In the Light of Christ (Mitch East)

PART THREE title: In the Light of Christ

aaron-burden-300807By Mitchell East, an intern for the university ministry of St. Aldates Church in Oxford, England.

When a 21st century Christian reads the Old Testament, she might raise an eyebrow or two. What’s the deal with God commanding violence? Why aren’t women treated as if they were worthy of the same dignity and respect as men? Why do the laws of God make God seem so full of retribution? More importantly, she might wonder which authors she could read and which authors she could trust to take her questions seriously.

Some Christian scholars have taken up these questions and answer them specifically for laypeople (some examples here, here, and here). I commend them for what they’re doing and appreciate the difficulty of the task these authors take on. But there is a common ground in these projects, despite the fact that each author addresses different subjects (e.g. violence, science, gender). The question is: how should Christians read the Old Testament in light of Christ?

Here’s one example of an answer to that question, as well as the criticism he received. Brian Zahnd recently published Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Playing off the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards, Zahnd writes about the nature of God’s wrath and how to properly understand it in light of Christ. He concludes that God is love, not wrath. Derek Rishmawy, a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote a long and critical review of it here. Rishmawy argues – with not a few words – why he thinks Zahnd is wrong.

Trust me: I don’t think I can settle their debate. However, their debate plays into what I’ve been blogging about for two weeks: figural reading of the Bible. One of the rules for figural reading of the Bible is that an event in the New Testament does not reject the event in the Old Testament that prefigures it. Moses prefigures Christ because he gives the law of God to His people from Mount Sinai just like Christ gives the Sermon on the Mount to the crowds. But Christ himself begins his sermon with the words: I did not come to abolish the law.

This point matters because we need to be clear on what reading the Old Testament “in light of Christ” actually means. I think it is fair to say that Zahnd thinks the “light of Christ” assumes the Old Testament has darkness, haziness, or fogginess that Christ clears up. Sure, there may be plenty of stories of God showing grace to Israel in the Old Testament. These stories have true light, affirmed by Christ’s own light. But when a biblical passage here or there implicates God in something dark, Christ’s light shows otherwise.

I also think it is fair to say that Rishmawy thinks that the “light of Christ” does not imply any darkness in the Old Testament. If anything is dark, it is our minds – not the Old Testament. In fact, the light of the Old Testament shines all the more brightly because of Christ’s light. We may have thought we knew the extent of God’s love in the Old Testament, but God’s love goes further in Christ. This means that every jot and tittle is light from God, but the most intense and most brilliant light is found in Christ.

Why should we care about this kerfuffle between Zahnd and Rishmawy? I have come to care deeply about this issue because Christians my age have these questions all the time. The Old Testament is like a field of reading landmines to Christians in their twenties. You can hardly read through a story without a litany of frustrations. Why does God want Joshua to be strong and courageous so that Joshua can use that courage to kill people? If a woman is made in the image of God, why will her husband “rule over her”? Why would God’s punishment of Israel result in the deportation of people from their homes? These questions aren’t new, but they plague the reading of the Old Testament.

To all these questions, Zahnd and Rishmawy have very different answers. I’m not saying they would come up with the same answers if only they bought into the rules of figural reading of scripture. I am saying that this debate about the light of Christ is a fork in the road between them. And despite their differences, I think Zahnd and Rishmawy would agree on one thing. The road you choose is not trivial.


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