Marcionism & Churches of Christ Or What Use REALLY is the "Old Testament?"Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History
Sometimes, I must confess, I feel like putting some disciples in Churches of Christ on the witness stand and have them place their hand on the “book” and say “I promise to believe the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book.”
We in Churches of Christ claim to hold firmly to the Bible as not only inspired but also authoritative. We demand (on most issues anyway) ‘book, chapter and verse.’ A problem frequently arises, however, when either the book, chapter or verse comes from the so-called “Old Testament.”
When we speak of the authority of the Bible what is often meant is simply the authority of the Epistles … I speak hyperbolically but it is not far from the mark in reality. Churches of Christ have denied the charge of “not believing in the Old Testament” yet on a practical level one wonders if the charge is completely amiss.
In my next series of blogs, I want to explore two things. First I want to try to understand our hermeneutic and why and how it guts three-fifths of the Bible in shaping our self-understanding as the people of God. Second I do not want to simply be a critic rather I want to point to why the “OT” (Hebrew Bible) is essential to our faith and life in the kingdom of God. Thus I will be looking at some theological matters, deconstructing some exegetical arguments sometimes used to limit the “force” of the “OT” and I will be pointing to applications matters that hopefully some shepherds, deacons, Sunday School teachers … and some preachers will have to deal with and then robustly teach.
Not a New Concern
This matter has been a passion with me for a long time. Even in college some of my friends labeled me an “Old Testament Christian.” But the impetus for this series is none other than renowned restoration biblical scholar John William McGarvey. For most informed people in Churches of Christ McGarvey needs no introduction.
McGarvey published a small Guide to Bible Study near the end of the 19th century. The book is, in my opinion, largely useless (I know I am being harsh). The notes are lacking and unhelpful. However the book was used by McGarvey in training preachers and church leaders. It was important to JWM to pay careful attention which “dispensation” a book or text is in. McGarvey at times simply does not know what to do with the “Old Testament.” He is bewildered by some of the books. I call attention to his comments on the Song of Songs … which was the straw that broke the camel’s back for these blogs:
“The Song of Songs. The title which this short poem assigns itself is, ‘The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s’ (i.1). If there is any book in the Bible which found a place in it by a mistake or misjudgment of those who put the inspired book together, it must be this; for it is so totally unlike all the rest that it is difficult to see what connection it can have with the general design of the whole. Many interpreters have affected to find in it a parabolic meaning, and even a foreshadowing of the love of the Church of Christ; while others have regarded it as nothing more than a love-song with a very obscure connection of thought. According to either view it has afforded little edification to the great majority of Bible readers; and unless some significance can be found in it hereafter which has not yet been pointed out, it will continue to be but little read, and of but little practical value.” (my italics).
This is McGarvey’s entire interpretation of the Song and it is wholly negative. But this is in line with his evaluation of the OT as a whole.
A number of thoughts come to mind as I reflect on McGarvey’s subtle Marcionism. First is that he has utterly failed to grasp the Song precisely because of the inherited Greek glasses that he reads the Bible through. The Song is an ascetic and neo-gnostic nightmare! The Song, far from being out of sync with the “general design” of the Bible, squares perfectly with a Hebraic worldview. The Song celebrates the created world as a gift of grace. It tells us that God did not make a mistake when he made human beings in the “flesh,” in fact it is GOOD to be a human. It relishes creation and specifically that part that many in the Christian tradition have founid offensive (including McGarvey). The Song echoes Edenic goodness and says that desire, even “erotic” desire is itself good and holy. The Song is the flashpoint of how Platonic dualistic “spirituality” and biblical “Spirituality” simply are incompatible but Western Evangelical traditions are deeply invested in the Platonic view. That is why McGarvey could not see the value of it nor in fact for much of the Hebrew Bible.
Second one wonders if McGarvey had heard of either Rabbi Akiba or Bernard of Clairvaux? The Rabbi believed that the Song was the “holy of holies” of Scripture and Bernard spent eighteen years reading, “munching,” praying, and preaching the Song … and only making it to the beginning of chapter 3. The Song is part of the Passover liturgy and it most certainly edifies those who open themselves up to the passion with with God calls us to embrace life.
There are many things more to say about the Song and I may return to them. But the Song for now has provided a brief restoration window to how “we” have reacted so negatively to a book of the Bible … even to the point of saying the “inspired” folks made a mistake in including it.
The things we can embrace when our filters refuse to allow our beliefs to be challenged. Did it ever occur to McGarvey that perhaps, just perhaps, rather than the Song being out of place it was his perceived (and prejudiced) pattern for the “design” of the Bible that was the mistake and misjudgment. I am grateful for McGarvey but I think the editors were right and he was wrong.
Let’s embrace the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book … let it rattle our cage and shatter our cherished beliefs.
My friend Frank Bellezzi has posted, this morning (Dec 7) a thoughtful piece called Rehabilitating the Old Testament that is worthy of thought.
P.S. For those seeking a thoughtful interpretation of the Song then I recommend Carey Ellen Walsh’s Exquisite Desire: Religion, The Erotic, and the Song of Songs (Fortress Press 2000).
Walsh’s book, like the Song, is not for the faint hearted but if you want some serious insight into the Song then there are few better contemporary writers. This does not mean I endorse all of Walsh’s views … but she takes the Song seriously and it spirituality. I find it refreshing.