Symposium Introduction

Welcome to the symposium on Christopher R. Seitz’s The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity (Baylor University Press, 2018).

Have you ever wondered why Christians bother with the Old Testament when they have the New Testament? Or, have you ever heard or thought that the Old Testament functions for Christians as the preliminary chapters in a grand narrative of salvation that climaxes outside its bounds in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? If so, Seitz has written this book with you in mind. Have you ever plunged (or been tossed!) into the world of critical scholarship on the Old Testament and been suspicious or underwhelmed at the depth of theological inquiry therein? If so, Seitz sympathizes but wants to show you how such critical tools can serve a truer theological end. Or, have you ever suspected that early Christians utilized Old Testament texts as mere proof-texts to support their preconceived trinitarian formulations? If so, Seitz invites you to reconsider.

In The Elder Testament, Seitz argues that God’s providential oversight of the composition of the Old Testament (i.e., the Elder Testament; see chapter 1) has built into the text’s words an extensional meaning that enables the text itself “to speak of God, in its own idiom, as the same God to be confessed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (277). This means that the words of the Old Testament are neither limited in their referentiality to the referents in the minds of their human authors nor limited to pointing provisionally towards that which God will more fully reveal in later texts or events. Rather, due to God’s providential oversight, the words of the Old Testament both speak to the concrete realities of the times and places for which their human authors composed them and also speak by extension to the very realities of God (31–33).

Formally, Seitz’s argument has three parts. In part 1, Seitz describes his canonical approach to interpreting the Elder Testament theologically as an approach that takes seriously the literary development of ancient texts as well as their final form and seeks to discover in the combination of both how God discloses God’s self in a manner that is equal to and consistent with yet idiomatically distinct from how God discloses God’s self in the New Testament. Far from jettisoning historical-critical methodologies and opting for a synchronic reading of the Old Testament’s final form, Seitz takes seriously the contributions of critical methods for understanding the Old Testament’s literary history and final form. Yet, in part 2, Seitz assesses how critical methodologies have been used, demonstrating the contributions of critical studies but emphasizing their shortcomings for theological interpretation. Together, parts 1 and 2 of The Elder Testament function as a theologically attuned commentary on critical methods. In part 3, then, Seitz demonstrates his canonical approach in case studies from a variety of time periods, showing how the precise language and formulations from the Elder Testament (e.g., Genesis 1; Psalms 2, 110; Proverbs 8) have pressured later ontological formulations about God, giving special attention to early Christian formulations about the Trinity.

In this symposium, four panelists will engage with Seitz. Dennis Olson, picking up on Seitz’s argument that the Elder Testament speaks in its own idiom about the same God spoken of within the New Testament, questions whether Seitz has overstated the uniform portrayal of God within the Elder Testament and neglected its theological diversity? Moreover, Olson asks, when theological messiness is noted, is it always theologically meaningful and how do we know? Next, Garwood Anderson eloquently and succinctly highlights Seitz’s thesis, that “of itself but not by itself the elder testament bears meaning confirmed but not created by a more recent testament and apprehended by early Christian readers,” but expresses his reservations about abandoning the well-trodden alternative thesis that the ontological contributions of the Old Testament are made thinkable and conditioned retrospectively by the Christ revelation. Next, in a wide-ranging contribution, Hannah Matis builds upon Seitz’s claim that “the incarnation is as much an act of obfuscation as it is of disclosure” (128) to draw Seitz into a discussion on Advent, then invites Seitz into a discussion on the Elder Testament in ancient reading practices and allegorical interpretation, and creates space for some discussion on supersessionism and anti-Judaism (see also Olson’s contribution, briefly). Finally, Don Collett unpacks and engages Seitz’s recurring christological claims throughout The Elder Testament, namely that it is the providentially built-in semantic riches of the Old Testament that reveal Christ’s glory and identity, not the historical event of the incarnation, returning thereby to themes broached by Anderson and Matis.

Join us in the days ahead for the dialogue on The Elder Testament and the elder testament.

Response

Probing the Diversity and Messiness of the Elder Testament’s God-Talk

How should Christians understand the significance of the Old Testament and the God to which the Old Testament testifies? How is the Old Testament related theologically speaking to the New Testament? Is the Old Testament merely essential background to the “main event,” the New Testament? Or is the Old Testament a negative foil, theologically inferior (a God of wrath and law) to the New Testament (a God of love and grace)? Christopher Seitz, in his book The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity, offers a wide-ranging, erudite, and theologically rich response to these and many other questions and issues regarding the church’s unique two-testament Scripture, theology, and the central Christian doctrine of the Trinity (one God revealed in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in light of both Old and New Testaments.

The book has three parts. In part 1, “Orientation,” Seitz makes a case for Christians substituting the more positive term “Elder” Testament (wise, time-tested, revered) for the negative-sounding “Old” Testament (outmoded, inferior, passé). Seitz strongly affirms that Christians need to take seriously the fact that the Elder Testament emerged over centuries as God’s particular Word or Book addressed only to one divinely chosen people with whom the living God continues to remain in a loving covenant relationship—Israel / the Jews. With the incarnation of the preexisting Christ and through the Spirit working through the early Christian apostles (see Acts 15 and the Gentile mission of Paul—Romans 9–11), the one true and living God invited Gentiles or non-Jews to become part of this story of God’s people—secondarily grafted on, transplanted, and adopted into an already-existing Jewish community of faith in relation to the one living God. These preliminaries set up the main argument of the book as it seeks to analyze how the Elder Testament can continue to be a canonically fruitful avenue by which Christian Gentiles encounter and hear the voice of the living and Triune God who promises to be known through the Scriptures.

The term “canon” is often thought to refer chiefly to defining the ancient and varied lists or canons of biblical books—which books were considered more authoritative or less authoritative by one community or another. That is one meaning of the word “canon.” For Seitz, however, the more primary meaning of “canon” in the history of the church goes back to the second-century CE church father Irenaeus. His more ancient and theological understanding of the term “canon” was as a “canon” or a “rule” of faith, a guide that shapes the reading of the Old Testament in relation to the New. For Irenaeus and other early Christian interpreters, a crucial starting point was the first chapter of the Gospel of John which hearkened back to the story of God’s creation of the world in Genesis 1. John 1 proclaims that Christ, the Son of God (the “Word” / the “Logos”) was “in the beginning . . . with God” at the creation of all things. Moreover, this Word “was God” and in the course of time this same Word (Christ) “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Thus, if Christ was present with God and as God from creation itself, a canonically-predisposed Christian reader of the Old Testament will expect to find preformed figures and types of the Triune God woven throughout the Elder Testament by its human authors providentially guided by the one ultimate divine Author who from the beginning is Three in One (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Thus, Irenaeus could interpret the divine voice speaking from the burning bush to call Moses to lead Israel out of its slavery in Egypt in Exodus 3 as the voice or Word of Christ. Reading Exodus 17 and following Paul in 1 Corinthians 10, Irenaeus identifies the “Rock” from which water wondrously flowed to the Israelites in the wilderness as Christ.

If the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New, then a modern “canonical” interpreter is attentive to two aspects: (1) the unique and discrete witness to God within each of the two separate testaments that honors each testament’s literary and cultural location in time, and (2) the many and varied ways in which the witness to this one God “echoes” back and forth in analogues and dialogues between the Old and New Testaments. Seitz reminds us that the only Scripture that Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christian interpreters had was the Old Testament. Thus, much of the theological witness within the New Testament (including the emerging portrait of the Triune God) was already robustly percolating among the narratives, poetry, laws, and prophetic oracles of the Old Testament.

Part 2 of The Elder Testament lays out the opportunities and limits of using modern historical-critical methods (for example, the multiple reconstructed sources or traditions that scholars have posited in the composition of the Pentateuch) in a theologically-centered canonical interpretation of the three parts of the Elder Testament: the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings. In our modern era, scholarly critical tools are often useful and necessary as a way into the plain or literal sense of Scripture as long as the tools are not used to substitute a new or alternate counter-text that replaces the final form of the biblical text. A canonical interpretation uses critical historical insights to better understand the contours and complexities of the final form of the biblical text while seeking to avoid erasing the text’s definitive theological shaping as left by the latter editors or scribes as a guide to reading for future generations.

Part 3 analyzes a number of key Old Testament texts that early Christian interpreters exegeted in great depth and detail in service to shaping their understanding of the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit before the New Testament arrived on the scene. The texts include the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, God’s creation “in the beginning” in Genesis 1, and the royal psalms of Psalm 2 and 110.

I begin a conversation about this rich and multilayered analysis of canon, theology, and the Trinity with a few modest questions and observations.

(1) Seitz rightly suggests that the “proper stance for us [Christians] as eventual readers of the Elder Testament is one of caution, humility, and respect before our status as invitees into a close and long personal relationship between God and his covenant people [Israel]” (60). Yet early Christian interpreters often did not display these virtues of caution, humility, and respect toward Judaism in their aggressive anti-Semitism (Tertullian, Justyn Martyr, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome). Contra Marcion, Irenaeus argued that the God of the New Testament was the same God as the God of the Old Testament, but he did so while also holding to the inferiority of Judaism. Is the anti-Judaism of Irenaeus inextricably bound up with his canonical interpretation of the God who is God of both Old and New Testaments? And if not, how do we separate one from the other?

(2) Seitz speaks of the “monotheism” of the Old Testament. “The God who has spoken specially to Israel is as well the God of all creation and the God of all nations on earth” (56). “The prophet Isaiah solemnly declares the LORD as God alone. ‘There is no God besides me’ (Isaiah 45:21)” (187). Surely Isaiah 40–55 in its later exilic context moves towards monotheism. Other Old Testament texts, however, reveal more of an openness to the existence of other gods assigned to other nations. A striking example is the Qumran and Greek versions of Deuteronomy 32:8–9 which recount how in the beginning the “Most High” (Elyon) apportioned the nations “according to the number of the gods/sons of gods” with YHWH’s “own portion” being “Jacob his allotted share.” The later Masoretic Hebrew tradition is uncomfortable with the implication of other gods ruling over other nations and changes the text to “according to the number of the sons of Israel.” Psalm 82 speaks of YHWH sitting in the divine council with the other gods of the earth. YHWH condemns the other gods for their neglect of justice for the weak and destitute in their respective nations and condemns them to “die like mortals and fall like any prince.” The psalm ends by proclaiming YHWH as judge of all the earth “for all the nations belong to you!” The plain sense of these texts is that Israel’s Scriptures contain divergent traditions about God and the gods. Other religious texts that archaeologists have discovered from cultures surrounding Israel help us see how much Israel has borrowed from its surrounding culture in the imagery and conception of Israel’s God. The point is not to replace the Old Testament text with a history-of-religions narrative of the rise of YHWH but rather to read closely and honor the diversity of conceptions of God embedded within particular texts throughout the Old Testament.

(3) Recent studies of the diverse depictions of different forms of a “body” for God’s presence in several Old Testament texts understood within Israel’s ancient cultural context highlight in another way the messiness of the theological witness of the Old Testament.1 Alongside these varied portrayals of God’s “body,” the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy juxtapose three conflicting traditions regarding the location and nature of YHWH’s presence relative to heaven, earth, the community of Israel, and the ark of the covenant. By the end of Exodus, God’s presence moves in a pillar of cloud and fire from the top of Mount Sinai and onto the tent-like structure called the tabernacle. God is continually present through the pillar of fire and cloud in the wilderness tabernacle in the midst of the camp of Israel on its journey through the wilderness (Exod 40:38; Num 10:33–34). A second tradition is the tent of meeting which (unlike the tabernacle) stands outside the boundaries of the camp of Israel’s twelve tribes. God’s presence periodically comes down to the tent of meeting for limited consultations with Moses or others after which God returns back to heaven (Exod 33:7–11; see also Num 11:16–17, 24–25). A third tradition in Deuteronomy 4:9–15 portrays God as residing permanently in heaven and not coming down on Mount Horeb. The people see no form of God; they only hear a voice from God mediated from heaven by a pillar of fire. Does Seitz deal adequately with the pluriform portrayals of God here that seem to unsettle what sometimes seems to be Seitz’s more singular and uniform Trinitarian-leaning portrayal of God in the Old Testament. To be fair, Seitz in his rejection of narrative as an adequate category to capture the whole Old Testament does acknowledge the jaggedness of Old Testament traditions: “We see the disjunctions and doublets and backtracking and sometimes obvious anachronism and secondary supplementation. If this be narrative, it is very odd indeed and takes some getting used to” (75). In what follows this comment, Seitz discusses two different angels in the book of Exodus, one a “protective warrior angel” who will guard and protect Israel (Exod 23:23–33) and another angel who is a surrogate or substitute for God who signals God’s distance from the people due to their sin of worshipping the golden calf. The two angels, Seitz argues, cannot be “smoothed out” as occurring on one plane; they are two different traditions that coexist in tension with one another. But this tension, Seitz argues, is the point. In the two angels, God “holds in sovereign balance aspects of great mercy and righteous judgment” (79). Can the same be done with the three different modes of God’s presence in Exodus and Deuteronomy? Would Seitz want to claim that we have here some “pressure” or movement toward a Trinitarian interpretation with God in heaven (the divine Father), God descending to the tent of meeting and ascending to heaven (the Son), and God continually present in the midst of the tabernacle and community (the Spirit)? And what of the conflicting traditions about the bodies of God in the Old Testament? Is such diversity always theologically meaningful and how do we know?

We are indebted to Chris Seitz for this interesting and thought-provoking study of canon, theology, and the Trinity, and I look forward to further conversation.


  1. See Benjamin Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Mark Smith, Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

  • Christopher Seitz

    Reply

    Response to Dennis Olson

    I very much appreciated Dennis Olson’s summary of my work and its intentions. His is a fair and clear account. He rightly identifies the election/adoption lens that I regard as crucial to the appreciation of the Old Testament—all the more important given the predominantly Gentile character of the Christian Church, now in possession of a two-testament canon of Scripture. We need a way to think about the character of the first witness that honors its particular language—from personal God to elected people. He also understands the way in which the term canon ought not to be constrained in the direction of lists, scope, closure—all tendencies in especially North American discussions. I think Childs introduced the term due to his European and church-historical reflexes, but always found himself on the defensive. Olson rightly knows the context of the early church’s usage, which had a theological and hermeneutical significance, precisely concerning how the God of the Old Testament was not to be chronologically quarantined, but was held to be the God of Christian worship and Light of Light in the face of Jesus Christ.

    Dennis and I were students together at Yale, so part 2 of my book needs not a lot of comment. Childs taught us historical-critical methods and believed in their insights. But he wanted to harness these to an appreciation of the canonical form and shape of the biblical books. His brief summary speaks for itself. I have also sought to move beyond Childs in places like the Book of the Twelve (in the 1979 Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture he had his work cut out for him just giving due attention to the final form of the books, each unto itself). As for the larger shape of the canon, I have been guided by his later work where he was careful to want to give scope for appreciating the variety of orders, without thereby sundering the thicker versions in the direction of reader-response or celebrations of diversity. The evidence does not move in that direction. I perhaps underscore the original use of “canon” in the early church more than he did (in line with Irenaeus et al.), but I have in my favor a rear-view mirror showing a bumpy and confused terrain from which one can spot some false directions and misunderstandings.

    On point 1. It would simplify things if we could correlate anti-Judaism with attitudes toward the God of the Old Testament and its literal sense. Yet Luther’s anti-Semitism, for example, cannot be measured by observing his shifting perspectives on the Old Testament. In his initial lectures on the Psalms he starts with a traditional picture of David subsumed by Christ, and in his final lectures the historical David and the literal sense have been recovered (he holds up “the faithful synagogue” as in front of us in faith, not behind us). Yet this is also the period of his most pronouncedly negative views toward the Jews (whom he had hoped would be persuaded of the Gospel due to the Reformation’s emphasis on the literal sense).

    If one is looking for a trigger on the anti-Judaism of much early Christian commentary and preaching (one thinks of Chrysostom in particular), it does not have much to do with how the God of Israel is understood vis-à-vis emergent Christology. Far more decisive is the New Testament depiction of Jesus versus the Jewish religious leaders of his day, and texts like Mark 13 (et passim) which prophesy the destruction of the temple—a fact one did not have to wait long for to see fulfilled and which was fresh in the consciousness of Christians after the parting of the ways. Trypho does not object to Justin’s appreciation of the scriptures as disclosing Christ; he just sees this as an external, retrospective imposition (Justin will not accept this view). They do not debate whether the God of Israel is the God Christians now claim to worship. After all, the fact of proselytism is already well known. As for Irenaeus, his strong contra voice is aimed virtually exclusively at Christians he regards as heretics.

    On point 2. Israel lived in the world of its neighbors. Manna was not a special reality unknown to others. What is of significance is the way the Holy Spirit through time, in the context of the disclosure to Israel, and in the ongoing reflection this engendered, allowed thicker patterns to emerge. I agree that we can see the residue of Israel’s interaction with her cultural context at this and that place in time.

    On point 3, I confess I do not know the work to which he refers, though Mark Smith was a classmate who has ranged from history-of-religion to putatively canonical reading, and Benjamin Sommer has produced some fine publications. That said, the idea of tensions and places where different emphases arise is manifest in the Old Testament. That is what close literary reading has always been credited with noticing, and not just in the modern period. I would not lean in the direction of a conceptuality of “messy versus un-messy,” even as the language is familiar to us in non-scriptural contexts (kitchens, dogs, desks). I also do not believe the language of “conflicting,” if taken seriously philosophically (contradictory; incapable of coordination), is what is at stake in the tradition-building life of God’s disclosure to Israel.

    There is a reason for prioritizing a theological category like “witness” or “testimony” as over against something like a consistent referential accuracy (what Frei called ostensive reference). Paul Beauchamp uses the metaphor of an eye which needs to blink if it is to see and comprehend. I believe the canonical process functions more like this.1 “Were there not ten toes?” asked Childs once concerning the relationship of Daniel 7–14 (widely and in my view properly held to be a later and distinctive historical witness) vis-à-vis the opening chapters 1–6.

    I am open to reflecting on the series of questions he raises at the end of his fine review. My chief concern in this book was, however, thinking through the implications of parallel traditions in the Pentateuch in a way that did not arise from a “conflict” over the revelation of the divine name, but rather saw in them a fruitful and indeed profound theological maturity. In a new work, I return to this topic and some surprising convergences in the later work of von Rad and Martin Noth, and the ensuing generation of Paul Beauchamp and Brevard Childs.2 I am grateful for this thoughtful review of Elder Testament and hope indeed for further discussion.


    1. “L’éclipse des figures, leur interruption, est également nécessaire pour qu’il en ait plusieurs, comme le clignement est nécessaire à l’œil pour qu’il voie. Et ce pluriel est nécessaire à la répétition des figures, par lequel elles exercent un effet d’insistance, qui leur est essential” (L’un et l’autre Testament [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990], 2:227). This observation involves, however, not history-of-religion events to which the text refers extrinsically, but to a plentitude, a repetition, a surfeit in the canonical form due to the subject matter it is endeavoring to convey, which requires a constant “blinking of the eye” to see in its full amplitude.

    2. Convergences: Canon and Catholicity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020).

Response

Almost Thou Persuadest Me

Reflection on Christopher Seitz’s The Elder Testament

If the characteristic of the recent movement toward the “theological interpretation of Scripture” has been to elide certain “modern” questions in order to take up other matters too long neglected, Christopher Seitz charts a different path: taking up seemingly everything. Well, maybe not everything, but it would be hard to imagine an engagement with biblical interpretation filling out a wider berth in 280 pages than The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity. As the title forecasts, nothing is off limits here. From forays into Pentateuchal source criticism to the Tanakh commentary of Rashi, from text criticism to patristic, medieval, and Reformation theological interpretation, from ruminations about canonical shape to bold Christological, yea, Trinitarian, claims. Wear a seatbelt and enjoy the ride. I suspect most readers will benefit, as I did, from two readings.

Among the many things to admire in Seitz’s oeuvre, chief among them for me is the demonstration that all kinds of engagements with Scripture are theological, rendering “theological interpretation of Scripture” a redundancy while pointing toward paths forward, both older and newer. While much that has assumed the label “theological interpretation of Scripture” casts itself as a liberation from supposed historical-critical dead ends, on the one hand, or the repristinating of Scripture’s multiple senses, on the other, Seitz resists these bifurcations. In this regard, he continues the work of his late mentor, Brevard Childs, though, to his credit, I find in Seitz an even stronger sense of integration. The final result is the provocative claim—does it rise to demonstration?—that the literal sense of the “elder testament” anticipates the literal sense—what else would it be?—of its epilogue that Christians know as their New Testament.

We begin with a charming (and persuasive) French lesson advocating for l’Ancien Testament as preferable to any of our English alternatives, that is, the Elder Testament, original, venerable, esteemed, not an Old Testament, outmoded, worn-out, over-written by the New. Seitz’s readers will understand that this is not just a lesson in semantics, but a theological claim of far-reaching hermeneutical import.1 If this seems at first blush merely some anti-Marcionite resistance we come to expect from Christian colleagues working in this field, it is clearly not less than that, but it is also more. (As a pedagogical aside, one could imagine this chapter serving as a provocative introduction to an “Old” Testament course.)

Seitz’s claims are rather bolder than an affirmation of the abiding witness of the “elder” testament of the Christian Bible, as illustrated in the following, which bears close reading.

[EXT]To speak of the “mind of scripture” is not to open onto a general arena of intertextuality and fecundity of meaning, which in turn requires some prior theological or communal framework to put the pieces together into a molded meaning—the molding being of such a nature that we can identify that while they [readers] thought they were doing something like honoring the text’s coercion or pressure, they were in fact creating meaning. To speak of the mind of scripture will mean above all grappling with the two-testament character of its presentation. The Bible is not a flat surface of associative potential precisely because the first part gets recycled in the second in a particular kind of way. What is said of David man and king is said again, and finally, of Christ. What is said of Sophia is said again of Christ. The challenge for Christian interpretation is figuring out, or figuring in, how that “saying again” amalgamates and enriches for a clear sense-making: clear because competent to be defended as truly given ad litteram and also competent to defeat alternative readings in public testimony. (213–14)[/EXT]

The claim here is not unique but characteristic of Seitz’s consistent position, chosen here for its stark clarity. Note especially those last descriptors: a sense-making “to be defended as truly given ad litteram” and “competent to defeat alternative readings in public testimony.” This is the daring thesis of The Elder Testament, running against the grain of Hebrew Bible scholarship and well ahead its chastened New Testament counterpart—that of itself but not by itself the elder testament bears meaning confirmed but not created by a more recent testament and apprehended by early Christian readers. Thus, Seitz can interrogate with equal vigor the diachronic data of the divine name that propels so much Pentateuchal criticism and also the developmental traces of Israel’s religion in the shape of the canon. He can span the wide sweep of Wirkungsgeshichte of Psalm 2 or 110, of Ecclesiastes, or especially of Proverbs 8. And he can say finally that the rich theological donation of these (and other) texts understood across their two-testament witness is not an uninvited imposition on the former diachronic questions.

Seitz’s metaphorical aid for such claims is the felicitous notion of “pressure.”2 “Pressure,” as I understand it, is the feature of the elder testament suggesting, signifying, and, yes, pressing toward resolution which it extends beyond its circumstances of origin—figuration that bears within itself signs of a reference beyond itself. But Seitz’s notion of “pressure” has less to do with a narrative or prophetic telos (although I do not suppose that is in any sense excluded) and more to do with an ontological res. Therefore, for Seitz, the theological testimony of the elder testament is not controlled as it is frequently by a thematic organizer, such as messianism or covenant or even creation, but by its witness to one god, Israel’s God, whose identity—disclosed textually, accessed in close reading—cannot be limited to a singularity of persons.

That Israel’s scriptures disclose an ontology and do not merely witness to an economy in history is perhaps Seitz’s boldest move—bold enough that even this sympathetically predisposed reader has not yet made peace with it, which is not quite the same as dissent. Perhaps I’ve imbibed too much and for too long the developmental conceit that saturates the discipline of the biblical studies ethos. Nonetheless, I wonder if it is truer to the character of the elder testament to describe these sorts of ontological claims with Seitz as the “mind of the text” or to confess them as our profoundly conditioned retrospective readings, by which what is “there” opens onto new vistas. As metaphors go, I continue not only to be charmed but instructed by the clever analogy of the detective novel, in which the significance of event, character, objects, and so forth is manifest only in the resolution, or, we might say, revelation.3 Thus, first or first-time readers know not the pluri-significance of what they read, but in light of the whole, and with the aid of an inevitable and necessary retrospection, earlier chapters are imbued with a significance—a true significance in light of the literary whole—beyond that which is available in those preliminary movements in themselves.

In other words, I wish from Seitz for a more forthright acknowledgment of apokalypsis—more glad concession that only by means of a Christ-revelation do the ontological ruminations on the elder testament—which, so understood, are not to be resisted—become thinkable. That this is weak sauce compared to Seitz’s nervier alternative, I concede. I am simply not sure that I have been converted. There are, to be sure, reasons to resist this more well-traveled path.

First, simply because it is more well-traveled. And if we know anything about Seitz’s output, it is invariably more interesting than well-traveled paths. I don’t suggest that Seitz privileges “interesting” or “provocative” at the expense of plausible, but I do wonder at times if his eschewals are altogether necessary as will be clear in what follows.4

Second, to follow this path inevitably privileges the revelation of the New Testament not so much as truer, being later in time, but as the more hermeneutically decisive. I do not suppose that Seitz disagrees—I don’t know—but zeal for the elder testament’s theological integrity seems to inhibit this affirmation. It does not seem to me that such an acknowledgment is a slippery slope to Marcionism in any sense. Thus, I do not know if I “need” the stronger, prospective, ad litteram version of the relationship between the testaments. Not unlike the charge of supersessionism, the hermeneutical priority of the inscripturated Christ-event is such that Christian Bible readers can never finally be exonerated of it, requisite qualifications notwithstanding. Unsurpassability carries with it a certain baggage.

Third, this apokalypsis is not detachable from its narrative vehicle. Yet Seitz has made it very clear that the consignation of canonical Scripture to an amorphous category of “narrative” is a nonstarter for the kind of theological interpretation the texts themselves invite (71–84). It is hard to disagree with Seitz at this point. Narrative as the facile be and end all for all theological interpretation of Scripture has certainly overplayed its hand, and Seitz’s criticisms are just. To be sure, the texts of the elder testament are not exclusively narrative any more than their canonical shaping conveys some sort of continuous “story.” And, along with others, Seitz would have us leave this behind as a fad. That’s hard to argue with, though it remains the case that any holistic construal of the elder testament, much less the two-testament Scriptures of the church, requires that it be something, be it a library, an anthology, or viewed as some kind of whole, a narrative cast against the backdrop of the history of Israel. That the books, genres, and canonical shape(s) of the anthology are not straightforwardly a “story” does not mean that to so construe them is to falsify a way of thinking about them. That such a scriptural gestalt has its own integrity and staying power is amply attested by the texts’ own frequent narrative rehearsals—and that across testaments and genres.

Finally, while I find Seitz’s depersonalized notion of textual meaning or intent workable as a kind of placeholder, I’m not sure it is the best we can do. Speaking of the “mind of scripture” or the “ways the words go” and identifying it with the meaning or sense of the text defers the question of validity beyond what may be necessary. I’m sure very few wish any more to adhere to an unchastened notion of “authorial intent” and most certainly not as the identification of the meaning of scriptural texts. But can we not rather speak of the canonical sense of the text as understood, as it must be, from the vantage of the Christ-apokalypsis, and in doing so, need we worry about a lapse into a postmodern reader-response (e.g., 210)? I don’t think so. The interpretive stance of the reader is both normed and free; normed by the given of revelation regarded as unsurpassable and therefore free to read its anticipations and adumbrations from the sacred page. But I don’t see how this is possible apart from the establishment of a hermeneutical fulcrum, which returns me to my original ambivalence.

When a guild-leading Old Testament scholar of Seitz’s learning and sophistication grants permission for a New Testament scholar to be less tepid, I admit that I find it tempting, and I find myself divided:

“What prevents me from being baptized?”

Yet, “Help my unbelief.”


  1. Cf. esp. Christopher R. Seitz, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011); and earlier, Seitz, “Old Testament or Hebrew Bible? Some Theological Considerations,” Pro Ecclesia 5.3 (1996) 292–303.

  2. Seitz is not alone in the profitable use of the metaphor: see, e.g., C. Kavin Rowe, “Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” Pro Ecclesia 11.3 (2002) 295–312, whom he cites.

  3. See esp. David C. Steinmetz, “Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction and the Construction of Historical Method,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 54–68. This was Steinmetz’s answer to retaining the integrity of historical-critical engagement while acknowledging a more ultimate reading.

  4. See esp. pp. 35–50. I think for example his eschewal of “christotelism” (37n2), of retrospective readings in favor of prospective (e.g., 40–43, esp. n10), and, of course, the suspicion toward “narrative” as an integrative category (71–84).

  • Christopher Seitz

    Reply

    Response to Garwood Anderson

    Garwood Anderson uses the language of “demonstration,” as against a “provocative claim” he sees my book making, and wants me to “help his unbelief.” I have “almost persuaded him,” as his title puts it.

    The word “demonstration” caught my attention, for of course it is the word usually used to translate epideixis, that is, a showing forth, and it is the same word used by Irenaeus in his brief exposition, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.1 In what does that demonstration consist? Irenaeus seeks to demonstrate that the Scriptures of Israel set forth, show forth, display Jesus Christ. The Scriptures make manifest the crucial foundation of Irenaeus’s reigning conceptuality: that Jesus Christ is from the beginning, and all things are given through him, and that his incarnation amounts to a condescension for a providential purpose established from before all time. There is no “NT Jesus” arriving on a timeline he has not been inhabiting all along. That my book is taken to be making a “provocative claim” only “demonstrates” for me how chronologically-oriented we have become, and in a particularly whiggish manner. I’d prefer to say my book is reliant on a previous era’s demonstrational character, and to hope that it “persuadeth” on those same terms. A chronology shorn of ontology is largely responsible for this state of affairs, as my book seeks to show.

    In his lucid introduction to Irenaeus,2 John Behr writes at the close:

    What is meant by “incarnational” here [in Irenaeus] is very different from how that term has come to be used in modern times. For us, the term “Incarnation” refers to a movement from God to us, with the second person of the Trinity taking a body by being born of the Virgin. But it is a stubborn fact that the affirmation that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) can be made only once we no longer know the Word according to the flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16). The assumption of the flesh by the Word is less a reduction of Word to the level of the flesh than it is a raising of the flesh to the level of the Word. It is as the one whose passion is spoken of by “Moses and all the prophets” that we come to know Jesus Christ as the Word of God, encountering him in the breaking of bread, only for him to disappear from our sight (Luke 24:25–35).

    In my frame of reference, there is also a danger in collapsing a knowledge “we” presume is in our possession with that of the apostolic circle, and of investing the latter with a form of noetic grasp that is inconsistent with the New Testament’s own account. Proximity on a timeline elicits “depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus Christ is known by means of Scripture’s according proximity, not our own after Pentecost, or the apostolic circle’s prior to it, even on Easter Day. Jesus disclosed his Risen Self via scripture and sacrament.

    I open with these comments since in reality Anderson’s chief concern will lie under something of the same rubric, when he comes to it several pages into his review. Apokalypsis is his key lever. When the detective has his moment of unveiling and “ah-ha!” then we, looking over his shoulder, can reflect in backward retrospection on the clues that were there all along. The problem is of course that the Old Testament consists of more than a clue base, a set of bread crumbs leading to a dénouement had we but known what we were looking for. The NT itself refuses to speak of Moses and the Prophets in this way. The early church wrote commentaries on books like Leviticus and Genesis convinced they were the key to understanding the cross in all its majestic range, without which the apokalypsis could not display its glory. And this was so because here the NT affirmations and the prior OT deliverances rhymed. Jesus died on Passover. That the scriptures might be fulfilled. Well did Isaiah say of you, today. You search the scriptures; they bear witness to me. Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction. Not a crumb trail, but a banquet to be feasted upon, at the table of the Lord.

    So it is a different conceptuality that governs the way the scriptures function that I am seeking to “demonstrate” in this work, and I do so joining a choir of early interpreters who operate within that same framework. If there is a provocative claim being asserted, I suspect it is my conviction that certain historical-critical insights are more of an ally in this cause than they themselves, and the purveyors of them, have appreciated. When one places the questions they have raised about diachronic development at the service of appreciating the achievement of the final form, a richness in theological ambition is exposed, worthy of work yet seeking horizons of disclosure.

    Anderson has caught the drift of my book and I am most grateful for his engagement. The dianoia of the Elder Testament has been set forth in this review.

    To his final questions I can only respond, “Command the chariot be stopped.” And, “Deaf and dumb spirit come out, and enter no more!” Thank you, Woody, for your close reading and stimulating engagement.


    1. For an accessible treatment, see John Behr, On the Apostolic Preaching / St. Irenaeus of Lyons (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997).

    2. of Lyons: Identifying Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 2013), 209.

Response

Thy Folk and the Elder Law

I have always been moved by the profoundly prophetic character of Advent in the Anglican tradition.

This can come as a shock to a visitor to a Lessons and Carols service who expects Away in the Manger and gets an extended reading from Isaiah instead; in the Episcopal Church, we have, gloriously, been working our way through the book of Amos at morning prayer this year since the beginning of December.

In The English Hymnal, the fifth and final advent antiphon for “Veni, Veni Immanuel” reads: “O come, o come, Adonai / Who in thy glorious majesty / From that high mountain clothed in awe / Gavest thy folk the elder law.”1

It is, I believe, a sympathetic coincidence of just such a usage of “elder” as Christopher Seitz recommends in The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity, in which the witness of the Old Testament may be acknowledged without the implied supersessionism or distinction buried in unthinking language of “old” and “new.”

I find myself wondering if Christopher Seitz would agree that Advent may represent a liturgical enactment of many of the theological commitments that he describes over the course of The Elder Testament.

By definition, Advent is a moment of transition, of course, which has often been understood as a progression from old to new.

But as Seitz intriguingly observes, the incarnation obfuscates as much as it clarifies (128).

It is the sort of answer to the ultimate question, if I may be permitted to draw an analogy from Douglas Adams, which then necessitates even more, and even more complex, work if one is to begin to understand what the ultimate question was in the first place. Advent is the moment, then, for the Christian church to recall the prophetic witness of the Elder Scripture most clearly to mind.

Paradoxically, there is not a great deal of gospel material to work with concerning Christmas itself, as N. T. Wright frequently complains.2

In practice, then, the liturgy, if anything, privileges the elder material simply because there is more of it.

The medieval advent antiphons splice together a barrage of elder scriptural imagery that moves chronologically backwards in time: Israel in captivity, the continuation of the Davidic lineage, David’s anointed kingship, to the giving of the law on Sinai.

Liturgically, it functions in such a way as to include the congregation in a kind of enacted “liturgical present,” incorporating us as members of “thy folk” and “thy captive Israel.”

As a medieval historian and scholar of medieval biblical interpretation, one of the things I appreciated most about Seitz’s work is his knowledge of, and appreciation for patristic exegesis.

His use, most importantly of the work of Eric Auerbach but also of Henri de Lubac, as well as a patristics scholar like John Behr, alongside a case study of late Lutheran exegesis seems a significant as well as generous sign of his scholarly commitments (79–80, 272).

His repeated observation that the earliest theologians of the church find themselves working not exclusively or even predominantly with the gospels but with the elder scripture is, in my experience, true.

Irenaeus or Athanasius had to introduce a Greek audience to a different narrative of the universe and God’s interaction with it before they could present Christ to that audience as the universe’s key and cornerstone—hence the abiding patristic fascination with Genesis and Exodus in particular.

As Seitz rightly notes, “there was absolutely no dogmatic discussion in the early church that was not root-and-branch exegetical” (202).

Seitz has a good historical appreciation of how the bible would actually have been read in the early church—in other words, in no particular canonical order but most certainly not like any other old book, neither by Jews nor Christians.

Even in the ancient world, usually considered much more literate than the medieval centuries which followed, one may question whether the average Christian read enough to have a normative experience of “the book” or “the scroll,” much less for that experience to be a mundane one.

We may learn a great deal from reader-response theory, but not when it begins from a historically anachronistic premise or without intimate understanding of ancient reading practices.

Augustine’s first, famous introduction to Ambrose includes his surprise at the bishop reading silently and for himself.3

While this may not necessarily be evidence that the ancients always read all books aloud, it certainly underscores the fact that it was normative to read scripture that way, hedged about with and framed by the practices of the liturgy, which sought, if anything, to magnify the extraordinary affect of the text.

In other words, it would always have been very difficult to disentangle the reading of scripture from the living community for whom, to whom, and by whom it was read.

Even for literate Christians and certainly within monastic communities, we cannot underestimate how much of their knowledge of scripture would have come about through oral recitation and the rhythms of the divine office, however regional an experience that no doubt was.

It is a truism of patristic and medieval research that older, textual scriptural variants were most often preserved as part of the liturgy.

Academic discussions of the canon of scripture, therefore, must reckon with the performative, relational aspect of the process by which it formed, and not only as mere historical accident or an arbitrary exercise of authority.

(And on that subject, I think the late antique episcopate would have been flattered by the degree of authoritative control over the church universal some of the more Foucault-ian theories seem to attribute to it.)

Likewise, within the act of reading scripture, “achievements of association rise up in the gradual and surefooted manner in which over generations the scriptures receive their final, stable character” (181).

I would be curious to what extent Seitz is sympathetic to the effects of allegory, or at least to some forms of typology as they reflect these “achievements of association.” In the field with which I am most personally familiar, that of medieval allegorical exegesis, early forms of theology crystallize or are “pressured from” such associations.

For all the excesses of allegory the Antiochenes legitimately complained about, allegorical exegesis did transmit one great benefit which the medieval world inherited: it made all scriptural text potentially applicable and relevant, the prophets and the writings no less than the gospels.

While particularly by the Carolingian era, supersessionist and anti-Jewish language becomes increasingly powerful, it never extends to the idea that one should read the Elder Scripture less; in their numerology, exegetes usually refer simply to the mystical significance of the “two testaments” without privileging the younger over the elder.

One cannot fit those parts of scripture that seem to have been particularly loved and revered into a neatly supersessionist paradigm.

While the gospels, for example, are gorgeously copied in an early medieval insular context, one may well question how often, for example, the Book of Kells was actually read, as opposed to being displayed for undoubtedly powerful effect.

Meanwhile, every child oblate, from Ireland to Iraq, learned to read with the psalter.

Paradoxically, if one is trying to build a biblical society from the ground up, the gospels may have a great deal to say about the personality of Christ, but they have much less to offer concerning the practicalities of church governance: one may find oneself instead drawn to Leviticus or Ezra-Nehemiah for that, as, for example, was the early medieval Irish and Northumbrian church.

Seitz’s own wariness around narrative seems primarily to stem from the often teleological import of modern historical criticism; in a dry aside, he nicknames it the “new allegory” (77).

I found myself wondering how Seitz would understand or defend the particular power of narrative within scripture itself: if he would defend as essential to its message the canon’s presentation of certain thematic trajectories, as, for example, across the early chapters of Genesis.

One way to read Irenaeus is to follow his constant framing and presentation of God’s covenant with humanity, in so doing, “identifying Christianity,” to use a phrase of John Behr.

For both Origen and the Cappadocians, the shape of the exodus narrative itself, with its recurring themes of disobedience, idolatry, wandering, and spiritual struggle, was tremendously compelling.

And of course, we have the narrative arc created by the canonical presentation of the complex and discontinuous poetry of the Song of Songs.

I always joke with seminarians that the Song of Songs is one book of the Bible where modern historical scholarship can’t help you understand the text much better than the ancients did.

Paradoxically, although modern readers claim to be “right” about our reading of the text as explicitly sexual, against the perplexing prudishness and wrong-headedness of the medieval commentators, in churches today it is a text we tend to ignore, rather than placing it at the heart of spirituality and liturgy, or even in association with other biblical texts, such as the Apocalypse or the gospel parables, in the way that they did.

Seitz noted that in Tiberian Masoretic or old Spanish manuscripts, the Song of Songs was thrown together in the same set of writings as Lamentations, and I was immediately reminded of the early medieval exegete, the Carolingian Paschasius Radbertus, who wrote a commentary on Lamentations that juxtaposed it with the Song of Songs.

It is an unexpected pairing until one actually reads the language of both texts closely, and realizes just how many common elements they in fact share.

As a Christian, I am drawn to Seitz’s idea that “the monotheism of the Elder Scripture is inherently dynamic and relational” (198).

Even more directly, he then argues that the Elder Scripture “is marked by the refusal to countenance anything but one God, but at the same time, and precisely because of this claim, to understand the one God’s personal relating to creation and his Son, Israel, as a uniquely prepared adumbration and anticipation of what Christian confession will call Trinity” (216).

Alongside the idea of the “elder scripture,” it is an interesting tactic to dismantle Christian, and in particular, Protestant chronological snobbery and argue for the uniformity of scriptural witness and the value of early Christian biblical interpretation.

I hope it will be of help in the seminary classroom and as an introduction to some important themes in patristic exegesis.


  1. The text in The English Hymnal is T. A. Lacey’s revision of J. M. Neale’s better-known translation from the Latin: The English Hymnal, ed. W. J. Birkbeck et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906), 12–13.

  2. Most recently, see Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “‘A Wakeup Call’: British Theologian N. T. Wright on the Prosperity Gospel, Climate Change, and Advent,” Washington Post, December 5, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/12/05/wakeup-call-british-theologian-nt-wright-prosperity-gospel-climate-change-advent/.

  3. Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York: New City Press, 2001), Bk. 6, cap. 3.

  • Christopher Seitz

    Reply

    Response to Hannah Matis

    I am happy to respond to your question about Advent and its liturgical presentation as relevant to my book. The first publication I undertook as a young teacher was a small book on preaching in Advent. What struck me then—and I have written on this in other places subsequently—is how the Old Testament readings are Second Coming (final Advent) in orientation.1 The wolf has not lain down with the lamb, and there are bars on the cages at the zoo when we go to visit. But what Christ has inaugurated will have that Isaianic vision as its final accomplishment. So, the Old Testament has not lost its force in a first Advent fulfillment behind us in time. Isaiah has not been chosen for Advent readings so that we think of a past word that zeroed in on the manger in Bethlehem, but one that directs our eyes to Christ’s final work of consummation and reconciliation, on account of that. (Advent is now so cloaked in pre-Christmas shopping that one must go to school again to hear these texts aright.) It stuns us to hear Mark 13 (et passim) introducing Advent’s first Sunday, but the tone is appropriate (as is the liturgical color purple). Looking back and looking to the End converge in liturgical time.

    So it isn’t for reasons of the economy of New Testament accounts when it comes to Christmas, but rather our forgetfulness about Advent as a penitential season whose opening notes (from OT and NT both) direct our eyes toward the end times. Relevant for present purposes, here is but another place where the Elder Testament delivered, via its literal sense, critical notes for present Christian appropriation. Isaiah may speak of Hezekiah, but this same king becomes a model of prayer and obedience, whose figural accomplishment is the Son of David of the New Testament. Christ is who he is in accordance with OT figures.

    You ask about allegory. My final chapter deals with this topic and I have touched on it in Figured Out (2001) and several recent essays.2 I agree with the present (rough) consensus in rejecting an older account (that is, typology and figural interpretation are really very different than allegory). In the reference you cite, I was of course moving in a very different direction. Historical reading that promised to free us from the flights of fancy occasioned by “allegory” in the end created a world of reference equally distant from the literal sense deliverances of the canonical form.

    The challenge facing the interpreters at Antioch was how to reconcile their concern for single-sense making with the obvious fact that the New Testament said certain past events and people had a further referentiality. So, Theodore did not hear the voice of Christ in Psalm 22, but rather a lament from the bosom of Israel that Jesus recited as appropriate to his passion. In this case, he could argue he was being faithful to NT and OT both. But at other places he needed to find a way to see in one and the same literal deliverance two intended referents, one historical and meaningful in the past, and yet one whose “reality” was also at the time of New Testament testimony.

    You make an interesting comment about the relationship between anti-Judaism and appreciation for the Elder Testament, in the Carolingian period. As noted in response to Professor Olson, the relationship is not straightforward, and in this I agree with your passing comment. Let me say a bit more on this subject.

    One way of thinking about the character of a two-testament Bible is chiefly to see it in terms of development, progress, improvement, even replacement. Marcion is a good example of the last option (though he found he had to get rid of most of the NT in turn) while much modern reading operates with the former understanding, due to a Whig account of history (unilateral progress). The ancients and medievals did not hold such a high view of progress, which scientism has bequeathed to the modern West. So they inclined toward viewing the first testament as venerable, privileged, and also a kind of unique address from the One God to the One people of his choosing, which they also understood to be not themselves (except by a glorious adoption and a manifold figural anticipation). So they could value the Elder—which as you note also has just a lot of rich material for art, liturgy, song, meditation, poetic expansion—in ways for which the New Testament offered its confirmation, its seconding, not its developmental finale and surpassing chapter.

    This explains as well how one could hold to this account and not assume a simple transfer/conflation from OT to contemporaneous Judaism, if such were culturally proximate. These were two different things, manifestly, which could cause respect and discrimination, positively, or disjuncture and disdain, at other periods. How could the Jews not see the book as special in and of itself and also as holding the key to the King of the Jews and the church? In the early church Gentiles found they at last had a “story” and a “book” into which they had been read, a will which said they had a share—something theretofore unavailable. Origen is a good example of one who insists this is a book unlike any other—and he ought to know, voracious reader and intellect that he was. One could see this great endowment and look in awe or in tragedy at contemporaneous Judaism; or one could turn acrimonious for all sorts of reasons sinful or rationalist. Romans 9–11 offers its own poignant account of what is at stake.

    I am pleased to have a review from someone trained in church history and I am grateful for your lively engagement. Thank you.


    1. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series C: Advent/Christmas, Proclamation Series 4C (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988); “Isaiah in New Testament, Lectionary, Pulpit,” in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 213–28.

    2. “Psalm 2 in the Entry Hall of the Psalter: Extended Sense in the History of Interpretation,” in Church, Society, and the Christian Common Good: Essays in Conversation with Philip Turner, ed. Ephraim Radner (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 95–106.

Response

Theological Reflection on “The Christ Event” in Scripture and The Elder Testament

What follows is not a review, properly speaking, of Seitz’s The Elder Testament, but an attempt to reflect on what I take to be its more provocative theses, not only for classic forms of historical-critical reflection upon the OT, but also for evangelical modernism, especially its understanding of “the Jesus event” in relation to the OT’s christological witness and its efficacy. To be sure, this issue forms something of a recurring subtext in Seitz’s book, the thrust of which the author himself summarizes as “a commentary on critical method with an appeal to taking seriously the ontology of the Old Testament—its unique presentation of monotheism—as this opens onto theological formulation” (4). Engaging with a number of OT texts, Seitz argues that the theological pressure at work in the OT’s ontology of wisdom and its presentation of God’s oneness gave rise to a Trinitarian grammar in the apostolic church—a grammar that was not merely “anticipatory” of later developments in the NT, nor a “potential” source of ideas for establishing Nicene discourse. Rather, this grammar was the sine qua non for the church’s trinitarian confession, constraining as well as enabling apostolic confession in the NT, along with the early church’s later creeds and confessions.1 The church’s Trinitarian confession, then, is not “a retrospective overlay” (6) on the OT’s witness, or a piece of reverse engineering from the NT side of things, but native to its presentation of God’s oneness.

That said, the efficacy of the OT’s christological witness in relation to “the Christ event,” or the historical event of incarnation, follows a similar logic, at least as Seitz portrays it. Thus, it is not the historical event of the incarnation or the body of Christ per se that enables recognition and “noetic grasp” of his identity, but Israel’s scriptures, since as Seitz puts it,

The incarnation is as much an act of obfuscation as it is of disclosure for those who walked with or encountered Jesus. The same could be said of the resurrection. Who is this Risen Lord, and how is he to be known? In both cases we are told that the scriptures are critical, indeed indispensable, to noetic grasp. “You search the scriptures and it is they that speak of me.” “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in the scriptures all the things concerning himself.” Proximity to the incarnate or risen Jesus is not chronological privilege at all. Jesus Christ is who he is by disclosure of the Holy Spirit, who spake by the prophets. (128)

Since I regard this issue to be one of the more controversial (and misunderstood) aspects of Seitz’s book, my response will focus on unpacking the logic at work in this claim, especially the challenge it offers to the empirical positivism at work in contemporary approaches to the incarnation.

The first thing to be observed is that while controversial for late moderns in various ecclesial locations, Seitz’s approach finds precedent in the tradition of the early church, going back at least as far as Origen, indeed, to the NT itself. The fact that this is typically missed in many of the responses to his book is difficult to explain, though the larger theological and hermeneutical impact of the so-called Quest for the Historical Jesus upon the discipline of biblical studies is probably a factor. In the theological context generated by this movement, “the Christ event” functions as the unveiling of his identity, which in turn justifies the tremendous amount of historical labor expended in recovering that event.2 For the early church, however, the historical event of Christ’s incarnation did not disclose his identity and glory, but veiled it. The church has always recognized this and used it to explain Christ’s general rejection by the world, not to mention the misunderstandings of his own disciples in the gospels. Even the transfiguration remained opaque to Peter.

In an age dominated by a modern orientation toward the future,3 OT Christology is typically identified with what lies in the future, on the “other side” of Israel’s scriptures in “the Jesus event,” rather than the original voice and context of those scriptures per se. Consequently, the OT provides no access to Christ on its own semantic level or original context, but speaks only of a future access made possible in the first instance, not by Christ’s prior identity as the eternal Word and Wisdom of God (Gen 1:1; Prov 8:22–26; John 1:1), but by Christ’s historical advent in the flesh (John 1:14). Much of this misguided approach to understanding the relation of the incarnation to the OT in our day derives from a basic failure to appreciate the redemptive purpose of the incarnation, as well as the indispensable role played by Israel’s scriptures in securing the noetic recognition of Christ’s incarnate identity. The end result is to transform the theological function of incarnation into a warrant for the noetic superiority of the NT people of God over against biblical Israel.

Of course, one can see or know “more” about the promised Christ of the OT standing where the four NT evangelists stand, in comparison with the OT prophets—provided, of course, that one perceives the earthly Christ through the eyes of faith and in light of the OT’s witness to him. As Origen rightly noted long ago, Pilate and Judas saw the body of Christ, but they did not come to enjoy or know this “more,” because they failed to perceive his identity as the Word. Encountering Christ in the flesh gave them no advantage over others, because they lacked the spiritual vision faith provides.4 The problem lies there, along with the failure to understand Israel’s scriptures, rather than a supposed deficiency in the OT’s witness to Christ that the incarnation or the resurrection was intended to fix.5 That said, this “more” or surplus meaning cannot be used to establish a position of noetic superiority over the OT and biblical Israel, because it arises from the inexhaustible and “built-in” semantic riches of Israel’s scriptures. The insights made possible by the new historical events of the NT era do not arise from an alleged “doxa” provided by the incarnation, which in any case veiled Christ’s divine glory and identity, rather than disclosing it.6 Rather, they arise from the built-in semantic riches of the OT. Thus, the evangelists can see further than the prophets, but this is not because they have keener vision or greater height, but because they have been lifted up by the witness of the prophets, that is, by the hidden surplus inherent in the OT and unveiled in the NT. Augustine put it well long ago: “The New is hidden in the Old, and in the New, the Old is unveiled.”7 The christological and soteriological insights of the NT are genuinely new, though at the same time a manifestation of the “ontological ambition” and “single, original, and ambitious providential scope” embedded within the OT’s literal sense.8 The French OT scholar Paul Beauchamp attempted to express the paradox involved in this with the incisive observation that there is “no novelty so original as this.”9

Over against this traditional account stands the late modern notion that this “more” does not arise from the inexhaustible and hidden riches of the OT, now read in light of Christ, but from “the Christ event” and the NT’s witness to that event. This raises a question: Was it possible for biblical Israel to come into union with Christ the Word by faith without “the Christ event,” where the latter is understood as a historical event that has not yet occurred in the OT? My sense is that early church figures like Origen would have answered yes, because for him, the scriptures of both testaments are the literary flesh of Christ. On this view there is a real sense in which we may speak of the “event” of Christ as that which occurs in the scriptures (including Israel’s scriptures) prior to and after the incarnation. Thus, faith in the OT Word of promise was not a form of time travel that displaced the OT saints from their historical context in order to place them in the NT era, but that which united them with the totus Christus and his benefits in their own day. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that, like the OT saints before them, NT saints do not directly commune with the earthly body of Christ, but await the promise of his coming (1 Pet 1:8). Since they are also positioned in an economy where the earthly body of Christ is also absent, I see no difference between NT and OT saints as far as the mode of access to the reality of Christ is concerned. In both testaments access to this reality is by faith, not by sight, and blessed are those who believe but have not seen (John 20:29; cf. Rom 10:17; 2 Cor 5:7). And in both testaments the reality of Christ is presented and mediated to the people of God through word and sacrament (cf. 1 Cor 10:1–4).

To be sure, OT Israel had a different historical experience of Christ than NT saints do. But to say that Israel’s experience of Christ was different is one thing; to imply that it was inadequate is another. The judgment that Israel’s experience of Christ was not only different, but developmentally inferior, rests on the assumption that we as Gentile outsiders now included in God’s marriage covenant with Israel are in a position to justify such a judgment. Biblical Israel was in a marriage covenant with the Lord. Like any marriage, there is an intimate knowing between the husband and wife that others do not enjoy. Stated in terms of Seitz’s argument, biblical Israel had a privileged access to what it means to know the Lord, because the Lord chose her (election-disclosure). Later on, NT Gentiles are included in this marriage covenant, and they come to know the Lord (adoption-disclosure). But as Paul makes clear, Gentiles are “outsiders” who are coming into a previously existing marriage covenant. Their later inclusion is not a warrant for quantifying what Israel did and did not know in the original marriage covenant.10

In a healthy marriage, my son doesn’t know me better than my wife does, nor is he in a place to know how much my wife knows about me. That is privileged information my wife and I enjoy as insiders to the marriage relation, and which outsiders cannot fully measure or quantify. This is not to say my son doesn’t know me. He just knows me in a different way than my wife does, and that difference is not a warrant for quantifying what she knows about me. Yet we often find the NT church (and its scholars) doing “biblical theology” on the basis of this assumption. It’s as though the difference Israel’s marriage covenant and election makes for knowing the Lord is erased by the later inclusion of Gentiles who have been adopted into the marriage relation. These later adoptees not only want to flatten out the differences between Israel’s knowing and their knowing, they also do not hesitate to assume that they are in a position to take the measure of what Israel knew. Israel’s knowledge was not simply different, but deficient, and they are therefore “superior” to OT Israel and her knowledge. Such a stance assumes that “knowledge advances unidirectionally” as one moves from the OT to the NT, rather than being an “expansively contemporaneous” reality in both testaments.11 This “progressive” pedagogy inevitably fails to appreciate the fact that our reception of OT knowledge is like drinking from a fountain: we inevitably leave behind more than we take away. As a result, the knowledge gained from God’s providential dealings with OT Israel ceases to inform, let alone judge, the NT church in its continuing struggle with the sins of idolatry and schism.

The whole idea of measuring the different ways OT Israel and the NT church knew Christ is folly to begin with, and smacks of modernism’s idea that epistemology trumps ontology (Kant). However, the saints of God are not saved by what they know, but by faith in God’s promises in both testaments. On this approach, the christological witness and efficacy of the OT does not depend in the first instance upon acts of human cognition or recognition,12 but on the providential linkages the Lord establishes between the Word of OT promise and the Word made flesh in time.13 Over against this traditional account of the OT’s christological efficacy,14 virtually every evangelical gnostic I’ve known assumes that Christ came in the flesh to fix an epistemological or “knowledge problem” in Israel’s scriptures. Apart from the things this assumes about the “knowing” Israel enjoyed as the Lord’s spouse, the NT itself makes it clear that this is not the purpose for which the eternal Word and Wisdom of God assumed flesh in time. Christ came to redeem the people of God in both testaments (Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10; 1 Tim 1:15), not to apply a “hotfix” to so-called “knowledge issues” with Israel’s scriptures. What this implies is that the purpose of the NT writings was to bear witness to and illumine the new historical events associated with Christ’s person and work (incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension)—not to subject the OT to a retrospective sorting out on the basis of a “superior” vantage point allegedly made possible by the incarnation. Though this topic is a subtext running through many of the book’s chapters, it should help us appreciate Seitz’s location within the larger catholic tradition of scriptural reading, while at the same time recognizing his continuing commitment to the tools and practices of “close reading” fostered by his training in modern historical methods.


  1. Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Trinity in the Old Testament,” in The Oxford Handbook on the Trinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28–40.

  2. Dogmatically speaking, this reverses the movement of both Scripture and the incarnation by seeking to ground the doctrine of God in the incarnate life of Christ, rather than vice versa. See Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2015), xviii.

  3. This general orientation is the direct result of the erosion of the idea of an original order of things to which any future movement remains accountable. As a result, the ontological center of gravity in biblical Christology shifts from what is given and endures through time (archē) to what will be (telos): “What previously had been the very substance of the real now provided merely the material to recreate it. With it came a shift in the meaning of time.” See Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 145–64.

  4. Origen, Homilies on Luke, 1.4. “The Apostles themselves saw the Word, not because they had beheld the body of our Lord and Savior, but because they had seen the Word. If seeing Jesus’s body meant seeing God’s Word, then Pilate, who condemned Jesus, saw God’s Word; so did Judas the traitor, and all those who cried out, ‘crucify him, crucify him, remove such a one from the earth.’ But far be it that any unbeliever should see God’s Word. Seeing God’s Word means what the Savior says, ‘He who has seen me has also seen the Father who sent me.’”

  5. See Luke 16:29–31; cf. John 20:9.

  6. Confusion on this point continues to influence contemporary biblical scholarship, especially NT scholarship. In a recent work, for example, Richard Hays argues that “the Jesus event” was the sine qua non that triggered figural readings of the OT. See Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).

  7. Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet. For a discussion of the way in which modern interpreters have misapplied Augustine’s dictum on the two testaments by wrongly construing it as a hermeneutical principle that identifies biblical theology with the NT use of the OT, see Karen Jo Torjesen, Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen’s Exegesis (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1986), 7–8.

  8. Seitz, Elder Testament, 276, 258.

  9. In the second volume of his two-volume work on the OT and Biblical Theology, Beauchamp observes that the relation between OT texts and the newness of the gospel cannot be reduced to either, since “la nouveauté de l’Evangile tient à sa profondeur radical, c’est-à-dire à sa relation, qui est unique, avec l’origine. Pas de nouveauté plus originale” que celle-ci!” (ET: the novelty of the Gospel is due to its radical depth, that is to say to its relationship, which is unique, with the origin. No novelty more original than this one!). Paul Beauchamp, L’un et l’autre Testament (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990), 2:116.

  10. See Seitz, Elder Testament, ch. 4.

  11. See Amy J. Erickson, Ephraim Radner, Hosean Wilderness, and the Church in the Post-Christendom West (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 22.

  12. Describing Calvin’s view of OT Israel’s “noesis,” Hans Frei writes: “Did they know what it was they enjoyed? Calvin does not say, and the enjoyment is not necessarily the same thing as the direct knowledge that this is what they were enjoying. The point is not really that the land of Canaan was a figure of the future inheritance at the time if, and only if, ‘the Israelites’ knew it to be such. More important is the fact that they enjoyed the land as a figure of the eternal city, and thus it was a figure at the time. It is not a figure solely in later retrospective interpretive stance.” See Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 35–36.

  13. Construing the OT’s christological witness in the Bible in terms of a “detective novel” whose efficacy depends upon the reader’s later knowledge of its outcome has become quite popular in evangelical modernism. The analogy presupposes that the christological efficacy of the OT’s literal sense is not a function of its a priori relation to the triune Lord who speaks in Scripture, but a “second reading” of the OT performed from the vantage point of the NT’s witness to its historical end or telos, namely, the incarnation or “the Christ event.”

  14. Article VII of the Articles of Religion affirms this efficacy as follows: “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises.” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York: Seabury, 1979), 869.

  • Christopher Seitz

    Reply

    Response to Don Collett

    Don Collett has extended one or two main arguments of my book, and has done so with energy and improvement. He is speaking into a particular evangelical-modernist context and its investment in a historicist account of the relationship between the two testaments (including assumptions of greater noetic clarity, of a universal kind). This is a topic I deal with in my responses above. I won’t go over that terrain again, but instead focus more narrowly on the question of epistemic access, which he highlights.

    On Christian access to the scriptures of Israel, Martin Luther once used the image of being read into a will. In his later Psalms lectures, he would speak of the “faithful synagogue” as being advanced in faith, vis-à-vis the church now awaiting the second coming of the Lord. In this, he appreciated the difference between an alleged “chronological advance” distinguishing the adopted from the elect in the one plan of God. On his illustration, Gentiles arrive at a reading of a will. Assets are being dispersed within the family. Suddenly the guests are told they are beneficiaries as well.

    Collett uses the image (it is deeply biblical) of a marriage and the kind of relationships that exist within that bond, as against secondhand knowledge. Here is his effort to distinguish election and adoption in the plans of one God, and the way the scriptures of Israel ought to be approached by newcomers. Several NT texts pick up this same perspective quite explicitly, though Paul’s admonition in Ephesians is perhaps the most clear one:

    Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:11–13)

    There must be a transfer. Something must be affected. I try to deal with this as a basic piece of historiography in an opening chapter of Elder Testament (“Can we read this book?”). Library cards must be issued. But more than that, one actually needs a library to begin with. God’s address to Israel is not in the first instance available on any broad canvas. It can be overheard (sailors bound for Tarshish, Ruth) or experienced through a veil of judgment (Pharaoh, Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar). Only through the course of time is it “translated” and made available in a quite particular literary form. But its specialness as divine disclosure to a particular people remains and makes it what it is most ineluctably. “Much in every way. To them belong the oracles of God.” The New Testament operates with this same limited-access idea, and it is a part of the cultural reality of the day.

    That we can now read the scriptures of Israel like any other book is also a historical fact, but it must be viewed as a derivative of something very foundational, and the reasons for it clarified. Jesus’ earthly ministry unfolds in relationship to these scriptures and to his people, and the overhearing continues, now in a more direct and pronounced manner. Jesus opened the scriptures, beginning with Moses and the prophets, to those who had library cards. This set in motion, correlated with his pre-ascension charge, an outward movement, in which those scriptures—available throughout the Mediterranean synagogue world in original and translational forms—would be used to prove, predict, testify to, and display in their literal sense who Christ is. Acts and the Letters of Paul tell the story. The exile and dispersion of Israel in judgment becomes, in the providence of God, the means by which the scriptures are released to do their testifying work. But that long journey must not be domesticated, in the wake of our Enlightenment and then Google reality of universals and immediate accessibility.

    Troeltsch and his liberal nineteenth-century colleagues held that history admits of no absolutes, and so analogies are always at hand. Historical distance is the challenge, but it can be overcome via analogy.

    Childs lives in something of this world when, reflecting on how the psalmist’s utterances can move from descriptions of past thought to constructive theology today, he writes these lines.

    If the interpreter is content with simply describing what the psalmist believed, then it is sufficient to remain within the world of the Old Testament. However, if one wants to use the psalm in some broader fashion, if one is concerned to speak theologically about the content of the psalmist’s faith, the simple descriptive task is not adequate. Certainly not for Christian theology! We are no longer in the community of Israel. We no longer have the temple in which to bring our praises to God. There is a break that separates, not only the Christian, but any modern man from the world of the Old Testament.1

    His solution is of course different than that of Troeltsch, who after assaults from Barth, fell out of favor in the twentieth century. But the playing field is still making its force felt.

    My point is that we never had a temple to bring our praises to God and we were never in the community of Israel. (The modernity he describes could include Judaism equally.) The separation that needs theological overcoming entails the movement I have rehearsed above. And it is history teaching us that, at whose center is a reconciling cross, as Paul declares it in the quote above.

    Von Rad has his own version of dealing with the problem of Christian access. In exchanges with Rosenzweig, he acknowledges that the promises of God to Israel threaten to pass him by. His solution is the tradition-historical bridge he spent his life trying to build. Without that he fears the national socialist rejection of the Old Testament will resurface afresh in his own day. Rosenzweig had suggested that the redactor (R) responsible for the final form of the text was the means by which the past testimony, in its diverse original forms, was released to the generations. R is “our teacher” (rabbenu). Von Rad was wary of this, even as he had begun to see that the combination of sources was theologically enriching. Jesus Christ is “our teacher” he responded.

    Elder Testament is dedicated to explaining how the dilemma of von Rad and the suggestion of Rosenzweig are not just compatible, but indeed require combination and integration. It is not a forward lurching movement that reaches across a chasm to bring us from our day into the temple. The Old Testament simply does not look like that, read in the form we receive it. Von Rad finally had to abandon his typological approach because, harnessed to tradition-history, it looked neither like the church’s tradition of figural reading nor a historically grounded way to do Biblical Theology.

    Childs was looking for a different model when in 1970 he wrote the words I cite above, a year before von Rad’s death. I have tried to take the insights of his historically-grounded canonical approach and use them as the means for appreciating how the Old Testament has, in time, crossed a bona fide chasm separating adopted from elect. It was prepared for that task in its own development and finalization, within the bosom of Israel. And in time we have been brought near. My concern is that that movement happens without forgetting the special character of the disclosure and the way it is crucial to our proper handling of the scriptures of Israel.

    I thank Don Collett for the opportunity to go over this ground again, spurred on by his insightful response. Jesus Christ has brought us to the oracles of God. They, in their turn, bring him to us.


    1. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 158.

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