The Old Testament and Theology

Written by G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament and Theology was published by Harper & Row in 1969 and explores the relationship that exists – and it most certainly does exist – between the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). This relationship can be appreciated in the depth of theological thought that is transferred from one testament to the next, a relationship that Wright explores from his background as an archeologist, theologian, and historian. The key thought which appears to drive this work is summed up in the fact that Christianity cannot historically deny that it is altogether a “different religion,” but that “the OT is the cradle of the Christian movement, in which the basic issues are formulated to which the Christian movement addressed itself” (30-31). Are Christianity and Judaism distinct from one another? Yes, but as Paul reminds us, those things that were written before are for our learning, and from our exposure to those writings we build hope (Rom. 15:4), a position upon which Wright seizes.

The work begins with a discussion of what Wright sees as a problem in the current state of theology, at least in the 1960’s, where sole emphasis is placed upon Christology. Wright notes the tendency to restrict the focus of Bible study “to the life and teachings of Jesus” (13), which may be considered a natural phenomenon for those that claim to be Christians, and by doing so (i.e., removing the OT as a source of instructional material) obscure an understanding of complex issues in both life and theology which are dealt with in the OT writings. This singular focus, termed Christomonism by Wright, is answered against the backdrop of Barth and Bultmann whose theology may be summed by Bultmann’s question, “Since Christ is the revelation of God, has the OT any existential meaning for the Christian?” Of course, Wright takes the position that the foundation of the OT provides a framework for dealing with Israel and historical revelation. God’s dealing with the world is a complexity that requires both the OT and NT for proper understanding.

Part of the work discusses the relationship between Revelation and Theology. The OT, as a record of God’s dealings with mankind, is a revelation that intertwines the historical events as recorded by the Biblical writers with their traditions – the process is noted to be an “event-confessional mode of revelation” (68). This is a form of theology bound in the narrative of the OT, a focus which is often misunderstood and therefore individual theology becomes a tool for understanding “the truth of God for my tradition” (55). If this position is held consistently, Wright notes that one cannot consistently write theology for any religion other than his own. It is of course a truth that every generation must examine older religious assertions for their validity, but a theology that includes the OT as a historical framework revealed by God can have a foundational resource for the discussion and understanding of those Biblical principles that have been brought forward by the NT writers. One should not think those OT principles and ideals must remain static for all time, but the underlying understanding given those principles and ideals in the OT provide for the theological activity of “seeking those vital structures of meaning that hold life together” (66).

The center portion of the work focuses on three methods by which God is revealed and understood in the OT system of thought: God the Creator, God the Lord, and God the Warrior. Each of these concepts are examined by Wright and the influence of these concepts upon the NT understanding of God is illuminated. One specific concept examined in the chapter God the Lord is the relation of God as the sovereign Lord and his people as servants. Wright references George E Mendenhall’s work on the “legal background of the Mosaic covenant” (104) which parallels the structure of international treaties “used in Asia during the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries” (105). The structure of course presents God as Monarch, but the relationship is actually built on the identification of God as “’Suzerain,’ a technical term in political science for a monarch who acknowledged no other power the equal of his own. In his sphere, all power was derivative from him” (107).

This relationship between God and his people, into which some cast God as an Oriental Potentate with despotic powers, is a loving and mutually beneficial relationship between God and his chosen people. This monarch rules by much more than simple “brute force,” the purpose of the suzerainty language is to describe why righteous goals have support in our world; why in a world plagued by suffering and injustice life in the service of the “Ultimate understood as Suzerain” is possible (110). Further, the work of the Suzerain in protecting his people in the physical world of the OT is mirrored in the spiritual world of the NT in that God – to protect his people from the attacks and effects of sin – provided the Christ as an avenue of safety and security. The sacrifice of the Messiah acts as a renewal of the covenant of God with all mankind; God agrees to protect his people, his people agree to abide by the covenantal mandates, the blood of Christ acts as the seal of the covenant between the two parties. Sublime!

The last two sections of the work discuss Language, Symbol and Faith and The Canon as Theological Problem. The first section provides a discussion of the basic nature of religious language and how the use of that language “requires understanding from several types of interdisciplinary study and cooperation” (151). This is an important consideration since people as a group must hold a common individual understanding of world images and value systems to communicate effectively. The use of the OT in this helps as God provides for us a foundation for understanding the ultimate example of God making himself little for us in the work and person of Jesus Christ (157). In the second section noted, the canon of the Scriptures is examined. Wright notes that the early Church did not see the Torah in the OT as the most important authoritative element. The OT was read prophetically as the means for understanding history’s normative event – the life, death, and resurrection of Christ” (180).  Unfortunately, the reigning theology of any given time will dictate which parts of the canon are believed to be most important and relevant for its era. Wright maintains that a confessional view of Scripture, rather than a doctrinal, is the only “theological stance in which its authority can be discerned” (184).

Overall, The Old Testament and Theology is a wonderful discussion of the relationship between the OT and NT. There are times within the work when one is uncertain as to the process which Wright employs to reach his conclusions, but cumulatively the discussion is rewarding and enriching for those that seek a deeper and fuller understanding of the story of Scripture.

Some quotes from the work:

“Whether in devotional expression or in sophisticated theological statement, Christomonism sharply restricts revelation to Jesus Christ, so that anything to be said about God is either confined to, or secondary to, what is said about Christ” (19).

“For theology, then, this means that Israel’s way was to collect and preserve her historical and prehistorical traditions because the telling of them in different forms and situations related credo specifically to current event” (43).

“The search for safety, contentment, and happiness – life without conflicts within and without – these for so many Christians have become the solid goals of Christian ‘love.’ Yet this world of ‘love’ is a dangerous illusion. Where life is fed on the illusion that love and conflict are natural opposites, there on finds stagnation” (94).

“Here the attempt to discover the divine intent behind specific legal formulations is precisely in the context of the apodictic tradition of Israel wherein God addresses his people directly with his ‘Thou shalts’ but leaves them free to decide how a given ethical imperative was to be observed in given situations” (111).

“Perhaps the easiest course to follow is the popular one today among Christians. That is simply to drop all talk of God and live as a Christian humanist, Christ forming a model of what the good for us can be” (146).

“Of course it is rare indeed that a text critical problem involves a serious theological issue. Great issues for faith and life seldom revolve around the translation of meaning of a single Biblical text” (173).

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