Monday, September 08, 2008

An Interview about Biblical Theology with Vern Poythress (Part 1)

The lead-off essay in the ESV Study Bible is by Vern Poythress, entitled Overview of the Bible: A Survey of the History of Salvation (available now for free download).

In addition to having Dr. Poythress give an overview of biblical theology, we also asked him to pen notes showing the connections between the OT and Christ and his new covenant. So in the back of the ESVSB there are 1600 notes working through each book of the OT and showing how they might point to the NT.

Today the guys at Beginning with Moses have posted the first part of an interview with Dr. Poythress. I'd encourage you to check it out; I'll link to the second part when it's posted (next Monday).

I'll excerpt here just one of the questions, but of course encourage you to read the whole thing:
:5. You also have some excellent material on Christ in the OT, and Christ as Mediator. What practical difference should a passage like Luke 24:25–27 have on our reading of the OT? For instance, does it mean that we should try to discern in every single OT passage lines of connection to Christ? Can you give some guidance here on when, where and why Christological connections are valid?

The theme of mediation in the OT is one of the most important aids to seeing how Christ is there in the OT. In the OT, God was holy and the people were sinful. A major difficulty! How can God meet sinful people without destroying them? (The question is pointedly exemplified in
Ex. 33:20.) Only through Christ. So all God’s relations to people after the Fall depend on Christ. We know that the principle of Christ’s mediation is true theologically, even when the text does not explicitly mention the difficulty created by sin. The necessity for Christ’s mediation in God’s relations in the OT gives us a good start in understanding the OT Christologically. And then there are specific persons and institutions that function in a mediatorial role, such as prophets, kings, the tabernacle, the temple, the altar, and the sacrifices.

In addition to this principle of mediation, I think there are several other helps to guide our understanding of the OT. (Our ultimate help is of course the Holy Spirit.) First, what we find in any one passage of the Bible should be consistent with what the Bible teaches elsewhere. The most important check on our ideas is Scripture itself. Whenever the NT quotes from the OT to show a connection to Christ, we have an important starting point for our own reading of the OT. Something that we think may be hinted at in one passage should be checked out by what Scripture teaches clearly in other places. The Bible alone has infallible authority. Both our own ideas and the ideas of others have to be sifted by the Bible as our standard.

Second, the Bible shows the progressive character of revelation. What was promised in the OT is spoken of more fully and openly in the NT (
Eph. 3:4–6; Heb. 1:1–3). So we should not be finding in the OT any fundamentally new teaching that is not found in the NT.

Third, we need to pay attention to the immediate context of a passage, as well as the context of the whole Bible. Do not just look at a single word, or a single verse, but ask how what is said at one point fits into the context of God’s relation to Israel, and into his whole plan. As a negative example, consider the proposal that any time we find a tree or wood in the OT, it points to the cross. Is that right? We do believe that Christ died on a cross, and the truth about the cross must be connected with the OT. But we can also feel a certain arbitrariness in just drawing a line directly from the cross to wood. Why? Because we should be asking what role wood plays in its context.

The beams of the tabernacle were made of acacia wood (
Ex. 26:15–30). That is not wood in the role of execution (the cross), but wood in the role of holding things up and giving them firm structure. I believe that the tabernacle is related symbolically to the OT picture in which God the Creator builds the whole world as his large-scale house (Ps. 104:2; Amos 9:6). It points then to God’s wisdom as builder, and to his own firmness and faithfulness, which is behind the stability of our world order. At the same time, the tabernacle offers us that same wisdom and faithfulness and stability when we approach God for forgiveness and fellowship, in the context of our need for redemption. The stable structure of the tabernacle points to Christ as the wisdom of God (Col. 2:3), who is faithful and who gives us stable forgiveness. “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). And of course the tabernacle points forward to Christ’s body, which is the final tabernacle (John 2:19), which God “built up” again in the resurrection.

Fourth, we should be open for God to teach us in ways that surprise us and convict us. If you are just finding the same thing in the Bible every time that you read about wood, you are not really learning anything new, and you are not open to the transforming things you will find when you really listen carefully, paying attention to the context and asking God to teach you.

Fifth, we should pay attention to the body of Christ. Suppose that you see some new idea as you are thinking about the acacia wood in the tabernacle. Can you share your new idea with other members of the body, so that they can profit? For them to profit, you have to be able to some extent to “connect the dots.” With acacia wood and the cross, other people are not going to be able to see the connection, because you can’t produce a step-by-step path. It seems arbitrary (other than the fact that both are wood). If, on the other hand, you go from the tabernacle to Christ’s body, or from the tabernacle to Christ’s wisdom, you have a way of showing others that your ideas come from the Bible itself. Other people’s confirmation of your ideas is important, because none of us is infallible. In this connection, humility is important. Do not get enamored with your own cleverness!

It is not fashionable nowadays, but I confess that I do believe that every passage, and even every word, of the OT reflects Christ. At a minimum, we expect it to be so because Christ is God. God is three Persons, and all three Persons are present whenever God speaks in the OT. So Christ is present. Moreover, God’s speaking in the OT is mediated speaking. It must be, or else we as sinners would die as a result of hearing him. In addition, John 1:1 identifies Christ as the eternal Word, by whom all things were made. The Word is the source of order for the whole of creation, including the order of language, even down to its details. But I hope that these observations of mine are the opposite of arbitrariness. I am intending to suggest paths that the Bible itself opens for us for our meditation.