Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Use of the Old Testament

When I was in seminary, I focused for my STM on the study of the Old Testament (OT).  My thesis was on understanding the census numbers in the book of Numbers, so that they could be read as Christian Scripture.  Passages such as those are often ignored in preaching and catechesis, as they seem like good history (maybe), but not much else.  My answer, after surveying all the possible English (and some German and French) arguments, was that scholars didn't have an answer.  No extant theory can be plausibly sustained: some got close, but all left interpretive lacunae.  Nothing answered all the problems.  I knew, at the time, that some sort of hermeneutical 'paradigm shift' was necessary.  But I didn't have one. I still don't, honestly.

This was brought back to my mind by my pastor's sermon today.  In discussing Acts 17, he noted that St Paul ignores the OT in his evangelism.  In front of diaspora Jews, sure, there's lots of OT history and Psalms.  On the Areopagus, none.  He said to them it would have been irrelevant.  Just like the census lists (I added internally).  So, if we don't need an understanding of he OT for salvation (at least St Denys believes at this point), what good is it?  What, for the Christian, is the utility of the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is mystagogy.

The Lord Christ tells us, in Luke 24, that the whole of the OT (summarized as Law, Prophets, and Psalms) is about Him.  How can that be so?  If we read it straightforwardly as history, as I'd be taught in good Calvinist, redemptive-historical fashion, then it is hard to see this, except to say that the OT gives us the necessary historical conditions for the appearance of the Messiah.  The prophecies point forward, some of the more cryptic Psalms do as well, but once the set has been set, it is hard to see how to apply the OT to the Christian life. (As a side-note, I think this is why Theonomy/Christian Reconstruction became so popular amongst many Reformed in the late 80s through the early 2000s: it made the OT real). But this, truly, isn't satisfying: Marcion could probably jive with such a reading of the OT, as it sets the proper evolutionary tone for its own vestigial obsolescence.

So, what? How is the OT mystagogical? This goes back to my pastor's comment. Mid the OT historical background was so necessary, the Apostle would have started with at least a brief introduction.  But he didn't: he started (and finished) with Christ.  The Messiah is the framework and substance of our salvation, not the history of Israel.  However, as we can see from his letters, mostly written to those who were former Gentiles, the OT has a role yet to play, one that goes beyond history, without ever forgetting its historical truth.  It is the witness, on every page, to Christ and His work.  However, until we have been brought to Christ, and died with Him in baptism, we cannot even begin to read it that way.  It will be so much history, some of which is hard for us moderns to swallow (kill every living human in Canaan?!). If it is pointing to Christ, that means it is also pointing to His Body, which means Mary, the Eucharist, and the Church. In other words, what the Fathers call the allegorical or symbolic level of interpretation, leading to the anagogical (in which we, like St Palamas, behold the heavenly glory of the incarnate Christ and are transfigured by Him).

The allegorical, which we are generally allergic to because of perceived Medieval abuse thereof, is strictly bounded.  The touchstone, as in all things, is Christ.  Hence the early regula fidei, which remind us of the essentials of faith (the purpose of which, may we remind ourselves, goes beyond justification, to Christification or theosis), and therefore call us to greater intimacy and knowledge of our Creator and Redeemer.  St Paul lays is out in 1 Corinthians 10, where the OT stories of the Exodus and Wanderings (including, then, the census lists!) are shown to be typos, examples, for us "upon whom the completion of the ages has come" (v. 11).  This completion, often I helpfully translated 'ends,' is shown to be Christ Himself, gathering up everything in heaven and on earth to Himself (Eph. 1:10, cp. Dt. 30:3-4), so that the Father might be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). The OT, more than just mere history, can become what it was always supposed to be: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17), so that we might be "wise unto salvation by faith" as was St Timothy.

(Reflecting on this, here is why Jews have the advantage in Romans: while both Jew and Gentile come to Christ on equal terms -- faith in the faithfulness of Christ -- the Jews had been entrusted with the "oracles of God" (3:1-2) and so could grasp the mystagogical meaning of their Scriptures much more easily, especially if they were faithful in practice of the Torah, which would render them purified and ready for deeper revelation.  Sts Athanasius, Cassian, and Gregory of Nazianzus all speak in this way about the necessity of purification before Scriptural interpretation, so I will refer the curious reader to them.)

What does this look like in practice?

Let's take the theme of the Tabernacle/Temple as our (necessarily cursory) example:  all sorts of legislation and historical narrative surround the planning, building, operation, and maintenance of the Hebrew cultus. Since Christ, of course, it is passing away and has become obsolete (Heb. 8:13).  So what good does it do us, apart from antiquarian interest to study the purity regulations or the forming/filling construction narratives of Leviticus and Exodus (respectively)?  As St Paul might say, much in every way. For, "the Word dwelt (lit. tabernacles) among us and we beheld His glory" (Jn. 1:14, so much could be said here, as this passage is pointing us right back to Ex. 40). The Word of God came among us as in the tabernacle.  What does this tell us?  First, it means that wherever the Word dwelt, there must be holiness, for the true God called for this over and over again,  in fact, once the Temple had been hideously defiled, the glory left it, as shown in Ezekiel 8-10. What does this, then tell us about the Virgin Mary?  First, she truly is Theotokos, for she has given birth to the tabernacling Word.  Second, it is theologically necessary that she be holy, free from sin and defilement, for at least as long as she carried the Word (some might say, how could she do this? "Hail! Mary, full of grace...").  More, of course, could be said.  I refer the curious reader to the Fathers for more (Christian history, and the increasing veneration of Mary -- note: I didn't say worship -- makes a lot more sense once you see these things).  What does our (brief) look into the OT tell us about Jesus? The Temple was the site of cleansing (Lk. 8:43-48), of the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 9:4-6), of the manifestation of God's uncreated glory (Mk. 9:2-7).  Jesus, as the incarnate God-man, is the fullness of what the Temple was.  To understand Him, we must look back through Him to the OT Temple.  At one point, He says that the Jews could destroy this Temple and in three days He would raise it up, referring, as John tells us, "of the Temple of His Body" (2:21).  St Paul remind us that we are His Body, the Church (Eph. 1:22-23, etc.), so all the OT language about the purity of the Tabernacle/Temple (1 Cor. 6) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2, cp. Ex. 40 and 1 Chron. 5) are for, and about, our ascetic lives "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

The OT has everlasting value, then, as it speaks in a fullness about Christ that can only be brought out and experienced by the Church, the "pillar and ground of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).