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The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture – Part 7 (“The Art of Reading Scripture,” Thesis #9)

Summary of the Five Previous Blogs in This Series

(This summary is for those who have not been reading along or who would benefit from a review.  If you’re already abreast of the conversation thus far, simply skip down to the section following the part 7 subtitle.)

Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance‘s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts.  Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.

As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck‘s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times.  I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.

In part three of the series, I attempted to bring Brevard Childs‘s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion.  With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility.  The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.

In week four, I began a series of interactions with the compilation The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.  That was the first of a series of blogs in which I intend to critique constructively a selection of theses from the introductory article “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” by The Scripture Project–namely, theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In part four of the series I interacted with thesis number 3, which read:

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative:  the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).

After highlighting some points of agreement, I went on to argue that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood.  We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  I maintained that this implies, at the least, that we read and interpret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.

In week 5’s installment, I wrestled with The Scripture Project‘s thesis number 4, which read:

4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author.  In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama (The Scripture Project, 2).

Ultimately, I agreed that the writers and editors of Scripture gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions.  In fact, I have maintained throughout this series of blogs that that was part of what Israel was elected and inspired to do.  However, I argued that this observation has not authorized the post-Apostolic, principally gentile, Christian community to do likewise.  Even in the wake of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community, I contended that we need to distinguish our inspiration from that of the historic people of Israel.

In last week’s engagement (part 6), I interacted with The Scripture Project‘s theses #6, 7, & 8, which read in the following way:

6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church (The Scripture Project, 3-4).

In response to these three theses, I provided three cautions.  First, I maintained that Christians are not first Wesleyans, Calvinists, Arminians, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or whatever other designation we often think of when we think of our particular Christian communities.  Christians are followers of Jesus and His Apostles, followers of a Jewish Messiah, followers of the God of Israel who became flesh in the Person of Jesus.  We gentiles have become co-heirs with Israel.  This is who we now are.

Second, I maintained that our study of exemplary European followers of Jesus should be read within the context of the people of Israel.  In other words, the readings, interpretations, and performances of gentile saints of the church should be, in my estimation, subordinated to the living context of Israel in order to allow Jewish culture to reveal distortions in gentile readings of Scripture.

And third, I insisted that Christian-Jewish dialogue from a Christian perspective should be seen as an intra-community conversation and not as an inter-community dialogue.  Consequently, I argued that Christian-Jewish dialogue is a categorically different engagement than a Christian confrontation with Buddhism, for example.

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 7: Wrestling with Thesis #9

I trust that this lengthy overview has brought us all up to date on the conversation thus far.  The present blog will constitute the final in this series.  Whatever conversation develops from here, I hope will be instigated by you with comments, either critical or clarifying.  In any case, this week I will wrestle with the language of The Scripture Project‘s thesis #9, which read as follows:

9. We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world (The Scripture Project, 5).

My first response to the language of this thesis is not a criticism precisely, but rather a constructive contribution.  This idea of living in the time between the times, ‘in the tension between the already and the not yet’, in the reality often termed inaugurated eschatology in theological circles often fails to appreciate a significant Hebraic conceptuality which I believe undergirds the biblical language that has given rise to it.

A few weeks ago, I attempted to initiate a dialogue along these lines in response to a blog posting by Everett Berry, entitled “Inaugurated Eschatology and Holiness: Is There a Link?”  My comment was approved, but to this point I have not received a response.  Perhaps this blog posting will help to initiate that conversation by providing a practical, theological application of what I have been suggesting throughout this series of blogs–namely, that we attempt to allow Hebrew culture to be the space in which a Christian reading of Scripture and Christian theology are worked out.

So, let us begin at the beginning.  What is at stake in The Scripture Project‘s insistence that ‘We live in the tension between the already and the not yet’?  Most Protestant theologians today use this language to describe a previously unanticipated reality that the events of Jesus’s life and the successive history of the Church has thrust upon us.

Prior to the Incarnation–that is, the event of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, the Messiah–it appears that Jewish eschatology assumed that the present age would come to an abrupt, and quite violent, end in the events surrounding what the prophets often termed the Day of the LORD.  Those events would then, presumably, usher in a new age in which Israel would be re-established, the gentile nations would be subdued by Israel and become something like vassal states or commonwealths to the Israelite capital, the Covenant of Sinai would be renewed, this time to incorporate gentile nations within its charter, and the peace of the LORD would be established on earth.

However, when God came in the flesh in the Person of Jesus and the Day of the LORD presumably dawned, the timeline did not unfold as the extent Jewish sources to which we have access seem to have predicted.  In fact, the Day of the LORD was revealed to be an extended period of time.  Instead of simply dawning and resulting in the end of the old age, it was a day which proved in fact to be bracketed by two comings of God.  The first of these comings was the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  The second, according to New Testament apocalyptic passages such those found in the book of Revelation, will be the return of Jesus at the end of this age.

This dual-coming of God resulted in a gap between comings.  Some theologians believe that this gap has proven to be much longer than the New Testament writers expected it to be.  Even so, the idea of a time between the times, however brief it was expected to be, seems present in the New Testament, nonetheless.

Furthermore, the Apostolic writings seem to suggest that realities properly associated with the new age (what Revelation calls the ‘new heaven and the new earth’) have broken in to this time between the two comings of Jesus.  However, it also seems clear that the old age (the age of sin and corruption) has not been entirely evacuated.  This, to my understanding, is what The Scripture Project means to say when they confess that ‘We live in the tension between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God’.

What I would like to contribute to this conversation is the observation that what God may have been employing in this reality we call inaugurated eschatology is perhaps the Jewish practice of a two-stage marriage.  Marvin Wilson, in his book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith describes marriage from a first-century Jewish perspective in the following way:

In early rabbinic literature, the first part of the marriage ceremony which contractually sets the couple aside in betrothal is known as ‘kiddushin’ (or ‘qiddushin’), properly an act of “sanctification” or “consecration.”  The basic meaning behind the term ‘kiddushin’ is “be set apart,” “be holy.”

. . . .In early rabbinic literature the second part of the marriage ceremony–that which consummated the event personally and privately rather than legally–was known as ‘nissu’in’.  In modern Hebrew, ‘nissu’in’ is one of several words translated “marriage.”  ‘Nissu’in’ and the related form ‘nasu’, “married,” derive from the verb ‘nasa’, “to lift up,” “to bear,” “to carry” (Wilson, Our Father Abraham, 205, 213).

Both of these ‘stages’ of intimacy were properly marriage from this perspective.  Unfaithfulness, even in the act of having sexual relations with each other, during kiddushin was considered adultery by the early rabbinic tradition.  Kiddushin set the couple apart to one another, but the husband was not yet to take his wife to live with him, nor were they to consummate the relationship during this stage of the marriage.  The husband was to go and finish preparations for a way of supporting his future family, as well as preparing a place in which he and his wife would one day live.  Only after these preparations were complete was the relationship consummated in nissu’in, the lifting up.

It seems most likely to me that this time between the times in which we, as Christians, now live is best explained as the space between kiddushin and nissu’in.  The New Testament language of presently being ‘set apart to God’, of being ‘the bride of Christ’, as well as Jesus’ own insistence that he was ‘going to prepare a place’ for His followers, all seem to be contextualized in the insistence that what it means to follow Jesus in this time between the times is to enter into kiddushin with Him–the first stage of marriage.  The time will come, when the bridegroom returns to take His bride to be with Him in nissu’in–the ‘lifting up’.  Now, the relationship has been initiated, then the relationship will be consummated.

My hope in that brief critical contribution is two-fold.  First, I trust that the kiddushinnissu’in dynamic will illustrate the deep Hebraicness of the teachings and promises of Jesus.  Second, I pray that we in the largely gentile Christian community will begin to speak from a Hebraic perspective utilizing conceptualities such as kiddushinnissu’in in the place of more de-contextualized philosophical constructs such as inaugurated eschatology.

Returning now to the successive language of thesis #9, in light of the tension between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God (what I have called the reality of kiddushin and the expectation of nissu’in), The Scripture Project goes on to conclude:

. . . .consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

What I suspect beneath this language is a conceptuality that I have been trying to warn against in this blog series.  I believe that this language fails, again, to distinguish between the inspiredness of the historic people of Israel and subsequent followers of Jesus in the context of the Church.

I do agree that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, and that the Holy Spirit of Jesus (or of God, since some traditions prefer that language) has been poured out on the Church in quite a different manner than it had been poured out on Israel generally.  However, I remain insistent that the community of Israel was elected and inspired to reflect and re-reflect on their unique history with God in order to produce a corpus of generationally developed texts which would henceforth be authorized by God as the revelation of God to all peoples for all time.

Understood in this way, the re-readings and re-workings of biblical texts that we see evidenced throughout the history of the ancient people of Israel, up to and including the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, came to an historical point of completion with the end of the Apostolic era.  We, of course, must read and re-read these texts.  In other words, we must not presume that a single reading has exhausted the intent and purpose of these documents.  These texts should never be replaced with creeds, doctrines, principles, or propositions.  We must continue to engage with these texts as the Holy Spirit enables us.  If this is all The Scripture Project has meant to contend, then I agree.

However, the language of ‘in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world’, combined with the later comments made in the essay under that subheading cause me to suspect that the assumption at work here is that the prophets and apostles have not simply done what they have done in Scripture on God’s behalf for us.  Rather, I suspect that this group believes that the prophets and apostles have demonstrated how this re-reading and re-working might be done, and we are then authorized to do as they did.  As should now be clear, I couldn’t disagree more.

Whatever it now means to read and interpret Scripture, I believe the endeavor must take a posture of submission to the people and culture of ancient Israel.  That people and the times in which they lived have been given a singular priority for all peoples and all times.  As difficult as such meekness may be for those of us who believe we live in far more educated, far more progressive, far more evolved, far more enlightened contexts than they did, I am arguing that God has elected those people and those times as His vessels of revelation to the rest of humanity for the rest of time.  However the Holy Spirit speaks to us, I believe He now speaks to us through them.

I do not believe that this sort of a confession necessitates the embracing of everything that these cultures presumed to be true (scientifically, philosophically, morally/ethically, and so on).  However, I do believe that this conviction requires that we submit ourselves to all that the resultant texts appear to intend to contend.  Future blogs and blog series will help to illustrate what I’m getting at here.

For now, suffice it to say that simply because Jeremiah presumably believed that the world was flat does not mean that God has authorized that cultural presumption to be authoritative for all time.  However, what I’m arguing is that all those things that Jeremiah presumed to teach on God’s behalf, all of the interpretations of Israelite history that the text of Jeremiah posits, all of the warnings and prophesies put forward in the book as we now have it, are authoritative for all peoples for all time.  To be a Christian is to sit at the footstool of the prophets and apostles of Israel, and to recognize them as God’s chosen instructors for the rest of us.

My prayer is that we in gentile Christian communities will come to recognize this God-inspired, God-authorized space of learning.  I’ll conclude this series of blogs with a final quotation from Marvin Wilson:

A study of the last nineteen hundred years reveals how the Church left its original Jewish nest and considerably distanced itself from the Semitic culture that gave it birth.  The Church paid little heed to the exhortation of Paul to continue in what it had learned and believed in the context of its Hebrew beginnings.  Rather, as it became more and more Hellenized by moving westward through the Mediterranean world, it began to be led away into strange teachings (cf. Heb. 13:9). . . .

We are still reaping the results of this severance today.  Westerners have often found themselves in the confusing situation of trying to understand a Jewish Book through the eyes of Greek culture.  This situation has led, in Dom Gregory Dix’s view, to a “spiritual schizophrenia in the process.” [citation omitted]  What is more, over the centuries, it has had detrimental and ofttimes dire consequences for the life and teachings of the Church (Wilson, 166-167).

Thanks to all who have persevered through this lengthy series with me!

Staying engaged with the conversation,

J. Thomas Johnson