Monday, November 19, 2007

Two Paths Through the Old Testament

Advent 2007 hovers on the horizon, and I am planning this year’s music of judgment, hope, and expectation for my congregation. This particular Advent, parishes in the Episcopal Church will be adopting the Revised Common Lectionary, instead of the more traditional lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It was voted by General Convention, and so it shall be.

At first glance, the lessons for the four Sundays in Advent don’t seem that different from what we heard before. The main difference comes during the long season that stretches from Pentecost to Advent, the beginning of the next liturgical cycle.

On these Sundays, two sets of Old Testament lessons are made available. One is traditional, with the Old Testament passage chosen to highlight some aspect of the Gospel reading for the day. The other is, well, not new-fangled, but different. It provides for a more continuous reading of the key Old Testament stories so that preachers have the opportunity to expound their way through the stories of Abraham and Joshua and David—and Deborah and Ruth, as well. The profile of the women of the Old Testament has been raised.

Some have complained about disconnecting the Old Testament reading from the Gospel reading, and their complaint has good grounds. Ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, Jesus' followers have read the Hebrew Scriptures through the window of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Luke 24 tells how the risen Christ explained the Scriptures to two followers who did not yet have eyes to see.

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Compare that to John 5, where Jesus tells his contemporaries:

39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Early Christians adopted that filter in their reading of the Hebrew Bible, even before they had assembled the various Letters and Gospels into what would become the New Testament. Look at the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, and you will see that their fundamental message was based on the way Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the words of the prophets. This sometimes required them to read the Law and the Prophets and the Writings typologically, so that something that is said of Aaron or David or Melchizedek is applied to Jesus.

This was not, by the way, foreign to contemporary Jewish ways of reading the text. If something was true of the archetypal King David or Prophet Moses, how much more would it be true of Messiah, went the shape of the argument. It is this kind of reading of Scripture that Bob Webber urged us to recover in The Divine Embrace (see p. 127ff). The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future does not address typology explicitly, but it critiques its opposite when it speaks of “modern methods” that “compartmentalize God's story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God's entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ.”

So the traditional lectionary, which selected an Old Testament reading to match some part of the Gospel story, was following this early Christian way of seeing the Hebrew Bible.

From Typology to Warning

But the typological/messianic reading is not the complete picture of how the New Testament writers viewed the Old. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul writes that the stories of Israel’s failures were written as ethical warnings.

11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

And in the famous 2 Timothy passage on the nature and purpose of Scripture, the writer once again focuses on the ethical (on praxis, if you will).

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Not all apostolic reflection on the Hebrew Scriptures was Christological, though Christology was the central filter through which they read the text. Their reflection was also ethical, treating the stories of vice and virtue and of God’s faithfulness in both judgment and mercy, as pointers to how we should live.

The more continuous Old Testament stories presented in the Common Lectionary will prove more preachable for this secondary purpose—as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Not that we need more moralizing, particularly in evangelical pulpits. But both approaches to the Old Testament are needed. Evangelicals do a better job of reading the stories as cautionary tales than we do of expounding Christ in all the Scripture.

So let me urge my fellow evangelicals to polish the lenses of our Christological spectacles and learn to look for Jesus in the book that he said “testifies” of him (John 5). The moralism doesn’t help us see the overarching narrative of God’s work in the world. The Christological vision does.

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