Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn

The Use and Abuse of the Old Testament in the Christian Scripture - Henry Vander Goot

It is not out of proportion to the reality of the situation to speak today of a "crisis in biblical theology."1 Christian reflection today fails to view the scriptures as a single narrative whole. Modern theology seems unable to hold together in a positive, comprehensive, and coherent unity the Old and Ne w Testaments. Much so-called "pre-critical" theology assumes -- as does, for example, the Belgic Confession (Article IV) -- that the Word of God is contained in both the Old and New Testaments. But under modern pressures, the scriptures have been treated as disjecta membra, with grave consequences for the Old Testament in particular. Though a part of the canon, the Old Testament is widely depreciated, or sometimes reconstructed on exclusively New Testament bases.

Failing to properly appreciate the Old Testament and its relationship to the New poses some problems for Christian reflection which I shall discuss later. But at this point it is necessary to survey briefly the modern theological landscape and to delineate theological positions which tend to rob the Old Testament of its true significance for the Christian church.

Historically, the Lutheran tradition is first. Though Lutheranism has produced Ernst Kasemann's "canon within the canon" theology, which reduces the Word to the in loco justification is as understood by Martin Luther,2 Lutheranism itself is more complex. Rather than reducing the Word (contained in the Old and New Testaments) to a theme or motif found in the New, Lutheranism has traditionally placed divine wrath alongside divine mercy, law in sequence with the gospel. Thus, in Luther's theology the Old Testament performs a necessary and indispensable function: it precedes and clarifies the New. For the Lutheran tradition, gospel cannot be what it is, namely victory, except that there be forces to overcome. Just as light depends on darkness, so gospel depends on law, and New on Old.

But though Luther affirmed the law-gospel sequence (which Kasemann, for example, fails to do), that sequence was conceived dialectically. Since the gospel was proclaimed to have overcome and put away the law, the Old Testament has become merely a preliminary to the New. Specifically, the Old Testament has been interpreted over against the New. Viewing the Old Testament strictly as a Hebrew document, Anders Nygren, for example, places the Old squarely in antithesis with the Agape perspective of the New.3 Thus, the impact of the Lutheran conception on the Old Testament and its status has been negative. (I cite other theological positions that have failed to give full, positive status to the Old Testament in the biblical revelation. The influence of the Lutheran tradition on these even more dubious views should be kept in mind.)

A second theological position which devalues the Old Testament stems from the Enlightenment, liberalism, and historicism. Many factors have contributed to this devaluation, among which anti-Semitism is not the least significant. But the most crucial factor is, I believe, the historicist and Enlightenment idea of progress, according to which human consciousness has undergone a progressive development from a primitive fertility religion involving enslavement to natural powers to an ethical-moral awareness, or, as the nineteenth century theologians put it, to ethical monotheism. According to this view, biblical religion marks a final stage in this development.

But even within the biblical material a further progressive differentiation of consciousness is noticeable, represented by the advance of the Ne w Testament beyond the Old Testament and its mind. The latter, according to liberal theologians, has not taken full advantage of the distinction between morality -- the fulfillment of the moral law -- on the one hand, and religion and the infinite worth of the free human spirit on the other. But in the Ne w Testament, the consciousness of Jesus is indicative of that distinction and the advance to human freedom and autonomy which that distinction makes possible. Indeed, though the Old Testament overcomes nature viewed as a surd, biotic force, the New Testament overcomes nature viewed as objective consciousness and heteronymous law. Thus in liberalism the Old Testament still represents the enslavement of man to man. The New Testament represents man's liberation in more absolute terms.

Hence, liberalism, too, depreciated the Old Testament by application to the scriptures of its evolutionary conception of the emergence of religious consciousness from ethical awareness to idealized human freedom. In fact, the very ambiance of nineteenth century Germany fostered the neglect of the Old Testament. The heightened consciousness of freedom as exemplified by Jesus and his community was furthermore recapitulated, according to liberal theology, by the German people. Following Martin Luther, the German people committed itself to the struggle against Jewish legalism and French scientistic rationalism. It is in this frame of mind that German higher and historical critical scholarship of the Old Testament was first developed into an imposing discipline.4

The third Christian position deserving mention is the neo-orthodox school. Here a more complicated relationship to the Old Testament appears, especially in the theology of Karl Barth. Although Barth neither ignores the Old Testament nor assigns it an indispensable negative function in relationship to the New, he does not allow the Old Testament to stand on its own feet. That is, he accords it no significance in its own right.

For this claim I present as evidence Barth's redemptocentric method of biblical interpretation, of which a revealing example is his exegesis of the Genesis story of creation.5 It is not only the case for Barth that God creates the world through Christ, that he moves towards the world through his Son in order thereby to establish an orderly disposition and management of things. For Barth this action is very deliberately not distinguished from the work of election and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Barth, then, views Christ's work in creation as a work of saving responsiveness, i.e., under the aspect of the Second Article of the Apostolic Creed. According to Barth, right in the very first words of the story of creation we see that in God's act of creation, he protects the world from the threat of the primordial chaos power, from the danger of nicht sein, or das Nichtige. In this way Barth rebuilds the Old Testament, seriously violating those elements in the Old Testament narrative that seem to fall -- as to content -- outside of the salvation-historical message, or outside of the immediate consciousness of Israel. Creation becomes for Barth a foil through which the people of Israel gave evidence of their faith in the lordship of Jehovah more comprehensively than they did in any other story in the Old Testament. Instead of coming first in the Bible, the story of creation should, for Barth's tastes, stand much later in the narrative.

Notice in the above that I have not criticized Barth's recasting of the Old Testament and creation into something other than they are with the labels "christocentric" or "christomonistic." With Barth (and Calvin, for that matter) I believe that all things (both being and faith) are in Christ and that, therefore, the Old Testament itself calls for a Christological interpretation. The work of Christ cannot be restricted to the work of Jesus Christ in the redemption of the world. Christ the eternal Son of God has a cosmic, or creational, function too. That is, stressing classic trinitarianism, I follow Calvin's teaching that God the Father originates but Christ the eternal Son always reveals and mediates on behalf of the Father. "Even if man had remained free from all stain," says Calvin, "his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator."6 God moves towards the world only in and through the eternal logos. At this point the contribution of Barth can be appreciated in a general and formal sense.

However, in Calvin's theology this primary function of the eternal Son, the logos asarkos, is clearly distinguished from the work of election and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. On this point Calvin and Barth quite obviously differ. Calvin never views Christ's mediation in creation as a work of saving responsiveness, i.e., under the aspect of the Second Article. As Calvin argues, "We understand first that the name of Mediator applies to Christ not only because he took flesh or because he took on the office of reconciling the human race with God. But already from the beginning of creation he was truly Mediator because he was always Head of the Church and held primacy even over the angels and was the first born of all creatures (Ephesians 1:2; Colossians 1:15ff; Colossians 2:10)."7

There is then the rule of God over all the world and the angels through the Son. In Calvinist thought this rulership is called "the Kingdom of God," and its Christological equivalent, "the Lordship of Christ." These phrases indicate that from the beginning, before the fall, Christ was present as mediator. Only after the fall, because of sin, did this rule of God through the Son come to special expression in the church, where Christ the Lord of history performs his reconciling work, drawing the elect into fellowship. Outside of the sphere of the church, Christ always was and is Lord over all. But apart from the fellowship of belief there is no salvation and reconciliation.

Thus Calvin can distinguish the two orders of creation and reconciliation while at the same time viewing all of life as life in Christ the eternal Son. As David Willis has convincingly shown, there is in Calvin's theology a work of the Son that is not restricted to or exhausted by the humanity and flesh of Jesus Christ: the eternal Son has existence "also outside of the flesh" (etiam extra carnem). That is, Calvin subjects "the idea of mediation to two different nuances: mediation as reconciliation and mediation as sustenance." As reconciler, Jesus Christ came into the world because of the fall. But "as sustainer, the Mediator always was the way creation was preserved and ordered."8 Calvin's principle of unity in Christ thus does not force the trinitarian elements of the biblical narrative through the single funnel of the Second Article of the Apostles' Creed.

Finally, I would like to mention the evangelical interpretation of the Old Testament. Though this "position" is not as theologically explicit as the others, it is widespread in practice. Its hallmark is simply to ignore the Old Testament except for the moral codes it contains. To these codes the literalist and legalist mind remains attracted. The quarters of the evangelical world which have been theologically influenced by the Old Princeton School of Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield are an exception. In this tradition the Old Testament is an authoritative repository of infallible propositions, errorless with respect to every topic even obliquely touched on.

Generally, however, the Bible is identified in the evangelical tradition with the story and red-lettered words of Jesus. It gets reduced to its "central saving message," to use the words of certain of evangelicalism's recent spokesmen. The rest of the Bible, namely, masses of important Old Testament material, belong -- as Jack Rogers and Donald McKim have argued9 and as evangelical practice demonstrates -- to the Bible's fallible human and cultural form. It can be set aside without damage to any effort to determine the Word of God in the Bible.

None of the four positions I have mentioned so far accords the Old Testament an equal and fully authoritative status with the New. None accepts the Old Testament as a positive, indispensable revelation of God that is both continuous with the Ne w and its necessary prolegomenon. All fail to view the Bible comprehensively and affirmatively from beginning to end. None takes full interpretive advantage of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity when assessing the Bible, thus failing to see that scripture is a record of the works of God (and of men's responses to those works) from creation to consummation: from the work of the Father to the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit. All fail to see that the Bible is a total vision of reality, comprehending everything about life within the perspective of faith. All fail to see the Bible as universal history in the sense of Augustine's City of God and thus are unaware that that history is not itself a Heilsgeschichte but has a Heilsgeschichte within it. Each position tends to identify a single redemption-oriented element of the whole ongoing narrative with the narrative itself, thereby reducing the narrative's structural whole to some putative salvation-historical essence or center within the Bible. Not one understands that the theme, the fundamental motif, of the Bible is trinitarian, following the pattern "creation-fall, redemption, consummation."10

It appears that the one current within modern Christianity which overcomes the problems of the four positions I just briefly described is the Reformed, Calvinist tradition. It has granted full-fledged status to the Old Testament in complement with the New, for it regards the Old and Ne w together as constituting an unbreakable positive continuity that loses its meaning if one of its narrative elements is neglected, recast in the image of Heilsgeschichte, or pitted dialectically against the New as Nomos versus Agape.

Calvin himself set the pattern for this positive appropriation of the Old Testament into the Christian faith. He understood that the one Word, the revelation of God, is given in the Old-New sequence, emphatically not in either alone. Calvin claims in effect that the Old and Ne w say the same thing in substance and differ only as to form of management and administration. Old and New together present to us the one God who acts, has always acted, and will always act in covenant with us.11

Thus for Calvin the biblical witness is not salvation history, a law-gospel dialectic, or Nomos piety alongside of Agape faith; it is, rather, preeminently one Covenant history. Covenant is the overarching concept which holds Old and New Testaments together. The common term "testament," meaning covenant, is used to designate both "books." Showing the foundational character of the covenant idea, Calvinist theology speaks in particular of a Covenant of Works in creation. From the beginning, man's relationship to God is a covenantal one. Covenant belongs to the very nature and order of things. Covenant relationship and dependence do not appear on the scene for the first time after the fall into sin. The Bible represents from beginning to end a history of man's obedience and disobedience in the face of God's faithfulness in the covenant. The covenant dynamic is the all inclusive, dominant concept in terms of which every element of the biblical narrative -- including Jesus -- is interpreted by the Reformed, Calvinist theologian.12

Moreover, this positive conception of continuity in which Old precedes New and in which the one cannot be without the other (neither Old without Ne w nor Ne w without Old) determines the method of interpretation used in the Reformed tradition. Calvin scorned allegorical interpretation, attending closely to the so-called plain and simple sense in exegesis. In this regard his teacher was John Chrysostom. By his method Calvin stressed the replacement of allegory with typology.

Typology is closely related to repetition. This fact means specifically, for one thing, that events and persons as appearing in the biblical record do not represent earthly realities with heavenly meanings but rather types (beginning with Adam and Eve in creation) that will appear again and again in an ongoing, evolving narrative. The same situations and figures return repeatedly. New persons and events are described in terms of old ones in the Bible, (for example, Christ, the second Adam) and by the addition of each new event or person so described, a repetition occurs that contains progress and that presses on to a higher plain. (The idea of "progressive revelation" and the model of "promise and fulfillment" are subordinate dimensions of this method.)

Hence, what happens in "the below" of history does not signal "the above" but rather "the before" and "the after" in the ongoing development of scripture's narrative. As Hendrikus Berkhof has aptly put it: typology differs from allegory because "it does not think in terms of timelessness, but entirely in terms of history. For here the external is not a parable of the internal, but the earlier is a parable of the later, or better, the historical is like the Historical. Allegory looks inward, into the soul. Typology looks ahead, into history. That is, typology looks back into the past and there finds the key to the present and future in the encounters between God and the world."13

With its notion of covenant and method of typology, Reformed, Calvinist theology expresses its commitment to the Old Testament as a good and indispensable part of the Bible that has full-fledged, authoritative status with the New. To understand scripture, the various parts of scripture -- in this case Old and New -- are needed to refer to one another, for scripture is its own interpreter. Only when scripture is allowed to interpret itself in this way can certainty be produced and can analogy to autonomous reason and experience be brought under the just judgment it deserves. Hence Reformed theology, especially Dutch Reformed exegetical theology, suspects and avoids the modern biblical theological method of dissonance that places things in the Bible over against one another. Rather it prefers and practices the method of consonance, taking full advantage of the analogy of faith in its interpretation of the Bible.

The Reformed tradition thus also bears witness to the systematic theological relevance and necessity of a positive use of the Old Testament. For Calvin the Bible is its own interpreter. The Bible provides even the categories, interpretations, and structures whereby its saving message can best become known. In brief, for Calvin this framework of judgments and structures is especially closely related (1) to the revelation concerning creation in the Bible and (2) to the dependence of that revelation of creation upon the presence of the Old Testament in the canon. The following pages represent an effort to explore the systematic theological interrelationship and significance of these two claims.

Crucial to an elaboration of Calvin's position on the first point is, I believe, Calvin's own deliberate location of the doctrine of scripture in the first pages of his Institutes,14 which opens with an extremely long book on "The Knowledge of God the Creator." (Few theologians have noticed this peculiarity, and fewer still have bothered to consider its systematic importance. For example, if the Barthians were to attend to this matter, their redemptocentric interpretation of the Bible would be seriously jeopardized.) Unlike the scholastic tradition to which much of his theology is a critical response, for Calvin creation (God's existence as well as the origination and determination of being) is emphatically not knowable by unaided reason but belongs (as all things do!) to the perspective of revelation and faith. Everything belongs to the Christian faith-perspective. Therefore, right from the outset of the theological enterprise where we discuss creation, the world, experience, and man and what each of these are and ought to be as well as how we are to understand their origin and total meaningfulness, scripture becomes necessary. This fact does not mean -- as Barth supposes -- that everything is, therefore, purely gracious and in that sense purely christic, including creation and law. Rather this fact means that the purely gracious and christic in God's actions (das Heil) belong as one among many things to the perspective of faith, which encompasses also our understanding of being (das Sein) as such.

For Calvin, then, the Bible reveals not only a saving message, Jesus and our salvation, but also creation and law which are "first in the order right teaching requires." For a proper knowledge of both God and man, we are, according to Calvin, dependent upon the biblical revelation. Without it we flounder. And, therefore, even when not yet attending to "the proper doctrine of faith whereby men are illumined unto the hope of eternal life,"15 Calvin introduces scripture as an indispensable light unto our path and spectacles through which to see.

Scriptural revelation thus has minimally a two-fold purpose, or better, a two-fold content or word. Or, as Calvin himself puts it, scripture is a duplex cognitio Dei, a two-fold revelation of the knowledge of God.16 The Christian faith is not just a way of salvation, not just a religion of emergency. For the Christian revelation also speaks about the framework in terms of which the gospel must be understood and with which alone it is commensurate. For Calvin it is not possible for the gospel to be explained out of natural reason, unaided rumination on creation-reality, for such as are prone to do this exalt their own vanity. Furthermore, those that do this depend on themselves for a correct understanding of Christ -- nothing could vitiate the Word more! -- and finally remake Christ in the image and likeness of corruptible man. That an excellent defense be available to man for a correct understanding of Jesus and our salvation, scripture, specifically the Old Testament, provides us with the proper directives. For God's Word is not simply a proclamation of salvation from on high, bur also a Word about the nature of the world below into which (and in terms of which) the Word from on high is spoken.

The second point in this argument is the assumption that it is exactly on the Old Testament in scripture that we are dependent for our conception of man and the world.17 The story of creation -- the story of God's making and governance of all things -- is specifically important. Speaking of scripture as guide and teacher for anyone who would come to God the Creator, Calvin says:

There is no doubt that Adam, Noah, Abram, and the rest of the patriarchs with this assistance penetrated to the intimate knowledge of him that in a way distinguished them from unbelievers. I am not yet speaking of the proper doctrine of faith whereby they had been illumined unto the hope of eternal life. For, that they might pass from death to life, it was necessary to recognize God not only as Creator but also as Redeemer, for undoubtedly they arrived at both from the Word. First in order came that kind of knowledge by which one is permitted to grasp who that God is who founded and governs the universe. Then that other inner knowledge was added, which alone quickens dead souls, whereby God is known not only as the Founder of the universe and the sole Author and Ruler of all that is made, but also in the person of the Mediator as the Redeemer. But because we have not yet come to the fall of the world and the corruption of nature, I shall now forego discussion of the remedy. My readers therefore should remember that I am not yet going to discuss that covenant by which God adopted to himself the sons of Abraham, or that part of doctrine which has always separated believers from unbelieving folk for it was founded in Christ. But here I shall discuss only how we should learn from scripture that God, the Creator of the universe, can by sure marks be distinguished from all the throng of feigned gods. Then, in due order, that series will lead us to the redemption. We shall derive many testimonies from the New Testament, and other testimonies also from the Law and the Prophets, where express mention is made of Christ. Nevertheless, all things will tend to this end, that God, the Attificer of the universe, is made manifest to us in scripture, and that what we ought to think of him is set forth there, lest we seek some uncertain deity by devious paths.18

But the story in Genesis of creation is not the only thing that is important. Its very in conclusion in revelation, its very restriction to the perspective of faith, indicates that scriptural revelation consists not just in the word of salvation (kerygma) but also in the Word spoken to us as the Bible all along the way judges, evaluates, approves or disapproves man's response to the divine, direct address. Creation is thus not present just in Genesis 1. It is present throughout the Bible in the fact that the Bible records for us not just what God proclaims but also how -- whether rightly or wrongly -- men respond in their lives to that proclamation. That, too, belongs to the infallible Word of God and that, too, is creation, namely the creation and law of every human experience and character in scripture.

Scripture engages experiences, characters and human actions, and from its judgment of curse or promise of blessing -- whichever the case may be -- we learn about the world, its normative structures, and our proper response to God. Creation is not just the story about it in the Bible -- though that story is the indispensable foundation of every other appearance of "creation" in the Bible! Nor is creation simply the condition in which all biblical characters live. It is also the creation-reality in which we live today, now Creation is the truly universal element that links our lives with the Word spoken to men and women in the Bible so that finally the Word spoken to them is the Word spoken to men and women such as they are -- ultimately, the Word spoken to us.

Without the presence of experience -- the world, man, and ourselves -- in the Bible, the proper meaning of the message of salvation is up for grabs. The Bible is its own interpreter (sui ipsius interpres). The experience relative to which the message of salvation can alone be properly disclosed is not brought to the Bible but is depicted by the Bible itself. Not only the answers that the Bible offers but also the questions we ask of it are finally authored, not partly by us and partly by the Bible, but wholly by the Bible itself.

A Christianity that does not honor as fully as possible the Old Testament as the Word of God (as none of the first four positions outlined above do) is in danger of fashioning not only its own vision of reality but also its own message of salvation. Such Christianity runs the risk of imposing on the New Testament an alien structure of concreteness. It runs the risk, for example, of interpreting redemption as the undoing of creation, as flight from creation, as the self-correction of creation, or as super-ordinare to the purpose of creation.

In the history of Christianity such mistakes have been made. In fact the most persistent major problem of Christianity in the West has been its accommodation to prevailing, "natural" conceptions of order and experience. The New has been interpreted apart from the Old and has thus been interpreted, for example, spiritualistically, in Greek terms as the salvation of the immortal soul from the prison house of bodily existence; or, for example, materialistically, as the liberation of socio-economically poor classes from the rich. In the early church the battle over such distortion was fought in principle already against the Gnostics, and it was fought by the construction of an Apostolic Creed with three articles in which the one concerning the Father Creator comes first, and by the construction of a canon in which the Old Testament comes first and is given full authoritative status alongside the New.19 For the Early Church and for us, similarly confronted with syncretisms of many kinds, the Old is the only proper way into the New. Paul and Jesus are continuous with the Hebrew tradition.

In conclusion, I would simply repeat the Reformed claim that the Bible is its own interpreter. For Calvin this means that we know about creation and our condition only by faith. Moreover, sola scriptura means that scripture is a whole whose parts explain each other and that for a proper knowledge of ourselves and the world we are dependent especially upon the Old Testament as the foundation of the Christian faith content. It is to this part of the Bible alone that the disclosure of Jesus Christ is appropriate. Apart from it the entire story of the Bible becomes susceptible to transformation into an alternative and alien story about God, man and the world. Without the Old Testament within the canon, no vindication of the Word of God as it applies to our lives is possible. The whole house of Christian teaching rests upon the foundation of the Old Testament within the canon.


1 Cf. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970).

2 Cf. John Gibbs, Creation and Redemption (Leiden: Brill, 1971), pp. 67f. and 95f.

3 Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953).

4 Cf. Hans J. Ktaus, Geschichte der historisch-kritischen Erforscbung des Alten Testaments von Reformation bis zum gegenwart (Neukirchen, Germany: Neukirchener, 1956).

5 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 3 (Edinburgh: Clark, I960), pp. 349f.

6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, I960), Il.xii.l.

7 John Calvin, "Responsum ad Fratres Polonos," Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, 9:338.

8 E. David Willis, Calvin's Catholic Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1966), p. 70.

9 Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

10 On the distinction between a trinitarian and Christological interpretation of the Bible, see Amos N. Wilder, Keiygma, Eschatology and Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), pp. 15-16.

11 Calvin, Institutes, II.x.1-2. In the Reformed tradition this dimension of Calvin has been developed especially by the line running through Ames, Perkins, Cocceius, and Edwards.

12 For an example of how this interpretation is applied to the whole scripture, see Simon G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance (Dutch: Verbondsgeschiedenis), trans. H. Evan Runner and Elisabeth Wichets Runner, Vols. 1-4 (St. Catherines, Ontario: Paideia, 1977-).

13 Hendrikus Berkhof, Christ, the Meaning of History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1979), p. 111.

14 Calvin, Institutes, I.vi.-x.

15 Calvin, Institutes., I.vi.l.

16 Calvin, Institutes., I.ii.l.

17 Cf. for example, the argument of Walter Zimmerli [The Old Testament and The World, trans. John J. Scullion (Atlanta: Knox, 1976).

18 Calvin, Institutes, I.vi.l.

19 Cf. Gustav Wingren, Creation and Gospel (Toronto: Mellen, 1979), pp. 17-26. 

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