As I have happened to make my way back to my seminary grad school, Asbury Theological Seminary, to take a couple of classes in Greek and Hebrew, I have had the chance to sit in Estes Chapel, see professors and even an acquaintance and former volleyball teammate turned PhD Student and my Hebrew instructor (who did a great job on day one of the class!). There is a distinctive sense of familiarity in being here, talking with the professors, being in worship, and listening to the sermons.
One of those classes is New Testament Theology by Ben Witherington, which I am actually auditing. In one of the topics that came up, Dr. Witherington addressed the way the New Testament reads the Old Testament with a Christological lens. For those familiar, this is has been a well-worn battleground in Biblical Studies and theology: can one legitimately read Christ as being described in some manner in the Old Testament? However, he went on to mention that there were only a couple of places in the Old Testament that directly referred to the Holy Spirit. This eventually spurred a line thinking: why is it that as Trinitarians we don’t talk about reading the Old Testament Pneumatologically as well as Christologically?
Now, part of the reason is that we don’t talk about that is because it isn’t an inherently controversial thesis. The cause of the contention that Christological readings of the OT stir up are manifold. There are at least three reasons.
Firstly, Christological readings of the OT almost all but assume the doctrine of the Incarnation, unless one decides to go into some heretical form of ontic angel Christology.1 The idea of God being uniquely identified as a specific human being in history radically disrupts what NT Wright refers to as the Epicurean worldview where there is a radical, disjunction between God, the heavens, and the supernatural with humans, the earth, and the natural. To do Christological readings of the Old Testament would almost certainly amount to regarding this disjunctive dualism division that has seeping into many people’s implicit way of construing life and the world as somehow wrong or false.
Secondly, Christological readings of the OT also spark contention with our religious cousins: Jews. Since one significant boundary marker between Judaism and Christianity is whether Jesus is the Messiah or not, the very act of interpreting Jesus in the Old Testament Scriptures by people who are not ethnically and culturally Jewish can seem like an act of cultural appropriation.
Thirdly, and most important for this post, is a very basic cognitive habit that many of us have, but that is rarely brought to light. I hesitate to call it anything other than a cognitive habit as it isn’t an assumption so much as it is just simply the way we have been trained to think. It relates to what philosophy knows as ontology and epistemology and what has essentially been a dominant heritage of the Western world through Plato’s Theory of Forms. There may be a name for this in the philosophical literature, but I am not familiar with it, but I refer to it as the ontic-grounding of epistemology. Simply put, the way we come to implicit understand that we know something is determined by what we believe to be the nature of the things we seek to know. Ontology determines, at least in part, our epistemology.
However, the ontic-grounding of epistemology is not the natural way we actually think. By nature, when we try to ascertain what something is, we have a sense of how to figure out what something is, and then we come to develop a sense of what that something is. However, with the Athenian philosophers, this natural way of learning got flipped on its head. In the aspiration for knowledge, Socrates derided any ideas that did not have a clear, distinct explanation for all of a particular subject matter, such as justice, as less than knowledge. Instead, Socrates’s arguments imply that one can only have knowledge if one has a clear conception of what it is one is talking about. While there is certainly some truth to this idea as a clear, distinct idea that parsimoniously, coherently, and reliably describes a wide range of other ideas, observations, experiences, etc. can be taken as a better sense of understanding than a vague, shadowy understand of a concept, something happened with Plato. Plato presents the Theory of Forms that made knowledge dependent on ontology: you can only know something because with the mind’s eye you perceive the true form that the examples in the observable world are merely imperfect representations of. Essentially, Plato turned what we could tentatively refer to as the epistemic-grounding on ontology2 Even as the Platonic forms are rejected and Aristotle’s more ontologically cautious hylomorphism, the very pattern of thinking demonstrated in Plato’s portrayal of Socrates won out. Hellenistic philosophy, both in Epicureanism and Stoicism, contain certain ontological assumptions about the way reality is that shades how they consider we come to acquire knowledge.
What does this have to do with reading the Old Testament Christologically? Everything! Reading Christ into the Old Testament is controversial because of the implicit ontological that informs the way we read the language of the Old Testament. As theories of language have moved away from referential theories of meaning that take the meanings of words to be things out in the world, we have developed an implicit ontological account of what meaning is, or more precisely, what meaning is not. Meaning is not in the world, but meaning is, essentially, mental. If Jesus is not perceived as being described by any responsible interpretation of the Old Testament, then the ontic assumptions that undergird the way we seek to come to know what the Old Testament would essentially rule out from the get-go any linguistic reference to Jesus. Meaning is only found in the text/language and not anywhere else, so if Jesus isn’t found in the responsible interpretation of the text, it is not responsible to engage in Christological readings.
Now, before I seek to address the problem being this, I want to suggest there are very good reasons for moving away from referential theories of linguistic meaning. The reason I present for that, however, is the same reason that I think modern accounts of language in interpreted the OT are also similarly flawed: all attempts to arrive at a theory for linguistic meaning that is (1) reliable, (2) coherent, and (3) exhaustive is impossible as it is my observation that language is irreducibly complex and should see the sources and functions of linguistic meaning as being unbounded. That is to state that the way words convey meaning can not be reduced to any specific single action, cognitive mechanism, source, etc. that we can then use as a theory to explain and predict all uses of language. We can only work towards a ‘meta-theory’ that can not explain or predict all uses of language, but that can only give us resources that we can then make use to understand specific instances of language usage.
This is a very complex and not entirely complete way of saying that even as language usage is not determined exclusively or even primarily by referring to things in the world, reference is often a very important, central component to language usage that is irresponsible to ever rule out as a possibility a priorii before engaging in an act of reading and interpreting. The meanings of language may, in fact, be things taken to exist in the world, but that it is due to our own ignorance that we are not able to understand the reference. Say, for instance, I were to write a story that seemed impossible about a person that I referred to as “Laura.” The way the series of events line up in the story I tell about Laura would seem so out of the norm and crazy that it would seem to most people to be an act of fiction. And yet, what if these series of events, as improbable as they might seem, actually happened, those people who actually know the story would read the language and implicitly interpret the story with a sense of reference to it, whereas those who had little to no knowledge of Laura would read it without any sense of reference. Their reading of the story would be wholly derived from a combination of (a) their own understanding of the meanings of the words and grammar I used and (b) the way the further simulate and develop the story that goes beyond what I wrote. To those who know, Laura they would think of “Laura” as referring to a specific person in the world, but to those who don’t know, “Laura” is simply regarded as a fictional character. In other words, our sense of whether someone or something is real or not has a marked influence as to how we come to derive our understanding about that someone or something.
Allow me to give another example, but one in Biblical Studies. For the sake of argument, pretend that Luke-Acts was written to Seneca the Younger to offer a defense of the early Christian movement and Paul as he was set to appear before Nero. It would be highly debatable that this is actually the case; I would imagine the majority of New Testament scholars would laugh at such an idea. But pretend for a moment that it is the case. In Acts 18.12-17, Seneca’s brother Gallio is not mentioned with any title before his name like other Roman officials in Acts, such as Felix. Instead, Gallio’s position as proconsul is described by the adverbial use of the participle ὄντος, as if the writer of Acts understood the recipient of Acts did not need to provide a formal introduction as to whole Gallio is. If this is because the name Theophilius is used to refer to Seneca in a coded manner, then we have a sense of reference that influences how we read the rest of Acts, including Paul’s defense of himself before the Stoics and Epicureans on Mars Hill in Athens. The real world Seneca is referred to by Theophilius and implicitly plays a part in the language usage by the author of Luke-Acts, even though there is no word and name whose sense can be used to identify Seneca the Younger as the recipient of Luke-Acts directly. It could also explain some of the differences between Luke and the other Synoptic gospels, where the sources Luke uses are altered in such a way so as to avoid needlessly making the early Jesus movement as expressing any anti-imperial sentiment.
This thesis that Seneca was the recipient of Luke-Acts would seem entirely unlikely to modern readers who have no first hand or second hand knowledge about such interactions between Paul and his entourage with Seneca. However, at the same time, that Paul and Seneca knew each other would explain why Tertullian thought highly of Seneca even though he wasn’t a Christian and why there was a pseudepigraphic exchange of letters between Paul and Seneca. Paul influencing Seneca in a meeting could offer a partial explanation and source for Seneca’s writing about the Holy Spirit in Epistle 41, a phrase that is highly uncharacteristic for Seneca. There is reason to suggest there could have been some second-hand knowledge about some interaction between Paul and Luke, but no decisive proof of it. As a result, those who reject the claim3 would not read Luke-Acts with Seneca in mind but imagine some other “Theophilus,” whether real or imaginary, but those who accept the claim would read Luke-Acts with the historical Seneca in mind. Our sense of what is real, both in terms of what is specifically true and what we can consider being possibly true, can influence, if not control, how we read and come to understand and ‘know’ what a text says.
In a similar manner, it may be considered perfectly legitimate to read the Old Testament with a Christological lens while at the same time not egregiously violating much of our norms and understandings of how language and texts convey meaning. Insofar as we allow for language to have a referential nature to a real God and that this God could possibly become incarnate in the specific person of Jesus at a point in history, then it is possible to see Jesus is implicitly referred to in some indirect, oblique manner, even if absolutely none of the texts of the Old Testament have the purpose of doing such. One may still reject Christological readings on the grounds that they do not believe that this God actually exists, but the readings are ruled out on the grounds of what one considers to be a matter of facts and not just simply assume it is impossible for such to be the case, either in terms of reality of God’s existence or the reality of reference as a source of linguistic meaning.
By analogy then, we can legitimate a Pneumatological reading of the Old Testament. We can go back as far as Genesis 1.2 and suggest the “wind of God” is in reference to something/someone that/who we would now call the Holy Spirit. Perhaps there is an ontic difference between the wind of God and the Holy Spirit. However, in that case, the person one would need to come to that conclusion on different grounds that basic metaphysical assumptions one makes about reality and language/meaning that rule out a priorii certain readings. In other words, one would need to have a more robust epistemology implicit in our hermeneutics and linguistics that does not require implicitly assumed ontologies to rule out Pneumatological references in the OT.
Now, here is an implication of this possibility. If indeed there is Pneumatological reference in the Old Testament and we can only reliably know someone by some sense of familiarity or experience with it, whether it be consciously recognized or not, then this would be grounds to suggest that a *fuller* understanding of the Old Testament can only be accomplished on the grounds of engagement with the Holy Spirit, that is inspiration. Even if we can understand the Old Testament in part apart from the Holy Spirit, if there are many real yet oblique Pneumatological references in the OT, then our understanding would be limited if we are not inspired. That isn’t offered to undercut “non-inspired” readings of the OT as false or unreliable, but only that in these conditions, such understandings of the text would be incomplete and partial.
And this is perfectly okay because no one fully understands everything that went into the production of a text. We all read texts with only partial illumination and comprehension at best, even the best of us. While such a difference in reading and comprehension may have profound implications for our life, it doesn’t really throw out the place of critical studies of the OT. It would just simply says to those persons who are practitioners of an almost exclusively critical hermeneutic that is skeptical of faith: “You need to focus on humbly knowing yourself first, just as we also need to do. If we both know our limitations, we can still learn from each other.”
- I describe this heresy as ontic to distinguish it from a hermeneutical pattern of drawing a relationship between Christ and figures referred to as מַלְאָךְ in the Old Testament. One does not have to always see מַלְאָךְ as referring to what we know today as angels, which we regard as a specific type of ontological beings. However, if the sermon to the Hebrews may present evidence that there may have been a ‘proto-Arian’ understanding of Jesus as an angel (or more precisely, Arius wasn’t that unique in his heresy) and so we have to distinguish between matters of hermeneutics and epistemology that come from how we read and use a text and matters of ontology. This distinction will be a critical point a little later in this post.
- I use this label with hesitancy because most of the time when we are learning, we do not usually have an explicit and reflective account of how it is that we come to know something or a deep understanding of what something is beyond. I use the label, however, to clearly make the contrast between two ways of thinking.
- One motivation rejecting this claim is that Seneca being Luke-Acts original intended recipient would put Luke before 70 AD, thereby giving evidence that Luke 21 and the parallel chapters in Matthew and Mark are not ex eventu prophecies after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.