Did the OT Prophets Know What They Were Saying?
- Thursday, November 17, 2011
By Matt Waymeyer
When reading Scripture, the tendency of many Christians is to think in terms of what this verse means to me. What the Bible means to a given individual, however, is completely irrelevant, for the true meaning of Scripture is found not in the subjective impression of the contemporary reader but rather in the specific intention of the original author. For this reason, we often speak of “authorial intent” as the goal of Bible interpretation.
But this only raises a further question: exactly whose intent are we seeking to ascertain? The intent of the human author or the intent of the divine author? Or is it possible that there is actually no tangible difference between the two? Herein lies one of the key issues in the field of hermeneutics today—the question of whether the human intention and divine intention of Scripture are one and the same.
A Closer Look at a Difficult Passage
Some interpreters point to 1 Peter 1:10-12 as evidence of a sharp distinction between of the human and divine intention of OT prophecy. In this passage, the apostle Peter writes:
(10) As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, (11) seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (12) It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.
According to this view, 1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches that the OT prophets did not understand the meaning of their own prophecies. For this reason, it is said, the human and divine intent of Scripture cannot be regarded as one and the same.
At issue here is perspicuity of the Old Testament. The term “perspicuity” refers to the overall clarity of God’s Word in which the meaning of Scripture was basically clear and comprehensible to its original audience. Some interpreters effectively deny the perspicuity of the Old Testament by insisting that its true meaning could only be understood hundreds of years later in light of the New Testament. This was the conviction of George Eldon Ladd, who insisted that “the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.”
Many who embrace this view refer to this as the sensus plenior of the Old Testament. Sensus plenior means “fuller sense,” and it refers to an additional, deeper meaning of an OT passage which was (a) intended by God, (b) not intended or understood by the human author, (c) not understood by the original audience, and (d) not known to exist until it was discerned and revealed by the NT writer. According to the sensus plenior view, the Holy Spirit embedded a hidden meaning in the OT passage even though the original human author and audience were completely unaware of it, and the NT citations of the OT often bring out this fuller meaning. If 1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches that the OT prophets were unaware of the meaning of their prophecies, it would seem to provide biblical justification for this view.
On the contrary, the ignorance of the OT prophets as described in 1 Peter 1:10-12 has been greatly overstated. As Walt Kaiser observes, 1 Peter 1:10-12 “decisively affirms that the prophets spoke knowingly on five rather precise topics: 1) the Messiah, 2) his sufferings, 3) his glory, 4) the sequence of events (for example, suffering was followed by the Messiah’s glorification), and 5) that the salvation announced in those pre-Christian days was not limited to the prophets’ audiences, but it also included the readers of Peter’s day (v. 12).” In other words, what the prophets unsuccessfully strived to understand was not the meaning of their prophecies but rather the identity of the Messiah and the time of His coming.
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