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Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament
By Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
ZondervanCopyright © 1991 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Old Testament as the Christian Problem
"The Old Testament problem ... is not just one of many. It is the master problem of theology," according to Emil G. Kraeling. For when the question is put in its most elementary form, the real problem of the Old Testament (hereafter OT) for the Christian is this: should the OT have any authority in the Christian church, and, if so, how is that authority to be defined?
The centrality of this question for the Christian cannot be avoided. The fact is that "Once one has awakened to the commanding importance of this question one will be able to see that it runs through the whole of Christian history like a scarlet thread. Yea, more: one can see that much of the difference in theologies springs from the extent to which they build Old Testament ideas or impulses into the primitive Christian patterns."
A. H. J. Gunneweg echoed a similar assessment and declared that this problem is the most central issue in all of Christian theology. In his judgment, "... it would be no exaggeration to understand the hermeneutical problem of the Old Testament as the problem of Christian theology, and not just one problem among others, seeing that all other questions of theology are affected in one way or another by its resolution.... No more fundamental question can be posed in all theology; providing an answer for it defines the realm in which theology has to be done."
No less adamant in expressing this same view was Bernhard W. Anderson: "No problem more urgently needs to be brought to a focus.... It is a question which confronts every Christian in the Church, whether he [or she] be a professional theologian, a pastor of a congregation, or a lay[person]. It is no exaggeration to say that on this question hangs the meaning of the Christian faith."
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE OT AS THE CHRISTIAN PROBLEM
Christians must face two issues in this problem of the OT: (1) the formal question: does the OT have authority for us as Christians? and (2) the material question: how shall we recognize that authority, and what are the contents of that authority for us today? The first question of the Scripture principle is relatively easy compared with the more difficult practical and substantive questions as to how the OT will yield the mind and will of God for the twentieth-century Christian.
So demanding have these questions been that some have been led to adopt the oft-quoted thesis of Adolf Harnack (1851-1930):
To reject the Old Testament in the second century was a mistake the church rightly resisted; to retain it in the sixteenth century was a fate from which the Reformation could not escape; but still to preserve it in the nineteenth century as one of the canonical documents of Protestantism is the result of religious and ecclesiastical paralysis.
Harnack's solution was summarily to reject the OT. But it was that view (assisted by the racial anti-Semitism of Gobineau and Chamberlain, the anti-supernaturalism of the scientific criticism of the OT by Friederick Delitzsch, and the anti-Christian cultural criticism of F. Nietzsche) that led to the infamous Sport Palace demonstration of Berlin German Christians on November 13, 1933. There the district chairman, R. Krause, demanded "the liberation from the Old Testament with its Jewish money morality, [and] from the stories of livestock handlers and pimps."
With these words the battle against the OT was launched anew in pre-World War 11 Germany and eventually led to the atrocities against the Jews and to silencing of the OT message in the German church.
But few Christians have opted for such a total disparagement of the OT as did the second century A.D. heretic Marcion or the twentieth century spokesman Adolf Harnack. Surely Harnack was involved in special pleading when he opined that the OT had to be rejected because "the largest number of objections which people raise against Christianity and the truthfulness of the Church stem from the authority which the Church still gives to the Old Testament."
Nor had the view of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) been any less disparaging:
The Old Testament Scriptures owe their place in our Bible partly to the appeals the New Testament Scriptures make to them, partly to the historical connection of Christian worship with the Jewish synagogue; but the Old Testament Scriptures do not on that account share the normative dignity or the inspiration of the New.
The easy reductionism exhibited in Schleiermacher failed to face either the formal or material question; it simply relegated the OT to an appendix behind the new standard of the later twenty-seven books of Scripture.
But the view of Marcion, Schleiermacher, and Harnack were not those that had been embraced by the church since apostolic days. Beginning with the NT, the permanent value of the OT was repeatedly affirmed with explicit statements. Some of the summary statements declared:
Do not think [apparently, some had thought so] that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matt 5:17-18).
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom 15:4).
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11).
... continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it. And how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures [i.e. the OT], which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:14-17).
These positive assessments of the OT continued in the various Protestant creeds and confessions at the time of the Reformation. For example, Article VII of The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) read:
The olde Testament is not contrary to the newe, for both in the olde and newe Testament everlasting lyfe is offered to mankynde by Christe, who is the onlye mediator between God and man. Wherefore they are not to be hearde which faigne that the olde fathers dyd look only for transitorie promises ...
Likewise the Scots Confession (1560) in section IV confessed:
... all the faithfull from Adam to Noe [Noah], from Noe to Abraham, from Abraham to David and so furth to the incarnation of Christ Jesus, all (we meane the faithfull Fathers under the Law) did see the joyful daie of Christ Jesus, and did rejoice.
Excerpted from Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Copyright © 1991 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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