Does the Old Testament speak about Jesus?

Does the Old Testament speak about Jesus? October 4, 2014


Can we read Christ into the Old Testament?


According to Jewish tradition, no, and understandably so. According to Christian tradition, yes, since the New Testament interprets various passages in the Hebrew Bible (= Old Testament)  as prophecies that foreshadow the future life and message of Jesus. Christians commonly view other Old Testament texts this same way, following Jesus’ own example: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

A classic expression of such linkage is Handel’s beloved oratorio “Messiah,” whose songs hailing Jesus Christ use not only the New Testament but a couple dozen Old Testament texts taken from Isaiah, Job, Lamentations, Malachi, Psalms, and Zechariah.

Many modern-day liberal scholars from Christian backgrounds side with Judaism and doubt that Old Testament writers could have been referring to Jesus. Now, surprisingly, an esoteric dispute on this theme at Pennsylvania’s Westminster Theological Seminary is dividing certain conservative Protestants.

The school announced in June that Old Testament Professor Douglas J. Green was being sent into early retirement after 22 years on the faculty. Green, who remains mum, is now teaching at Queensland Theological College in his native Australia. This fuss provoked Robert’s question, not to mention Internet buzz and a September protest petition endorsed by 92 Westminster alumni and other conservatives.

Background: This seminary requires teachers to pledge fidelity to Britain’s 17th Century Westminster Confession of Faith and two related catechisms. In 2008, it suspended controversial Old Testament Professor Peter Enns and then mandated faculty commitment to 52 new interpretations of the 17th century texts, titled “Affirmations and Denials Regarding Recent Issues.” The school next examined whether Green violated the added standards. In 2009, the trustees unanimously approved Green’s explanations of his thinking as “acceptable clarifications and allowable exceptions.”

The trustees have now reversed their exoneration of Green. It’s unclear exactly why. The school’s June statement said Green is no heretic but his method “severs the organic link between the Old Testament and the New Testament,” which is “inconsistent” with the Westminster Confession and catechisms. A July article by seminary President Peter Lillback did not discuss Green’s theology but opposed the view that “the Old Testament was essentially ignorant or blind to the ultimate coming of Christ” and “unwittingly, yet nevertheless in spite of that disjunction and ignorance, was moving forward to Christ.”

Westminster’s explanations haven’t satisfied alumni who signed the September petition. Among them is Tremper Longman III of Westmont College, like Green a Yale Ph.D. who long taught at Westminster. Longman protests that the administration has issued “no theological argument” and must “show us specifically” how Green strayed.

A headline in the evangelical “Christianity Today” magazine said the issue is “Can You See Too Much of Jesus in the Bible?” That referred mainly to a Green essay the seminary posted online, in effect as evidence against him. Green interprets the familiar 23d Psalm as “messianic prophecy.” Many Christians believe “the Lord is my shepherd” refers to Jesus, who calls himself the “good shepherd” in John chapter 10. Green wrote that “alongside” this conventional view Jesus can also be seen as the sheep who passes “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Apparently a bigger problem was Green’s essay on “how to read the Old Testament narratives,” also posted by the seminary as evidence. In it, Green proposed a “first reading” of Genesis, for example, as “an Israelite book, and not (yet) a Christian book.” Then, Christians should undertake a “second reading” in which Jesus is understood as “the true, albeit unexpected, climax of the grand narrative” in the entire Bible.

Richard Gaffin Jr., a retired Westminster theologian, objects to the two-readings approach: “To seek to interpret the various Old Testament documents for themselves and apart from the vantage point of the New [Testament] exposes one ultimately to misinterpreting them.” William B. Evans of Erskine College, a Westminster alumnus who signed the September petition, says the anti-Green conservatives are insisting that “references to Christ are objectively present in the text of the Old Testament and were intended by the human author.”

Obviously a theology school has the right, and may see the duty, to uphold a doctrinal platform. But Longman, for one, finds the treatment of Green “mystifying” and “disgraceful,” warns prospective students to avoid his alma mater’s recent “toxic environment,” urges a cutoff in donations, and asks Christians to “pray that God will save the seminary.”

With a more moderate tone, Evans observes, “More often than not we simply don’t know what was in the minds of the Old Testament human authors when messianic prophecies were first presented” and advises against “being doctrinaire on this point.” Therefore, such “complicated and difficult questions” shouldn’t be “turned into weapons of exclusion.”

Meanwhile, Westminster refugee Enns, now at nearby Eastern University, further scumbled the picture last week with a blog post informing evangelicals that Jesus’ own interpretations of the Old Testament “had little if any connection to what the biblical writer actually meant to say,” and that Jesus thought “some of what God said in the Old Testament was inadequate.” There’s more of the same in Enns’ new book “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.”

Westminster’s announcement on Green with links to pertinent texts:

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