretation which he simply cannot follow. So what explanation does he find more plausible?:

Upon the feast day, wherein a great multitude was wont to resort to Jerusalem, was this miracle wrought, that it might be more famous. And truly by means hereof was it spread abroad, even unto the uttermost parts and borders of the earth.  For the same purpose did Christ oftentimes go up to Jerusalem upon the holy days, (John 2, 5, 7, 10, 12,) to the end those miracles which he wrought might be known to many, and that in the greater assembly of people there might be the greater fruit of his doctrine. For so will Luke afterward declare, that Paul made haste that he might come to Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost, not for any religion’s sake, but because of the greater assembly, that he might profit the more, (Acts 20:16.) Therefore, in making choice of the day, the profit of the miracle was respected: First, that it might be the more extolled at Jerusalem, because the Jews were then more bent to consider the works of God; and, secondly, that it might be bruited abroad, even in far countries. They called it the fiftieth day, beginning to reckon at the first-fruits.


We see here the difference I’ve mentioned before when it comes to the Reformers and the earlier, especially medieval, hermeneutical tradition; they will usually privilege the ‘literal’/historical-grammatical sense of the text over any spiritualizing, allegorizing, or typological senses. Calvin isn’t opposed to typological interpretation in principle–he engages in quite a bit of it himself and accepts the prefigurement of Pentecost in the sense of first-fruits pointing towards the initial fruitfulness of the Gospel by the Spirit’s power. He’s concerned, though, that the interpretation first be grounded plausibly in the history of the event. In other words, in a text like this, he insists that the intentionality of the human actors be made sense of and that “the profit of the miracle was respected.” Only then may we move on to the typological meaning without it becoming over-subtle.

Now, that said, I myself think Calvin was being a little over-cautious here; Augustine’s got a point linking Pentecost with the giving of the Law, and the Spirit who writes the Law on our very hearts. Part of the point of typology is that God’s authorship of history can transcend even the human actor’s, or author’s original intent, without violating them. Also, given modern studies in the theological dimension to the authorship of the Gospel writers, it doesn’t strike me as improbable that Luke intended for multiple resonances to be in play in the text connected to as rich a concept as Pentecost.

The Moral of the Story

More interesting than the specific interpretation given to the passage however, was Calvin’s treatment Augustine’s interpretation. Here he offers us a model for a Protestant engagement with the interpretive tradition of the Fathers: respectful, but critical listening. He doesn’t do what so many pop-Protestant approaches do and simply ignore the tradition because, “All I need is my Bible.” Calvin knows that the Church, at least some segments of it, has been reading the Bible well enough for a very long time, so he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. He knows the arrogance it takes to approach the text in a way that says the Spirit has skipped 20 centuries of interpreters in order to finally reveals the Scriptures to me. In fact, it is precisely through the teachers of the Church that he works most of the time.

At the same time, in order that the Spirit may truly rule through the Word, Calvin reads the Fathers critically–not disrespectfully, but with a knowledge that they are fallible men, who can err just as he might. As you would treat a respected pastor who has faithfully labored over the texts for years, so with the Fathers: pay careful attention to what they have to say, consider deeply, and go back to the text. Indeed, this lesson is valuable, not only for Protestants looking to read the Fathers, but for Protestants looking to read the early Reformers; Calvin teaches me by his disagreement with Augustine that it’s permissible for me to disagree with Calvin!

Soli Deo Gloria

Moses = Mini-Israel = Jesus (Or, Theological Inception)

inceptionOne principle of Christian theological interpretation of Scripture is the practice of identifying typology. To over-simplify it, in the flow of redemptive-history, the sovereign God who ordains all things, prefigures the salvation to be accomplished through Jesus Christ by way of types (events, persons, symbols) to which Jesus Christ’s person and works are the anti-type.

For instance, Adam points to Jesus as Second Adam through whom God is creating a new humanity (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac points to the true Sacrifice of God’s only Son (John 3:16). The Tabernacle and Temple where God dwells with Israel points to the ultimate Tabernacling of God with humanity in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Once you start to think in these terms, it’s almost impossible not to see Christ on every page of the Scriptures.

A particularly important type of Christ in the OT is Israel’s greatest prophet and deliver–Moses. In various ways, the NT reveals Jesus as the New Moses. Like Moses, Jesus escapes the death at the hands of a murdering king as an infant (Matt 2:13-18); he goes up on a Mount to give a new Law (Matt 5-7), which fulfills the old Law; he also institutes a new covenant that supersedes the old one (Lk 22); he rescues his people in a New Exodus of the Egypt of sin, death, and oppression into the Promised Land of salvation (Col 1:13-14). The list could easily be expanded.

While I’d known about these typological parallels between Moses and Jesus, I was nonetheless struck by this passage drawing out the way that Moses functions as a type and representative of Israel as well:

Moses, who narrowly escapes disaster by being placed in an ark in the River Nile (Exod. 2:1-10)…Moses’ salvation echoes backwards and forwards in the text; backwards to the salvation of humanity from the judgment of the flood by Noah (Gen. 6-8), and forwards to the Israelites’ future escape from the waters of the Reed Sea (Exod 14). Significantly…the figure of Moses, this child born as a type of saviour figure, not only saves Israel but also embodies Israel at times. His rescue from the water prefigures the nation’s salvation from the water; his escape after the death of an Egptian (Exod. 2:11-15) is a prelude to the Israelites flight after the death of many Egyptians (Exod. 12:29-39); his experience of being in the desert for forty years (Exod. 2:21-25) foreshadows the same for Israel (Num, 14:33); his divine encounters before the burning bush (Exod. 3) anticipates Israel before the fire of Sinai (Exod. 19-24).

Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, pg. 94

Moses is not only a type of Christ, but a type for Israel. Israel, God’s firstborn son (Exod. 4:22) is another type of Christ, who also wanders in the desert for 40 days and is tested (Matthew 4), so on and so forth. Moses is also Israel’s embodiment at times, which is a type for Christ’s representative embodiment of his newly re-formed Israel. We could chase the connections for pages, but what I’m saying is that this is like a theological version of Inception: we have found a type within a type within a type.

The intricacy, beauty, and inter-canonical-coherence of the biblical history of redemption should lead us to awe and worship. While human authors create inter-textual resonances, the sovereign Lord of time creates inter-historical ones.

Soli Deo Gloria

On the Difference Between “Literal” and “Idiot-Literal” Interpretation

literalI’ve already written once before on the issue of a ‘literal’ hermeneutic. I want to take time once again to clarify, from another angle, that there is a difference between a ‘literal’ hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and what I’m calling an ‘idiot-literal’ hermeneutic.

Classic Literal
A classic “literal” hermeneutic was the favored interpretive method of the Magisterial Reformers such as Calvin and Luther, which, at its better moments, has been followed by their Protestant heirs. It also might be called the “historical-grammatical” method because, in a nutshell, its aim is to first understand what the author’s intended use of a given word, sentence, paragraph was in accordance with the historical, cultural, and literary context and usual grammatical rules. As Kevin Vanhoozer has said, “the literal sense is the literary sense.” Interpreting a text ‘literally’ in this sense did not mean ignoring figures of speech, metaphors, analogy, or running roughshod over genres, context, or linguistic anomalies. Essentially, if the biblical author is trying to write history, you read the text like history; if poetry, like poetry; if a letter, then as a letter.

The Magisterial Reformers were, for the most part, humanist scholars trained in rhetoric and an appreciation for literary art, so they championed this sort of exegesis as a corrective against the spiritualizing, or rather allegorizing, interpretive methods favored by some in the Middle Ages, and passed down from some of the Fathers such as Origen and Augustine that could, and I say this with great respect for those classic interpreters, could go off the rails a bit as they found all sorts of hidden, “spiritual” meanings in rather straightforward texts. While the Reformers didn’t rule out certain typological interpretations–for instance it’s fine, and even necessary, to see a figure of Christ when discussing OT sacrifices or King David–they worried that some of the allegorizing that went on led to the Scriptures becoming a “wax nose” of sorts, that could be shaped and reshaped at will. Any typological interpretation must come after and be in line with the original story, or law that was set forth according to its intended purpose. (From what I understand, Thomas Aquinas was actually a champion of rooting the “spiritual” sense in the literal sense as well.) Now, admittedly they weren’t perfect at this themselves, but by and large this was a good move for biblical studies and theology in general.

My point here is to clarify that a “literal” interpretation in the classic sense is not what might be called a “literalistic”, or illiterate approach to the text, but rather it is one concerned with discovering the author’s intended meaning in accordance with sound rules of literary interpretation. Which brings me to our next category: the idiot-literal hermeneutic.

An idiot-literal hermeneutic is the interpretive method that is favored mostly by liberalizing critics for straw-manning conservative  opponents. It consists of finding the most obtuse, ham-handed, or silly interpretation of any given biblical text that fails to recognize a textual or literary clue that we’re dealing with figurative language and holding it up as the necessary reading for anybody holding a “literal” hermeneutic. Often-times it’s linked in these presentations to the doctrine of “inerrancy” (which, for some reason, is usually also caricatured, confused, and conflated with a straight dictation theory of inspiration).

Now, I’m not denying that often-times you can find conservative/fundamentalist interpreters whose readings border on self-caricature. In fact, along with Beale, I do think the time might come when we need to start using the phrase “literate” hermeneutic, or something of that sort in order to distinguish things. Still, I do think it’s important to clarify that just because someone self-identifies as adhering to a “literal” hermeneutic, or because the Reformers held to one, it does not mean they must adopt whatever silliness is imputed to them by their critics on pain of inconsistency.

This was necessarily rough and probably simplistic, but hopefully it sufficed to make my point–a literal reading of the text is not the same as an idiot-literal reading of the text. You haven’t refuted conservative hermeneutical approaches by simply picking the dumbest reading possible and saying, “Here, this is what you have to believe, right?” Also, if you pride yourself on your conservative view of scripture and hermeneutical approach, please don’t play into the caricature–do your homework.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. For those looking to learn how to read their Bibles better:

1.  How To Read Your Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is an excellent place to start.
2.  Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robbert I. Hubbard Jr. is also excellent, although a bit more advanced.