Guest post: Zen Hess
The freedom to read what I want as my semester at Duke winds down is a welcome relief! I have been mulling over Robert Jenson’s essay in The Art of Reading Scripture (2003). His argument explicitly raises questions about time, Christology and biblical interpretation. But it also had me asking questions about worship and Advent. Here is what I mean.
Jenson poses the question, “Is it not absurd to think of the Word as in any sense incarnate before the flesh existed, before Jesus was born?” The answer to this question has serious implications for how we interpret Scripture, specifically the Old Testament. One answer, supposed to be the right one by many interpreters in modernity, is that it is, in fact, absurd. Supposing we might “find Jesus in the Old Testament” is to superimpose a foreign element onto the historical text. We are, however, in good company if we think that such a statement is not entirely true.
Believing that the Word preexists the Incarnation means that we may rightly find Christ’s voice in the Pentateuchal, the Poetic, and the Prophetic writings that are the Old Testament. “If the Word of the Lord,” Jenson writes, “came to Second Isaiah and made him a prophet was Jesus Christ, then the vision of Christ that the Church has derived from this prophet, of a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ is not a mere allowable trope but is in fact a product of Christ’s own testimony to his own character, given by the prophet.”
Jenson’s proposal requires us to reimagine how we understand time. Rather than primarily viewing time as something that marches ever onward in a “wooden fashion,” we ought to think of time as “a helix, and what it spirals around is the risen Christ.” If you find this hard to wrap your mind around, then it has done exactly what it is intended to do. The point is not necessarily to prove that time is like a helix, or that it spirals around the risen Christ. The point is to acknowledge that the Word of God, who “was God” in the beginning and who is the risen Christ, transcends time in a way that is to us unfathomable. Time is not primarily a forward-moving concept. Or perhaps we might say the concept of time as primarily forward-moving is undone by the risen Christ.
This concept does not, however, render “historical” methods of interpretation obsolete. In fact, I suspect that it reinforces their significance. If we claim that Christ’s own words can be found in the mouths of the prophets of Old, then we must tend carefully to those words — interrogating the manuscripts and traditions in order to discover the most accurate form of the words.
These claims, moreover, do not have interpretive implications alone, but also implications for what it means to read Scripture together. For Jenson’s proposal that we can properly find Jesus in the Old Testament is not only true of past words and proclamations. It also is true of contemporaneous words and proclamations. We are now in the Advent season, proclaiming once again the birth of Jesus Christ. We confess that Jesus’ birth was the fulfillment of prophecy and that his birth marked the coming of a long awaited Messiah. When we confess this by reading Scripture or by proclaiming “We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord / Conceived by the Holy Spirit / Born of the Virgin Mary,” we are not merely speaking to assure us (or remind us) of what we try to believe. We are speaking the words of the Word of God, the risen Christ.
We celebrate Christ’s incarnation each year not by way of cheap lip service. We celebrate because, in doing so, we join “Christ’s own testimony to his own character.” Such activity binds us together with folks who have proclaimed the same thing throughout history. As Jenson says, “Not only is Scripture within the church, but we, the church, are within Scripture — that is, our common life is located inside the story Scripture tells.” We honor and worship Christ by celebrating his birth when we faithfully declare the claims he has made about himself because, in doing so, we participate in the story he is telling — along with those of Christmas past, present, and future.
From: Robert Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church” in The Art of Reading Scripture, eds. Ellen Davis and Richard Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27-37.