Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Hermeneutical Implications of Canonical Structure

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on May 16, 2011 at 6:15 am

 1.      Both Testaments are similar in that the Pentateuch and the Gospels function as historical and theological foundations for subsequent books. This should be obvious by now. It is of interest to note that the foundational documents of both testaments reflect a close connection to the history of redemption. God acts in history and then God interprets his own acts via Scripture. In terms of the early formation of the Old Testament canon, Meredith  G. Kline argues that it “was a divine work by which the authoritative words of God were through the mystery of inspiration inscripturated in document after document, the canon being formed by the very appearance of these God-breathed scriptures.”[1] This would mean that the canon was recognized by men, not formed by them in a series of conciliar decisions.[2] The Pentateuch came to Israel as a covenant document, fully inspired and authoritative. “The beginnings of canonical Scripture thus coincided with the formal founding of Israel as the kingdom of God.”[3] “The origin of the Old Testament canon coincided with the founding of the kingdom of Israel by covenant a Sinai.”[4] The same process is true of the New Testament canon. The books were authoritative as they were penned and recognized as such by the early church. In once sense, the canon was dynamic, growing as redemptive history progressed and then completed through the apostles of Christ. Both the Pentateuch and the Gospels are theologically foundational for subsequent books, though other New Testament books were written prior to some of the Gospels.

 2.      Both Testaments are similar in that subsequent books depend on previous revelation and are theologically continuous of that revelation. Since this is the case, we should not be surprised if subsequent revelation includes some explanation of antecedent revelation. And when this occurs, it is God commenting on what he has done or said in the past and its relevance for the present. Subsequent revelation often makes explicit what was only implicit in antecedent revelation. Commenting on the Old Testament, Kline says, “The several major kinds of literature–history, law and wisdom, prophecy and praise–as they are employed in the Old Testament all function as extensions (free and creative to be sure) of some main section or feature of the foundational treaties.”[5] A similar phenomenon occurs in the New Testament. The Gospels are foundational to the rest of the New Testament and tease out for us the implications of Christ’s life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension to glory.

 3.      Both Testaments have similar canonical shapes which seem to have been deliberately formed. What Dempster says of the New Testament Gospels can be said of the Old Testament’s Pentateuch. “…the Gospels…have a hermeneutical and theological priority by virtue of their initial position in the canon.”[6] The New Testament is clearly centered on Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic promise. Its canonical shape seems to reflect its theological content (the coming of Christ [the Gospels] is followed by the implications of his coming [Acts-Revelation]). If it is indeed the case that canonical shape was theologically deliberate, then it would seem at least to suggest that the following words of James Hamilton with reference to the Old Testament are worthy of serious consideration. Hamilton says, “…from start to finish, the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope.”[7] He goes on to offer two caveats to this claim.

First, I wish to make plain the inductive steps that led to this hypothesis. We inductively observe that there is much messianic speculation in second temple Judaism (both in the NT and the intertestamental literature). We add to this the observation that this speculation is anchored in the OT. We then set aside the possibility that ancient people were stupid, which seems to be an implicit assumption of a good deal of modern scholarship, and we seek a hypothesis that explains the data. Since the authors of these texts are presumably seeking to be persuasive to their contemporaries (see, e.g., John 20:31), it seems to me unlikely that their contemporaries would grant the imposition of new meanings onto these texts. One hypothesis that explains the fact that “Early Christians, rabbinic sources, and the sectarians at Qumran cite the same biblical texts in their portrayals of the royal messiah” (J. J. M. Roberts, “The Old Testament’s Contribution to Messianic Expectations,” in The Messiah [ed. J. H. Charlesworth; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], 41 n. 2) is that the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope. This would mean that these disparate groups are not imposing a messianic interpretation on these texts but rightly interpreting them. This is not the only available hypothesis, but it seems to me to be the most convincing. I agree with John Sailhamer, who writes, “I believe the messianic thrust of the OT was the whole reason the books of the Hebrew Bible were written. In other words, the Hebrew Bible was not written as the national literature of Israel. It probably also was not written to the nation of Israel as such. It was rather written, in my opinion, as the expression of the deep-seated messianic hope of a small group of faithful prophets

and their followers” (“The Messiah and the Hebrew Bible,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44 [2001]: 23). The variations in messianic expectation show that the developing portrait of the coming Messiah was not crystal clear, but the pervasive expectation supports the hypothesis.

My second caveat is that though I am calling this “messianic,” I do recognize that this term seems not to receive a technical meaning until the second temple period. But as Rose has written, “It is a matter of confusing language and thought . . . to conclude on this basis that one can speak of messianic expectations properly only after a particular word was used to refer to the person at the center of these expectations” (W. H. Rose, “Messiah,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003], 566). Cf. also John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 11–12.[8]

Richard Barcellos
Midwest Center for Theological Studies
Owensboro, KY

[1] Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 23.

[2] Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 23.

[3] Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 38.

[4] Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 43.

[5] Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 47.

[6] Dempster, Dominion and dynasty, 42.

[7] James Hamilton, “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10.2 (2006), 30.

[8] Hamilton, “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman,” SBJT 10.2 (2006), 44, n.5.

  1. “Both the Pentateuch and the Gospels are theologically foundational for subsequent books, though other New Testament books were written prior to some of the Gospels.”

    Rich, doesn’t this kind of throw a wrench into your otherwise really cool theory? Also, there is a possibility that Job antedates or is contemporary with Abraham.

    For me, I think Hamilton is right”…from start to finish, the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope.” It isn’t so much that the Pentateuch and Gospels are foundational and the others build on (or from) them, it is more that the entire scripture has a consistent metanarrative which is Jesus. He shines more brightly through these literary elements because of their nature. Other inspired writing does what those do but in less direct ways. In other words, they don’t build on the Pentateuch and Gospels but remain consistent with the purpose of Scripture. This would seem to alleviate the “problem” of some writings predating the supposedly foundational documents and yet remaining true to the metanarrative.

  2. Though some books might have been written prior to the Gospels (or Pent.), subsequent books in the canon presuppose that which is recorded in the Gospels (or Pent.). For example, assuming Galatians was written prior to John, Galatians yet assumes that which John recorded. Revelation comes first in spoken word or deed (i.e., the life/death/resurrection/ascension of Christ), then in written form.

    Vos makes a crucial distinction between what he calls ‘act-revelation’ and ‘word-revelation.’ ‘Act-revelation’ refers to “the great outstanding acts of redemption.” ‘Word-revelation’ refers to the subsequent divine interpretation of ‘act-revelation.’ Vos explains:

    …such act-revelations are never entirely left to speak for themselves; they are preceded and followed by word-revelation. The usual order is: first word, then the fact, then again the interpretive word. The Old Testament brings the predictive preparatory word, the Gospels record the redemptive-revelatory fact, the Epistles supply the subsequent final interpretation.

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