Christians reading the Old Testament

torah-scrollIf the sixth of the 39 articles attempted to clarify the contents of the Bible, the seventh moves on to explore how the two main collections of Scripture relate. The term Old Testament now refers normally to the books of the Hebrew Bible only, in a departure from Christian tradition. Like the rest of the Reformers, however, the article places the Hebrew (Jewish) books in their Greek (Christian) order. In this order the prophets close the OT canon, and segue into the fulfilment story of the prophesied one in the New Testament.

The article introduces some basic interpretative principles.

VII. Of the Old Testament
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

First, the article affirms the unity of the two Testaments, and identifies the unifying factor as Christ’s offer of eternal life to humanity. I am not sufficiently aware of some of the more obscure Reformation debates to know whether some of the more radical groups denied the validity of the Old Testament. Certainly, from early times, with Marcion, some Christian groups have sought to do so, and opposed the God of the OT to the God revealed by Jesus.

The idea of a vengeful OT God and a loving NT one is still, unfortunately, encountered in popular misconceptions today, by people who have no idea how anti-Semitic, how strange to the mainstream Christian tradition, and how alien to the writers of the New Testament such an idea actually is. The article is quite clear in ruling this out of court.

In making Christ’s offer of eternal life the unitary subject matter of the whole Bible, the article does something interestingly different to two of the more common ways of developing its unity. One is prophetic (and typological), namely that the OT points its promises and hopes towards the NT where they are fulfilled by Christ. This is fundamental to how, for example, Luke saw the scriptures:

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27 NRSV)

If that is perhaps the main ancient way in which Christians read the OT, then the more modern way is in terms of an overarching narrative, in which Jesus is the pivotal plot element, to which the OT story was leading, and whose words and actions give the definitive shape to the final denouement. This is a view particularly and robustly articulated by, for example, Tom Wright (e.g. New Testament and the People of God chapter 5).

Either view would be largely acceptable to the framers of the articles, but by speaking about the same offer of everlasting life in both Testaments, they effectively place more emphasis on the OT in its own right as well. The words of Genesis, Leviticus, Job and Lamentations, to take some random examples, are themselves potentially  life-giving words. One of the problems of both the prophetic and narrative approaches taken in isolation is that they can iron out the specifics of the texts as texts for their own time, and with their own value. Yet these texts stand in their own right as historical, literary and spiritual products of their speakers, authors, editors and collators.

In one sense, what the article gives with one hand, it appears to take away with the other. By affirming the life-giving nature of the texts as they are, they affirm the real faith of “the old [Israelite / Jewish] Fathers” and open up some possibilities engaging positively with Jewish readings of the texts. By affirming that the offer of life is made by Christ (ironically used apparently as a proper name rather than Jewish acclamation), they seem to take such opportunities for dialogical reading away. Yet there may be another way of seeing this. They locate their affirmation in a restatement of the doctrine of the incarnation as the essence of what makes Christ the one who stands between God and humanity.

In other words, the essential Christian affirmation is that God is able to speak words of life into the lives of human beings at any time and in any place, because God enters human existence in the one time and place of this one man. But that affirmation made, the full scope of human existence into which God speaks, and the wide experiences of the human authors by whom he speaks, become themselves of immense value to understanding more fully the mystery of God.

There is every reason here for a careful valuing of the texts as they are, for what they are, and for how they have been read. The breadth of the OT is not simply to be funnelled into the narrower but vital concerns of the NT, but to be heard in its own right, as part of the God-man’s offer of life, enabled ultimately by his death. Conversation about scripture with Jewish brothers and sisters cannot ignore that affirmation about Christ, but it can enter into a much fuller conversation around texts when those texts are acknowledged as life-giving in their own person (as it were).

That then, of course, makes the final part of the article even more of a problem, with its division of Torah into laws touching ceremonies and rites, civil precepts, and “commandments called moral.” This imposes late and alien categories on Torah, and rends the seamless robe of its vision of obedient life. And in practice it doesn’t work very well.

We may be better looking to the idea of a whole community that is bounded by its call to obedience. Then perhaps we can work out, as Christians, how Christ the end of the Law (τέλος, purpose, goal, termination – Rom 10:4: choose your resolution of the ambiguity with care) determines the continuing interpretation of the law. We follow not so much a code of practice, but rather a living example of faithfulness.* We share the same call as Judaism to respond to God’s faithfulness by our faithfulness.

So rather than parse laws differently, as the article appears to hint, perhaps we should focus more on shaping the Church, so that faith is seen by Christians as more than a disposition, or a belief. Instead, we need to see Christ’s pattern of faithfulness much as Torah is seen by Jews. And that pattern of faithfulness is one for a whole-life, loving response of obedience to God’s faithful love.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

*I’m aware the argument here begs quite a few questions about the so-called New Perspective on Paul (it’s around 40 years old now), and a never-ending debate about the meaning of Paul’s phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (the faith of Christ).