Friday, 5 November 2010

Barth, Ps 24, and the unity of the Testaments

Christians believe that the Old Testament witnesses to  God-in-Jesus. Jesus himself made this clear to his disciples as he walked with them on the road to Emmaus, opening their eyes to the way the Law and the Prophets spoke of his suffering and resurrection. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if you enjoy thinking about this kind of thing), he didn’t leave behind a divinely inspired hermeneutical key which can infallibly illuminate the manner in which the Old Testament goes about doing this. We are left with a frustrating inner conviction but the impossibility of proving this conviction to the unbeliever. This reminds me of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ demand for a sign, when he simply states that what he says is true because he is the one who says it. I can imagine how frustrating that must have been! Somehow the truth is “self-affirming.”

For my part, I do believe that the Old Testament witnesses to God-in-Jesus, and the church has consistently confessed the same (cf. the abundant allegorical interpretation for the vast majority of the church’s history, including throughout the Reformation). However, like many in the church, I also struggle to back up this claim with a philosophical or theological account of how this happens. To draw another analogy with responses to the historical Jesus, I find myself in the similar position of Jesus’ neighbours in Nazareth, who , when confronted with his claim that he is the initiator of the kingdom of God, responded with the question: “isn’t that Joseph’s son… ?” (note the title of a recent book whose contents would seem to affirm this surface recognition as the last word on the matter). The analogous Christian version that I hear again and again is: “is that the God of the New Testament?” The answer is “yes,” and if you can’t figure out why or how than you better take stock of the adequacy your own grasp of the gospel. I experience this challenge regularly.

This is not to say that there are not a host of helpful theses that each in their own way shed light on the phenomenon, allowing Christians to both deepen their own faith as well as present it to others. The recognition of mystery ought to function as an invitation to enter it, rather than as an excuse to just give up wrestling with the issue in the first place (cf. A. Louth, Discerning the Mystery).

One thesis that touches on this issue was made by Karl Barth, which I will now share in massively reduced form (primarily because I have only read this thesis in a paper about something else, namely  the influence of Barth on Miskotte). It’s about the continuity  and discontinuity between the Testaments:

Both Testaments see God as one who freely initiates relationship with human kind.
The OT has a variety of covenants and only an implicit Messianic hope. The NT has only one covenant and the Messiah is identified as Jesus of Nazareth.
Both Testaments recognize the mysterious hiddenness of God.
The OT sees this hiddenness in God’s judgement of the nations, including Israel. The NT sees this in God’s judgement of his Son. God’s judgement in the NT is, in some sense, final.
Both Testaments have an “already-not yet” eschatology (my phrase), as God is both one who is already experienced but also one who is coming.
The NT not only see’s Jesus as the One who is coming, it is waiting for the one who has already come [though I have to admit, I don’t see how this is any different from the OT perspective, for there God also already came … ].

The framework for these similarities/differences is Barth’s concept of the relationship between Divine Revelation and time. There are three “times,” the time of the expectation of revelation (Old Testmaent), the time of the fulfilment of revelation (Jesus’ history), and the age of remembering the fulfilment of revelation (New Testament). It’s important to note that the NT is not the fulfilment of the OT (contra Louth, cited above), Jesus is. The NT and OT both function to point to a single referent that stands outside of themselves. They do this in their own idiom and from their own perspective (hence the differences), but their referential object is the same (hence the similar structure and content).

As you may have noticed from my comments in square brackets, it seems to me as if Barth is not doing full justice to the OT (though feel free to correct me here). In short, he seems to overemphasises the NT’s “already” element in contrast to the OT’s “not yet.” Isn’t it the case that the OT already witnesses to a past fulfilment that provides the “ontological” ground for the possibility of the history that ensues? The example I’m thinking of is the opening strophe of Ps 24: “The earth is the LORD’s … for he has founded it upon the seas … .” Isn’t this past act as decisive in its grounding of God’s history with his people as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? E. Otto talks of God’s acts here as  creating the “Möglichkeit” (possibility) for the obedience found in vv. 3-6: There can be such a thing as a righteous, obedient Jacob (v. 6), because God’s stabilization of the earth in the face of chaos guarantees the validity of such obedience. In a similar way, the New Testament talks of resurrection life in the Spirit creating a heart of flesh and the capacity to be obedient to the Torah.

So how do I interpret the relation of Ps 24:1-2 in relation to the NT? Jesus can’t have “fulfilled” it because Ps 24:1-2 is not pointing forward to a moment yet to be fulfilled, it is pointing back to something already established once and for all. As mentioned, the relation  seems to be of a structural nature. In fact, the analogy can be expanded to apply to Jesus’ entire mission, for just as in Ps 24 strophe 1 (vv. 1-2) is the precondition for strophe 2 (vv. 3-6), these two strophes are somehow “consummated” by strophes 3 and 4 (vv. 7-10; on my interpretation of the poetic structure, I should add). Similarly, Jesus was raised from the dead (strophe 1), has cleansed his people (strophe 2) and will return again to consummate his work (i.e. Advent; strophes 3-4). Except that even here our analogy runs into conceptual difficulties, for it is the case that  Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are all contained in vv. 7-10: his death was a battle with death, his resurrection was his victory and his ascension was its consummation (i.e. Ascension not advent). So are vv. 7-10 about Christ’s return to earth as king or his ascension to heaven to be enthroned? In addition to this, where does this leave strophe 1 if the resurrection in is the final two strophes? The odd thing is that strophe 1 in fact has the same content as strophes 3-4, albeit on a “mythological” rather than “historical” plain! Strophe 1 is also a kind of battle, this time with the seas, and it is also a proclamation of victory, i.e. the establishment of a viable living space. So does Ps 24 taken on its own, regardless of its correlation to an external event in time (not in space: Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem!) contain its own odd witness to “ontological-unity-in-temporal-sequence”? Srophes 3 and 4 “consummate” strophe 1, even as the “recapitulate” its content. The “chronos” is different but not the “chairos.”

 The intermediate conclusion  all this mind bending has for me is that every time I try and relate Psalm 24 to the Gospels my temporal categories are consistently being confirmed (there is a genuine analogy) and subverted. It’s like a lover who tempts me with a kiss and a flash of her eye-lashes but teasingly disappears around the corner, leaving a trail of perfume to beckon me on (Song of Songs was always had a hermeneutical function for church and synagogue!).  I see the analogy, am breathless at the sheer scope of who Jesus is and what he has achieved, and yet still am left to struggle and see how the past and present within an Psalm’s “narrative world” is “fulfilled” by the Gospel’s presentation of past and present, a past and present that can be collapsed into one moment.

I mentioned above that the OT’s inevitable and consistent challenge to the Christian claim about its Christological content ought to primarily be a challenge to Christians, not to prove their faith to the sceptics but to deepen the content of their own faith, which is always far from perfect. I can’t claim to have a concrete answer to my issue with Ps 24 above (though I’m working on it!), but it has forced me to return to my own construal of the “gospel” and to see it with new eyes. Of particular relevance here is the concept of the relation between the “ontological” and “economic” Trinity, God in himself and God for us. McGlasson summarizes the relation as follows:
God’s sending of his Son for our salvation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are a replication in time of God’s eternal self-identity. God’s redemptive love for humanity is an expression of God’s free decision to draw us into a relationship with himself, which is based on the relationship of love that he himself is (McGlasson, Invitation, 198).

As Barth implies above, the NT is not the fulfilment of the OT, it points to it’s fulfilment. This means that drawing structural analogies between the OT and the NT can only take us so far. They point us in the right direction, as the content of the NT is the same as the OT. But the reality itself is greater than what is at most the partial testimony of both Testaments (cf. Childs, Biblical Theology). Hence the necessity of higher level dogmatic theology in order to grasp what is really going on in Scripture. The practice of theology, after all, originally consisted in nothing other than meditation upon the mystery of the ontological trinity. I think I ought to learn to do the same.  

[For a post on Moberly's interpretation of the Emmaus story, go here; see also my post Reading in a Revised Frame of Reference].


Bob MacDonald said...

An hour later and still no comments? I want you to know that I copied this post into notepad and divided it up into smaller paragraphs and corrected the spelling errors so that I can read it closely and see where you are in this struggle.

I have to say I like the questions.

I will selectively respond to some of the statements - maybe useful or not to you - let's see. Maybe useful to me - I am very biased towards the OT since beginning to study it. See the form of my question in this post: Can we see the Christ of the OT in the confessional stances of people who say they believe the NT?

I think the entire Gospel is in the OT. That doesn't mean we have to relate the OT to Jesus - but that the work he was given to do and has done, the completion of the work of creation and redemption, is given already in TNK - e.g. Genesis 2:4 - 'the day'.

This work is evident in every poem and pericope in TNK. It is the work of the Spirit of God in Israel. But that does not make the Scriptures 'Christian' in a sense that occludes their full role in Israel. Jesus is 'a' hermeneutical key but not so that we might undo the work that Israel exhibits in its history and prophetic tradition. (So those who are faithful in Hebrews 11 live through their faith).

But I get ahead of myself. And I am not a professional theologian - just a reader and learner. So feel free to say no - or even nothing.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks for the point up about spelling errors, the post took me so long to write that I’ll have to work on those another time.

I would say that the reality that Jesus is is ‘the’ hermeneutical key, but that this reality is not exhausted by the New Testament’s witness, so that a dialectic is required between the OT’s plain sense and the NT’s plain sense (i.e. the entire NT, including the more a-temporal depictions of Jesus and not just the more narrative depictions found in the Gospels) . The dogmatic tradition of the church consists in this attempt and doctrines such as the Trinity are the fruit. Hence, the Trinity provides a necessary framework within which to situation Jesus and then read the OT/NT in relation to him. Something like that, anyway …

Bob MacDonald said...

Google Chrome and Firefox both have good spell checkers that work on Blogger - Internet Explorer? I've not found one that was workable for my style.

I finished my notes on this post - too many words. - So just one point on 'time'.

Your image from the Song of Songs is lovely (though I would reverse the roles and take, as the Jewish reader is instructed to do at Pentecost, the role of the female.) - in it you note that you "struggle" to "see how the past and present within a Psalm’s “narrative world” is “fulfilled” by the Gospel’s presentation of past and present, a past and present that can be collapsed into one moment".

I am reminded of Cristina Rosetti's phrase concerning the incarnation - eternity shut within a span. I am also reminded of Herbert's poem Easter.

You review "Barth’s concept of the relationship between Divine Revelation and time.

There are three “times,” the time of the expectation of revelation (Old Testmaent),
the time of the fulfilment of revelation (Jesus’ history),
and the age of remembering the fulfilment of revelation (New Testament)."

I have a few questions about this summary of Barth: 1. What has free initiative to do with covenant? Perhaps I can just accept that fact of grace in both Testaments.

2. Why is there a plurality of covenants in the OT? Is it really a plurality? Or is the one relationship of faith to life as implied in Habakkuk 2:4 operative in all ages?

3. Why is the OT hiddenness in judgment? Is it not equally hidden in the Song? or in the love of the Psalms?

And finally - back to time: 4. Is this simplification of time an adequate understanding? God is present to all times. God is whole rather than sequential. When we become present to God we also become present to all times. Who knows whom? As Herbert says in Easter concerning the day: - There is but one and that one ever. He refers to the one day of creation in Genesis 2:4.

There is much to say about remembering - but our hope is more than this. I have an essay outline pending on remembering - perhaps it will see words on my blog some day. It follows from the work I did on Psalm 137 after the conference.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bob,

sorry for the late reply:

Thanks for the poetic references; I like the Rosetti quote and the last strophe of Herbert’s poem is awesome.

Your questions:

1. The covenant is the form of the relationship, which God initiates of his own free will. Man does not go to God to initiate a covenant; he only accepts what God offers. This is “grace,” and so yes, it is in both Testaments.
2. There are covenants with Abraham, Noah, David etc. This is a matter of “form,” however, and not necessarily a matter of “content.” Hab 2:4 reflects “content,” i.e. the correct behaviour of one within a covenantal relationship (specifically a covenant in which the LORD is one partner and Israel the other: God rules / Israel waits). So yes, Hab 2:4 is operative in all covenants.
3. I don’t understand the question. God is hidden in judgement, not the OT. This hiddenness is found in both Testaments. Is God hidden in Song? Given the church’s/synagogues universal need for allegorical interpretation, in one sense yes. But I’m guessing Barth means “perceived absence” when he says “hiddenness” (like Jesus’ “why have you abandoned me?” or the nations’ “where is your God?” In that sense I take Song to refer to the fullness of his presence.
4. That is my point: they mystery of ontological unity in temporal sequence is what makes relating the Testaments so complex.

Childs worte a book in the ‘60’s on Israel’s memory, which may interest you.

Bob MacDonald said...

Phil - thank you for the response. My question on hiddenness is just picking up on Barth's word. He uses it in relationship to judgment. It just so happens that at the moment my focus is on that one word in Psalm 1. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. The parallel shows that God's judgment is / will be revealed and is / will be effected in the congregation of the righteous - I am still pondering this...

Phil Sumpter said...

Note the syntax of the last line. The way of the righteous is the direct object of a verb, but not the way of the wicked.

Bob MacDonald said...

I am, at the very second that I received your comment, working on the personal application of that very verse. From a third of the way around the world, you speak to me! Well put re the distinction.