Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christocentric Hermeneutic/The Fulfillment of Scripture

A few weeks ago a friend shared this video about how the whole Bible is "basically about" Jesus, and it got me thinking. The narration appears to be excerpts from a Tim Keller sermon with the ultimate conclusion that the Bible isn't about you and your problems, but about Jesus and how He is the culmination of God's written history.

While I affirm the focus of the video on shifting the focus of religion from self to Jesus, it also strikes a nerve I have been thinking about lately. Keller, for all the amazing work he's done in spreading and living the gospel in New York, makes a serious false dichotomy when he asks, "Is the Bible basically about you...or about Jesus?", as if he's already eliminated all the other possibilities. In fact, if I didn't know it was Tim Keller saying everything in the Old Testament is about Jesus, I would question whether the speaker had actually read the whole Old Testament. Having just finished doing exactly that while taking an Old Testament survey course, I'm about as qualified to comment on this matter as I'll ever be.

Perhaps Keller is using a very different definition of "about" than I am, but from what I have read I would say that Jesus is not the subject of most of the Old Testament. Yes, it's true that it serves to build up an expectation of Jesus' coming and show the need for Him, but saying it is basically about Him is like saying that The Hobbit is basically about the fate of the One Ring of power. I worry that by thinking of everything in the Old Testament as "types and shadows" of Christ, by fitting them all into the same mold, we risk missing out on the uniqueness of these people and stories, and what else they may say about God rather than just reaffirming the gospel. It is because of this danger, along with some of the logical/semantic leaps and twists it has to go through to fit some stories to Christ, that I dislike the study of typology.

Christ and the cross alone make for a confining lens through which to view the entirety of Scripture (and it's a sign of the culture I'm coming from that I feel like a heretic just for saying that). But really, the Person of the Trinity who is by far the most active and visible in the Old Testament is, of course, God the Father, not Jesus. By trying to make everything about Jesus, we ignore or rush past this lesson to connect everything to the gospel. If I had continued thinking of the Mosaic Law as simply a "shadow of the reality" of Christ, I might never have been brought to the fuller understanding of the nature of the Law and sin I now have or learned any of the applications that came with this. The two probably aren't incompatible, but my previous way of thinking led to a lot of chronological snobbery, "Those poor, poor Israelites only got the shadow instead of the infinitely better reality we now enjoy", which later got turned on its head

But of course Christ, though largely not seen in the Old Testament, does play an important role backstage which I'm not going to deny. While looking into this, I had a related question: "What does it really mean for scripture to be fulfilled?" Jesus is, of course, said to fulfill dozens of verses from the Old Testament, which is one of the main reasons people say the whole Old Testament is about Jesus. My old view on this was simply that Jesus fulfilling scripture meant that someone made a prediction or prophecy of Him at some point in the past that came true in His life. The big problem with this view of fulfillment is, as Matt Chandler says, the Bible.

For example, in the gospels Jesus is said to "fulfill" parts of the Old Testament that are originally about someone else (Hosea 11:1, fulfilled in Matthew 2:15), parts that are not prophetic in nature at all (Psalm 22:18, fulfilled in John 19:24), or even obscure clauses in the Law (Numbers 9:12, fulfilled in John 19:36). None of these examples fit into a prediction-coming true model of "fulfillment" at all. How can Jesus fulfill verses that weren't predictions about Him at all?

I did a word study on "πληροω" (pleroo), the Greek word that translates to "fulfill". Besides its meaning of fulfilling scripture, it is also used to mean being filled with qualities like joy (Acts 2:28), wisdom (Luke 2:40), or sin (Matthew 23:32); completeness (e.g. the common phrase "So that your joy may be complete); or even the passage of time. A related word is also used in Paul's somewhat mysterious utterance in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions" Overall it has a strong sense of fullness/filling, completion, or abundance. Yet even if it can mean filling or completion, it doesn't seem to carry the implication that the thing being filled was somehow empty or incomplete before, as Christ's afflictions were certainly not incomplete in their power or scope.

What they yet lacked was imitation or reflection in the lives of we who are being made into "little Christs". In light of this, I am coming to view fulfillment in a scriptural context as more of a realization or affirmation of the truth, power, and authority of scripture by living it, or "making it real". Not that Psalm 22:18 was any less real or true before Jesus fulfilled it, and God wouldn't be a liar if He hadn't, but I think He did it to show that God still reigned in power even during the crucifixion, and because, in a sense, Jesus was the very Word that He was fulfilling (John 1:1).

There is also a big opportunity here. The fact that Jesus "fulfilled" verses that weren't specifically about Him means, I think, that there is no reason why we can't also imitate Him by doing likewise. It's a new way to think about "living biblically", as if we're somehow bringing its words to life in our lives. Of course, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to keep us from simply picking and choosing scripture or twisting it to suit our own desires, which is worse than simply ignoring it. (For example, fulfilling Proverbs 20:30 on anyone I disagree with) For example, in Acts 1:15-26, Peter and the other apostles pick a new apostle to replace Judas by lot because of a need to fulfill two seemingly arbitrary, even mistranslated verses in two of David's imprecatory psalms. I would hope there was some kind of urging by the Holy Spirit behind this, or it would set a precedent for doing pretty much whatever we want with the Bible.

So, back to Keller's fundamental question: "What is the Bible basically about?" In too many words, I would say: "The character, nature, acts, and glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the context of human affairs and the created world". The persons of the Trinity get varying amounts of screen time, but of course all three are of equal importance. And the context is also important: of course the Bible isn't about us, but it is almost entirely written about the lives and affairs of people, always in light of who God is. God's presence in this context ranges from immediate and direct (Exodus or the gospels) to invisible, unmentioned, and indirect (Esther). We do get a few hints about God outside the context of ourselves, like Isaiah and John's glimpses of heaven, but they are indistinct and few.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. However, I wouldn't throw out the study of "typologies" because someone made an assertion that all things are typologies. I thought several of the different "typologies" that Keller listed were specious. But some of them are spot on. (We have discussed this with my views on Abraham and Isaac.)