The furor over Andy Stanley’s sermon regarding “unhitched the Old Testament” activated many deeply felt attitudes and beliefs that many of us as Christians have about the Old Testament. But if one notes the characteristics of the people compared to their reaction to Stanley, you would note a general, but not absolute, trend: those who have a more evangelical or traditional theology found Stanley’s sermon problematic. Those who have a more progressive and modernist theology did not find much to object in Stanley’s sermon. Why is this the case? Perhaps due to the role of the Old Testament as it comes to our theological expressions. Most salient in this present time is the role of the Old Testament as it pertains to sexuality, where those celebrating sexual freedom finding the Old Testament overly confining, whereas adherence to the Old Testament serves as a way to maintain an espoused orthopraxy amongst more traditional and those who lean evangelical. However, other attitudes may be playing out in one’s reactions, such as views on power, authority, gender, etc. In a sense, the various views on the Old Testament serve as sort of a meta-theology that governs the grammar of faith, hence it can be tempting to either throw out the heretical category of Marcionism in order to maintain doctrinal regulation or to throw out heresy altogether to subvert such doctrinal regulation.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this principle. I happen to be one of them, finding little objectionable in Stanley’s sermons when heard in context and yet I have many strong evangelical and traditional sympathies, even if I don’t strictly identify as such. How is it that I can do that? It is because, in the end, I recognize that there are at least two Scripturally legitimate ways to connect the Old Testament and Christ, while recognizing that both patterns have their own weaknesses: the chronological relationship where the Old Testament leads to Christ and the retrospective relationship where Christ leads to the Old Testament.
Both of these views have been debated in Biblical scholarship and theology. Christian scholars of the Old Testament are often notorious for a chronological relationship. New Testament scholars tend to be mixed. However, many theologians, such as those in a more Barthian mold, have endorsed a more retroactive relationship. This is also consistent with the pattern of the early church, who tended to interpret the Old Testament as it pertains to Christ rather than vice versa. While there is hermeneutical danger in oversimplifying the two perspectives that treat all retroactive and all chronological relationships as essentially the same, I would suggest it is these two basic patterns that are deeply formative for how we do theology.
The chronological relationship expresses a higher view of the Old Testament. You might hear the relationship between Christ and the Old Testament being described as a narrative in which Christ is the climax, as N.T. Wright is inclined to say. The emphasis here will be on the continuity of Christ and the New Testament with the Old Testament. Meanwhile, the retroactive relationship expresses a more ambivalent view of the Old Testament, it can either positive, negative, or somewhere in between. This view was expressed in Stanley’s sermon, referring to the Old Testament as a “background story.” The emphasis here will be on the discontinuity of Christ and the New Testament with the Old Testament, such as Stanley referring to what Christ is doing as something new.
I will suggest that both relationships are justified from within the practice of the New Testament church, being roughly in line with epistemology from a Jewish perspective and epistemology from a Gentile, at the risk of oversimplification. I would suggest the two best contrasts of these views are containing in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul, both of which express evangelistic motivations.
For the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about the Scriptures, which we would know as the Old Testament, as witnesses to him in John 5:39. The problem that the Jesus said the Jewish leaders had was that they were studying them for another purpose, eternal life, rather than instead, to listen and know the heart of God. According to the explanatory paradigm of faith for the Gospel of John in 3:20-21, living in accordance to the truth is the condition upon which one will accept Jesus as the light sent by God. Synthesizing these insights together, the Gospel of John suggests that those of his audience1 who have genuinely put into practice the truth as they pay attention to the voice of God in the Scriptures would accept Jesus. According to this Jewish paradigm, the Old Testament scriptures are instrumental in coming to know about Christ, particularly in faithful practice and obedience.
However, the Apostle Paul had a different context than the Gospel of John. For Paul, he went primarily to Gentiles who would have had little education in the Old Testament Scriptures. Instead, his primary emphasis in his preaching was on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ such as in Romans 10: and 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. For him, the critical point of faith is containing in the event of resurrection and one’s acceptance of that as being true. Thus, as I argued in a previous post on Faith and Wisdom, Paul would employ the death and resurrection of Christ as offering a retrospective justification of the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 15, allowing him to describe the significance of Christ’s resurrection through reference to Adam. Paul’s concern about the Torah, however, is that the letter of the Torah that describes a set of works be compelled upon Gentiles, as Acts 15, Romans 7, and 2 Corinthians 3 all testify to. For Paul, the great error with the Torah is not in its acceptance, but rather in believing that means of transforming persons comes through the teaching of the letter of Torah and the external adherence to the behavioral prescriptions that come from Torah. Nevertheless, Paul will employ Torah as a source of moral reasoning, such as in Romans 13:8-10.
Both approaches, however, share something in common: the focal emphasis on the resurrection of Christ. It is Thomas’ recognition of Christ’s resurrection in John 20 that climaxes Thomas’s confession of Jesus as Lord and God, in alignment with the Prologue of John 1:1-17. This should be understood against the background of John’s implicit Temple theology that N.T. Wright mentioned, allowing that the resurrection of Christ and the confession is understood as the recognition of God’s arrival, emphasizing a continuity. For Paul when he uses the Old Testament as a source of ethical reasoning, he has a tendency to understand it as it pertains to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 and the ministry that results from this reality as in 2 Corinthians 3 while always highlighting the discontinuity from the Old Testament narratives and characters and Christ. Whether one sees the resurrection of Christ as a climax to the Old Testament narrative or a new event that retroactive appropriates but contextualizes the Old Testament narratives, they both have their warrants within the New Testament witnesses.
Nevertheless, both styles have their weaknesses. Chronological relationships will in emphasizing the continuity with their interpretations of the Old Testament will miss the discontinuity. One of my critiques of N.T. Wright’s view on Paul is that while Paul is saturated in the Old Testament world, he still does emphasize the discontinuity more because of the importance of the notion of New Covenant as in Jeremiah 31. Retroactive relationships have the reverse problem; they will minimize or overlook the importance of the continuity, such as in apocalyptic interpretations of Paul that while rightly recognizing Paul’s highlighting of discontinuity, overlook the fact that Paul assumes an incredible amount of continuity between the Old Testament Scriptures and Christ in the way he makes his arguments. This is not to mention the strikingly strong incoherence of their interpretations of Paul with the rest of the New Testament, which I regard to be a negative mark against the apocalyptic interpretations because I find good reasons to assume a relative coherence of Paul with the rest of the NT corpus. Of course, these negatives are reflective of my knowledge in the Biblical Studies world and there may be other weaknesses when it comes to theological arguments. My only point is that within each perspective, there are weaknesses that can become more magnified under certain conditions.
However, we can readily exaggerate the weaknesses and dangers of those espousing a different relationship between Christ and the Old Testament, As with all disagreements, we are inclined to upgrade all potential weakness as actual dangers, thereby denigrating the opposite view while shoring up the confidence in and the necessity of our view. But I think a critical reading of the New Testament that still takes the NT as normative for faith would suggest both relationships have their validity, with their own corresponding potential blind spots. Nevertheless, they are both united under the umbrella of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and also, while I have not mentioned it previously, God’s pouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who believe. Why? Because I would suggest the central epistemological framework of the apostolic church was not based upon how one related the Scriptures to Christ, but upon the knowledge gained from the traditions of Jesus life, death, and resurrection and the power and leading that the Spirit provided. I would suggest that all other forms of knowledge and the ways one acquired this knowledge would be considered in relation to what is known by Christ and bt the Spirit, allowing an epistemic diversity that was contextualized to the epistemic unity of Christ and Spirit. This is essentially what Acts 15 accomplished, allowing there to be a diversity of moral epistemology, allowing Jews to obey Torah and not holding the Gentiles accountable to obeying the Torah commandments. I would simply extend that to more than a moral epistemology, but also a broader theological epistemology as it pertains to how Christ and Old Testament were related.
- It is important to note that the Gospel of John may not have been intended for evangelism of everyone in general so that we should not conclude its explanation about faith is intended as a universal one. Instead, in my opinion, the Gospel of John may originally have been limited to diaspora synagogues, which would contain by diaspora Jews and God-fearing Gentiles.