The direction of the Old Testament

In my last post I discussed Notger Slenczka’s essay about the relevance of the Old Testament for the Church. In this post I want to respond to part of Slenczka’s further elaboration. In defence of his thesis that the Old Testament is and should not be normative for the Church, Notger Slenczka penned an explanation in which he argued quite differently from his original essay. He comes to the same conclusion, but by another route.

He asserts that the Old Testament was regarded as canonical by the early church and the reformers because they believed that it pointed prophetically towards Jesus. They thought that some texts predicted what Jesus would do and what would happen to him. The law was seen as the educator that led towards Jesus and God’s grace. The New Testament was seen as normative because it consists of the writings composed by the apostles; the Old Testament was seen as normative because it was prophetic. Professor Slenczka then argues that the texts have to be read in their historical context, as has been recognized throughout Europe and North America. If we read the Old Testament in its historical context, we realize that it addressed specific situations in the past and in particular was edited in the context of post-exilic Judaism. It does not predict Jesus. It does not witness to Jesus of Nazareth and the salvation found in him.

Professor Slenczka argues that the Old Testament is the witness of a religion foreign to Christianity. The New Testament, in contrast, is the witness of the step out of the particularity of Judaism to a universal religion. The Old Testament continues to address contemporary Judaism. The promises and laws of the Old Testament belong to the Jews.


Before I respond to his overall argument, let me address two issues. First, I am not at all convinced that Professor Slenczka has correctly described the historical process by which the Old Testament and the New Testament were seen as normative for the Church. Long before the Church ever had a canon, Jesus and the early church spoke of the Law and the Prophets. The Old Testament was the de facto canon of Jesus. Even though the debates continued into the second century, the de facto canonicity of the Old Testament is presupposed before the New Testament was composed and later compiled. I also think that some of the aspects of prophecy, which Professor Slenczka describes, are more characteristic of the Roman understanding of prophecy than the Jewish understanding.

The second point is that Professor Slenczka’s insistence that the texts have to be read in their original meaning does not extend to Judaism. For critical research has also shown that the meaning given to the texts in Judaism is at least as far from the original meaning as the Christian interpretation. Judaism today is not the same as the religion of Ancient Israel.

I think that Notger Slenczka is right in pointing out that scholarship has maintained that Isaiah did not know of Jesus, that David did not compose psalms about the coming Messiah, that Moses did not institute the law to point people towards the grace that they would receive in Jesus.
I won’t address the argument often considered more conservative that while the authors of the books did not know about Jesus, God did and caused them to write about the future. Even though I think that the Bible certainly points to a plan and deliberate action on God’s part, I want to explore a possible wider  explanation of the Church’s insistence that the Old Testament and the New Testament belong together, that they are both canonical. Note that the practice of the Church comes before the explanation. The Church has always (apart from some heretical movements) understood God’s Word to be directed to it through the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is an explanation in today’s modes of thought.

I see the Bible as a narrative within history. The Bible is largely narrative. It is not so much a list of credal statements, philosophical musings, moral teachings, or even laws. Narrative is the most human mode of making sense of the world. Philosophers of history, such as Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White, have shown the essentially narrative character of historiography, the writing or telling of history. The New Testament theologian N.T. Wright has argued that narrative not only influences our world view, but determines it.

We can see the Bible as a narrative that invites us into a way to understand the world. This narrative is not simple; rather, it is told from many perspectives and in many genres; it has many side stories. And yet, it has a unified aim. Much of the narrative is concerned with the history of Israel. But it is not the history of Israel itself that is imbued with meaning. The history of Israel is not salvation history just because it happened, but it is salvation history when it is seen in the light of this narrative. We could tell the history of Israel in a totally different way. We could see the world very differently.

The New Testament continues the narrative of the Old Testament. The New Testament makes sense because we know the story so far. In this way the Old Testament is of course rethought through the New Testament, just as many things in the early part of a novel only become clear as we come to the last chapters. But is such a continuation of the narrative and new interpretation still faithful to the Old Testament?

The Church has answered with a definite “Yes”, while the Synagogue, confronted with the Church’s narrative, came to a different continuation of the Old Testament, a continuation that emphasized the continuous rather than the historical.

I quite deliberately mention faithfulness here to emphasize the difference with the history of religion approach. For the determining narrative of the history of religion approach is the narrative of progress. Faithfulness is not considered under the history of religion approach. If we point to faithfulness, then we know that the old narrative continues to be determinative, that the new narrative cannot continue in an arbitrary direction. If we continue that narrative today, we have to be clear that we can only understand Jesus from the Old Testament and that the Jesus we talk about is the one who in fact lived and preached in Judea 2000 years ago. Jesus cannot become just an idea, a projection of our religious consciousness. If we cannot see our life in the narrative of the Old and New Testaments, if large parts of that narrative are indeed foreign to us, then we are determined by another narrative. N.T. Wright calls the acceptance of another determinative narrative conversion. If the story of Israel is no longer part of our background narrative, then we no longer can call ourselves Christian.

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