NOTE: This is the 3rd and final piece of an interview with Jon Parker (@OneAnglican), a PhD student in Old Testament at Durham University. For the other installments, click here and here. For Jon’s personal blog, see here.
BigBible: Okay Jon, I’m just going to throw out an enormous question and let you run with it: how do we read Genesis retrospectively through the Person and Work of Jesus?
Jon: What a question! Probably the best answer to this question would be to just read a passage in light of Christ, but given space constraints, I’ll try instead to map out some directions which I think we should and shouldn’t go.
(1) Genesis (and the Old Testament more generally) is not a text which is “really” for and by Jews and then only re-read, or re-applied to Christians ‘retrospectively’. As Chris Seitz has recently re-iterated, the text of Scripture as Scripture is that it speaks with a surplus of meaning from the start. Even where ‘original authors’ didn’t know they were speaking about Jesus, God did, and he directed them accordingly. This means that reading ‘in the light of Christ’ is a way of seeing the text for what it is not just re-reading it from a new context. He is really there in the Creation, in the writing of the Law, in the Exodus, etc. because he is ‘before all things’ and ‘through him all things were created’ (Col 1.16-17).
(2) For me, it helps to remember that the person and work of Jesus are essentially identified not only with Israel’s God (YHWH), but with Israel herself, that Jesus is the goal and fulfillment of Israel’s story. This cuts two ways: (a) Jesus is not just a ‘high-point’ in Israel’s story, he is the point of Israel’s story (e.g. he is the only one who fulfills Israel’s law, cf. Rom 10.4), and (b) prior to his resurrection, Jesus’ identity was shaped and formed by what God had done in Israel’s history (e.g. Jesus knows himself as the specifically Davidic king of Israel). That means for me that reading a lot of Israel’s story is, as it were, on the way to their fulfillment in Christ.
Some of the things God does with Israel, he does so that by the time Jesus comes, they know what he means and doesn’t mean, which he himself can speak back to them. One way to get at what I’m saying is to try to imagine Jesus speaking and acting without one or more parts of the Old Testament (esp. the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, cf. Lk 24.44): Would they have been ready for Christ (and his preaching) without both the establishment of the Law and Temple and their desperation downhill from their experiences in the Exile and after the Maccabees?
(3) I don’t think one can come to the Old Testament without accounting for its use in the New. To not do so, is to not take the work of Jesus in birthing the church and giving us his Scriptures seriously. For example, I can’t imagine coming to the story of Abraham in Gen 15, 17, and 22 and not considering the way these stories are handled in Romans 4 and James 3. That being said, the fact that the church recognises a two-testament witness means that each one has a voice in speaking about our one God. I follow the work of Brevard Childs in this, that the Old Testament has its own ‘discrete witness’ in inter-relationship with the New but to be read by the church authoritatively from its own perspective. This means that the story of Abraham speaks of God in the same way as the New Testament describes it, and more. It has more to say. The New Testament needs to be present but not absolutely overriding, to do so would be to miss the very way in which prophetic speech and fulfillment works in the Bible.
Jon: I am really sympathetic to this view. My grandfather is a great Baptist preacher in Canada, and he always advised me, ‘When you preach, lift them up! Lift them up!’ I can think of no better way to do that, then to tell the wonders of Christ in every sermon. All that being said, I’m not sure we must directly discuss the person and work of Christ in every reading. There are times when, if we don’t talk about Christ then we are missing the real point of the passage. For example, I don’t think I could ever teach the Exodus (Ex. 12-15) to Christians and not talk about the death and resurrection of Christ. There are other times when this isn’t true.
The way I handle this is to ask two questions consistently, ‘What did this mean for Israel?’ and ‘What does this mean for us?’ The ‘us’ in that question is presumably as Christians and therefore ‘in Christ’. There are times when, I think, the dynamic of doubt and faith (for instance in Job) applies to our lives by faith in Christ more directly, without needing to find their definitive fulfillment in Christ, and to move too quickly to Christ might miss the what the passage is trying to say to us. You could (and perhaps I should do this more) look for the way Christ demonstrates such a dynamic in the Gospels, but I’m not convinced you must. (It may actually cause us to ‘over-read’ the Gospels.) I guess, I just want to leave room for the way the Old Testament can speak directly to us because the text has been given to us through Christ for our benefit. The only reason we can come to the Old Testament as “our Scriptures” is because we have been grafted into Israel by faith through Christ. Contrary to popular belief, the early church fathers did this a lot, sometimes preaching about Christ fulfilling a passage, sometimes preaching just how we need, who are in Christ, need to learn from it; I see both as being ‘Christological,’ just in different ways.