Review of George B. Caird, “The Exegetical Method of Hebrews.”

I just finished an article by George B. Caird entitled The Exegetical Method of Hebrews. It is a fairly old article, having been published in 1959. It in Caird addresses the issues surrounding the author’s use and exegesis of the Old Testament. In the introduction, Caird acknowledges that while Hebrews may share some similarities with the Alexandrian school and Philo, he also suggests that:

So far from being an example of fantastic exegesis which can be totally disregarded by modern Christians, Hebrews is one of the earliest and most successful attempts to define the relation between the Old and New Testaments, and that a large part of the value of the book is to be found in the method of exegesis which was formerly dismissed with contempt (pg. 45).

Caird challenges us to come to this marvelous book and “lay aside the weight of traditional scholarship and the presuppositions which cling so closely to us, and come with an open mind to ask what the epistle has to tell us about the Old Testament” (pg.46). Caird sets out to explain to us the what Hebrews can tells us about the Old Testament in 4 sections: (1) The Validity of the Old Order, (2) The Self-Confessed Inadequacy of the Old Order, (3) Christ, Aaron and Melchizedek, and (4) The Contribution of the Old Testament to Christian Faith and Worship.

I. The Validity of the Old Order

According to the author of Hebrews The Old Testament is important to understanding the things that were to come. It is not the new covenant as abolished the old, but rather it has fulfilled the old. Caird remarks that the old covenant “contained a genuine foreshadowing of the good things to come, not a Platonic illusion of ultimate reality” (pg. 46). The author believed that the old covenant contained a valid revelation of who God was, and in this covenant God communicated to his people through various means and at various times. Because the Old Testament contains the voice of God, when the author quotes from the Old Testament he quotes it “as the voice of God” (pg. 46). In order for one to have a complete understanding of the new order, one must recognize that the old order is valid and contain the voice and word of God.

II. The Self-Confessed Inadequacy of the Old Order

According to Caird, the self-confessed inadequacy of the old order is the main argument of Hebrews. “It is not the purpose of the author to prove the superiority if the New Covenant to the Old, nor to establish the inadequacy of the old order. His interest is in the confessed inadequacy of the old order” (pg. 47). Though the main thrust of the letter is a pastoral concern for the readers, who are drifting away from the things that they were taught (Heb. 2.1), Caird also stresses that the author’s argument falls into four sections, which have at its core Old Testament passages that show the inadequacy of the old order. These passages are: Jer. 31; Ps. 110, 95, and 8. The inadequacy of the old order is seen most clearly at the end of Heb 8, in which after the author quotes is full Jer. 31.31-34 he says: “When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and aging is near to disappearing” (8.13).

I would agree with Caird that what we have here is a “perfectly sound piece of exegesis”(pg. 47). Jeremiah predicted the new covenant, and by so doing confessed the inadequacy of the old to deal with the sin of world. The old covenant established the sacrificial system that Israel was to follow for dealing with sin. Hebrews 9 goes into great detail as to the how and why’s of the sacrificial systems. The priests were to go regularly into the tabernacle to perform their ritual duties (9.6), and the high priest once a year on the Day of Atonement (9.7). The author says that “according to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of restoration” (9.9-10). But in contrast to this, Christ came and offered himself once for all as a sacrifice for sin. What the old could not do Christ accomplished, thus rendering obsolete the old covenant. For Christ “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9.12). The death of Jesus redeems people from the transgression that were committed under the first covenant (9.15). “The sacrifices of the old covenant were a perpetual reminder of sin and of man’s need for atonement, but what men needed was the effective removal of sin, so that it could no longer barricade the way into the inner presence of God” (pg. 47).

Caird continues to express inadequacy of the old order by showing that the remaining three passages mentioned above – Ps. 110, 95, and 8 follow the same line of thought: Ps. 110 looks to a better priesthood, Ps. 95 to ultimate rest, and Ps. 8 to the glory that man is destined to achieved by Christ (pg. 49). Caird closes this section of with the following:

By these four arguments the epistle seeks to establish its main thesis, that the Old Testament is not only an incomplete book but an avowedly incomplete book, which taught and teaches men to live by faith in the good things that were to come. It had a doctrine of man which remained unfulfilled until the coming of Jesus, an offer of divine rest which remained outstanding because there was no way by which God’s message of grace could be mixed with faith in those who heard it. It had priesthood and looked for a better one to draw men near to God. It had sacrificial ordinances and knew them to be ineffective in dealing with sin (pg. 49).

III. Christ, Aaron, and Melchizedek

In this section Caird continues to show the significance that the Old Testament had for the writer of Hebrews. With Christ has his subject, Caird labors to show that “between the ineffective institutions of the old Israel and the effective work of Christ there are real and meaningful parallels” (pg. 49). Caird illustrates the significance of the parallels between Christ and both Aaron and Melchizedek. The choosing of high priest is similar to that of Christ, both were chosen from among men (Heb. 5.1), both offer gifts and sacrifices for sin (Heb 5.1), both can deal gently with the wayward and ignorant (Heb. 5.2), and both were ordained by God (Heb. 5.4-5).

Because of the nature of the sacrifices, they did not have the power to deal with sin. Caird reminds us “The sacrifices had the appearance of true sacrifice, but not the power to purify the conscience from dead works” (pg. 50). They were a shadow of the reality that was to come in the person and work of Christ. Caird illustrates this with an analogy:

A picture of an unknown fruit resembles the real thing in all except reality: it will not satisfy your hunger, but it may help you to recognize the real fruit if you should come across it. Similarly, the Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices were only shadow pictures of reality, but they prepared men to appreciate the reality when it appeared in Jesus Christ. God spoke to the fathers in the cultus in order that they might become familiar with a picture language without which they could neither apprehend nor convey the full scope of his later salvation (pg.50).

Whereas the priesthood of Aaron was one that would become obsolete, the priesthood of Melchizedek was one that was quite different. Psalm 110 tells us that there was to be a priest to come who would be one forever after the order of Melchizedek, and this messianic anticipation was fulfilled in Christ. The author of Hebrews labors to show this in chapter 7. The author says, “If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb. 7.11-12). The priesthood that was associated with Aaron and the Levites was replaced by one that was after the order of Melchizedek and one that would last forever.

IV. The Contribution of the Old Testament to Christian Faith and Worship

In concluding his article, Caird asks, “What, then, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews is the permanent contribution of the Old Testament to Christian faith and worship” (pg. 50). He answers this question with four possible contributions.

a. Christ is the only fulfillment to the promises and aspirations of the Old Testament.

b. It provides pictures and language that can assist in the preaching of the Gospel.

c. The Old Testament provides partial anticipations of the realities that were present in Christ.

d. The Old Testament gives us examples of men who lived a life of faith in the future promises of God.

Bibliography: George B. Caird. “The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Canadian Journal of Theology 5, 1959: 44-51.


2 thoughts on “Review of George B. Caird, “The Exegetical Method of Hebrews.”

  1. Pingback: » Biblical Studies Carnival XV, in Memory of Bruce Manning Metzger

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