Saturday, 11 October 2008

Jesus in the Old Testament?

I've been posting recently on Christian appropriation of the Old Testament and the question of whether it is possible for Christians, given their Christological instincts, to respect it in its own integrity. In my post on Christological interpretation, I turned the question around: perhaps its the Christians who need to have their image of Christ revised so that we can learn to understand the nature of the fit between Old and New. Here are some typically profound thoughts from Brevard Childs:

[T]he New Testament in relating the message of the Gospel to the Jewish Scripture goes far beyond asserting its relationship in terms of a historical sequence. Although the various writers make very clear that Jesus appeared at a given historical moment in the life of Israel—Gal 4.4 speaks of the “fullness of time”—this temporal orientation does not rule out at the same time moving the discourse to an ontological plane. According to John 1.1 Jesus Christ was the eternal Word who was with God in the beginning. Col. 1.15f. Speaks of his being “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created.” Rev. 13.8 makes mentions of “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (“Does the OT Witness to Jesus Christ?” 60)
The question then, is how to relate the two. Childs talks of different contexts in which Scripture functions.

In the first instance, one seeks to hear the historic voice of Israel in its literal/plain sense. ... These witnesses are often fragmentary, at times contradictory, and always veiled in obscurity. Nevertheless, a literal and historical interpretation of the OT is exegetically crucial, especially in reveialing how fragmentary, mysterious, and obscure was the nature of God's messianic promise to Israel which, even following the exile, continued to expand in a host of diverse directions.
In the second instance, one is using Scripture as an authoritative collection of sared writings which has assumed a unique shape and been given a special role within the Christian community of faith as the continuing vehicle of divine manifestation. In this role the text of Scripture, when infused by the Spirit with the full ontic reality of God, resonates with a fresh voice, and evokes from its readers the response of praise and wonder. This voice which transcends its original historical origins calls forth the hymns, liturgy, and art of the church in ever-changing forms of grateful response. This is the genre of prise. The same words of Scripture now perform a different role in instructing the church toward an obedient and joyful life. To project this depth of meaning and experience back into the past as if this interpretation must be coexstensive with an original textual intention is not only a basic confusion of genre, but it falsely dehistoricizes the canonical witness of the two discrete portions of the Christian Bible. However, to speak o f Christuszeugnis in the sense being proposed is to describe a text oriented hearing of Scripture by a Christian community of faith which allows biblical texts to resonate from the force of divine reality gained through an encounter with the entire Christian Bible. This approach is far removed from Vischer's in that its genre is confession not apologetics, its function is worship not disputation, its content is eschatology not time-conditioned history, and its truth is self-affirming not analytical demonstration.(63)
What do people think? Does that make sense? Does it work?


Bob MacDonald said...

I had a brief conversation here recently that might apply to your question. For many people, Christ in the OT reduces to an ahistorical typology, or an atemporal blind knowledge in the former writers. It seems to me much more likely that the reality lies in the chosenness of Israel for our sake and the consistency of the revelation to and in Israel in exactly the same way that we have such a revelation in Christ - so it is from the epistle to the Hebrews that we get our most creative explanation and encouragement. The only 'replacement' of the old by the new is in the evolution (finally) away from animal sacrifice (something Islam has failed to see). It seems to me that this plays well in the evolution away from child sacrifice - though I wouldn't put it into words in this small comment window :) - sort of a movement from scapegoating, sacrifice of the firstborn (Isaac), circumcision as substitution, then the atonement once for all, then - stop beating each other up - maybe. It seems to me that sin ('original' of not) plays a large role in this sequence.

I raised your comment from 2006 noted on CT's blog to my quote of the day.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil and Bob,

I think that Childs' stuff would stand without need of qualification if the NT was silent about the conscious 'Christian' faith of OT saints. But it seems to me that the NT does more than simply re-read OT Scripture in the light of the incarnation/resurrection.

What about Acts 2:31, which I raised with Bob on my blog? We may (understandably!) feel reluctant to guess at the content of David's faith when he penned Psalm 16. But Peter was not reluctant - "David foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ."

Yet if Childs was present on the day of Pentecost, I fear he would have accused Peter of "projecting this depth of meaning and experience back into the past as if this interpretation must be coexstensive with an original textual intention"? I'd reckon Peter would object to the charge of 'projecting' but he'd gladly own up to speaking of David's original (and Christian!) intention.

Examples could be multiplied. Abraham and Christ's day (John 8:56-58), "Isaiah saw Jesus" (John 12:40-41), "Moses chose disgrace for the sake of Christ" (Heb 11:26). If you ask me, retrospectively awarding Christian faith to them does not work. OT saints are said to have acted in their day, with a conscious eye to Christ. Therefore their historical locatedness and their Christian witness were always united. And - I claim (along with, I believe!, the NT) - consciously so.

Bob MacDonald said...

There's a very simple reason why I do not speak of what is conscious in the writers of OT or the NT. I cannot be sure what any other person is 'conscious of' as if I could see inside their 'brain'. For the same reason I would not use the word Christian in that context. You say "the NT does more than simply re-read OT Scripture" and I can agree to this. I would say too that the OT does more than simply re-read OT Scripture! Both are witness to a love that transcends our error. We can witness to that love also, but we find ourselves bound to words and meanings that hinder us in our witness. This is as true for the professional theologian as for the student and as for the lay person. So in the name of the unity of the Most High, one must become as a Jew to the Jews and as a Greek to the Greeks.

So if I were speaking to a Jew about Christ or to a Christian about the faith of the Jews, I would begin perhaps with the Lord's instruction to Abraham: 'Walk before me and be perfect'. I think this is why perfection is a major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The appeal is to Abraham and the consistent witness of faith in God as achieving the work that the human alone cannot achieve.

So also I would like to see more than a 'retrofit' in Hebrews 11:26. And even if we use Christ meaning the Anointed, we cannot turn that into a license to use the word Christian as if there were no more to this than simply calling Moses and David Christian.

Phil Sumpter said...

I'll try and get back to you guys tomorrow. Thanks for the comments, I'm struggling with time at the moment.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your responses and sorry for my late response. I've just finished a well-overdue essay on the dogmatic underpinnings of Childs' approach which has left me rather exhausted.

Bob, I can see where you are coming from, but it's a reality I find hard to express, as you will see in my response to Glen.

Glen, I appreciate your point and see its force and do not want to too quickly reject it. I hope I can always hold on to the certainty and immediacy with which the NT writers express this issue. Nevertheless, I still struggle with the concept of “consciousness.” It's clear that that would be the conclusion taken from a surface reading, but we need to take a variety of issues into account (including, perhaps, my recent Barth quote on inerrancy, but that may be irrelevant). I worried about us “psychologizing” the issue, as if we are infusing the NT's language with a concpetuality that does not belong to it. Concepts such as prophecy and fulfilment and prophetic intentionality are complex issues caught up in webs of interelated concerns. Even St. Thomas' discussion of the issue, for example, can jump between Divine intentionality and human intentionality in ways which a modern person struggles to follow. So, though the langauge of the NT is important and needs to be taken in its full force, I still think a distinction needs to be made be rhetorica and language and the substance of the message. That such talk is more a matter of ancient convention and hermeneutics rather than a dogmatic Christological statement concerning the psychological dimension of OT prophecy can be seen in the way this kind of language was used by 1st Century Jews on a whole range of topics. Here are some thoughts from the WBC commentary on John 8:56:

“The main import is clear, some of the details less so. That Abraham was given to see the future was a commonplace among Jews. The mysterious vision of Gen 15:17–21 was interpreted by Johanan ben Zakkai as showing: “God revealed this world to Abraham; but the world to come he did not reveal.” Akiba differed: “Both this world and the world to come he revealed to him” (including therefore the days of the Messiah; Gen. Rab. 44.28a). 4 Ezra 2:14 also states, “Him (Abraham) you loved, and to him alone, secretly at dead of night, you showed how the world would end. You made an everlasting covenant with him. …” Gen 24:1 reads, “Abraham was old, well advanced in years,” lit., “went into the days.” This was literally understood, as in Tanḥ B; 6 (60a): R. Johanan said, “He came to the curtain of this world” (i.e., that separated it from the coming world); R. Eliezer added, “In this world and in the futureworld.” The joy of Abraham is referred to in Sanh. 38b: Gen 15:1 teaches that God showed Abraham every generation and every teacher that was to come, and he rejoiced over Akiba’s knowledge of the law and said, “How dear to me are your friends, O God!” (Ps 139:17, Midrash). Schlatter accordingly commented that to say that Abraham saw the Messiah was neither new nor offensive to Jewish teachers; it was its application to Jesus that was unbelievable (220).”

I'd like to continue this debate though, as I think it's important. Hopefully I will soon be able to interact with your posts.

Anonymous said...

No, thanks for responding at all!

And yes, presuming to know the 'consciousness' of OT saints is fraught with many dangers. I'd just insert one question to bear in mind: Are there any words that Jesus and the Apostles could use to convince you that OT saints consciously looked to Christ? Imagine John chapter 23 had the verse "Seriously guys Abraham really, really consciously looked to me all those centuries ago. I've always been the great I AM who met (8:57) the saints (1:18). Honestly, I was the direct object of his faith and hope. Promise!" I wonder whether the same framework which is often applied to Acts 2:31 might also be applied to such a verse with the result that these words are described as a retrospective awarding of faith to Abraham, but not really what he trusted at the time.

Just flagging up the dangers of a paradigm that won't actually allow the Scriptures to tell you otherwise.

Enjoying the posts very much. Keep them coming.