Wednesday, December 12, 2007

3 "Solutions" to the Problem of the Old Testament

"The church can never part with the Old Testament. But it is not enough to say that. After all, what responsible person would question that the Old Testament has abiding values or that some knowledge of it is necessary for the proper understanding of the gospel? Even those who would deny the Old Testament canonical status would admit as much. So we must go step further and say that not only will we have to retain the Old Testament, we will have in some way to use it as a part of normative Scripture." --John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, p. 77.
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.


Bob Bliss said...

Frank, it seems like there should be more than just the 3 choices. Childs' book on the OT as Canon has a chapter in which he argues that the church should go back to the 3-fold arrangement of the OT (Law, Prophets, Writings) and allow the OT to stand alone first as it's own witness and then reflect on it's place in the story of redemption. I'm not sure I have really stated Childs' perspective accurately but maybe close enough. Childs' doesn't seem to buy into the idea that the OT automatically has a deeper meaning pointing to Christ. Tomorrow I'll re-read Childs' chapter and see if I've accurately restated his position.

I do agree that we should reject #1 and #3. At least with #1 the church accepted the OT's authority. Glad you're writing about this.

Matt said...

Christ, Paul, etc didn't think it should be rejected so I don't think we can take such a view.

Christianizing it is the most common approach I have seen - looking for Christ in every passage and leaving the original context untouched.

Correcting it doesn't work for me either. Just because a passage cannot be "Christianized" does not mean it is not valuable.

I think we have to try to appreciate the texts in the cultural and literary context of the contemporary culture in which they were written. If there is a Christian message in there then feel free to make some Christian application and parallel but also don't be afraid to let the text stand on its own. I could say a bunch more but I will leave it at that.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bob, it's interesting that you mention Brevard Childs. At the time that Bright delivered his lectures (1959), Childs had just finished his doctoral work. So the bombshells he was reponsible for came a little later. Bright did give his own solution to the problem he's discussing. And it's similar to the proposal that Childs would later offer. Always good to hear from you.

Matt, Bright agrees that modern historical-critical reading of the OT is the way to go. He also agrees that it doesn't have to end there. More later.

Bob Bliss said...

Frank, I re-read Childs this morning. I doubt seriously that he and Bright would agree on how to appropriate the OT into the life of the church, although he does agree with Bright that the OT still functions as canon for the church. Childs has been highly critical of the historical-critical method (not that he disagrees with the process or the findings) because the method only sees the text in its original form. Childs believes that we must see that Israel appropriated these texts as her canon and assigned the texts a certain place and function in the canon. He argues that we must interpret a text within the canon and not the perceived historical context.

I will have to get Bright's book and compare the two one of these days. Thanks for the discussion. Anytime we can discuss the OT and its place in the church is a great discussion for me.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bob, you're correct. Bright and Childs both thought that historical-critical readings of the OT are good. The difference was that Childs just didn't think they were good enough. Bright was very much a part of the biblical theology movement; and Childs observed that the movement couldn't be sustained and was coming apart under its own weight.

Childs was my teacher and a great, great man, but I still prefer the outlook and approach that Bright offers. In a context like ours, I think it makes a lot more sense.

One problem I have with Childs is that his proposal of a "canonical" approach to the biblical text is so subtle and sophisticated that not even specialists can follow it. Before his death, he was always having to say, "No, that's not what I mean. And, no, that's not it either."

The second problem I have with Childs has to do with his monumental Introduction. Although conservatives typically loved him because he sounded so much like a biblicist, he was forever the OT critic, steeped in the tradition of German biblical scholarship, the very sort of person that O. T. Allis, E. J. Young, and Gleason Archer loved to bash. So, if someone is an evangelical of any sort, then it's likely that Childs' assumptions about the literature and history of the Bible will be unacceptable to him.

By the way, confusion within the Churches of Christ about what to do with the Old Testament goes all the way to our schools. As an undergraduate I was assigned Archer, Survey of OT Introduction (fundamentalist). As a graduate student, the main OT textbook was Childs' Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. In both instances, the MUCH better alternative would have been the OT book by LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush (conservative AND evangelical).

More about Bright next time.

john alan turner said...

I would think that for a start, we need to de-hellenize it.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Okay, John, you don't get to say that little. :-) Go ahead and unpack some of that sentence.

Leland V said...

When I was taking the beginning Greek courses years ago I had a classmate who said that he was there primarily to be able to read the Septuagint. His statement was, "this is the OT of Jesus and the Apostles, and thus I want to read it." Perhaps this is the 'hellenizing influence' referred to above.

Great discussion. Keep going.


john alan turner said...

So many things to talk about under this heading, I'll limit myself to this: The Greeks read Homer less as history and more as morality tale. Thus, their first question was always, "What should I do in light of this? How should my behavior change?"

It was a very anthropocentric reading.

That's how we tend to read the Bible -- especially with Command, Example, Necessary Inference nonsense.

A more Hebraic hermeneutic is to read it as story, allowing the narrative to shape one's identity by revealing the character and nature of YHWH.

jim said...

A preacher I know once said that his faith was deepened most when he started reading the Bible as if he were a Jew. He got to know God most deeply and understood the gift of Christ so much better. But without the context and background of the Old Testament, that understanding and closeness would not have been possible.

It's an interesting perspective, and I keep considering trying it myself.

Bob Bliss said...

John, how would you take Paul's application in 1Corinthians 10:1-11. It seems he does a little of both. From the story of Israel worshiping the golden calf, he reminds them that God is a jealous God and that they should behave in a way that doesn't provoke His jealousy and wrath. Aren't there times when it is proper for me to read the OT, see God and His character, and then reflect on what that requires of me?

Frank, maybe we could begin to revamp our understanding of the OT in our fellowship in this way. The OT is not authoritative as a covenant (as it was for Israel) but it is authoritative as the word of God. Does this make sense? I wanted to say it in such a way so that folks in our fellowship could understand the distinction.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bob, in 1 Cor. 9:19-23, Paul makes a distinction. He says that he is not under "the law," which is not to say that he isn't under God's law because he is, he says.

Paul clarifies what he's under as "Christ's law." I think that when we identify what Paul is distinguishing there, we've got a good handle on how to interpret the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I really appreciate your input.

Bob Bliss said...

Frank, I'm not sure that 1Cor.9:19-23 says what I was trying to say. I was searching for a way to accurately state the relationship we as Christians sustain to the OT in a positive way. We all agree that we aren't under the Law in terms of a covenant but usually in saying so most Christians think of the OT as a non-entity, something of historical curiosity but not one that can speak directly to our lives today. Paul's statement here says accurately that he (and thus we) are not under the Law, which is true but that doesn't tell me how to appropriate the theology of the OT into my life today.

Anyway, I just wanted to clarify what I was trying to say.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bob, I understand and agree with you. Going back to 1 Cor. 9, I think that Paul assumes that "Christ's law" is consistent with the theology of the OT. As you know, in the very next chapter, he identifies the people in Exodus with the people in the church: all are baptized, etc. And then Paul goes so far as to say that the rock the Israelites drank from was Christ. (!) Very interesting.