Sunday, July 01, 2012

3.2 OT Predictions or Polyvalences

... continued from yesterday's post in my hermeneutical autobiography: What was Matthew Thinking?
I now believe that it was the expectations I had of Matthew that were wrong and that it was perfectly appropriate for Matthew to read Hosea in a figurative way like other Jewish exegetes of his day. There is no error here as far as the Bible is concerned, only in our teaching about prophecy and fulfillment.  The NT authors paid varying degrees of attention to the context of the verses in which they saw meanings. They read the OT "spiritually." Matthew pays some of the least attention to context of all the NT authors, with his method at least approaching the pesher method of interpretation we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This, mind you, is not dissimilar to the way I saw people use Scripture growing up. When my family was trying to decide whether to move to Florida or not, several verses jumped out at family members. For example, one of my sisters read a verse in Judges 1:15 that says, "Thou hast given me a south land," and felt like God wanted us to move. To be sure, the book of Judges wasn't written originally to be a prophecy about the Schenck family moving to the south.  But the meaning of words depends on the context against which you read them, and the words can be read that way when placed in the context of the Schenck family.

This is the "polyvalence" of language, its susceptibility to multiple possible meanings when read against varied contexts. And so it is that the texts of the Bible can be taken in an almost infinite number of ways, as they are.  This is the one of the mechanisms behind the over 20,000 different denominations out there. The question of the authority of Scripture pales in impact behind the question of which interpretation is authoritative. There is far more of us in what we call the Bible than most people realize.

I want to be clear here.  These texts did have an original meaning, which was a function of their original contexts.  The rules of inductive Bible study are not ambiguous and they are the surest path toward figuring out the most likely original meaning.  There are both great dangers and great potential for meaninglessness in a charismatic, pneumatic (spiritual) approach because the words can come to mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean. But we can't be too hard on those who read Scripture this way because the New Testament models it.

There is no problem to the way Matthew interprets the OT if you believe he does so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What it creates problems for is the person who wants these OT prophecies to be straightforward predictions.  It creates problems for the person who tries to use OT prophecy as an apologetic. Those who say, "It is mathematically impossible that all these predictions would come true in one person" are setting up themselves and others for a potential faith crisis--or mockery. Read in context, the majority of OT passages with which the NT engages are not read in context to varying degrees. If you don't have room in your thinking for a double meaning to those verses, you're potentially in trouble.

Take the verses in which Matthew hears foreshadowing of the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14: "a virgin will be with child and bear a son" (NASB). What did this verse originally predict in Isaiah?  The context is not ambiguous, nor the original meaning. King Ahaz is feeling the pressure of two kings to the north. Isaiah has a sign from God to assure him. Ahaz doesn't want to listen but God gives him this sign anyway. A virgin will conceive and bear a son, and before that son is old enough to tell the difference between right and wrong, the kings to the north will no longer be a problem.

Now if Christ is the only fulfillment of this prediction, it was no sign to Ahaz, because in that case Ahaz had been dead for 700 years before it came true. The expectation of the context is that Isaiah is speaking of a child who would be born soon thereafter. And this is exactly what we find.  In 8:3 Isaiah approaches a prophetess and she gives birth to a son of whom are said similar things (8:4), and this child "Immanuel" is there as the nation of Assyria flows through the land (8:8).  We are so used to reading Isaiah 7:14 in terms of a miraculous virginal conception that we forget virgins conceive all over the world every day--they just do so through normal sexual relations.  And the meaning of the Hebrew word 'alma used here could refer to a young woman who is not a virgin as well.

It does not in any way deny the virginal conception of Jesus to recognize that Isaiah 7 had a first meaning that was fulfilled in the days of Ahaz, over 700 years before Jesus. What it does is mess with the preconceptions some of us have with regard to OT prophecy. It was troubling to me when I first learned about this dynamic, not because there should be anything troubling for faith here but because of the misconceptions I had.

After I learned how to follow a passage's train of thought, to read verses in context, this dynamic was repeated over and over again.  Take Psalm 16 about God rescuing the psalmist from death and put it in the context of Jesus' death, and it can now be read in terms of Jesus' resurrection (Acts 2:10). Take Jeremiah 31:15 about the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722BC and put it in the context of Bethlehem and it can now be read in terms of Herod killing all the children there in 4BC (Matt. 2:18).  Roman Catholic scholars of the twentieth century came to call reading the OT in this way reading it in a "fuller sense," a sensus plenior.

In seminary I would learn to listen to the OT books on their own terms and would find a much richer story of God walking with his people than the flat interpretation of the OT that only reads it in terms of later Christian belief...


Dick Norton said...


There are at least two major problems with your polyvalence theory in my estimation.

First, to use Isaiah 7 as an example, the prophet Isaiah himself saw the coming of Messiah foreshadowed in his original prophecy to Ahaz, for Isa. 7:14 is in an expanded context that ends with Isa. 9:6-7. Of course, Isa. 7:14 was meant for Ahaz, but as Isaiah contemplated the near term fulfillment of that prophecy through the birth of his own son, he also began to see that the birth of his son was a foreshadowing of the birth of a greater Son to come in the future. Therefore, it is altogether appropriate for Matthew to see the fulfillment of Isa. 7:14 in Messiah's birth. He is simply following the greater context of Isaish's prophecy!

Second, if the N.T. writers and preachers made such cavalier use of the O.T. by seeing fulfillment of the O.T. prophecies in Jesus, why would they not have been laughed out of the synagogues by the Jewish scholars? In order to proclaim such an astounding message that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah, they would have to use the O.T. in the way the O.T. interprets itself. Jewish scholars wouldn't have let them get by with such "spiritualizing" of the O.T. message! I have made both of these arguments with you before, and I don't remember your having answered either one of them. My fear is, brother Ken, that you are using exegesis that is destructive to the true original meaning of the O.T. because you haven't grasped the true unity of God's word. Jesus is indeed the Messiah promised by the O.T. writers, looked forward to by the Jews of antiquity, anticipated by first century Jews such as Simeon, and openly revealed by Jesus himself as he expounded the O.T. Scriptures about himself on the Emmaus Road.

Ken Schenck said...

This was a great response Dick, and my reply was too extensive for a comment. I have posted your response and mine under another post: Dialog on Isaiah 7:14.