7 Jan 2017

The New or Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Part 1)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Martin Luther

Introductory Quote from Gerhard von Rad

““It seems paradoxical: Perhaps there was never a time when the attentiveness to the message of the Old Testament was as urgent as ours {i.e look at the Nazis!}. The Old Testament stands as the most faithful guard to the doors of the New Testament, and it assures us that the breadth and fullness of the message of Christ … The exclusion of the Old Testament has inevitably as its consequence a distortion and curtailment of the New Testament message of Christ … There are certainly many ways into the New Testament  {wrong ones!!}. But the era seems to be past in which each could see his honor, could have found his own private way. There is only one way that leads into the holy of holies of the New Testament, and that is the way over and through the Old Testament” (“The Christian Understanding of the Old Testament,” delivered on June 13, 1944. It was a daring speech in Nazi Germany).

The Old Protestant Perspective on the Hebrew Bible

Many believe that no teaching or trend in Church history has influenced them. They assert, vociferously, that they simply read the Bible. They have never read Martin Luther, Alexander Campbell or R. L. Whiteside and will declare they “do not care what they said.”

Yet this is rather naive.  Westerners are radically impacted by Galileo, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Jefferson and a host of other thinkers every day of our lives even though most have not read any of these lights of western civilization.

I had a former teacher once say those very words. Then when asked about a certain position, he reached up on the shelf and pulled down a Spiritual Sword lectureship volume … he never grasped the irony (and I didn’t either for a long time).

But for good or ill, the impact of Martin Luther on Protestant attitudes toward the Bible (including the Stone-Campbell Movement) is incalculable. The very shape of the Bible held in the hands of Protestants in 2017 is from Luther (well, money making Bible societies are the ones that got rid of the Middle Testament in the 19th century though).

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was hammered out in conflict with medieval Roman Catholic scholastic theologians.  To make a long story short, Luther came up with a “law vs Gospel” hermeneutic. Luther retrojected his contemporary definition of “law” back onto both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Those medieval Roman Catholics were suddenly stand-ins not only for the Pharisees and Jews in general, but Moses and the “Old Testament.

The legalistic and ritualistic form of late medieval Catholicism was imposed effortlessly upon the Jews of Jesus’s day, the religion of works righteousness that Paul was fleeing from, and the heart of the Old Testament itself. The ritualism, heartless, legalism of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism of Jesus’s day became a “given.”

A “given” is an assumption that never warranted any investigation of the evidence.

Luther simply superimposed his own religious struggle with medieval Catholicism upon Paul, especially his writings in Galatians and Romans. Luther was fleeing a holy and wrathful God and he simply assumed that this was the case with Paul and what Jesus came to rescue us from.  Luther’s legacy in Protestantism is beyond measure.  All Protestants simply assumed Luther’s hermeneutical categories. These, after 500 years, have become part of the DNA of most western forms of Protestant Evangelical expressions of Christian faith.

Immediately the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was defined as ritualistic. The Old Testament was by definition a “system” of works to save one’s self.  It was LAW! (but what was the meaning of the word “torah” within the context of Hebrew scriptures?) Now, Luther continued to value the “Old Testament.” He believed mightily in the Psalms and that the OT as a whole was the “Word of God.”  Yet it was essentially a foil for the message of grace and faith in Paul, as he understood Paul.

Luther’s view is significantly different from the early Church when it comes to the “Old Testament.” Though there was plenty of “anti-semiticism” in the Church Fathers, they did not simply equate either the “Law” with the “Old Testament” nor as inherently legalistic or a means to self-salvation. 

For over a hundred years after the resurrection of Jesus, no one ever heard of the phrase “Old Testament” for starters (Melito of Sardis invented the term near the end of the second century). For a very engaging and readable introduction to how the early Church appropriated the Hebrew Bible see Ronald Heine’s Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought.

For the Father’s, the “Old Testament” was essential for the Spiritual formation of God’s People. Irenaeus is pretty typical here.  He understood Christian existence as a narrative, the Story that we find ourselves in.  Irenaeus and the Fathers took Paul, ironically, as their model in 1 Corinthians 10.  New Covenant Christians are part of the same story as the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness.  Thus the the Scripture that tells their story, is also the story we are in.

So the early Church believed that to pray with Christ and in the Spirit was to pray the Psalms (both Paul and Hebrews say it is Christ speaking in the Psalms) especially. Even though Moses was a great “lawgiver” he taught Christian discipleship (see Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Life of Moses). What became to be called “the Old Testament” was not inherently legalistic. There are parts Gentile believers are not bound to because of where we are in the Story. But the Law of Moses was not a system of legalism. It was after all the Father of Jesus that we read of there and it is the Scripture of Jesus and even “Paul.”

Luther combined the historic anti-semiticism of western Christianity with his antipathy toward medieval Catholicism to begin a new approach to reading the “Old Testament” and thus Paul and Jesus’s debates with the Pharisees.  This was inherited and inculcated among Protestants yielding some of the most horrendous Satanic results in history.  Nazism is the ultimate offspring of this hermeneutic, a hermeneutic that has little correspondence to the Hebrew Bible itself and the reality of Jews in Jesus’s day nor of Paul himself.

Anytime you read or hear an Evangelical/Restorationist say “oh that is Jewish legalism” or “that smacks of law and self-righteousness” … the spirit of Luther is being channeled just as surely as if the person was in a seance.

The New/Renewed Perspective on the Hebrew Bible

Because of Luther, Protestantism developed nearly an antipathy for the Hebrew Bible.  In ministerial training this is seen classically in that so many ministers were required to take Greek and Latin but not Hebrew.  Seventy-six percent of the Bible is written in Hebrew and less than 24% in Greek.  But none in Latin!

The “Old Testament” continued to serve a negative function.  So preachers followed the Protestant theologians of the day by identifying the religion of Israel largely through the lens of the semi-pagan scholasticism of the medieval Roman church. The Law of Moses was the quintessence of legalism and antithesis of “Pauline” justification by faith apart from works.

So scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher declared that the Hebrew Bible in fact “depicted another religion” altogether [1].  This attitude I have heard many times in various shades. Rudolf Bultmann characterized the history of Israel as a “miscarriage” or a “history of failure” that provides no meaningful relevance to Christianity. This attitude also has multiple reincarnations in Restoration hermeneutics.

The result of this perspective, that posits a massive chasm of DISCONTINUITY between the Testaments, has turned Paul into a Platonic thinker and Jesus into a Stoic philosopher.  As noted the ultimate consequence of this perspective is to De-Jewed Jesus and has painted Judaism as the off spring of Satan giving rise to the justification of unspeakable horror in Nazi Germany.  And though the Holocaust took place in Germany, smaller Holocausts have taken place across the board in Europe with the same justification.

Even ideas in theology have consequences in real history beloved. See my blog The Aryan Jesus, Part 2

But Luther was wrong.  Protestantism has been wrong.

The early church was right!

It was within the context of Nazi Germany itself that a Lutheran scholar named Gerhard von Rad, finally said we have gotten off track. What was going on in Nazi Germany was prepared for by the Protestant Old Testament hermeneutic. The words of von Rad at the head of this blog were daring words in their historical context. The problem is that over a half-century later many Evangelical/Restorationists still operate within the flawed Lutheran hermeneutic.

American scholar, G. Ernest Wright, shortly after the War, published an epic study called God Who Acts.  Though in retrospect this book too has its flaws, it had going for it that it took the Hebrew Bible itself seriously.  Rather than a “miscarriage” the Hebrew Bible is a book of “salvation history.”  The Hebrew Bible is the history of grace. Yahweh is the God who “acts” to redeem Israel.  God saves, Israel gets saved!

Studying the Hebrew Bible does not take us back to medieval Catholicism rather it takes us to the dynamic faith of Jesus of Nazareth himself.  Israel’s faith is not a matter of ritual requirement rather it is a matter of CONFESSION of the acts of God on our behalf. But Wright did not stop there.  He took this perspective and said it is the that of the New Testament!

So the Hebrew Bible is not just necessary background for the church but itself provides the framework of the Christian gospel.  And channeling the early Church, Wright argues that the “Old Testament is the bulwark of the church against paganism.”

Exodus Comes Before Sinai … Grace Comes Before Faith

When the Hebrew Bible speaks of “law” it does not speak of a means of a Jew saving herself or himself.

By grace God created the world.
By grace God called a pagan named Abram.
By grace God called a murderer named Moses
By grace God heard the cries of the children of Israel in slavery
By grace God defeated the “gods of Egypt” and delivered his people … without Israel doing a single thing
By grace God split the Red/Reed Sea and brought Israel thru … without Israel doing a thing except complain
By grace God carried worthless slaves “on eagles’ wings” to himself
By grace God saved Israel in the Exodus before he asked them to do a single solitary thing

The Book of Exodus details the “mighty acts of God” in the salvation of Israel for 15 chapters. The Exodus is dominated by the “divine indicative.” What did Israel do to earn her salvation? Nothing!  They were “chosen.”   Why? Because they were so worthless to the Egyptians they were being tossed to the crocodiles.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD  set his heart on you and chose you–for you were the fewest of all people. It was because the LORD loved you … that the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you …” (Deut 7.7ff)

What Protestants call the “Ten Commandments,” the Hebrew Bible calls the “Ten Words” (Ex 34.28; Dt 4.13)  Here in the basic summary of Israelite faith, we learn that the first word is not a command at all! Protestants and Catholics join hands in misrepresenting God’s word here.  The First Word is that of Grace …

I am YAHWEH your God, who DELIVERED YOU out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery …”

This is the First Word.  The word of love. The word of grace. The word of deliverance. The word of salvation.  I have saved you! Israel’s entire existence is a RESPONSE to the earth shattering grace of Yahweh.  It is right there in black and white.

The Exodus is the paradigmatic example of salvation and Jesus and the NT writers use it to explain redemption, grace and faith.  Especially when talking about the Cross.

When the LORD your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me here to occupy this land;’ it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are are going in to occupy their land … Know then that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people” (Deut 9.4-6)

Stunningly clear.

Final Words

The dichotomy between “law vs gospel” invented by Luther has born progressively toxic fruit through the centuries.   It has rendered the first 76 percent of Scripture largely useless for doctrine.  Sadly most of the time in my tribe “doctrine” means nothing more than church order and items of worship.  But “doctrine” is far more than that reductionism.  When the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of humanity, the doctrine of the people of God, the doctrine of faith, the doctrine of walking with God, etc  has been cut off not only from the “roots,” but the trunk of the tree itself, some rather strange looking leaves have formed in the Protestant era of Christianity.

Part of the renewed perspective on the Hebrew Bible is to understand it as the Fathers did.  The Whole Bible is telling a single unified Story of a God who is infinitely gracious and loving and is redeeming his creation from beginning.  We are not where Abram was in the story.  We are not where David was in the Story.  But we are in the same Story!

It is the Same God.
It is the Same Creation.
It is the Same People.
It is the Same Hope.
It is the Same Goal.

Paul himself teaches that it is a story of grace and faith from first to last.

Christians, Restorationists, will be much better off when we finally reject Luther’s Hermeneutic.  Luther was not wrong about everything.  He was wrong in his “Law vs Gospel” hermeneutic that drove a massive wedge between the New Testament and the Old Testament and divorced Jesus, Paul and the early church not simply from the ROOT but completely from the Tree of faith of Israel … that Paul himself said Gentile believers were “grafted” into (Rom 11.13-24; Eph 2.11-13).

As a Jewish friend, Rabbi Yakov Schmodel, said to me years ago in Milwaukee, “Saul of Tarsus did not have to run into Jesus to know that God is infinitely merciful, gracious and loving. If he was half the student of the Tanak he claims then he knew this reality from the day he was born as a Jew.”

In my next blog, I will explore how taking the Hebrew Bible as it is and in this “renewed perspective,” shows how the radical call to be “blameless” is not a call to saving ourselves, it is not a claim to self-righteousness.  But it is a call that God issues in BOTH Testaments and means the same thing.

God does call us to be transformed.  He calls us to be “blameless.”  Those who siphon Luther’s false equation latch onto this notion to prove the legalism of the Hebrew Bible while discarding the NT texts that speak to the same reality.  But that is for Monday.  For the moment remember this:

Exodus Comes Before Sinai.  Grace comes before Faith. It ALWAYS has. It ALWAYS will.

There are Three More Blogs in this Series:

Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament, Pt 2: Law and the Story of God’s Love

Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament, Pt 3: Happy are the Blameless

Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament, Pt 4: Happy are the Blameless, What is it?

Suggested Reading …

Ronald M. Hals little book is simply required reading and a paradigm shift for many.  Grace and Faith in the Old Testament says more in 96 pages than most any book. This can usually be obtained used for less than 5 dollars via Amazon Marketplace (the link has it for 3 bucks!)

Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is worth its weight in gold.

John Goldingay, Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.  This is a little more of a challenge than the previous two titles and I recommend beginning with them.  However this is a strong rebuttal of the Lutheran hermeneutic.


[1] See Paul E. Capetz’s recent “Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Old Testament,” Harvard Theological Review 102/3 (2009), 297-325.

3 Responses to “The New or Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Part 1)”

  1. Bill Says:

    Good article. Look forward to Monday’s article. Thanks!

  2. Charles Stelding Says:

    According to my count, the apostle Paul used the phrase “it is written” 31 times, referring to the Hebrew scriptures. (γέγραπται in the perfect tense, indicating that it was written in the past, and has current relevance). See Rom. 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17; 8:36; 9:13, 33; 10:15; 11:8, 26; 12:19; 14:11; 15:3, 9, 21; 1 Co. 1:19, 31; 2:9; 3:19; 4:6; 9:9; 10:7; 14:21; 15:45; 2 Co. 8:15; 9:9; Gal. 3:10, 13; 4:22, 27. I find it helpful to refer to Paul’s use of the Hebrew Bible in persuading the dispensationalists among us, that those scriptures which the apostle quotes are authoritative and binding on today’s people of God. Apparently Paul did not believe that the “Old Testament” was done away with or nailed to the cross.

  3. Dwight Says:

    Many in the coC have a love-hate relationship with the OT. I know many who run screaming from the OT as having any base authority when looking at the NT, but run screaming to the same OT when trying to defend such things as creation or when they look at sin, etc, even though the first five books of our Bible was called the Torah and was Law. It is bizarre.
    What I find amazing is that many argue that Jesus laid down a different testament, which is almost opposite to the OT and Jesus has nothing to do with the OT when he makes His commands. It seems as though we forget John 1:1 where Jesus is God and as God would have made the commands he then seems to oppose. Again bizarre. It is almost a refusal to see the children of God as God’s people and see the Law as given by God.
    Charles makes a good observation when noting that Paul in Romans, where he is speaking to Jews and gentiles in Rome, refers to the Hebrew scriptures as a reference point.


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