The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
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)
RELATING THE OT AND NT THOUGHT WORLDS
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.
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.
STICKING TO OUR STORY
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.
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 historic
al 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.
THE OT THOUGHT WORLD AND ITS RELEVANCE TO CHRISTIAN THOUGHT
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.
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.
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.
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 cre
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”.
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.
NURTURING A SENSE OF PROGRESSIVE REVELATION
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?
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.
heologically 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.
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.
This however brings us to a crucial point. The OT says very little abou
t 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.
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.