Thursday, 9 October 2008

Is Christological interpretation OK?

Josh McManaway of A New Testament Student has asked the question that, I think, most Christians do and should ask themselves at some point:

Can one have a Christological interpretation that also pays due respect to the particular OT text in its particular context, or is this having one's theological cake and eating it too?
Yesterday, I gave a brief example of how I think a dialectial understanding of the relation of the two testaments helps preserve both the integrity of what Seitz calls the per se witness of both testaments, when read in relation to the one divine reality that evoked them both. This can be extended to the question of Christology, as it is Christ who Christians confess to be the one subject confessing Himself in both testaments.

The issue turns on what we mean by "Christological." In other words, which Christ are we looking to find in the Old Testament? The narratively portrayed Christ in one of the Gospels? The divine Christ? John's apocalyptic Christ? The Christ who is the eternal Logos? In other words, Jesus' identity is not a simple concept.

I think a lot of people struggle with the concept of Christological interpretation because they think it means reading the OT through the lens of the NT, subordinating it to the NT's own agenda. But that simply assumes that the NT on its own has somehow grasped the full reality of who Christ is. OT scholars such as Childs and Seitz, however, argue that both OT and NT are equal witnesses to the one Christ who transcends both testaments. This was the assumption of the NT writers, who read the Jewish Scriptures in order to understand Christ (see my thread on this), not in order to speciously back up their claims. The early church, too, read the OT to understand Jesus, and not just to apologetically back up the NT's own particular construal (though that did happen too).

In short, I think that before we can talk about the legitimacy of "Christological" interpretation, we need to figure out the meaning of the term.

P.S. One blog thread I really would like to read on this issue, whenever I find time, is Glen's Christ in the OT, influenced, I believe, by the illustrious Karl Barth.
P.P.S. For an example of what I'm talking about, see Nick Norelli's Gordon Fee quote. It is significant that the context of Nick's quote is a discussion of the Trinity.


Anonymous said...

As I have studied the psalms I realise that whilst a chritological interpretation is fine and dandy, we need to recall that they were not originally about Christ but rather the hristological interpretation is part of the viva vox phenomena.

James Pate said...

I heard this about Seitz several years ago, but I wonder how that can play out in terms of understanding who Christ is. Would it mean believing that Jesus will build a literal eschatalogical temple, with real priests? Or that Jesus will defeat Israel's national enemies?

Phil Sumpter said...


how do you know that they were originally not about Christ? What do you mean with "the viva vox phenomena?


these are good questions. The issue is how do we answer them. I'm not suggesting that we read the OT literalistically and transfer that to Christ. I think Christ is, somehow, the reality that the OT points to. The question is how do we access that reality? Reading the OT alone won't do, as we need the revelation of Jesus himself. Reading the NT won't do, as, though they had the direct revelation of Jesus, they never claimed to understand him fully. Rather, he was interpreted in light of the OT. I think the answer lies is a dialectic between the Old in the New and the New in the Old, along the lines of my post yesterday. What the results look like is another answer, which, unfortunately I'm not really able to give right now.

Anonymous said...


Let's take Ps. 22. That was a festal liturgy from the New Year festival where the king was ritually humiliated.

When Jewish eschatology was reworked around Jesus it made sense for Peter et al to apply that psalm to Jesus but its primary referent was not Jesus.

That reapplication is what I mean by viva vox.

Anonymous said...

If you have time - use it to read Jonathan Edwards' History of Redemption - I stole lots of my stuff from him anyway!

And I really like "both OT and NT are equal witnesses to the one Christ who transcends both testaments" - that's exactly right. It's not the New Testament that fulfils the Old but Christ - the same Christ who fulfil the New, lest we begin to think that life exists in the Scriptures rather than Him (John 5:39f).

Phil Sumpter said...


first, I think to be realistic we should not say "Ps 22 was a festal liturgy ... etc." Better would be "certain modern scholars speculate that ..." This doesn't make it wrong, but it puts the hermeneutical issue into perspective.

The question is "who is Jesus." I agree that whoever wrote Ps 22, he wasn't thinking of the same bloke who Peter ate fish with. At least not in any direct or exhaustive sense. But there is another sense, one which takes into account the complexity of Jesus' actual identity and calls for a multi-level reading of Scripture. Does my latest post help?

Great comments, Glen. I especially like "It's not the New Testament that fulfils the Old but Christ - the same Christ who fulfil the New." I hadn't heard it put like that before. I'd love to know what you think of my latest Childs citation on Jesus in the Old Testament.

Anonymous said...

I can go along with said post. Have you read ?

I recently read Joseph A. Fitzmyer's The Interpretation of Scripture which you may wish to glance at as he touches upon these issues.

Anonymous said...

Should read:

Have you read "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church"?

Phil Sumpter said...

I haven't read any of those. The pdf article looks fascinating! Do you know who was involved in the research?

Anonymous said...

It is an excellent piece of work, I was quite shocked to find myself finding out that the direction I am heading in terms of biblical interpretation has been advanced by the Pontifical Biblical Commission!!

Fitzmyer, in the book mentioned, gives a brief tour of the implications of the pdf. It's by no means extensive but is interesting.

In terms of authors, I have no idea I am afraid. It was the Pontifical Biblical Commission but who consituted the writers I am not sure.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

"The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" was written by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It's a fascinating piece, possibly my favorite of his writings.

Phil Sumpter said...

the little that I have read (or rather heard, on audio book), I've liked of Ratzinger. Perhaps I'll get round to reading this article one day!