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The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | Aidan Nichols, O.P. | From Lovely Like Jerusalem: The Fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ and the Church

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We need now to stand back from the materials we have surveyed and ask about the pattern of revelation they show--always in relation to our more familiar New Testament, since the Church's Bible is a unity of two collections representing the two Covenants, Old and New. These two Covenants, like the two collections of books that are their witnesses, are not just two disparate bodies of literature that happen to lie side by side. They are, so to speak, made for each other: the Old Testament is constituted in its very identity as "old" by the New Testament, and the same is true of their relation when seen the other way round: the New Testament is what it is only because of the Old.


This is a doctrinal truth rarely recognized in academy departments for the study of religion where most professional study of the Old Testament goes on. But I know from hearing of the experiences of students in Cambridge, which can hardly be wholly untypical in this respect, that they have great difficulty as a consequence in making theological use of the Old Testament and, if they are ordinands, getting any idea of how it might be used in preaching or in the catechetical activity of the Church. And that is so even though it is only through the Church that this literature becomes specifically the "Old" Testament in the first place. The academic desire to free the foundational literature of Judaism From the Church (which is not in order to return it to Judaism since generally people in academic faculties arc as little interested in rabbinic Judaism as they are in Christian orthodoxy) fuses with an attitude of disdain toward the Old Testament in the liberal Protestantism that is the chief background of university theology in the English-speaking, as in the German-speaking, world--if not only there.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there took place in the professional theological faculties of Protestant Europe and eventually North America a resurgence of the heresy of Marcion, the second-century admirer of Saint Paul who wished to abandon the Old Testament entirely as incompatible in its spirit with the Gospel proclaimed by the Church. Following the depiction by English Old Testament scholar Francis Watson, it can be said to have had three main figures: the systematic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the father of modern (Protestant) theology, who lived from 1768 to 1834; the historian of theology Adolf von Harnack, who lived from 18511 to 1930, and the exegete Rudolf Bultmann, who lived from 1884 to 1976. I furnish below the essentials of Watson's account.


For Schleiermacher, Jesus and the apostles only appealed to the Old Testament owing to their historical situation. In the future, he thinks, the Old Testament might well be printed simply as an appendix to the Bible--that is, to the New Testament. The only things Schleiermacher values in the Old Testament literature are such prophetic oracles as can be held to express the striving of human nature at large toward the divine or the infinite--and of course one can find such texts outside the Old Testament, or indeed outside any sort of sacred writings for that matter.

Saint Paul, after all, told his spiritual children not to cling to the letter of the Law (Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:6). Schleiermacher thinks the same advice can be given about everything to do with the Old Testament-and much in the New Testament as well, especially when it is dependent on the Old. He com- plains of Christian teachers who try to defend the historicity and spiritual value of the Old Testament as "theologians of the letter" who seek to restore "the fallen walls of their Jewish Zion and its Gothic pillars" [1]--to no purpose.


For Harnack too Christianity is a completely new beginning that depends on the unique psychology of Jesus, from which flows Jesus' teaching about universal benevolence founded on the love of God and a love of neighbor that recognizes the irreplaceable value of each human soul. The Old Testament contains much that is irrelevant to this teaching, or even antithetical to it. Accordingly, argues Harnack, to see the two Testaments together, the Law and the Gospel, is to destroy the essence of the second and only worthwhile member of this pair-the Gospel.

The key for Harnack is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:27: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." This saying was already cited by Marcion in its almost exactly identical form in Saint Luke's Gospel (10:22), and his use of it was challenged in his lifetime by the early ecclesiastical writer Tertullian. Tertullian points out that in its context in Saint Luke's Gospel we are assured that this revelation of the Father through the Son does not take place without vital Old Testament preparation. Just before it we have the Transfiguration episode where, it is true, the divine voice tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, not to Moses or Elijah. But how strange it is, comments Tertullian, that if Jesus came to destroy the Law and the prophets and not to fulfill them that he associates at this climactic moment with the representatives of that Law and those prophets! And Tertullian makes the beautiful reply to Marcion, "This is how he destroys them [i.e., how Christ 'destroys' the Law and the Prophets]: he irradiates them with his own glory." [2] It is fitting for the Creator, the God of the Old Testament, to manifest his Christ, says Tertullian: "In the company of those who announced his coming, to let him be seen with those to whom he had revealed himself, to let him speak with those who had spoken of him, to share his glory with those by whom he used to be called the Lord of Glory." [3]

Now Harnack does not regard the Transfiguration episode as authentic, but he does accept the historicity of the remark of Jesus to the disciples that follows the key saying in Saint Luke about only the Son knowing the Father. This "remark" is Jesus' exclamation to the disciples: "Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it" (Lk 10:23-24). As the contemporary exegete who coined the term "Neo-Marcionism", Francis Watson, has put it: "This can only mean that the knowledge of the Father through the Son is the fulfillment of what was proclaimed in the Old Testament, and not its replacement by a reality whose links with the Old Testament are purely accidental .... Marcion and Harnack are too hasty in their assumption that, whatever the prophets may have accepted, it bore no relation to what actually takes place in Jesus Christ." [4]

But how are we to respond to Harnack's allegation that much in the Old Testament concerns a tribal god, such that what is said there is unworthy of Jesus and his Father? For Tertullian, much that is in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament for that matter, can be described as (in his words) a "self-abasement unworthy of God". But this self-abasement unworthy of God is altogether necessary for man, and therefore "for this very reason [it is] worthy of God, because nothing is so worthy of God as the salvation of man". [5]

If the Divine Son accepted the humiliation of the Incarnation and Passion, why should he not condescend to commune with patriarchs and prophets and so prepare for the human existence that would one day be his? When refined people read the Old Testament, they think what distresses them is human crudity. But perhaps they are also disturbed by the "saving divine condescension finally disclosed in the incarnation of the Word". [6] Harnack knew Tertullian's treatise, but he disregarded its arguments. For him Protestantism should finish what Luther started. Luther freed the Church from the dead weight of tradition. His successors should now free it from the burden of the Old Testament, which should be deprived of its canonical status and declared simply a set of books that can sometimes be religiously helpful to read--which is what the Reformers said about the deuterocanonical books-Wisdom, Tobit, and the like--when they removed them from their official Bibles.


The third and last Neo-Marcionite to be mentioned is Bultmann. Bultmann's attitude toward the Old Testament follows from his belief that divine grace strikes men only as individuals, not as members of empirical historical communities such as the people of Israel. Of course the Church is also a community, although not an ethnic one, but for Bultmann she is simply that community where the message that divine grace strikes people as individuals is proclaimed--an empty space, so to speak, for the proclamation of this "word".

Contrast Saint Paul's perspective in the Letter to the Romans, Hans Urs von Balthasar explains it:
The spiritual children [Christians] are grafted into the root that they may share in the living sap of the holy olive tree, but not in such a manner as to bypass the bodily Israel since "God hath not cast away his people, whom he foreknew" (11:2), and because "the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance" (11:29), but so as to become part of that indivisible and living whole which grows naturally, kata physin (11:24), starting from the patriarchal root and leading into the Israel of the New Testament. The Gentile Christians are admonished to be humble, for by comparison with that natural development they have been engrafted "against nature", para physin. [7]
And as if answering Bultmann, von Balthasar continues: "Although the word of God never coincides with human history, nevertheless it reveals its sovereignty--its judgment and its grace--in the depths of that history. It is never an abstract word addressed to man, but the articulation of the covenanted union between God and man." [8]

Bultmann considers appeals to the fulfillment of prophecy or the continuity of saving history in Israel and the Church to be not only irrelevant but misleading and therefore dangerous. They distract attention from the individual's need to place himself before the divine word, which judges and saves. The only point Bultmann can see to the Old Testament is that it can bring people to realize they are entangled in sin, caught up in self-assertion and pride. In that sense--and that sense alone--it prepares them for the Gospel.

But to Bultmann's mind the same service can be performed equally well if not better by, say, Greek tragedy or modern existentialist philosophy. [9] The Old Testament, so Bultmann thinks, ends badly as well. So far as history is concerned, it finishes up in the unattractive priestly theocracy described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. (Of course, as a Protestant, Bultmann does not include the Books of Maccabees in the canon.) Bultmann calls this last stage of the sacred people a "miscarriage of history" and feels it should serve as a suitable warning to all those who try to identify divine revelation with any empirical reality such as a holy people or sacred institution. But to this an answer can be made. The Old Testament's account of Heilsgeschichte, saving history, ends with a priestly theocracy which is only, in Bultmann's words, "absurd" and "grotesque" because in the words of the prophet Malachi the priests "have corrupted the covenant of Levi" (Mal 2:8). So far as prophetic judgments on history are concerned, the Old Testament
ends where the New Testament begins, with the promise that, before the great and terrible day of the Lord, Elijah will come to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers--the closing two verses of Malachi, 4:5 and 6, taken up in all three Synoptic Gospels.

From a Christian perspective, the function of Old Testament Heilsgeschichte is ... to prepare the way of the Lord. This history could only be said to have "miscarried" if it had failed to provide the matrix within which Jesus was nurtured and out of which he came forth to preach peace to those who were far off and those who were near, so that Gentile and Jew together should gain access in one Spirit to the Father (Eph 2:17-18). [10]
But the Old Testament did not fail to provide this matrix, as succeeding events in the New Testament prove.

A Better Way

As the great Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad shows--and he is an encouraging example of how it is possible, even in Protestant faculties of divinity, to escape the snares of Neo-Marcionism--the structure of the two Testaments is essentially one of promise and fulfillment. [11] So when Saint Peter preaches his first sermon at the first Pentecost, a sermon reproduced in the second chapter of Acts, he rightly takes it for granted that the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus must be understood in the light of the Old Testament, just as in turn the true scope and bearings of the Old Testament now, with the events of the Incarnation and the paschal mystery, come to light for the first time. As Francis Watson, again, writes: "The risen Jesus sends his apostles to proclaim to all nations the history of his own life, death and resurrection in its unity as God's definitive act for the salva- tion of humankind. Yet that history is neither self-contained nor self-explanatory; it is to be understood in the light of those sacred writings that it retrospectively reconstitutes as Old Testament." [12]

So the New Testament needs the Old: one can only make sense of the fulfillment in the light of the promise. But reciprocally, on the promise-fulfillment schema, the Old Testament needs the New: one can only make sense of the promise in the light of the fulfillment. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) remarks:
For the Christian, the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance towards Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end--from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text correctly (as the fathers of the Church recognized and as the faith of the Church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is. [13]
Evidently, tracing what I call the "pattern of revelation" is going to be very important.


[1] F. D. E. Schleiermacher, Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern 29, no. 17 and 4, no. 3, cited in Watson, "Erasing the Text: Readings inNeo-Marcionism", in Text and Truth 127-76, here at p. 131. That is because for Schleiermacher, real religion consists in a state of consciousness focused on the Infinite, which makes Christianity the perfect religion not for any reason to do with texts but because the Holy Spirit makes possible Christ's perfect consciousness of God.

[2] Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem, 4.22, cited in Watson, Text and Truth, p. 148.

[3] Ibid. Hans Urs von Balthasar remarks that any talk of Jews and Christians as heirs to a twofold covenant will "always hark back to the conversation held on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, when the Son of Man conversed with Moses and Elijah" since the "range" of that conversation "must. . . be such as to reckon with heaven and earth". Martin Buber and Christianity: A Dialogue between Israel and the Church (London, 1960), p. 7.

[4] Watson, Text and Truth, p. 149.

[5] Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem, 2.27, cited in Watson, Text and Truth, p. 151.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Von Balthasar, Martin Buber and Christianity, pp. 18-19.

[8] Ibid., p. 21.

[9] Watson, Text and Truth, pp. 161-62.

[10] Ibid., p. 165.

[11] G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 (Edinburgh and London, 1965); also two essays: "Grundprobleme einer biblischen Theologie des Alten Testaments", Theologische Literatur Zeitschrft 68 (1943): pp. 225-34, and "Typologische Auslegung des Alten Testaments", Evangelische Theologie 12 (1952): 17-33, of which an English translation appears in C. Westermann, ed., Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics (Richmond, 1963), pp. 17-39. We shall return to von Rad's work when looking at the significance of typology.

[12] Watson, "Old Testament Theology as a Christian Theological Enterprise", in Text and Truth, p. 183.

[13] J. Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Huntington, Ind., 1990; 1995), pp. 9-10.

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Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., a Dominican priest, is currently the John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer, University of Oxford; has served as the Robert Randall Distinguished Professor in Christian Culture, Providence College; and is a Fellow of Greyfriars, Oxford. He has also served as the Prior of the Dominicans at St. Michael's Priory, Cambridge. Father Nichols is the author of numerous books including Looking at the Liturgy, Holy Eucharist, Hopkins: Theologian's Poet, and The Thought of Benedict XVI.

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