Approaching Scripture

Since I’m a commuter (to both my jobs), I have plenty of time to listen as I drive. A few weeks ago I was listening again to one of Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago in New Zealand. You can watch the video online or consult this summary of “The Tanakh as Christian Scripture.”

Jenson observes that Christians and Jews share the text we call “Old Testament” and that they call “Tanakh.” Same text, but the two groups read that text in profoundly different ways. Jenson’s suggestion that Jews read Tanakh primarily as law, because they read it through the lens of what came next, the Talmudic literature, and that Christians read the Old Testament as narrative, because of what came next for us, the New Testament, got me to thinking along another tangent.

For at least some Christians today, the New Testament is no longer the primary lens through which the Old Testament is read. Rather, the Bible is taken as a whole, and read through another, more recent lens, a lens that shapes the way the whole Bible is read. I’m going to oversimplify and call this lens, modernity. Through the lens of modernity, the Bible isn’t primarily narrative, it’s religion. And it’s not just religion, it’s really old religion. This more recent lens encourages us to relativize both testaments and subordinate the teaching of both to our modern experience.

Christopher Seitz, in his The Character of Christian Scripture, points this direction also. He critiques the currently popular view of the Old Testament as too vested in a “history of religions” approach. What we read in the OT is old, really old. Now that we have science, now that we’ve progressed, we know more. What we see there is not to be taken as putative “revelation from God,” but as “what ancient Israel believed or did.”

Is it possible for the church to return to reading the OT from the standpoint of the NT? Well, taking Seitz into account, the better question is, can the church return to reading the OT from the perspective of the early Christian community, the community that lived and produced the NT? He argues that in submitting to historic worship and catechesis (and the Rule of Faith expressed therein), we have the resources we need.

From what I see, it’s a matter of enculturation. As long as our primary enculturation is in the ethos of modernity (or the reductio ad absurdum of modernity we sometimes call postmodernity – yes, I know there are multiple versions of postmodernity, but most of what ordinary people mean by that term looks like hypermodernity), our chances are slim. We just don’t have to tools to imagine anything else. But if we can recover a primary enculturation in the Christian tradition, an ability to read the OT (and even the NT) in a more Christian way ought to come along as well.

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