The Use of Scripture in Hebrews

I’m enjoying James Thompson’s commentary in Hebrews.  His summary of the author’s use of scripture in ch. 2 captures nicely the relationship of the historical-critical method to theological interpretation of the Bible.

The historical-critical reading of scripture has been an invaluable instrument for the reading of the Bible, for its insistence on discovering the meaning of a passage in its original context often prevents arbitrary readings and provides a common method for interpreters from a variety of religious traditions to examine the same texts.  While few today question the validity of historical-critical exegesis, many interpreters now challenge the view that a text has only one meaning, insisting that the meaning of a text depends on the questions we ask.  Interpreters increasingly recognize that the meaning of a text is not exhausted by our attempts to hear the word in its original context.  Early Christians maintained that what had occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was of such importance that it transformed their entire biblical story, becoming a lens for reading all of scripture.  The author of Hebrews read scripture through his knowledge of the plot of the entire narrative.  Thus the meaning of the text was not frozen with the original readers but took on additional meaning when interpreters read it in light of the entire plot.  With the faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the ultimate king, the author gave a messianic interpretation to the royal psalms.  Because of his faith that the exalted Christ was equal to God, he read passages praising God as references to the one at God’s right hand.  The author neither claimed to interpret the passages in their original context nor spoke of them as predictions fulfilled in Christ.  As a preacher, he read scripture on behalf of the community in order to find a word for his own time.  He anticipated the later church as it interpreted scripture on the basis of the church’s faith in Jesus Christ.  Thus the author’s method of interpreting scripture through the eyes of faith is not a practice to be jettisoned but a model for interpretation within a community that asks not only what scripture once meant but also what it means for those who week its guidance in the present (p. 59, emphasis mine).

I like how Thompson acknowledges the value of both methods.  This is important because methodological plurality allows the church constantly to hear God’s word afresh and ever-more clearly.

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6 responses to “The Use of Scripture in Hebrews

  • S Wu

    Tim, I have been working on Paul’s use of Israel’s Scripture in Romans, for the opening remarks of Paul state clearly that his gospel is based on he Scripture. I am still trying to understand his methodology. But so far it seems to me that his reading of Scripture is thoroughly Christological and eschatological. That is, he reads his Scripture in light of the Christ event “after” that event. Thus the Scripture is absolutely important to him, but his reading depends heavily on Christ’s death and resurrection.

    My only hesitation is that, generally speaking, Christians today does not know the Old Testament well. That is, not many of us have a good feel of the OT. On the other hand, Paul and the earliest Christians seemed to have a much better grasp of their Scripture. Also, the earliest Christians were very good with listening to the Scripture, for theirs was an oral culture. That made it easier for them to grasp the narrative dynamics in the Bible.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that biblical interpretation seems more like an art than a set of rigid rules to me. But that art of interpretation does depend on how well we know the ancient sacred text.

    • timgombis

      You’re exactly right, S. Paul and the NT writers had minds and hearts thoroughly saturated in the Scriptures so that speaking of what God had done in Jesus’ death and resurrection was shaped in Scriptural terms and images. And they spoke in ways that didn’t drain the Scriptures of their continued capacity to speak.

      It seems that many contemporary efforts to do this fall short in so many ways. Typically “christological” and “eschatological” approaches to the Scriptures see the Scriptures as “fulfilled” in Christ in ways that evacuate the Scriptures (both OT and NT) of any power to speak to God’s people today. I’ve seen this in certain communities. The sense is that because Christ fulfilled these texts, we no longer need to worry about diligently obeying God. Or, certain texts no longer are in force because Christ “fulfilled” those. Or, again, we look for fulfillments of prophetic texts in accordance with a crass “prediction-fulfillment” dynamic.

      Perhaps such irresponsible readings are why many interpreters prefer historical-critical methods to approach biblical texts. That’s unfortunate, since sometimes historical-critical readings leave the power of meaning and significance way back there in the past.

      The “art” of interpretation seems wrapped up in the character formation of communities through long-term familiarity in and with the Scriptures.

  • S Wu

    Hi Tim. “The sense is that because Christ fulfilled these texts, we no longer need to worry about diligently obeying God.” — O dear. Is that what they mean by “christological” and “eschatological”? I would have thought that it is precisely because Israel’s Scripture was read in light of the death and resurrection of Christ that Paul was keen to speak of the “obedience” of faith (Rom 1:5, which follows 1:1-4 where the Scripture is mentioned). The Christ-story has to be lived out and experienced in the Christ-community and in the world.

    • timgombis

      There seems to be a rich sense in which Paul is reading OT texts christologically and eschatologically (along with other NT writers)–doing so in ways that open up fresh pathways of obedience that draw upon, stir up, and radiate God’s life-giving presence.

      But I’m familiar with renderings of christological readings that see OT trajectories “fulfilled” in the sense of “put to rest,” or “put to a stop.” On such accounts, the people of God are sort of released from needing to render to God faithful obedience, since that amounts to some kind of legalism in light of all that God has done for us in Christ. Those are pretty crass accountings of biblical theology, but I’ve seen them here and there.

  • S Wu

    Some years ago I spent some time studying the “fulfil” in Romans 8:4. There are those who think that everything has been fulfilled through Christ’s work in 8:3, including everything in 8:5-11. But it seems to me that the “fulfil” in 8:4 is about what is fulfilled “in us” (noting the Greek “en”). It seems to me that the verse points forward to the communal behaviour of God’s people in 8:5-11 and beyond (chapters 12-15). That is, the just requirement of the law is to be fulfilled in the Spirit-led love-centred communal life of God’s people. To put it in another way, it’s the faithful obedience of God’s people (who walk in God’s ways by the Spirit) that fulfils God’s purposes for his creation – and that’s an ongoing process, not an one-off event.

    Not sure whether I am not the right track. But that seems to make sense to me according to the flow of the argument of the text.

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