Reading the Old Testament: You Gotta Have Attitude

Christians do not read Scripture for mere historical interest. They read Scripture as members of Christ’s church as a book for Christ’s church, and so ask questions of significance, the nexus between “what it meant” and “what it means.”

How one gets from then to now has in my experience proved to be a complex interpenetration of factors both obvious and subtle. But to speak of the significance of a biblical book is to say that the setting of the interpreter (whether individual or community, however defined) presents itself as an influential factor in interpretation.

The Bible does not have contemporary “significance” for anyone apart from a conceptual framework within which one makes sense of anything. This certainly entails one’s individual time and place in world history. But for Christians, that conceptual framework is centered first and foremost not on our particular or personal life-settings, but on the gospel, which is to say on what God has done for his people and the world in and through the person and work of Christ.

I am not attempting to mount an argument here for a so-called Christological or Christocentric reading of the Old Testament. I have no real objection to these terms, other than they have sometimes come to represent an approach to Christian hermeneutics that can gloss over the contours of the Old Testament text. For the gospel to form our grid for understanding of the Old Testament is not a call to “see Christ” in every verse, or even every passage of the book.

Rather, the gospel forms our basic “attitude” toward the Old Testament–a “hermeneutical posture,” which is that point of view from which we read and by which the Old Testament can be accessed. It is to acknowledge that the very questions we raise, the very way in which we interact with the Old Testament, is profoundly shaped by our having been raised and united with the crucified and risen Christ.

It is, in my view, precisely a failure to recognize this vital hermeneutical posture that has fostered the notion that a faithful, Christian reading of the Old Testament is demonstrated by deriving some immediate moral lesson—an approach that can drive one to ignore, brush aside, or actually mishandle the Old Testament. Our outlook must rather be shaped by the knowledge that, on the one hand, the Old Testament has something to say in its own right, and, on the other hand, how we hear it will be shaped in a most fundamental way by our living in the privileged setting of the post-resurrection cosmos.

All this is to say that any Christian interpreter of any Old Testament book must purposefully endeavor to allow the two horizons of then and now to be in conversation with each other. And they must be in conversation. The gospel allows–even demands–that we not level out the challenging peaks and valleys of the Old Testament. The Christian hermeneutical conversation embraces both Israel’s story as such and the powerful and liberating realization that we are living in the age of the inaugurated eschaton.

It is from this final, climactic stage in the drama of redemption that we now look back and say, “Now that we know where Israel’s story ends up, what difference does that knowledge make in how we understand that story?” In other words, the “now” with which the “then” must be in conversation is not primarily the “private now” of my personal experiences (although the person dimension is certainly in play), but with the “eschatological now” of the new age (2 Cor 6:2) that dawned when Christ, the climax of God’s covenant with Israel, was crucified and raised from the dead.

Only when this “attitude,” this eschatological posture, is allowed to exert its proper force do we as Christians bring the Old Testament to bear on the particular circumstances of our individual and corporate lives.

This attitude toward reading the Old Testament is what I have called a “Christotelic” reading. Rather than looking for Christ “in” a book of the Old Testament, Christ is seen as the climactic end (Greek telos) of Israel’s story, which is the vantage point from which we today engage the Old Testament.

Think of you engage a well-told tale in a good novel. The first time through you let the story hit you as the plot unfolds and the characters develop. Then when you get to the climax of the story, the various peaks and valleys of the previous chapters begin to be seen in light of the whole. The end of the story does not render those chapters null and void, merely a prop to bring you to the end. But now, having read the story once and seen where it winds up, you go back and read it again in view of a grander horizon.

A theological reading of the Old Testament for the church is ultimately a synthesis of the first and second reading. Its own prominent peaks and valleys must be allowed to shape our hermeneutical landscape, while we recognize at the same time bearing in mind that there is another, grander landscape beyond the immediate horizon, against which the Old Testament can be seen in a different light.

In other words, Christians read the Old Testament both respecting what it has to say while also seeing that there is something more to be said. The “something more” is the complex realization that, however connected we are to particulars of Israel’s story, those particulars are now reconfigured in the crucified and risen Christ, who paradoxically embodies and transforms Israel’s story.

Today’s post is adapted from my concluding comments in the introduction to my commentary on Ecclesiastes, Eerdmans, 2011, pp. 27-29.

  • mark

    Christ is seen as the climactic end (Greek telos) of Israel’s story, which is the vantage point from which we today engage the Old Testament.

    Do you see any pattern in the Israelite scriptures or in the history of the Israelites that points toward Jesus as the telos of Israel? I don’t. I’m aware, of course, that early Christians, including those who wrote gospels and letters to early Christian communities, attempted in various ways to come to grips with the meaning of the “Jesus event” by relating it to the Israelite scriptures, but I think there’s a good argument to be made that Jesus himself saw himself differently.

    • susan

      Mark, as a Christian, I do see prophesies of Christ in the OT, and see Him as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. But if I were a modern Jew, or even a first century Jew, I would certainly agree with you – Jesus doesn’t fulfill the OT. For example, (I am not a scholar, btw) Psalm 110:1. I don’t think first century Jews thought of this as a prophetic psalm. But Jesus did, and others in the NT. Besides history, a central aspect of the OT is God’s relationship to His chosen people, and many OT/FC Jews were awaiting a messiah to bring Israel and the world to what might be thought of as it’s completion, and had their prophetic scriptures (Isiah, etc) to support them in this hope. Orthodox Jews today still have this hope (as some think they have found him in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson). I read Dr. Enns as encouraging us to read the OT as it was written, along with the OT readers, trying to understand it as they did in that time and place, not simply as Christians looking for Christ. I don’t see how this contradicts what you are stating.

      • mark

        Thanks Susan. Here’s the part of your remarks that I would question:

        I don’t think first century Jews thought of this as a prophetic psalm. But Jesus did, and others in the NT.

        I take it that we’re in agreement re FC Jews, and arguably so re “others in the NT.” But Jesus? I’m not so sure about that–in fact I doubt it. I would draw a distinction between the theologizing of early Christian writers (including evangelists) who were trying to wrap their minds around what had just happened–the “Jesus event”–and Jesus’ own views regarding his relationship to the history of Israel and its scriptures. It’s a complicated topic that we obviously can’t resolve in this comments section, but let me give some indication of what I have in mind. You’ll recall that Jesus says to the Sadducees re divorce: Moses gave you that commandment because of the hardness of your hearts, but it wasn’t that way from the beginning. IOW, Jesus is saying that the Torah contravenes God’s plans/intentions/law. I offer that not as a conclusive argument but as an indication that there is an “issue” here that needs some careful thinking through–and that “Christotelic reading” isn’t up to the job.

        It should be clear, I hope, that what I’m saying is that we need a rethinking of just what we mean by “revelation” and “inspiration.” It’s a big topic, but I don’t think it’s impossible to come to grips with it–but it does require a major effort at thinking outside our usual box. Of course, I recognize that Peter, in his own way, is trying to do that.

        As it happens, I’ve written at more length on these topics elsewhere (link at my name). Here are a very few of the things from the archives section that are most directly relevant:

        ▼ 2008 (11)
        ▼ September (3)
        Messy Revelation
        The One Who Is To Come

        ▼ 2011 (14)
        ▼ April (4)
        Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures

        • susan

          Ah, I think I see what you’re saying, though I’m not sure I agree with you. Jesus Himself did use Psalm 110:1 to challenge the Pharisees about whom they thought the messiah would be, but He doesn’t say outright that He’s talking about Himself. In other places, though, He does claim OT scripture for Himself. But, as I think you’re pointing out, we only know that from the evangelists and Paul. And He endorses the whole of the law, but seems to break some of it and expand on it as well. I will read your previous thoughts, but I want to ask you how highly do you hold NT writings?
          If we can’t start with at least the eyewitness accounts, what do we have?

          • mark

            Susan, thanks once again for your open minded approach. Let me start at the end of your comment first.

            I rate the the NT writings very highly as historical sources. Obviously that’s a general statement. Especially in parts of the gospels we do have to take literary genre into account, but by most standards they should be highly rated.

            Now, when you say, “In other places, though, He does claim OT scripture for Himself,” we need to draw some distinctions. If you look at these instances (as I try to document in the blog re Jesus and the Israelite scriptures) you’ll find that the evangelists speaking editorially are relatively specific re texts, etc., whereas Jesus makes few such statements and then only in the most general terms. In addition, it is characteristic of Jesus’ polemical style that he confronts his opponents with scripture not in an exegetical manner but for what could be called rhetorical effect–hoisting them on their own petards, so to speak. As I said, all of this requires climbing out of our usual box.

            Finally, let me suggest another instructive text: Luke 4 re Jesus at Nazareth. IMO, Joachim Jeremias’ interpretation has great merit. IOW, rather than the townsfolk expressing admiration for Jesus’ “gracious words,” the dative is used in an adversative sense: Jesus’ listeners are shocked and angered by the way Jesus has transformed the reading from Isaiah into a message of mercy rather than vengeance toward the Gentiles. Jeremias’ understanding has the great merit of making sense out of the frankly antagonistic way in which Jesus proceeds–he points out instances of God’s favor toward Gentiles in specific contrast to Israel–as well as confirming the townsfolk’s intuition that Jesus truncated the reading with “specific intent.” (a legal phrase)

            So what do we see here? Yes, Jesus is quoting scripture–multiple times and more specifically than is almost ever otherwise the case–and he is applying it to his mission. But can this be truly said to be “fulfillment?” I think not. Rather, Jesus, with divine freedom, is doing something new.

            I elsewhere do offer an overall theory of just what the plan of revelation is, what is involved in it, and how that links Jesus with the Israelite past even as he offers mankind something new.

          • Dwight Gingrich

            Just a brief comment edge-wise (excuse me!) into an important conversation: I have found R. T. France’s book “Jesus and the Old Testament” extremely helpful in this matter of how Jesus’ understanding of his own mission was shaped by scripture. He also addresses the question of criteria of authenticity regarding Jesus’ sayings in a way that, to me, makes good sense. Longenecker’s book “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period” is also useful, though less extensive on these topics. Also, both books address the question of what it means to “fulfill” the OT. If you are already well-acquainted with these books, please forgive my interruption. Blessings!

          • peteenns

            Great resources, Dwight. Thanks! Personally, I think Longenecker punts at the end, but his book is must reading in this issue.

  • JojoL

    Pete, this is a good synthesis. Thanks! Chrsitotelic reading of the OT is New Perspective on Paul’s framework also. Do you agree?

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  • rvs

    I like and appreciate the phrase “hermeneutical posture.” It causes me to think about existential philosophy.

  • Jacob McNeese

    Hey Dr. Ennsr