The Church's Need of the Old Testament
G. Ernest Wright
From G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts, pp.15-32. (c) SCM Press Ltd 1952. Reprinted by permission.
Modern theologians for some time have been writing about the radical transformation in the understanding of the gospel which came into being during the last century and which has had exceedingly serious consequences for the faith and mission of the Church. The one result of this transformation which here concerns us is the evident inability of large sections of the Church to take the Old Testament seriously as a primary revelation of God, of the nature of man and his institutions in human society, and of the Divine purpose in universal history. The scholarly study of the Old Testament has been separated from that of the New and from its mooring in the proclamation of the Church. By the end of the last century Christian scholars of the faith of Israel had become much more acclimated to the fields of general history, Oriental research and comparative religion than they were to the Church and to its traditional presuppositions. Thus while the Church still employed Old Testament scholars as teachers of the clergy, her heart was scarcely warmed by what they taught except in the heat of controversy with Fundamentalism. Consequently, by the time the first world war was over the occasional theological student who majored in the Old Testament was customarily on the defensive and the recipient of considerable derision from his fellow students in the practical departments and especially in the departments of the philosophy and psychology of religion. The serious study of the Old Testament was felt by the more virile minds of the Church to be an exercise of futility, the luxury of antiquarians who took no part in the vital concerns of the present time. Inevitably, therefore, the study of the Hebrew language increasingly came to be frowned upon by the great majority of the clergy as a foolish waste of time and money.
The result has been a rapid decline in both the quality and quantity of significant output on the part of the Church's Old Testament scholars. At the same time, it has meant, not only a rapid decline in the use of the Old Testament for the proclamation of the Gospel, but in many circles at least a radical distortion of that Gospel. Not long ago Godfrey E. Phillips presented the results of an inquiry which he had made regarding the use of the Old Testament in the mission field. Everywhere, especially among the intellectuals, he found uneasiness regarding it. The viewpoint of a pastor in north China is said to be representative of a very considerable section of opinion in that country:
Intending missionaries or evangelists waste their time if they spend a lot of it studying the Old Testament. . . . The Old Testament teaching given in theological colleges in China is, in the experience of most students, devoid of interest or value for their after work. Reading the Old Testament is like eating a large crab; it turns out to be mostly shell, with very little meat in it. . . . We don't need to start with Moses and Elijah. It is enough to teach men about God as Jesus taught or revealed him.1
There is considerable evidence that a similar attitude exists in a large section of the Christian community in the West. Not that the Church would teach officially such a conception of its Scriptural treasury; yet it has been a drift of opinion. An evidence is the widely spread distribution of the New Testament and Psalms as the real Christian canon. Not by overt dogma but by actual practice, the Protestant Church has tended to emend radically the official canon of Scripture.
In other words, there has been a widespread revival of Marcionism in the modern Church, and many of the arguments against it employed by such Church Fathers as Tertullian need to be used again. There is a subtle difference, however, in that while Marcion rejected both paganism and the Old Testament with equal vigor, our modern rejection of paganism, except for the Communist type, is by no means as clear and forthright. To be sure, we inveigh against secularism, but we have not been clear as to where to draw the line between the Gospel and those forms of neo-paganism which are presented in terms of classical idealism. Perhaps, for example, we should not present Jesus Christ as One completely, radically and revolutionarily new, but as the fulfillment of the best idealism in existence among the heathen. Yet the question arises as to what kind of Christ is presented in such a situation. Surely, if the New Testament is not proclaimed as the fulfillment of the Old, if the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and by Paul is not the completion of the faith of Israel, then it must inevitably be a completion and fulfillment of something which we ourselves substitute—and that most certainly means a perversion of the Christian faith.
The new attitude toward the meaning of the Old Testament which came into being during the second half of the nineteenth century has been of tremendous value in the way it has encouraged the enthusiastic assemblage of a vast array of facts by means of which the Biblical literature must be understood. Unlike the liberal movement in New England of a century before, it encouraged Protestant scholarly study of the Bible to such an extent that the era between 1890 and 1910 may perhaps be designated as the greatest age of Biblical scholarship in Christian history, and no section of the World Church has remained untouched by the Protestant work which came to its culmination at that time. Yet because of certain difficulties inherent in its interpretative point of view, the great generation at the turn of the century was unable to reproduce itself. Old Testament scholarship, in England and America especially, has continued by and large along the lines then drawn, but it has done so with steadily diminishing returns.
Most important in the interpretative procedure of the last century was the conception of emergent value. In studying the Biblical materials the perception of the scholar was trained to look almost exclusively for a process of historical growth and development in which certain values emerge at each stage of the process. The earliest datable material was assumed to be the most 'primitive' and the later the more 'advanced'. Basic to one's understanding of the literature, therefore, was a certain scale of values by which the 'primitive' and the 'advanced' are to be so designated. This scale of values was and is usually implicit and unexamined. When forced to defend it, the scholar would attempt to explain it in some vague way as 'the mind of Christ'. Actually, however, it is more commonly seen today as a compound of conceptions derived from secular idealism, and not directly from the Bible. The Old Testament in such a viewpoint is important only in the sense that it provided the developmental background which lies behind the Gospel of Christ. It must be used by scholars for the historical understanding of the New Testament; but when the Gospel is formulated theologically or proclaimed by the Church to the world, one must deal only with the most 'advanced' stage of the revelation in which the values and ideals, so slow in emerging, appear in their purest form. If this be true, then the mission of the Church actually has no need of the Old Testament.
Yet today perhaps a majority of the Church's theological scholars have been placing large question marks before the assumptions of the 1900 era. Is the Bible primarily a textbook for values? Can its true significance be portrayed solely in emergent terms? Can the Divine self-disclosure by means of historical acts of grace and judgment be reduced to a philosophy of values? In other words, the proclamation (kerygma) of what God has done, whence it is inferred what he is, is the central concern of the Bible, apart from which a true understanding of the teaching (didache) is impossible. Yet this is precisely the point which the nineteenth century scholarship did not take seriously. When one conceives of the Bible as a textbook solely for didache, and then begins to examine other religions and to see numerous teachings which seem to have the same 'spiritual' and ethical interest, he begins to think of all religions as having a basic common denominator. The uniqueness and radical difference of Biblical faith is no longer comprehended, except as one attempts to argue that the teachings and 'values' of Christ are superior to those of the other religions in the sense that they are seen in him in a clearer and finer distillation. Thus the missionary has been tempted to present the 'superior' Christ and unwittingly to become an agent of the Western feeling of superiority in its patronizing dealing with the 'inferior' peoples. Thus the mission schools have been tempted merely to reproduce the idealism of Western liberal arts schools in the naive assumption that the teaching of values is the same as the proclamation of the Gospel. And thus also it has been difficult for the Christian to draw a clear line of demarcation between the Biblical Gospel and pagan idealism.
One of the functions of the Old Testament in the Church has always been its role as a bulwark against paganism. That is to say, the Church has received an enlightenment from the faith of Israel which has enabled it to see that entrance into the Kingdom of Christ cannot be found among the religions of the world, but solely in the faith of Abraham and his seed, of which we are heirs in the Church by Jesus Christ. It is by the spectacles of the Old Testament that our eyes must be focused upon the light in Christ; otherwise that light will be blurred and we shall not see it correctly. In support of these statements only a few observations can be made here.
Of basic importance for the Church is the realization that Israelite faith as represented in the earliest as well as in the latest literature was an utterly unique and radical departure from all contemporary pagan religions. The latter were all natural and cultural religions which had much more in common with one another than any one of them did with the Bible. There would appear to be certain tendencies in all pagan faiths which are normal constituents of the natural man's religion. Israel's breach of this 'normalcy' was something utterly new, phenomenal and radical. Consequently, the faith of Israel as fulfilled in Christ has always and will always bring to the Church such a sharpening of issues that the sword of the Gospel cannot be blunted completely among all Christians by compromise with pagan idealism.
Natural religion in Biblical times analyzed the problem of man over against nature. In the struggle for existence the function of religious worship was that of the integration of personal and social life with the natural world. Since man encounters in nature a plurality of uncontrollable powers to which he must adjust himself, he had isolated and identified these powers as the objects of his worship long before 3000 B.C. But in the ancient Near East, at least, polytheism was no primitive religion to be classified as merely one stage removed from animism and polydemonism, if the latter ever existed in pure textbook form. It was a highly sophisticated, organized and complex affair, in which the greatest intellectual achievement was the reduction of nature's vast plurality into an orderly and comprehensible system. The order of nature was believed to be an achievement in the integration of divine wills, in the pairing of complementary powers by means of the family and household patterns, and in the balancing of opposing forces such as life and death, rain and drought. The life of the individual was embedded in society and society was embedded in the rhythm and balance of nature which was the realm of the gods. The whole aim of existence was thus to fit into the rhythm and integration of the cosmic society of nature. While the law and order of human society was a function of one or more of the gods, sin was not primarily a violation of a gracious and righteous Divine will, a rebellion which destroyed personal communion, as in the Bible. It was rather more of an aberration which destroyed the harmony of affairs in the cosmic state. The good life was one which fitted into the established hierarchy of authority, beginning with the elder brother and the father in the family.
Polytheism was thus pre-eminently a religion of the status quo, and it is a significant fact that in no country where such religion has provided the cultural background has it ever been a dynamic force for social change. Allowed to develop long enough, the intellectuals may evolve from it a philosophical idealism, as in Plato, or a mysticism, as in Buddhism. Even here, however, the religion has not been a power for social evolution and social justice because of an inherent pessimism and the separation of the good life from the common life. In any case, the philosophical and mystical ways are for the few, while the common man has been left unredeemed from his superstitions.
In the faith of Israel, even in the earliest preserved literature, there is a radical and complete difference at every significant point. The Israelite did not analyze the problem of life over against nature. The latter plays a subordinate role in the faith, except as it is used by God to further his work in society and history. Instead, the problem of life is understood over against the will and purpose of the God who had chosen one people as the instrument of his universal, redemptive purpose (e.g. Gen. 12.3). This election of a people was not based upon merit, but upon a mysterious grace; and its reality was confirmed by the great saving acts of this God, particularly as expressed in the redemption from Egyptian bondage and in the gift of an inheritance. Here, then, is an utterly different God from the gods of all natural, cultural and philosophic religion. He is no immanent power in nature nor in the natural process of being and becoming. The nature of his being and will is revealed in his historical acts. He thus transcends nature, as he transcends history; and, consequently, he destroys the whole basis of pagan religion. No force or power in the world is more characteristic of him than any other, and it is increasingly understood today that the former identifications in early Israel of a Mountain-God, a Fertility-God and a War-God, from which the 'ethical monotheism' of the prophets gradually evolved, are figments of scholarly presupposition and imagination. It is impossible on any empirical grounds to understand how the God of Israel could have evolved out of polytheism. He is unique, sui generis, utterly different.
One of the important doctrines of early as well as of late Israel, one which we have so zealously sought to set aside because it is so offensive to our good taste and to that of the naturalist and mystic of every age, is the doctrine of God's jealousy. This is an expression of the nature of God as he had revealed himself to Israel. It points directly to the utter difference between him and the gods, and it affirms that he alone is God, that he alone wills to be God, and that he will not put up with man's desire to worship tolerant powers of a lesser order, to whom he can integrate himself by a variety of processes, including magic, which he himself has evolved. The very nature of God's being places a tension at the heart of existence which destroys the natural man's integration of himself and his society in the rhythm of the kingdom of nature. The problem of life is not that of integration in the world. It is much deeper; it is the problem of obedience to the will of the transcendent Lord. He has bound his elect to himself, on the one hand, by great acts of love and grace, and, on the other hand, by a covenant in which his will is expressed. By means of these two elements of Biblical proclamation, the good news of salvation and the requirement of obedience, God wills to bind a people to himself by ties of love, faith and trust. Sin is no longer aberration; it is a violation of communion, a betrayal of Divine love, a revolt against God's Lordship. It can be followed, therefore, only by humble repentance and Divine forgiveness. The pagan, on the contrary, may feel guilt, regret and despair at having fallen short of what was demanded of him, but he knows nothing of the Biblical sense of sin, contrition, repentance and forgiveness, of the joy that comes from doing God's will, or in any way of being undeserving of the Divine blessing heaped upon him.2
Biblical faith, therefore, could never be a religion of the status quo for its faithful adherents. Dynamic change and revolution are to be expected because God is a dynamic being, external to the processes of life, engaged in the active direction of history to his own goals. The tension which he places at the heart of existence excludes a peace of integration in the rhythmic cycle of nature. Human life must conform to his independent will, and his 'wrath' and 'judgment' are the Biblical means of expressing his active displeasure and his active work against all that flout his will.
Man's tendency toward, and desire for, pagan 'normalcy' being what they are, it is scarcely surprising to find that Christians have sought by a variety of means to avoid this conception and to eradicate the tension occasioned by the dynamic and energetic Lord who will even destroy in order to build. Many Israelites tried to avoid it by saying: 'It is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine' (Jer. 5.12). Men have always tried to escape from this God into deistic idolatry of one sort or another by saying that God does not see them and does not act directly in the affairs of earth. Greek philosophy and Eastern mysticism could certainly envisage no such deity, while in the ancient polytheisms the great gods were the aristocrats of the universe who for the most part were inaccessible to the common man and uninterested in him except as aristocrats are interested in the menial slaves who supply their needs.
The Christian idealist of this day has been very subtle in his rejection of this basic Biblical perception of the true nature of God. By setting the Old Testament to one side, he is not confronted so directly with it and he can proceed to interpret the New Testament along more congenial lines. Among other things, he exhibits a distinct tendency to interpret God in 'spiritual' terms, and 'spiritual' entities are 'spiritually' discerned. The term 'spirit', derived from the conception of breath and wind, is of value when applied to God solely to prevent us from assuming that anthropomorphic language can exhaust the mystery and glory of his being. The difficulty with the term and with its derived adjective, 'spiritual', is that the human perception of God's being immediately becomes diffuse and without objective focus. The knowledge of God is reduced to a feeling, to an 'experience'. In the Protestant churches of our time no two words are in more common use than the terms 'spiritual' and 'experience'. And when the two are coupled together as 'spiritual experience', we have the popular conception of the sum total of religion, especially when the Golden Rule is added to it.
This represents the paganizing of the Gospel in a form that is pleasing to the cultured and sophisticated. It also presents the Gospel in a form that is more acceptable to the pagan idealist and to the Eastern scholar with mystical tendencies. This Gospel is no scandal nor stumbling block. Its tolerant diffuseness does away with the tension occasioned by the self-disclosure of the Biblical God. The reality of God's being becomes an immanent, inner experience which in practice, though not perhaps in theory, sets aside the whole Biblical doctrine of God's jealousy, the Biblical conception of the definite, dynamic, energetic Being whose transcendent holiness and objectivity are too great to be contained in 'experience', and as well the Biblical conception of the external, objective, historical acts of God. Is it not possible to suppose that God may not choose to reveal himself and his true nature primarily, if at all, in 'spiritual experience'? To be sure, there is an immediate awareness of God's presence in worship, in prayer, communion and confession; but the main emphasis of the Bible is certainly on his revelation of himself in historical acts, and in definite 'words', not in diffuse experience. There is an objectivity about Biblical faith which cannot be expressed in the language of inner experience. For this reason Biblical religion cannot be classified among the great mysticisms of the world. It is scarcely an accident, therefore, that the Bible contains no doctrine of God's spirituality. It has a good deal to say about God's Spirit, or the Holy Spirit, but it does not employ metaphors derived from breath or wind as descriptive of his essence or being.3 From beginning to end it uses the definite and concrete metaphors derived from human society, the most spectacular of all such anthropomorphs being the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In other words, the Christian disuse of the Old Testament has left the Church an easy prey for the ubiquitous tendencies toward pagan 'normalcy' in which God's being or essence is conceived as in some way immanent in the processes of life, or, as in the more developed intellectual forms of paganism, as an ideal, a principle, a creative event, a vital urge, either within or without the evolving process. In every case, the tension created by God's Lordship, the radically serious conception of sin, and the reality of God's objective, historical acts of salvation are removed as the primary focus of the Christian's attention. In such a situation the distinction between the Church and the world of pagan idealism is difficult to maintain, and the Cross as the central symbol of the Church's faith no longer has the meaning it once had.
It has often been pointed out that the pagan religions have no sense of history. Polytheistic man, borne on the rhythmic cycle of nature, has no primary concern with history; instead his focus of attention is upon the yearly cycle in which life is recreated each spring and the blessing of order re-established. He is 'bound in the bundle of life' with nature, which is the kingdom of the gods, and his existence moves with the natural rhythm. Biblical man was 'bound in the bundle of life' with God who was not an immanence in nature but the Creator of nature, and who revealed himself by means of historical acts in which there were also historical promises. The focus of the Biblical man's attention, therefore, was not on the cycle of nature, but on what God had done, was doing and was yet to do according to his declared intention. Promise and fulfillment thus become the central Biblical themes, and the faithful man's attention was focused on the interpretation of his own life and of all history in this light. The chief sources of his light and power came, not from individual or isolated 'spiritual experiences', but from his certainty of the reality of God's working in every event, from his concrete knowledge of God's power to save, to direct and to judge, from his continued attempt to read the signs of the times in the light of God's previous revelation, and from his glad acceptance of his Divine election within the election of his people to do the work God called him to do. His life and his work had meaning and importance, therefore, because God fitted them into an overarching historical plan. God's revealed purpose was that the whole earth shall become his kingdom, and the Israelite was called to play his role in the universal cosmogony of the age yet to be born. The faithful Israelite thus walked in time with a sure and certain hope for the redemption of time. That hope burned the more brilliantly in the desperate crises that meant the destruction of the hopes of paganism, for it was founded on the certainty of God's historical promises; and God does not lie.
It is thus characteristic of Biblical faith that it creates this hope that is based on trust. The pagan, on the other hand, has no such resource. He does not know the God of history. He is unconscious of any significant role he is called to play in history. He knows of no personal election or of the election of his people, except as selfish group desire is projected upon the gods. He is an individualist who uses the elaborate means of worship solely for the purpose of gaining his own security, integration and safety. His vision is not lifted from himself to God's eternity. Consequently, in times of crisis when his security is removed, he is uncertain where to turn. In Egypt he could only hope for a beautiful, abundant hereafter; in Eastern religions for a better reincarnation in which he was elevated above the evil and sorrow of earth; in Canaanite and Mesopotamian religion there was little to sustain him, for, when the individual's hope of earth was removed, there was no hope.
It is scarcely accidental, therefore, that the ancient polytheisms of the Biblical world died with the death of the civilizations of which they were the buttress. They had no means of interpreting history, and, when the gods could not provide order and security, they died. What survived from antiquity were such religions, on the one hand, as had no hope of earth but saw salvation as the individual attempt to climb the ladder of reason or mysticism out of earth's misery, and, on the other hand, Biblical faith with its firm insight in the redemption of God which is known most fully only in the very events which proved the downfall of the gods.
It is Israel which first broke radically with the pagan conceptions of the meaning of life and provided the view of history and the characteristic hope on which the New Testament and the Christian faith so firmly rest. If one leaves the Old Testament aside, he can still find these things present in the New Testament, but they are without historical focus and perspective. God's work in Christ is without meaning when separated from the time which is at hand and the kingdom now fulfilled (Mark 1.15). The Church which lacks the Old Testament again becomes easy prey to paganism and cannot provide the answer or the hope for the present desperate dilemma of man. Thus, on the one hand, the Church today has tended to succumb to man's hope for integration, happiness and security in the world as it is. It has preached the Gospel as a new kind of paganism, the value of which is strictly utilitarian. Religion is good for us; it gives us comfort and peace of mind; it is the only hope for democracy; it alone can support the status quo and make us happy within it. Yet Biblical hope and pagan comfort are not the same thing. In the present frustration within and without it is futile to speak glibly of peace when there is no peace. The Biblical hope is based solely upon God, upon his promises, and upon his election. It is known only in the context of judgment and of the Cross, in the acceptance of a severe ethical demand, of cross-bearing and cross-sharing and of a calling which one works out with fear and trembling. On the other hand, the Church has preached a Gospel of individual pietism and 'spiritual experience', separated almost completely from the common life and from the historical programme of God as revealed in the Bible, while emphasizing prayer and promising the immortality of the soul. It is not that these things in themselves are totally wrong in their proper setting, but here they are separated from their total Biblical context. As such, they are a reversion to pagan 'normalcy', to an individualistic, self-cent red, utilitarian worship which lacks historical grounding in election, promise and fulfillment. The question is critical as to whether such faith can survive any better than did the ancient polytheisms. Is it not a luxury solely of the prosperous?
One might ask, furthermore: What safeguards against paganizing tendencies have the Christian doctrines of man, of the incarnation and the atonement, of the meaning and mission of the Church, of the nature of the Kingdom of God, of the responsible or covenant society, if the Old Testament is separated from the New and the latter left without the historical and theological base on which it rests and which it has repaired and strengthened? Certainly the Biblical concern with justice, while present in the New Testament, is nevertheless cent red in Israel's struggle for the meaning of her national life in the covenant with God. In the conception of worship it is Israel which first broke the completely new ground on which the Church now stands and from which it receives nourishment. All pagan worship is based essentially on the conception of the efficacy of an individual's works, whether of magic, sacrifice (food for the Deity's need), reason, mystical exercise, or the giving of alms. In Israel, on the other hand, proper worship begins with the proper inner attitude toward God, with fear (holy reverence), faith, trust and love. The sacrificial rites have lost their pagan setting and all thought of God's physical need of food and drink is done away. Sacrifice is instead a means which God provides whereby he may be worshipped, whereby sins may be atoned and communion re-established. It has no efficacy in the hands of the pagan or of the hard-hearted sinner who commits his wickedness with premeditation and a high hand. No atoning sacrifice will avail such a person; he can only humble himself and with repentant heart throw himself directly on the mercy of God. In other words, the means of worship are efficacious only when properly used in sincerity and truth' by faithful members of the covenant community (i.e. the Church), people whose lives exhibit integrity ('wholeness, perfection') in faithful obedience to God's will. The religious cultus which is used in any other way can provide no security in God; it is defiled and will suffer the fire of Divine judgment.
Furthermore, the central religious festivals are not rites of sympathetic magic, as in polytheism. In the latter, man takes on the form and identity of a god and acts out in a drama the role that God has played in the natural cycle. Thus by means of a process of identification man secures for himself the primal blessings and security of nature. But in Israel the major festivals of spring (Passover) and fall (the feast of the Tabernacles) had at their center historical memory and commemoration in which the saving acts of God were rehearsed. Confessions of faith which were used in worship were nearly all recitals of what God had done. The first six books of the Old Testament have at their base precisely such a kerygmatic theme, one centering in the election of the fathers, the salvation at the Exodus, and the gift of a land in which to dwell. Around that theme the various editors have heaped a variety of material from numerous sources of tradition, but no Israelite was allowed to forget the simple history of God's acts which furnishes the underlying unity (e.g. Deut. 1-4; Josh. 24.1-13; Ps. 105; Acts 13.17-22).
This historical perspective of worship was carried over into the New Testament and into the Church. It is to be distinguished radically from pagan worship, and it cannot be maintained apart from the Old Testament. Biblical theology is first and foremost a theology of recital. The worshipper listens to the recital and by means of historical memory and identification he participates, so to speak, in the original events. Then facing his own situation he confesses his faith and his sin; he seeks God's forgiveness and direction; and he renews the vows of his covenant. In the modern Church, however, one wonders how much of the meaning of this conception of recital and of historical participation in the worship of God is actually retained. For what purpose is the Scripture read, Christian truth expounded, and the sacraments administered? There would appear to be a great uncertainty in the churches of our day about this question. The average Christian, however, seems to have little sense of the difference between Biblical and pagan worship, and like the pagan he is inclined to participate in the socially accepted religious cultus in search of security, without vigorous historical memory, without understanding of his sin, without forgiveness, and without renewal in a covenant community which has been founded by the redemptive activity of God.
It is not suggested here that the use of the Old Testament will automatically solve all of the problems facing the Christian Church! Yet it is suggested that the misuse and disuse of the Old Testament have deprived the Church of its Bible. The New Testament is not itself a Bible; it is a small body of literature filled with all sorts of presuppositions which have no meaning to the uninitiated. It is the Old Testament which initially broke radically with pagan religion and which thus forms the basis on which the New rests. Christ came in the fullness of time, not time in general, but God's special time which began with Abraham. To be sure, the Old Testament by itself does not present a faith by which men today can live. Judaism and Christianity are two different religions because in the former the Old Testament is made relevant, is seen fulfilled in the Talmud, while in the latter it is fulfilled in Christ. For the Christian, Christ is the key to the central contents of the Old Testament, but at the same time it is the Old Testament which provides the clue to Christ. It is small wonder, then, that when a Christian seriously seeks to explain and expound his faith over against another religion, his initial and basic arguments are drawn from the Old Testament, for it is the latter which has been a chief bulwark of the Church against paganism.4
If this be true, then one of the most important tasks of the Church today is to lay hold upon a Biblically cent red theology. To do so means that we must first take the faith of Israel seriously and by the use of the scholarly tools at our disposal seek to understand the theology of the Old Testament. But, secondly, as Christians we must also press toward a Biblical theology, in which both Testaments are held together in an organic manner. We cannot envisage the task ahead as merely that of studying New Testament theology and Old Testament theology in separate compartments, and then attempting to put them together. It is very doubtful whether one can maintain a New Testament theology as a separate and independent discipline. The New Testament is primarily that fulfillment of the Old Testament which separates the faith from its nationalistic basis and with Christ as the king of the new Israel it unifies that which is not unified in old Israel. It restores the power of the earlier eschatology, and in the cross and resurrection brings together God's justice and love, his wrath and his salvation, his gospel and his law, so that the Church is sent into the world conscious both of the long history of God's activity behind it and of its new creation in Jesus Christ. The New Testament in and by itself alone is an insufficient base on which to stand. The significance of God's work in Jesus Christ can be comprehended only when the Bible is retained as the Bible, not as an abbreviated torso of the Bible.
Yet how are we to proceed in such a task? Biblical scholars divide themselves into Old Testament specialists and New Testament specialists, and our theological seminaries have Old Testament and New Testament departments. An occasional seminary in America still attempts to bridge the gap by something called the Department of English Bible, as though the only prerequisite for Biblical understanding were a knowledge of the English language, while those who are able to teach the Biblical languages are by their knowledge incapacitated for the communication of Biblical truth in the language of their nativity
Even more important is the fact that Biblical scholars today are very uncertain as to how to move in the direction of Biblical theology. The point of view of the last century resulted in numerous histories of Israelite religion, but in very little theology. We now see the inadequacy of the former approach, but how are we to proceed in our attempt to do something different? The focus of attention formerly was concentrated on the analysis of history and literary forms, with the result that the Bible was split into its many component parts with little to hold them together except the conception of an evolving historical process. An extreme example of this type of work was published recently, as though born long after its time: I. G. Matthews, The Religious Pilgrimage of Israel (New York and London, 1947). This author presents Israel's history as evolving through some fourteen different religions or distinct religious formulations. The final chapter on the religion of Judaism (400 B.C.—A.D. 135) scarcely mentions the early Christian movement, except for one brief paragraph on the Nazarenes, thus emphasizing the complete separation of the Old and New Testaments. In such a viewpoint a Biblical theology is completely impossible because the Bible has no unity; it speaks by means of many human voices which present more dissonance than they do harmonious concord of sound.5
Fortunately, most Biblical scholars today are unwilling to surrender to such a view. After all, the Bible does testify to a certain religious faith which, like other faiths, is a distinct entity of which its adherents were very self-conscious. The process of history brought changes and developments within the faith, but not of such a nature as to shift it completely to a different religion. To deny this seems a violation of the whole procedure of scholarly research and an exhibition of a serious myopia which renders one incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. Thus most scholars today who are seriously interested in Biblical theology believe that it is possible and necessary to deal with Biblical religion as an historical reality in its structural unity, and not alone in its chronological development.
Yet the problem is still acute as to how the historical and the systematic approaches are to be combined. Indeed, there is a real question as to whether Biblical faith can be compressed into a 'system' at all. On the one hand, it is filled with paradox so that one no sooner makes one type of statement on the basis of one selection of verses than he may be confronted with other passages which seem to say the opposite. The world is good; but it is also evil. Man is a free lord of this world; yet he is not free because God is Lord. God loves man above all creatures, but turns on him with a terrible wrath. God chooses Israel and sets his love on her; yet his election brings with it a continuous suffering. Many of the Biblical paradoxes can be resolved by rational statement to be sure, but, taken as a whole, Biblical faith can no more be confined to a rigorous system than can life itself.
On the other hand, the Biblical language is concrete, poetical, metaphorical, picturesque. Nearly all of its religious vocabulary is derived from sources in human life which immediately bring pictures or images to the mind and which are filled with color, contrast and movement. Consequently, the Biblical language will always be the despair of the precise and exact theologian who above all desires a simple, coherent system. When one tries to translate this language out of the paradoxical color and movement of life into abstract, universal concepts and propositions, he immediately finds that the vitality of the faith has eluded him. Must we assume, therefore, that to theologize from the Biblical language means that we are immediately separating ourselves from the faith? The answer is certainly in the affirmative, if to theologize means first and foremost the reduction of the colorful image into a dreary black and white so that a consistent system may be erected with a minimum of paradox. Yet man cannot live by consistency or by the abstract, colourless, universal truth. One must ask, therefore, whether our concern with the abstract and with the systematic should occupy the center of our attention as we approach the subject matter of Biblical theology. Is it possible that there may be another kind of theology than the abstract, the coherent and the propositional? I believe that there is, and that Biblical theology is more to be characterized by the words 'confessional recital' than it is by 'a system of ideas'. It is a reflection on the meaning of God's acts more than it is 'a study of the religious ideas of the Bible in their historic context'.6 If this is the case, then perhaps a number of our initial difficulties with the subject may be removed.
1 The Old Testament in the World Church (London, 1942), p.23.
2 Cf. Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago, 1948), pp. 277 ff; Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York, 1948), pp. 73 ff.
3 Readers may wish to make an exception of the Johannine literature, basing the conclusion on John 4:24 ('God is spirit'). This statement must be interpreted, however, in the light of the whole Johannine vocabulary and in relation to the other Johannine sentences, 'God is light' and 'God is love'. When this is done, it is doubtful whether it can be used to sustain a doctrine of God's spirituality. These phrases are primarily concerned with the nature of the Divine activity and revelation, rather than with the ontology of God in the Hellenic sense.
4 For fuller discussion, with supporting detail and references, of the arguments here presented for the distinction between Israelite faith and that of polytheism, see the writer's monograph, The Old Testament Against Its Environment (London and Chicago, 1950).
5 See further in more detail Robert C. Dentan, Preface to Old Testament Theology (New Haven, 1950), Chaps. V—VII; and James D. Smart, "The Death and Rebirth of Old Testament Theology", Journal of Religion, Vol. XXIII (1943), pp. 125-136.
6 Contrast Dentan, op. cit., p.45.