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Jesus and the Old Testament

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. Goldingay, Do We Need the New Testament

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.

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17 thoughts on “Jesus and the Old Testament

  1. Let me be the first to talk you out of 2, “If we don’t read the OT Christologically, then Christianity isn’t true.” Jesus and the apostles read the OT Christologically–even to the point of violating many of our widely accepted interpretive norms (they’d have flunked most NT seminary classes?). So this is enough for me to follow suit. But the truth of Christianity can’t be grounded in any reading of Scripture, can it? Isn’t the truth of Christianity rooted in the risen Jesus, period? No risen Jesus, no Christianity ontologically speaking. Oh. Maybe, having said that, I now see your point. By “Christianity” you mean the “religion that we call Christianity” and not the ontological reality of Jesus. If the former, then who cares if Christianity is true? If the latter, then what we say or do or how we read the OT isn’t germane. Or am I missing something?

    1. I see your point. The resurrection is really the only make or break reality for Christianity’s truth. But what does it mean? If Christ didn’t die “according to the scriptures” and didn’t rise “according to the scriptures,” I’m not sure there’s anything left of the apostolic preaching.

      1. Other than the raw witness that they have experienced the risen Jesus, which is more important (or primary) than the significance of this encounter (understood, “according to the Scriptures”). I guess my point is wrapped in an underlying concern that much of Protestant Reformation thinking was shaped by inordinate suspicion of experience. But if Jesus is in fact risen from the dead, then he is an active agent in the world and can get through to people by his own agency using whatever means he wishes. Even pastors and theologians, so amazing and really present is he :)

  2. Hi Kirk,

    Definitely good discussion points that you raise. But may I ask why would you be willing to put aside the Trinity? I mean without the Trinity how is the Jesus story even possible? I’m ok with not requiring belief in the Trinity for authentic faith because the Trinity is awkward no matter how well you try to frame it. With the Trinity aside, what’s left? Modalism? But Modalism doesn’t work well in the gospels – Jesus just cannot be his own father and son. The other route is Adoptionism which can work well in the gospels but has obvious tension with orthodoxy.

    Where do you stand on that subject?

    Best,

    Yuri

    1. Good questions.

      I actually treat the Trinity in the NT like I treat Jesus in the OT. It becomes important eventually, for a second reading. But no NT writer was a Trinitarian. Most of the argumentation and storytelling in the NT works with a model of Jesus as idealized human figure. We need to hear that story first before we overlay the later theological development.

  3. This is excellent. I often think of the OT in a way similar to inter-religious dialogue. For a while during the early days of pluralist theology (Hick, and early Knitter) there was a belief that in order to dialogue with people of different faiths we needed to set aside our dogmatic convictions. There was some truth to that. At least you can’t come to dialogue intending to make it an argument. Trying to convince the other person. You have to hold your own beliefs lightly enough to be able to occupy intellectual space with others with different beliefs.

    Increasingly, however the people in dialogue learned that our friends of other religions want us to bring what makes us distinctively Christian into the dialogue. That a profitable encounter doesn’t involve finding some anemic middle ground or universal common starting place. A profitable encounter involves strangers meeting in their strangeness. So pluralists started picking their dogma back up and bringing it into the conversation.

    I actually think both steps of dialogue are useful.

    To apply it to the OT – we do need to set aside our distinctive Christian outlook for an initial reading or else we won’t really be allowing the text to speak TO us, we’ll just be arguing with it and “convincing” it to agree with our established beliefs. But, at the end of the day we ARE Christian and for a full dialogue with the text we need to bring our faith in Christ back into the conversation at some point.

    One of the advantages of this two-step approach is that we actually ARE engaging in inter-religious dialogue when reading the OT. It doesn’t belong exclusively to Christians. Reading it this way creates enough space for us not to run over those other traditions who also have a claim on these texts.

  4. Amen to JDK’s response on the Trinity. The Jewish witnesses to Jesus might have needed a tutorial in non-Jewish philosophical constructs to make sense of the trinitarian formulations in the creed. Did that make them heretics? Presence precedes precept. Experience precedes explanation (thought the latter also shape the former interactively.)

  5. So what do you do with the many passages where Jesus talks about judgment and with the Apocalypse? They’re part of the NT, too, and they certainly suggest a very harsh judgment on the unbelieving world.

  6. I think we need to look for the words to figure out the Scriptures of the Hebrews. And they don’t run from Genesis through Malachi but from Genesis through Chronicles. The covenant God of TNK is faithful. I’ve personally just been working through Deuteronomy 28 verse by verse in Hebrew. I leave behind a stream of questions that I will come back to in due course – especially as I learn line by line to refine my questions and my vocabulary. I read through the lens of the death of Jesus but I hope I do not impose it unnecessarily. There are a thousand pairs of glasses we can use while reading. I think J Goldingay (whom I last remember at International SBL in St Andrews giving me a stare down for some saucy question I likely asked – wish I could remember the question) I think he is writing to get Christians to read differently from the assumptions and short-circuits they have been brought up with. God knows we need to because we have forgotten how to learn from the Spirit. This is explcitly taught by God himself through the Psalms. They must be our conversation. And our obedience – hearing and realizing and doing.

  7. Maybe we should read Jesus Old-Testamentalogically. Does Jesus not see himself as a turning point, a particular special place in the story? We see him in a particular relationship to the ongoing narrative of which the OT is a segment … “Where it all changed.”

    Lapsing into a Trinitarian viewpoint for a moment, maybe it was the Son that out of his humanity rejected the classical Messiahship preformed for him and turned instead towards the only other place left open.

    (OTOH #2 would be tautologically true since the point of Christianity (it seems to me) is to read all things Christologically … ?)

  8. Yes!
    At college everything was about Christocentricity (so I guess that means we believed in Christocentrcitycentricity) but I don’t buy it. I’m far more Theocentric in my approach but I can’t bring myself to saying that every passage is about Jesus; I’m all for letting the Old Testament speak for itself.
    That said, I just preached Amos 7-8 and there’s that interesting section in 8:7-10 where I looked at it and just thought, “there’s nothing in this that’s not about Jesus.” So I think we have to be open to that side of things as well.

    1. In my experience there are some flat or stilted ways of reading the OT Christologically. I won’t say that every OT passage is about Jesus, but I will say that every OT passage is part of a story that’s ultimately about Jesus and/or what God does through Jesus.

      1. I agree but to say “every OT passage is part of a story that’s ultimately about Jesus and/or what God does through Jesus” is very broad and far more broad than what the Christocentric school seem to be asserting.

  9. Sometimes forgotten is that the OT was not only Jesus’ Bible but also his Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Magna Carta, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth all rolled into one. It is an idea that occurred to me long ago that Mt. 12:39-40 involves a LITERARY allusion to the ‘big fish’ episode in Jonah, something like my saying, “Just as Hamlet never gets around to avenging his father’s murder”, where we all know that I mean “in the famous play”. N.B. I am not saying anything about the number of days and nights, but simply about how we may perhaps think about the Lord’s view of the historicity of the Jonah story.

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