An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Greetings, I’m Fred Zaspel, and welcome to another Author Interview here at Books At a Glance.
Just what do we learn from the New Testament Gospels about the nature and character of Scripture? What is the relationship of Scripture to Jesus and the gospel? Just how does Jesus “fulfill” Scripture? Matthew Barrett takes up and brings together a wide range of questions like this in his new book, Canon, Covenant, and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel, and he’s here to talk to us about it today.
Matthew, it’s good to have you back, and congratulations on your new book!
Thanks for having me. I am glad to be able to join you again.
I’ll move on from here to some specific questions, but first, tell us in just brief, broad strokes what your book is all about and what you hope to accomplish.
I wrote this book because as evangelical Christians, we obviously hold a very high view of the Bible, but I also noticed that sometimes the way we approach the Bible is a bit pigeonholed. We sometimes are looking for that magic proof text just to tell us what the Bible is, and something we get even a little bit nervous about is when we come to the Gospels, which is a very different genre, and we don’t see necessarily the direct or explicit statement by Jesus about inspiration, inerrancy and so on. I argue that that doesn’t mean, however, that Jesus and the Gospel writers don’t have just a high view of Scripture, as we might think, say when we approach other authors of the New Testament. Rather, they do have just as a high of a convictional doctrine of Scripture, but it comes out in a very different way.
I argue that when we consider the canon of Scripture as a whole, and when we consider how it’s fulfilled specifically in Jesus Christ, we then began to notice that not just Jesus is assumptions about what the canon is, and how he brings it to fulfillment, but also we begin to notice how the canon points forward to him and how everything God said is confirmed and verified and shows itself true in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I could go on to talk about more, that really is the heart behind it. In the covenants we see throughout the Old Testament and it blossoms in the New Testament, because God is as he reveals himself through redemption. That redemption is wrapped up in these covenants and as he fulfills these covenants, we see not just with the canon is, but we see the divine author bring the canon to its ultimate culmination and finality.
So let’s expand on that a bit. Just how is this doctrine of Scripture reflected in Jesus and the Gospel writers?
The short answer is that it is reflected in a thousand ways. It’s hard to even sum up everything, but let me see if I can try. I would point our listeners to a couple things. First of all, who Jesus is, and second, what he says, and third, what he does. But let me maybe start in the reverse of what he does. Jesus arrives on the scene, and through his miracles through his life, through his teaching, through his death, through his resurrection and ascension, Jesus brings the very Scriptures that God’s authority brings the very Scriptures to fulfillment, and as he does so, we not only see Jesus’s own view of the canon shine and become radiant, but we also see how Jesus perceives his own words and what kind of authority those words have, we see that then passed on handed down to his disciples, so that as the New Testament is written, but the gospel of Jesus Christ itself is inscripturated. As Jesus cuts the new covenant by his own blood, what he does actually speaks volumes about what the canon is, but also what he says, when we look at the teachings of Jesus is. It’s interesting how Jesus not only not only reveres his Bible, so to speak, that he inherited. We see how he reads from the scroll of Isaiah. For example, we see in the temple how he interacts and quotes from the Old Testament. But, especially in how Jesus himself then obeys those Scriptures for us.
We often talk about this, how we should be the righteousness of Christ and by faith we receive that righteousness. But all that assumes of course he acquired that righteousness for us not only by dying, but living for us. His obedience to the Scriptures actually says volumes about what he thinks the canon is. The last point would be who Jesus is. If Jesus is who he says is, if he really is the eternal son of God, who has become incarnate, then we had better listen. If he really is “before Abraham was, I am,” and of course the religious leaders wanted to kill him for statements like this. If this is really his authority, what he thinks of the canon, how he sees the canon fulfilled in his own life, death and resurrection, then that carries a certain finality to it. That only tells us what the Old Testament is all about, but how we are then to perceive the Old Testament being fulfilled in Jesus Christ and how we then received this gospel of Jesus Christ in Scripture is fulfilled in the New Testament.
Let’s go in another direction for a minute. What is the relation between inspiration and authorial intent? I appreciated your point here. And explain for us how inspiration guarantees that the Bible’s many stories tell just one story.
This is a point that I can’t emphasize enough. I devote an entire chapter to the beginning of the book. It is brief. I mean, really, this point deserves a whole book itself. But I felt as though I had to address this issue to even before you got into saying the Old Testament, all the typology, and the practice of biblical theology, but, to answer your question, yes, sometimes we when we talk about the doctrine of Scripture, we talk about inspiration and we say Scripture is inspired by God and is breathed out by God. However, sometimes when we began to interpret the Bible from Old Testament to New Testament, we sometimes act as though that’s not true. What do I mean?
We might sign off on inspiration. But then, we leave that doctrine to move into our practice of hermeneutics, we put on blinders that narrow our focus just to the human author. We want to make sure we are preserving the integrity of the human author and the diversity, of course, of the many human authors across the whole span of redemptive history and the canon. We are not denying that.
However, if we stop there, and if we only focus there, for example, on grammar or the historical background, or perhaps what only, you know, the human author may have understood, it is in that moment in the immediate context, we essentially are approaching the text like deists, as if the divine author just at some point dropped the Scriptures down from the sky rather than understanding inspiration as something that occurred over a long period of time. Revelation was a very progressive process, and God not only inspired the text, but in that process, his authorial intent is found throughout.
If we were detectives or investigators, we would find his fingerprints everywhere often from the beginning, from Adam to the end. All that to say is we if we don’t understand that there is a divine authorial intent from beginning to end, the unity of Scripture just vanishes, and are left with a mere unity of means or concepts. But there would no one divine author, ensuring that his plan of salvation and his revelation progresses, continues, and is ultimately fulfilled in his own Son.
All that is to say when we are reading Scripture, yes, we want to pay attention to what an individual author is saying in a particular text, but we shouldn’t feel embarrassed or out of line to then read that text in light of its context, where it stands in the story of the whole Bible, seeing how the divine author goes a little beyond what any human author is doing to bring this whole story together. I think that this is a foundational presupposition, even for any discussions of typology, promise fulfillment, sensus plenior, and the discipline of biblical theology itself.
So behind all the various authors of Scripture is a single Author revealing himself through them all and telling his story. And when we are reading this or that part of the story we must see it in light of the bigger story. I have often thought that this is the same, not just in doing theology as a specific endeavor. But in all preaching, we’ve often been told that to do expository preaching, we have to follow the text in its context, and all that is right of course, it seems to me that the until we’ve seen that text and context in its largest context in the big story, our study is not done now.
That’s exactly right, Fred, that is exactly right, but it’s funny that this is all so controversial is that is because it’s so basic—so basic—just to be a Christian to reading your Bible as a whole to reading your Bible like a Christian, believing that there’s a divine author has orchestrated all this is not just the place that is not just the main actor on this stage is also the scriptwriter himself. It fuels everything from the discipline of biblical theology to systematic theology to preaching itself. All of this assumes the divine authorial intent.
I think about a lot of preachers would find what you do in your book very helpful in preaching through some various parts of the Gospels, to show to see how you work through those things there.
Explain for us briefly the role of covenant in divine revelation. And how is it that Scripture is itself the treaty or covenant document?
This is so important, and I don’t get into all of the debates of covenant theology and dispensationalism. While those are important debates, my purpose in this book is different. I hope that most people can come to this understanding of covenant and recognize that right away, beginning in the Old Testament, we see this concept of this reality of covenant.
I would argue we see it as early as Adam in the garden, even though the word “covenant” is not used, the very principle is there with the stipulations Adam is given, his responsibilities, to the way that God initiated, and so regardless this idea of covenant really connects us to the canon you think of Israel at Sinai, for example, as God enters into really even sends Moses. Moses ascends up the mountain of the Lord, and the covenant that God establishes there at Sinai, through Moses. We know the story—we know that God, of course, is the faithful covenant partner in this arrangement. Israel really doesn’t take long at all. Moses gets down from the mountain and Israel is already breaking the covenant that God established. This is tragic, but when I point out is that the covenant throughout the canon.
What example we see it is throughout the Exodus, God is speaking metaphorically of us. He is writing the “10 words,” what we call the Ten Commandments, with his own finger and says these words are then back to the constitution for the people of God, to guide and instruct them, holding them accountable, and even giving life, but, of course, they can’t live up to them. That very principle continues throughout the Old Testament thought so that the canon is a really a covenant treaty and by the time we get to the prophets, for example, whether it’s Israel before, during or after exile, the prophets then become prosecutors of this covenant treaty, and they can point to the covenant treaty itself and say “look” what all he said, and you strayed from the one true God into idolatry. Ultimately, they are looking forward anticipating a much better covenant in Jesus Christ.
I don’t think it’s an accident that John opens his Gospel, and the latter of John 1, is all about the gospel. Before he begins by pointing to Christ as the very fulfillment of all promises and types made in the Old Testament and he calls him the “Word.” Of course, he is the eternal Lord of all, was God’s word, and yet John is also pointed out that this very word of course identified is the Son himself is thought to come as he arrives on the scene and can point to the canon that Israel has inherited from God. But, Jesus says, “Listen to me. I’m going to speak out and going to speak as with all the divinity and the power of God himself,” and so much more should be said, but the idea of covenant is really crucial. I think there’s obviously exceptions, but I think in a lot of the treatments of the doctrine of Scripture, it gets overlooked.
How is Christ the “clamp” that binds together the Old and New Testaments?
I can’t remember who it is, but I think it’s number of people who used the phrase “he’s the Christological clamp of the two Testaments.” Even if we go back in time to some of my B. B. Warfield, we see this idea in some of his writings as well; it is so fascinating because Christ, we know we tend to think of Christ, as you know, we identify Christ of the New Testament, and that there’s obvious reason for that. But in terms of the advent of Christ, it’s intertestamental, so we could say it’s in between the times, as Israel is there, there has been a long silence from the prophets until his arrival anticipating when this Messiah might come. Of course, he does come, and when he comes, he brings to fulfillment all that God had said previously, and in doing so, he brings salvation itself. Now that assumes, of course, that the types and shadows of the Old Testament canon pointed forward to him, and despite the skepticism of the religious leaders, Christ then claims to fulfill those types and shadows in his own person and work, which means that you know as his Gospel is then inscripturated in what we now call the New Testament Canon, Christ can be identified as the clamp. The clamp that bridges and holds together what came before and what came after.
I do want to clarify here for the listeners, and you can go to my book if they want to read more on this, but we should then think that Christ is, you know, this Christological clamp, then we should really avoid thinking of say the Gospel writers or Jesus himself were, or the New Testament writers, adopting the Old Testament, or worst-case, trying to somehow read Christ back into the Old Testament. That sometimes has been the approach taken. I would argue that’s actually not what was happening, that they aren’t having to invent Christ where he wasn’t before. Rather, especially in light of what was said about the divine author, the church itself is recognizing how God is bringing his plan to fulfillment, which means that the New Testament canon we have in our hands is very much the fulfillment, culmination, and we could even say capstone to that foundation, that we received in the Old Testament. So, it’s not a matter of inventing something or creating something new. I prefer to think of it as the Gospel writers do more in the context of promise and fulfillment and in the end, seating the Old Testament in the New Testament, they are not segregated from one another, but really they are an organic whole, even in unity.
It’s just the next step, then, but explain for us your assertion that “nothing demonstrates Scripture’s divine origin and trustworthy nature more than the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Sometimes when we talk about the doctrine of inerrancy, there’s a lot of debate yesterday and today over this doctrine of inerrancy. We sometimes are looking for a certain verse, and that doesn’t say that much. What I argue is that, especially with it when it comes to Jesus in the Gospels, we don’t have to do some exegetical gymnastics to somehow make inerrancy work, or stretch it to make the Scriptures be seen as truthful, but rather that the very idea, the very concepts of the truthfulness of the canon, is intrinsic, and what God has done and how his promises are brought to fulfillment in Christ.
In other words, what you said, Fred, the greatest confirmation and verification we have of the canon’s truthfulness is that Christ has come, and the tomb was found empty. If the tomb is not found empty, then we don’t have any basis to assert the truthfulness of the canon, but because Christ is risen and ascended, we have every reason to have assurance. Really, what God has said has come true. For that reason, I try to encourage students and pastors and Christians, not to limit yourself to look at the truthfulness of Scripture from this, it’s more of a holistic picture of the canon as a whole.
Walk us through your book briefly in overview, chapters 1-6, to highlight the way you approach your subject and establish your project.
In chapter 1, I discussed divine authorial intent and the unity of canon—much of what we’ve discussed so far. I also discussed typology and how typology isn’t just say a hermeneutical method, but is actually revelation itself, and how God is revealing these types because he intends to bring them to fulfillment in the antitype, which is Christ himself. I really try to make a case in chapter 1 for the divine author and his intent across the canon. In chapter 2, I move to the Old Testament, specifically with the idea of canon like we talked about it. I show that there’s not just the canon that comes to us wrapped in the context of the covenants, but that the canon itself has a certain self-consciousness to it, so that by the time you get to the prophets, they are very aware of what was said in the Torah and also anticipating how it’s going to be fulfilled.
In chapter 3, I give two test cases for how we see the canon brought to fulfillments in the new covenant. One is from Matthew’s Gospel and one is from John’s Gospel. You could look at Mark and Luke as well. But the book could only be so long! Matthew is very direct and he will just come out and say it, “Jesus did this, and said this, in fulfillment of the Scriptures.” John does the same, but in a more colorful way through imagery Jesus, offering living water, looking to the serpent to in the wilderness, Jesus being Israel’s good Shepherd or bread from heaven, and so many others of Jesus quotation of the Davidic Psalms, especially John’s use of the Psalms in relationship to the crucifixion and the passion account.
At the end of chapter 4, I, then, talk about eschatology in light of Matthew and John’s Gospel. I talk about how if Jesus sees himself as the fulfillment of the canon and with covenants, then we should have a certain eschatological perspective towards the canon. I have mentioned that a little bit just with how Jesus and the apostles in the church understand the Old Testament.
In chapter 5, I look specifically at how Jesus’ covenant obedience, his spotless righteousness, how he adheres to the Scriptures, and how that says a lot about the Scriptures, and I look, for example, in the Synoptics and show how there’s a last Adam, how Jesus and the Gospel writers see him as the second Adam, and how even the true Israel is Jesus. He’s going to succeed where Adam failed, and he does that by fulfilling the covenant.
In chapter 6, I look at Christology, just briefly, and I look at John’s Gospel in particular. From John 1 to really John 14 to 16, of who Jesus says he is, and how the Gospel writers and Jesus make the claim that he is the Son of God, eternally begotten by the Father, and then sent by the Father, become incarnate, and the ultimate revelation in the flesh. So, I argue that if this Christology is right, then that certainly says a lot about what the canon is and how it’s fulfilled those of the first six chapters.
I do have a seventh chapter, but that gets into Systematic Theology, just to point in that direction in terms of how the whole project and should lead us to the theological understand the canon.
We’re talking to Dr. Matthew Barrett about his excellent new book, Canon, Covenant, and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel. It’s the latest contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, and it’s a stimulating read. We encourage you to get a copy for yourself and enjoy.
Matthew, thanks for talking to us again today.
Thanks for having me.
Buy the books
CANON, COVENANT AND CHRISTOLOGY: RETHINKING JESUS AND THE SCRIPTURES OF ISRAEL, by Matthew Barrett