Tag Archives: christological hermeneutics

Matthew, Jesus, and Law

I had a professor friend who used to say (maybe he still does) that every controversy of the first couple centuries of the church’s life was over the (dis)continuity of the Old Testament and the life/faith of the church.

We see on the pages of the New Testament that questions about circumcision, food laws, and law-keeping in general were pressing pastoral questions. Later the question arose as to whether this world that we live in, which seems like it’s a disaster, could have possibly been created by the good God whom we worship through the work of Jesus.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that historical claim, but there’s sufficient grain of truth in it to suggest that any time we get into questions of (dis)continuity between Jesus and what came before that we are on ground that has been well traversed but often with little consensus.

In other words, three quarters of you who read what follows will probably disagree, but here it goes, anyway.

The Law in particular, and the whole Old Testament in general was of crucial importance for the writer of Matthew. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I haven’t come to abolish but to fulfill… Not one jot or tittle will fall away from the law until all things have come to be.”

Moreover, there’s that marvelous little parable in which Jesus says that every scribe trained in the kingdom is like a householder bringing out of his storehouse treasures old and new.

Scribe: expert in the writings.

So obviously law-keeping as such is important to Jesus, as Matthew presents him. Right?

Not so fast.

The law that Matthew’s Jesus upholds as the standard of righteousness is not the Moses-given Torah, but the law and instruction and refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus.

Immediately after saying that he doesn’t come to abolish but to fulfill, Matthew’s Jesus holds up various commandments and says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Even if you translate this “and I say to you,” the point is largely the same: if you want to “fulfill what is written” it is not enough to keep Torah, you have to keep the words of Jesus. Knowing what you are to do is not to be had from Torah alone, but through Jesus’ teaching.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this idea.

In 7:21-23 we get the warning that not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” will get into the Kingdom; those who do “get in” are those who obey God’s will, which is the same set of people whom Jesus knows.

What is perhaps oblique in this paragraph of Matthew is made explicit in the next one: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a person who builds his house on a rock.

Jesus’ words are what must be obeyed, not Torah itself.

The crowd’s reaction bears this out. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he was teaching like one having authority. This doesn’t mean he was a compelling speaker. It means that he was speaking by standing on his own calling to speak for God, not as one passing on a tradition whose authority is vested elsewhere (such as the giving of the law itself or the line of teachers).

Finally, when Jesus sends out the eleven after his resurrection, he commands them to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that he himself has taught.

For Matthew, discipleship is a matter of following this teacher. The Law and the Prophets are essential, but they are essential inasmuch as they have been given a Christological refraction and fulfillment.

There is a paradox entailed here: for Matthew, Law is more important than it seems to be for the other Gospel writers; but, in weaving the Law so prominently through the story, I believe he creates a Jesus who is less acceptable to a non-Christian Judaism, to a people defined by keeping Torah.

Matthew brings the law in closer, but in so doing brings it into such contact with Jesus that it no longer stands as such. The defining activities of the people of God are no longer found in the Law, but in the teachings of this particular teacher of the way of righteousness.

If God Is Love

God loves. And God loves freely. When God chooses to set his affection on creation, on people, on you, on me, God does this because God chooses, freely, to bestow God’s love upon his creatures.

This is the summary of Barth’s doctrine of God.

And this is why Barth presses the point that the doctrine of election lies at the heart of the doctrine of God.

When we say “God loves freely,” we make a claim about God, not only in Himself, but as one who is postured toward the world. If God is, in fact, the one who loves in freedom, then God must from all eternity be postured toward the creature in free love.

To be postured toward us in love from all eternity is to be not only the one who loves eternally, but the one who elects eternally. Election, for Barth, homes in on God’s free choice to love people.

God loves in freedom, as God is from all eternity. This is not merely a function of the earthly event of Jesus’ appearance to bring salvation. The act in history depends upon, and indicates, a prior eternal election.

I confess to having a few caution flags go up in Barth’s discussion of the place of election in dogmatics (§32.3). Mostly, they sprung from this: I worry that Barth wants to put so much in eternity that the reality of God responding to the world in its brokenness, sinfulness, and enslavement is minimized.

When we put so much of God’s activity in eternity, I worry that the reality, as it’s depicted throughout scripture, that God truly responds to the world and to the cries of God’s people, and to the promises and agreements made is rendered illusory.

When Barth shuns the notion that God is rescuing us from what might be a rival god, is he so focusing on the ideal reign of God that the reality of a conflicting dominion that must be displaced is, in essence, denied (p. 90)?

Coming up next: Barth will develop his doctrine of election on the election, first, of Jesus Christ. This, no doubt, gave rise to the thought among many that simply saying, “in Christ,” seals the deal in favor of a corporate, rather than particular and individual election. The subsequent section discusses the election of the community, and finally the individual is dealt with.

I’m curious: what do you do with election? Does a traditional Reformed outlook work for you? If not, how do you interpret the passages that speak about predestination and election without simply writing them off?

It’s Still Easter–So Read and Understand

It’s still Easter.

The recollection of long church services and family celebrations may have started to fade, the kids might not remember what they found on their egg hunt, but it’s still Easter.

But as long as Jesus is raised from the dead, as long as Jesus is seated at the right hand of God–as long as the most basic Christian claim of all, Jesus is Lord, still reflects reality, it’s still Easter.

And this means that we can, and must, read with new understanding.

At the end of Luke, it is the resurrected Jesus who sits down his disciples for a course in Biblical interpretation. As the Resurrected One, he calls to mind what they have not yet been able to hear and invites them to read with new understanding.

Only after the resurrection is there understanding that “all things written about Christ” entails suffering and death, resurrection and exaltation, mission and worldwide proclamation. And, after the resurrection, no other understanding of what “Christ” might entail is viable.

Because it is still Easter, we must still read the Old Testament as writing about, predicting, entailing, and even demanding, a Christ whom we simply are not capable of seeing until the Crucified is raised.

We look for a prophet like Moses, but not one whose life and people is defined by Torah.

We follow a second Joshua, but not into fields of military engagement.

We follow great King David’s greater son, but not one whose reign is secured by war or marred by the sins that disintegrate the royal family.

We confess a fulfillment of the promises of restoration, but without the removal of Romans from Judea.

We confess a new and glorious temple, even now, while the building in Jerusalem still stands in ruin.

The only reason to say, “No matter how many promises God has made, in Christ they are ‘Yes,’” is to know already that this particular Christ is the One anointed of Israel’s God.

It is Easter wherever the Bible is read as though Jesus is the point. Easter creates a new memory of scripture, what it says and what it means.

You may have forgotten that killer mint aioli I made for the lamb on Easter Sunday, but the measure of Easter’s presence is a different memory. It’s Easter, and therefore we remember that the Scripture God breathed is the sacred writing that makes us wise for the salvation that is found in Christ Jesus.

Wise for Salvation in Christ

What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?

“Inspired” is an answer that many of us give right off the top of our heads:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character. (2 Tim 3:16, CEB)

But in general we’re not so up on the lead-in:

Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 3:15, CEB)

Scripture is not just about “learning things” that God wants us to know.

And it’s not just about finding out “what we should do.”

The things we are to learn, and the things we are to do are located within the work of God that has a specific end and goal in view.

We read scripture with full faithfulness not merely when we say, “This is God’s word,” but when we read and interpret it as a witness to the salvation that God has made available to us in Christ.

It’s not enough to read the Bible. We have to read it with a Christological hermeneutic.

Not To Us, And To Us

I want to keep circling around to Bible here. I hope you’re not sick of it yet. If so, see you tomorrow!

In early January, I mused on some of the pressing issues that would be creeping up in my little corner of the evangelical world. The thought that we still need to figure out a better way to say what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it continues to find traction. (Rachel Held Evans has made this one of her themes for the year as well.)

Yesterday one of my friends was snarking about acquiring for himself a new wife or two.

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Apparently, he wants to lead a raid across I-95 and take a beautiful captive home for his efforts:

When you wage war against your enemies and the LORD hands them over to you and you take prisoners, if you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you fall in love with her and take her as your wife, bringing her into your home, she must shave her head, cut her nails, remove her prisoner’s clothing, and live in your house, mourning her father and her mother for one month. After that, you may consummate the marriage. You will be her husband, and she will be your wife. Deut 21:1–13, CEB

How are we supposed to deal with passages like this?

In general, of course, we do not want to build rules out of exceptions. If we meet a strange case, this is not necessarily the starting point for thinking through how to conceive of normal.

But…

When it comes to interpreting and applying scripture, how we think about what scripture is and what we’re supposed to do with it need to be able to handle myriad verses that we do not, and should not, “apply to our lives”–at least, not directly.

In short, we need an understanding of what scripture is, and a reading strategy, that allows us to say, first, “This was not written to us,” and then to say, with equal conviction, “This is written to us.”

The first is an acknowledgement of historical distance, cultural difference, and, most significantly when it comes to the Old Testament, an era of God’s work that applies to us only indirectly because of the advent of Christ.

“Not to us” is an important step in biblical interpretation. We need to have ears to hear how a story would have resonated with Babylonian exiles; we need ears to hear how “Jesus is Lord” might have resonated, or caused dissonance, for a first century Roman.

We need to know that when we read, “Expel the immoral brother!” that it is a word for a first century church and might not be God’s word to us about, say, the man in our meetings with a flatulence problem.

“Not to us” is a significant moment in our biblical interpretation.

But then, the Bible is the witness to God’s revelation; it is the authoritative word for the church. All scripture is inspired, and therefore somehow useful.

The question, of course, is what does “somehow” mean?

In the famous 2 Timothy passage about scripture alluded to above, Paul says that scripture is able to give the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. As we find in Romans as well, there is a Christological hermeneutic that comes with affirming the OT as the word of God. The OT scriptures function as a pointer to a later coming Christ.

“To us” means “to us who are in Christ,” which means that we must read with a Christological lens, and with Christ as the coming climax to the OT narrative (or surprising disruption of that narrative, as the case may be), in order to assert its authority over us.

“Not to us”: yes, this scripture passage told the Israelites they could take wives from their captives. But we may not.

“To us”: we boldly allegorize to fit our saving story of Christ. He defeated the king of the kingdom to which we were enslaved, and took us to be His holy bride. As scripture, to us, this is not a pass to engage in stealing humans for our own, but a veiled witness to the rescue from an enslaving union to the powers of sin and death into the freeing union of grace and life (Rom 7:1-12).

“Not to us” and “to us” is a dialectic that a narrative approach to scripture enables us to develop. It is a story. And in the revelation of the story’s climax, even the earlier moments in the story are transformed.

The Story of Christ… Really…

I’ve found myself indirectly thinking about what it means to read the Bible as Christians. By “indirectly” I mean that these thoughts have gnawed around the edges of my thinking while I’ve been working on other things: teaching the Gospels and Acts, writing a paper on wisdom literature in the Coen Brothers’ movies, listening to sermons on the deadly sins, reading books on what the Bible is and we’re supposed to do with it.

By “reading the Bible as Christians” I don’t just mean reading it like we’re supposed to learn from it. There are lots of ways to read the Bible so as to learn from it. But those among whom I number myself approach the Bible as Christians–not as Jews, not as Mormons, not to mention that we don’t approach it as atheists or pantheists or deists.

Reading the Bible as Christians means that we not only read it with a ready disposition to hear it as God’s word, as the story of salvation, it means to read the story with the conviction that the narrative comes to its surprising climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

You have to do this on purpose, if you want to do it.

Pick up the book of Deuteronomy, and you’ll come away with a strong sense that they way God will fully restore his people is through their faithful obedience to Torah. Jesus is a surprise.

Pick up the law or the prophets, and you’ll come away with the strong sense that God’s ultimate plan is for a nation to be located in the geophysical land of Israel. The explosion of the promise of land to a promise of the world and indeed of new creation is a surprise.

Pick up the Proverbs, and the next thing you know you’ll be looking for your diligence to overflow in wealth and peace. The call to embody the death of Jesus in all quarters of our world is a surprise.

To read the Bible as the story of Jesus is to decide that nothing in the OT comes to us directly. It all comes to us mediated through Jesus. This means both that it is mediated through Jesus and that it all comes to us. Some is transformed in him, some is fulfilled and left behind. And some comes as a word reiterated now for a people reconfigured around Christ rather than Torah.

The vitality, and validity, of our reading the OT as Christians hinges on our willingness to read it in light of what we know to be more ultimately true: the Christ who is the end of the Law, the Christ to whom the Law, Prophets, and Psalms bear witness.

Problem Passage: Blood on Us

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was ramping up for release, it was widely scorned as anti-Semitic. One particular point of contention came from Gibson’s choice to include the self-imprecation of the Jews from Matthew’s Gospel:

Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was starting. So he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “ I’m innocent of this man’s blood, ” he said. “ It’s your problem. ”
All the people replied, “ Let his blood be on us and on our children. ” (Matt 27:24-25, CEB)

In a stark indictment, Pilate is absolved of all responsibility while the Jewish people invite the blood guilt on themselves. Make that “all” the people (πᾶς ὁ λαός). Not the leadership, not the Pharisees, maybe not even just the Judeans. All the people.

This seems to be a democratization of Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees from a couple chapters earlier:

Therefore, look, I’m sending you prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will kill and crucify. And some you will beat in your synagogues and chase from city to city. Therefore, upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been poured out on the earth, from the blood of that righteous man Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. I assure you that all these things will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:34-36, CEB)

So the question is, what do we do with this, and the blood of Jesus thing in particular? The concern it raises, of course, is that such a canonized curse opens the door for all sorts of evil such as has, in fact, been performed by “Christians” on Jews throughout the course of history. What is a responsible twenty-first century reading of the text?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

First, I think we should take seriously the “this generation” of Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees.

There is a narrative line within the Gospels, especially during passion week, within which these passages fit; namely, Jesus prophesies that Jerusalem will be destroyed because it has rejected him as Messiah. This means that the judgment that the Gospels anticipate coming on “Israel” have a first-century reference and fulfillment.

Jesus, like Jeremiah and Isaiah before him, predicted the destruction of the Temple, and Jerusalem, as God’s punishment for faithlessness.

I know that this raises its own problems about God. But I do think it’s an important first step in reading these texts to realize that the promised judgment has come, it has been spent, and we are not called to be its agents and our contemporaries do not stand under it.

Second, though, we are confronted with the challenge of this being in our Bible, which we confess to be God’s continuing word to the church. What does it mean to read this within such a framework?

Here, I have been suggesting that we willfully read the text in light of the larger canon’s blood imagery. In Matthew itself, the blood of Jesus is the blood of the covenant. Might we reread the cry, “His blood be upon us” as a plea to be marked as the blood-sprinkled covenant people of God?

In 1 Peter, the very purpose of election is to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. And Hebrews and 1 John make use of the notion that blood cleanses en route to forgiveness.

For the reader of scripture as a whole, the cry of all the people at the condemnation of Jesus need to be merely imprecatory. It might also be a beautiful instance of dramatic irony. What the people might mean as characters is not fully known to them. But to we who read there is another plain meaning to the words.

His blood be on us and our children. Amen. And by this blood may God forgive us all and purify us all from any unrighteousness.

Reconceiving the Bible (review pt. 4)

“I can just pick up my Bible, read it, and know what God has to say to the church.”

“The Bible speaks to all areas of life. If you want relational, financial, sexual, or political guidance, the Bible is the place to go.”

“The Bible is the owner’s manual.”

“The Bible contains the system of doctrine that God’s people should know and believe.”

“No,” says Christian Smith. “And no. And no. And no.”

The subtitle of The Bible Made Impossible is “Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.” The gospel is the good news, the good news is the word of Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to be one who promotes the good news of Jesus Christ.

And, a truly evangelical reading of scripture is one that recognizes that the point of the Bible is the saving word about Jesus Christ.

To read the Bible as an evangelical is not to read it to assemble a whole series of doctrines; it is not to read it as a compendium of life advice. Evangelical reading of the Bible is reading so as to discern in both Testaments the witness to Jesus Christ.

Or, as I put it so often here: we must imitate the NT writers in their employment of a Christological Hermeneutic.

What the Bible is “about” is not everything, it is about God’s salvation of the world through Christ. We should therefore seek this message, and discover the Bible’s unity, around this saving story.

In other words, there is a unity to scripture. But it is not the unity of a wholesale theological system; it is not the unity of agreement on what every passage means; it is not the unity of a transhistorical law which God reveals piecemeal over time.

The unity is what makes us Christians: the common affirmation that this is the story of God’s reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.

This understanding of what a Christian reading of the Bible looks like is not only as ancient as Jesus’ words in Luke 24 or John 5. It is also what we find advocated by John Stott (“Our savior Jesus Christ… is Scripture’s unifying theme,”) and the Dutch Theologian G. C. Berkouwer (“the significance [of scripture] can never be isolated from the redemptive-historical work of Christ”) (p. 103).

One of the crowning moments of the chapter on Christocentrism was an assessment Smith made of a sermon he heard on James. I’ve dabbled in and wondered about how we should be reading and preaching James–a virtually Christ-less book in the NT. My thought? We need to read it with the same strong Christological hermeneutic we are charged to bring to bear on the OT. Smith said essentially the same thing.

So my love fest with The Bible Made Impossible continues. Smith has rightly focused our attention on what the Bible is, and what it is for–and these mean that other ways of thinking about, reading, and applying scripture are shown up as misguided at best.

As an aside, I should say that the Westminster Seminary that died in the early 2000s had previously taught me just this way of thinking about the unity of scripture. It was the story of the work of God to save a people to God through Jesus Christ. The replacement of that Christological commitment with a version of evangelical biblicism is testament to the counter-intuitive nature of Smith’s proposal for many in the evangelical world.

Also, so you know: all is not pure unadulterated love. Smith keeps saying that a Christological reading is according to the rule of faith and Trinitarian, to which I of course say “No and no.” However, the overall import of what he is advancing is so crucial that I overlook this quibble and embrace Smith’s work for the greater good.

Aside 3: this program of Smith’s also finds a strong ally in Karl Barth and resonates strongly with what I’ve been posting in the Barth reading group posts over the past couple of months.

Theological Interpretation Article in Christianity Today

I’ve had a thing or two to say about theological interpretation on ye’ old blog over the past couple of years. I am a theological interpreter of scripture, and strive to be a Christian reader of scripture, at that. So in general I resonate with, and am happy for, a movement that strives to carve out respectable space for so engaging the Bible in both the academy and the church.

This month’s Christianity Today has a cover story on theological interpretation by J. Todd Billings. It is not yet available online, but read it when you can if you would like a nice overview of what theological interpretation is up to.

The article echoes commonly stated needs of the church: to have a Bible that speaks to it as a word for people who are devoted to loving and following the Lord and God about whom the text speaks.

It also indicates that one of the more important ways forward is to read using the rule of faith.

As usual, I find the former element more important and compelling than the latter, as I continue to find myself scratching my head about what someone committed to the Rule of Faith is supposed to “do,” what kind of identity it forms, and why Christological readings should be transformed into Trinitarian readings. But then again, you’ve heard all that from me before!

This article really is a judicious piece, a welcome and accessible introduction to what is happening in the world of theological interpretation of scripture and provides some sense of why it is important.

Christ or Trinity?

Since the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation last month (see here, and here) I have been mulling the question of Christian hermeneutics. In particular: is there a difference between a Christological hermeneutic and a Trinitarian hermeneutic? And if so, why do I advocate Christological readings rather than Trinitarian?

The answer to the first question is decidedly yes: there is a difference between Christological and Trinitarian hermeneutics. The former, readings that explore the ramifications of scripture for the story of the crucified and risen Christ, points us to the ministry of Jesus, in particular his death, resurrection, and exalted Lordship. The latter points us to the divinity of Christ.

The clearest example I have seen of the important difference between these is the reading of Lukan intertextuality provided by Richard Hays at SBL last year. He cited Jesus’ words at the end of Luke, that Jesus opened the minds of the travelers to hear all the things written about him in the scriptures.

Hays then proceeded to engage with a far-reaching reading of how Luke was applying the OT texts that referred to YHWH to Jesus instead. The upshot of Hays’ reading was that Luke is showing us that the OT’s YHWH is none other than the Jesus of the Gospel.

Even though this reading focuses on Jesus, it is a Trinitarian reading inasmuch as the working assumption that makes the reading possible is the idea of an eternal Son coequal with and in some way identical to the God of the OT.

Luke, however, intends a very different interpretation of the OT as a witness to Jesus.

Luke does not simply say, the OT is about Jesus no go find out how I’ve shown this. He tells us precisely how the OT speaks of Jesus the Messiah. First, in Luke 24:26-27 he says, “‘Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.”

The thing written about Jesus in the scriptures are not that Jesus is YHWH, but that Jesus, as Messiah, had to suffer and enter his glory.

This is even more clearly stated later in the same chapter:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures,and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.(NET Bible)

To read scripture aright is not to read it as a witness to the eternal Trinity, but to read it as witness to the suffering and glory of the Messiah.

The presupposition needed for the Christological reading that Luke directs us to is not that Christ is preexistent or in any sort of ontological way identifiable with YHWH of the OT.

The presupposition required for a Christological, narratival hermeneutics is that Jesus who died was, in fact, the Messiah, that that God raise this Jesus from the dead and enthroned him over all things.

There is a difference, and Luke invites us to Christological narrative rather than divine onotology as the way to correctly read scripture in light of the Christ event.

The narrative of Jesus, not divine identity as it is often construed today, is the way to correctly read the whole Bible in light of Jesus as Messiah, according to Luke (and Paul and John and Matthew and Mark and Peter and Hebrews and Revelation). This means that our hermeneutics will be driven by the story of Jesus rather than the Trinity. It also means that when we chose to use the Rule of Faith as our hermeneutical grid, we have taken a significant step away from the Christian reading of scripture that is commended to us in the NT.