A Second Response to Josh Sommer

First Response

In Part Two of his reply to my articles on Deciphering Covenant Theology Josh wants to focus on three paragraphs in my second article. These paragraphs to be precise:

What I want to point out is that there are two assertions here not one. The first assertion is that without the NT the OT “would remain largely veiled to us.” The second is that “we would see Christ only dimly.”

While there is no doubt that the second assertion is spot on, what about the first opinion? Notice that the whole OT is basically being boiled down to the figure of Christ. But although Christ is certainly crucial to the OT, isn’t it true that the Hebrew Bible is about more than Him? What about the covenants that God pledges to Israel and His election of them? What about Jerusalem and the temple? What about David’s throne in Jerusalem? Aren’t these perfectly clear as given by the OT? According to CT (and NCT’s) the answer is No! How come?

I think Brown & Keele answer this question well from a CT perspective. The thing to keep in mind, they tell us, is that there are in fact two distinct stages of fulfillment. The first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts. But the second level of fulfillment is different.

Josh then says,

“In my lengthy quotation of Henebury above, he takes aim at the covenant theologian’s assumption that the Old Testament is reducible to the “figure of Christ,” at least as it regards understanding the significance thereof. But what if the New Testament itself invites us to make such an assumption? For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul writes, “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” Required to understand the Old Testament is repentance and faith in Christ, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (v. 16)”

Since the point at issue here is intramural between saved interpreters of the Bible how is 2 Cor. 3:14 relevant? Hold on. He then states:

Henebury implies Brown & Keele deny that the Old Testament concerns covenants other than the gospel, the nation of Israel, David’s throne, etc. But even if they did elsewhere, that is not what Brown & Keele say in the section Henebury interacts with. Instead, they insinuate Christ as the interpretive key to a full understanding of the Old Testament. There is nothing substantially different in what they say and what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians (sic). 

Of course, Josh has misread me. Nowhere do I imply any such thing regarding Brown & Keele (please read my second paragraph above to see what I actually said). My concern was their assertion that without the NT “the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us.” Now he is misusing 2 Cor. 3:14, which is about how Israel, because of their rejection of Christ, cannot see the New covenant in Him when they read their OT. When they turn to Him “the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16).

Josh, along with most CT’s, employs 2 Cor. 3:14 to try to prove that you need the NT Christ to comprehend the OT, which is not what Paul is talking about there. Paul is not saying that the whole OT cannot be understood unless one receives Jesus. When he refers to the “old covenant” he is referring to the Mosaic covenant, which he is contrasting with the New covenant in the chapter. He is not speaking of the whole New Testament, which wasn’t in existence when he wrote 2 Corinthians! This is a common category mistake that I have written about here. Brown & Keele conflate the Mosaic covenant with the entire OT on page 102 of their book where they assert, “The very name Old Testament means the old covenant of Sinai compared to the new covenant.” They are tricky here because they make the Mosaic covenant a synecdoche (a part representing the whole) for the whole Hebrew Bible. Paul’s meaning is that the Jews were clinging to the Mosaic covenant and thus were missing the New covenant Gospel (see also Rom. 10:1-5). One enters into the New covenant through Christ (2 Cor. 3:14, 16).

But let’s follow Josh’s logic here. If he, along with Brown & Keele and CT’s generally, holds that without the NT “the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us,” then it follows that until believers had the NT they could hardly understand the OT. But Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this very thing:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. – John 5:39-40.

In other words, they were rebuked because they didn’t see Christ in the OT. He wasn’t veiled. It was their stubborn refusal to believe the OT witness that condemned them. In my first response to Josh I cited Luke 10:25-28 which would make no sense at all if Brown & Keele are right. The OT was the Bible of the Jesus and the Apostles. They appealed to it. And as I write elsewhere: “Since the OT was the Bible of the Early Christians it would mean no one could be sure they had correctly interpreted the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.”

Other Stuff

Josh misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 3:14 because he was looking for a proof-text to validate his position that the NT has interpretive priority over the OT. He continues in this vein in the second half of his post:

The controversy resides in what to do with all the other stuff: Israel, the Davidic throne, the promised land of Canaan, future promises revealed in the Old Testament for Israel, etc. How do we account for these things?…they themselves could only be understood properly in light of Christ. If we try to understand them on the Old Testament’s own terms, neglecting the fuller revelation of God in the New Testament, we essentially try to read the Old Testament as the unconverted Jew does, practically rejecting the significance of the new covenant.  

This “other stuff” is rooted in God’s unilateral covenants. Covenants must be hermeneutically fixed and not open to reinterpretation (E.g., a marriage covenant). But in CT these covenants could not be understood in their OT contexts says Josh. They needed to wait until they could be interpreted “in light of Christ” (by which he essentially means the cross and resurrection). If we, like all those unfortunate OT saints, try to actually take God at His oath, we might as well be unconverted interpreters! That is what Josh believes. Read his quote again. He’s not saying that we are not saved, but he is saying we are interpreting the OT as if we were unsaved.

Enter the equivocating god! This is a god who requires faith in what he says even when what he says creates false expectations which will only be ironed out to make sense hundreds of years after those who believe it are dead. On this view, the covenants obviously are in need of reinterpretation by the NT. They cannot be understood as they stand.

Josh thinks my “method of understanding the Old Testament revelation strictly according to the Old Testament’s own terms would seemingly lead to a systemic rejection of any interpretive import from the New Testament.” No, it would only mean that I reject CT’s interpretation of the NT because it requires that the OT cannot be understood on its own terms.

He asks concerning Isaiah 53: “How would one see the full sense of Isaiah 53 apart from the New Testament?” He wouldn’t of course. But this does not require us to reinterpret Isaiah 53 by the NT. It would only require us to connect it to Jesus. This is just what the Ethiopian eunuch did in Acts 8:25-38. The official understood Isaiah 53. He just didn’t know who it was about. Note, he was not born-again until he believed the connection that Philip made. Therefore, contrary to Josh’s misunderstanding of 2 Corinthians 3:14 he did not need to first exercise “repentance and faith in Christ” to comprehend Isaiah 53, or the rest of the OT. He exercised faith and repentance once he understood the connection. So Paul says, “whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16). When is the veil removed? According to the Apostle it is when (henika) the person has turned to the Lord. How many of us understood that we were entering the New covenant when we accepted Christ? Very very few I’ll warrant.

The Land Promise

Joshua 21:43, Josh claims, “is a significant problem for those who make the claim that the land promise was never fulfilled in the Old Testament. It obviously was.” Well, we need to check again. As I said in another place,

“[A]ny reflection on Joshua 23:11-12 and Judges 1 and 3 shows that the [CT] interpretation fails to take the wider historical context into consideration.

As Chisholm explains, “The land belonged to Israel, by title deed if not in fact.”  To all intents and purposes, the land belonged to Israel, and possession of the remaining territory was contingent upon covenant faithfulness to Yahweh.

Yet there is a sense in which the land-grant of Genesis 15 must also be seen eschatologically.  The extent of that land promise still awaits final fulfillment.  In light of this it is best to interpret Joshua 21:43-45 as a statement of God’s fulfilled promise in terms of His covenant faithfulness to a yet disobedient, willful and sometimes feckless people.  The land was now “Israel”, though not the promised Kingdom.”

  Moreover, the CT position on Joshua 21:43 also fails to explain the high note of expectation regarding the promised land running through all the Prophets. I cite page 361 of my The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation:

“The literal physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are entitled to the land of “Palestine” on the basis of the ratified unconditional promises of God (Gen. 15; 17; 22). In fact, their eventual entitlement will be considerably larger in extent than Palestine (Gen. 15:18-21).7 This covenant promise regarding the land is repeated throughout Old Testament history (e.g. Gen. 12:7; 15:7-21; 17:7-8; 22:15-24; 24:7; 28:13-15; Exod. 12:25; 33:1; Deut. 1:8; Isa. 5:25-26; 11:11-12; Jer. 12:14-17; 23:5-8; 30:18; 31:27-40; 33:10-13, 18-21; Ezek. 34:11-31; 37:1-14; Hos. 13:9-14:9; Mic. 2:12; Zeph. 2:19-20; Zech. 12:10-11; 14:16-21).8 This land was to be perpetually theirs once the nation repents and receives Jesus as Messiah (e.g. Deut. 4:29-31; 28:40-41, 44-45; 30:1-2, 10; Jer. 16:14-15; Ezek. 11:14-20; Amos 9:14-15). Also, like it or not, the Old Testament teaches that Israel will become the head of the nations (e.g. Deut. 15:6; 28:1,13; Isa. 60:10-13; 62:1-12; Zeph. 3:20).”

Before ending I feel I must respond to this paragraph from Josh:

“However, given my above thesis, that the New Testament itself requires we read the Old Testament in light of it, the land of Canaan, like the acorn, was certainly destined for a higher purpose. Its purpose was to grow into something greater. I believe this can be seen in the Old Testament, such as in Isaiah 57:13, where the land is given by faith, which was not how the land was originally given to the descendants of Abraham. Those descendants were required to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law inherently implied by circumcision following the Sinaitic covenant. (Gal. 5:3) Nevertheless, it is the New Testament that unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land, “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:16).”

Here are a few clipped observations:

  1. In the first sentence Josh means that the NT requires we read the OT in light of the way CT’s interpret it. But we don’t agree with how CT’s interpret the NT oftentimes; especially the prophetic portions. So, e.g., the Book of Revelation is not really a prophecy but is turned into what I would call an “idealist allegory.” Hence, the problem of interpretation doesn’t stop with the OT.
  2. Notice the storyline. The land of Canaan “was destined…to grow into something greater.” Where does the NT teach that? (I see a misuse of Romans 4:13 on the horizon). This is added storyline freighted into the Bible.
  3. Isa. 57:13 is supposed to support this. Actually he uses only the last part (“But he who puts his trust in Me shall possess the land, and shall inherit My holy mountain.”). But the “land” and the “holy mountain” there is Israel and Zion (notice the offerings in v. 6). It is not some expanded heavenly land as envisaged by Josh. God is denouncing their idolatry. But Josh’s point about the need for faith here is surprising. Does he really think faith is not important in inheriting the land? Has he not read e.g., Leviticus 26? What is making him misread Isaiah 57?
  4. Josh claims “the New Testament… unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land.” So the original purpose of God for the land was not what the OT said it was! God was speaking in code when on multiple occasions He promised a specific land to Israel and backed it by a solemn oath? That is where one comes out when CT’s deductive hermeneutics is followed, where the meaning of OT texts is deduced from ones preferred reading of the NT.
  5. Josh appeals to Hebrews 11:16, which he uses to teach that the “original purpose” of the land promise was heaven (Why then did God not simply say that?). Josh says “The heavenly country in Hebrews 11:16 isn’t the land of Canaan, per se.” Actually, it wasn’t the land of Canaan in any way, shape or form. Why would God take an oath like He did in Gen. 15:12-21, which was echoed unchanged by the psalmist a thousand years later (Psa. 105:6-11) if He had heaven in mind all along? Of course, Abraham knew he wouldn’t inherit the land (Gen. 15:13), and the OT saints were waiting for Messiah, so they knew they would die before the predicted kingdom would come. The text tells us they expected to go to heaven.
  6. But Josh then takes us to Hebrews 12:18-24. He utilizes it to teach that we all go to the “kingdom” (Heb. 12:28) in heaven which is our permanent home. This is to misread the passage. I cannot write a commentary here, but Hebrews 12:18-24 is referring to the New covenant as represented by the things in verses 22-24 as opposed to the old covenant which is represented by the things in verses 18-21. He fails to discern the application in verses 25-29 which refer to the created order, not to God’s dwelling place. (See e.g., F. F. Bruce, Hebrews, 383). Josh is looking for proof-texts. He is not reading the passages in context.


5 thoughts on “A Second Response to Josh Sommer”

  1. You lost me with clipboard point #6. The way you word your objection seems meant to evoke disgust at the “going to heaven” trope, the idea that we don’t get a land, like God said; instead we all “go to heaven.” But that is not the way Josh was arguing at all. He was speaking of a New Heavens and a New Earth, which is manifestly what we are looking forward to. Isaiah says it, and the NT confirms it. Why the provocative wording?

    1. I am genuinely confused by your comment. Hebrews 12:22-23 refer to heaven. Josh appealed to them to prove that the “land of Canaan” is now enlarged and is now heaven:

      “The heavenly country in Hebrews 11:16 isn’t the land of Canaan, per se, and it isn’t distinctively Jewish as many dispensationalists would have it. Hebrews 12:18-24 later defines this heavenly Jerusalem as something possessed by the saints. It comes with the receiving of the kingdom (v. 28), and it is unshakable.”

      His words. How have I misrepresented him?

      1. He goes on to say, “Such a heavenly Jerusalem should be connected to the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”” He is talking about the people of God inheriting Canaan in the New Earth, if I am reading him correctly.
        Perhaps it is I who am confused. Are you not accusing him of supplanting a land inheritance with “going to heaven,” in the cheap and unbiblical way that phrase is often bandied about?

  2. Yes, I saw that and it did make me think. But experience tells me that Josh does not believe that the New Jerusalem in Rev. 20 is literal. Therefore, the Hebrews references, which are not about the new heavens and earth, persuaded me that he meant heaven.
    I don’t view the doctrine of heaven in the way you describe. “Going to heaven” is momentous and wonderful and if I believe Scripture taught that heaven is the final destination of the saints it would suit me just fine.
    Let me think more about it. Perhaps I will rephrase Point 6.

    Thank you and God bless.

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