The Old Testament as part of Christian Scriptures

In this post I’ll depart from my usual topic of illustrating the world of the Bible to discussing aspects of the Bible’s relevance for today. I want to pick up a theological discussion that has even spilled over into the German media. And in that way, some of the discussion may also be more visible in English. It is the question whether the Old Testament should continue to be used as part of the Christian Scriptures today.

194Ulmer Münster

Here’s how it unfolded: In 2013 a professor of Systematic Theology from Berlin, Notger Slenczka, published an essay in the Marburger Jahrbuch für Theologie entitled The Church and the Old Testament. In it he argued that the Old Testament is and should no longer be normative for the church. There was the usual scholarly agreement or disagreement, but the essay did not have any wider echoes. In early 2015 Pastor Friedhelm Pieper, the president of the Council of Christian-Jewish Cooperation, issued a damning statement accusing Notger Slenczka of anti-judaism. The essay received further attention when several other theology professors in Berlin issued a statement distancing themselves from their colleague Notger Slenczka. New statements were issued by Professor Slenczka and various professors. Students discusssed it. The press picked it up. Bishops weighed in. Finally, the professors decided to avoid a public confrontation and the issue is no longer in the front pages. Still, some doctoral students, like yours truly, were encouraged to investigate the arguments.

In this post I will mainly discuss Notger Slenczka’s original essay, as I think that his subsequent articles come to the same conclusion, but on a very different route.

In this essay he builds on the works of the German theologians Adolf Harnack, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Bultmann, especially the history of religion concept developed by these. Like Harnack, Professor Slenczka assumes a progressive concept of the history of religion in which the new developmental state of religion is always more complete than the previous state. Our understanding of God becomes ever clearer in the line of progress. Step by step religion develops into something higher. One particularly significant step was the message of Jesus, who proclaimed the universal love of God. According to Harnack this idea by Jesus then develops through the Reformation and particularly through the Enlightenment to a more complete understanding. The religious sensibility of the Old Testament is just the pre-history of this religious understanding, and as such should no longer be regarded as influential.
Notger Slenczka quotes Harnack:

to reject the Old Testament in the 2nd century would have been a mistake, which the Church correctly opposed; to keep it in the 16th century was a fate from which the Church could not escape, but to conserve it in the 19th century as a canonical document of  Protestantism is the result of a theological and ecclesial paralysis.

Contemporary Christian faith has developed beyond these old documents, they argue. Today, the New Testament continues as a useful canon for the Church, because a better canon of what is characteristically Christian cannot be created. For in it we see our current understanding of Christianity as universal religious consciousness without conditions. Such an understanding can only be glimpsed in some parts of the Old Testament.

Professor Slenczka then discusses Friedrich Schleiermacher. who places the pious self-understanding at the centre. The pious self-understanding cannot identify itself with the Old Testament. Rather, the Old Testament is something foreign. From a history of religion perspective, the Old Testament was a precondition for the modern understanding, but it is not its basis; rather it is the language in which Jesus and the first Christians conveyed this new piousness.

Rudolf Bultmann similarly considers the Christian self-understanding. The Old Testament tells of the ancestors of Jews, not of Christians. It does not have anything to say to Christians today. It is the gospel of the Jews, not the Church. Therefore, the Old Testament should be fully “returned” to the Synagogue.

After demonstrating how the thoughts of these prominent theologians make it clear that the Old Testament should not have a canonical status for the Church, Notger Slenzka then addresses a further argument, which has often been used to continue the use of the Old Testament in the Church: the frequent references to the Old Testament in the New Testament. He discusses Romans 9-11 as an example. In Slenczka’s interpretation Paul says that Christ did not cause a departure from Judaism, but rather is the hermeneutical key to Judaism. Through Christ those who were not part of the covenant have now become part of it. For Paul the Church is the true successor to Israel, not the Synagogue. But, says Notger Slenzka, today we can no longer accept Paul’s reasoning. From a history of religion approach we know that Christianity is a departure from Judaism. Also, in the context of the Jewish-Christian dialogue it would be disrespectful to say that the Church is the true Israel or that Christians are now part of the covenant with the Jews. Since we no longer share the reasons for the acceptance of the Old Testament, we can also no longer accept the Old Testament.

There are further aspects of his argument, but let me respond to what I have raised here.
Throughout his essay, the history of religion is a key concept. Unfortunately he sometimes confuses it with history. History looks at the past and tries to see connections. History of religion, as Adolf Harnack and Notger Slenczka see it, is an ideology of progress. It believes that humans, and religions, progress continually to something better. Professor Slenzka does admit that there may be times that do not represent progress, or may even be seen as regressive, but that does not distract from the wider trajectory for him. While the ideology of progress is quite pervasive for at least two centuries now, it is not part of history, it is partly contradicted by our experience of the world, and it is certainly not Christian. While Christianity is certainly teleological, history certainly deals with change, and we experience better (or worse) living conditions in this world, the idea of progress is a projection of technical advances onto all aspects of life. Professor Slenczka assumes that we all have signed up to this ideology:

The thesis that in the course of the history of Christendom Christianity progressively understands itself more adequately, is how we all read the history of Christendom (response to Pieper)

It follows that we understand Christianity better than Paul did (maybe also better than Jesus did?). Slenczka’s arrogance is similar to that of 19th century British anthropologists, who categorized human development into stages with the enlightened, British scientists at its apex.

Even if we were to accept the ideology of religious progress, it is questionable whether the German piousness that these theologians espouse, is really the most advanced form of Christianity. One could argue that it is a dying religious form, propped up by tax payers, in contrast with the lively mega churches in Africa or Latin America. It is the tragic of the history of religion school that it proclaims universal values, but is itself steeped in the institutional religion of wealthy Europe (and maybe North America).

With this I come to Professor Slenczka’s appeal to the current religious consciousness. Again, can we take the religious feelings of some established Europeans as normative? If yes, I would argue that by that line of argument their consciousness is neither reflected in the Old nor the New Testaments. For example, the New Testament statement that Christ died for us is generally rejected by these theologians. Similarly, the words of Paul and the Evangelists are corrected to project their own image upon Jesus. In contrast, among communities that regularly use the whole Bible, both the Old and New Testament probably are much more reflective of their “religious” understanding.

Nevertheless, I think that we should see the Bible not so much as the reflection of a certain religious understanding, but rather a message that invites people to and maintains them in a relationship with God, so that they will see the world differently. It is a message to the Church, not a reflection of the Church.

I will not discuss Professor Slenczka’s interpretation of Paul in detail. I think that he is certainly correct in seeing Paul to say that in Christ all people can be invited into the covenant of Israel. While from a historical perspective we can certainly see discontinuity between the Church and Israel, we also can see continuity. It is questionable whether our determination of discontinuity should override the continuity that is so emphasized within Christianity itself. I am also not sure whether it is more respectful to Judaism to describe it as a tribal religion separate from Christianity (especially if Notger Slenczka has a view that the more progressed is better) or whether we debate with it the commonalities and differences.

Even if you think “only in Germany”, some of the ideas are nevertheless present throughout the western world and the church.

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4 Responses to The Old Testament as part of Christian Scriptures

  1. Pingback: The direction of the Old Testament | Imagining the past: Archaeology and the Bible

  2. Ibolya Balla says:

    I agree, related ideas are present in many countries and what makes me more concerned than the ideas themselves is the attitude with which they are approached or not approached at all. Indifference can be very dangerous.

  3. Glauco Frizzera says:

    Thank you for this very interesting post.
    What I find puzzling is that a controversial article such as Slenczka’s, which you say was also discussed in the lay press in Germany, has left no trace I could find in English, except for your two blogs.
    As you have been obviously following the debate, did any scholarly or lay article on Slenczka’s positions in English come to your notice? Thanks a lot for your help.
    Glauco Frizzera, MD

    • Tim Frank says:

      Sorry, for only responding now. No, I did not notice any English articles on Slenczka’s position. But I studied the debate while I was in Switzerland, and had to concentrate on other things these last few months, so that I have no longer followed the debate. But if I ever get back to it and find something, I’m sure to put a reference to it here.

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