One could argue that the two greatest influences upon modern theology are the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Reformation saw the revival of a theology that was rooted in the divine revelation of God given to us in the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. It saw that the Scriptures were to be held up as the final authority for everything pertaining to life and godliness for humanity. The Enlightenment largely cast aside this Reformation dogma regarding the nature of Scripture. Instead, Enlightenment philosophy sought to ground the starting point of theology in human reason and experience. This led to a biblical theology that was devoid of any wholistic, canonical approach to the Scriptures. Scholars and commentators began exegeting Scripture like any other historical source, rather than seeing it as the inspired Word of God. The rejection of the self-attesting doctrine of Scripture came in tandem with the rejection of a biblical doctrine of God. For many, if God was no longer the divine author of the Word then it made sense to only interpret it in light of what the individual author literally meant in his historical context. This led to the outright rejection of any spiritual meaning to biblical texts, seeing all spiritual meaning as outlandish allegory imposed upon the historical Scriptures. And this strict, overly-literal hermeneutic wasn’t only trumpeted by theological liberals from within the ivory towers of German seminaries. It also began to make inroads into theologically conservative circles as well. The rise of much of the dispensational hermeneutic in recent centuries can find its origins in this line of thinking.
Now you may be asking yourself why I’ve begun this article with a brief introduction into the influence of Enlightenment thinking on theology and hermeneutics. I bring this up in light of a rather unfortunate article I read several days ago on Logos Bible Software’s blog that serves as a display of how the Enlightenment has influenced how theological conservatives read the Bible centuries after this humanistic movement began. In the article, Michael Heiser, the scholar-in-residence for the group that runs Logos Bible Software, makes the argument that evangelical church culture has gotten it wrong in saying that every passage in Scripture is about Jesus Christ. He then seeks to point out that biblical texts on how to deal with leprosy (Leviticus 13-14), the multi-faceted corruption of Israel in the time of the judges, the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), and the call for Jewish men to divorce Gentile wives after the exile (Ezra 9-10) have nothing to do with the person and work of Jesus. His main point in bringing these texts up is that no Israelite would have thought of their need for a Messianic deliverer as they read those texts. He finally goes on to argue that evangelical culture has largely adopted this flawed hermeneutic for three reasons in particular. Firstly, Heiser states that seeing Christ in every passage of Scripture detracts from being able to actually understand the meaning of a particular text. Secondly, he argues that this hermeneutic can demean passages that are not as clearly about the person and work of Jesus as others on the surface of things. Lastly, he says that this hermeneutic can lead to a sort of pride, where the one who can find Jesus is every passage of Scripture is deemed more clever and spiritual than anyone else in the room. He states that seeing Christ in every text of Scripture is mere homiletical flair, rather than serious study of the reality of the biblical text. Needless to say I strongly disagree with Heiser’s argument, and it’s my aim to briefly demonstrate how the entirety of Scripture, even the most complex of passages, point us in a deep and meaningful fashion to the person and work of our Messiah Jesus.
To begin, can a Christian say that the passages that Heiser lists as evidence for his hermeneutic give us a fuller picture of the person and work of Jesus Christ? I’d argue that they do. Ironically, while Heiser seeks to argue that this method of reading and interpreting the Old Testament detracts from a high view of Scripture, it is Heiser’s own hermeneutic that not only demeans the divine intent of God in Scripture’s inspiration, but it also does an injustice to the way in which Jesus and the New Testament authors have taught us to read our Old Testaments. Seeking to spiritually discern the divine intent of any given Old Testament passage, or the sensus plenior as the Patristics called it, does not, contrary to Heiser’s belief, lead to making God out to be random and unintelligent in His inspiration of Scripture. Rather, it opens the eyes of the Christian to the miraculous working of God in providentially giving to us His divine Word that unfolds, in ways that only Spirit-filled Christian can understand, a majestic mosaic that testifies to the glories of His works in the world in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Much of Heiser’s argument is built upon the idea that a hermeneutic that sees Christ through every nook and cranny of Scripture somehow takes away from the meaning that was originally given to those passages of Scripture by the human authors themselves. This is not an argument that holds water however when placed against either the rich history of Christian tradition or, and most importantly, the hermeneutic that we see from Jesus Himself and the writers of the books of the New Testament. In this case, the latter influenced the former. The hermeneutic that we see Jesus displaying as He’s walking on the road to Emmaus is the same hermeneutic that we see the writers of the New Testament using. The culmination of all of Scripture in the person and work of our Messiah Jesus does not detract from the literal meaning of any Old Testament text, rather the meaning of those texts is made fuller. We can see this pervasively throughout the book of Hebrews as the author spends the majority of his sermon speaking to not only much of the literal meanings of various Old Testament texts and themes, but he also shows us how we’re to see the fuller meaning and intent of the Divine Author who is inspiring the Old Testament writers and prophets. When the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4:21-31 uses spiritual allegory to bring a fuller meaning from the narrative of Sarah and Hagar, he’s not doing so in a way that runs counter to what Moses meant in writing that narrative down in Genesis. Rather, Moses’s original meaning, along with the theological progression of the rest of the canonical witness of the Old Testament, is the springboard from which Paul leaps to bring out spiritual truth from that narrative in the way that he did. Similarly, the Apostle John throughout his Apocalypse consistently uses the Old Testament in a way that brings a fuller sense to the meaning of those texts in light of the divinity and victory of Christ. Christ himself speaks in Revelation 2:27 of how Psalm 2 is truly speaking to His rule and reign in light of His victory over death, hell, and the kingdoms of this world. Likewise in Revelation 2:17 Jesus brings out the spiritual truth that He is His people’s hidden manna and their stone, giving us a fuller meaning to those images in the Exodus and Wilderness narratives. This fuller sense that we see Jesus and the New Testament writers bringing out in their interpretations of the Old Testament does not nullify what the original human authors meant as the Spirit was leading them to pen their words, rather it upholds that literal meaning. The literal meaning of the text is always the rich soil from which the fuller sense of any passage springs up. Heiser seeks to argue that this way of reading the Old Testament leads to intellectual laziness, but I would put forward that this hermeneutic is one that causes the reader to be entirely dependent upon the illumination of the Spirit of God.
What does this hermeneutic look like in practice? Let’s take a couple of the passages that Heiser lists in his article and see how God has providentially intended to inspire those texts in such a way that Christians, in light of the revelation of Christ, may see the person and work of Christ in those texts. The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is a narrative putting the arrogance and rebellion of fallen humanity on display. Mankind has thrown aside God’s mandate to fruitfully multiple and fill the earth. Instead, they’ve sought to erect a tower to the heavens, building a name and kingdom for themselves. In a glorious scene of irony, God comes down to them in order to confuse their language and spread them over the face of the earth. How does this narrative reflect the person and work of Christ? Well, for starters, we must broaden our canonical horizons. As Christians we’re not to interpret texts like this, or any text for that matter, in isolation, but rather with the entirety of the biblical canon in view. Thus we ought to start at the very beginning. Humanity has fallen into sin in light of Adam’s breaking of the covenant that God gave to him in Eden. After several centuries of patiently enduring humanity’s wickedness, God chooses to judge the earth by flood, though He remains faithful to His glorious promise of bringing forth a seed of Eve who will reverse the curse on the cosmos by preserving a righteous man named Noah and his family. It is after the preservation of Noah’s family that we find ourselves reading this Babel narrative. Why is Babel happening? Because the hearts of men were not changed by the mere outpouring of water. No physical washing can regenerate a sinner’s heart. This is something that God alone can do by the power of the Spirit, and it is in this reality that we can begin to see the glories of Christ in this narrative. The confusion of languages is the result of man’s continued sinfulness, but there is a day coming when God will use those various languages to proclaim the excellencies of the One who was dead but is now alive. At Pentecost in Acts 2, we begin to see the reversal of what occurred at Babel. The disciples of Christ are filled with the rushing Spirit of God and begin speaking in the tongues of those who’ve traveled to Jerusalem for religious festivities. Peter stands among the vast crowd of thousands and begins preaching, and as he’s preaching, the crowds are hearing his words in their own native tongue. Thus, God brings thousands into His new covenant kingdom through the outpouring of His Spirit. At Pentecost, God came down in the power of the Spirit and brought souls into His kingdom, using those very languages that were created as a judgment for Babel as a means of His people hearing of the person and work of His Son Jesus. While Babel points us to the need for the seedly deliverance that was promised in Genesis 3, Pentecost points us to the culmination of that promise in the person and work of Jesus, who is beginning to reverse the effects of the curse of sin until He returns to make all things new. Heiser may think that Babel has little to do with Jesus, but God providentially intended Scripture in such a way that one can’t help but see the riches of Christ as we see how the Spirit-empowered preaching of His person and work at Pentecost began to undo what was done thousands of years before in the building of a tower.
In Leviticus 13-15 we have the giving of God’s law to Israel regarding leprosy and bodily discharges. Now on the surface, Heiser’s argument might make sense here. How could laws about skin diseases and oozing puss reflect anything about the character or work of our Lord? But again, if we want to interpret this text rightly as Christians, we must zoom out to look at the big picture in light of New Testament revelation. These laws regarding the physical purity of the people of Israel theologically fall under the Reformed category of civil law, meaning the these are laws that were given national Israel for a temporary time that have been fulfilled and abrogated with the inauguration of Christ’s new covenant of grace. However, what were these civil laws at large originally meant to convey? They were meant to remind Israel that they, as God’s nation, were to live holy lives in the land that God was giving to them. If God was to dwell in their midst, they could not allow what was unclean to defile the dwelling place of God. Even their bodies were to be physically unstained in God’s land. Hence, God gives Israel these particular civil laws in Leviticus 13-15 that were meant to inform Israel of how they were to cleanse themselves of these discharges and diseases in a way that would uphold the holiness of God amongst them. These laws though weren’t only meant to protect God’s people from His consuming holiness, they were also meant to make Israel radically distinct from the pagan nations surrounding them in the land. It’s when we zoom out of from the particular laws that we see their larger purpose, and it’s in that larger purpose that we may begin to see God’s intent in giving them to Israel. These laws spoke to God’s holiness among them, but it also spoke to the separation between Israel and the nations. But as one reads their Old Testament it’s clear that this separation was only to be temporal and momentary. From Genesis 12 onward we’re given a promise that God would bring soteriological blessing to the nations in and through the coming Seed. The Old Testament continues this trajectory with the prophets speaking consistently to the redemption that was coming to the nations of the earth through a coming Servant of the Lord. As we move into the New Testament, we are given the unveiling of this Seed in Jesus Christ, who will remedy the hostile separation between Jew and Gentile. In Paul’s letters we’re repeatedly shown how Christ, the true Seed of Abraham, has torn down the dividing wall of hostility by His blood. Similarly, the book of Acts recounts how Peter is given a remarkable vision of how that which was formerly unclean is now made clean in the new covenant age Christ has brought. As members of the new covenant, God’s people no longer have to travel outside the camp in order to be purified from physical uncleanness. Their Redeemer has gone outside the camp in their place and has defeated death and hell itself. It’s in Christ that these laws regarding physical purity find their fuller meaning. These laws are to remind us not only of our personal holiness before an infinitely holy God, but of the very work of Christ on our behalf who has torn down the dividing wall of hostility among peoples and credited to us His very purity that we were unable of attaining in ourselves.
As we can see, while these texts and narratives may not, on the surface, speak literally to the person and work of Jesus, we can zoom out and see how God providentially purposed them, like He did with all of the Scriptures, to make much of His Son. Their fuller sense is pregnant with meaning about Christ and His redeeming work for His chosen people. There is nothing sloppy or vain in this hermeneutic, rather it’s the method of interpreting the Scriptures that was handed down to us by Christ Himself. Contrary to Heiser’s article, we ought to be able to interpret Scripture the way that our King did by the power of His illuminating Spirit within us. Every single jot and iota of Scripture is meant to point our gaze upwards towards our great Redeemer. May we be found feasting upon Him in all that God has for us in His Scriptures.