The Blackham – Goldsworthy Debate
“Faith in Christ in the Old Testament”
A debate between Paul Blackham, Associate Minister (Theology) at All Souls, Langham Place in London and Graeme Goldsworthy, Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Moore College, Sydney Australia, was held on Friday 23rd March 2001. The subject was “Faith in Christ in the Old Testament”, and more specifically on the clarity of the gospel presentation in the Old Testament. Dr. Blackham began with the following presentation. Links are provided to Dr. Goldsworthy’s response and to a transcript of the Question Time which was enjoyed after the presentations.
Faith in Christ in the Old Testament
First, I want to pay tribute to the way that Graeme Goldsworthy has called the Christian Church to a thorough and systematic and biblical handling of the OT. So many of us have been helped by his books to get that “big story” of the Bible together and the common enemy of the Bible that we’re both fighting against is “the Babylonian Captivity” of liberal OT scholarship over the past 200 years. That’s the enemy. Our discussion today is an “in-house” discussion, a discussion between those who share the same starting-point, a discussion between those who want to understand the Bible on its own terms. We all agree that the OT presents nothing but the gospel of Jesus Christ. Solus Christus is the slogan we all unite under. However, it may be that we diverge somewhat on the clarity of the gospel of Christ presented in the OT.
It has become popular to approach the OT with a theological system that denies the knowledge of the Person of Christ in the OT Church. It is claimed that the OT Church did not know Christ and that instead they placed their faith in signs – and this faith-in-signs was ‘deemed to be faith in Christ’ even though they didn’t know Him. This is a serious claim – because it seems to deny Christian faith to the OT saints. How can the Living God be known without Christ?
I would suggest that the issue at stake here is this:-
Is it possible to have an implicit faith in the Person of Christ?
Can one believe in Jesus Christ without actually knowing Him personally?
I take it as axiomatic that the NT exegesis of the OT is the one true meaning of the OT. Jesus and His apostles never read meaning into the OT, which would not be exegesis at all. The way they handle the OT is not a radical re-interpretation of the OT, but what the OT text actually says. They do nothing more than point to the simple and straightforward meaning of the OT text, without any special pleading or retrospectively awarded meaning. They never do that either. There is never any need to impose a NT framework on the OT – the OT is, in its own right, a presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Trinitarian God.
So, can one believe in Jesus Christ without actually knowing Him personally?
No, and nobody in the Bible claims to do so. Let’s take a checklist of some of the great OT characters.
Did Adam know Christ? Of course, who else was it that walked in the Garden and spoke to him? In saying that I am in no way trying to impose the NT onto the OT. John Owen, the great 17th century Puritan theologian, in his 10th introductory essay to his commentary on Hebrews, “Appearances of the Son of God under the Old Testament”, argues precisely this point from an examination of the Hebrew text of Genesis 3. We only miss the Christological and Trinitarian nature of the OT text when we iron out the details in order to make it fit into a neat pre-assumed system of Yahweh Unitarianism. John Owen assumes that only unbelieving Jews would try to evade the details of the OT in order to escape its gospel witness.
Owen shows that a study of Genesis 3 introduces us to a character called “the WORD of Yahweh”, a divine Person who mediates the business between God and humanity.
… a revelation was made of a distinct person in the Deity, who in a peculiar manner did manage all the concernments of the church after the entrance of sin.»1… He by whom all things were made, and by whom all were to be renewed that were to be brought again unto God, did in an especial and glorious manner appear unto our first parents, as he in whom this whole dispensation centred, and unto whom it was committed. And as, after the promise given, he appeared ‘in human form’ to instruct the Church in the mystery of his future incarnation, and under the name of Angel, to shadow out his office as sent unto it and employed in it by the Father; so here, before the promise, he discovered his distinct glorious person, as the eternal Voice of the Father.»2
Did Abraham know Christ? Yes, what else can be meant by Galatians 3:16? In Genesis 15:4-6 Abraham is met by this Person who is called ‘the WORD of Yahweh’. This Person takes Abraham outside to see the stars, and it is in this Person that Abraham exercises justifying faith. Yahweh appears to Abraham in Genesis 17 & 18. In the second century debates about the interpretation of Genesis 17 & 18, this is a massive issue: how can Yahweh appear? But he does. How can this be anyone other than Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity? No-one has ever seen the Father at any time [John 1:18; John 5:37], and Christ, according to Colossians 1:15-17 has always, since the creation of all things, been the visible form of the invisible God. There is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about the appearances of the LORD in the OT. It only appears so if we try to interpret them without Christ.
There are so many details in the Genesis account of Abraham that are so often pushed to one side in an attempt to over-simplify the text. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the second century questioned their opponents hard on the detailed exegesis of Genesis 18, because it so clearly describes a visible encounter with a person called Yahweh. They so clearly recognized the presence of Christ in the OT and the personal faith in him enjoyed by the saints. It is only by ignoring these details that this can be evaded.
Genesis 19:24 is one of the classic examples of this historically in Christian handling of the OT. “Yahweh rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah from Yahweh.” It is grammatically impossible to read this verse as speaking of only one Person called Yahweh. Instead of ironing out all these details, we need to take the actual text of the OT seriously. As Richard Bewes states, the text of the Bible has been given to us by the Holy Spirit down to the tiniest detail – verbal and inerrant inspiration. If this is so we need to treasure the details of the text and pay attention to what they tell us.
By the time we get to the end of Genesis the saints are not just looking for some vague ‘serpent-crusher’. If we study what the text of Genesis actually says, without making it conform to a system in advance, we’ll see that they are looking forward to the LORD becoming man, when the Voice of Yahweh would die at a particular spot on Mount Moriah, when the Lamb of God died as a sacrifice of atonement. The saints in Genesis had faith in Christ’s resurrection – that is why the patriarchs lived in tents, not because it was a resurgence of nomadic culture at that time – they knew that the Promised Land was a symbol of the new creation. This is not an imposition on the OT – it is simply a matter of taking all the details seriously, refusing to fit it all into a Unitarian scheme – an epistemologically Unitarian scheme.
Did Moses know Christ? Of course he did. This is clear when we examine Exodus 3:1-6.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush… [verse 4] When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Angel of the LORD appeared to Moses – a Person who is also called Yahweh. This title is first used of the One who appeared to Hagar in Genesis 16. When she met the Angel of the LORD she said [Genesis 16:13], “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” Moses reacts to the Angel of the LORD in much the same way – as does everybody who meets with Him in the OT. See Judges 13 for an excellent example.
The word angel simply means ‘sent one’ – thus one of the most common titles of Christ in the Old Testament is simply The One sent from the LORD. Once we recognize this it makes sense that Jesus in the gospels prefers to define Himself in just that way. He calls Himself The One sent from the Father, The One sent to do the Father’s will. That is not a random way of expressing himself; it is set against the OT.
If I can be permitted one more quotation from John Owen, he says about the Son of God in Exodus 3:1-6:
He is expressly called an “Angel” Exod. 3:2 – namely, the Angel of the covenant, the great Angel of the presence of God, in whom was the name and nature of God. And He thus appeared that the Church might know and consider who it was that was to work out their spiritual and eternal salvation, whereof that deliverance which then He would effect was a type and pledge. Aben Ezra would have the Angel mentioned verse 2, to be another from him who is called “God,” v 6: but the text will not give countenance to any such distinction, but speaks of one and the same person throughout without any alteration; and this was no other but the Son of God.
We see the Angel of the LORD lead Israel across the Red Sea in Exodus 13 & 14. And just a footnote about the Angel of the Lord. Judges 2:1 is a striking verse about who is the Redeemer and deliverer of Israel. “The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, "I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.' Yet you have disobeyed me” and in chapter 24:9-11 the seventy elders of Israel actually see the God of Israel. In chapter 33 we see that Moses and Joshua see the LORD face to face in the Tent of Meeting. In Numbers 12:8 tells us that Moses saw the form of the LORD.
How are we to explain all this away? And why would we want to, when the NT makes much of it?
1 Corinthians 10:1-4 speaks of the presence of Christ with Israel during the Exodus – verse 4: “They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”
What about Hebrews 11:26? It answers the question, “Did Moses know Christ personally?” What else could be meant by this: “Moses regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” ? It was knowledge of Christ that motivated Moses. Did Moses know Christ? Of course, that is why he did what he did. This is no imposition upon the OT – the writer to the Hebrews insists that we recognize the Trinitarian character of the OT. We need only study the quotations in chapters 1 & 2 to see that, where he says, “This is the Father speaking to the Son...” Is the writer to the Hebrews imposing that on the OT? Of course not. That is the natural meaning of the OT.
Do we need the NT to see these things in the OT? Not at all – these things can be clearly seen within the OT itself. There is nothing secretive or mysterious about this: the plain surface reading of the text shows us the Trinitarian and Christological nature of the OT. However, the fact that Jesus and His apostles notice all these things about the OT is worth noticing. It encourages us to keep going, because we are only drawing the same conclusions that they did.
Did David know Christ? Yes, that is precisely Peter’s point when he exegetes Psalm 16 on the Day of Pentecost. David knowingly looked ahead and wrote not about himself but about the resurrection of Christ. Isn’t this also the point of Jesus’ challenge to the teachers of the law in Luke 20:41-44? David calls Christ his Lord in Psalm 110 – how can he do that if he didn’t know Christ?
Did Isaiah know Christ? Yes, of course, how else could he have had a visible appearance of the LORD within the temple in Isaiah chapter 6! When John quotes from Isaiah chapter 6 in John 12, John adds, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about Him.”
John’s conclusion is in no way bizarre or unwarranted. He is simply taking the text of the OT seriously.
All these OT saints knew Christ, and He was the object of their saving faith. Mere implicit information about Christ can never be the object of saving faith, because it is Christ who is our Righteousness and our Salvation.. Faith in the Person of Christ is the simple message of the whole Bible.
This is the conclusion of Acts 10:43 – “All the prophets testify about Him, that everyone who believes in Him (not promises which may later turn out to be about Christ, but Christ) receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.”
Peter’s simple claim is that all the OT prophets present the Person of Christ as the object of saving faith. There is no need for us to dilute or explain away such simple testimony. That is what we consistently find as we study the OT. We do not need to read NT theology into the OT – the OT teaches us the theology of the NT if we allow it to speak for itself. The OT writers consciously spoke of the sufferings and glories of Christ that the Spirit of Christ pointed to. Think of what Paul said to Agrippa in Acts 26:22 – “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen.”
Is it true that Christ is the revelation of God? Not just “the best”, but “the” revelation of God? Think of the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:27 – “No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” Are we to imagine that the saints of the OT knew the Father without the Son, that they did not need a Mediator? If so, then the NT is a downgrade!! Now we need a Mediator to know the Father!
It seems a simple scheme to speak of the OT simply in terms of ‘God’, meaning the Father. Augustine tried something like that, but realized that no-one has ever seen the Father – so, Augustine ends up saying that in the OT nobody knows God at all, that all the times when people thought they were meeting God or seeing God were nothing more than special effects given to make them think that they were meeting God.
I regard this as an insult to the OT, missing what the OT actually says, an attempt to fit the OT into a pre-arranged system. If we are to rescue the OT from this kind of procrustean handling, we dare not ignore the ministry of Christ, the Angel of the LORD, in the OT. He guarantees the reality of the plain meaning of the OT text.
Christ is the object of saving faith. If we try to lessen the faith of the OT saints so that their faith is a vague hope in some future figure, we end up being unable to make sense of the details of the OT text. If we take the OT saints seriously as having just the same faith and hope as we have today, then our study of them becomes so much more immediate and vibrant. How can they be models of Christian faith unless they really had the Christian faith, personal faith in Christ? How could Moses accuse the Jews of not believing in Christ, if he didn’t believe in Christ either?
The Bible never speaks of its earlier saints as if they didn’t understand what they were talking or writing about. The only example of this is in John 11:49-52 when the unbelieving high priest, Caiaphas, prophesied Jesus’ death. Is this prophecy of an unbeliever out to kill Jesus the model we impose upon the OT saints?
The OT is thoroughly Trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity is not an innovation of the NT. We plainly see all Three Persons acting together in the OT just as in the NT. In fact, having spent 10 years explaining the gospel to Muslims, I never turn to the New Testament to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. The apostles never needed to in their evangelism, and we don’t. It is much better to turn to the OT because the doctrine of God is revealed to us in the OT so that we can understand the significance of the Person and Work of Jesus of Nazareth. The Trinity is not a problem or a slowly revealed secret. It is the absolute basic fact of the LORD God of Israel. To speak as if He revealed Himself as One Person in the OT would make Him deceitful. When the OT saints make explicit statements about multiple divine Persons, what do we imagine was going on in their heads? Did they make such statements without understanding what they were saying? When Moses wrote, “The Lord rained down burning sulphur from the Lord” did he never think, “I wonder what I mean by that?” When David wrote Psalm 110 did he think, “I wonder what I mean by that?” But, that is a far too patronizing view of them. If they were not Unitarian, how can it be right to treat the OT as if they were?
We mustn’t set aside redemptive-history for some kind of timeless systematic theology. All abstract and timeless dogmatic systems fail to take the Bible seriously because their starting point is outside the Bible. No, let’s build on an evangelical Biblical theology – but let’s not force the OT into an unrealistic system. Paying attention to the horizontal development within the OT is of great importance – there is no point in treating Abraham as if he were Malachi or the apostle Paul. But, we must not miss out on the vertical faith of the OT saints. Yes, they looked forward through these shadows to the future work of Christ – His incarnation, His life, His death, His resurrection, His ascension and His coming in Judgement – but they also looked up to the Christ that they knew right then, the Christ who made God known and visible among them right then.
What difference does all this make? Is this an important issue? We live in a time when the whole of society is multi-faith and pluralistic. If the OT saints had real knowledge of God without knowledge of Christ, then knowledge of God without a knowledge of Christ is possible, reasonable. This is not just a theoretical problem. There are people, and there was a book just last year which used just such a view of the OT as a basis for inter-faith dialogue. We must stand firm on the biblical teaching that there is no knowledge of God without knowledge of Christ.
The purpose of the history of redemption in the OT is to set out and explain the Person and Work of Jesus Christ in advance of His incarnation. Through the promised seed, the land, the exodus, the nation, the kings, Jerusalem, the temple and the exile, the OT saints are given colourful and detailed presentations of the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone. The OT saints understood the meaning of these signs and shadows – if they didn’t why bother giving them in the first place? The signs and shadows taught them about the Christ they knew and trusted in. They were called on to visibly enact the future Work of Christ, whilst experiencing the reality and substance of that Work right then.
I conclude with quotations from Church history.
Martin Luther: All the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ of Genesis 3:15. The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus… The faith of the fathers was directed at Christ… Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit. There has always been and always will be one mind, one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come.»3
John Calvin: First, we hold that earthly prosperity and happiness did not constitute the goal set before the Jews to which they were to aspire... Secondly, the covenant by which they were bound to the Lord was supported, not by their own merits, but solely by the mercy of the God who called them. Thirdly, they had and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share in His promises.