During the weeks preceding the festival of Christ’s nativity the Christian Church, both in sermon and in song, turns its reverent attention to the ancient prophecies which speak of the One that should come, Advent and Christmas hymns abound in references to Old Testament prophecy. They hail the Babe of Bethlehem as the “Prince of Peace…, the “Sun of Righteousness”; they speak of Him as the “Righteous Branch” and welcome Him as the “Immanuel.”
The fact that these Biblical expressions have become part of our hymnody should not make us forget that some of the most profound questions of Biblical interpretation are bound up with these terms.
One thing that should be kept in mind at the outset is that the history of Christian interpretation has at times been characterized by too great a readiness to find Christ in the pages of the Old Testament. To admit that this has been so is not in itself an indication of a lack of respect for messianic prophecy. The well-known 19th century defender of orthodoxy, E. W. Hengstenberg, whose monumental work on the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament is still of great value, nevertheless reminds his readers of the pitfall into which earlier generations of Christians frequently fell, when they expressed the opinion that it is better to look for Christ where he is not to be found than to omit to seek him once where he is to be found.
While it is good to heed the lessons from the past, it is probably more important to be acquainted with the perils of the present. Though the past may at times have been guilty of fanciful typology, today’s Biblical scholarship virtually repudiates typology altogether. Gerhard Von Bad, one of the leading Old Testament scholars in Germany, expresses as his opinion that the typological interpretation as practiced since the times of the Reformation, and subsequently by people such as Franz Delitzsch and other evangelicals, cannot not again be renewed. People like von Bad do wish to keep speaking of a certain kind of typology. But the newer use of this term amounts to little more than a recognition that earlier events happen in the broader context of subsequent events and that these later events show a certain “analogy” with the earlier ones. Von Rad will admit the Old Testament often “comes very close” to the New Testament. But this is not due to a God who imprints the events and institutions of the Old Testament with a meaning pointing beyond themselves. The only typology which modern Biblical scholarship will allow is one that is to be accounted for on internal grounds rather than on the basis of divine foreordaining.
One of the questions which is in the center of the debate of Biblical scholarship today is the precise relationship between the Testaments. As every Bible reader knows, the New Testament, at every step it takes, legitimates its faith and its conception of Jesus Christ by means of an appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures. The gospels as well as the epistles present to us a Christ who is essentially the one of whom the prophets had spoken.
This fact is too obvious to be ignored. It has always been the most powerful reason why the Church throughout the centuries has based its proclamation and its song on the two Testaments together. Yet it is this use of the Old Testament in the New which has also been made the subject for critical discussion. Is the Christian Church at liberty to ignore this discussion? Can it simply continue to sing its Advent songs as if nothing had ever been said to question their true validity? Some say that this is what the Church should do. Christmas sentiment, so they say or think, is not dependent on what the scholars choose to do with the Scriptures. Others more correctly point out that the Christian faith docs not ultimately depend on scholarly opinion. However, does not faith “hold for truth all that God has revealed to me in His Word” as the Heidelberg Catechism states? Biblical scholarship comes with the pretension of interpreting that revelation of God to us. Christian faith and Biblical scholarship have for that reason many things in common.
There is another reason why the Church cannot be ignorant of the modern trends in Biblical interpretation. The Church’s song is never just an utterance of private sentiment privately expressed. Whether at home or in church our songs are a form of proclaiming God’s Word. Does the Church rightly proclaim this Word? Does it do so in an awareness of the denials of Christian truth and does it show this awareness by entering sympathetically into the many questions which modem scientific thinking raises on every side? The Church’s songs as well as its sermons should be uttered in full recognition of the prevailing mood of the times. Only then does the eternal and unchangeable truth of God stand out in all its saving significance.
James M. Robinson, a well-known contemporary New Testament scholar, thinks he can find indications that Old Testament scholarship could move into a central theological position in the coming generation. I do not think that we have to wait that long. The discussion concerning the role of the Old Testament for the Christian faith has already been carried on for several decades. It is true perhaps that the discussion has been somewhat limited to merely “departmental” confines. In this respect Robinson may well be right when expecting a future widening of the debate to include other theological disciplines.
In an attempt to introduce to the readers some of the central problems which modem Biblical theology raises in the area of messianic prophecy 1 shall confine myself to just one example taken from a veritable multitude of books and articles written on this question.
In a little booklet entitled Tile Old Testament in The New the New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd investigates the several passages or clusters of passages which figure prominently in the New Testament appeal to the Old. The following quotation is typical of the newer approach to this question. Speaking about a passage from the prophet Isaiah which includes the well-known Immanuel prophecy Dodd asserts: “The exact sequence, the true interpretation, and the primarily historical reference of many of these obscure prophecies are still matters of doubt and debate among scholars, but it is easy to see how for a first-century reader it all worked out as an elaboration and enrichment of the same broad plot of suffering and humiliation followed by triumph through grace of God.”
There are some parts of this quotation which can best be understood in the light of its larger context. But certain points can be gathered from it without a knowledge of this context. The thing that comes to light is that Dodd on the one band leaves open the question of the “true interpretation” of a passage such as this, while on the other hand he asks our understanding for the fact that the “first-century reader” used this passage the way he did, i.e. in a messianic fashion.
This approach is very common today. We are constantly urged to “understand” how a part of Scripture came to be read the way it was. But at the same time we are asked to reserve our scholarly judgment as to the propriety of this “use” of Scriptural materials. Dodd assures us that “it is easy to see” how a first-century reader could look upon the prophecies of Isaiah as fitting into his own conception. But he leaves the question of the actual meaning of the passage to be settled by later scholarly debate.
Vriezen, a Dutch Old Testament scholar asserts that Jesus and the apostles read the Old Testament with “other eyes” than we do. The implication of such a statement is that we today have advanced beyond the times in which the apostles Or Christ Himself read the Scriptures. Now there is a certain way in which this is true. While we must insist on the complete authority of Christ and the apostles in matters of Biblical understanding, we should not make the mistake as if the Bible gives us at any point a fully worked out set of principles which we simply can apply without further systematization. Theology as such is not found in the Bible. It is the product of the believing mind which submits itself to the authority of Scripture. If all that was meant by people like Dodd and Vriezen was to emphasize the fact that Jesus and the apostles should not be treated as 20th century Biblical scholars, then the point was well taken.
But this is unfortunately not the case. Biblical scientific scholarship of the historicistic type does not simply mean to warn us against looking for a fully worked out set of principles in the Bible. It virtually sets up a disparity between what the Bible itself does with prophecy and what we today think we can do with it. This results in a dangerous cleavage. While asking us to “understand” how the first-century reader, including those who wrote the New Testament, saw things, Biblical scholarship suggests that the true meaning may be essentially different from the “understood” meaning.
We might perhaps sum up the situation by saying that modem Biblical scholarship hands us an “understood” Bible but that it reserves its judgment as to the nature and content of the real Bible. Orthodoxy, in the present writer’s opinion, can never yield on this basic point without ceasing to be orthodox. We may and must employ historical methods of interpretation. We may and must try to understand situations which are quite different from our own. This was already done by the Reformers, and it has always been done by Reformed Biblical scholarship. But we may not adopt such methods of interpretation as will result in a virtual separation, not to say contrast, between the Bible’s own understanding of itself and the scientific understanding of the Bible.
Modern Biblical scholarship has done much to increase our insights into what the Bible meant in the long ago, but it has permitted a fateful gull to develop between what the Bible meant and what it means. Some Biblical scholars openly state the problem which confronts us today in terms such as were just formulated. There is an urgent need for more Reformed study of this problem. Just as in our singing and in our sermonizing so also in our scholarship we should try to be conscious of the moods and opinions of the time in which we live.
The important question which confronts the believer who sings his Advent songs is whether the Christ of whose birth he sings is truly the Immanuel or whether it is enough to say that he was understood by Matthew to have been such. Important questions of faith are immediately bound up with this. A faith that is content to be a mere subjective feeling will not very likely see the need for holding to orthodox positions. But true faith attaches itself to what IS, not to what is understood to be.
I believe that subjectivism in religion has a lot to do with the modern trends in Biblical scholarship. The Reformed emphasis has always been otherwise. It has always stressed, and rightly so, the essential role of the Word as a means of grace. Questions of Biblical scholarship are essentially theological questions.
The Bible presents the Word of God as a power which is bound to accomplish its purpose regardless of opposition. As such it never returns void but accomplishes that whereunto God sends it. It was this tremendous, compelling power of the Word, including the messianic prophecies, which Jesus experienced at significant points of His life and ministry. This accounts for the frequency with which the evangelists, especially Luke, describe to us the necessity of Christ’s actions. There is a constant appeal to the “ought” and the “must.” This is not an appeal to a mere inner consciousness, however impelling such a consciousness can be. Christ did possess this consciousness, but His appeal before His parents in the temple, and before the men of Emmaus, was to something that they should have known. Neither was this awareness of the “ought” due to Jesus’ knowledge of the divine plan behind His life and death. Jesus was fully conscious of that plan, but His appeal was to the necessity of Scripture. The Scripture had spoken: “Then said I, behold I am come to do thy will.” It was that spoken Scripture which set into motion the stupendous events of Bethlehem and Nazareth, and later on of Golgotha and the garden of Arimathea. John tells us that because they did not know the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead that they ran to the tomb to convince themselves of the accuracy of the report of the women.
The line does not just run, as is so often supposed, from the New Testament back into the Old. The line runs from the Old Testament into the New. God speaks and it is; He commands and it stands fast.
A proper Christmas celebration will find Christians poring over their Bibles, in order to perceive the “ought” of the Biblical necessity of Christ’s coming. Only thus will we be able to pray the prayer for His Second Coming and conclude it with a hearty “Amen,” that is, “it shall truly and surety be.”
With what clarity and conviction shall we sing the praises of our Savior-King on the day commemorating his blessed birth? How necessary a true understanding and interpretation of the Old Testament is for this worship of ours is challengingly discussed by Dr. Marten H. Woudstra, professor of Old Testament at Caloin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.