Instead of a simple book review I’m using Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet’s book Jesus: A Theography as a jumping off point for a couple of posts. First of all– a couple of reasons why I like this book and recommend it to you. First, the content is solid and scholarly, but Second, it’s written in an accessible style. Thirdly, Frank and Leonard have overcome the Evangelical tendency to be rather dull and predictable in their Bible study style. There’s a lot of creativity here and fresh links between passages and an ability to appreciate and explicate the symbolical and mystical aspects of Scripture–not always a strength with Protestants who too often approach Scripture rather literally and legalistically.
Their theme is an old one: that Jesus Christ the Savior is present on every page of Scripture–that history is ‘his story’–that the God-breathed sacred Scriptures also hold the radiant image of Christ Jesus the Lord woven in and through the Sacred story. They also understand that the Old and New Testaments (the call them the “first and second” testaments) are interlocking and interdependent.
A good example is their treatment of the creation story. They go through the seven day story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and show how, through the symbolism of the story, and with connecting passages from the New (whoops I mean ‘second’) Testament the story of the creation of the world radiates the gospel story of Christ the Lord.
So on day one of creation, God declared, “Let there be light.” This is the mantra of regeneration. Here we have new birth—the Word of God that brings the impartation of God’s life. When Jesus was born, the Light of the World made its entrance onto this planet. And the light penetrated the darkness. Following the literary format of Genesis 1, John told us that in Christ “was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
According to John, Jesus Christ is “the true Light.” How does the new birth take place? By God’s Spirit and by God’s Word. This is pictured beautifully on the first day of creation, when the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God commanded light to dispel the darkness by His Word. Paul drew an analogy connecting the day God said, “Let there be light,” with our new birth: “God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This skillful and insightful weaving together of the Apostolic writings in the second testament with the revelation of the Book of Creation is continued as the authors take us step by step through the seven days of creation.
If Day One stands for the birth of Christ, Day Two stands for his death. How? When God separates the waters below from the waters above the authors say the death of Christ–which is the ultimate sign of separation between God and man is foreshadowed. Also, in the Hebrew imagination the waters represented chaos and death and formlessness.
The dry land comes forth from the waters in Day Three, and the authors suggest that this represents the resurrection: the land is the symbol of a new reality, of fruitfulness and the abundant new life. So the risen Lord comes forth from the earth where he is buried. Other Scriptures and stories that contrast the dry land and the sea are echoed. They missed the story of Jonah though–where the prophet (as a foreshadowing of the resurrection) is spit up out of the mouth of the great fish onto the dry land.
On the fourth day the creation story turns to the heavens. The sun, moon and stars are created. The authors see a parallel to the Ascension of the Lord–in which the redemption cycle turns from earth to the heavens. They see in Jesus Christ the “Sun of Righteousness” and rightly trace the verses in Scripture which compare Christ the Lord to the Sun.
When we consider the sun, we cannot help but think of Jesus. He is the embodiment of God’s light. He is the source of all light, and He stands high above the earth in His ascended state. He is light contained in a body. In the words of Malachi, Jesus is “the Sun of Righteousness . . . with healing in His wings.” Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied that Christ would be “the rising sun” that “will come to us from heaven.” Both John and Peter called Jesus the “bright Morning Star.” In the natural realm, all life on planet Earth depends on the sun. In the spiritual realm, all life depends on Christ. Recall the Lord’s own words: “Without Me you can do nothing.” Indeed, Jesus is the reality of the sun.
But here I must quibble. The authors go on to equate the Moon with the Church because the church reflects the glory of the Sun. This is not the classical reading. The traditional understanding is that the moon points us to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the one who the Book of Revelation chapter twelve says is “clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet and crowned with twelve stars.” She is surely the Queen of Heaven. If the sun represents Christ then she is “clothed in his righteousness” The stars–which the authors rightly see as representing the saints of the church adorn the head of she who we call “Mother of the Church.” I understand that the Evangelical authors (like most non Catholic Christians) have a “Mary blind spot” but why is this? The interpretation that the moon represents Mary is perfectly consistent with the rest of their interpretative methodology and recognizing the role of the Virgin Mary in the cycle of redemption takes nothing away from Christ–but magnifies and glorifies what the Lord has done. I understand the there remains a certain sang froid in Evangelical circles about Mary. They should get over it.
Moving on, the authors see a parallel in Day Five, when the birds and fish are created, a symbol of Christ’s abiding presence in the world. We are born in the waters of baptism and live in the grace of that baptism like fish, but we are destined to rise up the heights of heaven like birds. In Day Six with the higher animals and Adams’ rule over them a symbol of Christ’s rule over all of creation. The seventh day is the Sabbath rest, and Viola and Sweet then go on to discuss the old tradition of the “eighth day.”
The eighth day is the day of new beginnings. The resurrection is said to have occurred on the eighth day and the number eight is the sign of new beginnings. The authors miss an interesting detail from church tradition–the fact that baptismal fonts are often traditionally shaped as octagons. According to ancient tradition, Eve was created on the eighth day, and the authors point to the old Catholic teaching that the blood and water which flowed from the Lord’s side was important symbolically however, they avoid the traditional interpretation and they use circumlocution to avoid the sacramental connections which Evangelicals may find contradictory to their theology. They say the water and blood are “outstanding signs of birth. The pierced side of Jesus is the womb from which the bride of Christ was born…the water speaks of the life of God that awakens our dead spirits.” Catholic teaching on this point is clearer: the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ represent the two saving sacraments of eucharist and baptism which are the foundation of the church’s ministry. That’s why in the old paintings you saw two angels hovering by Christ’s side. One collecting his blood in a chalice and the other collecting water in a font.
Finally, in this chapter Viola and Sweet once more avoid the Blessed Virgin. They see the creation of Eve as a pointer to the creation of the Church. The Church, they think, comes from the side of Christ like the second Eve. However, as early as the writings of Justin Martyr c.120 and Irenaeus c.150 it was the Blessed Virgin Mary who was referred to as “the second Eve”. Jesus and Mary are interdependent. As St Paul is referenced in I Corinthians 11: “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man… In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” The Catholic Church sees the second Even coming from the side of Christ at the crucifixion because Mary was redeemed by her son’s death on the cross. Her perfection as the Second Eve was established retrospectively by the death of her Son.
Frank Viola have written an informative and enlightening book–showing Jesus Christ radiating through all of the sacred Scriptures. It is a rich and fruitful book, but how much richer it would be if it gathered even more of the precious symbolical insights and details which abound within Catholic theology, art, architecture and tradition. This is where Evangelical Biblical scholarship brings depth of insight and profound knowledge of the Scriptures to the table, but where Catholic theology, spirituality, art and tradition can bring an even wider understanding to our knowledge and love of Christ the Lord.