Promise and Fulfillment? (RJS)

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.

I posted last week on Daniel Harrington’s essay in the new book by Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis University), Peter Enns (Eastern University) and Daniel J. Harrington (Boston College), The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously. Harrington is a biblical scholar, Catholic priest and Jesuit. Today I would like to look at the Catholic view of the Old Testament.

First – the early Christians, including Peter, Paul, John, the evangelists, and the early church Fathers all looked at the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus the Christ.

[They] generally took the paschal mystery (Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and their saving effects) as the key to interpreting the Old Testament. In this respect they were doing something like what the Jewish group that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls did when they wrote their commentaries (Pesharim) on obscure prophetic texts and psalms in the light of the history and ideology of their own community (probably Essene). (p. 96)

 The early Christians looked at scripture as the word of God in a manner that aligned with the practice of their day. Pete Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation explores this in much detail. They viewed scripture as the inspired text of their past, present, and in some sense, future. But they did not view inspiration in the manner we, with modern eyes, tend to view the nature of inspiration.

The most important texts in the Old Testament are/were the prophetic passages. The early Christians were convinced (as most of us remain today) that these prophecies has been fulfilled in and through Jesus.  This view shapes much of the Catholic approach to the Old Testament.

Against this background, it is fair to describe the primary Catholic approach to the Old Testament as proceeding “from promise to fulfillment” or “from shadows to reality.” The “promise” is to be found in the shadows of the Old Testament, and the “fulfillment” or “reality” in Christ as he is proclaimed in the New Testament. … While there are exceptions (especially during Lent), for the most part, it seems that in the lectionary the Old Testament passage has been chosen with an eye toward providing “background” for the Gospel text, and the responsorial psalm serves as a bridge between the Gospel and the Old Testament texts. (p. 97)

The idea of promise and fulfillment is important. The text from Isaiah 9:6-7 at the top of this post is a powerful example of promise and fulfillment celebrated especially at this time of year. But not all passages fit this mold. We can do violence to the text forcing passages into the mold, but more often we simply overlook the depth and message of scripture through the emphasis on the OT as a book of promise and fulfillment.  Harrington notes this in his concluding section.

The Christological reading of the Old Testament is as old as Christianity itself, and it will not (and cannot) disappear. However, our appreciation for the Old Testament texts may be greatly enriched by taking them more seriously on their own merits rather than always forcing them into a promise and fulfillment theological schema. … Then perhaps we will see more clearly both the human and the divine significance of those texts for us, too. (p. 112)

Peter Enns in his response to the essay by Harrington comments on the promise fulfillment pattern imposed on the Old Testament. This pattern is not a uniquely Catholic reading by any means. It is pervasive within the Protestant church – and for very good reason. After all, the New Testament writers go to great length to situate Jesus within Israel’s history. “Jesus is the promised messiah who fulfills God’s redemptive mission.” (p. 115) The irony is in the creative way in which the New Testament writers pull the promise and fulfillment out of the Old Testament text.  It is a typically Jewish midrash.  “Therefore, promise/fulfillment, as presented by the New Testament authors in their engagement of the Old Testament, rests firmly in Jewish ways of reading.” (p. 115)  Thus promise and fulfillment is both found within and read into the Old Testament.

The pattern of promise and fulfillment, while of  undeniable importance in Christian thinking is not the only message of the Old Testament text.  As we move through Advent and prepare to celebrate Christmas, it will do us well to consider the role promise and fulfillment plays in our understanding of Scripture. We may benefit from a broader reading of the mission of God as revealed in the Old Testament.

To what extent is the primary role of the Old Testament promise?

Is there more that we can and should find in reading the Old Testament?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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Here is a good version of Handel’s Messiah For Unto Us a Child is Born, a fitting close to the post today.

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  • Great post! I think we often miss much of what’s in the OT by always reading Jesus into it. I like to say that Scripture in Multi-dimensional:

    I also think Psalm 68:18 is so often clouded by Paul’s use of it (actually similar to it) in Ephesians:

  • Norman

    Some of the difficulty in determining the context of the early church and how they read the OT is the centuries of gradual influence by various later church interpreters. Even today scholars have a propensity to evaluate the early church interpretations through lenses that are much different than the original ideas that were pervasive in the original formative church.

    You stated and quoted… “The irony is in the creative way in which the New Testament writers pull the promise and fulfillment out of the Old Testament text. It is a typically Jewish midrash. “Therefore, promise/fulfillment, as presented by the New Testament authors in their engagement of the Old Testament, rests firmly in Jewish ways of reading.”

    The problem is that the early Christians were more inclined to messianic “midrash” than the later church has been historically comfortable with. Also it often goes unstated that the first century Jews were divided camps on how to interpret scripture with the earliest church being much more accepting of 2nd Temple literature and the Jews who rejected Christ forming a more restrictive reading camp. This division did not occur overnight with the coming of Christ but it brought the division to a head with clear divisions and sides chosen. Christianity very likely has its “midrash” reading of scripture birthed in the Essenes groups who were constantly at odds with the Pharisaical Jewish groups. We see this split within the OT literature where historically there was a rejection of by many prophets of corrupt Jewish Priest and their practices. This is the reason it’s so important for us to study the Qumran literature to gather a better snapshot of where the earliest Christian mindsets were coming from.

    It also needs to be kept in mind that the Jews at their council of 95AD essentially codified their differences with the messianic Christians by eliminating much of 2nd Temple literature that caused them problems. They also reworked and changed some of the OT writings to lessen scriptures that Christians were using from the LXX to support the coming and establishment of Christ. That was the impetus that brought forth the Masoretic Text which was redacted by the Jews to support their contentions with Christianity. Unfortunately about 3 or 4 centuries later the Christians adopted the Jewish Canon instead of the Early Christian canon that included more robust support of the messianic Christ. The Eastern Church held out somewhat while the Western church bought the Jewish authority more extensively.

    These issues seem trite to most Christians until you become interested in the earliest Christian Origins and what drove their separation from the Jews. It was a division that had centuries of conflict well before Christ came and reached its peak at that time culminating in a complete divorce between the two Jewish camps.

    Unfortunately we in the western church have followed the interpretive path of the large segment of Judaism that rejected Christ the messiah.

  • Jon G

    RJS, I love this subject, please keep it coming! (and Merry Christmas if I don’t get another chance to say it to you!)

    Norman, I think your post, above, is very intriguing and fertile ground for so much further study on my part. Thanks for your thoughts!