Matthew Barrett, Canon, Covenant and Christology (NSBT 51)

Barrett, Matthew. Canon, Covenant and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel. NSBT 51; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2020. 357 pp. Pb; $34.00.  Link to IVP Academic 

Matthew Barrett serves as associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is executive editor of Credo Magazine. He has published several books on aspects of soteriology and has a monograph forthcoming from Baker Academic, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (March 2021). As expected, this new contribution to the New Studies on Biblical Theology leans towards systematic theology and is thoroughly Trinitarian.

Barett, Canon, Covenant and ChristologyThe earliest Christians saw their movement as the true heir of the Old Testament. They were the “true Jews, true sons of Abraham, even if they were ethnically Gentiles” (200). Barrett argues in this study that Jesus and the early church did not adopt the Old Testament, “the Old Testament Scriptures gave birth to Jesus himself and are the genesis of his church” (197). Jesus and the early church disagreed with other Jews about the fulfillment of Scripture (who is the Messiah?), but not about the canon itself. For the early church, the entire canon of the Old Testament was Christological, giving witness to the incarnation of the Son of God. The Christological interpretation of the Old Testament by the early church is absurd “if the Scriptures of Israel do not have Yahweh as their divine author” (292).  

The first chapter orients the reader to Barrett’s understanding of biblical theology. Underlying the entire argument of this book is Barrett’s firm belief in the inspired character of the whole of the whole of the canon. Since God is the author of the whole canon, there divine authorial intent and unity across the canon. Rather than repeating the usual “drama of redemption,” Barrett’s focus is on Jesus as the “Christological clamp” (following Peter Stuhlmacher). The Old Testament prefigures the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and “when the Son of God becomes incarnate and secures redemption on behalf of the ungodly, any residual canonical ambiguity disappears” (39). Reading from a New Testament perspective, it becomes clear God intended the Old Testament types to testify to his Son. As Barrett makes clear, the primary focus of this book is not the nature of typology, although the second chapter will need to define and clarify what he means by typology. The emphasis in this study is canonical unity from the prefigurement in the Old testament to fulfillment in the incarnation. Barrett says, “Jesus is the canon, for all the Scripture typologically point forward to him” (93).  

Chapter two lays out the thesis of the book. The interpreter’s hermeneutical grid needs to be re-orientated so that Jesus’s understanding of Scripture is not forced through a Pauline grid. Israel’s relationship with God in the Old Testament was covenantal. Barrett mentions covenants with Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David, but in other places he includes Noah, and in one list he ends with “David, and so on” (45). I am not sure what covenant might be after David other than the New Covenant in Jeremiah. The covenantal nature of the God’s revelation to his people was prophetic and eschatological, pointing forward to the ultimate fulfillment in the incarnation. These covenants escalate or progress towards their fulfillment in the person and work of Christ (63). Barrett shows this progression through typology. He tracks the progression of royal, priestly, and prophetic terminology in Isaiah as a typology pointed to an ultimate fulfillment in Jesus (a classic “prophet, priest, and king” typology).

Barrett calls chapters three and four “case studies.” He applies his typological method to the gospels of Matthew and John. But he introduces a familiar term into the study at this point, intertextuality. He states the Gospels employ both intertextual echoes and typological correspondence in order to describe Jesus as the fulfilment of covenants of the Old Testament, producing a canonical unity (98, 107). The relationship between these two interpretive strategies is slippery and usually not well defined. It appears typology refers to something present in the Old Testament text, and intertextuality refers to a New Testament text interpreting the Old. But the difference is not clear as he moves through Matthew and John.

For example, Barrett collects Matthew’s fulfillment statements in order to demonstrate the high view of Scripture Jesus and the evangelists had for the Old Testament. But is Matthew’s claim that Joseph moving to Nazareth fulfils “what was spoken by the prophets” a typology or an intertextual echo? Some might call this midrash, or canonical exegesis, etc. Other examples are more clearly typological, such as the new Exodus motif in Matthew. There are few direct allusions to a particular passage in the Old Testament as “fulfilled,” but Matthew patterns his presentation of Jesus after Moses and the Exodus. Barrett discusses Jesus’s use of Psalm 8:2 in Matthew 21:16, stating “Jesus relies on the typology of the psalm to justify his actions” (139). But he quotes the words of the psalm, so how is this not closer to intertextuality?  

Perhaps typology is better illustrated in Barrett’s chapter on John’s Gospel. He says, for example, John 9-10 is “filled with Christological metaphors, metaphors that build on the typology of Old Testament Israel” (179) and the metaphor of a shepherd is “rich in Old Testament allusions” (182). See, for example, this post on John 10 and the Good Shepherd metaphor in John 10. This is the case because John’s Gospel rarely cites particular texts, but often alludes to metaphors found in the Old Testament. As is clear in Barrett’s presentation, there are many passages which contain the metaphor “God is the good shepherd.” This can be fairly described as a typology since there is no single text in John’s mind.

Chapter five traces how the synoptic gospels present Jesus as obedient to the Scriptures, with an emphasis on what that says about the Scriptures. Barrett moves through each of the synoptic Gospels, examining the mission of the Son. This will reveal Jesus’s attitude toward Scripture. In the Gospels Jesus is the Adamic Son who fulfills all righteousness and attains the redemption of all people because he is obedient to the Scripture (204). Although he uses Adam-language in the introduction to this chapter, much of the typology is built on Moses or Israel. This is likely not a problem since Moses and Israel are presented as a new Adams even in the Old Testament. Luke’s Gospel seems to have the clearest Adam typology, although it receives the briefest coverage in this chapter.

Barrett returns to the Gospel of John in chapter six to argue Christology comes before canon. Where does Jesus get his authority? In John’s Gospel, his authority is a scriptural authority rooted in biblical Trinitarian Christology (249). Jesus is continuing the story of Israel as the long-awaited Messiah promised in the Old Testament. The New Testament is not an illegitimate add-on to the Old, but the completion of the redemption story (283).

The final chapter of the book is in substance a paper on inerrancy read at the 2017 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It should have been included as an appendix rather than a chapter.  

Conclusion. Although I have misgivings about the relationship of typology and intertextuality in this study, Barrett certainly achieves his goal by demonstrating both Jesus and the Gospel writers had a high view of Israel’s Scripture and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of those Scriptures. Within the evangelical world, there is little disagreement on inspiration and authority of both testaments, and interpreting the Old Testament Christologically is not particularly controversial. This book argues for a more thoroughgoing canonical view of Jesus and the Gospels, which will focus on the death and resurrection of the Son of God as the climax of the covenant.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Leave a Reply