“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” Hebrews 1:1.
So many people today resent the Old Testament as a dark and wrathful document of hate which paints God as a bipolar monster. And it’s understandable when we consider it only on its literal terms. I agree that a literal reading of the Old Testament is often dangerous and can be counterproductive to understanding the love of Jesus Christ. So, I totally sympathize with the concerns about where literal Bible reading takes us.
But, on the other hand, I think there IS a way to read the Old Testament which avoids “the killing letter” by embracing “the life-giving Spirit” which underflows the subtext of all Scripture. 2 Corinthians 3:6.
EARLY JEWISH EXEGESIS
The ancient Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day used a multi-varied hermeneutic which later came to be known by the acronym “Pardes” (a late Biblical Hebrew word borrowed from a Persian word meaning “garden, or orchard”). Pardes described a dynamic by which the reader could legitimately interpret Old Testament texts on 4 different levels:
1) “Peshat” (“simple” meaning) is the first level, which meant reading Scripture for its “plain sense meaning” or “contextual sense.” This equates to what we would call the historical-grammatical meanings.
2) “Remez” (“hinted at” meaning) is the second level. This is is basically what we today call allegorical reading. It is predicated on the assumption that Biblical texts frequently say MORE than what the literal text says, or OTHER than what the literal text says. Types, shadows, symbols, and metaphors all happily congregate here.
3) “Drash” (“search after” meaning) is third level. It incorporates personal insights from the reader which cause him to subjectively interact with and then insert meanings and personal proposals and interpretations into the text. We call this eisegesis today. This allows the reader wide discretion in making the text relevant for today, here and now. This focuses NOT on the text’s historical truth and original grammatical meaning, NOR even on the allegorical subtext. But, rather, drash (aka midrash) focuses on subjectively finding divine truth and direction for the present moment. This is why this level is considered homiletical, the subject of sermons which modernize Scripture to better align with modern sensibilities. This allows for the reader to “fill in gaps” of ancient writings by loosely paraphrasing, or even rewriting, the text to comport with current sensibilities. Some Jewish scholars believe the “drash”are what the reader wishes the text would or should say rather than what the text does say.
4) Sod” (“secret” meaning) is the fourth level. This is where hidden coincidences and meanings lay hidden in Scriptures waiting to be perceived through epiphany or mystical extrapolation. This can include, but is not limited to, Gematria and Etymological meanings to unveil esoteric secrets divinely imbedded in the text.[Sources: THE JEWISH STUDY BIBLE: Tanakh Translation, Oxford Press, Jewish Publication Society (2004); JEWISH NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY, David H. Stern, JNTPI, (1996): THE UNEDITED JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA, (The.JewishEncyclopedia.com)].
It is crucial to see that these four levels were not viewed as neccessarily antagonistic, but often complementary and supplementary to each other. The Jews believed that, “Each of the four levels incorporates the other levels.” (Tzenach Tzedek). This was common in the ancient world, to read texts on multiple levels which were not mutually exclusive.
EARLY CHURCH EXEGESIS
There were six known Christian theological schools in the early church: Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Edessa/Nisbis, Ephesus, and Rome/Carthage. The early Church’s hermeneutic, except for the Antiochan school, largely held to a similar multi-level hermeneutic.
SOME believe the church fathers held to four interpretive levels which later came to be formally known as the Quadriga in the Middle Ages (LITERAL: What the passage says about past events, ALLEGORICAL: What the passage can tell us about Christ, TROPOLOGICAL: What the passage can teach us about how to live, and ANAGOGICALLY : What the passage tells us about our ultimate fate).
St. John Cassian, for example, demonstrates this four-fold exegetical method on the meaning of “Jerusalem”: LITERALLY it is the city of the Jews; ALLEGORICALLY it is the Church of Christ; ANAGOGICALLY it is that heavenly city of God which is the mother of us all; TROPOLOGICALLY it is the human soul, which frequently under this title is either blamed or praised by the Lord.
SOME of the church fathers held to three interpretive levels (Origen: the bodily level, the soulful level, and the spiritual level, AND Irenaeus: the literal, vertical allegory and horizontal allegory). Also consider the following excerpt from Maximus the Confessor (7th century):
“Beyond the literal sense to the deeper meaning of the Scriptures. The sacred Scripture, taken as a whole, is like a human being. The Old Testament is the body and the New is the soul, the meaning it contains, the spirit.From another viewpoint we can say that the entire sacred Scripture, Old and New Testament, has two aspects: the historical content which corresponds to the body, and the deep meaning, the goal at which the mind should aim, which corresponds to the soul. If we think of human beings, we see they are mortal in their visible properties but immortal in their invisible qualities. So with Scripture. It contains the letter, the visible text, which is transitory. But it also contains the spirit hidden beneath the letter, and this is never extinguished and this ought to be the object of our contemplation. Think of human beings again. If they want to be perfect, they master their passions and mortify the flesh. So with Scripture. If it is heard in a spiritual way, it trims the text, like circumcision. Paul says: `Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.’ [2 Cor. 4:16] We can say that also of Scripture. The further the letter is divorced from it, the more relevance the spirit acquires. The more the shadows of the literal sense retreat, the more the shining truth of the faith advances. And this is exactly why Scripture was composed.” (Translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI – Spencer, MASS, 1994)
SOME of the church fathers held to just two levels (Justin Martyr and the Apostle Paul both spoke simply of the literal and the spiritual meanings).
The early Alexandrian Church believed that the primary way to read Scripture was non-literal. The greatest Biblical scholar of these Church Fathers was the 3rd Century martyr Origen. He, following the Apostle Paul’s lead, wrote that the key to rightly understanding the Old Testament was to read it ALLEGORICALLY rather than LITERALLY. Other church fathers who advocated this way of reading include Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine.
“Ignorant assertions about God appear to be nothing else but this: that Scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.” Origen, On First Principles 4:2.1-2, 4.
“Saint Ambrose (and Augustine) took Paul’s statement ‘the letter kills but the Spirit gives life’ as a slogan for allegorical interpretation.” A. Berkeley Mickelson, INTERPRETING THE BIBLE, Eerdmans Publishing, 1963, page 34.
In fact, Allegorical Exegesis was the predominant way Christians read the Old Testament up until the 17th-18th centuries, at which time Literal Exegesis came to the forefront. Cold rationalism and clinical empiricism replaced the sacred gifts of imagination, intuition and epiphany which had so filled the early church father’s readings.
These church fathers would no doubt agree with Karl Barth’s sentiment that he loved the Old Testament far too much to read it literally. “What’s most interesting today is that, while a host of scholars after Barth, and especially over the last twenty years, have been arguing for a return to the Church’s traditional way of reading Scripture, evangelicals have by and large been the most resistant to this.” Greg Boyd.
These Church Fathers and their progeny believed that the key is to read Scripture by the Spirit and not by the dead letter, for the letter kills (and makes God out to be a killer), but the Spirit gives life to the Scriptures. 2 Corinthians 3:6. The early Church Fathers did NOT read the Old Testament by the bare letter, nor should we.
The point is that practically all ancient hermeneutics allowed for multi-varied reading styles which included and incorporated both ALLEGORICAL (i.e. non-literal) reading and CONTEXTUAL (i.e. literal reading).
Unfortunately, today what was intended to be a four lane superhighway of interpretive adventure and awe, has instead been largely reduced to a one-lane log jam where the only legitimate Bible reading is literal “dead letter” exegesis. This exegetical and hermeneutical traffic jam has constipated church travel and has resulted in much spiritual road rage where the image of a wrathful God still largely prevails.
And this is why so few are enjoying the Bible. However, if we will go back and see HOW the church fathers actually read, then we will be liberated to better understand how they wrote. They would encourage us to see their texts as “open” and multi-varied in interpretive meaning, some of which they themselves were not even consciously aware of at the time they wrote it.
Now, let’s hone our understanding of Allegory.
FOUR ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENTS
The Old Testament just needs FOUR ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENTS to become relevant again to New Testament believers. The FOUR ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENTS form what I like to call “the Jesus Hermeneutic.” Simply put, this hermeneutic holds that all Scripture must be interpreted according TO, BY and THROUGH the revealed nature of Jesus. The revelation of Jesus IS the revelation of the nature of God. When reading the Old Testament, ALLEGORY is the key.
“Allegory is language that says one thing and means either something MORE than what it says or something OTHER than what it says.” — Theologian R.A. Norris, in his article on “Allegory” in THE WESTMINSTER HANDBOOK TO ORIGEN.
Sometimes then, the Old Testament passage spiritually means EXACTLY what it literally says. But, on other occasions, it can mean MORE than what it literally says, or OTHER than what literally says. And, on still other occasions, the passage can mean “both” OTHER and MORE than what it literally says. The outpoured and indwelling Jesus is the SOLE plum-line of Biblical interpretation. Here, we allow the character of God to interpret Scripture RATHER than allowing the bare letter of Scripture to interpret God’s character.
So to avoid making “ignorant assertions” about God’s character, we need to make FOUR ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENTS to make the Old Testament sing with New Testament glory.
First, we need to realize that the Old Testament had a largely undifferentiated view of God and Satan, which caused them to often wrongly attribute the works of Satan to God.
Second, we need to re-imagine the Old Testament as a treasure trove of imbedded types which ALL point to Christ.
Third, we need to see that the Old Testament often provides us negative examples which we are NOT to follow.
And fourth, we must re-designate the speaker of certain Old Testament dialogues, which though on their face may appear to said BY or ABOUT Old Testament characters, are in reality heavenly utterances said BY or ABOUT Jesus.
Let’s look at these FOUR ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENTS in greater detail.
1) The FIRST ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENT we need to make when reading the Old Testament is to recognize that its authors had a largely undifferentiated view of God. We must use the JESUS HERMENEUTIC to reverse-engineer any and all passages which misattribute the works and directives OF Satan TO God. This is the type of allegory that says something OTHER than what the text says.
It is well documented by both Jewish and Christian scholars that the Old Testament saints did not have a fully differentiated view of God and Satan. They wrongly thought Satan was God’s left hand, His official minister of wrath, an obedient angel just doing God’s dirty work. Jesus cleared that up as totally wrong when He came and revealed Satan as a cosmic rebel who was the author of all death and destruction. Jesus came to reveal and destroy the devil’s works, not commit them, and to show us to be mistaken if we ever thought otherwise.
The major misconception the Old Testament saints had about Satan was that he worked FOR God instead of AGAINST Him. This caused occasionally errant descriptions of where destruction came as from “the Lord” rather than from “Satan.” Jesus cleared that misconception up in the New Testament. John 10:10.
Under this tragic view, God is BOTH dark and light, BOTH good and evil, BOTH loving and wrathful, and BOTH forgiving and vengeful. Satan is wrongly seen as the minister of God’s wrath, the enforcer of God’s curses, and the executioner of God’s judgments.
As THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JEWISH CONCEPTS by Philip Birnbaum says, “Satan…is…identified with the angel of death. He leads astray, then he brings accusations against man, whom he slays eventually. His chief functions are those of temptation, accusation and punishment. Under the control of God, he acts solely with the divine permission to carry out his plots.” (Sanhedrin Press, page 594). Rabbi Benjamin Blech similarly writes, “Judaism sees Satan as a servant of God whose function is to set up choices between good and evil so that we can exercise our free will…. [His] apparent harshness is merely camouflage for divine concern and love.” IF GOD IS SO GOOD, WHY IS THE WORLD SO BAD? Simcha Press, pages 7-9.
Thus, Satan is NOT seen by the Old Testament Jews as a disobedient angel, or a cosmic rebel hostile to God on every level, but rather just an obedient “servant angel” with a tough job to do. Jewish literature has always considered Satan to be the obedient death angel of the Old Testament.
So, for the Old Testament saint to say, “The Lord called down fire from the sky,” or “The Lord brought down curses on a person,” or “The Lord struck someone down with pestilence, sword, famine or death” —– all simply meant that they believed “Satan” did the destructive act at the Lord’s command. So, when God is quoted in the Old Testament, it could EITHER refer to “Yahweh” OR to “Satan.”
This is easily proven by considering the incident in which King David sinned by numbering Israel. This incident is first recorded in 2 Samuel 24:1, and then centuries later in 1 Chronicles 21:1. In the earlier entry, David’s sin is caused by “the anger of God,” while in the later passage “Satan” is the cause of David’s sin.
Do you see? Same sin, same event, entirely different cause. The Jews were beginning to see that they could not attribute BOTH sin and punishment to God, good and evil to God, love and hate to God. They began to develop the idea that Satan was an enemy to God’s purposes rather than an obedient friend. Unfortunately, when Israel as a nation rejected Jesus as Messiah, they also rejected the truth about Satan and have since sadly regressed back to their early Old Testament view, as the earlier quotes above show.
But let’s catch our breath and think about this for a moment. If in the passage above, Satan’s destructive activity is wrongly attributed as God’s wrath, then where does that leave us? It leaves us falsely accusing God of of all sorts of evil events, motives and destructions. We have chained God and Satan at the spiritual hip, good and evil at the spiritual hip, love and wrath at the spiritual hip— God is blamed for all that Satan does, while Satan gets partial credit for the good God does. The end result is that the character of God is clouded and men are unable to fully see, trust and rejoice in his love and forgiveness.
The Old Testament saints wrongly thought “Satan speaking” WAS “God’s angry voice.” Since they assumed Satan was God’s official “minister of wrath,” they attributed EVERYTHING that worked death and destruction as coming from God. BUT, since we NOW know from Jesus’ teachings that Satan operates NOT as an obedient minister OF God, but rather as a vile enemy rebel AGAINST God, then we know their voices and actions need to be “redivided and wholly separated” from each other whenever we read the Old Testament.
Jesus came to forever slice, sunder and separate our image of God from the image of Satan. But, to do this, Jesus had to reveal the “YE-KNOW-NOT-WHAT-SPIRIT-YE-ARE- OF” SYNDROME. Luke 9:51-56.
This is the Jesus Hermeneutic at its best. When James and John wanted to call down fire on the Samaritan village for rejecting them, Jesus had to show these two disciples that Old Testament saints frequently did not know WHICH spirit they were operating out “of.” Jesus showed them that not everything in the Old Testament that is called “God’s fire,” or “God’s wrath,” or “God’s judgment” IS in fact “OF” God’s Spirit.
There are only TWO SPIRITS— the Satanic SPIRIT of the world, and the Holy Spirit which is of God. 1 Corinthians 2:12; Ephesians 2:2. Jesus said in John 10:10 that Satan “comes to steal, kill and destroy” while Jesus “comes that they might have life, and have it in abundance.”
The Jesus Hermeneutic calls us to re-route and re-divide all death, darkness and wrath passages to Satan’s spirit and all life, light and love passages to Jesus’ Spirit, no matter what they literally “say.”
Really, the goodness of God is based on this foundational truth– God never kills— EVER. He warns us not to kill, either physically or even within our heart’s imagination, and that by so doing, we will be “perfect” like our Heavenly Father. Matthew 5:38-48. The Holy Spirit doesn’t test us on Bible knowledge, but the Bible certainly tests us on Holy Spirit knowledge.
HERE LIES THE FIRST KEY TO RIGHTLY READING THE OLD TESTAMENT. When the Old Testament describes Yahweh’s great life-giving works of mercy, healing, blessing and deliverance, we can rest assured that it is our Lord Jesus being manifested. But, when the Old Testament APPEARS to say God is violent, angry, cruel and oppressive, it is NOT talking about the GOD we know through the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is talking about the motives and methods of Satan, the rebel ruler of the fallen world, who seeks the destruction of every man, woman and child who has ever lived.
Thus, we have to PURGE THE DEVIL OUT of the Old Testament’s usage of the names of the Lord. This explains why John 1:18 says that nobody prior to the Gospels had truly seen God at ANY time– because all had wrongly blended the nature of Satan INTO their image of God. The result was that nobody had a pure understanding of God’s absolute love and goodness.
So how do we read the Old Testament in New Testament light? How to we retranslate the Old and dimmer understanding of Satan to accommodate the New and better understanding of Satan? Simply put, we must allow the Spirit to re-divide the terms “God” and “Lord” in the Old Testament.
Old Testament saints simply could not process the pure nature of God without first receiving the full revelation of Jesus. For that reason, we need to put a mental BRACKET around the words “Lord” and “God” EVERY time we read them in the Old Testament. Whenever Old Testament Scripture says the “Lord” kills, destroys, curses, crushes, afflicts, oppresses or devastates, we need to “open the husk” of the word “Lord” to see WHO is really being referred to in the particular passage– God or Satan.
2) The SECOND ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENT is reimagining the Old Testament as a treasure trove of imbedded shadows, symbols, metaphors, enigmas and and types which all point to some facet of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. This is the type of allegory in which the Old Testament text means MORE than what it is literally saying.
Jesus frequently allegorized the Old Testament. Using key imagery from Old Testament passages which were ONLY seen as literal, He would then usurp their literal meaning into an allegorical application toward Himself. He referred to Himself as the Temple of God (John 2:19-22), the true manna from heaven (John 6:50), Jacob’s supernatural ladder (John 1:51), the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-40), the IAM burning bush of Exodus 3 (John 8:58), the great shepherd of Psalm 23 (John 10:11), the Brazen Serpent in the wilderness who was lifted up on a pole to provide healing for all (John 3:14-15), etc.
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told the two disciples “And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, He (Christ) INTERPRETED to them in ALL THE SCRIPTURES the things concerning himself….And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Was not our heart burning within us, while he spake to us in the way, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Luke 24:26-27, 31-32.
Now, we know that Jesus is LITERALLY nowhere explictly to be found by name in the Old Testament. But, ALLEGORICALLY, He is everywhere to be found. Do you see? Jesus allegorized the Scriptures to these two highly blessed disciples. And their hearts burned within them as they finally understood the true import of the Old Testament.
Paul was clear that the Old Testament literal events were prophetic pre-figures, or types, of a later New Testament reality revealed in and through Jesus Christ who fills all things. Paul frequently established this divine dynamic. He wrote that Biblical revelations occur FIRST in the natural (the Old Testament), the truer and deeper meanings of which are THEN unveiled in the Spiritual (the New Testament). 1 Corinthians 15:46.
Let’s look at some examples. Literal foreskin-circumcision in the Old becomes spiritual heart-circumcision in the New (Romans 2:29). Keeping the literal-Sabbath in the Old becomes instead a spiritual-Sabbath of abiding in divine rest in the New (Hebrews 4:4-11). The Law written on literal-tablets of stone in the Old becomes the Law of Christ’s love written on the spiritual-tablets of our heart in the New (2 Corinthians 3:3-9).
The Israelite’s literal-baptism of walking through the waters of the Red Sea in the Old becomes a type of our spiritual-baptism in the Red Sea of Jesus’ saving blood in the New (1 Corinthians 10:1-6). The literal-temple in the Old becomes the spiritual-temple of our living bodies in the New (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). And the list goes on and on.
Do you see? First in the natural, then in the spiritual. FIRST in the Old Testament figure, THEN in the New Testament fulfillment. FIRST in the externalized Law and the Prophets, THEN in the internalized in the Kingdom of God within us. FIRST the shadow in the Old, THEN the substance in the New. FIRST the type in the Old, THEN the anti-type (or “real deal”) in the New.
3) The THIRD ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENT is simply that the Old Testament often contains negative examples we are NOT to follow. We are never to assume that the Old Testament passage is a positive model to emulate until it passes New Testament muster. And by this, I mean it reveals qualities of God confirmed in the New Testament revelation of Jesus combined with with Holy Spirit confirmation. Sometimes, Old Testament passages are there to warn us how NOT to approach God. This is the type of Allegory which says OTHER and MORE than what the text literally says.
This concept is highlighted in the following passage:
“These things happened as EXAMPLES for us, so that we will NOT crave evil things as they did. So do not be idolaters, as some of them were…. And let us NOT be immoral, as some of them were, and twenty-three thousand died in a single day. And let us NOT put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes. And do NOT complain, as some of them did, and were killed by the destroying angel (the devil). These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come.” I Corinthians 10:6-11.
Paul in the above passage isn’t telling us to follow the Old Testament, but rather NOT to follow it. Avoid their mistakes. Avoid their lapses. LEARN form them on occasion what NOT to do.
The book of Job is another example of how NOT to think about God. We are told to consider his end in the book of James, not his beginning. The book of Job is not about what Job DID know about God, but rather what he (and his friends) didn’t know. If I presented you a 42 chapter book explaining my life, and filled with my thoughts and opinions of God, and THEN in the last chapter admitted that in the previous 41 chapters I really knew nothing about God and was almost entirely mistaken, you would be furious with me. You sure wouldn’t take anything I said in those first 41 chapters seriously.
Well, this is EXACTLY what Job did. In the first 40 chapters, Job and his friends made some 74 false accusations about the nature of God which ALL essentially blamed God as the wrathful source of all of Job’s afflictions.
But, Job himself admitted at the very end of the Book that for the previous FORTY CHAPTERS, he essentially knew NOTHING about God’s nature. “Then Job answered the Lord, and said, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay my hand upon my mouth. Once I have spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further…. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered THAT I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” Job 40:3-5; 42:3.
Actually, ONLY person who actually spoke righteously in the first 40 chapters was Elihu. He was the youngest of all who spoke. He was the last to speak. He was the only speaker God never rebuked as wrong. In fact, his great speech in Chapters 32-37 prophetically ushered in the presence of the Lord in Chapter 38. This is what a prophetic utterance should do —- connect the audience with the manifest presence of God.
Before we look at the heart of what Elihu said, let’s quickly summarize the erroneous “bottom lines” of both Job and his three friends —- Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. It’s very simple really. Job’s three friends all believed Job DESERVED the afflictions God sent BECAUSE of various theological reasons. God, so they said, was right to oppress Job, either because of Job’s open or hidden sins. God, they believed, would not have sent wrath unless it was deserved on some level. The fact that God sent it meant that Job deserved it, regardless of how righteous Job’s life appeared to be on the surface.
In contrast, Job’s main argument was that he didn’t deserve the destructions that came. He believed himself to be righteous and undeserving of the afflictions he suffered during this period. Most scholars believe that the whole book of Job took place over a nine month period of time.
So, the bottom line of Job’s three friends was that Job deserved his suffering. The bottom line of Job was that he didn’t deserve his sufferings. But, the bottom line of Elihu was this —- “Touching the Almighty… He is excellent in power, and in judgment, and in plenty of justice: HE DOES NOT AFFLICT.” Job 37:23.
Job and his three friends focused on whether or not man deserved the suffering that comes in life. Elihu, however, focused solely on the GOODNESS of God. Not every thing Elihu said is perfect New Testament theology, but he largely focused on the key point —- God is good, God is powerful, God is merciful and God is fair. Elihu tenderly noted, “But none sayeth, Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night?” His point was that everybody was so busy either complaining or explaining Job’s life away, that nobody was actually seeking the Lord’s good presence to set all things right. His theology was simply that GOD DOES NOT AFFLICT!
4) The FOURTH ALLEGORICAL ADJUSTMENT is called PROSOPOLOGICAL EXEGESIS. Prosopological exegesis is a technique of interpreting Scripture common in the early church. It is a method where the dialogue in certain Old Testament passages is reinterpreted as being prophetically said BY and ABOUT New Testament characters and contexts rather than Old Testament character and contexts.
As Pauline scholar Matthew W. Bates describes in his book, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, prosopological exegesis re-attributes the “earthly dialogue” from many Old Testament passages as instead being “heavenly dialogue” prophetically said BY or ABOUT Jesus RATHER than being said BY or ABOUT historical humans.
Bates believes that the Apostle Paul, like other ancient writers, frequently used the prosopological method of exegesis by attributing various Old Testament “human” voices in the scriptural texts to specific “divine” characters, especially Christ, the Holy Spirit, or God the Father. This seamlessly weaves Old Testament Scripture into the New Testament master narrative about Christ and the gospel.
In short, even though the Old Testament writers were writing about what they thought at the time were human characters and contexts, they were in fact spiritually writing far MORE than they contextually knew. They were using human dialogues which, instead, would later be recognized as divine dialogues BETWEEN, ABOUT, or FROM the various members of the Trinity.
For instance, in Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our own image,” the early Church father Tertullian read this prospologically to be the God the Father making this statement to God the Son.
Tertullian (Adv. Prax. 11-13) also found evidence of various members of the Trinity addressing one another throughout the Old Testament, such as in the numerous first/second/third person shifts in Psalm 91, and even in prophecies such as Isa 45:14-15, which appears to be addressed to a generic audience and not to Christ. Thus, “Tertullian believes that the prophet can speak in this manner in the words of a persona (or prosopon) not explicitly in view in the source text” (Proclamation, 186).
The book of Hebrews prosopologically interprets Psalm 110 as an extended meditation on Psalm 110, Jesus therein being seen as a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. The New Testament often prosopologically cites Proverbs 8, where the “wisdom of God” is literally identified as Christ.
Here is another excellent example of prosopological exegesis from the New Testament. “For David himself said by the Holy Ghost (in Psalm 110:1-5) , ‘The LORD said to my Lord , Sit thou on my right hand , till I make thine enemies thy footstool.'” Mark 12:36.
In the original Psalmic passage, the utterer of the statement is either David or an unknown prophet in his court, but is unclear who the second Lord is, the one to whom the first LORD is speaking. Most would say that, contextually, it was King David himself as the “little” Lord to whom the “big” LORD, Yahweh, was addressing His divine promise of victory over King David’s enemies.
But, when this passage is read prosopologically in the New Testament, such as in Matthew 22:43-45; Mark 12:36-37; Luke 20:42-44; and especially Acts 2:34-35, then the “little” Lord becomes Jesus rather than David. “For David has not ascended into into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD [Father] said to my Lord [Jesus] ‘Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thy foes thy footstool.’ Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Thus, the Old Testament Psalm in this passage would be called the pre-text, while the New Testament passages cited would be called the master texts which give ultimate meaning to the Old Testament passage.
Prosopological exegesis operates in the same way a modern movie trailer does. Just as a movie trailer previews an “out of context” snippet of the actual movie to come in its entirety in the future, the Old Testament pre-text contains a “coming attraction” snippet of the divine dialogue to be properly understood only in the fulness of the later New Testament revelation.
CONCLUSION: The Jesus Hermeneutic says that there is something to be gleaned in every Old Testament passage about Jesus, His victory over Satan and/or His Kingdom of light, love and learning.
Sometimes the Old Testament says it perfectly without allegorical adjustment.
Other times, the passage needs to be allegorized as saying MORE or OTHER than what the literal text says.
Sometimes the passages even expose what they didn’t know about God, negative examples for us NOT to follow in other words.
Still other times, we must adjust the dialogue from the Old Testament passages as being prophetically said BY or ABOUT Jesus RATHER than being said BY or ABOUT historical humans.
Even the violent passages in the Old Testament can reveal truths about spiritual warfare NEVER to be taken literally against flesh and blood enemies, but rather they instruct us on how to better battle and vanquish our inner enemies– our Goliaths of fear, our personal Philistines of affliction, and our demonic Egyptian enemies seeking to destroy our lives and enslave our souls, etc.
“Wherefore, in the Old Testament there is a veiling of the New, and in the New Testament a revealing of the Old. According to that veiling, carnal men, understanding things in a carnal fashion, have been under the dominion, both then and now, of a penal fear. On the other hand, spiritual men… have a spiritual understanding and have been made free through love which they have been gifted.” Saint Augustine (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 4:8; NPNF 1/3:287).
The Jesus Hermeneutic, then, is simply the light and love of God revealed in Christ. It makes all things new, even the Old Testament! Enjoy it in good health! When it comes to tough Old Testament passages, remember to allegorize beloved, just allegorize!