Towards Biblical Theology– Part Two

Towards Biblical Theology– Part Two December 21, 2011

( A further excerpt from the Indelible Image Vol. Two).


Biblical theology, or canonical theology, or Biblical ethics or canonical ethics if they are even going to be attempted should not be done in an a-historical manner, as if the Bible could be treated flatly as a thesaurus of theological and ethical ideas in which ‘salvation’ in Exodus, means exactly the same thing as ‘saved by grace through faith in Christ’ means in Ephesians. If there is no sense or sensitivity to the way ideas develop over time, and concepts are modified and change across the Biblical witness, if there is no sense of understanding of progressive revelation, then Biblical or canonical theology or ethics should not even be attempted because one will run roughshod right over the historical character and givenness of these wonderful texts. Don Carson makes this helpful observation: “precisely because God’s self-disclosure has taken place over time, NT theology, as part of the larger discipline of biblical theology, is committed to understanding the constitutive documents within the temporal framework. In this respect, NT theology differs widely in emphasis from systematic theology, which tends to ask atemporal questions of the biblical texts, thereby eliciting atemporal answers.” But the question is—is the latter a legitimate exercise? If we denude NT theology of its historical givenness is such an exercise possible without serious distortion and transformation of the NT material into something other than it was intended to be and to say?
While it is true that it is the same God revealed in the OT and the NT, it is not true to say that God’s OT people and NT people had the same level of understanding or even the same understanding of that God. This is perfectly clear from a comparison of the Shema and the Christian modification of it found in 1 Cor. 8.5-6—Christians refer the term God to the Father, and the term Lord to a different person, Jesus, yet paradoxically do not deny the oneness of God. What one could say is that these various witnesses had compatible understandings of God.

As the author of Hebrews reminds us in Heb. 1.1-2—the revelation was partial and piecemeal in the OT era, but now God has revealed himself fully in his Son. This means that any Biblical or canonical theology worth the paper it is written on will have a clear sense of development, of before and after, of partial and more fully revealed, of promise or prophecy and fulfillment, and of typology. In other words, one must have a historical way of thinking about these theological and ethical concepts and their development, and one must conjure with the fact that some things God revealed to and demanded of his people in one era were either partial, or took account of what Jesus calls “the hardness of human hearts”. This is what it means to think in a self-consciously Christian manner about the OT, to think Christologically and ecclesiologically about it, to think historically about it.

From the Christian point of view, Christ is the climax of all God’s revelation to humankind, and the hermeneutical key to understanding all of what has come before, which was only preparatory for the coming of the Christ. This is not to say that God’s love for Israel was mere prolegomena for what was to follow. Indeed not. It is however to say that God always had in mind to save the world through the Jewish messiah, so God’s love for Israel was not the end of the story, or an end in itself. It was rather the means by which Israel could come to fulfill her destiny in the person of Jesus who would be the light of the world.

If a former Pharisee like Paul can even say of the Mosaic Law that it was only a child-minder (paiadagōgos) of God’s people until Christ came, but when Christ came God’s people reached their majority and moved on beyond the child-minder or guardian, and so on to a new covenant, you know that it will not be enough to either say that the new covenant is just the old one renewed, or to assume that the continuity with what came before is dominant whilst the new elements in the new covenant are subdominant. The whole discussion about the obsolescence of the Mosaic covenant in Galatians and Hebrews prevents us from over-stressing the continuity and underplaying the radical new character of the new covenant in so many ways—both theologically and ethically.

Let me be frank and say that I am assuming as a Christian the truth of the NT witness, and I am assuming as well that the hermeneutic of the NT writers and their way of viewing and handling the OT is the way we Christians should attempt to view it today—which is to say eschatologically, viewing what has come before in the light of the inbreaking Kingdom, the coming of the messiah and the like. And what that meant was not merely ‘new occasions teach new duties (and ethics)’. It meant a new understanding of God, reenvisioned in the light of the significance of the Christ event.

Christ cannot be found under every rock of the OT. Indeed, he cannot be found under many, for there are not many messianic texts in the OT. A generous guess would say that about 5% of the OT has to do with messianism, the longing for a future and more perfect ruler for God’s people. So when I say we must read the OT in the light of the Christ event, what I mean is not that we read Christ back into the OT at various junctures without a clear leading from the OT or NT itself (e.g. Christ is not the angel of the Lord, there was no incarnation of Christ before the incarnation), but rather we have the strong sense that that whole era was preparatory for the coming of the Christ to earth so that—“when the time had fully come God sent forth his Son”. We can learn much about the first person of the Trinity from the OT itself, but not much about the second and third persons of the Trinity—those persons do not come fully to light until and after the Christ event. This way of studying the Bible not only prevents Christian anachronism. It allows us to read the OT with our Jewish friends with profit and respect for the historical givenness and character of that text. It was after all the Word of God for Jews first, before it ever became part of the Christian Bible.

When a covenant’s stipulations were broken in antiquity, and we are talking about a suzerain-vassal treaty, then it was entirely up to the ruler to decide what to do next, besides exact the curse sanctions of the original treaty which had to be put into play once the Law had been broken. If the ruler decided to relate in a positive way with a people again, then a new covenant would have to be drawn up, and of course various of the ideas and stipulations and sanctions of the new covenant could be a repetition or replay to one degree or another of various of the previous stipulations. For example, honoring parents is affirmed in both the Mosaic Law, and in the Law of Christ (the imperatives that Christ gives). The reason why Christians obey such an imperative is because it is in the new covenant, not because it was once in an old one as if the old one was still continuing.

When a new covenant is cut, the old one becomes obsolete, if we are talking about the same two parties doing the covenanting. In fact, when the curse sanction of a covenant is enacted, that covenant is over. In the NT, some of its authors seem to see the death of Jesus as the absorbing of the curse sanction against sin in God’s people from the previous covenants and thus the end of that covenant. Paul in Colossians even calls Jesus’ death a circumcision, associating it with the covenant sign and Mark with his rending of the veil of the Temple signals the end of an era of God’s presence located in what was becoming the Temple of Doom. And one more thing—were it the case that election=eternal salvation in the NT how then do we explain the fact that Jesus, who is the one person whom God did not need to save from fallenness is the one who is viewed as the Elect One in Ephesians and elsewhere in the NT? Election and salvation, as it turns out are two different but related concepts in both testaments, but in no instance should we assume that the former idea simply implies eternal salvation.

One of the useful questions to ask about God’s sovereignty as depicted in the OT, is how does the OT depict the way he exercises that sovereignty? Does the OT suggest either that God so controls everything that nothing ever happens that is against his will or that everything that happens is part of his plan? Well certainly the answer to that must be no. God is not the ultimate author of sin, and the OT nowhere suggests such a view. One test case can be considered by reflecting on how God relates to his own people. There is no more poignant depiction of this than in Hosea 11—

When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the farther they went from me, Sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer. He shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be his king;

The sword shall begin with his cities and end by consuming his solitudes. Because they refused to repent, their own counsels shall devour them. His people are in suspense about returning to him; and God, though in unison they cry out to him, shall not raise them up.

How could I give you up, O Ephraim, or deliver you up, O Israel? How could I treat you as Admah, or make you like Zeboiim? My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.

I will not give vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again; For I am God and not man, the Holy One present among you; I will not let the flames consume you.

They shall follow the LORD, who roars like a lion; When he roars, his sons shall come frightened from the west, out of Egypt they shall come trembling, like sparrows, from the land of Assyria, like doves; And I will resettle them in their homes, says the LORD.

What should we conclude from this poignant prophetic poem? In this poem God is depicted as a parent who calls his children, but they do not automatically or always respond in the way God desires. They continue to behave sinfully over and over again, and with moral consequences as well, such as being overcome by their enemies. But God, like a spurned parent, will not give up on Israel. God keeps calling them from exile, and does not express his wrath against Israel’s sin. Rather, like a mighty lion God roars, and his lion cubs finally recognize the sound of his voice and come running back to their parent.

Now I submit this reveals a great deal about God’s character. It reveals that God, while he could simply organize all things and all the behavior of his people in a pre-ordained way, for God has the power, God chooses instead to relate to his children in love, and by means of love. He calls them back, he does not compel or pre-determine them to come back. There is something about a love relationship that could not be pre-determined anyway. Love can only be freely given and freely received between personal beings. Love cannot be coerced, compelled, or even just predetermined. And Yahweh had decided not to act like some humans would to compel a response or to destroy those who don’t respond according to the desired script. The power of contrary choice has been given to God’s people, and they do not always respond as they ought to do.

But even more impressively, God has chosen to relate to his people in a loving manner wooing and winning their response. This picture of God comports with texts like John 3.16-17 which tells us that God’s heart is big, and that he does not desire (and has not predetermined) that anyone should perish. It comports with texts like 1 Tim. 2.1-6 which tell us that not only did Jesus die as a ransom for all the world, but that God desires that all come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. Thus, accordingly the concepts of election and salvation look differently when we understand that this is the character of the gracious Biblical God, and that his modus operandi is much as we find it to be in places like Hosea 11 or 1 Timothy 2.1-6.

This however brings us to a crucial point. The OT says very little about the coming messiah, and yet on almost every page of the NT, Jesus takes center stage. I would suggest that there could be no clearer proof that we are not merely dealing with the gestation of religious ideas over time. NT theology is not merely a natural development of OT theology, though there is considerable overlap, and the same can be said about the ethics in the NT compared to the ethics in the OT.

Something happened in space and time to change the thought world of numerous early Jews who ended up writing books of the NT. That something was the coming of the historical Jesus and the impact he had on these Jews. To study NT theology and ethics and leave Jesus out of the equation, or relegate him and his teaching to a presupposition for, or addendum to, NT thought is a huge mistake, and we strove to avoid that mistake in these volumes.

The person, work, teaching and impact of Jesus are the chief reasons for the differences between the OT and NT thought worlds. Of course the NT writers pick up the Jesus ball and run with it in several different creative directions, but it is Jesus who is the catalyst for all that is going on theologically and ethically in the NT. This is why, in my view, it is beyond comprehension that one would attempt to examine NT theology or ethics and leave Jesus and the Jesus tradition out of consideration or treat it last as Caird does, as if it had little impact on figures like Paul or James or Peter, and as if they were simply doing theologies all on their own after the fact, politely ignoring the teachings and life of their founder. While it is a challenge to show the relationship between the thought world of Jesus and that of his followers, it is not an impossible one as we have tried to show in this study.

Perhaps here a schematic will help us conceptualize both the relationship and the overlap between the OT thought world and the NT one.
(Here in the book there is a picture of three overlapping circles).

This purely symmetrical representation of the relationship is a bit lopsided if we are talking about the historical realities of the situation. The overlap between the OT and NT thought worlds is greater than the overlaps between the OT and the ANE thought world or the NT and the Greco-Roman thought world, but still one gets the picture. The overlap between the OT and NT symbolic universe is considerable, but does not consist of a majority of the material we find in the NT, precisely because so much of what we find in the NT is generated out of the Christ event, something that obviously enough did not affect any of the OT writers.
Or again the overlap between the OT and the ANE thought world is considerable as is the NT and Greco-Roman thought world (at both the level of theology and ethics) but it is less than the overlap between the OT and NT. If we are to ask what lies at the very center of the diagram where all the circles intersect the answer must be of course the profound concern for both some form of God talk or religion, and some form of ethical norms related to the God-talk. Both the Biblical monotheistic culture and the polytheistic culture were profoundly concerned with the divine and its influence on the world of humanity, and were profoundly interested in what sort of behavior and belief satisfied the divine demands on human life. In all of these cultures priests, temples, and sacrifices were at the heart of the divine-human exchange. Christianity offered something new in suggesting that the time had arrived where literal temples and sacrifices, and the priests who attended them were no longer necessary. God had been propitiated once and for all, and sin had been expiated once and for all, and a people had been delivered once and for all, and this changed the whole concept of religious life and what amounted to true piety.

Furthermore, there would be no more talk of a monarchial succession of kings—Jesus was the final monarch who would have no successors, the Son of Man who would personally rule forever in a forever kingdom according to Dan. 7.13-14. And last but not least, there would not be a mere holy land. Christians were not worried at all about a doctrine of the Land or a particular holy spot, for Christ was coming back to reign the entire earth. No doctrines of Torah, Temple, or Territory would be reaffirmed in their original senses in the new covenant, and yet this did not mean that there was an abandonment of the concept of laws and norms, or the concept of temples or priests, or the concept of a reign upon the earth.

What changes is that all these concepts are now processed through the Christ event and its implications. It will be the Law of Christ, the people as his sanctuary/ temple/dwelling place, and Christ’s return to rule the whole earth that will be the transmutation we find in the NT. What is interesting about this is that there is both a spiritual and an eschatological dimension to this transformation. Clearly enough it was believed that Jesus would literally come back and literally reign upon the earth, though he would not be rebuilding any temples. The sacred zone would extend throughout the earth and worship in spirit and truth anywhere would be true worship. Yet also, all believers, male and female can be said to be already, here and now, enlisted in Christ’s new priesthood, and they can indeed offer spiritual sacrifices of self and praise to God, all the while viewing their own bodies and the Body of Christ as temples—the places were Christ dwells.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Christian movement really was something radical in this regard if a Greco-Roman person was evaluating things, for it placed far more emphasis on belief and ethical behavior and far less emphasis on rituals performed correctly as being at the heart of the religion. It also promised far less this worldly benefits, and far more afterlife benefits, though most of them involve this world in its final transformed state. Salvation in the NT is often spoken of in terms of the final state of affairs, and not merely as some form of current healing, help, rescue, deliverance, though it could begin with such things, sometimes at conversion. In other words, when the language of God and salvation changes not merely in an eschatological direction but also in a Christological direction, then we are dealing with a profound refocusing of the symbol system.

Some long time ago James Dunn wrote an important book entitled Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. It has gone through various reprints and editions, and its essential thesis is that a range of diversity is found right within the NT canon. This is of course true. But what is less well emphasized in this study is the profound unity that is also shared by the NT documents, especially when it comes to Jesus. But one more point of importance is this—the diversity we find in the NT is not divergence or what might be called dueling banjos. Diversity yes, differences yes, radical disagreements and contradictions—no. There is a unity that does not amount to uniformity, a unity in harmony, not a monotone unity.

We do not have one author saying Jesus is the Son of Man, and another saying, no he is not. We do not have one author saying Jesus is the divine Son of God, and another saying no he is not. We do not have one author saying the Kingdom is breaking in, and others saying no its not. We do not have one author saying Gentiles must keep all the Mosaic Law, and another saying no they must not. The degree of diversity is not nearly so great as Dunn wants to make it out, and the degree of unity is more profound than he seems to allow. There is a reason for this. The authors of the NT are, as we have already said, all part of a small minority sect that is well connected and highly networked such that there was a basic agreement on many things in terms of theology and ethics, especially about the Gospel and Jesus. There is already manifest in the NT a shared proto-orthodoxy about a variety of subjects, not least the importance of Jesus for salvation. We have no Marcionite or Gnostic authors of NT books not because of the later orthodoxy of the 4th century when the canonizing of the NT became finalized. It is because there were no such Christian writers or groups in the NT era, or if there were, they were treated as false teachers even then (see 1-3 John) and their writings were not shared between the Christian communities. More particularly, there were no apostles or original disciples of Jesus of such persuasions.

In short, we should expect no more diversity within the NT documents than we might find amongst the community documents at Qumran (and by community documents I mean their original documents, not merely their library books). All of the NT is written by Jews who were part of this movement with the possible exception of Luke, who seems likely to have been a God-fearer, perhaps with the author of 2 Peter being an exception. All of the NT books are in any case written then from a committed Jewish Christian perspective. The range of opinion on matters of right believing is not great. The range of opinion on most ethical issues is also not great. The range of opinion on matters of orthopraxy is somewhat more diverse.

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