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Would Paul Have Made A Good Evangelical? On the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament (Part 4)

By Ardel Caneday–

This blog entry is a continuation of yesterday’s “Would Paul Have Made A Good Evangelical? On the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament (Part 3).” The previous entry resumes here with repetition of the last two paragraphs.

Numerous points could be raised in response to Peter Enns’s two blog entries including the nature of progressive revelation, Scripture’s clarity (perspicuity), large biblical theological themes, the place and function of Israel in the land in relation to Christ and new creation, the relationship between the Mosaic law and Christ, the place of Gentiles within the promise covenant given to Abraham, and several other issues that Enns either ignores or runs over quite roughly. Others cited above have touched upon these in their lengthy and many responses to Enns’ earlier publications. Responses offered here to the two blog entries endeavor to keep the focus upon the theme of this series, the NT use of the OT.

Since Enns’s two blog entries tightly and rightly associate the apostle Paul’s use of the OT with what Enns calls a “high view” of Scripture, it is fitting that we ponder how Enns’s view concerning Paul’s use of the OT coheres with three passages that concern Paul’s appeal to Scripture to validate the gospel he preaches. Enns’s view does not and cannot account for these passages. Two are from Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 15:1-5; Rom. 16:25-27); the other is from the Book of Acts (Acts 17:1-12). Enns addresses none of these passages in his published materials concerning the NT use of the OT. Yet, it is quite reasonable to observe that these three passages serve as guardrails to constrain and to preserve us from positing the ideas Enns now advances concerning the NT use of the OT.

First, within the first installment in this series I touched upon Acts 17, particularly concerning the Berean Jews who distinguished themselves from those in Thessalonica because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (17:11). The Berean Jews, like those in Thessalonica, first heard Paul’s message in their synagogue for Luke explains, “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and . . . he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (17:2-3).

Concerning Paul’s reasoning from Scripture to ground his gospel proclamation Luke sketches a scene quite different from the one Enns would have us accept. While Enns portrays Paul’s use of the OT Scriptures as “very creative,” even “manipulating scripture,” because Jesus’ coming “transformed” the OT so that the OT is “reshaped in order to conform to Jesus,” Luke describes Paul as reasoning with the Jews from Scripture (διελέξατο αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τῶν γραφῶν), with “from Scripture” (apo graphōn) emphasizing the source of his reasoning, as though it is actually discernible from the Scriptures “that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” and that this is not a construct superimposed upon the OT Scriptures by an adroit apostle.

Again, Luke describes the response Paul receives among Jews in Berea, “they examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Luke hardly portrays these ordinary Berean Jews as though they had the ingenious skills of Jewish scholars during the Second Temple period, scholars who were adept at “manipulating scripture in the interest of supporting theological arguments.” Instead, Luke’s commendation of these quite ordinary Berean Jews underscores the plainness, clarity, and accessibility with which Paul’s message could have been proved false if he had engaged in any manipulation of Scripture in his proclamation of the gospel.

The significance of what Luke portrays must not be passed over as irrelevant to Paul’s use of the OT. What does Luke say Paul was proving from the Scriptures and which the Bereans were examining in their endeavor to be assured that what Paul was preaching was the truth? It is nothing less than this, “that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” If Paul creatively manipulated the OT (cf. “private interpretation,” 2 Peter 1:20), which now has to be read as “reshaped” so as “to conform to Jesus,” as he made his case from Scripture that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, how could the Bereans, regardless how diligent and inquisitive they may have been, trace the apostle’s argument and be convinced that what he proclaimed is the truth? The Bereans would have charged Paul with legerdemain, sleight of hand trickery, and would not have received his message as true.[i] If Paul’s proclamation that Messiah had to suffer death and rise again from the dead as foretold in the OT but his hearers could not trace his reasoning from Scripture or reproduce his exegesis of the biblical texts to which he appealed, then how could Jews or Gentiles be convinced that Scripture, not nimble manipulation of Scripture, leads to and warrants the apostle’s message as true?[ii]

Paul’s message, as recorded in Acts 17:2-3, agrees with the message Jesus imparted to his disciples when he was with them, as when he explained to two of his disciples “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning him” (Luke 24:27) and later reminded the others, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (24:44; NIV). When Jesus says, “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me,” this means that what Jesus and his apostles expound from the OT Scriptures concerning the Messiah was actually written into the biblical text; it was always there in the scriptural text. It was not brought to the text of Scripture by hermeneutical cleverness, ingenuity, genius, and manipulation by the NT writers.

Second, what Luke records in Acts 17 concerning Paul’s preaching, the apostle himself affirms in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-5). Though he is not setting out to prove the resurrection of Jesus, he is reasserting the belief the Corinthians hold in common with him as the ground from which he will bring a withering response to the foolish assertion “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). As he begins his argument to rebut the claim of some “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12), he is burdened to remind the Corinthians concerning “the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you were saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (15:1-2).

So Paul reminds the Corinthians concerning the gospel which they have believed: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve” (15:3-5). Even though Paul’s dual “according to the Scriptures” likely refers not to a single passage or to a collection of specific passages but to the whole of the OT as a unified witness, it is no insignificant assertion. That Paul does not identify individual passages but refers to the unified whole OT hardly validates the notion that he would resort to creative manipulation of the text in order to argue his case that the Scriptures are replete with testimony that the Coming One would “die for our sins” and be “buried” and be “raised on the third day.”

That we may find it difficult to marshal specific Scripture passages to verify Paul’s claim hardly leaves us to choose between two options: (1) that Paul’s claim is falsified by our paucity of undisputed Scriptural evidence; or (2) that Paul’s claim depends upon creatively manipulating Scripture in order to support his theological arguments. That we find the unified claims of Paul and Jesus that the Messiah had to die “according to the Scriptures” and had to rise from the dead “according to the Scriptures” difficult to replicate either for ourselves or for others ought to rebuke our dullness of heart (Luke 24:25) and our need to have our eyes and minds opened by Christ that we might understand (24:31, 45). For to posit that the NT writers use the OT Scriptures with inventive adroitness that entails wrenching passages out of contexts and labyrinthine arguments that only a few highly skilled initiates in Second Temple literary exegesis can trace and perhaps reproduce does not suffice when that which is at stake is nothing less than the good news as it is in Jesus.

Finally, Romans 16:25-27 is a third passage that Peter Enns nowhere accounts for in his published considerations of the NT use of the OT. This passage is highly significant because it speaks concerning mystery. Mystery as a word and concept entails the complex correlation of divine concealing and revealing, each of which entangle two dimensions, both the divine act of hiding truths in plain sight and the divine act of closing and opening human minds to the truth.

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made know through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Whether the phrase, “in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past,” modifies “the proclamation of Jesus Christ” or is dependent upon “to establish you,” which would make it parallel to “in accordance with my gospel,” the phrase explains the gospel Paul proclaims.

Paul’s reference to mystery here is consistent with uses of the concept in other letters (e.g. Rom. 11:25-27; 1 Cor. 2:7; 15:50-55), in order for humans to know a mystery some form of divine revelation is required at two dimensions. Here, Paul distinguishes these two revelatory dimensions by time span and by locality (i.e., where the revelation is lodged). As to time span of the mystery’s revelation, he depicts two temporal phases: (1) the revelation of the mystery  hidden for long ages past but (2) now revealed. Given what Paul states next, this revelation entails a second dimension, the element of locality or the place where the mystery resides. Likewise, as to where the mystery is revealed, Paul depicts two situational phases: (1) God hid this mystery for long ages past in the prophetic writings, and (2) now according to the command of the eternal God this mystery is at last revealed and made known through the same prophetic writings. The obvious implication is that God first revealed the mystery by hiding it in plain sight within the OT Scriptures—the prophetic writings—but God now commands that this same mystery be revealed and made known in the preaching of the gospel, the proclamation of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s expression, “through the prophetic writings” (διά τε γραφῶν προφητικῶν), likely bears the sense “by means of the prophetic writings,” given his use of “through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (διὰ τῶν προφητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν γραφαῖς ἁγίαις) in Romans 1:2. Paul’s message seems unambiguous. God hid the mystery in the OT Scriptures and now, in keeping with God’s command, the same OT Scriptures give up the mystery made plain by the preaching of Jesus Christ, for “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to” the revelation of God’s righteousness in Christ Jesus.

Thus, to preach the gospel, which is to proclaim Jesus Christ, is to bring to light the mystery God hid within the OT Scriptures. God’s recent revelation of Jesus Christ now preached brings clarity to former revelation written down by the prophets of old. Former revelation concealed the mystery in plain sight within Scripture which now reaches fulfillment as the storyline of redemption comes to its climactic finale. So, now that Christ has come and God has commanded that the gospel be proclaimed to all the nations, the gospel reveals through the prophetic writings the same mystery God concealed in the prophets’ writings when he gave it by revelation.

Mystery novelists imitate God, the mystery storyteller par excellence. Thus, even though anachronistic, it is instructive to recognize that the biblical concept of mystery concealed in the OT and brought to light with the coming of Christ bears resemblance to how a well crafted mystery novel is written in order to unfold as it is read.[iii] As one progressively reads the mystery’s storyline with its characters, settings, and plotted conflict, the story escalates incrementally toward its dramatic climax at which point the mystery, with its numerous and diverse hints scattered throughout the earlier chapters, is finally revealed. Embedded within characters, events, settings, and plotted conflict throughout the story line from beginning to end are hints, foreshadows, prefigurements, and harbingers that presage the unveiling of the mystery concealed within its pages. Yet, the hints strategically and masterfully placed by the mystery novelist pose as puzzling enigmas, as riddles, as conundrums that tantalize and increase anticipation that builds toward the climax. Yet, once the mystery formerly hidden throughout earlier chapters is at last revealed in the climax, the reader begins to recall hints the author had dropped along the way, and these hints of mystery begin to coalesce toward the full disclosure of the mystery.

So it is with Scripture. As characters within the Bible’s storyline receive promises their hope stirs, for renewed covenant promises embed fresh hints concerning that which is promised. Yet, arrival of a promised child, taking possession of the promised land, blessing of conquest, or realization of a promised house of worship come as tokens of reassurance not as the promise itself (cf. Heb. 11:39-40). God’s promises call for trust in him who keeps covenant, for he will not disappoint. Thus, the OT Scriptures are written with hints hidden throughout to incite anticipation of full and final resolution of the mystery eventually to be revealed with surprises that invite deep reflection.

Is this not how we are to read the Bible’s storyline as it incrementally builds toward its dramatic climax with the arrival of the Coming One who reveals himself and his kingdom mission in keeping with the mystery concealed within the OT? Does not Jesus perform his miracles, engage his parabolic teaching, and design his dramatic signs to reveal but simultaneously to conceal his identity and his mission until the fullness of time arrives for him to lay down his life as a ransom for sinners? In each of the Synoptic Gospels Jesus specifically tells the Twelve, “To you have been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside everything is in parables” (Mark 4:11; cf.  Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10). Though these are the only uses of the term “mystery” (μυστήριον) in the Four Gospels, mystery permeates each Gospel, but is especially featured in Mark.[iv]

Thus, the experience of the Jesus’ two disciples with whom he walked on the road to Emmaus is illustrative of the mystery’s concealment and dawning revelation in two dimensions. According to the account in Luke 24:13-25 Jesus’ act in which he revealed the Scriptures concerning the Christ accompanied an divine act that concealed his identity within plain sight by preventing their eyes from recognizing him, an act that did not exonerate their culpability for their blindness. For Jesus rebukes them for failing to believe all that the prophets have spoken concerning the Christ, that he should suffer and then enter into his glory (24:25-26). Jesus’ blessing and breaking of bread is the act that reveals his identity concealed from them until that moment. What had been hidden in plain view objectively within Scripture (24:25-27) and subjectively within their own line of vision (24:16) suddenly became revealed plainly to them (24:31), and they exclaimed to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was speaking to us on the road, as he explained the Scriptures to us?” (24:32).[v]

As indicated, Luke’s account illustrates divine concealing and revealing in two discernible dimensions: (1) the objective—divine concealing of recognition of Jesus while simultaneously revealing knowledge of the Christ made known in the Scriptures, and (2) the subjective–divine concealing of recognition of Jesus with full personal culpability for failure to recognize Jesus followed by divine revealing of Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah. The objective constitutes the gospel mystery concealed in the OT and now revealed in Christ. The subjective constitutes the gospel mystery in Jesus veiled in plain sight in the presence of unbelief which necessitates divine revelation to impart sight that recognizes that the promised Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth.

What is now made plain is only what God hid in plain sight by way of revelation. What is now revealed in the gospel is what was always there hidden in plain sight to be seen by everyone who has eyes to see. This is the mystery of which Paul speaks in Romans 16:25-27. Mystery characterizes how the OT Scriptures testify that the Messiah is Jesus. Mystery also characterizes how Jesus reveals himself—by parables, by miracles, by dramatic signs, or by sacrificial death—as the Coming One who is bringing God’s dominion (Mark 4:10-13).

Peter Enns contends that NT writers manipulate the OT to serve their belief that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the Christ. He believes and advocates the notion that Christ’s coming reshapes the OT Scriptures to conform to Jesus. He insists that the gospel transforms the Scriptures of the OT. None of what Enns argues concerning the NT use of the OT addresses or accounts for the prominent concept NT writers identify as mystery(μυστήριον), a concept that is operational even where they do not use the term. That NT writers speak of the revelation of the gospel as hidden within the OT Scriptures from ages past but now revealed and made known in the gospel seems neither to give Enns pause or to prompt him to ponder that the resolution to his difficulties in tracing Paul’s uses of the OT in passages such as Romans 9 and 10 may be found in the fact that the apostle’s uses of Hosea 2:23 and Isaiah 1:9 in 9:25-27 and of Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:13-14 in 10:5-8 are in keeping with God’s revelatory concealing of things pertaining the gospel within the OT Scriptures, puzzling things that would for long ages await the climax of the redemptive story to be realized in the Coming One. Indeed, the apostle Paul states things that are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16), but to attribute to him creative skills that manipulate the OT Scriptures to constrain others to embrace his belief that Jesus is the Christ, at minimum, exposes hubris that resists Scripture’s constraints and that is impatient with Evangelicals who still believe that they should embrace and uphold Paul’s “high view of Scripture.”


1 Before he departed Westminster Theological Seminary, when he was still presenting his posture toward Scripture as evangelical, Peter Enns argued for a position similar to the one taken by Richard Longenecker in Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (214-220) as to whether we can reproduce the NT writers’ exegesis of the OT. At that time Enns adopted a much less strident position than he now holds, though it telegraphed where the trajectory of his position would likely lead him. He proposed an approach “not so much as the final word, but as a plausible, initial, attempt to remain faithful to the NT model: where we follow the NT writers is more in terms of their hermeneutical goal than in terms of their exegetical methods and interpretive traditions. The latter are a function of their cultural moment. . . . But whereas we do not share the cultural moment of the NT writers, we do share their eschatological moment, and it is here that the question of following or not following the NT writers should have its initial focus” (“Fuller Meaning, Single Goal,” 216). Enns further explains, “This means that they model for us a hermeneutical ‘attitude,’ so to speak, that is authoritative for us, even if that authority does not function as a five-step hermeneutical guide. It represents, rather, a frame of mind in which mature believers expect their reading of the OT to be ever more conformed to what the NT writers do. This is to say, we, in our interpretation of the OT, are on a pilgrimage of sorts, where our aim is to become as captured by the risen Christ as the NT authors were in their grappling with Israel’s story” (217).

2 Cf. my “Covenant Lineage Allegorically Prefigured: ‘Which Things Are Written Allegorically’ (Galatians 4:21-31),” SBJT 14.3 (2010): 54.

[iii] Peter Enns independently compares reading the OT to reading a novel. In the first quotation he draws the analogy similarly to my own analogy, but my analogy focuses upon explaining the biblical use of mystery. Enns states, “As an analogy, it is helpful to think of the process of reading a good novel the first time and the second time. The two readings are not the same experience. Who of us has not said during that second reading, ‘I didn’t see that the first time,’ or ‘So that’s how the pieces fit together.’ The fact that the OT is not a novel should not diminish the value of the analogy: the first reading of the OT leaves you with hints, suggestions, trajectories, and so on, of how things will play out in the end, but it is not until you get to the end that you begin to see how the pieces fit together. And, in the second reading you also begin to see how parts of the story that seemed wholly unrelated at first now take on a much richer, deeper significance” (“Fuller Meaning, Single Goal,” (201).

In the second quotation Enns draws the analogy between reading Scripture and reading a novel to make his distinguish his “Christotelic” hermeneutic from a “Christocentric” approach, thus emphasizing the controlling force the climax of the biblical story (Christ’s advent) has over the OT story. Enns observes, “Revisiting our analogy of reading a novel, it is like reading a story and finally grasping the significance of the climax, and then going back and reading the story in light of the end. It is to ask, ‘How do earlier elements of the dramatic movement of this book relate to where the book as a whole is going?’” (214).

It is doubtful that Enns has jettisoned all of what he wrote concerning the NT use of the OT while he was still wanting to identify himself with “conservative Evangelicals” who hold a “high view” of Scripture, namely, Scripture’s inerrancy and authority. Nevertheless, given his recent two blog entries concerning Paul’s use of the OT, it seems reasonable to infer that reading the OT is like reading a novel is no longer a suitable analogy. For, if a novel’s conclusion “transformed” and “reshaped” the elements and features of earlier chapters in order to bring those portions into conformity with the climax, who would not criticize the novelist harshly, judge the novel as disconnected or disjointed, and discourage others from reading it?

[iv] See my, “He Wrote in Parables and Riddles: Mark’s Gospel as a Literary Reproduction of Jesus’ Teaching Method,” Didaskalia 10.1 (Spring 1999): 35-67.

[v] See my “Covenant Lineage Allegorically Prefigured,” 52.


Ardel Caneday (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has served churches in various pastoral roles, including senior pastor. He has authored numerous journal articles, many essays in books, and has co-authored with Thomas Schreiner the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Inter-Varsity, 2001).

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