Saturday, January 18, 2014

In accordance with the scriptures...

The spring semester of the Candler OT intro class overviews the prophetic writings. I recently read several student surveys in which students stated their hope that they will learn about the relation of OT prophecy and Jesus. This has caused me to revisit old, amorphous thoughts about (in the watchword of the Apostles Creed) Jesus’ “accordance” with the OT.

I don’t know what the students are bringing in with them by way of expectation. I imagine that some of them will be disappointed when lectures and readings demonstrate that key prophetic texts the NT applies to Jesus already possessed a comprehensible meaning in the contexts of their first reception. The virgin daughter of Isaiah 7:14 provided a time signature for Assyrian domination (Mt 1:23). The people who lived in darkness and saw a great light may have referred to the coronation of a Judean king (Mt 4:16). The actions of casting lots and counting bones in Psalm 22 comprised intense complaint language. In other words, these and so many other OT passages were not texts waiting like empty keyholes for Jesus to come along and unlock them. Many or most were not understood predictively in their own times. Furthermore, their interpretation as predictive finds parallel in the reading practices of the Qumran community. There, too, a Jewish sect that saw itself as living in the end times treated the OT like a code, which, when decrypted, exactly narrates their community’s experiences. The effect, rhetorically, is to shore up the group’s sense of equilibrium against setbacks and shame. Reading these out of Scripture turns them from chance defeats into manifestations of God’s will from all eternity. This, too, sounds like the NT’s use of the OT. 

But historical consciousness deals a deathblow to this simple view of OT prophecy. This is no small loss! At stake is the relationship of the two testaments to one another, and the legitimacy of Christian claims about Jesus as the embodiment of God’s formerly attested will. At present, a cottage industry of NT specialists is dedicating itself to resuscitating some theologically charged version of typology: the argument is that, although the language of OT prophets does not refer straightforwardly and directly to Jesus, it “echoes” forward, as it were; Jesus lies very much within its trajectory.

There may be some merit to that sort of heady defense of, say, Matthew and Paul’s OT citations (which otherwise can look pretty undisciplined). My own instinct about the matter says that the nature of Jesus’ accordance with the OT cannot be found at such a “lexical” level. That is, his correspondence to God as known in the OT probably doesn’t reside in the specifics of his birth, his betrayal, the number of days he was interred. Rather, Jesus fulfills the OT will of God at a “grammatical” level: in the “deep structure” of his ministry, murder, and deathless new life. Spotting the conformity of Jesus to the OT does not require a lexicon of individual texts but a sense of the warp and woof of the entire former testament.

I haven’t ever really tried to articulate this conviction before, publically. What I mean is this: Jesus’ ministry embodies the OT God because in the historical works, God is always faithful to raise up a voice to challenge the people’s complacency and oppression. Jesus’ works of mercy embody the OT God because in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, God makes a way out of no way for the desperate widow and the childless mother; because in thanksgiving psalms, God leads the homeless to a home and the hungry to plenty; because in the legal materials, God watches out for the defenseless and vulnerable. Jesus’ proclamation of God in search of the lost embodies the OT God because in the exilic prophets, God’s fidelity gathers the displaced objects of his anger. Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and sinners embodies the OT God because in the prophets, God is a God of pathos, who suffers with his broken people. Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies the OT God because all the prophetic works feature judgment oracles followed by prophesies of restoration; God’s wrath always precedes God’s greater, deeper healing. The participation of believers in Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies the OT God because in the tales of the monarchies, the fate of God’s people depends on the fidelity of God’s representative, the king; they thrive when he obeys. The call of God’s people to be a worshipping community embodies the OT God because in the priestly writings, the holy God dwells at the center of the encampment; because the psalms thrill everywhere with the praise of God. This is all quite imprecise, I know, but I think that in these and a thousand other ways, the events of Jesus’ life resonate with the deep structure of the OT.

This matters to me not because the legitimacy of Jesus as the image of the invisible God hangs in question. Rather, the logic works the other way: I fear that Christians are increasingly unable to use the language of the OT wholeheartedly. One of my professors, Brent Strawn, is slated to release a book later this year on why The Old Testament is Dying (Baker Academic, 2014). In it, he uses the extended metaphor of language death to describe the situation of the OT in the churches. Before they are abandoned permanently, languages enter a phase of terminal illness, recognizable by pidginization with other, dominant forms. This is, on his read, the condition of the OT in much Christian preaching (and thinking!). One way to remedy this prognosis, in my view, is to re-connect the OT with language that is already meaningful to communities of faith. If important NT themes or characteristics of Jesus’ life still meaningfully excite contemporary Christians, then these are also potential avenues through which the OT could regain significance for them, since it is the theological bedrock and inspiration of the second testament. 


  1. Yes. Good stuff. I think the "lexical" details support or even create the "grammatical" level of meaning--for example in Matthew 2, the slaughter of the innocents and the coming out of Egypt narrate Christ as a type of Moses, bringing new liberation from oppression for his people.

    Funny, in writing this comment I re-read the chapter, thinking "well, this isn't really a question of prophecy, more of historicity," but wouldn't you know, both of those events are said to fulfill a passage from the Prophets.

  2. This is great Colin. Replacing the the idea of a sort of prophetic checklist, and understanding Jesus as fulfilling the vocation of Israel's God (this is how I understand it, not necessarily how you stated it; don't want to speak for you) and the apostles then re-reading the OT texts in light of Jesus, with a kind of Christocentric imagination, has been helpful.