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Christianity teaches that the Bible teaches Jesus the Messiah. Traditionally, we Christians look for ways to connect the whole of the Bible to Him. Sometimes we try to do it directly, from whatever bit of the Bible we’re dealing with. In the story of David and Goliath, we could say that David symbolizes Jesus, and Goliath, Satan. That’s probably been done in any number of sermons–sometimes with an explanation of how the five smooth stones symbolize the first five books of the New Testament or whatever, and the sword of Goliath symbolizes something or other, and maybe David cutting off Goliath’s head connects to the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 crushing Satan’s head, and . . . so on.
And when David helps lame Mephibosheth, it’s a symbol of Jesus helping the pathetic sinner who can’t help himself. And Boaz and Ruth are like Christ and the Church. And so on. I kinda like this way of reading the Bible. And it’s very well-precedented, from Church Fathers down to Charles Spurgeon and missionary sermons I’ve heard myself.
But if the point is to connect everything in the Bible to Jesus, why do we have to do it directly? Why not do it the way G-d did it with most things in the Bible–indirectly?
Weren’t the stories of David and Goliath and of David and Mephibosheth stories of the history of G-d’s people? Aren’t they stories of the founding of the kingdom of which Jesus is king–and isn’t that what the New Testament itself teaches, building off of the original straightforward meaning of the Old Testament?
And doesn’t that mean that Christians have a responsibility to read the Bible straightforwardly–as meaning whatever it meant to the original authors and readers?
In Augustine’s theology, you’ll find a lot of both of these things–straightforward readings and connect-it-all-directly-to-Jesus readings. Sometimes at the same time!
His deal is basically these two things:
1. He thinks the whole Bible refers to Jesus.
2. He focuses on smaller units of reference–the word refers, or the phrase, or the sentence.
I think he’s … at least sort of wrong. I think Christians don’t need to do allegories and other figurative readings as much as he does. I think Christians have a responsibility to pay attention to the original, straightforward meaning of every passage in the Bible–whatever it meant to the original author and readers.
Why do I think this? Because I don’t think we have to focus only on those smaller units of reference. I think the whole biblical narrative is a reference to Jesus Messiah.
I explained this in a recent publication in The Heythrop Journal, and I’m happy to report that it’s free to read on the public internet. I’ll copy below a couple of paragraphs.
The upshot of it all is this: in Christian theology, an original non-figurative reading is always pointing to Christ, if sometimes indirectly. So, with great respect for Augustinian figurative readings, I think those of us who believe that the whole Bible refers to Christ do not need to use them so much. For how is it that some biblical word, sentence, Psalm, prophecy, or anecdote teaches us Christ? Perhaps some refer individually and directly to Christ, but all of them teach Christ by means of their position in the narrative that teaches Christ. So they already teach Christ by means of any non-figurative sense they may happen to have. Christians have a responsibility to understand that narrative on its own terms, complete with all the non-figurative senses of its various constituent statements about births and deaths, cattle and sheep, earth and water, gold and wood, field and vine, city and desert, staff and sword, feast and famine, wartime and peacetime, prayer of Hannah and song of Miriam.
That, of course, does not guarantee that a straightforward original-meaning exegesis of some story about, for example, the doings of a rotten king in Samaria is going to be the best way to help us love God and neighbour and is going to point to Christ. All the same, I propose that a straightforward original-meaning interpretation of a passage about the doings of a rotten king in Samaria actually is a fine way of achieving this goal. It is entirely fitting with the figure of Christ and with the reordering of our loves. There may be any number of reasons for this, such as the obvious sermonic application: ‘Don’t be like this miserable sinner who didn’t love anyone but himself’. (Similarly, in Enarrationes in Psalmos 33 2, 17—section 17 of the second Exposition on Psalm 34, or 33 in the LXX numbering—Augustine himself gives a perfectly straightforward historical reading of biblical passages from Genesis, 2 Kings, and 2 Corinthians, observing how difficult life is and drawing a spiritual lesson from this.) But the major reason, I think, is this: just as the New Testament presents Christ as the centrepiece of the biblical narrative, so the historical details of earlier chapters in the narrative are already pointing to Christ. We need only follow the historical details through their place in the narrative and to Christ. This will involve tracing their relation to the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic law, the Davidic covenant, the exile, and the return all the way down to the coming of the Messiah. This is how orthodox Christians believe God himself referred to Christ in the Scriptures—by means of this covenantal narrative that leads through the Old Testament to the Messiah and presents him in the New as the fulfilment of the Old. And if tracing the details is sometimes difficult, no problem—Augustine is right that the hard work of finding Christ in Scripture can train us not only to find Christ but also to love him better.