A Word of Caution on Symbols

The relationship between the testaments is obviously very important to Christians. There is a common tendency to describe certain things or events in or from the Old Testament (OT) as symbols of things or events that are original to the New Testament (NT). This is a legitimate interpretive approach to the OT since it is something the NT itself does. The Letter to the Hebrews, for example, is famous for this. However, the way this hermeneutic has often been applied lately has been bothering me.

Again, this interpretive angle is far from new but something about it started to feel off when I heard it from popular biblical theologians. I now realise the reason why I started to notice something with them is because I expect more from them given their training. I therefore tend to be more critical of what they say than the average Christian teacher. For example, my favourite theologian is NT Wright and a few months ago I heard him make a generic statement about the temple (or maybe some other OT thing) symbolising something in the NT. Wright is excellent at highlighting through lines across Scripture that help make sense of what it all means. So when he made that rather plain assertion without adding any characteristic depth it finally clicked: It was the same problem I have with Christocentric readings

Among the many issues I have with a Christocentric hermeneutic, which I have previously outlined, perhaps the main concern is that it robs things in the Hebrew Bible of having their contextual meaning, whether it is the text itself or a thing the text refers to. The “symbol” interpretation subtly does the same thing by suggesting things from the OT have no inherent meaning apart from what they might symbolise. This discourages people from trying to seriously understand them on their own terms. This is especially problematic if you are reading an OT text. You will invariable misinterpret it because you are ignoring the first principle of exegesis: context is king. The plain meaning always comes first before you explore other layers of meaning it might have.

Now symbolic interpretations are on face value often correct. Wright specifically did not say anything wrong. I am very cognizant of the fact “symbol” can be used in different nuanced ways and that means the concerns I have that it may be used to imply the wrong thing is not necessarily a given. I am therefore carefully focusing on a particular understanding of the word, which I think when it used in certain theological contexts obscures other important things.

The way a symbol works is that it represents something other than itself. Its purpose is to point away towards the thing that it represents. It has no standalone meaning since it is not the thing that it represents. This is I think what happens when the temple for instance is just described as a symbol of something in the NT. It points away to something else so we stop wondering what the temple on its own stood for and what it meant to the people of the time. It is true that many things in the New were anticipated in the Old, and the New completes the Old. However, if we take the NT seriously it encourages as to read the OT for its own sake since it views it as more than a cypher for the New.

To get to the NT we must go through the OT. This often means if we are to understand where we are in the NT, we have to retrace our steps from the Old to properly understand how we got to the New. The “progress” in progressive revelation actual matters so we cannot miss steps or take shortcuts on the journey to meaning since we are heading forwards in a very specific direction to a very specific destination.

NT scholar Richard Hays describes a particular manner in which the NT appropriates some OT texts. He calls this interpretive approach figural reading or reading backwards. He argues the past meaning of a text matters to the new meaning of the text, so it is only by going back to the past meaning that we can truly appreciate how the writer is adapting it to fit a new context. I think this is a general principle that we should broadly apply to how we view the relationship between the OT and the NT. To read forwards, we need to read backwards first. Once we recognize the particular meanings things from the OT had, there is a new depth of meaning we gain since we now know what is being appropriated for a new setting.

Now do I think Wright meant to say that the temple or any other thing from the OT has no meaning apart from what it represents? Certainly not, especially when you consider the calibre of his body of work. However, in trying to make such an expedited theological connection there are some blind spots and pitfalls. Wright himself particular likes to describe certain things in the OT as “signposts” to things in the NT. It is undoubtedly a useful and potent metaphor but it also runs into similar problems as describing them as “symbols.” It obscures that it matters that they have meaning in themselves as well as representing something more than themselves. Now I do not fault Wright too harshly, after all he is a NT scholar so he is primarily interested in what things signify in the NT. Moreover, it is impossible for him to cover everything.

What Wright unwittingly obscures is another reminder of the limitations of metaphor and analogy. They only go so far so you need to be careful that you do not take them beyond the point where the similarities start to break down. In this case, the trouble is rather with when the metaphor or analogy becomes so ubiquitous in the popular understanding, that they tend to screen out the aspects of meaning they cannot convey. A great example of this is something closely related to temples and that is sacrifice.

Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible is often simply read by Christians as a symbol of Christ’s death. Undoubtedly, the NT describes Christ’s death as a sacrifice. The problem with simply reading sacrifice as only symbolic is you disregard the immediate meaning of sacrifice to those who offered it under the Old Testament. Yes, it anticipated Christ’s death but to those who gave sacrifices we fail to recognise that for them it was not about making a prediction but fulfilling a proximal need.

Wright has remarked that even though Christ’s death was understood to be a sacrifice, we know so very little about how ancient people understood sacrifice and why they did it. This observation is further borne out by the fact that when you look at the various atonement theories, the sacrificial nature of the cross is shockingly underemphasised. Where it is acknowledged, it is often glossed as some kind of substitution, usually penal substitution. Now this does seem to be the case in certain circumstances but for many reasons sacrifice cannot be boiled down to a basic exchange. We forget there are many types of sacrifice other than atoning sacrifices that had different purposes. A thanksgiving offering for instance, cannot really be described as substitutionary. Hays points out a noteworthy example that demonstrates things are not so straightforward: Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is never referenced in the NT as a symbol of the sacrifice of God’s Son. It seems to be an obvious instance of substitutionary sacrifice but that connection is strangely never made by any NT author.

Even with atonement where this is some kind of substitution at play, we do not really understand how the ancients viewed it or in what sense the sacrifice was a substitute. Wright points out for example, that on the Day of Atonement the sins of the people were confessed on two goats but only one was sacrificed and the other was curiously let loose into the wild. It is more than understanding one type of sacrifice, because Christ’s atoning sacrifice rendered obsolete the entire sacrificial system, which consisted of different types of sacrifices for different reasons. The phenomenon of sacrifice overall has to be better understood.

As Hays work suggests, when we better understand sacrifice under the OT, it will enhance our understanding in the NT of Christ’s death and vice versa. This not only goes for sacrifice but everything in the OT that is understood to be a symbol of something in the NT. They are two layers of meaning, the contextual meaning and the typological meaning. The typological meaning rests on the contextual meaning so we need to recognise the intertextual relationship between the testaments depends on them both as they illumine one another.

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