I’m part of a group called Bible School which meets in the home of the person who runs it on Thursday evenings. We study the Bible in the sense of looking at the background, origins and usage of it, and in the past I gather the group has also spent time wrestling with doctrinal issues.
Yesterday evening we had an interesting discussion on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and were asked to consider the theological relationship (as opposed to the sociological or historical) between the two. After some further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions I thought I’d air to see what others think.
One of my personal bugbears is the way some people seem to look at the Old Testament and be able to ‘see Jesus’ all over the place. Now, I’m NOT saying that this is impossible or an illegitimate practice. If God is Trinitarian then this has always been the case as the divine nature is eternal and unchanging, and, as Michael Ramsey put it, God is Christlike and there is no un-Christlike-ness within God at all. Consequently, it is not surprising if reflections by the people of Israel about the nature of God have a Christ-like character, if you will, and that profound resonances with the Gospel narratives can be found within the Old Testament. This is, I suppose, the beginnings of a doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, though I would not wish to go as far as postulating the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture as there is clearly a journey being made by the people of God (in Israel in the OT and Paul and others in the NT) in terms of their understanding of the divine nature. For a couple of examples, note the gradual move from a tribal understanding of God to a more universal conception following exile in Babylon and also the changing understanding of the consequences of sin down the generations (re the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ healing of the blind man where the disciples ask about the origin of the man’s blindness).
Having said that, I want also to highlight three potential pitfalls:
1) The OT has an integrity of its own which can get lost if we ‘Christianise’ it too readily. Canonical criticism (reading a passage in the light of the whole of Scripture) is a sound hermeneutical technique (Walter Moberly is, I gather, a principle advocate) but we need also to consider the historical and literary critical questions in order to form a rounded picture. Some texts such as the early chapters of Genesis to pick a common example suffer from being ripped from their original context and re-interpreted to suit Christianity, both in terms of their riches being lost and difficult questions being side-stepped.
2) It is tempting to use the Old Testament simply as a proof-text for Christianity. We search through the Bible for texts which appear to point to Christ (or at least can be read that way) and disregard the rest. We then fail to appreciate the OT at all. Moreover, this approach ignores the possibility that just as the NT authors drew heavily on the OT and no doubt came to understand it in the light of Christ, seeing prophecy fulfilled (see the Road to Emmaus story), maybe they came to understand Christ in the light of OT and recast the stories of Jesus’ life in the style of these narratives. I understand that the practice is called Midrash and was common in Jesus’ time – the Gospels are not journalistic accounts as we know them today (which does not mean they are ‘fiction ‘ devoid of historical content) but are narratives told by people steeped in a particular culture and shaped by a national history and expectation (even Luke, a gentile author, draws heavily on the OT).
3) We can come to Scripture with a particular doctrinal position already established and search for evidence to back it up. For instance, I’ve had discussions with Christians about penal substitutionary atonement who have focused on Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant. (It’s true that there are remarkable similarities between the Cross and the OT text, but Second Isaiah has a history of its own and ultimately we are not sure to whom the author was referring. Whilst my point about the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes into play here, I think, we must not forget the very Jewish origins of the text, of exile in Babylon and the hope of deliverance from the God of the Exodus. Both readings are useful and insightful.) While again I do not think it is illegitimate to see how well doctrines measure up to Scripture (in fact I believe it is vital so as to maintain the proper balance between Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, in which, at least for Anglicans, Scripture is the final authority – in that sense we believe in sola scriptura), I think we need to be doing solid exegesis and not trying to force the Bible to fit pre-conceived views, and this is arguably harder with the OT than the NT, simply because of the time-gap between its authorship and now, and the comparative lack of knowledge of it in Christian circles.
So, at the end of all of that, I want to affirm the continuity between the OT and NT but want to stress
1) we need to let the OT speak for itself and take it seriously without ‘Christianising’ it;
2) there is a radical discontinuity with the resurrection of Christ, which is simultaneously the completion of the old and the beginning of the new creation, to paraphrase NT Wright’s Easter sermon from a couple of years ago. We are not bound to the entirety of the OT world-view and new possibilities are open. I believe it’s no accident that Mary Magdalene saw the risen Jesus and mistook him for the gardener…