Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Understanding Old Testament Prophesy

Last Wednesday I re-launched a look at OT prophecy. This is by no means a comprehensive study on the subject; rather it is a look how the New Testament authors understood the Prophets. In an effort to try and understand this complex issue I want to take a Look at Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:14-21. What I want to do is look at two of the major hermeneutical approaches to this passage: sensus plenior, and the double referent position.


Many interpretive approaches have been implemented to determine the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. These various principles can basically be categorized into three separate categories. The allegorical approach to the Old Testament searches for a deeper spiritual meaning. The doctrinal approach supposes that both the Old Testament and the New Testament take the same approach to doctrinal issues. And the historical approach supposes that there are internal doctrinal changes within the Old Testament and the New Testament. There is validity within each of these approaches. However, it is best said with respect to the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament that the people of God share the experience of the living God who intervenes in their lives. Thus, in order to interpret both the Old Testament and the New Testament it is necessary to decipher the purpose of the text in the context of it’s original audience and author. All of Scripture has its own determinative sense. The question now lies in how the bible interpreter uncovers this determinative sense. In terms of how the two testaments relate “[i]f one cannot determine accurately the meaning of the Old Testament predictions, then there is no way to tell how the New Testament writers have used the text.”


Many different methodologies have been used not only to find this determinative sense, but also to define it. One such methodology that uses more of an allegorical approach to Old Testament Prophecy is Sensus Plenior. Sensus Plenior stipulates that:

The human authors at times spoke better than they knew. They did not always understand the meaning of things that they spoke. When the New Testament writers find fulfillment on the Old Testament text they often go beyond anything that the Old Testament authors understood them to mean even though their writings were inspired.

This particular view, which in its exagerated version has become very popular among catholic interpreters, is based on an understanding of 1 Peter 1:10-11. Here Peter writes:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that
would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to
know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was
indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to
follow. 1 Peter 1:10-11

Sensus Plenior interprets this passage to mean that the prophets were ignorant of the exact meaning of some of their predictions. However, this passage does not teach that the prophets were searching for what would be the impact of their predictions. They were not in search of the meaning of their prophetic writings. Their search “was an inquiry into the temporal aspects of the subject, which went beyond what they wrote.”

To better understand what the prophets understood, one must better understand who the prophets were. The office of prophet did not primarily entail predicting the future. The prophets were God’s messengers. Their calling was to declare “the word of God to a contemporary culture that needed to be challenged to cease it’s resistance to [God].” In light of this purpose it does not seem reasonable to say that the prophets preached words that had no meaning for them. Walt Kaiser, in opposition to Sensus Plenior, claims that there are five aspects of a prophetic prediction that the Prophets must have understood. First, they understood that a Messiah would come. Second, they knew that the Messiah would suffer. Third, they knew that the Messiah would ultimately be glorified. Fourth, they knew that before the Messiah would be glorified he would suffer. And finally, they understood that this message had been revealed to them not only for their own day, but also for future generations.

Based on Kaisers observations, as well as observation about the office of prophet, one must conclude that prophetic predictions were part of a message to the contemporary culture. That is why “the prophets related their prophecies to contemporary events, and circumstances.” Therefore, “[t]hese things which are not a part of the prediction in the Old Testament should not be read into the Old Testament.”

Sensus Plenior does not properly account for the original determinative meaning of a prophetic prediction, and consequently cannot determine how the New Testament writers interpreted Old Testament prophecy.


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