Sunday, January 24, 2010

About those quotations ...

Earlier I asked how the author of Hebrews knew that certain Old Testament passages referred to Christ. Some of the passages pretty much explain themselves -- since David wrote Psalm 110, according to the Lord Jesus himself:
He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him 'Lord'? For he says,
" 'The Lord said to my Lord:
      "Sit at my right hand
   until I put your enemies
      under your feet." '
Matthew 22:43-44
This one seems pretty plain -- who else could David possibly be writing about? Here, "my Lord" would have to be somebody with a position higher than David the King, and "The Lord" (in English Old Testaments this is usually rendered "The Lord said to my Lord") refers to God the covenant-maker and creator. Here "my Lord" pretty much has to be some sort of not-merely-human King.

Similar reasoning applies to Psalm 45:6-7: Although Psalm 45:1 says these verses are addressed to "the king", verses 6-7 are addressed to "God" (so we're not talking about King David or any of the other merely human kings -- not to mention that no merely human throne will last forever). And yet the passage also refers to "your God."

What about those other verses? And the larger question -- how should we read the Old Testament today? I don't have this 100% figured out, but I did find some articles from First Things magazine. One point to consider as we try to understand the Bible is our attitude toward the text. Creighton University Professor R.R. Reno wrote in "The Bible Inside and Out" (April 2008):

Modern scholars want to master the Bible. We can see this in their often smug conclusions. “Well,” we are told, “this or that biblical story is really about sustaining the ideology of the Jerusalem cult.” In contrast, religious readers want to be mastered.
(Professor Reno's article is a review of Professor James L. Kugel's 2007 book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now; I plan to check it out from the local library.)

Indeed we do! It is not wrong to ask what actually happened in some historical setting, but it is also important to ask what a particular passage might mean to us -- which is not limited to what its original readers would have understood it to mean. Thus when Matthew describes the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and quotes Hosea 11:1, or Hebrews 1:5 quotes 2 Samuel 7:14 about Solomon, the New Testament authors aren't simply taking the words of Scripture as they would have been understood in their original (centuries-old) historical context. Rather, they were interpreting them allegorically. But as University of Virginia Professor Robert Louis Wilken writes:

Allegory fell on hard times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the charm of beloved works of English literature such as Spenser's Faerie Queene and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress lies in the imaginative use of allegory, biblical scholars banished the term from their vocabulary.

The root meaning of allegory is that there is another sense, another meaning, besides the plain sense. Sarah and Hagar are not simply names of the wives of Abraham; they also signify two covenants, one associated with Sinai and the other with the Jerusalem above. The rock in the desert that Moses struck and from which water flowed is not simply a rock; it is also Christ.

Allegory is not distinctive to Christian exegesis of the Old Testament. It was used by Greek literary scholars in the ancient world to interpret the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and it was employed by Jewish thinkers—for example, Philo of Alexandria—to interpret the Pentateuch.

Christian allegory has similarities to this kind of allegory, but what sets it apart is that it is centered on Christ. Allegory in Christian usage means interpreting the Old Testament as a book about Christ. St. Ambrose wrote: “The Lord Jesus came and what was old was made new.” Everything in the Scriptures is to be related to him. As a medieval commentator put it, “All of divine scripture is one book, and that one book is Christ, because all of divine scripture speaks of Christ, and all of divine scripture is fulfilled in Christ.”

Robert Louis Wilken, "How to Read the Bible"
First Things, March 2008
I hope you'll read the entire article, as it's currently online. Wilken's point is supported by the Apostle Paul: For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4).

Allegory, particularly the view that the entire Bible is about Christ, is still having a hard time. Professor Reno, as general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, sought authors in theologians rather than Biblical scholars. A few remarks have come from these scholars:

In a review, Pauline Viviano denounced the “spurious typologies” in Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, ending with the stern admonition that “commentaries on the Bible should be left to biblical scholars.” No trespassing!

Philip Cary’s commentary on Jonah apparently disturbed another biblical scholar, Barbara Green. “The book,” she wrote, “features Jesus on virtually every page.” Shocking, simply shocking. This clearly needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities.

R.R. Reno, "Recovering the Bible", First Things Online, February 2009

I don't want to sound overly pietistic, but for Christ's sake (literally!) let's please remember the point: Jesus Christ is the one hope of the world, and the Bible tells us about Him. As the Lord Jesus Christ himself said:

"You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you'll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren't willing to receive from me the life you say you want.
The Bible's main purpose is to tell us of Christ; it is not Christ's main purpose to tell us of the Bible. So let's seek him first, as he told us to.

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