The Orthodoxy of the Scriptures

As I have mentioned several times, last year was my year of the Hebrew Bible. I gained a wonderful new passion for it. Beyond my personal enthusiasm for the text, in that period I came to have some very clear and serious convictions about the text that I think all Christians must have. I recognise that it is an ambitious thing to say all Christians must think this way about this thing. However, we are Christians because we hold certain dogmas just as any group has it defining qualities. While my love for the Hebrew Bible was nurtured by scholarship, the strength of the convictions I developed about it came from the different things I observed and experienced last year. It is not so much that I did not have those beliefs but I came to see their preeminence.

I have repeatedly spoken about recovering the Jewishness of Christianity and its sacred texts. N.T. Wright’s famous five part sketch of the grand drama of scripture, which has been variously adapted, offers an important corrective for the church’s tendency to screen out Israel. The five acts are Creation, the Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church. The principle actor and hero of this story is God but his chosen partner and agent in accomplishing his purpose for the world is Israel. God said to Abraham in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. Jesus, the son of David, son of Abraham, said salvation belongs to the Jews and we need to take him seriously if we consider ourselves his followers. This perspective has shaped my understanding of how I read the scriptures over the last two years. Growing up in a church culture where Jesus’ Jewishness did not matter, I have had to constantly remind myself and cultivate the habit of including Israel in how I think about and articulate scripture. This mindset is what drove me last year to gain a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Bible. So I already valued it very highly and it had become entrenched in my theolgy. So the question is, how then did it become even more important in my estimation?

I had been working with the assumption if you paid attention to the New Testament, you would be confronted with how crucial Israel’s scriptures are and therefore recognise Israel’s central role in it. You cannot talk about Israel’s scriptures without having to face Israel. This was true in my experience as well as many others. Even though I saw most of the church had not come to that realisation, I saw it as a natural progression. I thought with some prodding and poking, we would eventually get there. I saw the church had a diminished view of scripture yet there was something to work with. In other words, you could manage without Israel in your theology of scripture even though you would be missing out on a whole lot. Studying the Jewish scriptures more intentionally later that year made me more observant of how Christians relate to it. Various things I noticed and things that happened, some quite close to me, caused me to say more is at stake than Christians drastically short changing themselves. For me it came down to a matter of how we define orthodoxy and heresy and the role scripture plays in that.

When I look at the Apostles Creed there is nothing that it says I disagree with. I understand creeds are summaries so they are never going to be comprehensive. However, as the most popular orthodox creed of Christianity, it has a glaring omission: Israel. I posted an article from Eric Chabot that pointed out how conspicuous it was. The largest segment of the Christian Bible is Israel’s scriptures, which in terms of sheer volume is several times the size of the New Testament. Yet Israel doesn’t even get a mention, even though the Bible is about it. It is called the Apostles Creed because there is a Christian legend that the Twelve all contributed to it. Jesus choosing 12 Jewish male followers is a clear reference to Israel which has 12 tribes. The early Jesus movement was an Israel renewal movement. Ironically, it still does not occur to most people that Israel is not given its rightful place in the creed. I think part of the reason why most Christians miss it is is because it is very right in what it affirms, so what it omits is not so obvious. Technically, the Apostles Creed does not totally lack reference to Israel. That’s because the gospel is so inherently Jewish it is inescapable. Ye it is clear the creeds do not give it any prominence. Given my Pentecostal background, creeds have not played a significant role in my life but that observation turned my attention towards how Israel and its scripture have featured in the history of Christian discourse on orthodoxy.

When it comes to how we define heresy, there were two things that happened quite close to me which highlighted the importance of Israel’s scriptures. In the early part of last year, I had some stimulating discussions with someone I had known for a while on whether Jesus was the Messiah among other things. This person eventually left Christianity to follow his own version of Judaism. He rejected the New Testament because he thought it did not fulfil the Hebrew Bible which he still held to. Now towards the end of the year, someone I had known even longer rejected Jesus’ virgin birth saying Matthew interpreted Isaiah incorrectly. While the first person completely apostasized, openly saying he was no longer a Christian, the second person shared a very similar outlook with the first. They both thought the New Testament authors were incompetent interpreters of scripture and they selectively affirmed the Christian Bible, that is, they chose which parts they agreed with and rejected what they didn’t agree with. The second person reportedly said the Bible contains truth but not everything in it is truth. Given the context of how he treated the Virgin Birth, it is clear he does not believe the Christian canon is the word of God. The apostate and the unwitting heretic had in common problems with how the New Testament uses the Hebrew scriptures. It was about that time, when I noticed the strong similarities between the two, that I started to realise how important the Hebrew scriptures are for orthodoxy. I called the second person an “unwitting” heretic because in working out a cogent response, it struck me very deeply that the New Testament depends on a particular interpretation of the Jewish scriptures which all the New Testament authors assume a priori. Primitive Christianity stood upon this foundation. If it is brought into jeopardy, you cannot be a biblically faithful Christian. In other words you cannot truly follow Jesus without it.

While the two did not straight up do a Marcion and reject the Hebrew Scriptures, like the ancient heresy of Marcionism, problems with the unity of scripture, that is how the New appropriates the Old, can be very dangerous. Those two were living examples, before my very eyes, of their fidelity to King Jesus being shipwrecked. What astounded me the most was with the second person. The circle of devout Christians he is among, who esteem him as a teacher, did not point out how heretical his claims were. I know a lot of those people and they are “super spiritual” brothers and sisters. If those type of Christians seem not to be that bothered by it, what about the rest?

It was around this time that talk of the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem started. Many Christians supported that move because of their dispensationalist theology i.e. Christians who believe in the rapture. They believe modern Israel has a prophesied end time role in the coming of Jesus. These people do take Israel seriously but it isn’t biblical Israel. It is a theology that raids Israel’s ancient scriptures to make sense of the future while leaving behind the canonical narrative of ancient Israel. They do not see the continuity between the Old Testament story and Jesus’ own ministry and so skip over it. N.T. Wright correctly observed while the New Testament teaches all the promises of God found in the scriptures are “yea” and “amen” in Jesus the Messiah, dispensationalism says some promises are yet to be fulfilled outside of Jesus. This is not simply a matter of a difference of opinion or of questionable hermeneutics (which we are all guilty of at one point or another.) It gets to the very core of who Jesus is and what he accomplished: a matter of orthodoxy.

These different examples, from the patently heretical to that of questionable orthodoxy, powerfully demonstrated to me that our view of the Old Testament is defining. This is because it can significantly impact our understanding of Jesus, the authority of the New Testament, the integrity of the Christan canon, and our very allegiance to the faith. They are not just modern problems. If we went back in time with these ideas, it would affect biblical Christianity. To illustrate this, let’s run a little test. If we expunged every reference to the Old Testament in the New Testament, how much of the New would be left? The aforementioned heresiarch Marcion tried it in the second century and his canon consisted of only the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letter’s. Even what he kept was significantly shorter because he tried to purge them from Old Testament references as well. The very name of the Lord Jesus Christ is pregnant with the scriptures. It is clear that the New Testament doesn’t exist without the Old.

While Marcionism was condemned immediately by the Church, it seems from the orthodox creeds and other statements of faith, that the story of Israel has not been emphasised in the church, particularly in Western influenced traditions as far as I can tell. There may be specific things in the Hebrew Bible that might be of interest but the canon as a whole has not really been engaged. Reading reviews of Dr Matthew Bates wonderful book Salvation by Allegiance Alone showed me that even among the theologically competent, they sometimes mimimise the place of Israel. In trying to exegete what faith properly means in the New Testament, Dr Bates had to show what the gospel actually is according to the text (which you can find here.) Many reviewers simply took it for a rehash of the Apostles Creed. While Dr Bates fully affirms the creed (he thinks it should be declared as a pledge of allegiance to King Jesus) and he modelled his summary some what after it, there are important differences. His includes references to Israel because he almost lifts verbatim the language of the New Testament. So it more accurately reflects what the New Testament actually says the gospel is. I was surprised that a number of these theologically educated reviewers did not reckon the differences mattered. Bate’s succinct analysis of the gospel in the New Testament is to me the clearest statement that the Jewish canon is essential to orthodoxy as the nascent Church understood it.

With summaries you wonder if there are things that should have been added or expressed differently. I personally wanted to have more direct references to Israel. I considered adding something like “he came according to the scriptures” or “he came to fulfil the scriptures” as the second line. It is a type of statement that the New Testament does make in a number ways using that type of terminology. As I thought about it more with regard to Bates’ careful criteria, I saw the sentiment was adequately represented in his proposal. Moreover, it actually worked better as a summary of his summary. Bates’ creedal formula is about things that happened, events concerning Jesus’ identity and mission. In other words it was a concise, biblically accurate, description of the events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and exaltation, which is what theologians delightfully call the “Christ event.’ The gospel is good news. News is something that has happened. The gospel can be summarised as the Christ event which occurred in fulfilment of the scriptures. In terms of faithfulness to the language of the New Testament, it is a close paraphrase of what Jesus said in Luke 24.

It is clear that in the New Testament the early Jesus movement held a dogmatic view of the Hebrew Bible which was crucial for orthodoxy. Jesus himself understood who he was and what he came to do in the light of the scriptures. The Hebrew Bible was Jesus’ Bible. He saw his mission in direct and climactic continuity with the Israel’s story found in the scriptures. So his followers understood him in terms of the scriptures and they understood the scriptures in terms of him. Following Jesus therefore meant following the scriptures.

The Old Testament narrative comes to an abrupt end where things are left in limbo. God then does dramatically fulfil his promised word to Israel in Jesus. Since Jesus’ followers believed they were authorised by him and energised by his spirit to participate in implementing his achievements, they had significant warrant to add to the biblical narrative. One might say this a very wordy way of saying the obvious: if there’s a new there must be an old. There is way more to it than that. It was not an arbitrary choice done on a whim to expand the biblical canon. There was a discernible logic to it. Way before the New Testament canon was formalised, it is clear that the New Testament authors in different ways somehow thought their own literary projects were in the tradition of the divinely inspired writings. The most famous is John’s introduction to the Logos. They were living in the wake of the most momentous thing that had happened in grand saga of God and his people. These things were more than worth jotting down. They certainly had canonical merit because they were of canonical consequence. The New Testament is an organic outgrowth of the Old Testament interpreted according to the paradigm of the Christ event. How a Christian views the Hebrew Bible is a grave matter of orthodoxy and it needs to be treated as such.

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