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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
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"
--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
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."  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
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
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
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".  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. 
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." 
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.  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.
But the Old Testament did not fail to provide this matrix, as succeeding events
in the New Testament prove.
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).
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.  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
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
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. 
Evidently, tracing what I call the "pattern of revelation" is going
to be very important.
 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.
 Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem,
4.22, cited in Watson, Text and Truth, p. 148.
 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.
 Watson, Text and Truth, p.
 Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem,
2.27, cited in Watson, Text and Truth, p. 151.
 Von Balthasar, Martin Buber and Christianity, pp. 18-19.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Watson, Text and Truth, pp.
 Ibid., p. 165.
 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
 Watson, "Old Testament Theology as a Christian Theological
Enterprise", in Text and Truth,
 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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