The Old Testament in Relation to Christ

Young Christians are often introduced to the Gospels before the rest of Scripture. There is a good reason for this. In the eyes of the Church, the four Gospels have always been revered above all the other books of the Bible because of their direct account of the life and words of Christ. It makes sense to begin with the Gospels, but a difficult situation arises when Christians who have been solely immersed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John try to bridge the gap between the New Testament and the Old Testament. In comparison to the clarity and moral richness of the Gospel accounts, many parts of the Old Testament seem obscure at best and disturbing at worst. Especially in light of the centrality of Christ for the entire Christian religion, many believers struggle to see the value in reading seemingly dark historical narratives within books that never so much as mention the name “Jesus.” Despite these apparent difficulties, those willing to give the Old Testament a chance are not left without guidance. In particular, the writings of Origen of Alexandria, masterfully interpreted by Henri de Lubac, build two bridges (from the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture) between the Old Testament and Christ. 

To truly grasp the solution that Origen and de Lubac offer, a robust understanding of the problem itself must first be established. Beyond the dry experience many readers have with the historical books of the Old Testament, the question is, at its root, a theological one. Christianity gets its name from Christ because everything in the Christian religion revolves around him. Jesus’ Divinity makes him the mediator between God and men. It is union with Jesus that leads to life, because he is, as he calls himself, “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Fallen man can no longer know and love God as he ought without the grace that comes from Christ. Because Jesus is both God and man, he is able to say, “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9) and “no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). This doctrine, at the root of the Chirstian theological perspective, was stated powerfully and formally by the Church at the Council of Trent: “if any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.” This means that salvation comes through Christ because union with Christ is what rectifies our will through the infused virtue of charity. Everything in the life of faith must tie back to charity because, as St. Paul says, without charity we are nothing. 

Fitting the Old Testament into this framework is somewhat difficult. It is easy to see how the Gospels and other New Testament books can bring us closer to Christ. After all, Jesus’ name is evoked on almost every page, and wherever he is not explicitly mentioned, his teachings are still being extrapolated. The Old Testament, with the exception of some prophetic books, rarely seems to be speaking about Christ. His teachings are often said to be there in “a hidden way,” but some of the historical books (in particular Kings, Chronicles, Judges, etc…) make even this seem like a stretch. 

Many beginners who try to read the Old Testament quickly feel overwhelmed, bored, and even disturbed. Scholarship which bridges the gap between the Old Testament and New will help these people to see the true meaning of these books. If Christians are helped to see the real connection that exists between Christ and the historical books of the Old Testament, then they will be more likely to read them, and they will be better edified when they do. Scripture is God’s revelation of himself, and reading it should help us get to heaven, but until a more clear connection is drawn between the Old Testament and Christ, it will be very hard to see how this is even possible. 

Let us first examine a couple commonly suggested solutions to this problem. The first suggestion people often make is that the Old Testament announces the coming of Christ. Even Dei verbum states that one purpose of the Old Testament was to “announce this coming by prophecy.” This is, of course, true. We can find prophecies about the coming Messiah (and what he will do) in Genesis, Malachi, and everything in between. There is real value in these prophecies, and they do establish some connection between the Old Testament and Christ, but ultimately there must be more to the connection than this. Prophecies seem to serve those living before the time of Christ more than they do those who live after. Of course they do serve as evidence for Christ’s Messianic identity, but for those who already believe, it would seem that at least some parts of the Old Testament still have little devotional value. It is hard to imagine that Christians should read the Old Testament primarily to strengthen themselves as apologists, and there are plenty of non-prophetic parts of the Old Testament which remain unexplained under this approach. 

The second way in which people try to bridge the gap between the Old and New Testaments is with another reference to Dei verbum which says that the Old Testament has “sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers.” Similar to the point about prophecy, this is not a characteristic of the Old Testament which we would want to deny. We can see this especially in the Psalms and the books of Proverbs and Sirach. However, even this approach to the Old Testament falls short of establishing a sufficient connection to the New. Sacred Scripture, alongside Tradition, is one of only two wings of divine revelation, which is God’s revelation of himself to mankind. This means that everything in the Bible must, in some way, reveal Christ to us. Christ is the mediator between God and man. He is the face of God on earth. He is the only way by which we can see God, and so if the Bible is going to help us see God, then it must do that by helping us to see Christ. Seeing the Old Testament as a collection of wise sayings and prayers implies that it helps us to know God’s commandments, but it is not immediately clear how this would help us see the face of Christ. In other words, under this conception of the Old Testament, it is not clear how the Psalms are elevated above ordinary prayer books, and it is even less clear how the historical books have any value at all. 

We will have to look elsewhere for an answer. We will have to dive deeper into Dei verbum and also look beyond it, to the writings of theologians like Origen and de Lubac. These two great thinkers approach the Bible through the two traditional senses in which it can be read. These have been called by various names over time, but here we will refer to them broadly as the literal and spiritual senses. The literal sense is understood to be what the text itself says when taken at face value. The spiritual sense considers what the text says beyond its face value interpretation, especially in relation to New Testament revelation. 

The spiritual sense is often divided into three more senses: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Each one of these can be considered in some way as relating to Christ. The allegorical sense looks at things as they symbolize something about Christ. The moral sense looks at things as they teach what human holiness looks like (which is embodied by Christ). Finally, the anagogical sense looks at things as they depict the glory of heaven (which is Christ’s kingdom). If we interpret the Old Testament in this spiritual way, we can often find Christ in places where he at first does not appear to be, thus giving Old Testament books edifying value as they strengthen our union with Jesus. 

Dei verbum advocates for this approach. It says that the Old Testament can help us to understand the New because it can “indicate its meaning through various types.” The search for these “types” is perhaps the most popular form of scriptural exegesis among Catholic scholars today, but we can also see the Church Fathers doing the very same thing long ago. This approach is exercised by examining an Old Testament place, person, or thing as a prefigurement or “type” of a place, person, or thing in the New Testament. As de Lubac points out, “Origen is inexhaustible on this theme. He finds it everywhere.” For example, when the book of Numbers talks about Aaron as the high priest, Origen looks at these verses in light of the fact that “Christ is the true high priest.” Or when Aaron’s rod miraculously blooms with blossoms and almonds, Origen says that Jesus’ cross “not only sprouted, but bloomed and bore all this fruit in the form of the believing peoples.” Origen is able to do this even with the more difficult verses. He takes the example of the evil kings of Midian from Numbers and says that the Bible is suggesting “we must wage war against vices of this sort, we must dislodge these vices from their habitations in our flesh, we must put these kings to flight from the kingdom of our body.” Examples of this sort could be cited endlessly from Origen, the Fathers, the scholastics—all the way up to modern biblical scholars like Scott Hahn and John Bergsma. 

This emphasis on the spiritual sense of the Old Testament is Origen’s favored approach. It has great value because, despite the human author’s limitations, the Holy Spirit is able to guide history itself to properly reveal things about Christ. Thus, the Old Testament becomes the indispensable lens through which we view the New Testament. With a little work, almost everything can be seen as revealing something about Christ, and this infuses new meaning into the Old Testament. As Origin says, “for us, who understand and explain it spiritually and according to the gospel-meaning, it is always new.” In fact, he even goes so far as to suggest that the “Old” and “New” Testament distinction is somewhat misleading. He says that “both are ‘New Testaments’ for us, not by the age of time but by the newness of understanding.” It is not always easy to find these symbols, and not every interpretation will be legitimate, but for those who follow the guidance of writers like Origen, this approach can transform the Old Testament into a rich and beautiful path to Jesus. De Lubac says that, when the Old Testament is interpreted in this way, “the least account, the least precept, becoming prophetic, takes on noble value.” Under this approach, the Old Testament rarely seems random or pointless. Nearly everything in it suddenly seems to be saying something about Christ, and so every word we read will help us to know him better. De Lubac summarizes the unifying nature of this approach with a delightful statement that gives us all the clarity we could desire, “whoever reads Scripture in this way…of the two Testaments that seemed to be at war, he makes a unique and perfect instrument, with varied sounds merged into a single salutary voice.”

As important as this may be, we will have to say more. This is a very helpful way of understanding how the spiritual sense of Scripture can reveal Christ, but the Church has long recognized the literal sense of Scripture as a legitimate one with real value (even in the Old Testament). The Holy Spirit could have inspired books filled with symbols and metaphors, detached from any real historical narrative. However, he has clearly chosen not to do this. Instead we find ourselves with many books that painstakingly detail historical events spanning hundreds and hundreds of years. We are told about specific names, places, battles, tragedies, actions, and problems. We can interpret many of these things in a spiritual sense, but sometimes it is difficult to find any believable way to do so. It would also seem a disservice to the books and writers themselves to always interpret them apart from what they seem to intend first and foremost, at face value. Origen and de Lubac also talk about the importance of the literal sense in a way that can help us to understand its role in our edification. 

First, Origen is very careful to emphasize that the spiritual meaning is only accessible through a proper understanding of the literal meaning. He says that “there are certain mysteries and things that are hidden away in the interior meaning; but first we should let ourselves be edified by the text of the historical narrative.” The reason for the literal sense coming first in our interpretive efforts is that the spiritual symbols are based on the literal places, people, and things. If we do not understand the literal story being told in the Old Testament, we will get the symbols wrong. This is why Origen says that “only then, when the outward form of the accomplished event becomes clear, should we ask if there is anything mystical in the passage as well.” De Lubac, relying on Origen, says that the literal sense serves as “the basis” for the spiritual sense. The literal sense is something like a vessel whereby the spiritual sense can be communicated. From Origen and de Lubac’s perspective, it gets its value in relation to the spiritual sense.

The value of the literal sense, in this view, could be compared to something like a lamp in an otherwise dark room. Not only does it make it possible for us to see the spiritual things under the surface, but it even gives them some of their content, by providing them with the light that is reflected back to our eyes. In this way, even the literal sense is indirectly related to Christ by making the spiritual sense accessible. De Lubac pushes this a bit further and argues alongside Origen that “the Logos needs a body; the historical meaning and the spiritual meaning are, between them, like the flesh and the divinity of the Logos.” All of the Old Testament is thus related to Christ by conveying the spiritual Divinity to us through the literal sense. The literal sense is the way in which we can get in touch with the Divine truths hidden in the spiritual sense. Just as Christ’s incarnate body enables us to approach God on earth, so too, the literal sense enables us to approach Christ spiritually in Scripture. 

This explanation is fairly satisfying, but once again, it may not be the whole story. One of the problems with interpreting the meaning of the literal sense of the Old Testament only insofar as it communicates the spiritual meaning is that it seems to risk disregarding the intent of the biblical authors themselves. It also makes it very difficult to find meaning in any verses that do not seem to easily yield spiritual interpretations. How are Christians supposed to interpret the long, complex, and often dark historical narratives found in Judges, Kings, and Chronicles? Where the Bible seems to be consciously conveying real history, can we really justify an approach which suggests that the true meaning of the narrative can only be found in reading it not as history but as allegory? In other words, are we to believe that the Spirit’s intent would be just as well accomplished if none of the events recorded in the Bible actually happened? Our way of explaining the connection between the Old and New Testaments cannot come at the cost of the literal-historical. The Church teaches that all the books of Scripture are “inspired by God” and they “impart the word of God Himself without change.” This means every book in the Bible reveals the Word that is Christ, the Word that “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Christ himself, in the Gospels, pointed to the Old Testament time and time again, as if those books were one and the same with him. Even the literal interpretation of historical books demands a New Testament bridge.  

As is always the case for Christian believers, it is only on Calvary that we find the ultimate answer to our question. It is with an eye to the darkness of the cross that we are able to find the true meaning of the darkness we see in the literal Old Testament. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, hints at this deeper meaning. He says that “as should be expected in historical and didactic books, they reflect in many particulars the imperfection, the weakness and sinfulness of man.” This is, of course, impossible to argue with. What else are we to conclude after reading about the deeds of the men at Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain’s brutal murder of his brother, the disgusting reign of Ahab and Jezebel, the pagan practices of child sacrifice, the many accounts of rape, the numberless bloody battles, and the limitless corruption of kings? Pius XI goes on to argue that “eyes not blinded by prejudice or passion will see in this prevarication, as reported by the Biblical history, the luminous splendor of the divine light revealing the saving plan which finally triumphs over every fault and sin.” Some might balk at this suggestion. How can these dark stories of wickedness reveal the luminous splendor of Divine light? 

In connection with the darkness of the cross, perhaps we can find an answer. In the Gospels, there is a place where we see sin quite clearly. The New Testament’s culminating depiction of Christ is arguably the darkest scene in the whole Bible. Evil is perhaps most visible in Christ’s wounds and death on the cross. His taking on human flesh and entering into human history gives new meaning to that history. The literal sense of the Old Testament tells us about men who worship idols and men who try to worship God (all of whom ultimately fall short). When considered alongside the cross, both of these cases tell us something about Christ. Those good men who tried and failed to worship God perfectly reveal to us the ways in which Christ is different. He is not David or Moses or Abraham. All the glory of the greatest kings of Israel could not merit or equal the glory of Christ’s kingdom, and reading the accounts of these ancient human achievements sheds new light on Christ’s own words, “something greater than Solomon is here” (Lk 11:31). Those evil men who worshiped idols reveal to us the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We see in their stories the very reason, which festers in all of us, that Christ died in that bloody and gruesome way. Much of the literal sense of the Old Testament is nothing other than a preparation for the cross. The sins we see committed there, all the men seeking salvation in money, power, and sex, are nothing other than (if we may speak poetically) the stones of Golgotha. They are the very grains in the wood of the cross. 

All of human history, after the fall of Adam and Eve, is caught up in the crucifixion because human history is what Christ suffers for. Reading this history in the Old Testament sheds new light on what Jesus did 2,000 years ago on that hill outside Jerusalem. He did what no one else could do before, and he did it because of those evil things human beings had been doing since their exile from Eden. We can not fully understand who Christ is until we understand his salvific act, and we can not understand that act until we understand the weight of the cross. In this way, even the literal sense of the Old Testament reveals something directly about Christ because it shows us more clearly what he did. When we read the New Testament, we need to see Christ carrying the sins of Cain, Ahab, Jezebel, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. When we read about Christ being crowned with thorns, we must see the crowns of David and Solomon, realizing not only the similarities, but the differences. Only one of them can save. 

In this way, we do not need to read the Old Testament accounts in their spiritual senses to see Christ in them. All on their own, they help us to understand what Christ accomplished and how he is unique. In order to better understand this, we might ask the question: when do we really know a man? Do we stop after learning his name and his job, or must we go further? We could stop after learning that Jesus is Lord and that he rose from the dead, but if we want to know him and love him as much as we possibly can, we must try to go beyond this minimum knowledge. To use a contemporary example with some cultural appeal, how much do we really know about Frodo’s victory on Mount Doom without reading the entirety of The Lord of the Rings? How much do we know about The Lord of the Rings without reading the backdrop in The Silmarillion? Does Frodo’s victory over Sauron on Mount Doom mean much of anything to us without first knowing that “Sauron was…a sorcerer of dreadful power, master of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength, misshaping what he touched, twisting what he ruled, lord of werewolves” and that “his dominion was torment.” How much do we really know about Sydney Carton’s trip to the guillotine without first being introduced to the character of Charles Darnay? Can we truly grasp the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation without first studying the history of American slavery? So too, we must realize that the history of the human race’s slavery to sin reveals something about the God-man who saved us. Do we really understand his victory over Satan prior to studying Satan’s regime?

This is the robust understanding of the word “prepare” that we need to bring to Dei verbum’s claim that “the principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ.” This is not referring to an intellectual preparation of the Jewish people. It means a historical preparation for the cross. God reached down to us in the Old Covenant, and he inspired an Old Testament, so that we might more fully understand what Jesus did—thus knowing him better and the Father through him. The Church teaches that “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” We get to know Christ better by getting to know ourselves because Christ became a man and sacrificed himself for men. The Old Testament is an integral part of this one act of revelation. We are the Old Testament men, brought to new life by the New Testament man. 

The Old Testament is all about Christ. It is incomplete and somewhat meaningless apart from him. It is true that St. Paul does not include Old Testament facts when he tells us the minimum we must believe to be saved. He says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). It follows then that Rom 10:9 is the only Bible verse we really need. This is true in a way, but we are called to a higher level of charity, and a more complete knowledge of our Lord. We find this knowledge of Christ’s identity, not only in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament as well. We must read and contemplate the whole Bible because the whole thing communicates the one eternal Word of God. God is as he reveals himself, and he reveals himself in the actions of his Son, Jesus Christ. We will never fully understand Christ until we know what he did. We will never fully understand what he did until we know the human history that motivated and constituted a key piece of his most significant action. St. Jerome was correct when, not looking to exclude a single verse of the Old Testament, he wrote those famous words: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”