Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: A Review

One of my favorite classes at Duke was “Old Testament in the New Testament” with J. Ross Wagner. The question “How should Christians read the Old Testament?” has always intrigued me. We cannot simply seek the “original” meaning because Jesus seems to recast the original meaning. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recasts the original meanings of several laws, saying “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” But then again, I recognized the importance of upholding the Jewish tradition that give the stories, poems, and laws their context. The class gave me an opportunity to reflect on the many ways New Testament writers engage with the Old Testament.

9780801098253Gary A. Anderson’s new book, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in Service of Biblical Exegesis (kindly provided for review by the folks at Baker Academic), is asking a related, but slightly different, question. How can Christian doctrine, Anderson’s question could be formulated, “play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (p. xi)? Having this question as a starting point is dangerous for the modern “biblical scholar,” as Anderson readily admits. The divisions between “theologian” and “biblical scholar,” and even “Old Testament scholar” and “New Testament scholar” are deep in the academic study of the Christian religion and its relevant texts. Anderson, following the lead of folks like Brevard Childs, makes a concerted effort to raise the valleys, if you will, between these fields of study. And I must say that he has offered the church an incredible example of how the worlds of biblical exegesis, theology, and historical theology work better when they are married than when they are divorced.

The book is a collection of essays published over the course of more than a decade. Each essay considers a different doctrine and allows it to “illuminate” various biblical texts. “There is no single method of reading that I wish to propound,” Anderson explains in the introduction. Instead, Anderson shows with creativity and care several ways that Christian doctrine can be employed in the service of biblical exegesis.

In his chapter on apophatic theology, for example, Anderson engages with the curious and troubling story of Nadab and Abihu. After offering a close reading of the story and reviewing scholarly attempts to explain what Nadab and Abihu did wrong, Anderson suggests that the story refuses to answer that question. Rather, the story is an illumination of God’s apophatic nature. “The biblical author does not want us so much to “learn from their example as to develop a sense of wariness about the altar of God” (p. 20). This chapter, then, suggests apophatic theology as a key for understanding a difficult text. Apophatic theology does not provide an answer to the question “What did Nadab and Abihu do wrong?” It provides a way of answering “What is the story of Nadab and Abihu teaching us?”

This is a different way of using Christian doctrine from the way he uses it in the chapter on incarnation. Anderson draws upon the “tight figural connection” between the Temple and Christ’s body found in the early Church thinkers in order to clarify what we mean when we say “the Word became flesh.” This chapter beautifully weaves history, exegesis, and theology into a delightful — and biblical — explanation of the incarnation.

Yet the effect is two-fold. While we are gifted with an insightful meditation on Christ’s incarnation, we are also given a striking review of the role of the Tabernacle and Temple in Israelite worship. This two-fold effect is imitative of Child’s “canonical” hermeneutic. Anderson quotes Child’s at length, saying,

“Although it is obviously true that the Old Testament was interpreted in the light of the gospel, it is equally important to recognize that the New Testament tradition was fundamentally shaped from the side of the Old….the problem of the early church was not what to do with the Old Testament in light of the gospel, which was Luther’s concern, but rather the reverse. In light of the Jewish scriptures which were acknowledged to be the true oracles of God, how were Christians to understand the good news of Jesus Christ?”

Such an insight is crucial, especially for modern day preachers who fear the Old Testament has nothing to say to their churches. And it is an insight that drives many of Anderson’s essays in this book.

anderson_2So, in the chapter on apophatic theology, Anderson allows apophatic theology to explain the existence of a troubling story. In the chapter on incarnation, Anderson lets theological reflection on the incarnation by early Christians, which often connected the Temple to Christ’s body, to clarify our understanding of John’s claim that “the Word became flesh.” The difference in method lies in the way theological doctrine is used. And though the methods differ — offering a sampling of ways to let doctrine serve exegesis — the goal is the same: throughout the book, Anderson hopes to provide clarity to the biblical text by giving the Church’s theology a place at the exegetical table.

Though this book is decidedly Catholic, it can and should be read by seminary and advanced undergraduate students of all traditions who are studying the art of faithfully interpreting Scripture. I also recommend this book to pastors who preach weekly but fear taking their congregation into the Old Testament. Anderson reveals, through each of these essays, that the Old Testament is vital for deepening our understanding of Christ and, so, Christian theology. His essays provide several examples of how we might think rightly about the Old Testament and, I think, encourage us to take up the challenge of preaching the good news from it regularly.

One final note. My class on the Old Testament in the New Testament did not answer all of my questions. Neither does Anderson’s book. They both offered perspectives for better understanding the complex relationship between the two testaments that make up the Bible and how theology and biblical exegesis might work together. And sometimes a perspective is better than an answer. Happy reading!

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2 thoughts on “Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: A Review

  1. Excellent recommendation. His essay on election (taken from “The Art of Reading Scripture”) is a powerfully moving piece, especially for the season of Lent.

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