Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Viewing the Old Testament from a New Testament Perspective

I'm reading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.

I don't agree with everything Wright says. (After all, he says so much and, as a colleague recently quipped, Wright is such a prolific writer that he's at risk of not having a single unpublished thought.)

But The Last Word is definitely worth reading, especially for Wright's explanation of how the first Christians, proclaiming the crucified and risen Jesus, were forced to think through the continuities and discontinuities between the Old Testament and the good news about Jesus Christ that they were proclaiming in their preaching, teaching, and writings. (Those writings--the Gospels, the epistles, and others--became the New Testament, of course.)

The writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as the ultimate expression of Israel's "office" to be "a light to the nations" and the Church as having been grafted onto God's people by God's grace through faith in Christ (Romans 11). This view didn't rely simply on explicit "proof texts," but on the whole witness to God's character and intentions found in the Old Testament.

So, Wright argues that the "new covenant" God makes with the world through Jesus and given to believers today by the power of the Holy Spirit, isn't so much "new" as it is the definitive fulfillment of Israel's story. (This is perhaps the overarching theme of the Gospel of Luke and the other New Testament book written by Luke, Acts, by the way.)

After Jesus' death and resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, some things about the faith practices commended in the Old Testament were no longer necessary.

As Wright would seem to say, this doesn't mean that the parts of the Old Testament we may today find strange or even alarming were "bad." Even those parts of the Old Testament we may think of as being no longer operative were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are part of God's Word.

But if you see the Old and New Testaments as the story of God's efforts to save the human race from ourselves, our sin, and death, you see that the Old Testament presents the beginning of God's efforts: After the fall of Adam and Eve, God set out on the long journey to first, create a people--the Jews--who would bear witness of Him and learn to live with His undeserved grace and often deserved chastening, all with the idea of bringing His efforts to stunning climax on the first Easter, then ushering in the moment when the Church would hit the streets (and the byways) with the news that God so loved the world, He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but have eternal life with God!

Wright uses the analogy of a journey to explain the Bible's continuing story and how, with the unfolding of this story, some aspects, once critical to the journey, were no longer essential:
When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new dry-land stage of their journey, the travelers remain--and in this illustration must never forget that they remain--the people who made that voyage in that ship.
An argument that gets made against orthodox Lutherans like me is that we are literalists about the Bible. Setting up this straw man, advocates of revisionism then set out to demolish it with all sorts of references to strange and foreboding laws from the book of Leviticus. "If you don't support everything commanded in Leviticus," they ask, "how can you be so inflexible about upholding the ten commandments as God's irrevocable will for the human race? The commandments are in the Old Testament, too, you know. Aren't you throwing out some of the Bible and keeping the parts you like?"

No, in fact, that's not what I'm doing. Nor is it what any other advocate of confessional, orthodox Lutheran Christianity that I know of, like Carl Braaten, is doing either.

First of all, speaking for myself, I'm not a Biblical literalist. I don't believe, for example, that trees, rocks, birds, or mountains actually praise God. Yet there are passages of Scripture that speak of these sorts of things. There are many different genres of literature: history, poetry, proverbs, and so on.

But I do believe, as Martin Luther put it, in paying attention to the plain sense of Scripture. For example, when the Old Testament writers repeatedly affirm that there is one God, they plainly mean it. And when the New Testament writers say that Jesus was born of a virgin, was sinless God-enfleshed, died on a cross, and rose from the dead, they plainly mean what they confess. To see these kinds of affirmations being made in Scripture is not to be a literalist, but one who takes the Scripture to mean what it means to affirm as factual.

Second, I believe in taking my cues from what the New Testament writers who, as Wright points out, while not thinking that they were composing "the New Testament," did believe that they were producing a definitive account of God's definitive self-disclosure in Jesus. They believed that some of what was in the Old Testament, while still God's Word, weren't to be carried any further in the journey of salvation.

That's why the preacher of Hebrews opens his sermon:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
And John could write:
The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
Jesus didn't repudiate the Old Testament. As He said, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, meaning that everything that God had been aiming for in calling together His people, Israel, culminates perfectly in Jesus, true God and true human, a son of Israel, the Lord of Israel, the Lord of heaven and earth.

That means that some parts of the Old Testament journey are no longer relevant. For example, it's no longer necessary to offer sacrifices for sin. Jesus is the definitive sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 3:18), the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

This sacrifice is so definitive that the risen Jesus could say of Himself:
The one who believes [in Christ] and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe [in Christ] will be condemned (Mark 16:16).
Unlike Wright, I believe that the New Testament, in conveying the continuities between the Old and New Testaments, between faith in the Old Testament era and faith today, allows us to discern the three types of Old Testament law that Philip Melanchthon describes in his explanation of justification  in The Apology to the Augsburg Confession:
1. sacrificial/ritual law
2. civil law
3. moral law
Since Christ is the once-for-all-time sacrifice for sin, the benefits of which are given to all who trust in Christ and His promises, Old Testament sacrificial law is no longer needed.

Since the kingdom of God isn't confined to a particular place--and, in fact, is eternal--the civil laws God gave for the operation of Israel in its promised land is also no longer needed.

But the moral law, embodied in the ten commandments and related commands sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, are still valid. They serve three purposes to us today:
1. As a hedge on our inborn impulse to self-centered behavior (original sin). God's law, the Bible says, is written on our hearts. Even those with no knowledge or respect for God have some sense of how we are to relate to others. Without the law written on human hearts, the world would be an even more tragically sinful place than it is.
2. As a mirror that allows us to see our true distance from God, a tool God can use to drive us to Christ when we learn that Christ died for sinners and gives new life to those who believe in Him.
3. As a guide for those who, knowing that they are saved from sin and death by Christ, want to express their thanks to God in their daily lives.
As I say, Wright doesn't agree with this Lutheran view of God's Old Testament law. Yet, I think its validity is revealed in how the New Testament deals with those "continuities and discontinuities" that Wright so well explains.

If only for the stimulation he may give a Christian to think about these issues, I highly recommend The Last Word.

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