A little while back Fred Butler told me that he had passed on my Forty Reasons article to a group of brethren connected with a network called Bible Thumping Wingnut. These men are proponents of New Covenant Theology and host a podcast called ‘Conversations on the Porch.’ They decided to spend some time on a critique of my article. This series of posts is my belated rejoinder to what they had to say.
First off, I have to admit that it is not easy to argue well with people who don’t put much effort into understanding your position. This was evidenced any number of ways, including the pain-inducing way at least one of the three presenters read from my article, which showed a lack of attention to what I wrote.
What was perhaps most frustrating to me was how, despite these brothers claiming to deal with some of the “reasons”, they paid little attention to the words of the article and “rebutted” points which I did not raise. And even though their podcast was entitled “40 Reasons Paul Henebury is Wrong…” they only dealt with ten of my points, chosen at random. For this reason I will not go through each of their ten responses since they just keep repeating the same set of stock answers.
“Distinctive Number Two”
Early on in the two hour recording the presenters agreed that the premise that the NT has to interpret the OT is “a huge distinctive for NCT”. They call it “distinctive number two” of New Covenant Theology. Their attempts to show this were pretty shallow. It basically resolved itself into citing a NT precedent, often without a context, and treating it as a fait accompli. This leaves me with next to nothing to respond to, since I might simply point out that, for instance, the introduction to the Book of Hebrews does not give carte blanche to people who want to treat OT details as symbolical foreshadowings. But here goes.
Problems with My Intro
Although they failed to represent my intro properly, they did stop for a few criticisms. They straight away appealed to Hebrews 1:1-2. Those verses say that God has spoken through His Son. This is all that is needed for us to be told “the greatest revelation is Jesus Christ”. But what does that mean? If it means that Jesus’ first advent ministry of three years plus constituted the highest expression of God’s word to those who saw and heard Him, who will not agree? What it does not and cannot mean is that Jesus’ words were more inspired and authoritative than the words of the Hebrew Bible.
One of the presenters then informed us that “there is progressive revelation”, as if that just settles it. But progressive revelation is a very different animal from their perspective than from mine. You see, as used by CT’s and NCT’s it is neither really progressive, nor is it very revelatory. It does not mean that God’s revelation is traceable in verbal continuity backwards and forwards through the Testaments, but means only, “this is what all that stuff in the OT really meant” revelation. I have previously written on this. One observation I made was this:
It would be absurd for a person who professed to come across a bear to claim that the bear made the leopard tracks he was following. Even so, a person is acting this way who looks back from Christ’s first coming and declares that the covenants which promised land and Davidic throne and prosperity to national Israel are “transformed” or “expanded” so that they are fulfilled spiritually or typologically by the Church. Discontinuity in the meaning of words often features large in such approaches. In reality, this is a non-progressive approach, wherein any supposed connections between the building blocks of revelation (i.e. the progressions) are not self-evident, but merely dogmatically asserted to be such. What is on view here is not really progressive revelation, it is “supercessive” or “substitutive”, “transformative”, or at least “revised” revelation, wherein one entity is switched out for another or morphed into something else.
It can easily be demonstrated that there is an inspired intertextual usage of earlier OT texts by later OT writers: earlier covenants are cited unchanged in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26).
For instance, when we come to “land” in Genesis 13 and 15, we find it to be interpreted as the very same “land” hundreds of years later in Psalm 105:6-11
When you follow footprints in the snow you have definite expectations of who or what made them. Progress and expectation are connected. By contrast, CT and NCT practices are rather like having those expectations completely overturned (no “progress”). What progressive revelation boils down to in this approach is their interpretations of the NT. In my intro I stated:
the New Testament is believed to have revelatory priority over the Old Testament, so that it is considered the greatest and final revelation. And because the NT is the final revelation of Jesus Christ, the only proper way to understand the OT is with the Christ of the NT directing us. Though proponents of this hermeneutic may define “reinterpret” with slippery words like “expansion” or “foreshadowing,” they are still insisting the OT can be, and in some cases, should be, reinterpreted through the lens of the NT.
The Pivotal First Reason…and the Deathblow
Let me reproduce the first of my forty reasons why the NT doesn’t reinterpret (sorry, “interpret”) the OT.
Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT. Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this. No Apostolic writer felt it necessary to place in our hands this hermeneutical key, which they supposedly used when they wrote the NT.
The three antagonists agreed that if this first reason fails then the other 39 also fail. I myself cannot see the logical connection; not even between Reason 1 and Reason 2. Although there is some development in my list, there is also a fair amount of diversity in the arguments I raise. Toppling one does not unduly effect all the rest. I understand that these brethren would claim that the NT does give explicit permission to them to (re)interpret the OT with the NT. Fine, but how do they prove it? Do they deliver the “deathblow” they speak about? Nein! The only way one would think that is by sheer partisanship. So let’s take a look at the texts they repair to:
The presenters give Heb. 10:1 and Col. 2:16-17 as justification for viewing the prophecies and covenants in the OT as foreshadowings. Now Hebrews 10:1 refers to the Law having a shadow of things in its sacrifices. Which things and what sacrifices? In answer to the first question, it is the sacrifices, especially at the Day of Atonement (Heb. 10:3), that are shadows of Christ’s final work. The verse does not say that the prophetic covenants of the OT are shadows. And Col. 2:16-17 refers to the ceremonial observations of the Law which are eclipsed by Christ, who is the substance of what these regulations portended. How so? Well in Paul’s argument in Colossians it has to do with Christ’s sufficiency and finality for acceptance with God. The Gospel is not Christ-plus, but Christ alone.
So there are foreshadowings in the OT, but how does this address my concerns in the 40 Reasons? How does this prove the Apostles employed ‘transformational’ hermeneutics? If one reads them with attention it is apparent that I am not really concerned with such things as new moons and sacrificial offerings. I speak particularly to things like places (Reasons 3, 4, 15, 24, etc.), and promises (Reasons 11, 21, 23, 26, etc). Do these referents change? Do they become something else? Something unexpected? If all the OT was made up of cultic and ceremonial laws I would not have so many scruples, but I hardly need to say that there is a great deal more material in it than that. Hebrews 10 and Colossians 3 do not address that material.
Appeal to the Apostolic Practice
Plowing this furrow a little more, they go to the “mystery” in Ephesians 3 and claim that Paul’s teaching about the “new man” in Ephesians 2:15 shows us “how we’ve received insight into all this [i.e. the OT]?” And we want to ask, “Which insight? That the NT should be read back into the OT?” Where do they get that from? They claim that “everything [ought to be interpreted] in the light of Christ”. But what does that mean? Is Christ to be artificially forced into places where He does not seem to be present? Of course, Christ is central to the framework of the Bible – it’s creation, fall, redemption motif; and I have made a case that He is central to the biblical covenants.
A favorite proof-text for those sympathetic with my three objectors is 1 Peter 1:10-12. As one of them commented in light of this text, the fulfillment in Christ “wasn’t revealed to them [the OT writers] but unto us.” Further on they say that even though the original human author didn’t intend for the NT meaning to be their meaning, the Holy Spirit did intend it. They cite Baptist theologian Rich Barcellos who said “the best interpreter is the Holy Spirit”
I feel like saying, “Yes, but you aren’t the Holy Spirit. That statement means nothing at all if you and I are not in agreement with Him. And we surely can only be in such agreement if we believe what the Holy Spirit says.”
The 40 Reasons engage the issue by making the claim that one cannot claim to believe what the Spirit says in the NT while not agreeing with what He says in the OT.
More to come…