Forms of Christ in the Old Testament

Forms of Christ in the Old Testament

One of my seminary professors was R. Lansing Hicks (1922-2008), whose obituary can be found at : http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v36.n16/story21.html He was my prof in spring semester 1980, after I had Brevard S. Childs for a class (see my previous post). Over the years I appreciated more and more Prof Hicks’ lectures on the Christian use of the Old Testament. A few years ago, I emailed him stating this. I forgot about my note until Hicks’ son-in-law emailed me, stating that Hicks had been ill during his last year and hadn’t read his emails, but the son-in-law had found my note and communicated it to Hicks shortly before his death. The moral of this story is, IF YOU WANT TO EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO SOMEONE FOR SOME KINDNESS OR HELPFULNESS, DON’T DELAY, DO IT NOW. This was the third or fourth time in my life that I sent a thank-you note to someone who died not long thereafter.

The moral of the rest of this post is: if you want to deepen your faith, finding connections and insights in the Bible is an excellent way. A few months ago I found a short book by Hicks: Forms of Christ in the Old Testament: The Problem of the Christological Unity of the Bible, the William C. Winslow Memorial Lectures of 1968 at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Several years ago I read Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, and at about the same time, something at our church reminded me how little many of us know or appreciate the Old Testament and how it relates to the New. Consequently I’ve been interested in renewing my own Bible reading, and in helping people discover themes and passages that unify the testaments. As I write this, it’s Trinity Sunday, an appropriate time to think about the identity of God among the scriptures.

Again: these are simply my notes from an interesting book: find a copy on interlibrary loan for more insights! At the beginning of the book, Hicks quotes Gerhard von Rad’s question: “how far can Christ be a help to the exegete in understanding the Old Testament, and how far can the Old Testament be a help to him [or her] in understanding Christ?” (p. 6) Hicks offers a form-content approach which, by the end, also give us a stronger appreciation of the Old Testament and provides ideas for ecumenical dialogue.

First, we look at form, specifically the forms of words, actions, and a coalescence of both. (p. 9).

Forms of words. There are “words of suffering” (Job 16:18-17:2, 23; Ps. 22:1-2, 6-8, 14-18; 69:4-21; 116; Isaiah 53:3-9; Lamentations 3:1-24; and cf. Zechariah 12:10f), in which Christians perceived the form of Christ’s suffering (Matt. 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:24f). There are words of forgiveness (Isaiah 40;2; 51:5f; Jer. 31:34; Hosea 14:4-7; Micah 7:19f; Zech. 13:1), in which Christians perceive the form of Christ’s pardon (Mark 2:5; Romans 10;5-13). There are words of salvation (Isa. 43:14-; 61:1-4; Jer. 23:5f; 31:2f; Ez.34:11-16; Zech. 8:13; cf. Ps. 20:30f), and words of life (Deut. 30:15-20; Isa. 25:6-8 [cf. Matt. 27:51; heb. 6:19; 10:20]; 26:19; Isa. 55:3; Amos 5:14); in which Christians perceive Christ’s power, too (Luke 20:37f; John 10:10; 11:25f; Heb. 11:17-19) (pp. 9-10).

Forms of action. There are forms of intercession: Abraham’s prayers for Sodom (Gen. 18:20-33), Moses’ prayers for the Israelites (Ex. 32:11-14, 31f), and the Servant’s actions (Isa. 42:2; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:13), in which Christian’s perceive the form of Christ’s self-oblation and intersession. There are forms of sacrifice, especially the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18), certainly a text readable as a very Christological text. There are also forms of God’s self-limitation: God’s covenant with Noah never to flood the earth again (Gen. 9:8-17); God’s covenant agreements with Israel (Ex. 34:10-28); God’s selection of a place where God can be met (Ex. 25:8f, 17-22; Deut. 12:10-14; 1 Kings 5:3-5; 8:20f, 29; Ps. 132:14; Ez. 37:26f). In all of these examples of divine self-limitation, Christians perceive the divine self-emptying in Christ (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6f; Col. 1:19f.) (pp. 10-11).

Coalescence of words and actions. Hicks cites Ex. 3:7f as a good combination of God’s verbal promises and God’s saving activity (pp. 11-12) We also look at content. It’s not always the case that the Old Testament provides the form and the New Testament the content. There are reciprocal movements between the testaments:

1. It is Christ’s nature to expose sin, and thus, whenever the Old Testament exposes sin (e.g., Micah 3:8, or the law as understood by Paul in Rom. 7:7-12), “it shares in the work of Christ. “
2. It is Christ’s nature to forgive sins, and thus the Old Testament “knows Christ” where there is forgiveness of sins (Lev. 16:29f; Micah 7:18-20; Isaiah 55:6).
3. Similarly Christ’s suffering for sin, and the Old Testament knows this kind of suffering (Ex. 32:31-32; Jer. 20:7-18; 37-38; Isa. 53:4-6).
4. And also Christ’s redemption from sin (Isa. 40:1-4; 53;12; Ps. 22:30-31; 130:7-8).
5. We also see the Old Testament providing the content of redemption, as in Hosea 3:1-3, in which we see the form of Christ’ s work (pp. 11-14).

Forms of intention. In the Old Testament, we see God’s intention of salvation: Cain (Gen. 4:15ff, Noah (5:29; 8:21f), Abraham (12:1-3, 15:7-21; 17:1-8), as well as the Exodus and Sinai covenant, and God’s many promises like Isa. 1:16ff and 43:4. The divine intention of salvation of course continues into the New Testament as a mutual binding of the two testaments. “And where salvation is offered, there is Christ.” (pp. 15-16). Intention cannot be separated from certain other forms, such as the offering of the innocent for the salvation of the guilty (p. 16).

Forms of Coordinates. Hicks gives the example of Isaiah 45:21f, where “a just God” and “a saving God” are not contrasted but yoked as co-ordinates: God is both just and saving. God’s justice and righteousness, in fact, are showed in Isaiah’s several depictions of the Lord as comforter, vindicator, healer, preserver, and sanctifier (pp. 17-18).

Other examples of coordinate terms are Moses’ writings and Christ’s words (John 5:46f), “the way, truth and life” of John 14:6, the “Son of God” and “life” in 1 John 5:15; and the perfection and gifts of the law in Ps. 19:7-9. All these are coordinates which are also perceived in Christ (Matt. 11:28, John 1:4-9; 8:12; 11:25f) (pp. 19-20).

In an interesting second half of the book, Hicks makes several points. One is that “When reading the Old Testament, early Christians recognized in its words and acts forms of the divine salvation and knowing that there is one salvation, not two, confidentially believed them to be forms of Christ.”As the New Testament affirms the life given through Christ (Romans 10:9, John 14:6), so the Old Testament affirms the living giving power of God (Deut. 30:15; 32:39, Amos 5:6). “[T]he Jew of the Old Testament… was saved no less lovingly or fully than those Jews who encountered Jesus ‘in the days of his flesh’ or we today who profess the Christian faith. In these Old Testament affirms we meet ‘soteriological content.’ The form of each passage quoted differs from the others just as each differs from the form in which Paul makes his declaration [in Romans 10:9]. But the content is the same, and so is the intention—the gift of life abundant; and that life, wherever or whenever offered, is life with Christ and in Christ” (pp. 26-27).

Another point: “Recent editions of Nestle’s Greek New Testament offer an index of Old Testament verses either cited or alluded to in the New Testament which runs to more than 1400 items. Not only the number of citations but their scope also is noteworthy: the list contains all the books of the canonical Old Testament with the exception of four–Ruth, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This is not to imply that the New Testament authors saw Christ in virtually every book of the Old Testament; but these impressive statistics for the frequency and range of Old Testament quotations do indicate beyond reasonable doubt that early Christian writers found material of specific value to them as Christians in every section of the Old Testament…” (pp. 30-31).

These are not “proof texts” and not all are what we would call “Old Testament prophecies”: for instance, Zechariah 9:9 is not a prophecy or a proof-text when used in Matthew 21:4f. But this is part of a drama in Zechariah, in which Matthew found a form for elucidating Christ. Likewise using in Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, and 13:7b, Matthew could “delineate the form of divine action in Christ’s passion and show its intention” (pp. 33-34, quote on p. 34). Similarly Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, which is not a promise but a form of the divine action (pp. 35-36). And also: Matthew’s use of Jeremiah in Matt. 2:17f, a word of sorrow which connects us with the divine words of salvation and restoration in Jeremiah 31 (pp. 32-33).

Hicks sees this form-content approach as helpful in Jewish-Christian conversation. We can better understand the variety and intentions of God’s works in both testaments, and we can affirm the uniqueness of Christ without denigrating God’s other works as somehow lesser, or simply preliminary to Christ. Hicks quotes James Sanders: “The Christian will not, even privately, ask why the Jew does not accept Christ as Messiah, and the Jew will not, even privately, ask why the Christian does not accept the Old Testament as Jewish. Each will respect the historic claim on the Bible the other represents….” Hicks adds that the purpose of conversation “is not merely to encourage Jews to converse with us for their own profit but to bring us Christians to ‘the point of such a full and genuine encounter that we are lead into the depth of the Christian Presence amid Judaism’” (p. 38). [Here, Hicks quotes P. Schneider’s The Dialogue of Christians and Jews, who continues: “Is it not possible that we have been blind to the further depths in which Jesus is made manifest in the travails and triumph of the Jewish people and faith throughout the ages? This is a dimension of the Lord Christ that Christians have yet to discover” (p. 177, in note 50 of Hicks, p. 45).]

Another way to put it is by N. T. Wright in his article “Paul’s Social Gospel: In Full Accord” (Christian Century, March 8, 2011, 25-28), where he writes, “There’s a swath of Western thought which…has said in effect that since the first plan has gone wrong, God has decided to do something quite different, to send his own Son to die for sinners, so we can forget about all that Israel stuff….That is to misread Romans and to misunderstand Paul at his very heart. Instead, Paul declares in Romans 3:21 that God’s covenant faithfulness has now been revealed through the faithfulness of the Messiah for the benefit of all those who are faithful. He, the Messiah, is ‘Israel in person’” (p. 29).

Altogether, Professor Hicks, writes, “Herein the identification of Old Testament forms can contribute significantly to our understanding of the scope of Christ’s work through space and time. It widens the perspective through which we are helped to view the totality of Christ’s work. Does this not open further doors of understanding today? … Should not we extend this same affirmation to all works of redemption and deliverance? If so, we face the future of ecumenical discussion of with both confidence and anticipation and we turn eagerly toward dialogue with ‘secular [person]‘ in our ‘post-Christian’ age” (p. 39).

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