Biblical Theology: A problem

Joel Willitts, my friend and former colleague at North Park, has a post on a problem in much of biblical theology: it gets supersessionistic (a term often begged in definition).

Here’s Joel:

But just recently I’ve come to realize what it is that makes me uncomfortable with much biblical theology today. I noticed it most clearly in two books on biblical theology published in the last year: Gentry & Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant, and Goldsworthy’s Christ-Centered Biblical Theology.

Here’s my problem. These recent scholars, and a good deal many others, use typology as the preferred method for discovering unity. Typology is an interpretive move where the reader sees in an OT person or event a prefigurement (type) of something in the NT (anti-type), e.g. Moses and Jesus. While this is not necessarily problematic, the underlying assumption that is at work very commonly depreciates (at best!!) the earlier person/event in light of the later. As Matthew Boulton put it, “the occurrence of the latter seems to render the former either obsolete, no longer necessary or, at best, still venerable but nevertheless subordinate” (SJT 66[1]: 20).

Here’s my syllogism:

Most typological interpretation is supersessionistic.
Most biblical theology uses typology.
Most biblical theology is supersessionistic.

Here’s my problem. I don’t think the apostles were supersessionists. I don’t think this is how they read the OT. And it doesn’t appear to be the way they thought about its prefigurements. Consider John 1:16-17:

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ (CEB).

In this text the Evangelist is making a typological comparison between the grace given by God through Moses and that given through Jesus. In Jewish interpretation this is a classic qal va-homer (‘ the argument from the minor to the major ‘). For the logic to work, it would make no sense to downplay or to depreciate the former in view of the latter. Such a move would only depreciate the grace now given. In other words, the higher view one has of the grace given through Moses, the greater view one will have of the grace now in and through Jesus. Clearly in the comparison the latter (grace through Jesus) is related and dependent on the grace of the former (grace through Moses). One can only appreciate greatness of the latter in view of the former.

Can biblical theology be done without a supersessionistic application of typology?

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  • I guess he doesn’t count the author of Hebrews as an apostle then. :/

  • NateW

    I can see his point. I don’t think it’s right to say that the significance of a person or thing lies concretely only in its pointing to Christ. But is this the only way that typology works? What if instead of seeing these merely as road signs pointing to Christ in another place and time, having now seen Christ manifested, we were to look back and understand that their deep significance is due to the eternal Christ having been spiritually present within them?

    I think that a shortcoming of modern theology seems to be that its scholars are locked into a concrete model of time and place by which, though they can’t see this, they bound God as well. If Christ is eternally the Way, Truth, and Life, it seems to me that we should be unsurprised to find him spiritually present in the lives of the great cloud of witness that were born before Him, though even they themselves would not have known Him as He has been now made known. In fact, in every word that has ever been proven true, in every act that has given new life to another, is Christ.

    Every OT act of self-sacrifice, every moment of grace, every word of forgiveness—these are not important because they are a secret code that predicted Christ, they are significant because they are truly manifestations of the eternal Christ. Since the dawn of creation Christ has been active in creating all that is good in the world by his eternal death and resurrection. At the culmination of the ages this timeless truth was made known, was revealed, was demonstrated in flesh and blood—not begun. Moses isn’t superseded by Christ, rather what is True in the life, words, and actions of Moses can has been born witness to by Christ, revealed in His glorious light. Far from being rendered insignificant, the deep significance of the fathers has finally been made fully visible.

  • MIke

    This is a great reponse Nate W. I wholeheartedly agree!

  • scotmcknight

    Part of the problem is that typology often doesn’t entail a christological ecclesiology, or a christological Israel-ology so that fulfillment in Christ means ecclesia and not Israel. Perhaps if we see Christ present and forming the One People, Israel and the church, then supersessionism is dealt a fatal blow.

  • Scot, I’m fascinated by this idea of “One People, Israel and the Church”. Would you mind fleshing that out more? I’m particularly interested in reading how you understand this One People are to be understood to be “Israel.” It seems clear from the Text how they are to be understood to be the Church (made up of both Jews and Gentiles). But it is how this One People are to be Israel that is less clear to me.

  • “Can biblical theology be done without a supersessionistic application of typology?”

    Certainly a biblical theology that treats the Old Testament alone as the Bible can be!

    But no Christian theology can be done without supersessionism. It doesn’t matter whether its biblical or systematic; Christianity simply IS supersessionistic.

  • Well in Romans 3 there is a passage where in Greek Paul literally says “By the works of the Law shall NOT ALL flesh be justified.”

    In English translation in order to keep with the supercessionist thrust of the rest of the chapter, this is (mis)translated: “By the works of the Law shall NO flesh be justified.”

    The way it is really worded in the Greek seems to be witnessing to the fact that the supercessionist context of the chapter is a later addition. What the authentic Paul, prior to anti-Judaic interpolation, was trying to say was “Some will be justified by the Law, and some by the Gospel.” This also fits the statement in Romans 2 “Not the hearers but the DOERS of the Law SHALL BE justified.” If we take the statement in Romans 3 as commonly translated and compare it to Romans 2, we have a contradiction. But the statement as found in the Greek “By the works of the Law shall NOT ALL flesh be justified” fits perfectly with chapter 2’s “The DOERS of the Law SHALL be justified” because “By the works of the Law shall NOT ALL flesh be justified” means some will be justified by the works of the Law but others will be justified by a new means.