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Jesus’s View of the Bible

On March 24, 2020, Matthew Barrett’s new book, Canon, Covenant and Christology, will officially release. In anticipation, we are highlighting an extract from Canon, Covenant and Christology. Here, Matthew Barrett explores how a high Christology and an evangelical view of Scripture go hand in hand, as he introduces his new book.

The scriptural story in which the covenantal word is revealed in a diachronic fashion takes on a Christological focus, either through predictive prophecy or, more often than not, through types and patterns (whether they be persons, events, objects or institutions).

The presence of typology leads the biblical theologian to go so far as to say Christ is not only the centre but the telos of redemptive history: all previous revelation points to him and finds fulfilment in him. Every type, in other words, has its antitype.

To elaborate, this simple, but profound, characteristic of divine revelation, and Scripture in particular, makes biblical theology all the more complex and rewarding. If there is divine authorial intent throughout the canon that increases in its visibility with each new canonical revelation from God and is manifested through each new epoch of his divinely orchestrated story, then both predictive prophecy and typology are legitimate revelatory media. Inspiration and its close cousin divine authorial intent turn hermeneutics into a rich discipline. For if God can reveal his redemptive intentions across history so that one revelation builds upon what was revealed beforehand, then it is possible for God to plant typological seeds in initial revelations that will then blossom in later revelation, only to reach full bloom in the definitive revelation of God: the Word Christ Jesus. Christ is not merely another revelation from God but is divine revelation personified and embodied – he is the archetype. Christ is not merely another revelation from God but is divine revelation personified and embodied – he is the archetype. Click To Tweet

Again, covenant is often the medium. Through his covenant(s) God promises to redeem Adam’s race, but will do so through Eve’s own offspring, sending a Messiah, a Christ, who will be God’s definitive covenant word to his people, providing the redemption he first promised to Adam and Abraham. In the meantime, God embeds his drama with countless types that serve to foreshadow Christ, the antitype, who is to come. For the Israelite, these types are designed to cultivate faith that God’s word is true: he is a God who comes through on his covenant word, a word that is not only spoken by the prophets but put into writing as a permanent covenant witness to God’s faithfulness and mercy. The Scriptures, then, are the treaty, the book and the constitution of the covenant, written with God’s own finger, sufficient for God’s own people.

It is here, however, that the evangelical encounters a strange hermeneutical dilemma, one that has led some biblical scholars to question whether an evangelical view of Scripture, and with it biblical theology itself, is the right path to take. When one engages with Scripture, and the New Testament in particular, where is one to look to understand the nature of this Scripture that God has given to his people? Naturally, one turns to the apostle Paul. After all, few define what Scripture is with such precision and clarity so that the church understands how God has communicated and what authority they are to live by as followers of Christ. As Paul says to Timothy, and by extension to the Christian church, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:16–17). On the basis of Paul’s words, it is lucid what Scripture is and what it is designed to accomplish. From Paul’s epistles one is able to put forward inspiration itself with confidence, as well as Scripture’s corollary attributes.

The problem is, when one encounters Jesus and the Gospels, one is hard pressed to find such an explicit approach as Paul’s to Timothy. The evangelical turns to the person at the core of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ, whose authority as the incarnate God-man is rivalled by none, and searches for a comparable proof text to 2 Timothy 3:16–17 (or, if one were to consider Peter, 2 Peter 1:21). In doing so, one walks away disappointed and perplexed that Jesus could be so silent on the nature of Scripture. Here is the Son of God himself, the Messiah, the Christ, the one who establishes the new covenant, on whom all the Scriptures of Israel depend, and no statement equivalent to Paul’s (or Peter’s) can be found on his lips, at least one that is as theologically specific as Scripture’s own ontology.

In the history of modern academia, this disparity has led some (at times, many) biblical scholars to believe there is a divide between the Jewish mindset of Jesus and the later, ecclesiastical, mindset of Paul and other New Testament writers. In its most extreme form, Paul becomes the creator of Christianity and its doctrinal commitments, but that (Hellenistic?) paradigm is foreign to Jesus of Nazareth. While inspiration, then, may be foundational to the church, it is anachronistic to push such a doctrinal agenda back on Jesus and first-century Judaism.

The implications of such a dichotomy are not insignificant for biblical theology and hermeneutics. If inspiration is a product of the Christian church and alien to the person whose name it bears, then canonical unity is improbable at best and impossible at worst. In this scheme the incongruity between Jesus and apostles like Paul and Peter becomes but a small paradigm for the larger disconnect between the testaments. The canon is not unified by one divine author but is the result of divergent theologies. Hence one can describe the theology of Deuteronomy and Isaiah, or Matthew and Paul, not as distinct contributions that form a single canonical message, but as dissimilar religious outlooks that lack a unified centre. God is no longer the ultimate author and scriptwriter; as a consequence, there is no primary agent whose authorial intent gives birth to a single story (or theology) in history. Pushed far enough, history itself is no longer redemptive, for that label assumes types have antitypes and promises have fulfilments. Biblical theology is either jettisoned or redefined as a result. Evangelicals pay lip service to inspiration, but when we turn to the text itself the divine author may have little functional imprint across the canon. Click To Tweet

Such an orientation to biblical theology, and inspiration too, has a recent past that stems from the Enlightenment and still tempts evangelical scholars today. Evangelicals pay lip service to inspiration, but when we turn to the text itself the divine author may have little functional imprint across the canon. Our hermeneutic betrays a deistic God, one who has inspired the text but thereafter has no role in how the whole text (and its story) comes together over the course of history. With an overemphasis on human authorial intent, the formative role of divine authorial intent across the canon remains ambiguous. That has no small effect on biblical theology.

It is into this hermeneutical darkness that the present project hopes to shed light borrowed from biblical theology itself. It is true that if the evangelical reads Jesus and the Gospels with the same linguistic expectations as one would read Paul or Peter, then the temptation described above to despair of canonical unity and scriptural inspiration will be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Christ and the Gospel writers do not speak to the nature of Scripture in the same way as the epistles. One is hard pressed to find Jesus and the Evangelists conveying Scripture’s metaphysical identity in a didactic manner. Jesus and the apostles have just as convictional a doctrine of Scripture, but it will be discovered only if one reads the Gospels within their own canonical horizon and covenantal context. Click To Tweet

The relative (though not absolute) absence of direct reflection on Scripture’s ontology by Jesus and the Gospel writers, however, need not tempt the evangelical to despair or retreat into canonical discontinuity. For this study will argue that Jesus and the apostles have just as convictional a doctrine of Scripture, but it will be discovered only if one reads the Gospels within their own canonical horizon and covenantal context. The nature of Scripture that Jesus and the Gospel writers presuppose may not be addressed directly, but manifests itself powerfully when one reads the words of Jesus and the Gospel writers within the Old Testament’s promise–fulfilment pattern and typological tapestry.

That means the interpreter must look not for extended didactic sermons or parables from Jesus on the inspiration of Scripture. Instead, the Gospel writers intend the interpreter to pay attention to the way Jesus sees his own life, death and resurrection – indeed, his own filial and messianic identity – as the fulfilment of the covenant promises and typological patterns foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The Gospel writers want their readers to witness who Christ is and what he does so that their eyes may be opened to the grand scheme of the divine author who planned this redemptive story from start to finish.

Through the eyes of the Evangelists the reader learns that the covenant promises Yahweh made through the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled in the person and work of Christ, and that is a claim not imposed on Jesus by the Gospel writers but a claim Jesus himself heralds. For that reason, nothing demonstrates Scripture’s divine origin and trustworthy nature more than the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the advent of the Son of God the Word has become flesh (John 1:14), announcing to Jew and Gentile alike that God has come through on his inscripturated, covenant word.

Moreover, the argument above will be further substantiated not merely by turning to the fulfilment theme throughout the Gospels, but by examining the way Jesus fulfils the Scriptures in his redemptive mission. To be more specific, it is the redemptive, covenant obedience of Christ that secures a righteousness for all those who trust in Christ. But an obedience to what exactly? Answer: an obedience to the Scriptures. For they are the covenant treaty of the new covenant Mediator. By looking to the manner in which Jesus accomplishes redemption – that is, his self-conscious covenant obedience to the Scriptures – one also discovers Jesus’ own attitude towards the Scriptures.What that means for the interpreter of the Gospels is key: one need not pedal through the Gospels looking for a proof text about Scripture’s ontology. Rather, one should primarily look to the mission of the Son to discover the attitude of the Son towards the Scriptures of Israel. It is in Jesus’ humble trust in and obedience to the Scriptures for the sake of securing eternal life for the believer that the interpreter’s eyes are opened to just what Jesus believes these Scriptures to be: the word of God. By looking to the manner in which Jesus accomplishes redemption – that is, his self-conscious covenant obedience to the Scriptures – one also discovers Jesus’ own attitude towards the Scriptures. Click To Tweet

Last, this study will conclude by establishing who Christ is. For if he is who he says he is – the eternal Son of God – then what he says about the Scriptures cannot be dismissed. If he appears to speak with authority concerning the Scriptures, it is because he is their original, divine author as the pre-existent Son of God. His divine identity, then, is of no little significance. Establishing his divinity is instrumental to a faith that submits itself to the Bible Jesus read, a faith that seeks understanding from none other than the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. With that trajectory in place, we now turn to preliminary issues in hermeneutics and biblical theology that must be settled to establish the presuppositions of this study’s argument.

*Purchase Canon, Covenant and Christology today!

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Canon, Covenant and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel; None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God; 40 Questions About SalvationGod’s Word Alone: The Authority of ScriptureReformation Theology: A Systematic SummarySalvation by Grace, and Owen on the Christian LifeHe is the host of the Credo podcast where he engages top theologians on the most important theological issues today.

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