George Smeaton on Christ’s Own System of Hermeneutics

Ever wonder how the apostle’s developed their particular brand of Christ-centered hermeneutics?  This has been a frequently-discussed and hotly-debated subject over the last few years.  Numerous books have addressed the subject.  For instance, Greg Beale, ed. The Wrong Doctrine from the Right Texts?; Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period; Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim; Sidney Greidnaus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament are a handful of them.

Yet, perhaps the best answer I have found goes back nearly 150 years.  In the opening pages of his book, The Apostles’ Doctrines of the Atonementnineteenth century New Testament theologian, George Smeaton, answers this question: How did the apostles develop their hermeneutics.

Without batting an eye, he turns to the forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples between his resurrection and ascension.  He posits that the “Lord’s system of hermeneutics” was passed on to these inspired authors and that in every instance where the disciples spoke of the terms, concepts, and types found in the Old Testament, they did so as learned pupils of their master teacher–Jesus Christ.

Smeaton’s quotation is lengthy, but well worth pondering.

But the fresh instruction which they received from personal interviews with the Redeemer subsequently to the resurrection must next be noticed.  This oral instruction received from the lips of the risen Lord is certain as to the matter of fact, and on many grounds was indispensably necessary.  Nor was it limited to the eleven alone.  Paul, too, received it at a later day, when he took rank among the apostles as one born out of due time.  How far the oral instruction of the risen Redeemer extended, it may be difficult for us to say.  Whether or not it comprehended all the great articles of divine truth, it certainly extended to the atonement (Luke xxiv. 25).  This was to be the substance and foundation of all their preaching [1 Cor 2:2], and it was indispensably necessary for them to possess the most accurate knowledge of it.  One object, therefore, which the Lord had in view during those forty days’ sojourn with the disciples after His resurrection, was to open their understandings in the course of these personal interviews, to apprehend with all possible precision the nature of His death–its necessity, consituent elements, and efficacy; against which, in every form, they had long entertained the most invincible prejudice.  He now made all things plain, showing that the Christ must have suffered these things.

How they were introduced into the theology of the Old Testament is specially worthy of notice.  A due consideration of this point serves to bring out one most important fact, viz. that Christ’s oral expositions are to be taken as THE MIDDLE TERM, or as the connecting link between Old Testament records on the one hand, and the apostolic commentary on the other.  In a word, He was Himself the interpreter of Scripture, and of His own history, in the course of those oral communications.  In the book of Acts, and in the epistles, we find numerous interpretations of the prophecies, as well as of the types and sacrifices which owe their origin to this source.  The evangelist Luke relates, that on the first resurrection-day, upon the Emmaus road, in order to instruct the two disciples with whom He entered into conversation, the Lord, beginning at Moses and all the prophets, expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27); that is, He led them to a full survey of the typology and of the prophetical system of the Old Testament Scriptures.  The same evening He reviewed the whole subject not less fully in presence of the eleven and other disciples, expounding them how the Old Testament Scriptures received their fulfillment in Himself, and  opening all that related to His death and resurrection. . . . The evangelist [Luke] mentions that His exposition extended to the Law of Moses, to the Prophets, and to the Psalms.  The allusion to the Law of Moses recalls the whole range of typical theology–the sacrifices, the priestly institute, and the temple services.  The allusion to the prophets reminds us of the wide field of Messianic prophecy, form the first promise in the garden of Eden to the last of the prophets.  The allusion to the Psalms recalls those utterances which were put beforehand into the mouth of the suffering Messiah in a series of psalms in which the Lord Jesus found Himself.  He thus, in all these three divisions of Scripture, supplied them with the key which served to unlock what had never been so fully understood before in reference to His atoning death.

These invaluable expositions, which may be called in the modern phrase the Lord’s own system of hermeneutics, formed the apostles to be interpreters of the Old Testament, directing them where and how to find allusions to the suffering Messiah.  Hence the certainty and precision with which they ever afterwards preceded to expound those holy oracles in all their discourses.  Although these comments from the lips of the Messiah, have not been preserved to us in a separate form, they are doubtless to a large extent wrought into the texture of Scripture; and under the apostle’s allusions to the Old Testament we may read the Lord’s own commentary.  These expositions, whereby He opened their understandings to understand the Scriptures, introduced the apostles into the true significance of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44), throwing light on the two economies [Old and New], and thus bringing in the authority of Christ to direct them in all their future career.  His sanction is thus given to the apostolic interpretation of the Jewish rites; and we are warranted to say that we see the Lord’s own commentary underlying that of the apostles, whether we find allusion to the types, or to the prophecies, or to the Psalms, in their sermons and epistles.  These expositions made the apostles acquainted with the doctrine of the atonement, in its necessity and scope, in its constituent elements and saving results.  The apostles received the fullest instruction from the lips of their risen Lord; and on this theme it appears that the instruction was subject to none of the reserves which checked their curiousity upon another occasion, when they would make inquiries as to points bearing on the future of His kingdom (Acts 1:7).  (George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 4-7)

If you are not familiar with Smeaton, you should be.  He is a model exegete and a learned theologian.  In his day, he was the foremost New Testament scholar in Scotland and maybe beyond.  His two volumes on the atonement of Jesus Christ are excellent as is his reading of the gospels and the epistles.

May we continue to see Christ in all Scripture and faithfully show others how the Old and New Testaments are united in him.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

What is the Law of Christ?

In Galatians, a letter that denounces the works of the law (see 2:16), Paul argues that Christians ought to fulfill the law by love (Gal 5:13-14) and to fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2).  However, a good investigative question in Galatians 6:2 is “What is the law of Christ?” and “What is it doing in Paul’s letter?”  In other words, Why would Paul advocate the “law of Christ” when he has been fighting against the Judaizers and their radical use of the law?

Richard Longenecker in his Word Biblical Commentary on Galatians offers a helpful definition and sets on a good course to answer those questions.

He writes that the law of Christ are those “prescriptive principles stemming from the heart of the gospel (usually embodied in the example and teachings of Jesus), which are meant to be applied to specific situations by the direction and enablement of the Holy Spirit, begin always motivated and conditioned by love” (275-76).

Therefore, we see that Paul steers a third course that is different than nomism (Christ + law) and lawlessness (no law at all).  It is not just a middle road, or a Hegelian synthesis, but a third way.  On the one hand, he contests nomism with its advocacy that the covenant keepers must continue to do the works of the law.  He does this by asserting a view of the law of Christ that is not based on law-keeping but on Christ’s fulfillment of the law for Christians.  Accordingly, the law of Christ is a finished work, and one that requires faith not works. Moreover, the deciding factor between the two is the presence and  power of the Holy Spirit.  Fulfilling the law of Christ is not a human work, but the Spirit’s work in the life of the believer, because after all, the first fruit of the Spirit is love (cf. Gal 5:22-23).

At the same time, Paul avoids lawlessness, because in fulfilling the law of Christ he shows that the gospel has ethical implications and entailments.  The law of Christ is accompanied by the life-giving and life-changing Holy Spirit and it is the love of the Spirit which fulfills the OT law.  Therefore, the difference between the law and the gospel is that the gospel tells you what has been done and it gives you the Spirit to live a holy and loving life.  The law had no such power.

So why does Paul use the term “law of Christ”?  He is turning the Judaizers on their head, saying “You want to talk about law?  Let’s talk about law!  The law of the born again believer is the law of Christ! What Christ has done, what he is doing, and what he will one day complete.  It is from him, through him, and to him.  He is the one who fulfilled the law and who by his death destroyed the law.  He has now put in place a greater law and it is the one written on human hearts by His Spirit.  Walking by the power and direction of the Spirit is a far greater “law” than anything Moses ever recorded; it is an inside job and one that has a power that the Old Covenant never did.”

May we walk in the power of the Spirit and fulfill the law of Christ as we love, serve, and minister to others in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

The Self-Sacrificial Mission of the Law

We know that Christ was sent to earth to die for sinners.  The Bible is clear on that matter: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son (John 3:16)… But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under Law, so that he might redeem those who were under the Law (Gal 4:4-5)…In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that Godsent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9).

However, have you ever stopped to think about this fact: Long before Christ came and died on the cross, the law was sent with a similar terminal mission.  The law which points to Christ (John 5:39; Luke 24:27), was fulfilled by Christ (Matt 5:17), and which was in some sense terminated with Christ (Rom 10:4; Gal 2:18-20), had a similar self-sacrificial purpose.

Granted, the law is impersonal, but it is God’s very word–holy, true, and inspired.  For centuries, it was God’s abiding revelation among his covenant people.  The people of Israel prized it, protected it (most of the time), and passed it down from one generation to the next, because of its centrality in knowing and worshiping YHWH.

The Law, in and of itself, was never designed to save.  It does offer life upon the condition of perfect obedience (Lev 18:5), but as the prophets, and even the law itself indicates, perfection for Adam’s race and Abraham’s offspring is impossible.  Nevertheless, within the confines of redemptive history, it serves a necessary role to prepare the way for Jesus.  But from the beginning this role was restricted and designed to be temporary.  The law was sent to die!

Hear Richard Longenecker’s fourfold explanation of the laws ‘temporal’ function as he comments on Galatians 2:20:

(1) [I]t was the law’s purpose to bring about its own demise in legislating the lives of God’s people; (2) that such a jurisdictional demise was necessary in order that believers in Christ might live more fully in relationship with God; (3) that freedom from the law’s jurisdiction is demanded by the death of Christ on the cross; and (4) that by identification with Christ we experience the freedom from the law that [Christ] accomplished (Galatians in The Word Biblical Commentary [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990], 92).

It is amazing that in his sublime wisdom, God’s eternal word has a pre-engineered expiration date on the law.  An expiration date that does not make the law go bad like spoiled milk, but one that renders its function as covenantally inoperable.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the law and issued a new law–a law of faith and love (Rom 3:27 and Gal 5:4)– according to a superior covenant (Heb 8:6).   There is so much more to be said and savored on this matter, but let us with Paul offer praise to God for his inscrutible wisdom that upholds the law, all the while offering a better set of promises through the gospel of Christ.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Amen, dss