How the Common Testament Can Be ‘Scripture’ for Christians

At last Tuesday’s Gospel Reflection group, one member said words to the effect that ‘If everyone else in the congregation knew the range of topics that we discuss here, they would be lining up in droves to come!’ Well I thought that it would be worthwhile to share with you one topic that we discussed.

It is common for people to have trouble with the Common Testament. (We used to call this the Old Testament, but it is not ‘old’, just the one we have in common with Judaism. It is still ‘Scripture’ foir us too.) People quote the story of Abraham and Isaac and say ‘How can you have a god who would ask this of a person? Or they look at the practice of putting whole populations ‘under the ban’ which means giving the spoils of battle to God by sacrificing everything. Or they quote ‘an eye for an eye’ and say ‘We don’t want anything to do with a god who says ‘Do this!’

These kinds of difficulties were raised very early on in the Church’s life by a man called Marcion who lived in the first century C.E.. The Church responded to him, mainly through Ireneus of Lyon. His ideas are similar to the arguments that are used today. Let me go through them.

The first thing to say, though this is not decisive, is that Jesus was a Jew. His history and the tradition out of which he came was the Common Testament. We cannot understand him apart from understanding about Adam and Eve, and God’s call to Abraham, and God’s liberation of the People of Israel from bondage in Egypt and the hope for a messiah that grew up in the time of the prophets. We share this common history with the Jews and their hope is our hope. This is important and interesting, even though it does not address the question of how the Common Testament is Scripture (authoritative) for us.

The other thing that is worth saying, as a preliminary comment, is that the judgement ‘Oh, the Common Testament describes a vengeful god of Judgement, while the New describes a God of love’ is just not true. If you actually read the whole of the Common Testament, you will find vast tracts of literature that show how what God says in Exodus is true. ‘I will punish you to the third and fourth generation, but I keep faith with thousands of generations for them that love me.’ god’s love overtops any punishment by a  great deal.There is not space here to go into this subject deeply, but I do think that the people who express this view ought to do it after having read the whole of the Common Testament and made some record of what they like and what they don’t.

It is also true to say that some of the passages in the Common Testament  have been mis-interpreted. Take ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, for example. Today this is either quoted by people who want to extract more vengeance on perpetrators of crime than the law allows, or those who want to demonstrate the cruelty of the Common Testament. But this law was formulated in times of continuing tribal escalation of violence. A small injury was done by my tribe to yours. Your tribe comes and escalates their recompense by burning your village. Our tribe in turn takes its revenge by killing all your relatives. A never-endinc cycle of escalating violence ensues. The law ‘an eye for an eye’ was issued in Israel not to increase punishment, but to limit it.

But to turn to how me might understand the Commmon Testament as Scripture, we find that Ireneus’ first argument is that of development. He says that human kind has undergone some development since those times, and if the Common Testament appears less perfect than the New, then that is because it was designed for a less developed humanity than was living in Jesus’, or our own times. For him, the Sermon on the mount is not an abolition of the main content of the Common Testament, but a more perfect fulfilment of it. Even in Ezekiel we read (this Sunday) that while the exiles thought that God was punishing them for the sins of their fathers, Ezekiel says a version of what Jesus says ‘You have heard that it was said, well now I say unto you something different.’ There is room for letting go of some parts of the Common Testament because we have heard something new, and have moved on.

This is true, even in our own time. We do not reject our recent ancestors out of hand because they believed that God decided who was in the right by means of who won the battle. We have moved on. We don’t think that any more, but we do endorse violence in our name when our armies go into Iraq and Afghanistan. We don’t think that hanging, drawing and quartering is a fit punishment any more, but it was not so long ago that this was considered quite normal. We have moved on. So not all of the Common Testament has to be ‘Scripture’ for us. In the light of new experiences, we can leave some behind (as has Judaism, for whom this is the only Scripture).

The other thing which Ireneus mentions is that in some stories, there is a deeper logic at work that can be Scripture for us, even if we leave out the superficial meaning. This is particularly so for me, for example, in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Child sacrifice was practised in the ancient Near East, a but not by Israel. It is in the context of common child sacrifice to the gods that this story happens. But what I find important is that it was Abraham’s trust in God to follow where he lead that made him righteous. This resulted in the blessing of children, even though he and Sarah were infertile. But then comes Isaac. Now Abraham can afford to be an atheist. He can start believing in biology and its inevitability, rather than in God. The demand to sacrifice Isaac is the test of whether Abraham is going to keep trusting in God, for whatever that may mean, and not trust in biology. That story is repeated by Jesus in the parable of the man who built bigger barns. Instead of trusting in God and letting his soul be God-directed, he says ‘Ill build big barns, and my material wealth will keep me secure.’ Bu it didn’t. This issue is as alive for me as it was for Abraham. So there is another way of reading the Common Testament that allows it to be Scripture for us, but also allows us to step away from the more violent aspects of it.

The other way of reading the Common Testament is to compare the two ways of relating to God like the paradigm shift between Newtonian Physics and Einstein’s relativity physics. Newton does ok, but once the paradigm shift has been made to relativity physics, one cannot look at the world through the same eyes ever again. Luther understood this when he used the metaphor that the Psalms are ‘humanity before God’, so in reality, the speaker in the Psalms is Christ, the representative of ‘humanity before God.’ Clearly for Temple worship the psalms were not this, but from the point of view of our being ‘in Christ’ what Luther says is true.
So there you  go. I hope you find this helpful. If you want to discuss your ideas further, read the Common Testament first, then get back to me.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Religion and Society, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux. Bookmark the permalink.

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