Christ as Hermeneutical Criterion–Part Two

In Part One of this series, I argued that the entire New Testament, and not just the “red-letter” passages in the Gospels, should be considered to be the words of Christ.  Utilizing passages from Jesus’ upper room discourse, John 14:24-26; 15:26-27; and 16:12-15, I argued that the New Testament should be regarded as revelation from Jesus Christ.  And I proposed that we should regard the entirety of the New Testament as coming under the following chain formula: Father → Son → Spirit → Apostles → New Testament.  Thus, we can say that  “What Paul and Peter and John and James say is what the Spirit says, which is what Christ says, which is what God says.”

Now, in Part Two, I want to argue that the same thing is true for the Old Testament: What Moses and David and Isaiah and  Jeremiah and Ezekiel say is what the Spirit says, which is what Christ says, which is what God says.

In 1 Peter 1:10-12, the apostle, talking about the salvation which we have in Christ Jesus, says this:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,  11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.  12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.  Even angels long to look into these things.”

What I want to focus on in this passage is the phrase,”the Spirit of Christ.”  There are two ways to understand what Peter means by this phrase.  On the one hand, it is possible that the phrase is being used here proleptically.  That is, when Peter refers to the Spirit who spoke through the prophets in the Old Testament as the Spirit of Christ, he is referring to what the Spirit would one day become.  We know from other passages in the New Testament that Christ is regarded as coming into full possession of the Spirit at his baptism, or his resurrection, or more specifically, at his ascension.  Peter, himself, in Acts 2:33, declares that Jesus, exalted to God’s right hand, has now “received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”  So it is possible that all that Peter means is that the Spirit who inspired the Old Testament prophets is the same Spirit who would one day become the Spirit of Christ.

However, the majority of commentators understand Peter as referring to “real time.”  That  is, Peter’s understanding is that when the Spirit inspired the Old Testament prophets, he did so, even then, as the “Spirit of Christ.”  When the Holy Spirit spoke through Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or the other Old Testament prophets, he did so as the “Spirit of Christ.”  I am convinced that this latter understanding is the correct one.

Two other questions might be raised here.  First, was the Spirit the “Spirit of Christ” only when he was giving the prophets specific messianic revelations?  Or was he the “Spirit of Christ” for the entirety of a prophet’s corpus?  Again, I believe this latter understanding is the correct one.  I do not think we are to understand this  “Spirit of Christ” status as being in some way subject to being turned on and off.

And then, the second question has to do with the extensiveness of this work of the “Spirit of Christ” in the inspiration of the Old Testament.  We might be tempted to think that Peter is talking only about those figures whom we today usually refer to as prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.  However, there are three important considerations that would go against this.  First, remember that Jesus, on the very day of his resurrection, on two separate occasions, appears to the disciples and gives them a crash course in Old Testament hermeneutics, and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27); he said to them, ” Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (v. 44).  Second, though we today think of the prophetic books as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets, these books are actually referred to in Jewish tradition as the “Latter Prophets.”  Books such as Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, are referred to as the “Former Prophets.”  Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, are regarded as prophetic books.  Third, much like apostolic authorship was regarded by the early church as forming part of the criteria for canonicity in the New Testament, in at least some rabbinic circles, prophetic authorship was regarded as forming part of the criteria for canonicity for the Old Testament.  And we know from Jewish literature that there were attempts made to try to connect every Old Testament book to some prophetic figure.  Of course, this is no more absolutely demonstrable than is apostolic authorship for the New Testament.  But the point that I think is important, here, is that, to a large extent, the entire Old Testament was regarded as prophetic in its authorship or orientation.

So I would argue that, for the entirety of the Old Testament, the Jews at the time of Jesus would have understood the Old Testament Scriptures as the product of the Spirit of God through the prophets.  Peter and the early church understood Christ as part of that chain as well, which is why Peter refers to the “Spirit of Christ.”  So, just as the chain in the New Testament was Father → Son → Spirit → Apostles → New Testament; so the chain in the Old Testament was God → Christ → Spirit → Prophets → Old Testament.

So, when I am told that we must use Jesus Christ as the hermeneutical criterion to understand and even evaluate or critique what we find in the Old Testament, I’m perfectly happy to boldly, yea, even eagerly, confess that I am in complete agreement with this.  Because what Moses says, what the author of Joshua and Judges says, what the psalmists say, what Ezekiel says—all of it is what the Spirit says, which is what Christ says, which is what God says.  The entire Old and New Testaments are, throughout, a Trinitarian product: inspired, infallible, authoritative, and both theologically and morally inerrant.  They are, indeed, God’s holy word.

Jerry Shepherd
January 22, 2014

2 thoughts on “Christ as Hermeneutical Criterion–Part Two

  1. As I begin to preach through Revelation (brave man that I am) I am beginning with Chapter 4 where I believe the major theme is the absolute sovereignty of God is the major theme. It is an important place to start, because if you can’t accept that, it is difficult to accept much of what follows. Even if you believe the book is completely figurative, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

    On a different note, if I can read into what Dr. Shepherd is responding to in these quotes, I believe that one of the reasons that we find some of God’s actions so difficult in the Bible is that we have failed to fully wrestle with how difficult we as people really are. That is to say our objections against the judgement in Revelation, the judgement against the nations (including Israel) in the OT, and most significantly, the atonement, is a result of a naive thinking on the seriousness of the problem of sin.

    One of the struggles that I have with some of the recent conflicts that our country and our American allies have engaged at is how the hope of peace and progress in those parts of the world seems utterly impossible. The world’s apparent puzzlement of what to do with Syria is another example. There is no good side to help. The choice between jihadists and corrupt brutal government forces is no choice at all. As we found out in Afghanistan, it would be one thing if the evil was restricted to the military, but it wasn’t. Boys, girls, women, are all taught to hate and trained to kill. The lady walking toward your convoy could be an innocent civilian or she could be a black widow packed with enough explosives to blow an armored personnel carrier to bits. The shocking brutality of allied troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, probably has a lot to do with the fact that the soldiers on the ground were placed in the situation where the only possible way to win the war they were fighting was through an outright genocide. Which is why a pacifist position is so appealing. At least Martin Luther King and Ghandi had a chance of changing people’s hearts and minds. But is that the best response all of the time? Or, is it possible to overcome all evil with good, or will history end as Revelation says it will, in great bloody battles where evil is wiped from the earth once and for all?

    • Some good thoughts and perspectives in this post, Ryan. I believe you make a very important point: in at least one respect, it matters very little whether you understand the book more literally or figuratively–either way, it is through this lens of apocalyptic that God gives us a window through which to look at his character. Whether literal or figurative, the book gives us a spotlight on a the character of God. Blessings on you as work your way through Revelation.

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