John T. Willis

Monday, May 30, 2011

How the New Testament uses the Old Testament--Part II

In the previous blog working through the Book of Jeremiah, there was an attempt to sketch FOUR ways in which the New Testament uses Old Testament passages to emphasize the PROBLEM about HOW the New Testament uses the Old Testament. As a brief reminder, here are the four categories:
1. Some Old Testament passages refer to the PAST
2. Some Old Testament passages refer to the PRESENT
3. Some Old Testament passages refer to the FUTURE but are accomplished or fulfilled in Old Testament times
4. Several New Testament passages refer to a single Old Testament text with different applications.

Through many centuries, thinkers and scholars have tried to arrive at a SOLUTION to this problem. Different writers have proposed AT LEAST ELEVEN SOLUTIONS, that is, eleven ways of understanding How the New Testament uses the Old Testament. It would take a lifetime for a person to deal with all the texts involved. This blog briefly sketches these eleven possible solutions.

1. Distortion or Misrepresentation or Misunderstanding. In 1936, A. Vis wrote a book argued that New Testament speakers and writers deliberated distorted the meanings of Old Testament passages to defend the emerging movement of Christianity. [Most scholars reject this understand. It rests on the assumption that ancient thinkers reason the same way modern thinkers reason].

2. Literal Fulfillment. In 1906, C. A. Briggs argued that Psalm 2:7 is a literal direct prediction of the coming of Christ in Hebrews 1:5. [Most scholars reject this understanding. A careful study of the context of Psalm 2:7 shows this pertains to an Israelite king, perhaps David, not Jesus Christ].

3. Testimony Book containing Messianic Texts. In 1916, 1920, J. R. Harris suggested that the early church used a pre-canonical Testimony Book containing Messianic Texts lifted out of context from the Old Testament and strung together in combination. Harris pointed out that the large majority of Old Testament passages quoted in the New Testament are from Isaiah and Psalms. [Of course, there is no external evidence of the existence of a Testimony Book].

4. Allegory. Paul uses Genesis 16 and 21 allegorically in Galatians 4:21-5:1. In
1962, L. Mowry pointed out that Paul's statement that Hagar is Mount Sinai and Sarah is the Jerusalem above, and that the child of Hagar whom Sarah drove out is the Old Covenant does not appear in Genesis. Paul clearly uses these Old Testament passages allegorically, as Paul himself SAYS in Galatians 4:24. [Hence, it is quite clear that New Testament composers and writers used the Old Testament allegorically].

5. Three Levels of a text. In 1956, S. H. Hooke suggested that the New Testament use of the Old Testament may be explained by recognizing "Three Levels" in a Biblical Text: (1) historical event; (2) interpretation; (3) divine activity. [Obviously, this is an ingenious explanation, but without solid foundation. Certainly, this is POSSIBLE, but doubtful].

6. Double Reference or Double Fulfillment. In 1896, F. Johnson asserted that many passages in the Old Testament contain a "Double Reference": one to an event in Israelite and Judean times, and another to an event in Christian times. [Obviously, New Testament passages quote Old Testament texts, but this certainly does NOT DEMONSTRATE that a certain Old Testament text MEANS the same thing in the Old Testament passage and in the New Testament passage quoted there. In each case, one must honor the meaning and context of each passage].

7. Compenetration. In 1915, 1946, C. A. Lattey asserts that New Testament passages correlate with Old Testament texts when they Quote or Mention Old Testament texts by the principle of "compenetration." By "compenetration," Lattey means that Old Testament texts extended beyond their present meaning and context, and thus New Testament thinkers and writers may add new ideas to the original intended contextual meaning.

8. Sensus plenior. In 1955, 1968, Raymond E. Brown argued that New Testament Quotations of and References to Old Testament texts often reveal a "More-than-literal" or "Fuller Sense" of those texts. Brown used the term Sensus plenior, the Latin expression "Fuller Sense." He thought of each text as being on TWO LEVELS: the earthly human context [like Hosea 11:1] and the heavenly divine context [like Matthew 2:15]. Brown was a leading Roman Catholic scholar, and addressed the obvious problem with: How can one KNOW that and when an Old Testament text ALSO applies to Christ or the Church. Brown had an answer: There are two criteria.
a. If the New Testament quotes or refers to the Old Testament concerning Christ or the Church, the texts under consideration contain a fuller sense of scripture.
b. If ex cathedra Roman Catholic bishops or popes or influential leaders of the church, the texts under consideration contain a fuller sense of scripture.
[Note: There are many Old Testament texts which the New Testament never quotes, but modern people assume Old Testament texts are predictions or references to the New Testament. This is an assumption].

9. Accommodation. In 1857, Albert Barnes argued that New Testament writers "accommodated" their method of using the Old Testament to their contemporaries. ["Accommodation" is an interesting word. What does this really mean? Does this mean: Reapplication?]

10. Typological. Paul openly says that he uses the Old Testament "Typically" or "Typologically." He actually uses the Greek word "tupos," type, in 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11; and Peter uses the Greek word "antitupon," antitype in 1 Peter 3:21. Several English translations render this word "example." A good term for this idea in modern times is "parallel." The idea is that the event related in the Old Testament is parallel to the New Testament. In 1936, L. Goppelt; and in 1976, D. L. Baker wrote entire books on this concept, which would be helpful to interested readers.

11. Midrash and Pesher. It is well established that Jewish Rabbis used the Midrash Method to apply to the Old Testament, and that the Covenanters at Qumran [Dead Sea Scrolls] used the Pesher Method to apply to the Old Testament. An interesting example is that in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran Community argued that the line "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord" in Isaiah 40:3 applies to their members, "The Children of Light" were the ones preparing the way of the Lord by overthrowing the Jewish priests in Jerusalem. Paul received his PhD in Jerusalem under the Rabbi Gamaliel. There can be no doubt that Paul learned the Midrash Method of using the Old Testament, and in several passages it is quite clear that Paul is using the Old Testament in this way. Excellent studies on Midrash and Pesher have been written by C. H. Toy in 1884; S. Kistemaker in 1961; and D. Cohn-Sherbok in

For further study, one might want to read:

E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity. Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1978, pages 147-236.

Donald Juel, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.

D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson, editors. It is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture. Essays in Honour of Barnabas Lindars. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

There are numerous articles and books about this issue. The study of this one issue is overwhelming. I hope some of the ideas suggested above will be helpful as we continue to study and think about and pray about the Bible. This prepares us for considering Jeremiah 31:15following in the next blogs.

Share YOUR insights and aspirations with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis


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