The C. Edwin Gheens Lectures
Dr. Gregory K. Beale @ The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The New Testament Use of the Old Testament
March 14-15, 2011
This week I was privileged to witness another top-notch New Testament scholar in person at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, as Greg Beale delivered the annual Gheens Lectures. While Beale delivered three lectures (two on Tuesday, one on Wednesday morning), because of teaching responsibilities, I was only able to be present for the first one. All three lectures should be available through SBTS’s resource center within the next week or so; I will endeavor to watch the other lectures and provide a link to the video when it becomes available.
In the meantime, I wanted to share the substance of Dr. Beale’s initial lecture, and some personal reflections upon his address.
Lecture 1 – Recent Objections to an Organic Link between Old Testament Texts and Their Use in the New Testament
Dr. Beale has been a strong proponent of the organic unity of the Old and New Testaments throughout his academic career.
His Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (co-authored with D. A. Carson, 2007) is a classic (authoritative?) evangelical presentation of a healthy treatment the Old Testament. His monumental study of temple imagery throughout Scripture (The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 2004) and the companion We Become What We Worship have blessed the church of Jesus Christ. More recently, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism has raised alarm at declining evangelical commitment to a robust doctrine of Scripture. And whether they have read it or only heard others explain and interpret it, Beale’s 1994 treatise The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text? has influenced a generation of pastors in North American evangelicalism (for example, I had heard the slogan and the thesis long before I was aware of the existence of the book).
From his 1994 study (subtitled Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New), and an earlier (1989) article in the academic journal Themelios, Beale has been concerned about Christian interpretation of the Old Testament both in the New Testament and in church history. He is a well-known exponent of the view that there is an organic unity of Old and New Testaments; a continuous strand of theology and thought that flows through both Testaments.
In his first Gheens lecture, Beale first referred the audience to his 1989 Themelios article as the historical articulation of his position. Then he addressed objections that other biblical scholars have raised against his understanding of the New Testament authors’ use of Old Testament texts. In the remainder of this blog essay, I will present Beale’s response to objections in sequential order.
(1) The Influence of a Jewish Hermeneutic. Beale stated that it is often assumed that New Testament authors must have interpreted the Old Testament in the same way that first-century Jews did. Moreover, according to this position, first-century Jews had somewhat “wild & crazy” interpretive tendencies; therefore, we should expect somewhat wild and crazy interpretations of Old Testament texts by New Testament authors. Thus, it is no surprise that there are seemingly illegitimate uses of Old Testament texts to support positions in the New Testament. The use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew is a paramount example.
Beale, however, points out three major problems with this perspective. First, there is no monolithic first-century Jewish hermeneutic, but rather a wide spectrum of interpretive tendencies—Palestinian, Qumranic, Alexandrian, etc. Just as first-century Judaism was not a monolithic identity, so too first-century Jewish hermeneutic was varied.
Second, in Beale’s opinion, most Jewish hermeneutic in the first century was not at all wild and crazy; rather, it was relatively restrained.
Third, objective study of the New Testament shows that the NT authors do not merely reflect or copy Jewish hermeneutics. This point does not make a positive or negative appraisal of Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament in the first century. Instead, it emphasizes that the early church went its own direction in interpreting Old Testament scripture.
(2) Hyper-Christocentric Focus. A second objection against Beale’s organic unity of the Old and New Testaments is the accusation that early Christians were so Christo-centric that they abused and misinterpreted Old Testament texts badly in an attempt to find Jesus in every text. Beale emphasized in his lecture that Christian preachers are indeed often guilty of deriving the right doctrine from the wrong text (remember again his book of the same name). One such tendency is indeed the desire to find Jesus in every verse in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, Beale insists that there is such a thing as a healthy Christocentric focus. If God is sovereign over human history, then He has governed history in such a way as to have continuity throughout the ages. There is, then, a sense in which the Old Testament is going to point toward the coming of the Messiah Jesus; a sense in which the Old Testament law points towards Jesus. Paramountly, in Beale’s opinion and scholarly judgment, the very identity and nature of the temple is a thread that carries throughout the whole of Scripture.
(3) Post-Modern Hermeneutics (Reader-Response Criticism). Post-modern hermeneutics insists that the reader participates in the text and creates meaning accordingly. This is a type of structuralism or literary constructionism – there is no objective, independent meaning to the text, and the author’s intended meaning is not recoverable to the contemporary reader. Rather, all there is, is reconstructed meaning which is discovered as the reader interacts with the text. Language creates or constructs reality; our interaction with written language creates the reality of that text. Beale identifies two presuppositions (assumptions) which govern such post-modern hermeneutics: (A) We cannot recover author-intended meaning; and (B) Meaning is not objectively there, but must be reconstructed by the text.
Beale rejects the presuppositions behind post-modern hermeneutics, and proposes two alternative presuppositions to govern hermeneutics. (A) We have large (but not total) access to the author’s meaning through their recorded speech acts; and (B) Post-modern/reader-response hermeneutics assume (rightly) that readers can understand their meaning. Therefore, reader-response hermeneutics is self-contradictory (or else incoherent).
(4) Rhetorical Approach. A fourth critique of Beale’s organic view of Scripture holds that the New Testament authors used Old Testament texts rhetorically, as an authoritative power play. They were not concerned with the actual meaning of Old Testament texts (original authorial intent). Early Christian audiences, themselves being uneducated, recently-converted pagans), would have neither known nor cared that Christian authors misused Old Testament texts. The theory is that early Christian converts would have been ignorant of the original context of Old Testament texts, so when Christian preachers and authors ripped those texts out of their context and misapplied them, no one would have noticed. Anyone who did notice, did not care, since they would have recognized that the Christian authors/preachers were using the OT texts rhetorically anyway.
Beale responds that early Christians would not have been nearly as ignorant as this approach suggests. First, the early church engaged in intense discipleship, instructing new believers in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Berean believers were praised for checking out what Paul preached against the Old Testament texts. Such a process would have been far more common than the rhetorical approach insinuates.
Second, early Christians, recent pagan or not, would have heard New Testament authors (or preachers) use Old Testament texts multiple times. The primary use of Old Testament texts seemed to be narrative in form (e.g. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7), so Christians would have heard not just the text, but also the context, numerous times.
Third, Paul’s letters were written by the apostle, but were delivered to their intended audience by someone else (e.g. Epaphras). Part of the responsibility and role of the letter carrier was to read and interpret the letters to the audience—that interpretation and explanation would have included explaining the Old Testament text.
Fourth, and in my mind most significantly, even if we grant that New Testament authors often quoted the Old Testament for rhetorical effect (and I think there is a strong case to be made for this), it is essential to note that the rhetorical power of the Old Testament increases when it is understood contextually. That is, quoting or alluding to the scapegoat in Leviticus 16 becomes more rhetorically effective if the audience understands the original scapegoat ceremony and its context within Israelite religion. Thus, if New Testament authors were truly interested solely in the rhetorical force of Old Testament quotation, they would have endeavored to present OT texts in their appropriate context.
Finally, and this is a point that Beale did not note, but I think it is helpful as well, we should acknowledge that not all early Christians were recent converts from paganism. In fact, the earliest Christians were Jewish Christians, or Christian Jews, who had been steeped not in Greco-Roman paganism, but in Old Testament Scripture and practice. To suggest that New Testament authors would have been able (let alone willing and able) to flagrantly ignore the context of Old Testament passages, quote them freely without their original context, and simply fool their audiences is naïve in the extreme. There were too many educated, devout Jews within the early church for that to work.
(5) Revived ‘Testimony Book’ Approach. The final critique Beale notes of his position was a new one to me. He mentions a perspective that holds that New Testament authors had access to a list (or multiple lists) of Old Testament quotations, absent of their narrative context, from which they frequently drew. In this scenario, the NT authors themselves did not know the original meaning or context of the quotation they use. Naturally, this perspective has to reject traditional ascription of authorship to many New Testament books, as the purported authors are Jewish Christians steeped in Old Testament tradition (pre-eminently, of course, Paul).
Beale notes two trends telling against this perspective. On the one hand, specific Old Testament quotations are not frequently repeated. On the other hand, broader Old Testament contexts (settings for specific quotations) are repeated regularly. For example, while Daniel 7:13-14 is not verbatim presented, the imagery and context of Daniel 7 shows up throughout the New Testament. This shows that New Testament authors, even if they possessed such a ‘list’ of OT quotations, also possessed knowledge of the context of those quotations.
Having dealt with the five most common critiques of his organic picture of the Old and New Testaments, Beale moved on to present his perspective that there is always a thread, an organic connection, from the Old Testament passage and context to its New Testament citation. Beale presented five governing presuppositions which he suggests ought to govern our interpretation of Old Testament citations in the New Testament.
(1) The assumption of corporate solidarity or representation flows throughout both Testaments. That is, in both Old and New Testaments, the nation of Israel is a corporate whole, but specific individuals stand as corporate representatives for the people as a whole.
(2) Christ is viewed as representative of the true Israel of the Old Testament and the true Israel (the church) in the New Testament.
(3) History is unified by a wise and sovereign plan. There is intimate connection between the earlier parts and the latter parts; indeed, earlier redemption-history is illuminated and fulfilled by latter redemption-history.
(4) The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ. Therefore, Old Testament passages that speak of God’s coming eschatological age are fulfilled in the Church Age.
(5) Latter revelation functions as a broader context to interpret the earlier parts because they have the same divine author. Thus, identifying Christ as the center of history is the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the Old Testament and its promises.
Beale notes that there is development within Scripture, and even in the New Testament use of the Old Testament; but insists that the development is organic, not artificial. New Testament use of the OT is consistent with the Old Testament understanding of God’s interaction with His people.
To briefly reflect on Beale’s lecture. A lot of the material was fairly new to me. Most of us are occasionally puzzled by the use of Old Testament texts by New Testament authors. Beale insists that when individual cases are studied with his governing presuppositions (rather than with the presupposition that NT authors disregarded proper OT context and interpretive rules, or weren’t even aware of the context of OT passages they quoted), each situation is easily understandable.
Beale’s second lecture (which I was unfortunately not able to attend) discussed one particular case – the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15. I look forward to hearing his discussion of that text. A friend who attended the lecture said that it was brilliant and helpful.