Whence the crack in the mirror of the Word?

Are the writers of the New Testament a reliable guide as to how we should read the Old Testament and thus understand the Bible? At a more basic level, is the Bible coherent? What one encounters in much of biblical scholarship is lack of an implicit trust that the Bible is a book which tells a story in which beginning, middle and end form a coherent whole.

As Richard Hays has noted, the notion that the Gospels teach us how to read the OT is rejected as anachronistic and supersessionist. Mathew’s reading of OT events, as fulfilled in Christ, is thought to impose something alien on the original text. John’s reading of Genesis is viewed as an innovation that in no way touches on the deep grammar of Genesis. Paul’s use of the OT is considered untrue to the original text. The historical critical approach to Scripture sets aside the New Testament writers theological reading for a more historically based and literal understanding and the reading demonstrated to us in the New Testament is dismissed by both conservative and liberal exegetes as something that should not be imitated. As a result, the notion that Scripture is a “strange new world” (in Barth’s wonderful phrase) has been largely lost to generations of academics and their pupils.

One of the earliest theologians, working even before the canon of Scripture was formed, was Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus is a student of Polycarp who was a disciple of John. What is demonstrated in the work of Irenaeus is the approach that seems to have been passed down to him from John through Polycarp. Irenaeus, like John, frames all of Scripture under a singular theological understanding which duplicates and innovates on the work of his master. As with John, the interpretive key for Irenaeus is Jesus Christ – but more specifically it is Christ as celebrated in the Eucharistic community.1 In this context, the Scriptures are used to interpret the death and resurrection of Christ as it pertains to this community and, as is clear in Irenaeus account of the preaching of the Apostles, this pertains primarily to the use of the Old Testament as it is reframed in light of Christ.

Irenaeus sets forth a reading of the whole of Scripture in a theological understanding that sounds very much like John’s recreation account. John’s creation and recreation become creation and recapitulation in Irenaeus theology, and through these categories Irenaeus provides an account of how humankind is inducted into the divine economy (the inner life of the Trinity).2 There is a deep level of agreement between the Gospel writer and Irenaeus in the invocation of a singular divine economy against dualistic notions. The proto-Gnostics which John faced have become full blown Gnostics and this dualism is the background which both writers explicitly engage in their understanding of the work of Christ. This pertains to the immediate practical concerns of 2nd century Christianity as the Gnostics are proposing a faith and practice that is a different gospel than that found in the New Testament. In both John and Irenaeus – and what I will argue in this blog, in Scripture as a whole – the person and work of Christ are aimed at defeating sin, understood as a dualism (which can take an infinite variety of forms), and establishing a unified new creation order. In other words, the writers of the New Testament agree on their reading of the Old Testament and its significance as realized through Christ.

In setting forth a theological reading, I in no way want to relinquish a historical understanding as key to this theological understanding. The two choices, relinquishing the history so as to emphasize a theological understanding or resisting a theological understanding so as to remain true to a literal reading, both fail to get at what is necessarily a part of orthodox Christian belief. The theological approach I will take does not accept the division between theology and history which ends by privileging the historical critical method and subjecting theological understanding to the presumptions of historical criticism. Nor is a theology that floats free of the reality of history in any way connected to the distinguishing features of a Judeo/Christian faith. Holding theology and history together ultimately pertains to the core understanding of faith – God is working out his purposes in history as revealed through Christ and Scripture. The most basic assumption to Christian belief, or at least a coherent Christian belief, is that there is consistency and coherence to what God is doing as revealed in the Bible. The Old Testament provides the frame of reference for the New and the New Testament brings a depth of meaning and a dual understanding to the Old. The point is not simply to discover the intent of the original authors of the Old Testament as the original authors did not understand the substance of the shadows but had only the shadows. The text itself is what is to be read and studied and not something which lies behind the text.

The point of a particular book may be aided by setting it within its historical context but if it is not understood that history itself must be framed within a theological understanding, then there is already the presumption that the text or texts is fragmented by the various historical frames of the writing. In a historical critical approach the focus is upon getting behind the text to attempt to discern the situation in which it is written. If it is presumed that that the situation is determinative and there is no theological understanding of history’s coherence, then the starting presupposition is one of discontinuity. This describes the continually fragmented and fragmenting work of modern exegetical scholarship. The tendency is to see many different forms of Christianity springing up in Asia Minor, Rome, India etc. and among these forms of Christianity to imagine, for example, that Johannine Christianity is distinct from that of Paul’s and James’ Christianity. Where history, and not theology, is given primacy the tendency will be an infinite variety of explanations based on the unending multiplicities of historical explanation. With the presumption that John arises from within the theological understanding which frames the rest of Scripture, difference in style and vocabulary can be acknowledged but this need not imply a difference in the problem that is addressed and its solution in Christ. Far from dismissing the importance of history to the text, the presumption is that the peculiar historical setting framing the text is not discontinuous with the rest of history. The very point of the text of Scripture is to provide interpretation of the arc of history. To subordinate the text to a particular time is already a relinquishing of the intent and meaning of the text.

The specific theological understanding in which the Bible coheres, as with John’s reading of Genesis through Christ (re-creation has commenced) and Irenaeus demonstration of the summing up of Scripture through Christ and the Apostolic preaching (the recapitulation of all things in Christ), is an account of creations purpose fulfilled in Christ. There is a singular economy – the Logos of God or the inter-Trinitarian relations – into which humanity is inducted. The point here is not to give primacy to sin as determinative of salvation; the direction which western theology has taken. This understanding lends itself to the sort of fragmented theology which has sought refuge in historical critical analysis. Rather salvation accounts for sin while at the same time accounting for creation within the singular economy of the person and work of Christ.

Where the western church has focused on salvation as deliverance from sin, the eastern church has recognized that sin does not have the last word as to what constitutes salvation. Vladimer Lossky has described this digression of western theology as occurring when the focus on redemption is treated in isolation from the general body of Christian teaching. “Then theological reflection develops in three directions: original sin, its reparation on the cross, and the appropriation of the result of the saving work of Christ to Christians.” The eastern church has focused of the process of deification in which humankind becomes a participant in the Trinity – “God made himself man, that man might become God.” In the west, according to Lossky, “The thought of union with god is forgotten because of our own preoccupation solely with our own salvation; or rather union with God is seen only negatively in contrast with our present wretchedness.”3 Redemption, viewed primarily as deliverance, fragments into an economy that is somehow separate from the immanent Trinity and one step removed from knowing God in his essence. As it pertains to Bible reading, this is an exercise carried out in isolation from the process of salvation and recreation as it is more a reading about salvation than the thing itself.

Where it is understood that a singular economy accounts for creation and recreation, then sin can be put in its proper place as a parasite on this reality. We can understand the predicament of sin against the background of salvation in Christ. The point here is not to arrive at an etymological understanding (sin is missing the mark) or an understanding limited to a legal definition (sin is breaking a law). The goal is to offer a definition inclusive of the entire narrative sweep of Scripture in which sin is accounted for as a systemic denial – a deception in regard to the reality of death, mortality, and the manner in which Truth is constituted. This coincides with John’s purpose to show Christ’s recreation as defeating dualistic notions of light and darkness and life and death. John sets forth the broadest of dualisms, not to affirm them or the antagonism which they support, but to empty this antagonism; to show how Christ has confronted and defeated it by offering an identity and a community that does not define itself through difference but through identifying with Christ. It coincides with John’s reading of Genesis as a counter myth in which creation is fulfilled in a re-creation through the singular Logos which accounts for both.

It can be presumed (if one will give the slightest nod to the idea of inspiration) that the problem of sin and deception in John is not different than the way in which this problem is described elsewhere in Scripture. That is, given the notion that the Bible is coherent or cohesive, once we get a handle on the deep theme of sin and salvation in one portion of Scripture we should expect that the rest of Scripture follows the same interpretive key. The conclusion that sin is a singular structure (though it may manifest itself in an infinite variety of ways) recognizes that John, Genesis, Paul, etc., are all addressing a tendency or a false teaching with a universal (singular) structure which may manifest itself differently in different times (mythical dualism in the time of Genesis, proto-Gnosticism in the time of John, Judaizers in the time of Paul), but John and the rest of the New Testament address this root problem in such a way that it exposes the perennial tendency of false teaching and sin.4

The implication for fragmented readings of Scripture, in which the coherence of the whole is somehow missed, is that they partake of the very problem the text is meant to expose. This is the threat a theological reading poses – it calls for a humility before the text which would allow for one’s prejudices and pride to be examined and deconstructed. The historical critical method may provide a methodology that prevents the text from directly engaging the sin predicament of the reader. In the imagery of James, it may be that the mirror of the word is obscured by the manner of our looking, such that it is not the truth about ourselves that is reflected back. The incoherence of our own alienation may be foisted upon the text so that our perception is that the mirror of the Word is cracked.5

1 I am here referencing a paper Jonathan Totty kindly shared with me and John is following John Behr.

2 Jonathan Totty is demonstrating this in his significant paper on Irenaeus.

3 Vladimer Lossky, “Redemption and Deification”; in In the Image and Likeness of God, translated by John Erickson and Thomas Bird (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 97-8. Thanks again to Jonathan Totty for this reference.

4 My book, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, traces the theme of sin as a deception in the book of Romans, but this is easily duplicated from other places in Scripture. Galatians’ focus on unity is founded on belief in one God who incorporates us into one body through the one seed. This is clearly Paul’s strategy for warding off the Judaizers. What these agitators would do is what false teachers always do: they would divide, they would exclude, they would use technique and law (circumcision), they would do identity through difference (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female), and ultimately, they would nullify grace.

5 Beginning in January Ploughshares Bible Institute will offer its first course in Biblical Interpretation.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.