The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible
Baker Academic, 2011
I requested this book to review as part of a larger project I am working on in my parish. Beginning on July 1, I began to preach through the Old Testament lections not as illustrations of New Testament claims or themes, nor as the mere background through which the NT comes to us. Rather, I began to preach through the OT lections as Christian Scripture in their own right. What better resource, I thought, than the newest work by the foremost spokesperson for OT canonical criticism alive. I have not been disappointed.
In six chapters, Seitz wrestles with the claim that the OT has, on its own and in its literal sense, the character of Christian Scripture. The word character is important here for it acknowledges that the OT can in fact be read in various ways. Most obviously, it can be read as Jewish Scripture. This, of course, throws us back to the debates between Paul and his Jewish opponents in the synagogues as recounted in the book of Acts (cf. e.g., Acts 17:2-3). The question here is does the church’s confession of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah illuminate or distort the plain sense of the OT? Does it clarify or obscure what is already there? However much Christians have to learn from Jewish exegesis of the Hebrew Bible (and we do!) and, for that matter, Jewish exegesis of the NT (the stellar Gospel work of Amy Jill Levine comes immediately to mind), this question is one that is fundamental to the distinct identities of the two communities even as we share a common object of faith: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Even if the question of Jewish/Christian dialogue is simmering close to the surface, the OT’s “character as Christian Scripture” as Seitz sets it up here suggests there are other sets of conversations to be had also. Naming the OT as Christian Scripture, for example, is to aver that the literal sense of the OT texts is not delivered in a fundamental way when it is read as one of many ancient documents testifying to the religious life of the Ancient Near East. Again, while there may be much for Christian interpreters to glean from readings that operate from this assumption, Seitz rightly calls into question the relative ease with which some readings are carried over holus bolus from the academy into the church without attention to the incommensurate nature of the presuppositions informing those readings with those of traditional Christian faith.
More vitally, it seems to me, the OT’s character “as Christian Scripture” invites a series of serious conversations not between religious communities who share sacred texts, nor between the church and the academy, but within the church itself. Seitz (and I) is primarily worried that Christians are forgetting how to read the OT rightly. It is becoming, for example, mere illustrative material for NT claims. Worse, rather than being the foundation upon which the NT is built and which the NT illuminates, it is now regarded by some as being constrained by the NT. Only those OT themes explicitly echoed in the NT are valid, or the hermeneutics of the NT are the only valid ones to be deployed when reading the OT. The result, in whatever case, is a truncated Christian canon, an atrophied Christian biblical imagination, and a failure to hear the whole Word of God. The ghost of Marcion, it seems, still lurks.
It was this last concern that was foremost for me as a preacher. Through a series of what to me were startling conversations with parishioners, I came to the conclusion that many in my parish—who had, at least in some cases, been hearing the OT as a part of Christian worship far longer than I had—had simply tuned the OT out altogether. They knew the stories, but it had stopped functioning as word of God a long time ago. “Marcionite” might be too strong an adjective to describe the deafness to the OT I encountered, but we were definitely in the ballpark.
But back to Seitz himself. The chapters stand largely independently and can be read, with great profit, on their own. Nevertheless, they do build to a climax from chapters 2 through 7. Seitz takes readers from a helpful recapitulation of themes in the work of Brevard Childs (ch.2) through an application of these themes (ch. 3), with a particular view to the use of the OT in Hebrews (ch. 4) and the Psalms as Christian Scritpure (ch. 5). These issues then disclose the problems unique to a Two-Testment Bible, in which each is Scripture on its own and each sounds out the other in important ways. Finally, the climax comes in chapter 7, with a turn to the Rule of Faith as the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of Christian Scripture, both Old and New Testament.
I found this book to be tremendously helpful for clarifying just what it is I have to do as a preacher to move my congregation from “this is the word of the Lord,” after the reading to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the church,” after the sermon. I have to, with Paul and the fathers, hear the OT in its own voice as testifying to Christ, and bring the content of that voice to my people that they also may hear and confess that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; that they may hear and confess that the whole word of God continues to speak to today.