I was delighted during the most recent meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature to attend a panel discussion of Richard Hays’s most recent book: Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baker, 2014). Throughout the presentation, as I saw Richard demonstrating a figural reading of the OT from the evangelists’ method, I kept thinking to myself—this is wonderful for Protestants who need to have method and doctrine demonstrated by means of the Scriptures. However, it might have saved Hays a lot of effort if all Christians had kept alive the use of what St. Irenaeus calls “the canon of truth” (aka “canon of faith”), which includes a way of reading the Scriptures, pointing to Christ, and taught to the apostles by Jesus himself. The Church has never shelved this method, but we see it used everywhere in our prayers, our troparia, our kontakia! Hays humorously asks what grade a graduate student might expect to receive on submitting a paper that argues that the Exodus is all about Jesus! There have been, due to the wooden use of the historical-critical method, numerous generations of scholars and pastors that are afraid to speak of Old Testament events in terms of the gospel, but only consider them as historical background to what Jesus came to be and to do in our midst.
Well, I am grateful for the historical-critical movement for insisting that we need to keep the historical dimension in mind when we read the Scriptures. This is consistent with the fathers’ decision not to canonize, say, second-century The Epistle of Barnabas, despite its wonderful poetry on the passion. That book basically says: “Those silly Jewish people! Did they really think God expected them to keep kosher laws??? Did they not understand that all that language about not eating rabbits was a symbolic way of telling them to keep sexually pure, for example?” Um, no! It is true that Christians are not called upon to keep the kosher laws, for these have been fulfilled in Christ, the one who has made all things clean. But to suggest that there was no historical veracity to God’s commandments and that the only truth in these is allegorical is to forget that God has worked, and continues to act, in human space and time. He actually gave a law that concerned food, and cultic behavior, and the architecture of the tabernacle. The new covenant, though interconnected with the old, comes after it, and is not entirely spiritual, itself. After all, the incarnate God (in time and space) was crucified under Pontius Pilate. (What a weird thing to put in a statement of faith, unless you think that history really matters!)
All that being said, the NT and the fathers model for us a way of reading the Old Testament that Jesus himself taught the disciples, both on the road to Emmaus, and in the upper room—we are to see that the Law, the Prophets and the Writings witness to him, even though this may not have been entirely clear to the original Old Testament writers, and certainly not to the original readers of these books. As Jesus put it, “you search the Scriptures and they testify of me.” As St. Paul reminds us, the Torah had only a penultimate glory, and pointed to the Glorious One who has come among us (2 Cor 3). Moses only saw God’s back; Elijah heard a still small voice; Ezekiel saw “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.” But “God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) This shining of the Lord gives us a special wisdom, when we read together with the fathers and the whole Church, in discerning the deeper meaning of the Old . As St. Paul puts it, the figures of the Old Testament were an integral part of events that took place, but in taking place these became types (molds, models) for our warning and for our benefit (1 Cor 10:11). And as St. Peter puts it, the Old Testament is “the prophetic word made more sure,…a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).
It is important, then, that we READ the whole Bible, not simply the Psalms and the New Testament. Knowing the Old Testament as familiarly as the apostles did will deepen our appreciation of the New Testament, and bring us closer to Christ, who himself said, “God’s word cannot be broken.” St. John Chrysostom, introducing the book of Genesis, puts it this way: “Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure… anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise, in… Sacred Scripture, you can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought…. The Word of God is … also like a spring gushing with overflowing waters …[G]reat is the yield of this treasure and the flow of this spiritual fountain.”
Let us begin, then, with the first lesson taught to the disciples on Emmaus and in the upper room (Luke 24: 27; 24:44). To his confused and traumatized disciples, who did not yet understand the significance of the cross, Jesus opened the Scriptures, bringing together the strange victorious figure from Daniel 7’s vision, the Son of Man, with that other luminous figure of Isaiah 41 through 53, the Servant who Suffers. As he said to them, “the Son of Man” (elsewhere he says, “the Christ”) “had to suffer and so enter his glory.” Once the apostles discerned the harmony of these two strange figures, there was no going back: the One who represents Israel, the One who represents the whole of humankind, suffered death and so entered into resurrected, ascended, godly glory, taking our human nature with him. He is the “standing slaughtered Lamb” (Rev. 5), the Lamb and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 1:19;5:4). He is the one who called them and calls us, too, “to take up our cross,” that is “to suffer so that we might also be raised” (Phil. 3:10-11).
The Old Testament takes on a glory, a color, a meaning, that it could never have had without this One who confirms it. So, everywhere in the OT we see Him. By the lamp of the Old Testament (2 Peter 1:19), along with the proclamation of the New, may we learn not simply to place our feet properly as we walk with Christ, but to seek a complete transformation of our lives, as we grow together into the likeness of Christ. The seasons of the Nativity and Theophany lead us directly into a costly discipleship, as we remember the myrrh given by the magi for Jesus’ burial, and the descent of our Lord into the depths of the Jordan for our sake. In this Old Testament we have a light “shining in a dark place” to which we will “do well to pay attention” (2 Peter 1:19) –for he has gone into the deep darkness first, and he will bring us through it, until the dawn comes.