Monday, February 27, 2012

Some Thoughts on "Narrative Theology" and the Jesus' "Fulfillment" of the Old Testament

I am a Christian. Not only that, I am a Christian theologian in the so-called "evangelical" tradition. As such, I am committed to the belief in the authority of Scripture for both faith and practice. This belief entails, as one might expect, the conviction that what Christians call the "New Testament" provides the fitting, divinely-designed "fulfillment" or completion of God's revelation in the so-called "Old Testament," the Jewish Scriptures. The Old Testament, after all, tells a story without a proper climax, let alone ending, instead projecting a promised denouement into the future.

The New Testament authors are united in their claim that Jesus provides the needed climax. However, if we are honest, we must admit that the conclusion it provides to the story begun in the Old Testament is not a transparently cogent one (indeed, it likewise projects the completion of the story into the future). This fact was lost on me as I was growing up in fundamentalist Christianity. I can still vividly recall "witnessing" about Jesus both at the King of Prussia Mall and Logan Circle in Philadelphia during my teenage years. When asked by my obviously educated interlocutors to provide warrant for my faith in Christ (as St. Peter exhorts Christians always to be ready to do [1 Pet 3:15]), I was quick to note the dozens of "prophecies" that the New Testament authors claimed were "fulfilled" in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

My primary source for this conviction was the book that remains my favorite Gospel, Matthew. Ten times the Evangelist directly quotes an Old Testament text, prefacing it with the comment that it was "fulfilled" in Jesus. All of these are unique to Matthew's Gospel and thus undergird his thematic focus on Jesus as the "Son of David" and "Son of Abraham" who rescues Israel from their exile (1:1-17) and "saves his people from their sins" (1:21-23).

That settles matters, does it not? Well, yes and no. I would not be a Christian if I did not believe Matthew's claim. Jesus, I believe—in his birth, life, death, and resurrection—fulfilled the Old Testament promises. But affirming this does not mean I understand this claim the same way I did all those many years ago. You see, I was the most naive of fundamentalists, who not only believed the Bible (so far, so good), but who also unwittingly read the Bible as if it were written directly to me in 20th century America and could be understood accordingly (not so good). In this worldview, "prophecy" and "fulfillment" meant one thing and one thing only: one-to-one prediction.

This is where the problem starts and, unfortunately, ends for many people. When I was a budding Bible student at a fundamentalist college in the '70s, the major threat to a proper, "faithful" theological education was considered to be the so-called "historical-critical method," then de rigueur in mainline American seminaries as well as in German and British universities. This method, which seeks to interpret biblical texts according to the canons of historical criticism, without the assumption of divine authorship and theological normativeness, had been used for more than two centuries to cast doubt on traditional Christian doctrines and interpretations of biblical texts.

One such text was Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Matthew cites this text as the first of his ten "fulfillment quotations" (Matt 1:22-23). Standard historical-critical exegesis of Isaiah 7:14 notes that the text speaks, not of a virginal conception, but rather of the birth, to a young woman, of a son (Maher-shalal-hashbaz [Isa 8:3]? Hezekiah?) who would serve as a sign to King Ahaz that the kings of Israel and Syria would suffer ruin. What, then, of Matthew?

So-called "critical" scholars were wont to see Matthew's claim as an example of mythological wishful thinking: the Evangelist, finding Isaiah 7:14 in his mental concordance, created the myth of Jesus' virgin birth as a way of claiming Jesus' fulfillment of Scripture. Fundamentalists, on the other hand—and remember, the virgin birth was one of the five so-called "fundamentals" of the faith whose affirmation demonstrated the bona fides of the would-be "fundamentalist"—reacted by asserting that Isaiah 7:14 really was, after all, a prediction of the virginal conception of Jesus, the text's cotext be damned. On this thinking, the LXX translation, on which the NT text was based, used the noun parthenos to specify that the 'almâ in question was actually a virgin.

This way of thinking never carried any conviction, however, and certainly didn't convince anybody not already committed to that form of fundamentalism. Thankfully, I attended a seminary whose New Testament department grounded me in the historical-critical method in the context of an environment where the Bible's absolute authority was fully maintained. What was always needed, in other words, was a way of holding together both the demands of historical interpretation and the New Testament's theological appropriation and (apparent) reinterpretation of the Old Testament.

One helpful way of doing this has influenced me ever since my seminary days. This is the particular stream of "biblical theology" flowing from the seminal work of the old Princeton Reformed scholar Geerhardus Vos, which has recently been massively developed by Greg Beale. This stream organizes theology in terms of the development of "salvation-history" (Heilsgeschichte) from Genesis to its culmination in Revelation. Thus, in contrast to standard dogmatic theology, which organizes itself according to a number of ahistorical loci and at its worst tends to treat the Bible as a gem mine, biblical theology of this sort acknowledges the progressive nature of revelation and organizational significance of the biblical covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David.

More recently, there has been a growing chorus of support for so-called "theological interpretation" of Scripture, associated with such scholars as Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier. Such interpretation explicitly foregrounds the theological nature of the biblical texts and thus does justice to the Bible's function as Scripture for the Christian community.

I am on board with such approaches. All too often one consults critical commentaries in search of the bread of theological insight, coming away instead with the stone of historical speculation. Nevertheless, I am concerned that the almost faddish" fascination with "theological interpretation"—isn't that what those of us committed to the Bible as God's Word have always done?—has come at a hidden cost, namely, an implied de-emphasis on historical-critical investigations. For historical-critical investigation remains the foundation of any responsible interpretation of the Bible.

Saturday, Daniel Kirk (here) expressed a similar concern, offering a narrative approach as a potential alternative. Indeed, "narrative" approaches to the Bible are nothing new. Indeed, in some quarters they may be viewed with as much suspicion, and viewed as equally faddish, as "theological interpretation." Be that as it may, the Bible, if rightly understood—notwithstanding its multitude of authors and literary genres—does indeed tell a story, with a clearly delineated plot-line, climax, and conclusion. The New Testament presents the "Christ-event" (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as Israel's Messiah) as the climax to which the Old Testament pointed for its resolution.

Kirk criticises the older biblical theology for its emphasis on the Bible as the "history of revelation" rather than the "history of God's action," and he may be on to something. The acorn-to-oak analogy is only partially a propos, after all. Kirk prefers to allow for what he refers to as "transformations" of legitimate historical-critical readings of the Old Testament:
To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier.

And again:
Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

He justifies this by appealing to the very text I addressed last week, Romans 1:2:
The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “prepromised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we reread the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.


In light of the climax of the story, we reread the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him.

This, I take it, is basically correct. Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, who learned the "solution" to his and Israel's plight before he fully grasped what that plight had been, the New Testament authors saw the resolution of the biblical story in Jesus' resurrection before noticing the oblique pointers to that resolution contained in the prior narratives and promises of Scripture. Where I take issue—and side with Vanhoozer, for instance—is his implied notion that post-critical, "dramatic rereadings" of the text can be divorced from the historical meaning of the Old Testament texts available to the original audiences. With regard to Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23, for example, I affirm with Kirk,
We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

The question is, how can we simultaneously make both affirmations? My solution is nothing new. Typology, rightly understood, incorporates both historical interpretation and an ex post facto recognition of the text's seminal theological significance vis-à-vis "fulfillment" in Christ.

Matthew understood the Isaianic prophecy to be a typological anticipation of Jesus. The immediate fulfillment of the sign given to Ahaz is, in God's providential design, a pointer to a historical and theological pattern that finds its climactic fulfillment in Christ. The historical birth of "Immanuel" (Maher-shalal-hashbaz?) was a sign of God's direct intervention both to judge the wicked (Isa 7:15ff.) and deliver his people. Most importantly, in Isaiah's own prophecy this deliverance would climax eschatologically in a golden age presided over by a "son" who would be born to rule as king in fulfillment of God's promise to David (Isa 9:2-7; 11:1-16).

For Matthew, Jesus' miraculous birth signalled that God was about to bring this expected "golden age" into existence precisely through his saving of his people from their sins (Matt 1:22). As the late, lamented Raymond E. Brown—himself no fundamentalist— put it:
... [T]he sign offered by Isaiah was not centered on the manner in which the child would be conceived, but in the providential timing whereby a child who would be a sign of God's presence with his people was to be born precisely when that people's fortunes had reached their nadir. (149)

This approach, it seems to me, both necessitates proper historical interpretation and allows for controlled rereadings of those texts on the basis of Christian hindsight precipitated by God's surprising enactment of the Biblical story's climax in Christ. Only such rereadings can possibly claim the legitimacy the truth claims of the gospel demand.

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