My colleague John Goldingay has a new book out. Its provocative title: Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.
The provocation doesn’t stop with the front cover, as the last chapter is entitled, “Theological Interpretation: Don’t Be Christ-Centered, Don’t Be Trinitarian, Don’t Be Constrained by the Rule of Faith”.
As someone growing my love for baseball, I want to say with all seriousness that batting .667 makes you one of the all time greats! Here’s my two out of three:
Don’t be Constrained by the Rule of Faith. Agreed.
Don’t be Trinitarian (in your interpretation!). Agreed.
Don’t be Christ centered? Not so fast.
I have three compelling reasons to do Christ-centered (or Christ-directed) biblical interpretation.
But before I lay those out, I want to voice my partial agreement even with the idea that we should not read the OT Christologically. I agree with the claim up to this point: we should always allow the OT to say what it has to say, listen to what it has to say, as an expression of its own historical context as a first reading of the text.
In my forthcoming book on Jesus, I have 50,000 words invested in the notion that what pre-New Testament material says about God, humans, and how they relate is of its own importance, and absolutely essential as well for reading the NT aright.
So I half agree with my colleague. We need to first let the OT speak with its own voice. His batting average is now up to .833!
But we cannot stop there. We have to continue to a Christological reading. Here’s why.
1. The New Testament says that scripture is about Jesus
In the famous “all scripture is God-breathed” passage in 2 Tim 3, where we learn that all scripture–which would have meant our Old Testament–is profitable for teaching, etc., we often overlook something.
Before saying that scripture is profitable, Paul tells us what the outcome of such profitable reading is:
Since childhood you have known the scriptures which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
Scripture has a goal, an end, an outcome: faith in Christ.
This parallels what Paul says in Rom 10:4, when he claims that Christ is the end or goal (telos) of the Law.
It is recapitulated in Jesus’s words in John 5: “You search the scriptures because you think that in these you have life–yet it is these that testify about me!”
If we do not read OT scripture as pointing to something beyond itself, if we do not read it as part of a story that has an end in Christ, we are not reading it in keeping with the NT guidelines.
2. If we don’t read the Old Testament Christologically then Christianity is not true
I know that this is a strong statement. But I’ll stand by it. (At least until one of you talks me out of it in the comments!)
The story of Jesus can only be the story of God’s salvation if it is the answer to God’s promise to save God’s people and restore the cosmos. But a “straight” reading of the text from front to back does not in itself paint for us the picture of the Jesus about whose life we read on the pages of the NT. It does not adequately prepare us for salvation through God’s offering of God’s own Son.
Jesus claims at the end of Luke, for instance, that the whole OT (Law, Prophets, Psalms) speaks to a suffering Christ who thereafter enters his glory. We find out what this looks like, exegetically speaking, in the sermons in Acts.
How does the OT speak of the Christ to come? Only when we return to those scriptures to read them with new understanding after we already know that Christ has been crucified, raised from the dead, and enthroned at God’s right hand.
In other words, if we don’t ever read Psalm 110 as speaking about Jesus’s enthronement in heaven, despite the fact that it was originally about the coronation of Israel’s king, then we have no grounds to claim that what actually happened to Jesus is related in any way to the preceding story.
And if Jesus is not related to the story, then the claim that he fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew), that he goes just as it is written about him (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), that he is the fulfillment of the promises God made beforehand in the prophets (Paul)–that claim is proved false.
If we do not allow what God actually did to transform our understanding of what God promised to do, we have no answer to the promises of salvation articulated in Genesis-Malachi.
3. If we don’t read the Old Testament Christologically then we have a mess on our hands
I know that this claim is also going to be controversial. But here’s the deal.
Over the past couple of years I have led small groups through studies of both Amos and Isaiah. And those prophets, alongside their beautiful visions of the future, are also a troubling mess.
The heights of proclamation about the mercy and justice of God are interwoven with gruesome vengeance–God meting out on the nations the very sorts of violence for which they themselves are allegedly being punished.
We have to be able to return to passages that look for God to give destroy Egypt as the ransom for God’s people, and say no. No, God chose a different path. God gave God’s son instead.
We have to be able to return to passages that look for God to subjugate the nations as vinedressers and shepherds and say no. No, God chose to bring in the Gentiles on equal footing, bearing the divine image as co-heirs with Christ as much as Israel.
The cross does not make every mess go away–and it is, in many ways, its own mess to wrestle with.
But Jesus does show us what the ultimate revelation of God looks like. It is the God who confronts the enemy–by sending the Son to die on their behalf.
This is what permits us, better, demands of us, that we not allow the depictions of the violence of vengeance to stand. (And, yes, the Jesus story might demand of us that we reread portions of the NT for the same reasons.)
So yes, bracket the Trinity and the Rule of Faith while you read. But don’t leave Christ to the side.
Our faith depends on it.