The Burns Lectures are definitely warming up. In this lecture Robert Jenson dealt with the Tanakh, or Old Testament (as is his preferred terminology with appropriate qualification: ‘old’ equals ‘prior’ rather than ‘antiquated’) as Christian scripture. He began by clarifying the appropriate questions – the status of the OT as Christian scripture was never questioned and for Jenson this can’t be the Church’s question since it is both absolutely prior (presumably in the sense that it constitutes the world in which the Christian faith is born) and necessary for the Church’s self-understanding. Jenson says that the really interesting question for the first Christians was a kind of obverse to that which questions the status of Israel’s scriptures, namely whether Israel’s scriptures could accept the proclamation of the resurrection. The Church, he insisted, did not accept Israel’s scriptures. Rather, Israel’s scriptures received the Church. Jenson noted that for the century, it was Israel’s scriptures which served the Gospel rather than the obverse. This question is alive even though it cannot be clearly asked since God has already answered it in raising Jesus.
Jenson proceeded to highlight how this question is constantly in the background of NT writing and how the NT demonstrates in the way it tells its story a ‘narrative harmony’ with Israel’s scriptures – relationship between passion narrative and Isaiah 53 being a case in point. The OT prophets were the one’s who provided the answer to ‘why’ did Jesus needed to die. Jenson argued that we cannot ask why the OT Scripture after Christ. Rather, we can only ask how scripture is the way for the Christian community. He also observed that the Church reads the OT as narrative because her gospel is itself a narrative, and because her gospel recognizes itself as the climax of the story told in the OT. Jenson cautioned about ‘unguarded talk of the unique fullness of God’s revelation in Christ’ [is that the mythological Christomonism?]. Such talk requires, says Jenson, the important qualification that the God present to the OT sages is the same Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught the scriptures with ‘authority’ says Jenson, ‘that is, as if he were the author … because, in a sense, he is’. Jenson continued this line with comments like ‘Christ prayed the psalms as the leader of Israel’s worship gathered as the body of Christ’. When ancient Israel gathered in the temple with their hymns and lamentations they were gathered as ‘the body of Christ’. At this point he introduced some of the difficult issues that were to arise later in his lecture also. In response to those who wonder whether Christians can pray the Psalms that call for the destruction of their enemies and the bashing of babies against rocks, he suggested, with some rhetorical flourish, that they could pray them at the foot of the cross against the devil and his angels. [We shall return to this claim]
The key question which the latter part of Jenson’s lecture focuses on is not whether the OT is Christian scripture but precisely how it so functions. Jenson’s answer is that it functions as ‘narrative of God’s history with his people’, including the Church. This arises because the Church’s gospel is narrative and it identifies itself as the climax of the narrative of Israel’s history. Why this should be so stems from the character of the ‘regula fidei’ as a ‘plotted sequence of God’s acts’ (economy) on the one hand and the nature of the book the Church wrote as a second testament. He interestingly contrasts the two movements to emerge from old Israel with the destruction of the temple – rabbinic Judaism ended up using the Tanakh differently from the Church because their second testament (Mishnah) had a legal character which meant that they read their Torah with law as a guiding concept. On the other hand the Church with its narrative gospel ended up contextualising law within the narrative of God with his people. This also had a lot to do with Paul’s very complex problematisation of the law.
The ‘how’ question in relation to the role of the OT was forged in contrast to various challenges to the initial role of the OT – Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Platonism. Although there was a certain ‘Church History 101’ feel to the lecture here, Jenson’s characterization of the movements and issues was always interesting. In response to all these developments, but particularly to that ‘monomaniacal Paulinist’ Marcion, Jenson says that Christians have no way of avoiding the fact that the God of Israel is a ‘man of war’ who goes into battle, sometimes for, sometimes against, his people, but a God who takes sides in history. This, says Jenson, is the only alternative to a god who abandons history. God is either involved in fallen history as the God of Israel is, or God is not. If God is to engage a violent history God cannot do so without being a ‘God of war’, that is, without getting God’s hands dirty. And it seems, for Jenson, to be involved is to be implicated as an agent of violence. Like Hans Boersma has also recently argued, Jenson seems to hold that God uses violence as a means justified by God’s ends – that God participates in the world’s violence but he does so by entering into that violence and dying in it, through which violence is undone.
When questioned as to whether there was a third alternative, namely to suffer violence as the crucified one, Jenson responded effectively that in relation to this issue it was not really a third alternative since the crucifixion was an event in which God was both the crucifier and the crucified – and therefore, presumably, not non-violent. He also presumed that the question was motivated by the issue of theodicy.
Three critical questions arise at this point:
- The first picks up on the difference the revelation of God in Christ makes. Why did Jenson limit the praying of that psalm to prayers against “the devil and his angels”? If he is to be consistently true to the ‘man of war’ motif, why do not Christians pray against their human enemies and their enemy’s babies? And if they do so, how is this consistent with love for one’s enemies?
- Is it necessary that if the Father sent the Son to the cross and the Son went to the cross in obedience to the Father that the God of Israel must be seen as both the crucified and the crucifier? Surely the willingness to be crucified and the willingness to let the Son be crucified (not my will but yours) do not entail the agency of crucifixion. Surely the fact that this evil event is ultimately good (Friday) lies in the good consequent upon it (for the joy that was set before him). There is no paradoxical necessity to make God (in whom there is no darkness) the agent of death. Surely the triune God is here its defeater.
- Finally, does the fact that the Old Testament is the Church’s scripture rule out the possibility that it, like the New Testament, is a ‘text in travail’ bearing witness to Israel education by God. Is it not possible to discern in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ a journey within Israel to unlearn pagan violence – we think here of a trajectory which includes the Cain/Abel story, the Akideh, the repentance of God post flood, the Joseph story, story of Job, the servant songs and so much more. So rather than accepting a strand which is taken for granted in the scriptures – God as man of war – why not discern how that strand is being deconstructed in the course of Israel’s journey with God? If such a reading is persuasive then the motivation to question the ‘man of war’ motif need not be motivated by theodicy, or not in any simplistic way.