Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reading the Old Testament in the age of the New Testament

I have found a post in Daniel Kirk's blog which is very interesting. (Click here for the link.) It is about how Christians should read the Old Testament. He starts with saying how important it is. For example, he says,

"What’s the difference between Reformed ethics and Anabaptist? Oh yeah… We continue to be plagued by the issue of (dis)continuity."

In recent years as I speak with Christians from these two traditions I find that ultimately the underlying debate is precisely the issue of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

Here is Kirk's thesis:

"Here is my thesis, as I’ve hinted at it, perhaps stated it, in earlier posts: nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.

That mediation can mean that the OT storyline and/or law is abrogated, or that it is affirmed and renewed, or that it is affirmed in some transformed manner. But either way, we have to wrestle with the implications of the Christ event and our identity as the Christ-and-Spirit community before we know the relevance of the OT text for us."

I found this useful, but immediately I realised that one could raised several questions. Not surprisingly Nathan MacDonald (an expert in Hebrew and Old Testament from St Andrews University) comments on Kirk's post and says,

"This is a sophisticated attempt to do justice to some of the issues to do with Old and New, but there are considerable traps for the unwary. Which is to say, Daniel, I think you’ve managed to avoid them thus far, but I am not confident that all that read you will. From my perspective, there are various things that need also to be said if we are to get the picture fully right.

First, the Old Testament is presented to us in a form that is unglossed. Even if we recognise the early Christian allegiance to the Septuagint, Christians have steadily refused to gloss the Old Testament so as to make it speak more obviously of Christ or New Testament realities. This is a basic instinct that perhaps deserves some reflection, especially given the possibility that early Christians could have resorted to the type of rewritten Scriptures that are found in Qumran. Thus, it would seem to me, that there is a confidence that Old Testament Scripture can speaks in a clear voice that Christians can recognise. Both directly of Christ, but also I think of other things of which the NT does not speak.

Second, your picture tends to reverse the realities of the New Testament church, as Childs and others have pressed most strongly. Thus, the question in the early church was not how do we make sense of this weird set of texts now that we have Jesus, but rather, given that we have these Scriptures how do we make sense of Jesus? Our own context is some steps on from that, but there is no harm in being reminded of where the first Christians were at, and at very least it needs to be recognized as a counterpoint to what you’ve said. Thus, as happy as I might be to affirm for a Christian reading of Scripture the necessity of “intentionally bring[ing] our New Testament and otherwise Christian theology with us when we read the OT.” the reverse also needs to be stated too, viz. the necessity of intentionally bringing our OT with us when we read the NT”. We fail to do justice to the two testament nature of the Christian Scripture if we do not have the other side.

Third, it is not clear that what you say does complete justice to how the Old Testament has been used and appreciated in the history of the church. That is, Christian readers have been able to read the Old Testament and hear a word from God to them without always deploying the framework that you have set out. This is not to doubt that the narrative theological movement has its benefits, but we might also not wish to too quickly disconnect ourselves from how many Christians have read Scripture before our enlightened times!

Fourth, it is unclear to me that “nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.” could not mutatis mutandis be said about the NT, to the extent to which it is important for a truly Christian theology to be centred around the Christ-event. Or am I missing something in the way that “New Testament” issues such as head coverings or women and ministry have been discussed in the last thirty or more years?

Fifth, it is also unclear to me that “nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.” solves the problems of interpreting all OT texts. Some texts and issues do indeed find further explication in the NT. But how do I deal with those that don’t? Am I then working with some form of developed Christological theology that I can wield to make sense of my OT text, or some sense of the narrative flow of the big story. It is not clear to me that these abstractions necessarily resolve the issues that you rightly mention of having divided Christians in the past: anabaptism etc. Might it not be the case that some OT texts do not need to do a hop skip and a jump via the NT?

As a final note, and discarding any facade of humility, I wonder whether you have read my own attempt to deal with some of these matters in dialogue with Irenaeus and some narrative theological readings of him? The essay was published in JTI a year or two back. I hope you might find there further matters for reflection."

Very good discussion going on!

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