The Use of the OT by the NT: Transformed Organic Development

Debates over the way in which the NT cites and interprets the OT are not new. While some have argued for too simplistic of an identification between the OT texts and their NT interpretation, others have gone to the opposite extreme, asserting that the NT writers used completely non-contextual interpretive methods. G.K. Beale has been involved in this debate for some time now and yet is often misconstrued as parroting the unnuanced approach of many in fundamentalism. When one works through his methodology, however, one finds great care and sensitivity to details of the texts themselves (i.e., a commitment to paying attention to the phenomena of Scripture), but also a firm commitment to the unity of the Bible’s big-picture redemptive-historical storyline (i.e., a commitment to the nature of Scripture as defined by Scripture itself).

In reading through the new book co-written by Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd, Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery, I was driven back to Beale’s massive A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New to see what he wrote about “mystery” in 2011 and whether his presentation now in 2014 is stated differently at all. (Incidentally, from what I’ve read so far, there seems to be substantial continuity between the two books. Perhaps it could be said that Hidden But Now Revealed shows the exegetical work that informed what Beale wrote in A New Testament Biblical Theology.)

I thought this quote, describing the “transformed organic development” that is seen in the NT use of the OT, was incredibly helpful and wanted to cite it at length:

[T]he focus of these uses of “mystery” is on the kind of fulfillment that often is different from what one would have expected in the pre-Christian era as a reader of the OT prophecies. These references to “mystery” are the tip of the hermeneutical iceberg, where in many other places of the NT the same kind of transformed fulfillment occurs but without the use of [the word] “mystery.” The NT’s christological and eschatological presuppositions, based on the revelation of Christ’s acts in history and the historical response to those acts, are the justification of such readings. Indeed, Christ and the NT writers would see such apparently unexpected fulfillments not as a twisting of the OT Scripture or a reading into Scripture of foreign meanings but rather as organic, transformed outgrowths of it. In this respect, William Sanford LaSor has said,

In one sense, it [the sensus plenior, the fuller meaning] lies outside and beyond the historical situation of the prophet, and therefore cannot be derived by grammatico-historical exegesis. But in another sense, it is part of the history of redemption, and therefore it can be controlled by the study of Scripture taken in its entirety.

Perhaps an illustration will make [this] clear … An ordinary seed contains in itself everything that will develop in the plant or tree to which it is organically related: every branch, every leaf, every flower. Yet no amount of examination by available scientific methods will disclose to us what is in that seed. However, once the seed has developed to its fullness, we can see how the seed has been fulfilled … [and] we have sufficient revelation in the Scriptures to keep our interpretations of sensus plenior from becoming totally subjective.

I think it better to speak of “transformed organic development” than sensus plenior because the latter term has been understood and misunderstood in different ways. Geerhardus Vos has also likened what appears to be later transformed fulfillments to the organic development of a tree. As an apple seed develops into a small stalk and then into an apple tree with branches and leaves, and as the tree buds and the flower opens from it, so does biblical revelation develop. And one does “not say that in the qualitative sense the seed is less perfect than the tree.” A blooming apple tree does not look like the seed from which it came, but the two are still organically related and are to be identified as the same organism. Jesus as the Passover Lamb is a good example of this. John says that when the soldiers did not break Jesus’s legs at his crucifixion (John 19:33), this was the fulfillment of the historical description of not breaking the bones of the Passover lamb in Exod. 12:46 (John 19:36). It is likely that John would not have insisted that both the original readers and the writer of Exodus would have apprehended that this historical narration about the Passover lamb was a prophetic pointer to the death of the Messiah. Nevertheless, John believes that such a prophetic notion lay unseen there in seed form in the text of Exodus, waiting to be revealed at a later time.

Would Moses have been surprised by how John has understood the Passover lamb? Perhaps. But presumably he would have understood how John came up with such a typological view, since Moses himself likely had an understanding that some aspects of the very events in the lives of the patriarchs and of Israel had a foreshadowing character, pointing to later events.

Pgs. 954-55. Bold emphasis added.

I hope to blog on the new volume by Beale & Gladd soon. The content (so far) is impressive, although the writing style is a bit prolix. Pastors will love consulting it and referencing the methodological and summarizing chapters, but my hunch is that the exegetical portions (though excellent) will not be easily read through by the average reader.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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