Prerequisites: Theses #28 - 29
(Painting: "The Brazen Serpent," by Tintoretto, 1576, oil on canvas)
31.) Biblical Interpretation: The Old Testament -
How is one to read the rest of the OT? More than anything else, we are to read it sacramentally—in a manner which expects to encounter God in the experience, and to be transformed by his grace. After having that basic principle in place, though, we must press forward and examine what sort of truths we should be looking to discern from the OT. In most cases, our first impulse (as the early church fathers taught us) is to look for allegorical and symbolic connections, specifically with regard to three main areas: foreshadowings of Christ and the redemption; foreshadowings of the church; and metaphorical illustrations of the spiritual life. Second, we can regard the historical sections of the OT as authentic memories, but with the caveat that this is a document which came into being through the work of God interacting with real human authors and real human cultures, cultures that did not write “history” in the modern sense of the term. With this in mind, we must remember that even where OT stories reflect on the character of God as part of particular historical remembrances, these impressions of God’s character, written without the assistance of the full revelation of it through Christ Jesus, will be necessarily incomplete. One of the evidences of this "incompleteness" is the apparent fact that the Old Testament's theology of God does not pop up fully-formed in all its elements with the earliest writings; rather there seems to be a growth of theological trajectories through the OT, with certain parts, such as the later sections of Isaiah, which exhibit a more Christlike view of God, also happening to be later texts within the tradition. This tells us that the people of Israel were in authentic relationship with God; as with any relationship, knowledge of the Other grows with experience. That is not to say, though, that the earlier texts are in error regarding God's character; simply that they are incomplete (in that they lack the full knowledge of Christ). This should not surprise us--rather, what would surprise us would be a thorough understanding of God appearing prior to the fullness of his self-revelation in Christ. But even those historical stories which manifest this sort of incompleteness in depicting God’s character (such as the commands God gives for his people to wreak genocides on their neighbors) can still be viewed as maintaining the inspired voice of the Holy Spirit, giving us an allegorical picture of the spiritual dynamics of fighting sin in one’s life of faith. (This sort of allegorical application to the Christian spiritual life was, in fact, the primary way in which the early church fathers read the wars-of-conquest accounts in the Old Testament.) Within the OT, Christian tradition has given primacy to the Psalms, as specially expressing the essence of the human relationship with God, including Jesus’ own relationship with the Father during his earthly life, and certain sections of the Law and Prophets which speak with special clarity on the character of God and the coming of Christ. It is helpful, as far as one is able, to consult with the many differing interpretations of specific OT passages when we come to our own reading of Scripture—most such interpretations are open to exploration and should not be treated as dogma. As one of my professors once told me, “Hold fast to Christ; about everything else remain uncommitted.” Even without such helps from the history of interpretation, however, we can come to the OT knowing that it is a God-appointed witness to the story of human-divine relationship, and, as such, it is a text that the Holy Spirit continues to use in shaping the human heart. When we come to OT Scripture, our first expectation should be to meet God there.