I have recently been engaged in a study of the book of Hebrews, which has coincided with a class I recently taught on the usage of the Old Testament by Christ and the writers of the New Testament. The author of Hebrews, of course, uses the Old Testament copiously throughout his letter. What I found interesting is that his use of the Old Testament goes against everything you learn in a Biblical Studies class at almost any Catholic theology school in this country.
For example, in Chapter 1 of Hebrews, the author (I really wish we know his name, so I could stop writing “the author”) is defending the divinity of Christ, and in verse 8 he refers to Christ as “God” – one of only three times in the New Testament that Christ is explicitly called “God” (cf. John 1:1 and 20:28). He uses Psalm 45:7-8 to do so, writing,
- [to] the Son [God says]: “Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever; and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions”
Now any first-year theology student can tell you that Psalm 45 isn’t God talking to “the Son”, but is instead an unknown Psalmist speaking to a king and using the term “god” hyperbolically. Yet it is clear from the context that Hebrews is using it to defend the divinity of Christ.
Later, the author of Hebrews does it again, when in Chapter 2 he reinterprets Psalm 8 to prove that Christ is superior to the angels. He writes,
Instead, someone has testified somewhere: “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor, subjecting all things under his feet.” In “subjecting” all things (to him), he left nothing not “subject to him.” Yet at present we do not see “all things subject to him,” but we do see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor” because he suffered death, he who “for a little while” was made “lower than the angels,” that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Not only doesn’t he know the exact reference (“someone has testified somewhere”? – try that phrase in Biblical Studies 101 sometime), he changes the clear literal meaning of the Psalm to fit his argument (I think they call that “eisegesis”). Instead of seeing “son of man” as a reference to mankind in general, he takes it to refer directly to Christ, thus showing how the incarnation only made him temporarily lower than the angels. Even the part that he translates “for a little while” isn’t the meaning of the original Psalm; instead it really means “to a small extent”. Boy, I can’t see this guy even making it through the first semester at most theology schools.
Why do I write this? Am I questioning Holy Scripture? No, the opposite: I am questioning the presuppositions at most theology schools, especially when it comes to biblical studies. The Church has always taught that the literal sense of a passage is the foundation for its spiritual meaning. However, for too long biblical scholars have studied the literal sense completely divorced from any spiritual meaning. They have treated the Bible like a cadaver to be dissected rather than as a living word which has multiple meanings.
The first Christians and the Fathers of the Church understood this and they reveled in reinterpreting Old Testament passages in the light of Christ. The original Psalmist might have used the term “God” to refer to an earthly king, but the Holy Spirit inspired him to make that choice – a choice the same Holy Spirit would exploit in Hebrews to proclaim the divinity of Christ. The author of Psalm 8 might have meant all of humanity when he used the phrase “son of man”, but the Holy Spirit led him to use that specific phrase and could then use it to refer to Christ in Hebrews. These are legitimate interpretations of Scripture in the light of Christian Revelation.
Does this mean that the first Christians and Fathers of the Church ignored the literal sense of those passages? Not at all; instead they saw that the literal sense was only one level of meaning – and often not even the most important meaning. Like the author of Hebrews, they understood that all passages of the Scriptures ultimately point to Christ and all must be read in the light of his saving mysteries.
We too should read the Bible like the author of the Hebrews did, finding Jesus throughout the pages of God’s Word.