____________________________But how? That is to say, how should the church use the Old Testament Scriptures in this New Testament Age? That's the question that Bright attempts to answer in his book. But before he does, he puts the spotlight on what he calls three classical responses to the question he has raised. Using my own headings--and throwing in my two cents from time to time--here are the three classical solutions to the problem of the Old Testament:
1. Toss It
This approach says that the best way for Christians to deal with the Old Testament is to reject it. The position is named after its first strong advocate: "The attempt to get rid of the O.T. was encountered by the church as far back as the second century in the first great heresy with which it had to deal, that of Marcion" (Bright, 60).
Bobby Valentine has recently written about the man named Marcion and his movement. He talks about how, ironically, Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament and his adoption of alternative scripture led the orthodox Christians of the second century to start settling on the question of which books should be regarded as authoritative for the church.
As Bright and Valentine both point out, Marcionism never completely died. No, not many people have argued so radically against the OT as Marcion did. But the tradition lives on. Bright includes in his list of Marcionite scholars the following well-known people:
Adolf von Harnack, a prominent historian of Christianity who believed that the church should reject the canonical rank of the OT and place it at the beginning of the Apocrypha.
Friedrich Delitzsch, the son of Franz Delitzsch, who wrote a two-volume attack on the OT called "The Great Deception." Bright says Friedrich was a Marcionist "in the fullest sense, even to the point of denying that Yahweh, God of the Israel, is to be identified with the Christian's God" (p. 66).
Rudolf Bultmann, famous and infamous NT scholar. According to Bright, his negative attitude towards the Old Testament was much more subtle and understated, but nonetheless real.
Having grown up among the Churches of Christ, with our strong Marcionite tendencies, I was kind of relieved to find out that mine was not the only tradition that took a low view of the OT.
Christianity has always been right to reject the Marcionite solution. But because it keeps hanging around, the church should remain vigilant.
2. Christianize It
That is to say, save the Old Testament by reading a Christian message from it. This was simple in the early church. That's because reading a book allegorically was popular in the Greco-Roman world.
Bright explains how the church bought into this approach and used it in biblical interpretation: "It was generally believed that Scripture had various levels of meaning. Origen popularized a threefold sense corresponding to the supposed trichotomy of man's nature: body, soul, spirit" (p. 80).
By reading the Bible in this way, passages like the so-called "cursing psalms" and stories that relate the complete destruction of the enemies of Israel can be "prettied up." Those parts of the Bible, it is thought, teach a message that is much more consistent with the loving, forgiving spirit of Jesus. By the same token, by reading the OT allegorically, people could think of the Song of Songs as a love story where Christ is the husband and the church is his bride.
Of course, the problem with this solution is that it insists that we overlook, and sometimes even deny, the literal sense of the text. This approach ultimately divorces the biblical text from any sort of discernible, agreed-upon meaning. Five people can come up with five very different allegorical readings of the same text. So who's to say which one is correct? Thus, the allegorizing approach fails to measure up to what Bright calls "sound exegetcal principles."
Here I have to add a tentative counterpoint. I am undecided about the legitimacy of going beyond the literal sense of the biblical text. When it comes to interpretive method, why do we assume that people like Origen were wrong and that people like us are right? If we conclude the reason is because we're children of the Enlightenment and he wasn't, then we've admitted that we might be more tied to the Age of Reason than the Rock of Ages. And aren't we even going so far as to say that the New Testament writers used a bad method in order to tell us the good news?
In response to this question, most Protestants have said things like, "Well, people like Matthew, with his strange way of reading the Old Testament, were writing by inspiration. We're not. Therefore, Matthew gets to do anything he wants, while we have to stick with only historical-critical readings." Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like a dodge? Does the New Testament teach us all things except how to interpret the Bible?
3. Correct It
This alternative to the problem of the Old Testament formed a value judgment from the New--especially the teaching of Christ, easily found in those red letters--and imposed that standard on the Old. This, Bright tells us, was the position of nineteenth century liberalism with it's evolutionary and progressive view. An assumed development over time was the reason that statements and assumptions found in the Old Testament could be corrected by what is found in the New.
Here Bright points to the words of F. W. Farrar: "Is it not an absolutely plain and simple rule that anything in the Bible which teaches or seems to teach anything which is not in accordance with the love, the gentleness, the truthfulness, the purity of Christ's gospel, is not God's word to us, however clearly it stands on the Bible page?"
So, I'm curious to hear your responses. What experiences have you had with variations of these three "solutions" to the question of the Old Testament? Which ones are still hanging around in the Christian circles you know?
Bright has his own answer and alternative. I'll talk about it next time.