Friday, August 25, 2006

A Fascinating Dialog with Dan Trabue on the Two Testaments

Over the last few days there has been a fascinating discussion on the relationship of the two testaments going on over at Dr. Cathey's blog:

Dr Cathey's BlogPost: Scriptural Surgery? - Jim West Style!

In the "Comments" to this particular posting, Dan Trabue has raised important questions of biblical theology that highly interest me.
I think we are going to try to continue the discussion over here in my blog for a little while.

Meanwhile, here is a bit of the recent discussion:

Cook: Dan, the stance you defend is widespread, but I cannot agree with it. It fails to hold the two testaments of the Christian Bible in dynamic tension. Let me cite one of the examples that Brevard Childs himself gives us: Moses' violent murder of an Egyptian. The NT takes a clear non-pacificist stance on the act. Hebrews 11:24ff. praises Moses' decisions in Exodus 2. On the other hand, the OT is more ambivalent and perhaps more practical. The OT neither faults nor praises Moses, but presents a narrative in Exodus 2 that shows how both negative and positive results follow from his violence. I do not think that the NT view supercedes the OT view here, but believe that both views are instructive for us. From the OT side, I take away the truth that if in Christian faith I choose to do violence, I must be ready for both positive and unexpectedly negative results to follow.

Dan Trabue: I agree that both OT and NT are instructive to us. But it seems to me that in some places there are clear decisions that we have to make - will we go with the OT command or the NT command?
Do you eat pork or shrimp (as allowed in the NT) or do you NOT eat pork/shrimp (as commanded in the OT)? There are two opposite opinions offered here as to what's allowed and what's not. It seems to me, we either have to embrace one or the other, or ignore both (say, for instance, "I don't eat either pork or shrimp, but I do this for health reasons, not because of what the Bible does or doesn't say.")
I'm honestly curious: What do you do with places where it seems that we're commanded to do two opposite things? Do you turn the other cheek or seek an eye for an eye?


Dan Trabue: As to your Moses example, Stephen, I think it is a huge stretch to say that the NT takes a non-pacifist position in the book of Hebrews because it doesn't condemn Moses' murdering an Egyptian. Does the fact that the NT calls David a "man after God's own heart" (Acts 13) mean that Luke is endorsing adultery, cowardice, murder and lying? God forbid!
As I said, I love the OT, but I weigh everything that the Bible says against Jesus. This used to be standard Baptist teaching ("We interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament and the whole Bible in light of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture"), as well as many other faith traditions, I'm sure.
To say this is not to dismiss the teachings of the OT, but rather to realize that Jesus came to fulfill the law. To give us a more complete understanding of God's word. Additionally, we have to keep in mind that much of the OT is offered in a historical vein, but not necessarily as a universal and eternal teaching that is to be passed down forevermore.
I'm sure you don't embrace stoning to death disrespectful children or "men who lay with men." I'd hope that you don't think we ought to slaughter an entire enemy as sometimes depicted in the OT, down to their children and puppies.
We don't embrace these teachings because we've been given better, more complete understanding of God, don't you agree with this?
Or, if not, how do you explain that we don't continue to embrace all the teachings of the OT? With the possible exception of dietary laws and treatment of enemies, there is no place in the NT that specifically says we can STOP killing disrespectful children.

Cook: No, Dan, but Hebrews 11 is definitely non-pacificist----e.g., v. 33 "by faith they conquered kingdoms." I'm not saying we should only read Hebrews 11 and each one of us become a non-pacifist, just that we should also be willing to hear the witness of OT texts in dynamic interaction with Hebrews 11---OT texts such as Exodus 2.
Dan, thank you for engaging these questions. The discussion is highly significant and of great interest. I think this will be my last post here, since it's Joe's blog and I don't want to hijack it. You're welcome to continue it on my blog ifyou'd like. Let me reply to your two posts. I enjoy debate, and offer these remarks in a spirit of Christian friendship.
Dan, in my humble opinion several of your gut instincts are very much on target: Christians have the NT, Jews have the Mishnah and Talmud----thus, most Christians are willing to eat pork, most Jews are not. Having an NT makes a difference, as you quite rightly point out.
Nevertheless, neither the New Testament nor even the reconstructed words of Jesus should be allowed to stand as a canon within the canon! What I tell my seminarians is please, please don't go jumping to the NT when you think you don't like what you are hearing in the OT. The Church has two testaments for a reason. They explain and illuminate each other. We need the witness of the OT. For example, What if we only had 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 and not the Song of Songs! We need the more healthy appreciation of physical embodiement and joyous sexuality to which the OT bears witnesses so much better than the NT. In other key places, the OT explains and draws out the meaning of the NT, expanding on its sense and giving us a more complete understanding.
Thus, we need the OT if we ever want to understand Jesus' work on the cross---that's why Jesus sends us back to Ps 22 as he is dying.
Next, I don't think that you want to argue that the OT should be interpreted to mean it advocates slaughtering puppies or stoning disrespectful children as you seem to suggest. I do not know of any responsible hermeneutic that would interpret the OT for today along those lines. Certainly faithful Jews don't interpret the OT along those lines, and for good reason---it's canonical shaping strongly resists such interpretations. You don't need the NT to do this work of drawing out the OT's true relevance for the faithful.
On the flip side, surely you would not want to argue that no hermeneutics are needed for interpreting the NT. We need hermeneutics there just as much as with the hard sayings of the OT. Jesus took for granted a world where people sacrificed animals at a temple, where heaven somehow floated bodily above Jerusalem, and where the eschaton was to happen within a generation. Our contemporary world is just as different from Jesus' NT world as it is from the OT world, no? It's not as if we need hermeneutics for OT interpretation and not for NT interpretation!
Sorry this got soooo long.


Dan Traubue: You graciously invited me to continue our conversation (begun at Dr. Cathey's blog) over here. I hope right here is okay. You said:"Dan, thank you for engaging these questions. The discussion is highly significant and of great interest...I enjoy debate, and offer these remarks in a spirit of Christian friendship."Thank you. I have only taken your comments in that spirit (you've been entirely gracious) and only offer mine in the same.You said:"Having an NT makes a difference, as you quite rightly point out."Agreed.You also said:"Nevertheless, neither the New Testament nor even the reconstructed words of Jesus should be allowed to stand as a canon within the canon!..."I don't know that I'm disagreeing with you here. As I've said, I love the OT and the historical context it offers us. Nonetheless, if I get to a point where it appears God is telling the Israelis to wipe out an entire people, down to their children, I will think, "wow." And then I will look to the NT teachings where we are told to overcome evil with good, love our enemies, etc and think, "wow."It would be an understatement to say that's a huge difference between the two teachings! And, as I asked before, I am honestly curious what helps you decide how to interpret these two seemingly diametrically opposed teachings.I mean, I know what processes and thinking I have that helps me interpret them (for one, for example, realizing that the OT is offering an historical story, not a direct teaching and I'm okay with saying, "wow. That's beyond me how God could seemingly command the Israelis to commit genocide, but regardless, I know what I've been taught to do...") As to your comments about hermeneutics, I'm just a poor ol' hippy amish boy. I don't know how to spell hermeneutics, I don't know what to do with hermeneutics and besides, what we need most of all is a good way of interpreting stuff!

11 Comments:

Blogger Dan Trabue said...

So, my briefest question is: How do you rightly divide two seemingly opposed passages, such as the ones I suggested?

Fri Aug 25, 04:19:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks Dan and sorry for the delay in replying---busy day. For me personally, I feel unsettled when biblical passages conflict. I emphathize with Jerome, when he speaks of invoking the H. Spirit, lifting up his hands to heaven, and praying with Peter, "Explain to us this parable..."
When two biblical passages conflict, I would look for a third passage that reconciles them, or I would attempt to discern the dual-truth or theological paradox at issue, or I would look for a larger context within which both passages might be seen as true. Ultimately, in working out a theological decision I would rely on the Christian faith that the Scriptures as an entire canon have nurtured in me (i.e., I would have to lean heavily on what Irenaeus called the "rule of faith").
But before all that, I would ask if there really is a contradiction at stake. In the example of the Conquest that I believe you are thinking of, I don't see a conflict between the testaments.
I'm not alone. Prof. Tremper Longman, in his part of _Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide_ (Zondervan 2003), writes: "The God of the Old Testament is not a different God from the God we encounter in the New Testament. Nor did God change... The war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment. The object of warfare moves from the Canaanites, who are the object of God's wrath for their sin, to the spiritual powers and principalities, and then finally to the utter destruction of all evil, human and spiritual" (pp. 184-85)." Please don't hear this statement anthropolgically or ideologically, and be put off. Tremper is attempting a real _theological_ interpretation here, one that deserves to be taken seriously.

Fri Aug 25, 07:33:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

A Note on the Eating of Pork:
The early followers of Jesus certainly wrestled hard with whether Gentiles had to first become Jews and accept the customs of the Sinai covenant before becoming followers of Jesus. They came to the conclusion that with the work of Jesus, the eschaton was upon them and texts such as Isaiah 20:24-25 were coming into effect. Non-Jews were starting to become a blessing of God on earth without converting to Judaism.

A Note on Interpreting OT Torah for Christian Life and Ministry: Kevin Wilson's new Book in the "Coversations" series, _The Law_, pp. 56-59, etc. (ISBN: 0-8192-2147-3

Sat Aug 26, 12:12:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

"When two biblical passages conflict, I would look for a third passage that reconciles them"

Agreed.

"I would attempt to discern the dual-truth or theological paradox at issue,"

Fine.

"I would look for a larger context within which both passages might be seen as true."

Okay, within reason. I'd be reluctant to embrace too much rationalization against obvious teachings - especially when those teachings come from Christ.

For example, what of the person who points to Abraham nearly offering (killing) his son following God's instructions and says he's going to do the same, as he thinks God is telling him to do so. I'd be quick to suggest that this person is probably hearing things other than God and that we can know that God is not telling him to do so because the instruction is against the nature of God.

I'm willing to accept some mystery and lack of understanding on my own part, due to my limited genius as a frail human. But quite frankly, I'm not willing to accept anyone who tells me that the God of love, of justice, the God who commanded us to love our enemies and neighbors, that THIS God would tell anyone to kill their child, commit genocide or drop bombs on children.

Is it possible that I'm wrong and God really would say that? Sure, you can always bet that there's a chance I'm wrong. BUT, I'd suggest the teachings are so clear in the NT (AND the Old) that you'd be a fool to embrace that sort of behavior as Godly.

As to Longman's statement: "The God of the Old Testament is not a different God from the God we encounter in the New Testament. Nor did God change" I'd just offer that - however you want to interpret it - God's teachings clearly did change or were clarified. We couldn't eat pork, now we can. We could exact an eye for an eye but now we're to turn the other cheek. We have new and improved teachings, thank God. As, for whatever reason (I'm not sure if I'm following all of Longman's argument), Longman suggests himself when he points to the changing way of dealing with enemies.

If he's saying that NOW our fight is with "principalities and powers," but as to humans, we're to love our enemies and overcome any evil they might do with good, rather than deadly violence, I think I'm okay with that. Although I may not view "principalities and powers" in the same way he does, but that's another discussion.

Sun Aug 27, 10:10:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thank you, Dan. Many of our views seem to be very close. Certainly, it is clear to both of us that God changes tactics through time. (Aristotle's "unmoved mover" is not the God of the OT in my opinion.) Thus, after the Flood and the Babel disasters, God chose to work through the people of Abraham, not the world at large as God had been doing. So too, when Ezekiel and Jeremiah saw how the faithful had utterly failed under the first, "Sinai" covenant, they spoke passionately about God's new plans for a second covenant. (Still, I maintain that the newness in the new covenant has nothing to do with turning the other cheek---the OT had already worked that spirituality out in fulness, see Isaiah 50:6; Gen 16:9. Wherein lies the newness of the "new covenant"? --- that's another post...)

Most especially, I, like you, would think long and hard before even considering the thought of dropping bombs on anyone, let alone children. I fully agree with you that normally a Christian would be a complete fool to embrace such behavior as somehow godly. Here, we agree.

Yet, I think I still hear you saying the the NT represents a moral and spiritual advance that supercedes what we find in the OT. Correct me if I am not hearing you well. This is where I cannot follow you. I do not think the sorts of OT passages that you see superceded really are passe. Indeed, I can imagine at least a few cases where these sorts of passages are really needed in today's world, especially by Christians living in the global south.

Among my seminarians, I have international students from Sudan, East Africa, some of whose friends have literally been boiled in oil and suffered many similar tortures. I myself believe that it would be the height of arrogance for me to strip the violent bits out of the two testaments, and leave my Sudanese sisters and brothers bereft of the spiritual support that these Scriptures provide them. I would have to include even the imprecatory ("cursing") psalms, even Psalm 137, despite its words, "How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock." I think, under the proper spiritual circumstances, a Sudenese Christian could (and perhaps should!) pray these words. I say "pray them," not actually enact them!

By the way, of all the psalms that Jesus quoted in his ministry, he quoted the imprecatory psalms most frequently. Interesting food for thought...

Sun Aug 27, 01:27:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

"Yet, I think I still hear you saying the the NT represents a moral and spiritual advance that supercedes what we find in the OT."

Yes, I think you're hearing me correctly. I love the OT and I find a goodly number of NT ideals preshadowed in its pages, and yet I think the NT gives us a more complete understanding into God's mind.

I think the OT offers many glimpses into the peacemaking and justice issues, for example, that are more fully explained in the NT... How about if I said it this way: If I were to have a choice between the two, I'd rather have the NT than the OT. I think wayyy too often, folk are using isolated OT passages to formulate their theology and that would be a shallow and faulty theology, indeed.

I think peacemaking and warring thinking leads the way in being a place where Christians are making their theology more on OT than NT teachings.

Now, you can rightly say that this is a problem with the people formulating their theology rather than the OT. Perhaps that's my beef as much as anything.

Still, there are many passages in the OT that I find troubling in light of the NT and Jesus' teachings. My God does not advocate genocide, nor the killing of children. As long as people are interpreting those sort of teachings as "God's inerrant truth," I will remain on the side of those who say that we must interpret the OT through the lens of the New.

Mon Aug 28, 12:04:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Dan, you are probably right that your beef is more with the way that many people interpret the OT than with the theological witness of the OT itself. And, in fact, I get as frustrated as you do with approaches that are non-hermeneutical (i.e., approaches on both the left and the right that your average person would call "literalist").

I must say, I am quite taken aback at your appraisal that folks at the forefront of peace and justice are currently leaning toward the NT in their ministries. How can we have lost our way so badly, gotten so confused?! Think of the prophets and their massive witness on behalf of political and economic justice. Think of how heavily Martin Luther King leaned on the texts of Amos. What text is emblazoned on the United Nations but an OT text from the OT prophet Micah about beating swords into plowshares.

Brevard Childs would start his OT Interpretation course reminding the seminarians that it is the OT, not the NT, that the faithful must turn to for in-depth theological work on international politics, global community building, the relationship between church and state, and for wisdom about loving nature and the environment. It is the OT that is the church's resource in struggling with such issues.

For myself, I can't see how you can speak of choosing between the testaments and prefering the NT. Without the OT, the NT would be little better than a decapitated head. It is to the OT that the faithful must turn to flesh out the NT and get a more complete witness to God's will. (See my examples in previous posts and comments.)

Nor is it fair to deprive the OT of its own independent voice, constantly weighing its value against the other testament's way of coming at things. That raises the spectre of eisegesis. It also risks an arrogant dismissal of all the rich and amazing Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures.

As for me, I say let's renew the church's classical love affair with the OT. Let's struggle to interpret its magnificent, irreplaceable witness to God's person and purpose. Only when we do, will our ministries on this earth ever bear their proper fruit.

Mon Aug 28, 08:18:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Steve,
You asked me to weigh in here, but I have been swamped. I am desperate to meet a deadline this week and then I changed my blog template and lost all my code changes and links, etc.
If you two are still going at this by the weekend I might have something to say, but I just can't do it before.

Peace.

Mon Aug 28, 08:32:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger E Felicetti said...

Dr. Cook, The decapitated head is a wonderful metaphor! As you know, I am particularly troubled by the portrayal of the OT in the Sunday lectionary. The OT readings are typically tied to the Gospel reading of the day. While the synoptic Gospels are read sequentially, we only get haphazard chunks of the OT that are "linked" to a theme in the Gospel. I think this diminishes the Scriptural witness of the OT, and contributes to a perception of the OT as somehow "lesser than" the NT. Thanks to all for this lively, thought-provoking discussion! Shalom, Elizabeth

Tue Aug 29, 07:24:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Well, everyone seems to have moved on from this discussion, but since I promised feedback after I met some other deadlines, I'll weigh in anyway. (I'll email Dan and tell him.)
The relationship between the testaments is complex--and goes far beyond the debate over violence. I want to avoid 2 extremes: 1) The "flat Bible" approach that claims to place everything from Gen. to Rev. on the same level of authority. In practice this tends to squeeze Jesus into a mold created by a certain reading of the OT. Jesus is not allowed to say anything new, all evidence to the contrary. I think it was an appearance of such by Joe Cathey which triggered both Jim West's response & Dan Trabue's. (Now I've spoken for 3 people, so I've REALLY put myself out on a limb.) 2)De Facto Marcionism whereby we assume the OT was bad or defective--often leading to supercessionist theologies, anti-Judaism and fundamental misunderstandings of the very Jewish nature of the NT documents themselves. I think it is the appearance of this that has you (and maybe Joe Cathey) alarmed, no?

I'm going to start with basic presuppositions. I am going to write as if talking to an adult SS class, not only for Dan (self-described as neo-Amish retro-hippy) who is an educated layperson married to a minister, but for others who happen to read this. No technical terms, no untranslated passages in other languages, a la Jim West. (I must admit my German improves in reading his blog, but then he throws in Italian and Portuguese! Years of Spanish don't help! I expect Mandarin Chinese next week.)

1) God reveals God's self in many ways (Heb. 1:1), but mostly through HISTORY, especially the history of God's people Israel and their relationship with God, and the history of the earliest Christian communities. The fullness of God's revelation is Jesus Christ.

2)The Hebrew Scriptures never stand on their own. They don't begin to take on any kind of proto-canonical shape until after the Exile when we get beyond ancient Israelite religion and into early Judaism. In Judaism the Hebrew Scriptures are only interpreted as part of the ongoing rabbinic tradition that includes the Mishnah, the Talmud, and later rabbinic commentary. In Christianity, the Hebrew Scriptures are an Old Testament of a bi-partite canon.

3)The Christian reading of the OT is inescapably Christocentric: We read through the interpretive lens provided by Jesus--by his own use of the Scriptures (as far as we can reconstruct that through the Gospel witnesses) and that of the NT writers.

4)But, as you point out, we also fail to understand the NT very well apart from a deeper understanding of its background in the OT and 1st C. Judaism.

Now, what does that mean for the debate over violence? Next post.

Sat Sep 02, 04:06:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Michael,
Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. With your permission, I'm going to renew this discussion at a
new post above, at September 2, 2006, so this fascinating discussion can continue. Please add new comments above at that post.
Many Thanks!
---Stephen C.

Sat Sep 02, 07:16:00 PM GMT-5  

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