Would Paul Have Made a Good Evangelical? The NT use of the OT

May 31, 2012 — 5 Comments

Michael Bird has posted an article by Peter Enns where he discusses how Paul understood the OT. Enns asks whether Paul would have made a good evangelical? His answer.


He gives the following reasons for his answer.

  • For Evangelicals, the Old Testament leads to the Gospel story. For Paul, the Old Testament is transformed by the Gospel.
  • For Evangelicals, the Old Testament, read pretty much at face value, anticipates Jesus. For Paul, the Old Testament is reshaped in order to conform to Jesus.
  • For Evangelicals, the Bible is God’s final authority. For Paul, Jesus is the final authority to which the Bible must bend.

I take issue with some of what Enns says, mainly in that Paul was “manipulating” OT Scripture. I don’t think manipulating is the best term, although I know what he means. Enn’s is arguing that Paul took things out of context.

I have found in my own mind (at this point) the best way to frame this debate is to say that Paul uses Scripture both prospectively and retrospectively.

A prospective view means that Paul follows the the OT context, while a retrospective view claims that Paul re-appropriates the OT passage for his own use, not at expense of the OT context, but adding layers that may have not occurred to the OT human author.

Carson frames it a little differently in his excellent essayMystery and Fulfillment:”

On the one hand, Paul hold that the old covenant Scriptures anticipate Christ, bear witness to him, prophesy of his coming and of his death and resurrection…thus the first pair of polarities might be thought of as promise and fulfillment.

On the other hand, Paul hold that several elements in the gospel, and even the gospel itself, were hidden in the past, and have only been revealed in the coming of Christ. They constitute a musterion, something neither Jews or Greeks had foreseen. The second pair of polarities then is hiddenness and revelation (397).

Although Carson uses different terms, I think it is similar (but not exactly the same) to the prospective and retrospective view. A prospective view is evident from 1 Corinthians 10. Paul says that these events “happened” to the Israelites “as types” (typikos), by which he implies that there was a typological significance to the events as they took place.

In other words sometimes (maybe most of the time) he sticks close to the original meaning, and other times he takes more liberty. It is not “all” there in the OT, no matter how much we want to see it there. Paul is drawing certain conclusions in passages that are not explicit in the text themselves.

Carson again says, “Paul thinks of the gospel he preaches as simultaneously something that has been predicted in times past, with those predictions now fulfilled, and something that has been hidden in times past, and now revealed…Paul himself was not aware of any tension between these two stances” (425-426).

The question of course is how was it revealed? Was it revealed only to Paul? Why does it seem like Paul is sometimes playing fast and loose with the OT? This is where I think Enns is onto something, but not in the sense of manipulating Scripture. Paul is reading Scripture the way it is supposed be read, retrospectively, and the things he does cannot always be explained by grammatico-historical exegesis. We are to read it in light of Christ and the promises that come along with his death and resurrection.

In regards to Romans 9:25-26 Enns is right to say the original context of Hosea is about the renewal of God’s mercy toward the rebellious northern tribes of Israel. People such as Moo argue that these OT predictions of a renewed Israel find their fulfillment in the church. But even this is reading something back into the text. It is a retrospective view rather than a prospective view, or maybe even better it is a retrospectively prospective view.

Not all passages are retrospective, and I would guess that most are prospective. But the question we have to ask ourselves is if there are any retrospective passages, what does this mean for our interpretation?


D.A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism (vol. 2; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 393–436.