Symposium Introduction

I recently participated in a group conversation wherein one member of the group, a friend of mine, declared that he felt more Jewish than Christian much of the time despite being a Gentile. Among other things, he mainly reads the Old Testament and does not even much read the New Testament outside of church services anymore. After all, the New Testament is mainly just an interpretation of the Old Testament and he can do his own interpretation, thank you very much.

It was a brief monologue, delivered tongue-in-cheek, but when asked to elaborate, he thought about it and suggested that the New Testament seems mainly there to help one identify Jesus with the revelation of God in the Old Testament. He has identified Jesus as God and so now goes mainly to the Old Testament for his personal and spiritual growth. After all, did not even Paul, John, and the other writers of the New Testament do much the same?

I believe that my friend could find much to like in John Goldingay’s book Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. For one, at 178 pages, it is a slim volume and he likes shorter books. More importantly, Goldingay has obviously given the question of the relevance of the New Testament to the Christian faith much more thought than my friend and provides many provocative reasons for downplaying the role of the New Testament in favor of the “First Testament” (“First Testament” being Goldingay’s preferred moniker for the first 70% of the Christian Bible).

It is not a major spoiler to note that Goldingay would not agree entirely with my friend. Goldingay, in fact, leads his book off by declaring, “Yes, of course, we do need the New Testament, but why?” So, in some ways, the book explains how a skeptic like my friend might find value in the New Testament, after all, while still maintaining his appreciation for the First Testament.

At first, the title of the book might seem unnecessarily (and some might say deceptively) provocative since the first line reverses the meaning of the title. However, there are several chapters (many of which are published elsewhere) in the book that do deliver on the promise of the title. In conjunction, my friend would rediscover the necessity of the New Testament while not leaning too heavily on it for things the New Testament cannot provide, such as the worship model provided in the Psalms.

In the end, Do We Need the New Testament? provides a detailed reason for why we do need the New Testament and hints at a method of its subtitle—Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. One would assume letting the Old Testament speak for itself would satisfy my friend. Michael C Legaspi, however, might suggest otherwise. Legaspi tackles the overall thrust of Goldingay’s book, questioning whether a book can, indeed, speak for itself. The New Testament and other related christological or trinitarian interpreters enlarge the possibilities of meaning, according to Legaspi, which is preferable to reading the First Testament alone. Furthermore, Legaspi questions the very possibility of letting any text speak on its own without some sort of dialogue between it and its interpreters. Perhaps my friend, in preferring to do his own interpretation of the First Testament, is fooling himself. Or at least limiting himself.

In fact, my friend may only think he identifies as more Jewish by reading the First Testament on its own, neglecting the fact that Jews do not read the First Testament (or Tanak) by letting it speak for itself, either. Marvin Sweeney, who actually is Jewish (and curious as to why he was invited to participate), answers the title of the book with an unqualified “No” since Judaism has no need for the New Testament. However, though the New Testament is not necessary for (Jewish) faith, the Tanak is not sufficient for faith, even Judaism, for the Tanak “is part of a larger interpretative tradition that includes” a host of other interpretations of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. So, if even Judaism does not “let the [Tanak] speak for itself,” it should come as no surprise that Sweeney believes that the New Testament is critical for practitioners of the Christian faith, if not his own.

It is perhaps worth noting that Goldingay, himself, did not devise the subtitle of the book, which should come as a bit of a relief to Judy Stack-Nelson, who argues that the New Testament “still seems to play an overly determinative role in setting the agenda for the issues” raised in the book. Stack-Nelson, though critical of much of the volume, finds that it ends strongly with Goldingay’s manifesto on “Theological Interpretation: Don’t Be Christ-Centered, Don’t Be Trinitarian, Don’t Be Constrained by the Rule of Faith.” These interpretive lenses (pace Legaspi?) actually limit the First Testament’s ability to confront and surprise.

Similar to Stack-Nelson, Amy Peeler engages primarily with one chapter of Do We Need the New Testament? As a scholar of the letter to the Hebrews, she naturally takes on chapter 5: “How People have Mis(?)read Hebrews.” In contrast to Stack-Nelson, however, Peeler expresses some frustration with Goldingay’s command not to be Trinitarian, as many other evangelicals might as well.

Goldingay, himself, has responded to each of our panelists, noting similarities and differences among each of their points. The importance of dialogue in Judaism, Christianity, and interpretation arises throughout this symposium. Consider this, then, an invitation to participate. I know at least one person who will be listening.

 

Panelists

Michael Legaspi

Marvin Sweeney

Amy Peeler

Judy Stack-Nelson

The Author

John Goldingay (PhD, University of Nottingham; DD, Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth) is David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was previously principal and a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at St John’s Theological College in Nottingham, England. His books include The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, Key Questions about Interpretation, Models for Scripture, Do We Need the New Testament? and commentaries on Psalms, Isaiah and Daniel. He has also authored the three-volume Old Testament Theology and the seventeen-volume Old Testament For Everyone series. Goldingay also serves in pastoral ministry as an associate pastor at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Pasadena. He holds membership in the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for Old Testament Study, and serves on the Task Force on Biblical Interpretation in the Anglican Communion and the editorial board for the Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies.

Michael Legaspi

Response

How to Disappear Completely (in Biblical Interpretation)

PROF. JOHN GOLDINGAY HAS written a stimulating book that opens for the reading public many difficult and important topics. As the work of an accomplished biblical scholar, Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself poses a provocative question. It takes its place in the long and venerable tradition of works written by exegetical gadflies, Bible professors who take aim at the complacency of students (176) and the controlling schemes of theologians (174) alike. This is a tradition for which I have a good deal of sympathy, though, perhaps, not as much insight and understanding as I would like. Engaging a book that bristles with startling claims as this one does is a bit like deciding on the best way to pick up a cactus. Upon reflection, I have decided to grasp the pot, to ask about what seems to me its largest and most significant concern: letting the First Testament (following Prof. Goldingay’s nomenclature) speak for itself.

What is involved, first of all, in allowing a biblical text to speak for itself? When we allow people to speak for themselves, we refrain from speech, stand by, and listen while they say what they have to say. We curtail our own speech in order to give others the opportunity to communicate without interruption, coercion, or interference. In doing so, we expect a clearer and more candid message than would otherwise be forthcoming. Texts, of course, are inanimate and do not “speak” in the way that people do. To remain silent in the presence of a text, one read silently or aloud, does not necessarily advance the cause of clarity. And since it is not a living person, “candor” is probably not a relevant trait. But if the goal, as with living persons, is to bring out meanings that might otherwise be lost, resisted, or suppressed, then allowing a text to speak for itself may involve some operation or set of operations that puts hearers and readers in a better position to avoid a loss or suppression of meaning. If so, then the goal of such an operation, it seems to me, would be to enlarge the field of possible meanings, to give it as wide a scope as possible, and to increase its hermeneutic “potential energy.” The greater and more numerous the prospects for meaning, the more fruitful and significant the act of letting a text speak for itself.

To judge from the subtitle, the goal of Do We Need the New Testament? is to help the First Testament speak for itself. For Prof. Goldingay, this requires a clearing away of things that are thought to interfere with the “speech” of the First Testament, either by limiting or distorting it. One example is cultural values. Prof. Goldingay assumes that we come to the Bible having presupposed a set of values by which we sort biblical materials into two categories: things we approve of and therefore associate with godly ideals, and things we don’t approve of and therefore connect to human sin and stubbornness. Though we cannot avoid the influence of cultural values, we can hold them in a relative and tentative away, treat them as “not final,” and allow other cultures (reflected in the Bible and elsewhere) to “critique” us and our categories (149). Another example is hermeneutics. Christians often treat the New Testament as though its writers were “doing exegesis,” even though, Prof. Goldingay argues, they were not. Therefore, Christians mistakenly assume that the New Testament (e.g., the book of Hebrews) furnishes hermeneutical strategies (e.g., allegory, typology, moral exemplarity), which they then use to read the First Testament. But this is mistaken, says Prof. Goldingay, because “our First Testament hermeneutic comes from the First Testament itself, which implicitly asks us to interpret it in light of the way it spoke about God and us to the people for whom it was written and for whom it was accepted as Scripture” (97). A third example has to do with a kind of readerly ethic. One must not only want to understand the Bible; one must be willing to change because of it: “The aim of interpretation is to enable the Scriptures to confront us, widen our thinking, reframe our thinking, rescue us from our narrowness.” To that end, theological interpretation should not allow our understanding of the First Testament to be “constrained by christocentrism, trinitarianism, or an unqualified submission to the Christian tradition” (176).

The author’s goal, then, is formulated in a few different ways, but with a common emphasis on the need for Christian interpreters to police themselves, to stay on guard against hermeneutical habits or interpretive dispositions that prevent them hearing the First Testament in its own right. But to what extent do the things mentioned above actually compromise the integrity of First Testament interpretation? I agree that cultural values inevitably influence the meanings we make of texts and that self-awareness in this regard is therefore crucial. Attention to one’s own biases and assumptions is certainly consistent with allowing a text to speak for itself. Adopting a First Testament hermeneutic that comes from the First Testament also seems like a good way to let it speak for itself. But what exactly does this involve? According to Prof. Goldingay, such a hermeneutic specifies that we understand the First Testament as speech about “God and us” to two (different?) groups of people: those “for whom it was written” and those “for whom it was accepted as Scripture.” It is not clear to me exactly what it means that the First Testament is speech about “God and us” that was addressed to ancient communities. Nor is it clear why this and not some other configuration (e.g., about God / to us; about God / to them; about them / to us; about us / to God; about them / to them; etc.) is a specifically First Testament hermeneutic. It is also doubtful that we will ever know enough about ancient audiences at the time of composition or canonization to apply this hermeneutic with any precision.

As we saw in the third example cited above, Prof. Goldingay sees resistance to change as an obstacle to letting the First Testament speak for itself. Were we to stop what we are doing and hear it without certain theological filters like christocentrism, trinitarianism, or traditionalism, it would “confront” us and rescue us from intellectual narrowness. As Prof. Goldingay says pointedly in another passage, “Christocentric interpretation makes it harder for the Scriptures to confront us when we need to be confronted” (165). I do not believe that it is wrong, necessarily, to make “confrontationality” a mark of Scripture in this way. But neither is it self-evident that being “confronted” and rescued from “narrowness” are as essential as Prof. Goldingay makes them out to be. The First Testament includes writings that fulfill a wide variety of purposes: not just confrontation but consolation, edification, instruction, lamentation, doxology, etc. The point, at the very least, is arguable. But even granting the importance of “confrontationality,” it seems odd to claim that christocentric interpretation makes the First Testament less confrontational than it would otherwise be. Take, for example, Stephen in the book of Acts. He did a very good job of confronting his audience. Too good, in fact: the scribes and elders in Jerusalem covered their ears, drowned out Stephen’s words with their own cries of indignation, and rushed in to kill him (Acts 7:57). What had Stephen done but offer a christocentric interpretation of the First Testament! When Peter wanted to confront his audience at Pentecost, he did much the same thing (Acts 2). And so too Paul (Acts 13:16–41; 26:22–24), who was christocentric even when confronting an audience that knew nothing of the First Testament (Acts 17:22–31). Paul’s christocentric understanding of wisdom is clearly aimed at confronting the fractious Corinthians and their pretensions to knowledge (1 Cor 1–4). And so on in the New Testament. Examples, too, might be drawn from early Christian bishops, martyrs, and ascetics, for whom christocentrism, the rule of faith, and the doctrine of the Trinity sharpened dramatically the power of Scripture to challenge personal complacency, bear witness to the truth, and confront the powers that be.

Despite misgivings about some of Prof. Goldingay’s specific points, I believe that his call to give the First Testament a wider berth in theology and church life should be taken seriously. And for many of the reasons that he gives. One of the more compelling aspects of the book is its penitential ecclesiology, its Jeremian criticisms of narcissistic spirituality, supposed ethical superiority, and forms of spiritual elitism. I find these observations bracing and timely. What is difficult to accept, however, is the conceit that the fundamental problem is a failure to let the First Testament—or any text—speak for itself. It may indeed be useful to recover the First Testament as a theological resource and to foster new appreciation for its ethical teachings, political outlooks, or spirituality. But to say, in doing so, that one is letting the First Testament speak for itself is disingenuous. One is clearly speaking for it. To let a text speak for itself, as I argued above, involves enlarging the field of possible meanings. This field contains meanings that are christocentric, trinitarian, and traditional; it also includes meanings that are not. In our hermeneutically plural environment, it seems naïve to think that a text that is allowed to “speak for itself” would somehow alight on one of these meanings while the rest of us look on in reverent silence. Rather, it is interpreters who argue for specific meanings over others. For this reason, interpreters (including Bible professors) naturally seek to limit the field of meanings, to constrain what the texts are allowed to mean. To claim the authority of “original setting” or “historical context” in establishing one meaning over another, as biblical scholars often do, does not overcome the difficulty. Suppose one has successfully demonstrated according to critical canons that an event took place in a particular way and is convincingly reflected in certain features of a biblical text. The scholar has done good historical work, but he or she is still left with a text that says what it says: nothing more, nothing less. The critic has illuminated the text, broadened our understanding of it—but precisely by saying things that the text does not say. Such a text is not speaking for itself. In pointing this out, I do not criticize the actual work of critics but rather the conceit that they are, somehow, voiceless and transparent figures—angels of interpretation!—who let texts speak for themselves while other kinds of interpreters (say, trinitarian theologians) are awkward, noisy interlopers with alien concerns.

I hope that I have not pressed the subtitle of the book and related claims within it too far. It is unseemly to make mountains out of mole hills. But if my knowledge of gadflies has served me well in this instance, then a great deal depends on the sub-titular mole hill. As Prof. Goldingay observed, accurately, I think: “There are many ways in which questions of power enter into biblical interpretation” (174). Pretending that the interpreter is not really there is a rather subtle power move, but a power move all the same.

  • John Goldingay

    John Goldingay

    Reply

    Mostly about God and Us and about Interpretation

    I have noted in my response to Dr. Stack-Nelson that I didn’t devise the subtitle to the book (though I did agree to it in order to save the main title, which I was keen on), so it’s ironic that you focus on issues the subtitle raises. But the issues are interesting ones, and I am glad to engage in dialogue on the basis of them.

    Let me think aloud by way of response to these key sentences of yours:

    We understand the First Testament as speech about “God and us” to two (different?) groups of people: those “for whom it was written” and those “for whom it was accepted as Scripture.” It is not clear to me exactly what it means that the First Testament is speech about “God and us” that was addressed to ancient communities. Nor is it clear why this and not some other configuration (e.g. about God / to us; about God / to them; about them / to us; about us / to God; about them / to them; etc.) is a specifically First Testament hermeneutic. It is also doubtful that we will ever know enough about ancient audiences at the time of composition or canonization to apply this hermeneutic with any precision.

    Last night I taught a class on the Song of Songs. An interesting question articulated in one student’s posting, arising from the preparation for the class, was why God doesn’t appear in the Song, and why he also disappears at the end of Genesis 2. My off-the-cuff responses included the suggestion that one could compare these data with God’s absence in Esther and God’s virtual absence in Ruth (we looked at both books earlier in the quarter). And the phenomena compare with the fact that our own experience of life with its joys and pressures and losses is commonly one in which God is involved behind the scenes rather than in the kind of extraordinary or interventionist fashion that is described in the exodus story. I think David Clines has observed somewhere that the more the book of Esther avoids mention of God, the more evidently present God is.

    So even when it’s not talking much about God, the First Testament is talking about God. And even when it’s not talking about us, it is talking about us, though the formal parallel between this sentence and the last one conceals a substantial difference. Those First Testament books were actually or directly talking about God (except that they weren’t, but allow me the conceit). They were not actually or directly talking about us.

    But the assumption I make, which may be vaguely Childs-ian, is that one reason why these books became part of the Scriptures is that they commended themselves to people in the Jewish community as not only having important things to say to the people who were around when they were first written but also as likely to have something to say way beyond that context, whether or not their authors thought in these terms. It is this assumption that appears in the astonishing declaration in 2 Timothy 3:15–17 about the ongoing significance of these Scriptures and the way they illumine faith in Jesus.

    They are about God, and they are (in a different sense) about us. But I wouldn’t object to those other configurations (about God / to us, etc.). And further, I don’t feel the need for this hermeneutic to be uniquely applicable to the First Testament—if that is what specificity implies. There are lots of works that are about God and about us in the sense I have just described. If there is a difference in the way I approach these other works, it lies not in what I would myself call a hermeneutic but in an expectancy or a commitment. I’m not surprised if I find things about God and us in other books. But I also feel free to disagree with what I find in other books. I don’t feel free to disagree with what I find in the two Testaments. (Admittedly that commitment may skew my interpretation, if I yield to the temptation to make the Scriptures say something that I can accept, which is one reason for reading the work of scholars who do not make that commitment and who can thus call me on my mis-reading.)

    The specificity of the First Testament hermeneutic in question (that the First Testament is speech about “God and us”) lies in the assumption that they are indeed about God (which lots of writings are not) and that the way they speak of God in relation to the people with whom God was involved in their context does have significance for us, partly because the people that recognizes Jesus as Lord is a later embodiment of that earlier people (I do not imply that it replaces Israel).

    I half-take the point about the shortfall in our knowledge about the audiences at the time of composition and canonization (I’m not very enthusiastic about the word canonization, but that’s another story; in fact I’m not very enthusiastic about the word composition either, now I come to think of it). The reason why I only half-take the point is that I don’t think there is a difference of principle in seeking to understand the First Testament over against seeking to understand Enuma Elish or The Peloponnesian War or Anthony and Cleopatra or Moby Dick. In each case it’s worth trying to get at what it would have meant in its day, even though we will miss some things and misunderstand some other things.

    My friend Tom Bennett is a New Testament and systematic theologian who is regularly one of the first people I ask to read something I have written because he is both sharp and fearless as a critic. He described my draft of Do We Need the New Testament? (or maybe it was just the chapter on theological interpretation) as nonsense (or something of that kind), chiefly on the basis of a running disagreement we have about interpretation. He sees me as hopelessly naïve and not prepared to take Ricoeur seriously enough. I don’t mind people finding loads of extra significance in the Scriptures in light of our questions and experiences and insights as readers. I just don’t want to risk failing to pay attention to the insight expressed in those original exercises in communication, which caused these writings to be held onto.

    • Michael Legaspi

      Michael Legaspi

      Reply

      Tradition, Criticism, and Meaning

      In reading Prof. Goldingay’s responses to his responders, I learned that we have something in common. He does not like the subtitle either. The use of “Old Testament” rather than his preferred “First Testament” perhaps should have tipped me off. It seems I missed the mark rather widely in taking the project of ‘letting the First Testament speak for itself’ to be central to the book. A second mistake is related to the first. I took the subtitle too literally. My sense now is that ‘letting the First Testament speak for itself’ is better understood in the context of Prof. Goldingay’s book as indicating a rhetorical posture—a critical stance toward Christian presumptuousness—and not as an actual, constructive program. (Prof. Stack-Nelson saw this more clearly than I.)

      One consequence of this is that I took Prof. Goldingay to be arguing for the need to adopt a “First Testament hermeneutic” that is specific to the First Testament. Because I overestimated his investment in the idea of a self-interpreting text, I initially understood his commendation of a First Testament hermeneutic to be the interpretive equivalent of the famous, fanciful life-size map envisioned by Borges—something so faithful to the original that it fails to fulfill its function. I see now that what is in view for Prof. Goldingay is a hermeneutic that is authentic to the First Testament but not necessarily exclusive to it. I think this is a meaningful distinction.

      But even if it is a meaningful distinction, the pursuit of an authentic First Testament hermeneutic still seems somewhat opaque to me. The obvious candidate for the goal of such a pursuit—what interpreters down through the centuries called the literal sense—does not figure into Prof. Goldingay’s proposal. The choice to speak of a generalized interpretive framework (hermeneutic) rather than an aspect of scripture (the literal sense) belies the influence of modern critical method, especially since, as Prof. Goldingay writes to Prof. Peeler, the injunction against being trinitarian “is an exhortation about interpretation not an exhortation about belief.” The idea that one should separate what he or she believes from how he or she interprets plays an important role in the self-understanding of modern biblical critics.

      Certainly, the things that this separation promotes (careful reading, rigorous analysis, checks against presumptuousness and personal predilections) are valuable. But how the ideal of critical objectivity (a good thing, but not an unqualified good) figures into the larger theological enterprise, and the extent to which it must be method-ized, are contested questions. Prof. Goldingay’s final chapter articulates well one of the established positions in this ongoing debate. I, for my part, wonder whether present anxiety over method (for example, investment in a First Testament hermeneutic) is really helpful, whether method ought to be, for theological readers, a first-order question. Here, perhaps, I am tipping my own hand, but I am nevertheless sincere in raising this question.

      In his response to my initial response, Prof. Goldingay explains what he meant by a hermeneutic that sees the First Testament as something written “about God and us” for ancient audiences. I appreciate the amplifications offered in his response. Indeed, I enjoyed the little window into his life as a teacher and found his remarks there sensible and edifying. I am still not sure what makes his approach to studying and teaching scripture something that deserves the name ‘First Testament hermeneutic.’ It seems to me like a Christian approach, minus explicit use of classically Christian theological vocabulary. I suggested in my initial response that there is no danger for a Christian theological reader in understanding the First Testament in a trinitarian or christological way. In reading the response of Prof. Stack-Nelson, I see now that christological reading is not an idiosyncratic worry for Prof. Goldingay, but one shared by others as well. I suppose that one’s views about this depends at least in part on the churchly or academic circles in which one moves. For the moment, I will confess simply to not understanding this phenomenon very well.

      I will close by seconding Prof. Sweeney’s excellent response. It says better what I had hoped to convey in my own. I focused on the formal aspect of Prof. Goldingay’s proposal (letting a text for speak for itself), but Prof. Sweeney’s critique is a more substantive one. By transposing Goldingay’s revisionist experiment onto Jewish tradition, Prof. Sweeney identifies the difficulty with making theological sense of a stand-alone Hebrew Bible. For Judaism, the Tanakh “is not complete in and of itself.” The same goes, he says, for the Christian Old Testament. Both stand “at the foundations of our respective traditions.” The prospect of reading the Bible outside the context of a larger religious tradition is theologically futile.

      Doing so might be a useful intellectual or academic exercise or, given the legacy of the Enlightenment, a socially expedient practice, but its theological value is, I think, limited. To say ‘limited’ is not to deny that such a practice has any value. Revisiting Prof. Goldingay’s book, I appreciate better the way in which a heuristic proscription of classical theological vocabulary may stimulate (for some) a livelier and more truthful engagement with tradition. It may also help to work against religious complacency (though I think complacency is ultimately a moral and spiritual issue, not a methodological one). But this point should not be mistaken for the view that theological interpretation can do without the Christian theological tradition. As Prof. Peeler argued in her spirited discussions of Hebrews and trinitarian reading, we stand to gain a great deal from this tradition. It should also be remembered that, ultimately, it is tradition which makes criticism possible and meaningful in the first place.

Marvin Sweeney

Response

Who’s “We”?

THE INITIAL QUESTION POSED by John Goldingay, “Do we need the New Testament?” demands an unqualified answer of “No” from me. I am Jewish, and Judaism is a self-standing religious tradition and nation that has no need for the New Testament. But I am descended from a Methodist minister on my father’s side and rabbis on my mother’s side. I am trained in New Testament, and actually taught Introduction to the New Testament once early in my career at the University of Miami (Fall 1984), but I found it difficult to engage a topic that showed such a penchant for polemicizing against Judaism and chose not to teach it again. If I were Christian, though, I would respond very differently with an unqualified “Yes.” Whereas the New Testament is not necessary for Judaism, it absolutely necessary for Christianity. The New Testament is especially concerned with the significance of Jesus Christ, without whom Christianity would never exist.

But Goldingay well understands the necessity of the New Testament with its witness to Jesus Christ for Christianity. His true agenda begins to come to expression in the subtitle of his study, Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. Although he is a committed Christian, Goldingay shows both in this volume and in his prior work in the field no interest in polemicizing against Judaism. He quotes rabbinic literature frequently and with understanding as well as some aspects of modern Jewish thought. His concern is the question of how Christians should read the Old Testament, and throughout this volume Goldingay attempts to demonstrate the importance of understanding the Old Testament on its own terms and in relation to the New.

I must express some perplexity at being invited to participate in this symposium. Christianity grew out of Second Temple period Judaism, but it represents a synthesis between the monotheistic Judaism of the time and the pagan viewpoints of Greco-Roman religious traditions that allowed for gods to be revealed in human or other finite forms, especially since many of them were the offspring of both divine and human parents (e.g., Heracles/Hercules). I assume I was invited to provide a Jewish perspective on the issues raised by Goldingay, but I have no interest either in validating or polemicizing against his views concerning the Old Testament’s relevance for Christianity or the New Testament. Judaism views Christianity as a valid world religion that—like Islam—is suitable for Gentiles but not for Jews. The Enlightenment period philosopher Moses Mendelssohn made this point clear in his treatise Jerusalem: or, On Religious Power and Judaism, first published in German in 1783. But Mendelssohn was not the first to make the argument. The Talmud had already specified that Gentiles were not required or expected to convert to Judaism. Instead, the talmudic Laws of Noah define the criteria for true religious observance among Gentiles including prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, and eating from a living animal, as well as a positive commandment to establish just courts of law (b. Sanhedrin 56–59, esp. 56a). By contrast, Christianity and Islam require the entire world to convert to their respective religious traditions. This requirement resulted in severe consequences for Jews throughout history, and it continues to be a major impediment to interreligious relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The key element of Goldingay’s agenda, however, is the question of whether the Old Testament can stand on its own. The Old Testament cannot stand on its own in Christianity by its very nature. The designation “Old Testament” means “Old Covenant,” and the notion of a “New Testament” or “New Covenant” is inherent in the Christian conceptualization of scripture. Indeed, my own research on the canonical formation of the Bible in both Judaism and Christianity points to this reality. Although the Christian manuscript tradition points to a variety of structural principles, from the advent of printing, Christian Bibles have increasing adopted a structural arrangement for the Old Testament that includes four major divisions, viz., the Pentateuch, which expresses the foundations of human history; the Historical Books, which relate the later history of Israel; the Poetic and Wisdom Books, which address timeless issues of faith and the human role in the world; and the Prophets, which look forward to the future. By placing the Prophets at the end, the Old Testament naturally looks forward to something more, which of course is the New Testament in the Christian Bible. Indeed, the New Testament displays a similar structure, including the Gospels, which relate the significance of Jesus; the Acts of the Apostles, which relate the early history of the church; the Epistles, which address timeless questions of faith and the role of the human in the world; and the Apocalypse, which looks forward to the second coming of Christ. This linear, historical structure of the Old and New Testaments gives expression to Christianity’s theological understanding of world history. Goldingay is aware of this argument, but his claims that this order was originally established by Jewish writers in the Septuagint is irrelevant. Jews do not look to the Septuagint any longer as a source for Jewish scripture, most likely because the Septuagint became the basis for the Christian Bible early in Christian history.

Goldingay is also aware of my arguments concerning the distinctive structure of the Tanak (based on the Hebrew acronym TaNaK, Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim), the Jewish form of the Bible (see my Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012]). It includes three major portions, including the Torah or “Instruction,” which relates the ideals of Israel, including its history within the world from creation and the laws by which Israel will establish a just and holy society and world; the Nevi’im or “Prophets,” which attempt to explain the disruption of those ideals through the Babylonian Exile by asserting that Israel and Judah failed to observe divine Torah; and the Ketuvim or “Writings,” which relate the attempt to reestablish those ideals beginning in the Post-Exilic restoration and beyond. Thus Judaism has a more cyclical understanding of history that attempts to account for reverses in Jewish history and calls upon Jews to rebuild Jewish life based upon divine Torah in the aftermath of such reversals in an effort to establish the just and holy world originally intended. This structure was originally articulated in the Talmud (b. Baba Batra 14b–15a). Although there was some variation within each section in the Talmud, the order began to stabilize with the advent of printing.

Nevertheless, the Tanak or Bible does not stand alone in Jewish tradition. It is part of a larger interpretative tradition that includes the Targums, the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Babylonian and Jerusalem forms of the Talmud, the Halachic/Responsa and Philosophical literature, the Heikhalot, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic literature, and aspects of modern Zionist thought, all of which build upon the ideas expressed in the Tanak/Bible (see now Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015]). Judaism recognizes the Tanak/Bible as the foundation of the Jewish tradition, but the full understanding of the Bible’s teachings only comes to expression in the later Jewish tradition as Jews strive to understand the full meaning of the Oral Torah that was revealed to Moses and Israel on Mt. Sinai together with the Written Torah. Indeed, the Oral Torah can look very different from the Written Torah as the Rabbis endeavor to uncover the true teaching of a written text in the Torah. The Torah’s principle of an eye for an eye, hand for a hand, a life for a life, etc. (Exod 21:22–25; Lev 24:19–21; Deut 19:16–21), is a case in point. If taken literally, the texts of the Torah indicate that the punishment imposed on a criminal must be identical to the crime committed. Thus, someone who destroyed the hand, eye, life, etc., of another person must suffer the same loss as punishment. But the Talmudic Rabbis reasoned that a one-eyed man who put out the eye of another would then suffer a greater punishment by becoming blind (b. Baba Kamma 83b–84a). Likewise, a man who injured the hand of someone else would impair the victim’s ability to earn a living in an economy where most people worked with their hands; taking the perpetrator’s hand would do nothing to supply the needs of the victim and result in two people whose ability to earn a living and support their families would suffer. Consequently, the Rabbis determined that the true intention of this law was to require the perpetrator to repay the victim with an amount of support deemed equivalent to the loss incurred. Such a strategy would then address the needs of the victim, and enable the perpetrator to engage in repentance while becoming a productive member of society. Goldingay notes that this law is a source of concern among his students, but a full understanding of how rabbinic Judaism handles this issue would better help them to understand how this law is understood and applied in relation to the entirety of the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, many of the student concerns about the “Old Testament” listed by Goldingay at the outset of his book would be better addressed by considering the context of Jewish tradition. The notion that Jesus is a G-d of love whereas YHWH is a G-d of wrath must recognize that Israel and Judah were small countries that were repeatedly invaded by more powerful nations, including Egypt, Aram, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, the Hellenistic Empires, Rome, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Turkish Empire, the British Empire, numerous modern Arab states and others. Judaism has declined to blame G-d for failing to protect it, but has instead chosen to take responsibility for evil by claiming that we Jews—and not G-d—were at fault for not observing divine Torah. Even the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus is based on the historical reality of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. Jews do not see such a destruction as an act of divine love, but nevertheless do not abandon the eternal covenant with G-d. Judaism is a religion of dialog, among Jews, with other human groups, and especially with G-d (note that the Psalms are Israel’s address to G-d). The contemporary philosopher Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of the European death camps, asserts that from within one’s own religious tradition, one may say anything to G-d (Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters [New York: Summit, 1972], 111). Others, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose mother and two sisters were murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust), notes that G-d grants human beings free will, and he asserts that G-d suffers with human beings when the world goes wrong. One of the current theological issues in Judaism (and Christianity) is the question of the righteousness of G-d. Judaism maintains that human beings are partners with G-d in the completion and sanctification of creation. We do not rely on G-d to solve all of our problems because we human beings have the responsibility to employ our free will to ensure the completion and sanctification of the world.

It is not for ourselves alone that we do this; all human beings have the right to live in this world, and it is part of our responsibility as Jews to live just and holy lives so that others can learn that we all share in the task of ensuring a better world for the future. Adapting Rabbi Tarfon’s famous statement from the Mishnah, we may observe that we have not yet completed this task, but we are not free to desist from it (cf. m. Avot 2:17). There is still much more to do, and the Jewish tradition calls upon us to continue to do our part. Christian tradition shares a similar ideal, and expects Christians to do their part in completing and sanctifying the world as well. The Hebrew Bible, whether in the form of the Jewish Tanak or the Christian Old Testament, stands at the foundation of our respective traditions. It is not complete in and of itself without reflection upon their teachings and the application of the lessons learned from it.

Although I may read the Tanak very differently from the way in which Goldingay reads the Old Testament, I applaud his efforts to prompt Christian readers to learn from this often-undervalued and misunderstood expression of Holy Scripture.

Judy Stack-Nelson

Response

Jesus, the Regula fidei, and the Old Testament

JOHN GOLDINGAY’S RECENT BOOK Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself offers a variety of provocative perspectives on the theological and interpretive relationship of the two parts of Christian scripture. Yet the book in some ways does not fully deliver on the promise of the title. While neither aspect of the title is quite realized in the substance of the book, there remain thought-provoking and profitable sections. In what follows, I will briefly highlight a couple ways in which the book generally seems to fall short of its rather grand agenda, and then look more closely at some aspects (both positive and negative) of what I consider both the most important and most interesting chapter of the work.

The initial question of the title, “Do we need the New Testament?” is one that is both bold and worthy of some extended exploration before one comes to a nuanced conclusion of why (or why not), so it comes as something of a disappointment when Goldingay abruptly begins his book (in sentence one of the introduction) with, “Well, of course we do need the New Testament . . .” His coda of “. . . but why?” does little to dispel the sense that we have, at best, just been subjected to a very unanticipated “spoiler,” and at worst that we have been set up with a pulling of the punch that almost amounts to a bait and switch. Was this going to be a serious question or not? Even his extended chapter addressing the question seems a bit of apologetic bad faith, since the answer has already been given and, we get the sense, was predetermined.

A similar problem is engendered with the subtitle. While it is, of course, bad form to criticize a book for not doing something it doesn’t intend to do, I would argue that the subtitle sets up for the reader an expectation that we are going to get one of two things. The first possibility is that the book might allow us to hear what the OT says when it speaks for itself (at least according to Goldingay)—that is, that we would get something like a brief OT theology or at least a quick tour of key ideas that bubble to the surface of the OT when we read it without the often overbearing lens of the NT. The other possibility that is raised by the subtitular participial phrase is that we will be instructed on how to let the OT speak for itself. Neither of these possibilities really come to fruition. When the issues of OT theology are discussed, they are always raised by or in response to issues of NT theology. Despite the good intentions and purpose stated in the subtitle, the NT still seems to play an overly determinative role in setting the agenda for the issues.

While this assessment may seem rather comprehensively negative, there are a number of aspects of this work that are laudable, one of them being the chapter on “Theological Interpretation.” The main points of this section are well argued and, it seems, the crux of what Goldingay has been aiming at with this volume. It is here perhaps that he is at his best while being, simultaneously, his most provocative.

Before discussing the significant strengths of this section, however, I would like to raise critiques of some details that go, I think, beyond mere quibbles. The first is his assertion about the purpose of Jesus. He begins by saying, “Jesus did not reveal something new about God. . . . Before Jesus, Israel had a perfectly good revelation of God.” So far, so good, in principle. If Jesus was, in fact, Yahweh incarnate as the New Testament (or at least portions of it) and the church have claimed, then that incarnation would simply be a greater and clearer manifestation of the character of Yahweh already revealed to Israel. Goldingay goes on to say, referring to Israel, “The problem was that people did not give a proper response to this revelation.” Again, true enough in some cases, as the prophets were wont to point out. But then he returns to the question of the significance of Jesus: “Jesus came to make such a response possible.” There seems to be some difficulty with that statement. It seems to undo in some sense his previous assertion that “before Jesus, Israel had a perfectly good revelation of God.” If it was such a sufficient revelation, then why couldn’t people act on it? In what way did Jesus make a more faithful response possible? And perhaps most confounding, who are these “people” who “did not give a proper response to this revelation”? All of Israel? The NT writers are, at points, quite adamant in pointing out that God has had faithful followers as long as there has been a people of God (for Paul, for example, Abraham and the faithful remnant; for the author of Hebrews, there is not time to tell of all the faithful saints and followers of God). They gave a “proper response” to the revelation of God without having seen or heard of Jesus. They did not, in fact, need Jesus for this.1 Thus Jesus’ significance must lie elsewhere.2

The second critique arises in his discussion of the use of the Rule of Faith. One of his arguments against its use as a hermeneutic is that proponents claim the heterogeneous content of the scripture. Goldingay, after some persuasive review of the comments of Irenaeus, combines a quote from Levering with a quote from John Collins such that Levering’s “unified story” and Collins’ “internal pluralism . . . both theological and ethical” are set up as antitheses. In this dichotomy, Goldingay asserts, “Scripture can and should be read as a unified story” (171). But this is to confuse “story” (in the broad sense) with “perspective.” While there may be a broadly unified story (in the final form of either the OT or the Bible as a whole) of God’s history and relationship with humanity and especially God’s people, because of the multiplicity of traditions and authors, it is (as Collins said) beyond dispute that there are divergent—sometime widely divergent—perspectives within this (mostly) unified story. This interplay of unity and diversity, not just between the two testaments but within each one, has been a subject of much scholarly discussion, and to dismiss this serious and thought-provoking concern as a nonissue in order to do away with an argument for the use of the Rule of Faith seems rather high-handed.

The final point of critique from this section concerns the interpretive relationship between Jesus and the OT. Goldingay (quoting Freedman) says that, rather than Jesus being a lens for reading the OT, “the Old Testament was . . . the unquestioned authority by which New Testament persons and events were to be assessed” (172). While the OT was certainly formative as the canonical scripture for the authors of the NT texts—formative for their understanding of who Jesus was and what he was up to as part of God’s ongoing relationship with Israel and the world—still, as has been so often noted, Jesus did not neatly fulfill the expectations of a messiah that had developed in Israel, expectations derived primarily from the texts of the OT but also, of course, to some extent from the texts and traditions of the intertestamental period. A significant part of what is going on in the NT’s use of OT texts as a lens to understand Jesus is a reassessment of the received understanding of those texts. It is not that they become irrelevant or have to be shoehorned in violent ways, but that the experience of Jesus (either directly or through the transmission of his message and the preaching about his life and works) caused the NT writers to revisit those OT texts and rethink them—reinterpret them—in light of their conviction that Jesus did indeed fulfill them. The OT texts helped them understand and interpret the significance of Jesus, but their experience of Jesus forced them to rethink their understanding of those texts in order to find a way that the texts and their experience could coexist as mutually enlightening aspects of God’s plan for the world and Jesus’ role within that plan. This was an extended, complex interpretive conversation, the result of which is that the interpretive relationship between Jesus and the OT was never a one-way street in either direction.

These critiques, while by no means irrelevant, do not ultimately take away from the significance and fruitfulness of other aspects of this chapter, three of which I wish to highlight.

The first is Goldingay’s general point regarding the need to avoid Christocentric interpretation of the OT, a point articulated in a variety of ways in this chapter. His point, in sum, is that “Christocentric interpretation makes it harder for the [OT] Scriptures to confront us when we need to be confronted” (165). I would also add that, when through “a selective use of the New Testament . . . [we] formulate a version of biblical faith that is more congenial to Western Christians than one that reflects the Scriptures more broadly” (157), it makes it harder for the OT texts not only to confront us, but also to surprise, stretch, and ultimately inspire us to expanded vision and faithfulness. I have seen over and over again how importing not just Christocentric interpretation but other NT perspectives as well short-circuits hearing the sometimes very insistent and needed message of the OT text apart from Christological/Christocentric meanings. This is particularly the case, for example, with teaching Genesis 2–3—any question of the first sin and its ramifications is sure to push the “play button” on a lot of NT-influenced theological scripts. But in this and so many other cases, “letting the Old Testament speak for itself” yields richer conversation and ultimately deeper reflection on the topic of sin, forgiveness, and Jesus’ place in God’s ultimate plan of redemption and restoration. Generally that doesn’t happen if we start with a NT lens (or what students think is a NT lens, anyway). Ultimately, our faith and our theology will be better off for “understanding what God was doing in speaking to Israel through the First Testament writers, and thus understanding what God has to say to us through their work” (161) than they would be for jumping immediately to the Christological/Christocentric.

Within Goldingay’s section on Christocentric interpretation is the second point that seems particularly worth highlighting, that is that “Christ was not Christocentric” (162) but rather “theocentric.” As he reminds us, Jesus “came to speak about God’s reign,” and that despite Christ’s pivotal role in the establishment of that reign, the NT asserts that “at the end he will give up the reign to God.” While this language of the reign of God may seem to be particularly germane to a Synoptic portrayal of Jesus, those conversant with recent perspectives on Pauline theology will recognize ways in which this accords with that scholarship as well—Jesus’ faithfulness to God, Jesus as the messianic surrogate for or embodiment of Israel, and particularly Paul’s emphasis on Jesus as a demonstration of God’s own faithfulness to God’s promises to Israel. All of these point to a need for a greater appreciation of the OT’s emphasis on God’s relationship to Israel and the role of that in God’s ultimate plan for all of creation. Jesus is really not about Jesus, Jesus is about God.3

Finally, Goldingay’s critique of the Rule of Faith as a needed hermeneutical lens seems spot on. To quote at some length:

It is true that the Rule of Faith provides a horizon from within which we may come to understand the Scriptures, and it may open our eyes to see things within the horizon of the Scriptures themselves. . . . But its role is to enable us to see things that are there; it does not determine what is allowed to be there . . . where they [the Scriptures] have a broader horizon than the Rule of Faith, we would be wise not to narrow down their horizon to ours. (173)

Goldingay here alludes to one of the key characteristics that must be recognized: that the Creeds and other formulations of the Rule of Faith are works of theology, and theology—even done as well as it can possibly be done—remains a human work. It is a faithful work (hopefully) and one empowered and guided by the Spirit (again, hopefully), but still a human work of intellection. It is and always must remain the servant of the Word of God, not its master. Sadly, this relation has often been reversed, and given that, as Goldingay notes, “the history of the church does not support the view that the tradition [including theological formulations of the Rule] has mostly got it right” (174), we should be cautious in our creedal fideism. Unless we are to repristinate the early church in a way that puts the Fathers’ theological insight above even that of the authors of the biblical texts (not to mention Jesus, in as much as his words are passed on in those texts), we would do well to hold lightly to the Rule as a hermeneutical lens. Much thanks is due to Dr. Goldingay for pressing this and the other issues and for offering such an intriguing and stimulating book.


  1. One might note that this idea of Jesus’ purpose as inspiring proper loving and faithful response to God is more or less a moral exemplar atonement model—a model I doubt Goldingay is eager to endorse.

  2. This particular instance points to a larger problem of the work: it is not clear what Goldingay thinks Jesus purpose or significance is (he says differing things in various places) and the things he does say seem problematic in a variety of ways.

  3. And as Goldingay points out, this in no way diminishes the Trinitarian significance of Jesus. It, in fact, enhances it.

  • John Goldingay

    John Goldingay

    Reply

    Mostly about Book Titles and about Theological Interpretation

    You comment that “the book in some ways does not fully deliver on the promise of the title. . . . Neither aspect of the title is quite realized in the substance of the book. . . . The book generally seems to fall short of its rather grand agenda . . . something of a disappointment . . . that we have, at best, just been subjected to a very unanticipated ‘spoiler,’ and at worst that we have been set up with a pulling of the punch that almost amounts to a bait and switch. Was this going to be a serious question or not? . . . A similar problem is engendered with the subtitle,” which, for instance, makes one think that we might be going “to hear what the OT says when it speaks for itself.” The question posed by the title is “worthy of some extended exploration before one comes to a nuanced conclusion of why (or why not).”

    So you see the title as suggesting a different kind of book with different contents from the one it actually introduces. But I think there are at least two different relationships that can obtain between a book’s title and its contents. Sometimes I write books with titles such as A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 56–66 or Old Testament Theology, and the contents flow from the title. And you are right, this isn’t that kind of book. The question in the title is a rhetorical one; I indeed knew the answer before I thought about writing the book. I mention at the beginning that its starting point was my unease about a number of Christian assumptions or misunderstandings (as I see them) about the First Testament or assumptions about its interpretation, and I wanted to address them.

    The main title for the book came to me in one of those odd moments of (possible) inspiration when I was thinking about the lecture that appears as the first chapter. Arriving at this title then made me realize that the lecture held together a number of issues I had been thinking about, which generated the idea of writing a book on the subject. The subtitle came from someone at the publishers who was wary of the main title lest it scare potential readers and who really wanted the book to be called something more straightforward. So combining the two was a compromise.

    On the basis of the announcement of the book, I got a call from a movie producer who wondered if I would like to turn it into a film script (he obviously had no idea what was in the book), though this phone call has at least led to his inviting my wife (who does write film scripts) to pitch a different idea to him. And the book’s publication issued in three radio interviews, which has never happened to me with a book that I have written. It did remind me of the publication of another book, whose back cover said that my hobbies were the Old Testament, my family, and rock music. As a result a magazine sent me two albums to review, so on my next book I wanted to say that my hobbies were fast cars, Indian food, and trips to the Middle East, but the publishers wouldn’t have it.

    I hasten to add that this book was not angling for such a reaction and I have no intention of dreaming up other such titles. The experience also reminds me of the joke by the author of the British humorous magazine Punch, that he called a collection of his articles Tissues for Men because actual boxes of man-size-tissues (which I don’t think exist in the Unites States) were the best seller in a British bookshop chain.

    I think there is a lot to be said for writing cool stately books with straightforward titles like A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 56–66, but there is also something to be said for swashbuckling books with provocative titles. I was very happy when one of my New Testament colleagues exclaimed, “Heresy!” on seeing the book.

    In light of these considerations, it is ironic that your comments of substance focus on the chapter on theological interpretation, which I didn’t originally intend to include in the book (I also had another chapter on “Do We Need the Apocrypha?” which I omitted because I thought I needed to do more work on that question, but the paper is on my webpage, johngoldingay.com). While you like that chapter on theological interpretation (which is also ironic, as it was turned down twice by the Journal for Theological Interpretation), you express some unease, which you see as “more than mere quibbles,” so here are some responses to them.

    1. If Israel had a perfectly good revelation of God, why didn’t people act on it? Doesn’t that show that more was needed? My response is that a good revelation is not necessarily an effective one; and the revelation in Jesus was not obviously more effective.
    2. Who were the people who didn’t give a proper response to this revelation? Surely the New Testament indicates that this statement didn’t all apply to all of Israel? My response is that there were indeed people who did so respond, but both Testaments see them as more the exception than the rule and see Israel as a whole as not so responding.
    3. You are concerned that my chapter on theological interpretation dismisses scholarly discussion of diversity in the Scriptures in a “high-handed” way. My response is that at that point I was seeking to counter the kind of emphasis on diversity that rules out working with the whole of the Scriptures and makes us choose some angles rather than others, which is inclined to mean we just affirm the bits that correspond with what we think already. But I agree that I made my point too briefly. Fortunately the book’s previous chapter on “Moses (and Jesus and Paul) for Your Hardness of Hearts” is an instance of one approach I take to working with the diversity in Scripture rather than dismissing that diversity or making it the basis for choosing the angles we like. And Dr. Peeler also notes that I talk about the diversity of the Scriptures in connection with my own agenda in the first chapter of the book.
    4. Likewise you suggest that I oversimply the direction of interpretation between the Testaments. I do accept that belief in Jesus makes people rethink their interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures.
    5. You think I would not want to endorse a moral exemplar atonement model. I have no problem with that model. I assume we need a number of models of the atonement, and it is one of them, though I would not actually speak in terms of “models of atonement,” because atonement is itself a model. I would rather speak in terms of models for understanding Jesus’ death.
    • Judy Stack-Nelson

      Judy Stack-Nelson

      Reply

      Final Thoughts

      I am grateful for the insight your response provides to the process of your choice of book title. I suspected there was some amount of editorial input on this—something that I realize authors have varying levels of control over. And in fact, concerning the first half of the title, you say, “there is a lot to be said for writing cool stately books with straightforward titles…but there is also something to be said for swashbuckling books with provocative titles.” I couldn’t agree more! I’m in favor of both. In fact, my critique was that the book turned out to be rather less swashbuckling than I had hoped it would be, that a deeper engagement with the truly provocative question of the title and the issues it raises might have merited the exclamation of “Heresy!’ in some helpfully clarifying ways.
      Thus I don’t think it is at all ironic but rather fully apropos that I focused on the chapter I did, as I think it was there that you were really pressing these issues both pointedly and provocatively.
Amy Peeler

Response

Do We Need the Trinity?

JOHN GOLDINGAY POSSESSES THAT rare quality as a writer of being able to be at the same time both provocative and persuasive. Beginning with his title, Do We Need the New Testament?, and continuing throughout I often found myself incredulous at his statements. Of course we need the New Testament! How else would Christianity have continued (not to mention my own livelihood)? “In a sense God did nothing new in Jesus” (12). The incarnation is not something new?! “The First Testament makes little to no link between sacrifice and sin and forgiveness” (92). What about the Day of Atonement? “Don’t be Trinitarian” (157). Are we to embrace heresy?!

In some instances within the space of a few paragraphs and in others by the end of the book, I found myself not only understanding what he really meant with his provocative statements but also agreeing with that meaning. At a foundational level, I think it largely correct to say that “[Jesus] does not offer a new revelation of God in the sense of a different revelation, but he does give people a fresh one, providing them with an unprecedentedly vivid embodiment of the revelation they had” (21) and more succinctly, “Jesus did not reveal something new about God. What he did was embody God” (163). Jesus’ revelation proclaims the faithfulness of God. He is the creator God who will not revoke the promises to his people and through them the promises to the rest of creation (Rom 11:29; Heb 10:23). If Jesus’ message was brand new, how would the people know it was a message from the One true God and not some demonic deity or deranged prophet? Consequently, if Jesus confirms rather than fills in the revelation of God (26), then the Scriptures that make up the testament concerning him also confirm the First Testament. By drawing attention to the fact that each testament itself is quite varied (9) and therefore the testaments share more in common than is commonly acknowledged, Goldingay makes a convincing case for readers to value the First Testament anew. We need to hear what those “Scriptures themselves have to say” (9) in their theology, spirituality, hope, mission, salvation, and ethics (32).

Because it was a brief book, there might not have been enough material to win me over regarding a few of his provocative statements. I’ll begin with his discussion of sacrifice in chapter 5 on the Epistle to the Hebrews. He sets up the first major section of the chapter with this statement: “In Christian thinking it goes without saying that the First Testament sees sacrifice as the necessary way Israelites got right with God” (91). The reader knows that the boom is about to be lowered, which appears on the next page. As previously mentioned, I stumbled over this sentence: “The First Testament makes little or no link between sacrifice and sin or forgiveness” (92). It is certainly the case that the sacrificial system carries a variety of meanings including thanksgiving and fellowship, but expatiation is one of those meanings (Lev 1:4). Granted it may not be the most prominent (“most First Testament references to burn offerings do not suggest that expiation is its main significance” (92), but it cannot be deleted. It is also the case that most of the instances of the sin and guilt offering concern unintentional sin (Lev 4:2, 13, 22; 5:4, 15, 17). In Leveticus 6, however, there is an instance in which the law describes what seems to be intentional deceptive sins: “When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the LORD by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby” (6:2–3 NRSV; see also Matt 5:21–22). This too demands a guilt offering (Lev 6:6) that makes atonement (6:7). Finally, Do We Need the New Testament lacks discussion of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). One of the highest holy days for the people of Israel, on this occasion the high priest would enact the ritual of sacrifice and the scapegoat to make atonement for impurities and transgressions, but also for all sins (16:16, 21). This yearly cleansing (Lev 16:30, 34) does seem to be vital to the maintenance of relationship between God and his people. Therefore, I struggled to understand the meaning of Goldingay’s statement on p. 93: “Putting things right between humanity and God is not the meaning of sacrifice in itself.”

On the other hand, I found his description of God’s mercy and carrying sin to be very enlightening. This is another fantastic way of viewing the cross and resurrection: “God’s willingness to carry responsibility for human sin and pay the price for it comes to its apogee in his willingness to let humanity kill his Son, and then to raise him from death. God thereby sacrifices himself for humanity” (93). I still wondered, however, is this bearing of sin outside of and apart from the sacrificial system? In other words, how exactly had God been “paying the price for his people’s attitude to him, sacrificing himself for this people, bearing its sin . . . absorbing the force of that sin, carrying it in himself rather than making Israel carry it” (12). I would be helped here to see a closer discussion of passages where Goldingay sees this happening.

It is definitely the case that God used the practices of the culture in which his people found themselves to better understand their faith and that the First Testament, and it is the case that the writers, especially the priestly ones, did not see the sacrificial system as a type of what was to come (93). If it is the case, however, that sacrifice did indicate that something was being reset in the right direction in the relationship between God and his people, then might it not be possible to assert that God did at least in part “inspire the sacrificial system so that people would understand Jesus’ death” (93)? I remain unconvinced that the “Christian understanding of First Testament sacrifice” (95) is completely skewed. First Testament sacrifice was about more than the covering of sin but this meaning is present. Since it is present, then it does seem appropriate to view Jesus’ death and offering of his body and blood for the cleansing of humanity (Heb 9:13–14) as confirmation of one of the sacrificial views of the First Testament. This is not, of course, the only way to view the death of Jesus nor is it the only way to view First Testament sacrifice, but its legitimacy suggests that sacrifice is one way that “Israelites got right with God” (91).

On a related note about Hebrews, I also puzzled over Goldingay’s discussion of access. I would never claim that First Testament people did not have vital relationships with God. It is certainly the case that I too have learned from and pined for such an honest, passionate, and intimate relationship as depicted in their stories (100). That is to say the difference between the First and the Second Testament is not one of real vs. strictly bodily access to God (99–100). Access to God, however, does change not in the mode per say but in the group included. Hebrews is well aware of the specifications for priests (5:1–10): they are Jewish, they are Levite, they are male, they are pure in body and by ritual cleansing. When, therefore, he proclaims access to the heavenly throne of God inside the veil (4:16; 10:19–22) to an audience that, if it is like other early Christian congregations, would have included non-priests, people with imperfections, and women, is he proclaiming something new? Or is he simply spiritualizing the cult model as others in Israel had done?

In Goldingay’s second discussion of the negative side effects of Hebrews, he turns to the catalogue of the faithful in Hebrews 11. He does an excellent job of showing how Hebrews, when read fully and rightly, shows that the faithful of the past and the faithful of the author’s present stand in very similar position. Both have heard God’s good news (Heb 4:2) and in both situations those so addressed must respond in faith. It is a debate in Hebrews scholarship, however, if “believers in Jesus are not in a less vulnerable position than Israel’s” (99). One’s reading of the warning passages in Hebrews (6:4–8; 10:26–31; 12:15–17) shapes one’s interpretation of the audiences’ vulnerability. In my interpretation, the faithful of Israel have so much to teach the faithful of the first century (and every generation thereafter), but the cross, resurrection, exaltation, and session of Christ do make a difference. At least, according to the author of Hebrews, “Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses, Jeremiah and Huldah, Esther and Daniel managed okay without the New Testament” (14). But only just okay. They, he says, died looking forward to unrealized promises (Heb 11:13). It is certainly a paradox, as Goldingay notes Graham Hughes’ excellent work (101), that those to whom the New Covenant has come are not living out all of its promises (as discussed on 16, 98). That being said, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. His soteriological work is done. God has guaranteed to give him an inheritance of all things, of which the audience is a part. If present interpreters fail to mine the encouragement and resources of the First Testament (101–2) because they think they are better than the First Testament people, they are in error. Nevertheless, those who live after the time of the Second Testament and the events described therein, have an embodied assurance of victory in the session of Christ the First Testament did not.

Departing from Hebrews (finally!), I look forward to more conversation on the topic of the Trinity. I found this statement about First Testament people particularly jarring: “I’m not clear they missed out too much by not knowing about the doctrine itself” (22). Therefore, I needed to read on. Then I learned that First Testament people had a relationship with God and understood that God was relational. “The doctrine of the Trinity safeguards against error and enables us to see things in the Scriptures, but it doesn’t exactly reveal new things” (22). When he takes up this topic in earnest in the closing chapter, he clarifies that a Trinitarian reading will not be looking for explicit references to the Trinity throughout the First Testament, but instead realizing that: “Yahweh the God of Israel is the God who is Trinity” (169). That being said, a question remains: If the doctrine of the Trinity wouldn’t have made that much difference for First Testament believers in God, does it make much difference for believers today? As a scholar living in the time of intense Trinitarian interest and as a recent convert to a liturgical tradition, I want to shout aloud, “It does!”

Possibly his discussion of God’s fatherhood is the place to stake that claim. Goldingay provides an extremely helpful critique against the common word fallacy when he reminds his readers that the First Testament may express God’s fatherly nature with other terms (168). God treats Israel as a Father would tread a child, even if God is described as a redeemer. In Israel’s descriptions of God as Father, nonetheless, the overarching assertion is that God is not literally the Father of Israel. It is a metaphor to express a reality of care. The assertions in the New Testament that lead to the affirmation of the Trinity differ. There the proclamation is that God is, in some way, actually the Father of Jesus Christ. Not, of course, in the surrounding culture of the time’s vision, namely a sexual union with Mary. Nevertheless that God is Father and Son bound by the Spirit reveals something, dare I say, new about the person of Yahweh. It is possible that I am again affirming a relational view of the Trinity so en vogue today, but it seems to me that I am doing so in a particularly specific way. It is not just that the New Testament and its Trinitarian seeds tell us that God is relational and the Old Testament does not. Certainly not. Nevertheless, the Trinitarian affirmations tell us something deeply true about God—that God does not only act like a father but is familial in his being. That just might change how we think about God and our identity as his children, not in contradiction to the ways we thought of God from our reading of the First Testament but not simply as a confirmation of them either.

I have benefitted greatly from this thought-provoking study and I relish the opportunity to converse about its ideas further.

  • John Goldingay

    John Goldingay

    Reply

    Mostly about Sacrifice and Forgiveness

    First, some points where you’re probably right.

    • I shouldn’t have implied that God did nothing new in Jesus. It would have been better to say that God revealed nothing new about himself in Jesus. The incarnation involved the embodiment of the God who was already known to Israel.
    • I should have said something about the Day of Atonement rather than risking giving the impression that it doesn’t fit in with my argument (I think it does!).
    • In addition, my “managed okay” was a British understatement. More literally, Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses, Jeremiah and Huldah, Esther and Daniel managed fine without the New Testament.

    My general point about sacrifice is that its main significance in the First Testament doesn’t relate to sin, though I acknowledge that some sacrifices relate to sin. Sacrifice covers the entire gamut of ways of relating to God in worship, of which the main elements are praise or commitment, prayer or protest, and thanksgiving or testimony, though they also include confession or repentance. Sacrifice is a way of giving concrete expression to one’s response to God in all these ways. In this sense it’s like singing hymns. It is in this sense that putting things right between humanity and God is not the meaning of sacrifice in itself, as it’s not the meaning of singing hymns in itself.

    The problem I draw attention to is that Christians are inclined to link sacrifice only with confession or repentance and finding forgiveness, and I suggest that they do so because Hebrews focuses on this aspect of the significance of sacrifice. It does so because of its own focus on interpreting the relationship of Jesus’ death to sin (I do not imply any critique of Hebrews for doing so). This misapprehension about sacrifice then links with the assumption that a sacrificial animal is being punished in the place of the sinner, which is not a First Testament idea. Sacrificial thinking thus gets mixed up with thinking associated with criminal law. In the Torah, sacrifice in its relationship with sin links with cleansing or expiation (the Day of Atonement fits here) or with compensation (which works in the framework of civil law).

    As far as the Trinity is concerned, I hasten to affirm that as an Episcopal priest I say the Nicene Creed every Sunday without mental reservation. “Don’t be trinitarian” is an exhortation about interpretation not an exhortation about belief.

    You ask me to spell out more the idea of God carrying people’s sin. It’s an idea that the First Testament expresses frequently, but English translations obscure the point. The Hebrew verb translated “forgive” is usually nasa’. The word is commonly rendered “carry” or “bear” and it can thus refer in down-to-earth fashion to carrying something physical, but it can also denote carrying responsibility for something and bearing the consequences of it.

    Normally I “carry” my own sin. But the First Testament also talks about “carrying” the sin of someone else, someone who wrongs me. It’s what Joseph does (Gen 50:17): he does not insist that his brothers carry the consequences of their sin, by his punishing them for it. It’s in this connection that translations commonly render nasa’ “forgive,” with reference to human forgiveness and to God’s (e.g., Exod 32:32; Num 14:19; Ps 32:5; 85:3 [EVV 2]).

    Forgiveness is indeed then what carrying implies, though the translation obscures a profound insight about the nature of forgiveness, that it means my being willing to accept the consequences of the wrong someone does to me and declining to make them carry its consequences (the verb’s meaning is not “take away,” which involves a different point, though a related one). Sin always has to be carried, either by the sinner or by the sinned against.

    God’s forgiving Israel’s sin, then, means God carries its consequences. God refuses to let the sin destroy the relationship and refuses to retaliate—like Joseph. This image provides a key to understanding God’s relationship with Israel. God often threatened to act in judgment on Israel, and occasionally did so, but not very often. He was carrying Israel’s sin all through Israel’s story. That is his nature as he himself describes it in Exodus 34:6–7—another passage where the verb comes, as it does in the several passages that allude to this definition of God.

    God’s carrying sin in this way can also be seen as God sacrificing himself for Israel because it means he pays the price for the relationship to continue. This self-sacrifice on God’s part is not tied to the sacrificial system, but that fact actually makes for a further link between the Testaments, in that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was not linked to the sacrificial system. Jesus was not a Levitical priest and his death did not take place in the temple as part of a ritual. Sacrifice has become a metaphor for understanding his death. My suggestion is that the metaphor can also help us understand the way God was already relating to Israel.

    The First Testament sometimes issues an astonishing appeal to God to make expiation for our sins, which we would have thought was our responsibility. That language, too, illustrates how sacrifice does not relate to sin in the strict sense. Sacrifice (specifically what is traditionally called the sin offering) is a means of expiation. It removes defilement. Defilement can link with sin, but it does not necessarily do so. Contact with a corpse is not sinful, but it is defiling. Defilement was a different aspect of what needed to be dealt with in order for people to be in God’s presence. And sacrifice can deal with defilement, though the fact that defilement has no intrinsic link with sin means that sacrifice’s significance in this connection does not imply a link between sacrifice and sin. Sacrifice can also offer compensation for wrong someone has done, though that, too, is a different aspect of what needs to happen when someone has done wrong. If someone has made compensation by means of what is traditionally called the guilt offering, that person does not need forgiveness.

    I think I came to this way of seeing the First Testament’s point about God carrying sin and about God’s self-sacrifice in doing so by reflecting on the First Testament from a New Testament perspective. It is a way in which “Reading Backwards” (Richard Hays’s image expressed in the title of his book about the relationship between the Gospels and the First Testament) can illumine the First Testament. But this reading backwards does not mean reading a New Testament truth into the First Testament when it isn’t there, but being enabled to spot something that is there which one might otherwise have missed.

    I would be interested to know what Marvin Sweeney thinks about this point: e.g., whether he thinks I am reading the New Testament into the Tanak, or whether Jewish interpretation is quite familiar with the point I am making.

    • Amy Peeler

      Amy Peeler

      Reply

      Response to Dr. Goldingay

      I continue to find these conversations on sacrifice extremely thought-provoking and helpful. I am most interested to hear more conversation on this point:

      . . . Jesus’ self-sacrifice was not linked to the sacrificial system. Jesus was not a Levitical priest and his death did not take place in the temple as part of a ritual. Sacrifice has become a metaphor for understanding his death.

      I would agree that sacrifice is one metaphor for understanding his death, in other words sacrifice is not the only way to understand the effects of the cross, but I do think that this is the prominent way Hebrews understands the cross. Jesus was not a Levitical priest and he did not die in the temple, but this is actually a great thing in the eyes of the author. Jesus is a priest in a better order, that of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4/Heb 5:6; 6:20; 7:17), and made his sacrifice in the temple of heaven itself (9:11–12; 10:12). His death and resurrection—the presentation of his body and blood before God—are the sacrificial ritual that brings about redemption, purification, and forgiveness.

      That leaves me with two options: 1) Either Hebrews has misunderstood the First Testament by incorrectly linking sacrifice with forgiveness. Specifically to your comments, is it Hebrews that has “this misapprehension about sacrifice” or 2) I, along with many other readers, have misunderstood Hebrews. When it talks about sin, maybe it just means defilement.

      Another possibility is that I have misread your comments completely. 🙂

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