A Plea for Greater Dogmatic Engagement with the Old Testament

Paul R. Raabe
Monday, July 16th 2007
Jul/Aug 1999

Today, to a disconcerting degree, the disciplines of biblical scholarship and dogmatics (or systematic theology) undertake their tasks with too little interaction. I fear that some dogmaticians could not exegete their way out of a paper bag, and, as an Old Testament professor, I know that some biblical scholars could not even spell Arianism. Yet, obviously, these two disciplines desperately need each other. Therefore, I wish to press the case for reintegrating biblical theology and systematics, for leading biblical exegetes and dogmaticians into the same room and forcing them to talk theology together.

Toward this end, as an exegete, I would like to offer six reasons why dogmatics should seek more intentionally to incorporate the Old Testament into its discipline. For the first three-fourths of the Bible cannot simply be treated as background. After all, in opposition to Marcion (the second century sectarian who rejected the Old Testament and its God as imperfect), Paul reminds us that the God of ancient Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth, is "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Consider first the doctrine of God. Do we begin with a Greek philosophical notion of God as the unmoved mover and then on that basis demote the Old Testament's God-language to merely "anthropomorphic" language? I would argue that if we took the Old Testament's God-language seriously, rather than immediately dismissing it as metaphorical, we could see it as "incarnational" language. This is the God who locates himself with Israel in space and time and from that position "remembers" the past and "promises" the future. He makes himself accessible to Israel in certain ways, such as at Zion. He delivers with his strong arm; he hears with his ears and sees with his eyes and speaks with his mouth. This is the God who reveals himself already in the Old Testament in a way that anticipates the Incarnation.

Second, the Old Testament keeps our feet on the ground. Everywhere it presupposes and affirms the goodness of God's creation. The ancient Israelites were a down-to-earth people, for the most part, agriculturalists and owners of sheep and goats. They rejoiced in their concrete and physical life. Their hope was not to become deified or divinized but to live in fellowship with Yhwh in a fully human way, the way the Creator had made them and intended them to be. To live under their own vine and fig tree, to enjoy the fruits of their fields, to drink the wine from their vineyard, that was the good life. "It doesn't get any better than this."

No one steeped in the earthy Old Testament, when taken at face value, would be tempted toward Gnosticism, platonic dualism, Docetism, asceticism, or spiritualism, alternatives that are as prevalent today as they ever were. The Old Testament keeps our Christian life facing outward toward the concrete needs of the neighbor in the external world rather than turning inward toward the inner world of the soul. It invites us to rejoice in our flesh-and-blood creatureliness, in the way God has created us. In fact, the first article of the creed, to a great extent, depends upon the Old Testament. It was no coincidence that Marcion, under the influence of Gnosticism, wanted nothing to do with either the Old Testament or the "maker of heaven and earth." Against Marcion, the early church fathers rightly emphasized that it was the Creator who redeemed and that what he redeemed was his own creation and not something alien to him. The work of the new creation presupposes the work of the Creator.

Third, the Old Testament is necessary for the understanding, preservation, and proclamation of the Gospel itself. Without a good understanding of the Old Testament, one can hardly understand the apostolic witness, since it so often presupposes and assumes the witness of the Scriptures of ancient Israel. The Old Testament establishes the "lexicon" of the apostolic testimony to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth in that the very terminology of the Gospel is rooted in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings: Messiah, Son of David, Second Adam, suffering servant, prophet, priest after the order of Melchizedek, king, lamb of God, sacrifice, atonement, justification, kingdom of God, covenant, and so on. I would venture to say that every book in the New Testament is strongly influenced by the language and categories of the Old Testament, including Luke-Acts and the letters written to Gentiles.

The church claims that Jesus is the fulfillment, but the fulfillment of what? Of every sort of human dream or ideal or philosophy? Is Jesus the fulfillment of New Age spirituality or American egalitarianism or individualism? Without seeing how the Gospel is rooted in the Scriptures of ancient Israel, one can easily treat it as a waxen nose to be shaped by self-determined needs or by the ideologies and fads that prevail in a given culture. It is not surprising that the Jesus Seminar constructs Jesus as an itinerant Cynic philosopher or an egalitarian social reformer, since the Seminar's excessive preoccupation with the criterion of dissimilarity in effect divorces the historical Jesus from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. For example, the Seminar posits a (Marcionite) historical Jesus who never cited the Scriptures!

We need the witness of the Old Testament lest we have a fulfillment without an older promise or a Christ-event that stands isolated from a preceding plan of God. Such a view characterized Marcion, as Jaroslav Pelikan states: "This continuity Marcion denied, in the name of the newness of the Gospel of Christ. Any continuity or sequence (ordo) was unnecessary, for the coming of Christ had been sudden and immediate." (1) Even the Letter to the Hebrews, which stresses perhaps more than anywhere else the discontinuities between the old covenant and the new covenant, presupposes continuity between the two. If we were to drive a hard wedge between the two, we would end up with something like "old" apples and "new" oranges. Against such a dichotomy, the church needs to continue to stress the soteriological and evangelical unity of the two parts of the Christian Bible. For the church's faith rests in the good news that comes from the God of ancient Israel, the good news about the fulfillment of the ancient promises and history by Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

Fourth, the Old Testament is necessary for understanding ecclesiology, particularly the place where Gentiles live in God's plan. Gentiles do not form their own independent people of God, parallel to Israel. On the contrary, they are foreign branches from a wild olive tree that have been grafted into the cultivated olive tree, the Israel of God (Rom. 11). By being incorporated into Christ, who is Abraham's seed reduced to one, they are descendants of Abraham and fellow heirs of the ancient promise (Gal. 3). Formerly they were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world," but in Christ Jesus they were brought near by his blood (Eph. 2).

God never gave promises directly to Gentiles as Gentiles. The only place of salvation has always been located in Israel, and the Gentiles, if they would be saved, must be brought under the promises made to Israel by the God of Israel. Only YHWH, the God of Israel, deserves the label 'elohim and only in Zion is there salvation. These particular claims of the B.C. biblical writers were as scandalous in their context of religious pluralism as the claims of the apostles are today. The scandal of particularity was not first introduced during the first century A.D. The only hope for Hispanics or Chinese or Germans or Americans is to come to Zion and worship the God of Israel, not to build their own Gentile religion or Gentile temple. It says something about our identity that ancient Israel's psalms hold such a prominent place in the church's liturgy, for they provide the church with a God-pleasing "language" for prayer and praise to the God of Israel through Christ Jesus.

Fifth, the Old Testament provides the historical and eschatological framework for Christian theology. It sets our faith and life into the context of a history that moves toward a telos instead of the context of cyclical mythology. There is a future-oriented thrust throughout the story of Israel. The prophets make this explicit in their announcements of the coming day when God will set all things right. But we see it already implicitly in the narratives, which trace the wanderings of the patriarchs or the march of Israel from Egypt to Sinai, from Sinai to the promised land, and from exile to Zion.

Through our baptism into Jesus the Christ, we Gentiles have been incorporated into his Israelites' history, and thereby we have a share in Israel's history. And we still have a "not-yet" existence, a foot in b.c. time as it were, as we wait in hope for the consummation, the eschatological kingdom of God, the glorious coming of the Christ who has been revealed to us not by flesh and blood but by his Father. In short, the Old Testament helps prevent the Christian story from leaving the historical world of space and time and flying off into the realm of platonic ideas or turning inward to the private and individualistic world of the subjective psyche.

Finally, the Old Testament contains certain accents that otherwise might be obscured or overlooked by Christian theology if we were to use only the New Testament. One thinks of wisdom literature, for example, and its invitation to acquire wisdom in the fear of the Lord, to inquire into the enigmas of life and the art of living, to investigate with human reason and observation the whole created order from the ways of humans to the ways of ants. The narratives that show the faithful serving in the governments of this age, such as Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, encourage Christians in their vocation as citizens in the earthly city. Or consider the way that faith delights in the good and righteous law of God, as expressed, for example, by Psalms 19 and 119. While we affirm with Paul the accusing and condemning role of the law against sinners, we also need to hear this positive side, which, of course, is not absent from Paul himself (cf. Rom. 7:12, 22; 13:8-10). Furthermore, how many suffering Christians down through the ages have not received great benefit from praying along with the psalms of lament in the name of the One who suffered, died, and was raised from the dead? In countless ways, the Christian faith and life would be greatly diminished if we were to de-emphasize or neglect the Old Testament in the theological and dogmatic task.

1 [ Back ] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 78.
Monday, July 16th 2007

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