Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Two Testaments, Continued!



It is great that the discussion / debate on the Two Testaments has attracted such interest! I'm moving up a recent post by Michael Westmoreland-White, who has graciously continued the discussion posted below at August 25, 2006. Let me copy Michael's "comment" here:

The relationship between the testaments is complex--and goes far beyond the debate over violence. I want to avoid 2 extremes: 1) The "flat Bible" approach that claims to place everything from Gen. to Rev. on the same level of authority. In practice this tends to squeeze Jesus into a mold created by a certain reading of the OT. Jesus is not allowed to say anything new, all evidence to the contrary. I think it was an appearance of such by Joe Cathey which triggered both Jim West's response & Dan Trabue's. (Now I've spoken for 3 people, so I've REALLY put myself out on a limb.) 2)De Facto Marcionism whereby we assume the OT was bad or defective--often leading to supercessionist theologies, anti-Judaism, and fundamental misunderstandings of the very Jewish nature of the NT documents themselves. I think it is the appearance of this that has you [= SLC] (and maybe Joe Cathey) alarmed, no?

I'm going to start with basic presuppositions. I am going to write as if talking to an adult SS class, not only for Dan (self-described as neo-Amish retro-hippy) who is an educated layperson married to a minister, but for others who happen to read this. No technical terms, no untranslated passages in other languages, a la Jim West. (I must admit my German improves in reading his blog, but then he throws in Italian and Portuguese! Years of Spanish don't help! I expect Mandarin Chinese next week.)

1) God reveals God's self in many ways (Heb. 1:1), but mostly through HISTORY, especially the history of God's people Israel and their relationship with God, and the history of the earliest Christian communities. The fullness of God's revelation is Jesus Christ.

2) The Hebrew Scriptures never stand on their own. They don't begin to take on any kind of proto-canonical shape until after the Exile when we get beyond ancient Israelite religion and into early Judaism. In Judaism the Hebrew Scriptures are only interpreted as part of the ongoing rabbinic tradition that includes the Mishnah, the Talmud, and later rabbinic commentary. In Christianity, the Hebrew Scriptures are an Old Testament of a bi-partite canon.

3) The Christian reading of the OT is inescapably Christocentric: We read through the interpretive lens provided by Jesus--by his own use of the Scriptures (as far as we can reconstruct that through the Gospel witnesses) and that of the NT writers.

4) But, as you point out, we also fail to understand the NT very well apart from a deeper understanding of its background in the OT and 1st C. Judaism. Now, what does that mean for the debate over violence? Next post. --Posted by Michael Westmoreland-White

Many thanks for this post, Michael. In my judgment, you contribute strongly to this discussion. I have little to disagree on with you. Certainly, you are right that the Scriptures are not flat and that not everything in them has exactly the same significance. I question whether Christians should always read through the lens provided by Jesus, as you put it. I would rather say that as Christians, we must see both testaments as witnesses to the self-same Christian reality that dwelt among us in fulness in Jesus. As I said to Dan, I see the "rule of faith" as the interpretive lens, rather than a strictly Christocentric lens.

Further comments and debate are welcome!

12 Comments:

Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Okay, I didn't see that you were moving this discussion back up top. So, this is a repeat, then I'll comment on your "rule of faith."

I am going to advance a concept that has gone out of style. Steve's mentor, Brevard Childs, helped nail the coffin door shut on the idea of "unfolding revelation" in the Bible. And, in the old sense that the earliest strata of the biblical writings (whenever we are sure which ARE the oldest) have the most primitive ideas of God and these gradually develop into more advanced ideas that are fulfilled in the NT, it should be dead.

Things are far more complicated than that. Sometimes the most "advanced" or Christlike views of God are found very early in the OT. And some ideas that make us feel squeamish (God's judgment and wrath, for instance) are still there even on the lips of Jesus.

Nevertheless, I think that if we don't make a simple line, we do see changes that show a fuller revelation. It seems clear that in the Abram/Abraham cycle, for instance, G-D is seen as the particular god calling Abram, but not necessarily as the only God there is. Early Israelite religion seems, henotheistic rather than monotheistic. It also seems that when the Hebrews firs left Egypt, they understood YHWH to literally live on Mt. Sinai/Horeb. That changes later as the Psalms and the prophets show.

I don't want to say that God's nature precludes judgment, because it clearly does not. But the "holy war" passages where God commands Israel to wipe out whole peoples (men, women, cattle, etc.) because of their sins is problematic on several counts: 1) It is very convenient that these peoples are inhabiting Canaan just as the Hebrews need a place to call home. 2)That kind of genocide is condemned by the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (e.g., Amos 1:3-2:3; the theme of Jonah, implicitly of Ruth). 3) The cherem passages cannot be read purely literally because there are several passages in Joshua and Judges where it says that people X were wiped out and then in the next chapter or section, they are back again. 4)It is one thing to affirm that GOD, the HOLY ONE who created all life and all people, is fit to destroy in judgment that which God has created. It is another, very dangerous notion, to claim that any sinful people can be the physical instrument--especially if that people is to be God's people. When God uses the imperial ambitions of Cyrus of Persia to free the Israelites, Cyrus is still judged for his violence. But the Holy War passages have been used by Crusaders and by Puritans trying to cleanse America of Natives they called "Canaanites," and other horrors.5) Most importantly, they clearly stand in marked contrast to the teachings of Jesus--the same Jesus who affirmed the OT in the strongest terms.

So, what to say. Whatever we say, we cannot use these passages normatively to justify violence, especially genocidal violence, today.

Well, one thing that Mennonite OT scholar Millard Lind (interacting with older work by Gerhard von Rad) shows is that original purpose of this tradition was to convince the Israelites to trust in GOD alone for their protection, not in standing armies. You have passages where God miraculously delivers the Israelites from their enemies without fighting. You have others where Israel mops up in brief fighting after the divine work. Then you have, as with Saul in 1 Sam. 15 those horrid passages where God commands the Israelites to do all the wiping out. And then you have standing armies beginning with Saul & David. Lind sees these as progressively falling away from God's intention of trusting in God alone for protection. (See Millard Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior. Cf. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., The Divine Warrior in Early Israel.)

John Howard Yoder points out in chapt. 4 of The Politics of Jesus, "God Will Fight for Us," that this is how most Jews of the 1st C. would have heard such passages--as calls to faithfulness and trust in God, not as calls to genocide. The prophets and the NT take up the Divine Warrior theme--but never to justify violence. Now the people of God war against demonic powers and the pattern of their triumph is the Lamb who is slain.

I don't know that we will ever have a perfect answer to the holy war passages--just as I don't know that we have a perfect answer to the acceptance of polygamy--which seems to have died out by the time of Jesus, but is never explicitly repealed.

Perhaps the comparison gives us an interpretive clue: When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce (never mind polygamy), he returns to God's original design in Creation. If we take this same approach vis-a-vis war, we see that the peaceable kingdom is God's original pattern--horribly broken with Cain and Abel. But we live, in part, in the New Aeon which is Coming and has begun to arrive in Jesus.

Jewish pacifists, and they are many, have to find their own way (midrashic, I suppose) to deal with these texts. I have to see them through the normative lense of Christ.

Sat Sep 02, 08:27:40 PM EDT

Sat Sep 02, 07:35:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

About the "rule of faith." As far as I can tell, Heb. 1:1 equates such a rule with what I have called the "Jesus lens." Any other rule of faith seems arbitrary. Whose church, which rule? If we use the Augustine's church which allowed killing of the Donatists, or the Medieval Church which allowed burning heretics--or any post-Constantinian "rule of faith" which stems from a church which ALREADY ACCEPTS VIOLENCE, then we are right back at the problem I noted of squeezing Jesus into a mold made by a certain (violent, imperial, dominating) reading of the OT.

This is my hesitation about your mentor, Brevard Childs. (I have many of his works and recognize their value.) His emphasis on the final form of the canon and the rule of faith tends to obscure intra-canonical critique and quench the NEW WORD from the old words. (I guess that's why I love Brueggeman so well.)

To use some other lense than Jesus is to deny his normativity for Christians. Anabaptists and Baptists often spell this out in our confessions of faith: "The criterion by which Scripture is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." (Joe Cathey is part of the SBC which, in 2000 removed that statement from the Baptist Faith & Message. In my view, that is a HUGE Christological error and interpretive error.)

A NT example of how I think we have to interpret the 2 Testaments is in Willard Swartley's _Israel's Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story._

Sat Sep 02, 07:52:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Very helpful and thoughtful, Michael. I especially appreciate your filling us in on the backgrounds and affiliations of the "cast of characters" in this discussion!
Thank you also for your words about how passe the old evolutionary view of the progress of the Bible should be in this day and age. This is one of my main points in my _Roots of Biblical Yahwism_ book.
I perceive that we are "talking past" each other on at least one major point. Let me try to explain.
Your discussion about an increasingly "fuller revelation" is fine and obvious, but it sticks to a historical and noetic angle of approach. I.e., like most modern interpreters, left and right, you're looking at the Bible as a record and source of what humans know about God over time. In great genious, Brevard Childs has stressed that this is all well and obvious, but the two testaments can and should also be read on a theological and ontic angle of approach! For example, taking your example, even if some early Scripture writers had conscious thoughts of a numen living in a bush on Sinai, the theological witness of their writings points to the self-same Trinity as the NT writings. By the way, the NT writings did not have a developed consciousness of the Trinity either---yet, these writings do witness to it on the ontic (not noetic) level.
So neither the NT and its records of Jesus' teachings, nor the OT, can be taken as a canon or center for biblical interpretation or biblical theology. Rather, the two testaments must be interpreted in relation to their ontic witness to a theological reality external to them---namely the reality of God and God's interactions with the world that I am refering to with the cipher "rule of faith."
So, to sum up, I cannot follow you when you advocate a "Jesus lens." Brueggeman has some great books out there, but Childs is the theological giant here...
Respectfully submitted,
---Stephen C.

Sun Sep 03, 06:31:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

May I be permitted to add a word on "H. War" or, better, "Yahweh War"? I say "better" because it is Yahweh who is the warrior, not genocidal human beings. I fully admit that these theme gives both Testaments a bad name (we find the theme in both NT and OT). I find, however, that making some simple distinctions really helps. First, archaeological and historical investigation now makes it fairly clear that the picture in Judges is far more accurate historically than the picture in Joshua. I.e., from a historical point of view, there is no question of a "convenient" elimination of the Canaanites (your word, Michael).
In short, Michael is absolutely right that these passages cannot be read using an approach of literalism. They can only be understand as theological symbolism. Already there, right in the OT, canonical shaping brings out this fuller sense of Yahweh war. See especially Deut 7:1-5. No sooner does the text speak of "utterly destroying" the Canaanites (v. 2) than it cautions against "intermarrying with them" and adopting their culture of idolatry (v. 3). As R. W. L. Moberly puts it brilliantly, corpses are not attractive marriage prospects. This text simply cannot be talking about genocide. (See his essay, "Toward an Interpretation of the Shema.") What is the theological symbolism? It is spelled out in v. 5: Do everything you can in your Christian life to remove all obstacles to loving the Trinity with your whole heart, mind, and soul.
--Stephen C.

Sun Sep 03, 07:00:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I still worry about any rule of faith other than Jesus, but in terms of practical outcome we don't seem very far apart.

I am not sure that the noetic ("knowledge") vs. "ontic" ("being") distinction helps us much in interpretation.

Sun Sep 03, 02:00:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

I guess that would be my question, Dr. S: I'm not so sure where we differ theoretically beyond should or should not Jesus be the lens through which we read the OT. But when it comes down to specific teachings, what do we do with them.

What does it look like for Christians to "love our enemies," to "overcome evil with good?" Do we set aside these fairly direct teachings because there are OTHER teachings in the Bible that some might say "offset" the strength and clarity of these commands?

I ask specifically about this peacemaking matter because it is the one topic that to me is so pitifully misinterpreted by the church at large.

We (the more left-leaning and the more right-leaning church) usually agree (in general) with acknowledging Jesus' warnings against materialism and greed or with the need to do with and unto "the least of these"(although in acting these out, we sometimes come to disagreement) and with other teachings of Jesus. But when it comes to war- and peace-making, we seem to have sometimes quite distinct views and at least one reason for that (in my experience) is most of the war-as-solution supporters that I've met weigh OT teachings more heavily than Jesus'.

So, how does NOT interpreting the OT through the lens of Jesus look, at least on this topic?

[and I apologize, I don't feel I've expressed myself well here, but it's the best I can do for now...]

Sun Sep 03, 02:36:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

[as an aside, what is the source of your graphics? You've got some interesting illustrations on your page.]

Sun Sep 03, 03:14:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

First, my thanks to Dan for rejoining the conversation and for complementing the graphics. Some of the more interesting ones I "borrowed" from Corbis and doctored with Adobe Photoshop (Is it OK for a seminary prof. to do this?).
Now, back to the coversation...
To quote Childs, the NT often transforms the OT message in a way that stands in much tension with the original sense of the Hebrew text. This gives the NT its unique force, but it also requires of us that we refuse to allow our theological reflection to be simply identical with the NT's interpretation of the OT. Childs writes, "The Christian church has two testaments of a Christian Bible, which sets modern theological reflection in a different context from the earliest [primitive] witness of the NT" (BT, p. 333).
Now, you all asked for an example of how this makes a difference. Next post...

Mon Sep 04, 08:51:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Okay, an example: The parable of the Vineyard in the two testaments (Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21). Jesus makes a great point in his NT version: viz., It is the height of rebellion against God to reject God's own son. But, the OT makes its own unique contribution to the meaning of the parable. Our crazy rejection of God is all bound up with violence and bloodshed, unjust abuse of the poor (Isa 5:7). The OT makes sure that we understand that accepting Jesus as the messiah also means taking a stand against violent oppression. And the OT witness adds something else, when in Isaiah 27:2-6, the image of the vineyard is picked up again and we see a vision of a restored and reconciled people of God filling the whole world with fruit. Here, we need the OT witness to remind us that Christ's coming is not just about judgment but about creating a reign of peace on earth that reaches out to all people with its fragrance and fruit.
---Stephen Cook

Mon Sep 04, 09:00:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

This doesn't seem very different from what I advocate as interpretive moves. On a practical level, it is a far cry from the acceptance of violence and oppression that most of those who reject a Christocentric interpretation seem to advocate. That, remember, was what started this whole thread on another blog (or two of them): An OT scholar using the YHWH war texts to justify 1) Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon; 2)The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq; 3)A seeming endorsement even of nuclear war and surely, at the least, a complacence about civilian casualties and an obnoxious religious nationalism.

When initial replies to this cited Jesus and NT texts, violent passages in the OT were used to neutralize/neuter Jesus and this was justified in language similar to yours and Childs. You can see why we Anabaptist types would be upset.ncqhw

Tue Sep 05, 09:42:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Michael, thanks. I especially appreciate what you say about not allowing either testament to "neutralize/neuter" the other one. That is really what I was trying to get at with my language of dynamic tension between the testaments. In the original discussions, I could well see why an Anabaptist would get upset, but it also troubled me to see what looked like a knee-jerk reaction of jumping immediately to the sermon on the mount as a sort of canon within the canon. God's Peace, ---Steve C.

Wed Sep 06, 06:48:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

Michael, "ncqhw"?

And yes, perhaps we're not too far apart. It's just after repeated "apologies" for the Jesus of the NT from Christians who prefer what they perceive to be the more "manly" Jesus of Revelation or the OT (it's as if some christians are embarrassed by Jesus as he defined himself), it's easy to get defensive of Jesus...

Wed Sep 06, 07:42:00 AM GMT-5  

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