Monday, January 18, 2010
Anyone who does not ask these questions has never really read the Old Testament. One Christian bishop who asked these kinds of questions early in the history of the church was Marcion. Marcion found that the God of the OT seemed immoral and brutal and had nothing to do with the the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Marcion has since gotten a bad rap, being often dismissed as a heretic, but he has a point. Unlike many people today who simply dismiss him, the church father Origen, who disagrees with Marcion' proposal of ditching the OT, nevertheless recognizes the validity of his point. Origen complins that both "heretics" like Marion as well as more "simple minded" Christians hold a view of God based on the OT which
"would not be entertained regarding the most unjust and cruel of men" (De Principiis 4.5). If we look today, find the same is true: both fundamentalists as well as atheists read the OT and see in it a monstrous picture of God.
So what is the alternative? How did Origen read the OT? More importantly, how did Jesus read the OT in which he saw his loving Abba Father who he says "loves his enemies" (Mt 5:34-48)? I'd like to propose a way for us to read the OT. It's very simple actually - we simply need to read the OT in the light of Jesus. Let me give an example of what that might look like:
Jesus applies the story of Passover to his own death, and from this we can gain a lot of insight into how he understood the cross. But the same time the cross is very different from the Exodus. The Exodus is about God's people being liberated out of bondage, but it comes about through violence and force, and is waged not against evil itself, but other human beings. So the way Jesus understands the Exodus means its reversal at the same time as it means its fulfillment. The same can be said for pretty much every story in the OT. Take David and Goliath where we have your basic "little guy overcomes the big bad bully" story. In the end it still promotes overcoming enemies through violent force though. Reading this in the light of the NT we might ask how the little guy David might have applied love of enemies and Paul's principle of "overcoming evil with good."
In other words, we cannot simply read the OT as Christians and assume that it gives us a true picture of God. In the OT we see at best a "dim Christ," but God's true nature is only fully revealed in Christ. To read the OT right, we need to read it through the interpretive lens of the NT, we need to lay every story at the foot of the cross and ask how it is transformed, redeemed, and reversed by the cross. This is precisely how we see Jesus reading the OT himself. He says he has come "fulfill the law" but in doing so he reverses it, turning the ethic of genocide and war of "hate your enemies" into "love your enemies". While in the OT we see the prophet Elijah call down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Ki 1:10), Jesus rejects this outright. When his disciples ask him "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them, as Elijah did?" (Lk 9:54) Jesus rebukes them "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." (Lk 9:55-56 NASB). Let me underline what Jesus says here: what kind of spirit you are of. There are really only two options here. Either we read the OT with the spirit of Christ, or we read it with another spirit, and as a result see in the OT a God of violence and hate.
This is admittedly a radical way to read the OT, but I submit to you that this is exactly how Jesus read his Bible. It is also how Paul and the other Apostles read it, and how Origen and the early church read it. So it is a deeply orthodox New Testament way to read our Bibles faithfully. It is also a life-giving way of reading Scripture that does not turn a blind eye to the abuse of power and violence propegated in the name of religion, but exposes it and redeems it in Jesus name. I think it is time that we recovered this way of reading.