The Authority of the Old Testament

Kenton L. Sparks

We may begin with an observation that is not new to Christians. Namely, the Old and New Testament portraits of God and theology are generally different. The earliest followers of Jesus addressed this problem in two different ways. Among the heretics, like Marcion, it was decided that the two testaments actually described two different deities—the inferior, fleshly, vindictive God of the OT, and the superior, spiritual, loving God of the NT. Marcion’s view of the Bible eventually lost the theological debate. The other view, which became orthodoxy, maintained that the OT is indeed the word of God, given by the same God who sent Christ and who gave us the NT. By accepting the OT, the early church embraced a better but more difficult theological path. In a way that Marcion did not, the church must discover how the two testaments can together speak for God, and it must accept the added onus of explaining why the OT—if it really is the word of God— is so different from the NT.

Jesus and the New Testament on the Old Testament

The earliest Christians managed differences between the testaments by appeals to what we might call sublation (see Keith Ward’s What the Bible Really Teaches: A Challenge for Fundamentalists [SPCK, 2004] 23). That is, they held that the revealed gospel sometimes reversed or negated the obsolete message of the OT. A striking example appears in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus contrasted the Law (“You have heard that it was said”) with his own words, “… but I say to you.” Somewhat different metaphors were used by the writer of Hebrews, for whom the law was a “shadow” of the gospel, and by Paul, who contrasted the “code of judgment written on stone” with the new covenant and life in the Spirit. But the basic idea is the same in all three cases. Something from the OT is left behind because something new has come.

Neither Jesus nor the NT writers provided a lucid hermeneutical treatise on how to identify those OT texts that were in some way obsolete. Paul held that the Mosaic Law was a temporary measure, ordained by God to reveal human sin and our need for faith. But this did not imply a complete abandonment of the Law. Although Paul regarded the ceremonial and ritual elements as passé, he maintained that the Law’s moral prescriptions were still binding on Christians. Moreover, Paul distinguished between the Mosaic Law and other elements of the OT, which he accepted as fixed and permanent. In particular, he regarded the faith of Abraham and God’s covenant with him as fully compatible with the gospel revealed in Christ. The same can be said for texts from the prophetic books and Psalms. As for the writer of Hebrews, he managed the differences between the testaments by appeals to “platonic-like” philosophy. The physical elements of the OT law were mere “types” of the true “antitype” revealed in Christ. As a rule of thumb, whenever this writer saw something in the NT that surpassed the old, this simply implied that the OT was an obsolete type that pointed to God’s new covenant provision in Christ. So, for instance, the OT priesthood, tabernacle, and sacrificial system were temporary measures replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

To my mind, it was Jesus himself who provided the clearest explanation for the differences between the testaments. Confronted by OT texts that respectively proscribed and prescribed divorce, Jesus sided with proscription (so divorce contravened God’s plan) and explained that the Law of Moses was given to address the fallen human condition (see Matt 19).

The Church Fathers and the Old Testament

How did the great Fathers of the church manage the differences between the Old and New Testaments? And how did they explain them?

First, when two biblical texts seemed to conflict with each other in a literal way, the Fathers usually resorted to allegory. Here is the rule as expressed by Father Augustine:

So first of all we must point out the method of discovering if an expression is literal or allegorical. And here, quite simply, is the one and only method: anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred either to good, honest morals or to the truth of the faith, you must know is said allegorically. (On Christian Doctrine, 3.10; 3.12 [NPNF1 2:560-62])

In other places Augustine further fleshed out his approach by appealing directly to the teachings of Jesus. Whenever we read Scripture in a way that does not promote love for God and neighbor, we can be sure that we have not understood it. Specifically, we may cite Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of the Passover story in Exodus.

The Egyptian [Pharaoh] is unjust, and instead of him, his punishment falls upon his newborn child, who on account of his infant age is unable to discern what is good and what is not good … If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s evil, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries…“The son should not suffer for the sin of the father?” How can history so contradict reason?” (see A.J. Malherbe and E. Ferguson’s Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses [Paulist, 1978] 75-76)

Gregory finally concluded that the text was an allegory that taught us to destroy temptations before they grew too strong for us. Whatever we may think about it, then, the Fathers thought it was fairly easy to recognize when Scripture seemed to teach something that was wrong. And when it seemed wrong, they simply turned the text into an allegory.

Allegory “resolved” the Bible’s apparent tensions and contradictions. Scripture’s apparent diversity was simply denied and passed off as a generic illusion. But the Fathers were honest enough to realize that, sometimes, even allegory was incapable of saving the day. There really were instances in which the Bible said two things that simply did not fit together. Why, for instance, would Isaiah describe God as seated on a throne (Isa 6) when others texts tell us that God has no physical body? This was real diversity that needed an explanation.

The classic solution for this problem in early Christianity was accommodation (see K.L. Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words [Baker, 2008] 229-59). Father Chrysostom provides a classic definition of the term:

What is accommodation? It is when God appears and makes himself known not as he is, but in the way one incapable of beholding him is able to look upon him. In this way God reveals himself proportionally to the weakness of those who behold him. (On the Incomprehensibility of God 3.15; trans. S.D. Benin, Footprints of God: Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Thought [State University of New York, 1993] 186)

The general idea is that biblical texts are “adjusted” to suit the limits and weaknesses of the human perspective and, moreover, that some biblical texts are more accommodated than others. I do not suppose that any church Father better illustrates the application of this concept than Justin Martyr. Confronted by the contrast between OT sacrifices and their elimination in God’s final economy, he offered this explanation:

We also would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all of your Jewish festivals, if we did not know why they were ordained, namely, because of your sins and the hardness of your hearts…the Lord, accommodating Himself to those people, commanded that sacrifices be brought in his name lest you practice idolatry. (Dialogue with Trypho, 18, 21 [ANF 1.203]).

The Bible’s diversity, while real, is not a reflection of divine inconsistency. It reflects instead God’s accommodation, or condescension, to a lower and sometimes baser human viewpoint.

In sum, early Christians were not at all squeamish about admitting that there were significant ethical and religious differences between the Old and New Testaments. And they were not content with merely admitting the differences, but sought to provide theological explanations for them.

Current Trends in Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament

We must fast-forward from the ancient Fathers to our own day. Our question is still the same: How do we listen to the OT as God’s word when we know that some parts of it no longer speak, or at least no longer speak in the same way, for God?

An important contemporary development in this regard is the “theological interpretation” movement (see S.E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture [Cascade, 2009]; D.J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture [Baker, 2008]). This is an ecumenical movement—involving scholars from all branches of the church—that seeks to read the Bible in conversation with church tradition and theology. Theological interpreters follow the early church in admitting that there are differences between the testaments and even within the individual testaments. As such, they hold that good theology must discern how the Bible’s diverse texts together speak for God. No simple “formula” guarantees that we will read the Bible well, but theological interpreters regard the items below as important elements in a sound theological approach to Scripture.

The Chalcedonian Principle: One of the formal declarations made by the early church at Chalcedon (AD 451) was that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human, with the two natures joined together in a mysterious “hypostatic union.” Many modern theological interpreters similarly hold that Scripture is also divine and human, though in not quite the same way. The difference is that, in the case of Scripture, one does not have a hypostatic union that joins divinity and humanity in one person. Instead, one has the joining of divine and human agency, in which the human authors of Scripture speak as finite, fallen human beings who at the same time speak for God. As a result, most theological interpreters do not expect the Bible to be wholly free of human perspectives and errors. This approach is very close to the old patristic notion that the Bible was accommodated to the finite human viewpoint.

Canonical Readings and Trajectories: Theological interpreters emphasize that the Bible as a whole speaks God’s word. So we should not draw final theological conclusions on the basis of only one biblical text. Rather, we should understand the “sweep” of the biblical narrative, and, on that basis, get a sense of where the Bible is heading theologically (see e.g., W.J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals [InterVarsity, 2001]; I.H. Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology [Baker, 2004]). As a vivid example, although the OT (and parts of the NT) permitted God’s people to own slaves, the trajectory of Scripture as a whole points us toward the emancipation of slaves (see esp. Philemon).

The Christian Tradition: Contrary to an earlier age, theological interpreters do not believe that tradition is the bad thing that we scrape out of the way to get at the real truth. Rather, tradition is how humans grasp and perpetuate the truth—hence, it is the sphere in which God’s ongoing relationship with his church unfolds. For this reason, theological interpreters take the Christian tradition much more seriously than Christians (especially Protestants) have in the last few centuries. The early Christian creeds, the writings of the early church Fathers, and the commentaries of later Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—are all consulted as sources of theological insight. Those in the movement would never consider doing serious theology with the Bible alone, because the Bible was never intended to be read apart from tradition. Scripture and tradition go together as natural theological partners.

The Role of the Spirit: The earliest Christians faced a dilemma. On the one hand, they had OT texts that implied Gentile converts had to be circumcised if they wished to join God’s people. On the other hand, they had a few biblical texts that seemed to imply the contrary. Which view was right? Christians at first stood on both sides of this issue, but the book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians tell us that the circumcision party lost the debate. Both books report that God gave his Spirit to Gentile Christians before they were circumcised, thus demonstrating that circumcision was unnecessary for their conversion.

In this there is a reminder, say the theological interpreters, that we must attend very carefully to the voice and activity of the Spirit when we interpret Scripture (see S.E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation [Blackwell, 1998]). The fact that this voice is mysterious, and, perhaps hard to assess, does not really change this.

The Human Genres of Scripture: Because theological interpretation takes the humanity of the text seriously, it also attends closely to the genres of the biblical texts. This modern emphasis was already anticipated in the patristic allegories, but transcends it by identifying many genres in Scripture: history, genealogies, letters, prophecies, laws, apocalypses, parables, folktales, legends, myths, and many more. Often enough, attention to genre helps us resolve the diversity in Scripture, and, in the case of the OT, its apparent conflicts with modern science. As an example, theological interpreters hold that Genesis 1-2 teaches us that God created the cosmos, yet it is not a scientific text, and, hence does not really conflict with modern understandings of cosmology and evolution. This approach to the Bible is especially popular among forward-thinking conservative scholars, who freely admit that the Bible is humanly diverse but wish to maintain that the Bible is free of human error (see, e.g., the use of Speech Act theory in K.J. Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology [Westminster John Knox, 2005]). The author of Genesis did not “err” because he did not intend to give us the “hard facts” of science.

A Return to Pre-Critical Exegesis: If the literal human discourse is sometimes wrong, how can we read the Bible as the coherent word of a consistent God? According to some theological interpreters, the answer is simple. We should leave behind the historically oriented approach, which seeks to uncover the Bible’s human diversity and error, and return to the ancient methods of the church Fathers (see D.C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37 [1980] 27-38). If the human discourse of the text seems wrong, then we should allegorize it to produce a theological result that more consistent with the gospel message.

God’s Freedom in Divine Discourse: Implicit in the allegorical approach is that God is free to say whatever he wishes, and that often enough, if the biblical text seems wrong, then God is probably saying something else—that is, something the text does not really say. This is a fundamental assumption made by many theological interpreters.

Although I do not doubt God’s freedom to say what he wishes when he wishes, it seems to me that when he does so, what we are talking about is not really biblical interpretation. Rather, what we have is an instance where God speaks epiphenomenally, as our reading of the text incidentally prompts us to hear or experience something else of, or from, God. God speaks this way all of the time, not merely when we read the Bible but also when we read other books or go through life’s everyday experiences.

Praxis: Performing Scripture: Finally, an important emphasis in theological interpretation is that true interpretation lives out the words of Scripture (cf. N. Lash’s “Performing the Scriptures,” in his Theology on the Way to Emmaus [SCM, 1986] 37-46; J.B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture [Abingdon, 2007]). We have not learned what the Bible says about social justice, for instance, until the church is “seized by the truth” as it works to promote social justice. So in a very theoretical sense, we do not really understood Scripture until we incarnate its message in the life of the church.

An Example: The Slaughter of the Canaanites: Everywhere one looks these days, theological interpreters are struggling with the divine command to slaughter the Canaanites and take their land. This command—given in Deuteronomy and obeyed in Joshua—seems to flatly contradict the whole spirit of the gospel as well as specific texts, such as “love your enemies.” The difficulty is not merely theoretical. In some religious communities this text has been or is embraced as a template for Christian praxis.

By considering all of the elements together—tradition, genre, creeds, the voice of the Spirit, and the Bible’s humanity—theological interpreters conclude that these texts simply cannot provide a template for Christian practice. Rather, they teach us about God’s authority and power, of the gravity of human sin, and of the great need for Christians to avoid the worldly, “Canaanite” influences that can corrupt or warp our perspectives on God and good living.

This example illustrates a fundamental principle of OT interpretation. Good interpretations should not merely set aside the text when it seems to be a problem. Rather, we must seriously ask what each text brings to the table of our theological banquet. Unless we do this, we are likely to leave behind many things that God has said and still says in his word. To see that this is so, one only needs to imagine how little we would understand the transcendence and majesty of God were our theology based solely on the NT. Jesus Christ was and is significant precisely because he is the incarnation of the powerful, awe-inspiring God of the OT.

Looking Forward

I have outlined some of the important elements in a modern approach to the Bible that takes the OT seriously without requiring that we rigidly adhere to everything it says. As the church moves forward in its effort to read the Bible well, I would suggest that the following issues are likely to be important matters of discussion in the theological interpretation movement.

First, conservative evangelicals are increasingly involved in the movement, and this will likely result in a vigorous theological debate among evangelicals about the nature of Scripture and biblical interpretation (see P. Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament [Baker Academic, 2005]).

Second, as post-liberal scholars increasingly engage Scripture theologically, there will be some resistance among liberals who fear that the Bible’s “dark side” (such as the slaughter of the Canaanites) will too easily influence our theology. Here again there will be debate, and all sides of the church—liberals, conservatives and moderates—are called to foster a discussion in a spirit of love and grace.

Third, I suspect that theological interpreters will become increasingly dissatisfied with the use of allegory as a theological solution. Particularly among biblical scholars, it is obvious that some of the most troublesome texts in the OT were not written as allegories.

Fourth, in order to avoid the Marcionite tendency to simply set aside the problem texts of the OT, theological interpreters will need to engage the OT more carefully as they seek to understand what each text offers the church.

Fifth, in a related matter, I believe that pressure will increase on the church to admit and confront Scripture’s dark human side. In increasing fashion, we shall have to take the “Chalcedonian Principle” seriously by accepting that parts of the Bible, especially in the OT but also in the NT, reflect the perspectives of broken people living in a broken world. The church will have to advance interpretive approaches that take these OT texts seriously as theological witnesses while providing an explanation for the presence of these dark texts in what really is God’s written word (see E.A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God [Fortress, 2009]; and K.L. Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word [Eerdmans, 2011]).

Posted Mar 01, 2011