Sunday, August 31, 2008

Relating the OT and NT Thought Worlds

N.B. This is an excerpt from the draft of the second volume of my forthcoming study of NT theology and ethics called The Indelible Image (Inter-Varsity Press)


While it would be possible to discuss the relationship of the OT to the NT at this juncture, that is actually a subject for a discussion of the canon, and canonical criticism, which actually is not the focus of this study, and in any case we have discussed it some in the first volume of this work. What we are interested in here is the relationship of OT theology and ethics to the theology and ethics we find in the NT. The reason for this distinction is simple-- the documents of the NT existed in the NT era and are expressions of the thought world of that era, long before there was a NT canon. The thought world of the NT speakers and writers was enormously influenced by the thought world exhibited in many books now found in the OT, though they were certainly also profoundly influenced by Intertestamental Jewish literature and thought as well.
I say ‘many’ books because some books of the OT seem to have exerted little or no influence on the early Christians. To take an obvious example, Esther seems to have made no impact at all, and this is perhaps not surprising since the OT canon was not fully closed in the NT era and one of the debated books was Esther. In fact several of the books which later made up the third part of TANAK, the Writings, are missing in action in the NT as are various other OT books (e.g. Nehemiah), and I don’t just mean they aren’t quoted. I mean they aren’t even alluded to. It is thus better on the whole to talk about the influence not of particular books though we could do this (the most cited in the NT are Isaiah and the Psalms) but rather of the influence of the thought world. And here we note a remarkable fact.
The OT taken as a whole has precious little to say about the afterlife, and only somewhat more about eschatology. And indeed it is mostly the very latest OT books, including especially the more apocalyptic prophets, that have anything of consequence to say on this subject. And yet the thought world of the NT writers is overwhelmingly eschatological in character. In this respect, the NT thought world is far more like the thought world of some of the Intertestamental Jewish literature than it is like the OT. This of course could be said to create a problem for canonical theologians, at least for those who want to limit the discussion within the parameters of what is found in the OT and NT. But there are red flags right within various NT books against taking this sort of approach as well.
For example, the tiny little document called Jude clearly draws on extra canonical material from the Enoch literature and probably from the Apocalypse of Moses as well. Or take Paul, who shows the influence of Wisdom of Solomon, or James who draws on Sirach. Thus while we can focus on the relationship of the thought world in the OT and that in the NT, the discussion should not be limited to such a discussion, not least because important ideas like bodily resurrection of the dead, while they did not germinate in the Intertestamental period, certainly gestated in that period. When it comes to the OT itself, the concept of resurrection is barely mentioned in Dan. 12.1-2, and as a metaphor in Ezekiel. In other words, some of the concepts most crucial and determinative for the early Christian thinkers are barely found in the OT at all. Christian theology and ethics could never be done purely on the basis of the careful interpretation of the OT.
Some will ask why is it so important to consider the theology and the ethics in the Bible in a processive and progressive manner? One answer is that we cannot judge the meaning of a story, and the character of its actors before we get to the end of it. Consider for a moment the example of the great trilogy the Lord of the Rings. One cannot tell whether Frodo will have the necessary character to do what is required with the ring until we get to right near the end of the story. Up to that point we do not know whether he will pass the test. Or even more tellingly, we cannot tell whether Gollum is going to end up being an adversary or an assistant in the process of saving the Shire and the world until right near the end. Or what of Gandalf? Will he return in time or at all to help the human race ward off evil? We don’t know until many hundreds of pages into the story. The Bible involves a similarly epic story from creation through fall through various acts of redemption to the final new creation. Viewing the whole story from the end changes the way we look at the character of God, the character of God’s people, how human history will play out, the nature of redemption, and a host of other subjects. The truth is—we don’t fully know God and the divine character sufficiently for eternal salvation before Jesus turns up to reveal it. We don’t fully understand the depths of human depravity until Jesus shows up and dies on the cross to reveal and overcome it. We don’t understand the importance of creation to God’s eternal plan until we hear near the end that God’s plan is that all of fallen creation be renewed and restored, and that resurrection be the talisman of the final stage of redemption for human beings themselves.

It is precisely because Biblical history is told in the Bible as an ongoing story that a narratological approach to theology and ethics is not merely useful, it is required to fully understand what is being claimed and taught. The appropriate question to ask about any theological or ethical remark in the Bible is—where in the story do we find it? Is it near the outset, or in the middle or towards the end? During the administration of which covenant was this or that teaching given? Most fundamentally, is this or that theological or ethical remark before or after the Christ event? Does this point in the story reflect the partial revelations of the earlier period or the fuller revelation that comes in and after the Christ event?
These are the right sort of questions to ask when we are thinking about the theology and ethics we find in the Bible and this is precisely why we cannot do Biblical theology in a manner that treats the OT as though it provides as full a revelation of God’s character, plan, people as does the NT. It does not, and the NT writers did not think it did either, even though the OT was the only Bible they themselves had at all. They believed they were the people on whom the ends of the ages had come, and they believed that in fact the author of this whole story had finally stepped out on the stage in person to bring in the final chapters and explain the meaning of it all.
With this reminder about the narratological framework and nature of the thought world we are dealing with, it will be appropriate to say some final things about some of the major symbols in the symbolic universe that generates that sort of thought world and story, but first we must note that we have now found a clue or two as to why the early church completely rejected the so-called Gnostic Gospels when considering what would eventually be their canonical texts.
The first of these reasons is that the canonical Gospels do indeed focus on the passion and death of Christ, indeed they could be called Passion Narratives with a long introduction. The Gnostic Gospels by contrast not only do not focus on the death of Jesus, they avoid doing so. They see no great theological significance in that, or really any other event which depends on historical reality and particularity.
Equally importantly as Luke Johnson says “None of the Gnostic Gospels take the form of narrative. Rather they focus entirely on Jesus as revealer, and take the form of discrete sayings…with no narrative framework (Gospel of Thomas) or revelatory discourses in response to questions (Gospel of Mary, Dialogue of the Saviour). Two of the most important Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip) take the form of teaching about Jesus rather than any sort of story.” In other words, the sensibilities and symbolic universe which formed those documents are very different from those Jewish ones which formed our canonical Gospels. In fact, it is not too much to say that most of the Gnostic texts reject the God of the OT altogether, the God of material creation.
Luke Johnson puts it this way” “Insofar as the God of Israel is the God who creates the material world the Gnostic texts resist that God. A Gnostic sensibility that finds the world to be a corpse and blessedness in detachment and solitariness (see the Coptic Gospel of Thomas ) is far both from the sensibility of Torah and of the canonical Gospels.” The writers of the NT were all Jews, not Marcionites or Gnostics, and so we would not expect them to devalue the OT thought world, nor the OT vision of God and creation, and they do not disappoint us in this regard. The changes we find between the OT and the NT symbol system are Christologically, ecclesiologically, and eschatologically engendered—but all of those categories (the discussion of a messiah, the discussion of God’s people, the discussion of the future in connection with the messiah and God’s people) are Jewish and must be seen as a further development of OT and early Jewish thinking on such subjects in a particular direction in the light of the Christ event.

At the center of the OT symbolic universe and narrative thought world lies a singular God, Yahweh. Scholars have come to call what they find in the OT ethical monotheism, and this is not an inappropriate label. Yahweh, the God of the Bible is a hands-on deity constantly involved in the affairs of the world and his people, and he is constantly making demands of them in regard to their behavior especially, but also in regard to their beliefs. The Shema has been frequently seen as the core credo in regard to the OT God—“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One”. ‘One’ here means as opposed to many gods presumably. In other words this is a statement against polytheism, not about the composition or complexity of the Biblical God.
What was believed about this God can be deduced reasonably easily from a close reading of the Pentateuch and the first few historical books. As the only real God in the cosmos, the Biblical God was believed to be the creator of all things and all beings. There was no other being or thing that existed before this God decided to create the universe and all that is within it. This view of course stands in stark contrast to other ANE views about how the universe was created out of a struggle between various deities. The OT writers will have none of that. There is only one God, and one universe that was created by this God and reflects the divine character. The way that is expressed of course in the beginning chapters of the Bible is that God created all things, and made them tov, indeed made them tov m’ov—very good. A good God made a good creation and good creatures to fill it.
This whole idea of monotheism of course created enormous problems when it came to the issue of the origins of evil, the study of theodicy. Polytheism could always explain that evil came about through one or another of the bad deities or through cosmic struggle, but monotheism could not go that route. Some other explanation for evil had to be suggested. What is most interesting in Gen. 1-3 is that we are not told where evil comes from—it simply lurks in the presence of the snake in the garden. It appears that the OT writers were more interested in talking about how to cope with evil than debate its source.
But one thing they were repeatedly emphatic about is that the one and only God was not evil, there was no dark side, no shadow of turning in God, nor did the Biblical God do evil things. The blame for the Fall, as it came to be called, is placed solely on human beings, not on God for making defective merchandise. This pattern of thinking can of course be seen not only in various places in the OT, but in the NT as well. As Paul puts it in Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15, Adam is the head of the human race and as a result all of us have sinned and died in Adam, and of course it is also true that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God all on our own as well. Never once in the Bible is there a discussion about their being some flaw or ethical defect in God. The blame for the human malaise is always laid at the door of human beings, however much they may have been beguiled or bamboozled by the powers of darkness in the universe. God is holy, just, good, and not responsible for sin and evil.
This of course raises questions about the sovereignty of God, and the OT does indeed repeatedly insist that God is almighty. Sometimes this takes the form of insisting that God is the maker and ruler of the universe, but more frequently since the OT is the story of God’s dealings with a fallen and imperfect people, it takes the form of insisting that God is almighty to save or rescue his people. God will not willingly let them go down the path of ruin and self-destruction (see Hos. 11). At the very heart of the Pentateuch is of course the story of the Exodus Sinai events which becomes the paradigm and indeed the litmus test of the character of God—Yahweh is a redeemer God, who rescues his people time and time again. This brings into the picture God’s love, compassion, mercy, for there is no suggestion in such stories, not even in Exodus, that these people earned God’s favor and deserved to be rescued, and thus a righteous God was obligated to extricate them.
True enough, it is stressed that the Hebrews were victims of horrible oppression, but there is no suggestion in these stories that God rescued them because their character was so much better than the Egyptians. Indeed, as the wilderness wandering traditions which followed were to demonstrate, they had some severe issues in regard to both their behavior and their beliefs about the true God. Golden calves and immorality did not come as a total accident or as a total surprise from these people. In other words, while God was just in punishing the Egyptians he was also gracious in rescuing the Hebrews. And here we come upon a crucial point.
Salvation in the OT is, almost exclusively, a this-worldly proposition. It is something God does in space and time to rescue, redeem, restore, aid the return of his people to their rightful place or condition or character. There really is hardly anything of a doctrine of heaven in the OT (though a few saints like Enoch and Elijah get beamed up into the living presence of God), and so whatever justice or redemption that happens must happen in the here and now, in space and time. To be sure, in the later and apocalyptic prophecies we begin to see an afterlife theology in second and third Isaiah, in Ezekiel., in Daniel, and perhaps elsewhere, but clearly enough Sheol is the dominant concept of the afterlife in most of the OT. But nowhere do we find any NT writers who merely conjure with Sheol after death for anyone, it would appear.
There is considerable insistence in the OT on God’s holiness and righteous character. This is of course one reason why we talk about ethical monotheism. The Biblical God is not running around committing immoral acts, or like various pagan deities, attempting to mate with mere mortals, and notably when we have a story like Gen. 6.1-4 in which angels (called sons of God) come down from above and do commit the creation order violation of mating with mortals, the heavens break lose and a flood judgment comes upon the earth. The Biblical God will not tolerate, much less perpetrate a breach of the creation order, much less blur the line between creator and creature in this regard. Thus when we hear in the Holiness Code (see Leviticus)—“be holy, as I am holy” we are beginning to get to the root of the matter in terms of the OT symbolic universe. God is one, and God is holy, and God’s people should be both one and holy as well.
And here is where we say that just as theology and ethics are bound up in the character of God and one could talk about the theological story of an ethical God acting ethically, so also theology and ethics are intertwined in what is expected of God’s people as well. The character of God is to be reflected in the behavior (and belief) of God’s people. Put another way—when one knows and believes in the true character of the Biblical God and has experienced God acting ‘in character’ on behalf of his people, then the only appropriate response is to mirror that character in one’s own community and life. ‘Be ye holy, as I am holy’ means not merely set yourself apart from the behavior patterns of the larger culture but model yourself on the divine character. And interestingly such imitation is never seen to violate the creator-creature distinction, or lead to a human being’s apotheosis. It is the voice of the snake, not God, who promises “you shall be as gods”.
A further feature of the OT thought world which really shapes its contours is of course covenanting. The God of the Bible is a God who cuts covenants with both individuals like Noah or Abraham, but also with a whole group of people—a chosen people. Covenants are of course agreements and the Biblical ones take the form of suzerain-vassal covenants, not parity treaties. Yahweh dictates the terms in these covenants and they have not only stipulations but curse and blessing sanctions. They are all ratified by a sacrifice and have a covenant sign as well—such as circumcision, or even a rainbow. It would be hard to overestimate how important covenanting was in the relationship between God and his people as described in the OT. God made demands, not merely ritualistic ones but also ethical demands of his people, in a fashion similar to an ancient dowry or betrothal agreement. To fail to live up to the stipulations resulted in the curse sanctions being enacted on God’s people.
And this brings up another crucial point. God’s people, either individually or collectively are not immune to judgment. Their chosenness does not exempt them from God’s justice, indeed judgment begins with the household of God according to the OT. It is a singular mistake to muddle up the concept of chosenness or election and the concept of salvation. As we have said, the OT has very little to say about ‘everlasting life’, and when it speaks of ‘chosenness’ it is not spoken of in terms of eternal benefits to particular individuals. Indeed, chosenness normally in the OT has to do with God picking someone or some group for a specific historical purpose—such as the choice of Cyrus to set free God’s people in Babylonian exile. But even when the concept is applied collectively to Israel, it normally has the sense that God has chosen this people to be a light to the nations, bearing witness to God’s character and demands and to be a blessing to the nations (see e.g. the promises to Abraham). Election then has historical purposes in the OT, and little or nothing is said about personal eternal fringe benefits. The corollary of this should be clear—later Christian concepts of election and salvation (especially as blended together into one idea) ought not to be read back into the OT willy nilly. One has to have a sense of progressive revelation and the progress of developing understanding of such concepts as election and salvation when dealing with the relationship of the OT thought world and the NT thought world.

This brings us to an important, indeed a crucial point. Biblical theology, or canonical theology, or Biblical ethics or canonical ethics if they are even going to be attempted should not be done in an a-historical manner, as if the Bible could be treated flatly as a thesaurus of theological and ethical ideas in which ‘salvation’ in Exodus, means exactly the same thing as ‘saved by grace through faith in Christ’ means in Ephesians. If there is no sense or sensitivity to the way ideas develop over time, and concepts are modified and change across the Biblical witness, if there is no sense of understanding of progressive revelation, then Biblical or canonical theology or ethics should not even be attempted because one will run roughshod right over the historical character and givenness of these wonderful texts. Don Carson makes this helpful observation: “precisely because God’s self-disclosure has taken place over time, NT theology, as part of the larger discipline of biblical theology, is committed to understanding the constitutive documents within the temporal framework. In this respect, NT theology differs widely in emphasis from systematic theology, which tends to ask atemporal questions of the biblical texts, thereby eliciting atemporal answers.” But the question is—is the latter a legitimate exercise? If we denude NT theology of its historical givenness is such an exercise possible without serious distortion and transformation of the NT material into something other than it was intended to be and to say?
While it is of course true that it is the same God revealed in the OT and the NT, it is not true to say that God’s OT people and NT people had the same level of understanding or even the same understanding of that God. This is perfectly clear from a comparison of the Shema and the Christian modification of it found in 1 Cor. 8.5-6—Christians refer the term God to the Father, and the term Lord to a different person, namely Jesus, and yet paradoxically do not deny the oneness of God. What one could say is that these various witnesses had compatible understandings of God.
As the author of Hebrews reminds us in Heb. 1.1-2—the revelation was partial and piecemeal in the OT era, but now God has revealed himself fully in his Son. This means that any Biblical or canonical theology worth the paper it is written on will have a clear sense of development, of before and after, of partial and more fully revealed, of promise or prophecy and fulfillment, and of typology. In other words, one must have a historical way of thinking about these theological and ethical concepts and their development, and one must conjure with the fact that some things God revealed to and demanded of his people in one era were either partial, or took account of what Jesus calls “the hardness of human hearts”. This is what it means to think in a self-consciously Christian manner about the OT, to think Christologically and ecclesiologically about it, to think historically about it.
From the Christian point of view, Christ is the climax of all God’s revelation to humankind, and the hermeneutical key to understanding all of what has come before, which was only preparatory for the coming of the Christ. If a former Pharisee like Paul can even say of the Mosaic Law that it was only a child-minder (paiadagōgos) of God’s people until Christ came, but when Christ came God’s people reached their majority and moved on beyond the child-minder or tutor, and so on to a new covenant, you know that it will not be enough to either say that the new covenant is just the old one renewed, or to assume that the continuity with what came before is dominant whilst the new elements in the new covenant are subdominant. The whole discussion about the obsolescence of the Mosaic covenant in Galatians and Hebrews prevents us from over-stressing the continuity and underplaying the radical new character of the new covenant in so many ways—both theologically and ethically.
Let me be frank and say that I am assuming as a Christian the truth of the NT witness, and I am assuming as well that the hermeneutic of the NT writers and their way of viewing and handling the OT is the way we Christians should attempt to view it today—which is to say eschatologically, viewing what has come before in the light of the inbreaking Kingdom, the coming of the messiah and the like. And what that meant was not merely ‘new occasions teach new duties (and ethics)’. It meant a new understanding of God, reenvisioned in the light of the significance of the Christ event.
Christ cannot be found under every rock of the OT. Indeed, he cannot be found under many, for there are not many messianic texts in the OT. A generous guess would say that about 5% of the OT has to do with messianism, the longing for a future and more perfect ruler for God’s people. So when I say we must read the OT in the light of the Christ event, what I mean is not that we read Christ back into the OT at various junctures without a clear leading from the OT or NT itself (e.g. Christ is not the angel of the Lord, there was no incarnation of Christ before the incarnation), but rather we have the strong sense that that whole era was preparatory for the coming of the Christ to earth so that—“when the time had fully come God sent forth his Son”. We can learn much about the first person of the Trinity from the OT itself, but not much about the second and third persons of the Trinity—those persons do not come fully to light until and after the Christ event. This way of studying the Bible not only prevents Christian anachronism. It allows us to read the OT with our Jewish friends with profit and respect for the historical givenness and character of that text. It was after all the Word of God for Jews first, before it ever became part of the Christian Bible.
When a covenant’s stipulations were broken in antiquity and we are talking about a suzerain-vassal treaty, then it was entirely up to the ruler to decide what to do next, besides exact the curse sanctions of the original treaty which had to be put into play once the Law had been broken. If the ruler decided to relate in a positive way with a people again, then a new covenant would have to be drawn up, and of course various of the ideas and stipulations and sanctions of the new covenant could be a repetition or replay to one degree or another of various of the previous stipulations. For example honoring parents is affirmed in both the Mosaic Law, and in the Law of Christ, the imperatives that Christ gives. The reason why Christians obey such an imperative is because it is in the new covenant, not because it was once in an old one and the old one is still continuing.
When a new covenant is cut, the old one becomes obsolete. In fact, when the curse sanction of a covenant is enacted, that covenant is over. In the NT, some of its authors seem to see the death of Jesus as the absorbing of the curse sanction against sin in God’s people from the previous covenants and thus the end of that covenant. Paul in Colossians even calls Jesus’ death a circumcision, associating it with the covenant sign and Mark with his rending of the veil of the Temple signals the end of an era of God’s presence located in what was becoming the Temple of Doom. And one more thing—were it the case that election=eternal salvation in the NT how then do we explain the fact that Jesus, who is the one person whom God did not need to save from fallenness is the one who is viewed as the Elect One in Ephesians and elsewhere in the NT? Election and salvation, as it turns out are two different but related concepts in both testaments, but in no instance should we assume that the former idea simply implies eternal salvation.
One of the useful questions to ask about God’s sovereignty as depicted in the OT, is how does the OT depict the way he exercises that sovereignty? Does the OT suggest either that God so controls everything that nothing ever happens that is against his will or that everything that happens is part of his plan? Well certainly the answer to that must be no. God is not the ultimate author of sin, and the OT nowhere suggests such a view. One test case can be considered by reflecting on how God relates to his own people. There is no more poignant depiction of this than in Hosea 11—

When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the farther they went from me, Sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer. He shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be his king;
The sword shall begin with his cities and end by consuming his solitudes. Because they refused to repent, their own counsels shall devour them. His people are in suspense about returning to him; and God, though in unison they cry out to him, shall not raise them up.

How could I give you up, O Ephraim, or deliver you up, O Israel? How could I treat you as Admah, or make you like Zeboiim? My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again; For I am God and not man, the Holy One present among you; I will not let the flames consume you.
They shall follow the LORD, who roars like a lion; When he roars, his sons shall come frightened from the west, out of Egypt they shall come trembling, like sparrows, from the land of Assyria, like doves; And I will resettle them in their homes, says the LORD.

What should we conclude from this poignant prophetic poem? In this poem God is depicted as a parent who calls his children, but they do not automatically or always respond in the way God desires. They continue to behave sinfully over and over again, and with moral consequences as well such as being overcome by their enemies. But God, like a spurned lover, will not give up on Israel. God keeps calling them from exile, and does not express his wrath against Israel’s sin. Rather, like a mighty lion God roars, and his lion cubs finally recognize the sound of his voice and come running back to their parent.
Now I submit this reveals a great deal about God’s character. It reveals that God, while he could simply organize all things and all the behavior of his people in a pre-ordained way, for God has the power, chooses instead to relate to his children in love, and by means of love. He calls them back, he does not compel or pre-determine them to come back. There is something about a love relationship that could not be pre-determined anyway. Love can only be freely given and freely received between personal beings. Love cannot be coerced, compelled, or even just predetermined. And Yahweh had decided not to act like some humans would to compel a response or to destroy those who don’t respond according to the desired script. The power of contrary choice has been given to God’s people, and they do not always respond as they ought to do.
But even more impressively, God has chosen to relate to his people in a loving manner wooing and winning their response. This picture of God comports with texts like John 3.16-17 which tells us that God’s heart is big, and that he does not desire (and has not predetermined) that anyone should perish. It comports with texts like 1 Tim. 2.1-6 which tell us that not only did Jesus die as a ransom for all the world, but that God desires that all come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. Thus, accordingly the concepts of election and salvation look differently when we understand that this is the character of the Biblical God, and that his M.O. is much as we find it to be in places like Hosea 11 or 1 Timothy 2.1-6.
This however brings us to a crucial point. The OT says very little about the coming messiah, and yet on almost every page of the NT, Jesus takes center stage. I would suggest that there could be no clearer proof that we are not merely dealing with the gestation of religious ideas over time. NT theology is not merely a natural development of OT theology, though there is considerable overlap, and the same can be said about the ethics in the NT compared to the ethics in the OT.
Something happened in space and time to change the thought world of numerous early Jews who ended up writing books of the NT. That something was the coming of the historical Jesus and the impact he had on these Jews. To study NT theology and ethics and leave Jesus out of the equation, or relegate him and his teaching to a presupposition for or addendum to NT thought is a huge mistake, and we strove to avoid that mistake in these volumes.
The person, work, and teaching of Jesus are the chief reasons for the differences between the OT and NT thought worlds. Of course the NT writers pick up the Jesus ball and run with it in several different creative directions, but it is Jesus who is the catalyst for all that is going on theologically and ethically in the NT. This is why, in my view, it is beyond comprehension that one would attempt to examine NT theology or ethics and leave Jesus and the Jesus tradition out of consideration or treat it last as Caird does, as if it had little impact on figures like Paul or James or Peter, and as if they were simply doing theologies all on their own after the fact, politely ignoring the teachings and life of their founder. While it is a challenge to show the relationship between the thought world of Jesus and that of his followers, it is not an impossible one as we have tried to show in this study.


Unknown said...

Ben - if OT salvation is 'this worldly' and NT salvation is different (other worldly?), how should Christian preachers preach the OT? Should they 'spiritualise' it, or should they do what Rob Bell seems to do in his latest book and read Exodus as a book about this worldly salvation?
John C

Ben Witherington said...

Excellent question. I would say that the blessings of God in the OT and the NT involve both the material and the spiritual aspects of life. The way I would preach the OT is not by spiritualizing it, but rather by letting it be what it is. I would ask theological questions like-- what does this text tell us about God, about us, about God's relationship with his people. or by asking ethical questions like, what is the character of God, what is God demanding when he requires of us that we by holy, what does it mean to model the character of God in our lives according to this or that OT text? If we want to preach Christologically then we ask-- how does this text, person, institution foreshadow and help prepare God's people for the coming of Christ, and so on.


Robin Dugall said...

Ben - you have way too much time on your hands...seriously, I'm printing out the post and will pour over it today (since it is a day off) are brilliant! I"m glad I know least in the "blogsphere"!


Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Robin, let me know what you think about what you read.


Unknown said...

Ben, I know we should avoid reading the OT by not reading the progressive revelation of NT into it. But any good narrative ends in such a way that makes you want to reread what came before it because you can then see it in a new light. I think the movie Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis is a good example of this. The ending changed the way you thought about everything that happened before it. In light of progressive revelation can we have more full (even trinitarian) understanding of the OT narrative?

Ben Witherington said...

Michael that's a great point, except that the Sixth Sense is an example of hiding something throughout the narrative so it will be a surprise when revealed at the end. That's not the sort of story we have in the Bible, where what we have is progressively revealed. Indeed, one can say the ending is predicted along the way at various points, and is not a surprise, especially with all the clarifications in the Gospels and elsewhere in the NT.

But in another sense you are right. When we get to the end of the story, we will certainly better understand the whys and wherefores of the mysteries of the OT. Faith will become sight, and we will know as we are known. It should produce quite a few ahas!!!


Gary said...

Hi Ben,

btw, the point Michael makes above is also found in the book The Art of Reading Scripture (ed. Hays and Davis) where someone or other suggests that the scriptures in that sense can be thought of like a mystery novel. The earlier parts of the narrative seem to shine in a different light after you find out "what's really going on."

I have a question though. Why do you think it is worthwhile to use the category "the OT thought world"? Specifically my question is whether you think it is justifiable to lump the whole OT together as a coherent "thought world", as opposed to inter-testamental and NT worlds. Surely the length of time between the earliest the latest OT books dwarfs the time between the later prophets and the NT.

I realize that any other way of approaching this subject makes things more complicated to write about, but that still doesn't make me comfortable with your category.

Reminds me of a funny question I was asked when I was in Ukraine. I was asked what Americans drink when they want to get drunk. I told them that it differed from person to person. They didn't like that answer and demanded that I give them a straightforward answer. I told them lots of Americans get drunk on beer. They didn't like this answer either since it would never occur to them to get drunk on beer (why would you use something that takes several bottles to get you drunk).

In any event, they wanted a simple answer when a simple answer wasn't adequate.

Ben Witherington said...

Good question Paul, but it has a straight forward answer. The final editors of the OT thought there was indeed an OT thought world. Whether you call them the Deuteronomist, or just scribes, they saw this collection of books as having a coherent thought world and deserving to be placed together as revealing the relationship of Hebrews with their unique God.

So,I have considerable and ancient precedent for thinking this, and I might add that the folks who did the LXX translation thought so as well, as did folks like Jesus ben Sira.


Bethel said...

Dear Dr Witherington,

It’s a late comment, but I just wanted to say that I’m thankful for the work you are doing in His service. The points raised in this post and the few comments from the readers are very, very insightful.

While I agree that the Old Covenant surely ended with the coming of the new, I would also venture that there are stipulations for restoration/redemption, and not just blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.

For instance, Deut 30:1-6:-
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

The restoration however certainly points to a possibility of a new covenant (‘…circumcise your hearts..’ in v6).

What you have pointed in this post, throws a much needed context in which to explain the morality of the Patriarchs in Genesis (for e.g. Abraham having a child with Hagar) and the whole issue of the Holy War Israel waged when they entered the Promised Land.


Robert Marshall Murphy said...

For a thorough review of this entire system of presuppositions, read the excellent sermon by Rev. Dr. Robert Rayburn.