Jesus as the God of the Old Testament: Patristic Christology and the Integrity of the Old Testament. Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, History of Interpretation unit. November 2021
Contemporary biblical scholarship has tended to view Christological interpretation as in competition with the historical integrity of the Old Testament. Even scholars who are sympathetic to spiritual readings tend to assign them to a different interpretive level (in the language of Brevard Childs) from interpretations that read the Old Testament on its own terms. This paper argues, however, that two theological views that were shared by many patristic writers open fresh possibilities for the relationship between Christological interpretation of the Old Testament and contemporary historical-critical scholarship (broadly construed). Many early Christian theologians maintained that Jesus was the God of Israel, the one who was encountered by Israel in the narratives recorded in Scripture. This relied on two major theological claims: (i) the Son is the one in and through whom the first person of the Trinity is revealed, so that there can be no knowledge of God that is not always through an encounter with the Son; and (ii) divinity and humanity are so thoroughly united in Christ that we cannot draw any hard distinction between Christ and the pre-incarnate Son: Christ is simply the Son of God with a human nature. Taken together, these imply that Jesus was the God known to Israel: the Son of God was the only one through whom God is ever known; and because divinity and humanity are united in the incarnation, we can say that pre-incarnate Son of God, the God of Israel, is one and the same with Christ. Surprisingly, perhaps, this position actually allows for a robust understanding of the Old Testament’s historical and canonical integrity. For such readings do not require us to retroject New Testament content into the Old, as though Christ were present only after the incarnation. Rather, because Christ was the one encountered in Israel’s history, the Old Testament itself becomes a direct source for Christology. It is not simply raw theological material awaiting Christological refashioning. Rather, it tells us about Christ on its own terms–not by way of “horizontal” spiritual interpretation (not, that is, by reading Israel’s scriptures in light of future events), but rather by the “vertical” encounter of Christ with Israel in its own history. The Old Testament is thereby accorded a privileged place in biblical theology. For on this view, the Old Testament’s doctrine of God, taken on its own terms, is itself properly Christological. What is said of Israel’s God is now said of Christ: he is the one who liberated Israel from Egypt, who gave the law, who promised a king to David, who spoke through the prophets, and who inspired the psalmists. The Old Testament is allowed to fund Christology, so that both Testaments make distinctive contributions to a larger biblical Christology.
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Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, History of Interpretation unit
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