Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Problem of the OT: John Bright's Solution

A quick review will bring us up to speed. John Bright, in his book The Authority of the Old Testament, begins by stating the issue he wants to explore and resolve:

Even he who affirms that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose, and will, . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings, and expressions of an ancient piety, actually to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed as such in the church? (p. 18).

Next, Bright describes and critiques what he calls three classical solutions to this question. In turn, the three misguided solutions attempted to
  1. reject the Old Testament, either completely or, at least, practically (e.g., Marcion)
  2. Christianize the the Old Testament, mainly by reading it as though it were a Christian allegory (e.g., Origen)
  3. correct the Old Testament, using the standard of the New Testament (e.g., nineteenth century liberals)

Bright correctly notes that one thing all three have in common is that each one takes the New Testament as its point of orientation. As he says it, In each case, the true text is the New Testament. The Old Testament text must conform to it, be made to conform--or get out! In no case is the Old Testament it's own witness, in its plain sense and in its entirely, taken seriously as having validity in the church (111).

So what is the solution that Bright has been waiting to announce? In his third chapter--the heart of the book--he states and explains it. A few of his statements mixed in with my own commentary:

But it is here submitted that the key to the solution of the problem is to be found in the theological structure of both Testaments in their mutual relationship--that is to say, through the study of biblical theology (112).

Bright goes to great lengths to defend the idea of a unified biblical theology. Despite the real differences between the two testaments, and the real diversity within each, he says, a genuine unity exists. The differences between the two are mainly because they are written on either side of the cross:

Characteristic of the Old Testament faith is its forward look, its straining ahead toward God's future, the triumph of his kingly rule in the earth (136).

The Old Testament was incomplete theologically. What it hoped for was not yet. But what it hoped for now is in Christ. Consequently, the New Testament announces and refers to the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. Thus Bright's thesis is:

The normative element in the Old Testament, and it's abiding authority as the Word of God, rests not in its laws and customs, its institutions and ancient patterns of thinking, nor yet in the characters and events of which its history tells, but in that structure of theology which undergirds each of its texts and which is caught up in the New Testament and announced as fulfilled in Jesus Christ (155-56).

So, what do you think? Is Bright's a good response to the question of what he calls preaching an A.D. message from a B.C. book?


Bob Bliss said...

What does Bright mean by "in that structure of theology which undergirds each of its texts and which is caught up in the New Testament and announced as fulfilled in Jesus Christ?" In particular, what does "structure of theology" mean to Bright?

Royce Ogle said...

I am behind the curve. I didn't know the OT was a problem.

His peace,

Frank Bellizzi said...

The expression "problem of the Old Testament" doesn't necessarily mean the OT is a problem. It can also mean "a problem associated with the Old Testament," which is exactly what is meant here.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bob, I've gone back to look more closely at what Bright is saying. When he speaks of the Old Testament's "structure of theology" what he basically means is "Old Testament theology," a term he uses in other places.

So what does he mean by "Old Testament theology"? Here's a quote where Bright speaks about its task:

"Old Testament theology has the function of providing a coherent description of the faith of the Old Testament in its structural unity. It is therefore not concerned to note every ritual practice that may have been observed, and every popular belief that may have been entertained, by the ancient Hebrews. Rather, it is concerned with those features of Israel's faith that were pervasive, constantly present, normative, that imparted to it its distinctive character, that made it both what it was and different from all other faiths" (p. 115).

It seems as though Bright could have spoken of the "system" of Old Testament theology. But that would have sounded too much like "systematic theology," something he most certainly is not talking about. I think that's why he picked the words "structure" and "structural."