September 2, 2014

Pete Enns on Christians and the Old Testament

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This post was first published on Peter Enns’s blog, Rethinking Biblical Christianity, on July 29, 2013.

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When Christians run up against interpretive challenges in the Old Testament – like killing Canaanites to take their land or the meaning of the Adam story vis-à-vis science – a common way of handling these challenges is to make an appeal like:

“Yes, but we can’t just look at these passages on their own terms. We have to keep the whole Christian canon in mind and see how the Gospel affects our understanding of this Old Testament passage.”

I agree, pretty strongly in fact, that Christians now read the Old Testament in light of the entire story, which finds it climax in Christ. I’ve written a bit about that, and my two commentaries (Ecclesiastes and Exodus) are attempts to flesh this out in detail.

But we need to remember what we’re doing when we read the Old Testament in light of Christ – what we are committing ourselves to, hermeneutically speaking.

The very declaration “We need to read the Old Testament story in light of Christ” is an implicit acknowledgement that the Gospel-lens through which we read the Old Testament changes what we see; changes what is “there” on the plain-sense level. The Gospel drives Old Testament interpretation beyond what it means when understood in terms of its ancient tribal parameters.

In biblical studies, “midrash” is the word often used to describe the transformation of the meaning of biblical texts by later communities of faith. Midrash (a Hebrew word) is tricky to define. Generally, I define midrash as an approach to the text that goes beyond and beneath the “plain meaning” of the text for the purpose of addressing some difficulty in the text or bring that past text into conversation with present circumstances.

Handling biblical texts this way was a staple of Jewish biblical interpreters beginning after the exile – beginning already within the Bible in 1 and 2 Chronicles, which utterly reinterprets Israel’s history in light of the exile and failure to reestablish independence as before.

The Persians were now running the show – followed by the Greeks and then the Romans (with a relatively brief period of Jewish independence in between).The older biblical traditions – which presumed an Israel that was settled in the land, with king, temple, and sacrifice – needed to be brought into a troubling and challenging present.

Here is the irony: respect for the texts of the past was expressed in terms of transforming them to speak to present realities.

LambJudaism has followed its own trajectory of transformation. Its existence is a testimony to the transformation of Israel’s Scripture to adapt to the harsh reality of continued Jewish existence outside of the land and without a temple. To remain connected to the past left them no choice but to transform.

Christianity is also a transformation of Israel’s past story in light of changing circumstances  though the “changing circumstance” is not nationalistic but the belief that the crucified and risen messiah is the culmination of that story.

Both faiths handle Israel’s story in a midrashic manner – reframing Israel’s ancient story to address a present circumstance outside of its scope.

Christianity’s connection to the Old Testament isn’t seen in how the New Testament writers are more faithful to the original intention of the Old Testament, or that they get closer to the “deeper” intentions of the Old Testament that lie buried beneath the surface. Actually –seeking these “deeper” intentions is already an indication that some transformation is required.

Christianity’s connection to the Old Testament is centered on the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection is, hermeneutically speaking, in the driver’s seat.

The Gospel gives us not only the permission but actually demands that, ultimately, our responsibility is to read of the Old Testament as subject to Christ. We are performing an act of “Christian midrash“– an act that is an expression of faith that the Gospel ultimately defines the big picture of who God is, engaging Israel’s story but not bound by it. 

In my writings, when I camp out in and drive home the original meaning of the Old Testament – such as what I think the Adam story is doing in its ancient Israelite context, or how to understand Canaanite extermination – I am not marking off the boundaries of Christian interpretation. I hear this criticism now and then, and it is wide off the mark. Rather, I am trying to drive home the degree to which the Christian story requires a transformed reading of the Old Testament.

Sometimes this transformation will augment the Old Testament, and many other times will shift its direction, neutralize it, or even cancel it out and subvert it. This diverse process of transforming Israel’s story is already modeled for us by the New Testament authors. (Few things drive this home for me than reading how Paul handles the Old Testament in Romans, but that’s another 80-part blog series. Don’t hold your breath.)

I know that this way of looking at biblical interpretation can cause some discomfort, but I also feel it goes with the territory of being a follower of Jesus. At the end, all things – even Scripture – bends the knee to the risen Christ.

Comments

  1. This diverse process of transforming Israel’s story is already modeled for us by the New Testament authors. (Few things drive this home for me than reading how Paul handles the Old Testament in Romans, but that’s another 80-part blog series. Don’t hold your breath.)

    If you do want to read about how Paul handles the Old Testament, Enn’s book The Evolution of Adam is a great place to start.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    I do not think any later part of Scripture cancels out or subverts an earlier part, however, later parts can be misunderstood so that one thinks this is happening. The basic idea is that Jesus, Peter, Paul, etc. were all practicing Jews for their whole lives. The only NT author that MIGHT have been a gentile is Luke and he was a disciple of Paul, who was a Torah scholar.

  3. I understand the approach you’re recommending. There are texts in the Old Testament that I find impossible to reconcile with faith in Christ, unless they are read and re-interpreted in the light of Christ.

    But what are the limits to such reinterpretation? Some of the Gnostic sects in the first century, and others later, like William Blake, re-interpreted the God of the Old Testament to be an evil, destructive demiurge who could not possibly be the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ; they make the figure called “God” in the OT equivalent to Satan in the NT. Given the above interpretative methodology, why would you say they were wrong?

    I suppose a strong appeal to tradition as the control for interpretation could be made, except that there is not one tradition, there are multiple traditions from at least the Great Schism, and I actually believe there were multiple traditions within the historic church even before that. Even if a strong, unanimous authoritative tradition could be identified, doctrine and theology develop, as Newman showed; what’s to stop the tradition from developing in unfaithful ways if Scripture does not have authority over tradition and doesn’t discipline tradition? And if it does, we’re thrown back on the original question: what is the boundary between faithful and unfaithful reinterpretation of the OT, and the NT for that matter (because there are sections of the NT that present the same kind of interpretative problems that the OT does; at least, that’s what I think), in the light Christ?

    Remember, too, that the German Christians during the Nazi era used their own exegesis of the NT to unhook not only Jesus from his Jewishness, but the OT from the NT, and sections of the NT from the rest of the NT; that is, they interpreted Christ as given in parts of the NT to excise Israel and Jewishness from their version of Christianity? What’s to stop us from making the same kind of mistake in a less extreme way?

    Finally, how does this reinterpretation of the OT in light of Jesus Christ and (parts of) the NT run afoul of contemporary Jewish claim that the church continues to appropriate and colonize the Jewish Scriptures in inappropriate, unwarranted, destructive and re-visioning ways that de-legitimize the place and history of Israel and the Jewish people?

    • That should have been a period, not a question mark, at the end of the first sentence in the fourth paragraph. If you could edit that and correct, it would be appreciated.

      • Further correction: in the second paragraph it should be “Some of the Gnostic sects in the first centuries….”

        • Robert F,

          You are asking some important questions. I was asking the same kind of questions when I came to the conclusion, back near the beginning of my quest, that *every* reading of scripture is interpretation.

          One way to describe my quest would be as a search for an interpretation that would be not so much “authoritative” as holistic and seamless, with Jesus as the center, not primarily a list of beliefs – most of which began with a statement about the bible being inerrant, etc. To me, that was circular reasoning. Jesus as the center is among the many things the work of N.T. Wright gave me, along with the seamlessness I craved, and the recognition of “the place and history of the Jewish people.” The question for me then became, where is there an expression that included all of that in the Christian groups around me? Believe me, I looked high and low among Protestants, including Anglicans. I thought if it was good for Wright, it could be good for me, too.

          One thing held me up though, and that was looking at the 39 Articles. I have this habit of going to the foundational documents of groups… I had come to believe that the issues of the Reformation were not St Paul’s issues. And right there in the 39 Articles it said: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation… ” Circular reasoning again, and not addressing my problem with interpretation. And then the rest of the document did nothing but treat the issues of the Reformation. That did not help me at all.

          I got the most help from going back beyond the Reformation, and beyond the Schism as well, to see what emerged from that messy swirl of competing traditions in the earliest years up to about 800 AD, when things had pretty much settled down, to see if the core issues at least bore some resemblance to what Wright proposed were the issues of the first century, to see which group/s took scripture seriously, and examining their interpretations.

          What I found came out of left field… I found, not a group of perfect people, but a group through which I could trace, all the way back to the 1st century, the teaching of a certain interpretation of scripture and reliance on the Holy Spirit working through the whole church (not just a bunch of clerics in an office somewhere), and the ultimate meaning of God’s work through Christ consonant with what Wright had presented as the questions of the 1st century Jews… When these people did bad and sometimes horrific things, they were acting ***against*** the consistent teaching and interpretations of their church.

          Along the way, I had come to believe (thanks to Wright and also others, and also reading and thinking differently about – interpreting – the OT!) that God is not offended by our sin and bound to punish us, but instead has actually worked to save us from death and enslavement to sin, and, with our cooperation, is about transforming our hearts (not merely emotions but all of the innermost core of our being), and will deal appropriately with evil without being obliged to subject humans to Eternal Conscious Torment in some place he created for that purpose. The former view is all I could find in the theology of all the western Churches that take the bible seriously. The bible and its interpretation remained very important to me. Again, the group I found that actually believes the latter came as a complete shock to me.

          So God even used my American Individualistic “choose your own church” tendencies to narrow down the choice for me to one in which I could be finally at home (without demonizing everyone else – that was extremely important to me too). I found a church that reads scripture pretty much like Enns does in a midrashic way, through the lens of the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ – recognizing that, while all scripture is inspired, it doesn’t all “weigh” the same, and truth is often bigger than a newsreel report – and with the added richness and multidimensionality of much typology.

          (Sorry Jeff, Damaris, Martha, Christiane, Pattie, Joanie D… I was raised Catholic and it would have been very easy logistically for me to revert, but I have those interpretation issues as above, and even bigger ones with the theological basis of RC ecclesiology and the Pope – for whom I gladly pray when I attend vespers occasionally at my local Eastern Catholic church, where I have good friends. I’m pretty close to where Mule is in all that. It’s just that I am where I am for reasons.)

          Sorry this is so long. Just wanted you to know I resonate with your questions. I know there are reasons why you are where you are.

          Dana

          • Dana,
            ” I came to the conclusion…..that ‘every’ reading of Scripture is interpretation….” Yes, but isn’t every “reading” of tradition also interpretation? Or, if you prefer, isn’t every rendering of tradition interpretation? And why should these renderings or interpretations of tradition have primacy over Scriptural interpretations?

          • Well, I suppose I would phrase it as every reading of a tradition involves a decision on the part of the reader whether it is congruent with his/her (sometimes unarticulated) beliefs about “how the universe works.” I think that’s a different process. One either agrees with an interpretation, or one does not. The buck stops somewhere, so to speak. “Renderings or interpretations of tradition hav[ing] primacy over Scriptural interpretations” is something with which you do not agree, because of what your beliefs are.

            In EO, Holy Tradition is everything that has been “handed down” (the translation of the Greek paradidomi, to hand over, hand down) to us, passed along from the first believers through the generations. The bible is the most important of these, but, like the other elements, does not “stand over” the rest, because everything – though of different levels of importance – is interrelated, all one ball o’ wax. We don’t pit scripture against tradition. The interpretation of scripture that is “mainstream Orthodox” and is another aspect of tradition is the consensus of the patristic record (which has not, to my knowledge, ever been called “closed”). No, the Fathers did not all agree with one another on every point, but there is a consensus on the most important things, and that is what EO holds. (We’re comfortable with saying that something is an opinion worth listening to, but not necessarily a matter of dogma. We have lots of opinions, and actually very little dogma…) Tradition is “the total life and experience of the entire Church transferred from place to place and from generation to generation. Tradition is the very life of the Church itself as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.”
            (from http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine/sources-of-christian-doctrine/tradition)

            The way to find out what the life and experience of Orthodoxy is, is to go to the services and attentively listen to what is said and watch what is done. Short of that, if you want a good, readable on-line overview, I find this very helpful:
            http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith

            Dana

          • Dana,

            For a significant amount of time starting 328 CE, large sections of the historic church, the official church of the Empire, held Arianism as the official doctrine of the church, accepted by multiple councils convened by imperial decree (just like what subsequently came to be called the Ecumenical Councils); in other words, there was not a consensus in vast portions of the church about a matter of essential doctrine.

            Those Christians on the ground at the time, members of the laity, would have gone from worshiping God in churches that first embraced one interpretation of the Trinity, as regards Christology, to worshiping God in the same churches which were now embracing a different interpretation of the Trinity, with no noticeable difference in the Liturgy. They would not have been able to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy by going to services and attentively listening to what was being said and watching what was being done unless they already had a coherent, authoritative understanding of the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy; they’re local, regional churches had all changed to Arianism overnight.

            To my thinking this was a significant gap in the continuity and catholicity of faith, and undermines the idea that there was always consensus in essential doctrine across the whole breath of the historic church from the first century. I’m not a church historian, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was not the only case of something like this happening in the first centuries of the church; perhaps there were numerous such occasions that never were marked out by historical documents. But even if there weren’t, this one episode is enough to serve as counter-evidence to the idea that there was continuous consensus in the church catholic about matters of doctrine essential to the faith, just as the Western Schism undermined the idea that there has always been only one legitimate successor to the see of Peter at any given time.

          • Continuous consensus doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority held the orthodox view. But there is a thread of orthodoxy that does run all the way back, around and alongside all the heterodox stuff, not through it. There in fact was a “coherent, authoritative understanding of the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy”, articulated by the first and second Ecumenical Councils in the time frame you referenced. EO recognizes only what was articulated at the first 7 Ecumenical Councils as dogmatically binding on the whole church. As I said above, the quantity of that dogmatic expression is fairly limited. Interestingly, the questions of those Ec. Councils have always been essentially about who Jesus is.

            Local councils are just that, local, addressing local problems. Some local councils articulated heterodox teaching, i.e. the one in Spain that inserted the Filioque into the Creed in an effort to combat Arianism. Much of the time in EO, the laity had a large role in keeping the Orthodox Church Orthodox. One of the 4th C. fathers describes how a person couldn’t go around any corner in Constantinople without hearing theological arguments among the tradespeople. We don’t have a Pope like the bishop of Rome, or a Magisterium. When we say “the Church” we mean everyone, and it’s not necessarily “majority rules”.

            And one would have noticed liturgical differences in the Arian churches. There were differences between some Arian baptismal rites and orthodox baptism, for example. One would have noticed differences in the preaching. One would have noticed differences in the hymns and prayers (lex orendi, lex credendi). Arius supposedly had a fine voice, and spread his teaching through lovely, bible-verse-quoting songs.

            The question for me has been, What has survived that has been believed by all in all times and places? I’m not a “historian” – I was simply on a journey, and I wasn’t even “looking for the first century church”. In all the research I have done, tracing back even behind the Council of Nicea to the Apostolic Fathers, St Justin Martyr, the anaphora of Hippolytus and the like, there is a remarkable consistency with what is presented in “The Orthodox Faith” at the OCA web site I cited above. And beyond that, a remarkable congruence with what Wright describes as the situation of 1st Century Judaism and how the first Christians’ interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection answered the burning questions of that day. And other things I found in the work of Margaret Barker (English Methodist lay preacher and academic), whose area of study is the Jewish temple ritual. And more besides. It didn’t happen overnight, and as I said, it was most unexpected.

            But my short answer is yes, contrary to what I too expected to find, what I discovered is there actually has been that thread of orthodoxy running through history, without any gaps, and that thread led me eastward.

            Dana

          • Dana,
            Perhaps you’re right; I’m certainly dialoguing with you in depths that are too great for me. I really don’t have the resources, nor the time, to do the kind of research and footwork that you undertook in your journey toward Orthodoxy.

            Even if I did, I’m part of a marital community of two with my wife, and I would never make a huge move into another faith tradition without her alongside; for her part, she has never even warmed to a discussion about Eastern Orthodoxy.

            So we will continue to meet Christ in our Anglican faith tradition, and trust that the Holy Spirit is wise and good enough to be gracious to us despite whatever lack of wisdom our choice may entail.

            Peace

          • Robert,

            Trust is a very big deal. The Lord will meet you. Peace to your community.

            Dana

  4. Outstanding. One exception: I do not believe this way of interpretation brings discomfort, unless your faith is hopelessly bound up in a fundamentalist hermeneutic paradigm. I find this approach to scripture to be quite comforting indeed. Arguably, so did Christ and the Apostles, as it seems to be the way they approached the Hebrew scriptures. In all honesty, we may be interpreting the OT different than its original audience did, but given its divine origin, it’s quite possible that the Christianized interpretation of the OT was actually a hidden meaning originally present in the text, rather than forced upon it by later interpreters attempting to compensate for some kind of mistake.

  5. Steve Newell says:

    I believe that best way for we to read the Old Testament is how Jesus instructed the Pharisees in John 5:39-40 “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

    The flood foreshadows Holy Baptism.
    The passover meal foreshadows Holy Communion.
    Moses is a archetype of Christ.
    The Law is given to show us the need for the Gospel.

  6. I feel like the problem that Christians often make is trying to justify the actions of OT characters as “christian” behavior. They are looking at Israel and it’s covenant as something better than it was and trying to find a continuity between that and what God now has with the church. It is like expecting my ex-girlfriends to act like they were my present wife.