Is the Bible as we know it indeed the Word of God or is it maybe simply a human reflection of the revelation of God?
The question of hermeneutics, the key we use when reading Scripture, is as old as the church itself. In the history of biblical hermeneutics it is clear that believers have struggled to try to understand God’s Word correctly. This fact alone was a problem in itself: Is the Bible as we know it indeed the Word of God or is it maybe simply a human reflection of the revelation of God?
How can we understand the Bible?
Should we interpret Scripture literally or are we only able to discover the truth of the Bible if we look for a deeper spiritual meaning behind the literal text? Furthermore, what is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament? Are these indeed good profiles. Is the Old Testament not rather the “first” Testament? Furthermore, what is the relationship between Biblical history and the Biblical message? Is history perhaps nothing more than an historical, almost coincidental frame or does God actually reveal Himself in history? Is there a unity in Scripture, is there therefore just one key, or is there just a bunch of keys? And if we think we have found a key, is this because God is handing us this key or have we actually found the key because we were seeking for this key as children of our time and others (un)consciously missed it? Or is it both, perhaps? Is it God’s guidance that shines a different light on Bible testimony in one period to that in a different one? I cannot enter into a deep discussion of the whole history of hermeneutics within the framework of this article. I shall touch on a number of characteristics, which are important to our understanding at the present time.
The early church
How does the church read the Bible with its history and, especially, its prophetic message, after Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple burnt and the Jewish people dispersed among the peoples? How does the church continue to witness to the truth in a world of philosophers and idols, in which it seems to command little space as a newcomer? A few things attract attention: Against pressure from many, it accepts the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament. In any case, the doctrine of the Trinity also testifies to the fact that, in Christ, we have to do with the God of Israel and the Old Testament.
The school of Alexandria: allegory
Origen (Alexandria, 200 AD) emphasises the fact that the books of the Old and of the New Testament are inspired by God and that He speaks to us in every text. With great devotion, he couples scientific study of the literal text with the search for its meaning. In doing so he bases himself on the idea that Philo (Jewish philosopher, Alexandria, 1st c. AD) also embraced, i.e. that the literal text and its interpretation are related to each other in the same way as body and soul. This way Origen becomes the father of allegory: There has to be a higher meaning hidden in every text, which reveals something of the purpose and the secret of God’s way with man to us. The text is not much more than the carrier of the Revelation, which can be different to what the text says at first sight. A well-known example is the interpretation of the Song of Songs as a text about Christ’s love for the church. Pseudo-Barnabas (2nd c. AD) explains that Old Testament law must be understood spiritually. The ban on eating of pork is, in truth, an appeal for humans not to behave as pigs. And this is how many talk.
School of Antioch: literal meaning
It is true that Origen does not represent the whole church, but only the Alexandrian school. There is also an Antiochian school, which lays much more emphasis on the literal meaning of the text. They also try to preserve the Old Testament, not through allegory, but by laying emphasis on the great moral meaning of its words.
The church is the new Israel
What undoubtedly also plays a role is the fact that the early church sees itself as the new Israel. This is also how it presents itself to society. It denies that it is a newcomer. The Jewish people have lost their purpose. The church is the new, spiritual, fertile and ethically more perfect people of God. Its roots reach back to the distant past of God’s election. This church lives in the light of the Gospel and strives towards a life before God through the power of the Spirit. Provided it is quoted correctly, The Old Testament divulges exquisite secrets about life with God and points forwards towards the Gospel and the church, which are regarded as peaks of God’s revelation. It is clear that history loses out in this interpretation of Scripture.
The Middle Ages: four meanings of Scripture
In the Middle Ages the leadership of the church prescribes how the Bible is to be interpreted. This idea is actually not so unusual. The believers are usually not even able to read Scripture and the idea is predominant, moreover, that the interpretation of the Bible is something the apostles passed on to the leaders of the church. The church is only derailed when church tradition starts taking precedence over Scripture itself and the Bible is not considered sufficient as the Revelation of God.
The norm for interpretation is as follows: the letter teaches us what happened, the allegory what we must believe (the spiritual meaning), the moral meaning what we must do, and the so-called anagogy what we must strive for. Example, Jerusalem: historical city, the church, the soul, the heavenly Jerusalem.
It is important to know that the church is influenced by the neo-platonic thinking, which makes a sharp division between earthly and heavenly reality.
Although the church does not leave out the history of the Bible, at the end of the day the soul and heaven are what matter and Biblical history is oriented towards them.
Martin Luther: the Old Testament the shadow of the New
What is of enormous importance to this reformer, is how man peace finds with God, only through grace, because of Christ. That is the central message and it puts a stamp on his hermeneutics. Everything centres on Christ (the literal sense) and revolves around my justification and redemption (the spiritual sense). The historical significance of the Bible continues to stand its ground, but the preaching of the work of Christ resounds through everything if things are as they should be. In this respect the Old Testament can only speak of Him who is to come, whereas the New Testament is the great fulfilment. In this respect it is known that Luther did not know what to do with a number of the books of the Bible (James and Revelation), whereas the book of Psalms and the epistles of Paul bore his preference. These deal in particular with personal life with God and the full unfolding of the Gospel.
He feels very strongly about “Sola Scriptura”. The Bible does not need ecclesiastical tradition as an additional source of Revelation. It is sufficient and it explains itself. But what is clear is that the Old Testament is the shadow and the New Testament is the light.
With all respect for Luther’s emphasis on the work of Christ, the question remains as to whether he did not leave too much aside and whether there is not more in the Old Testament expectation of the Messiah than just our personal salvation.
Calvin: God’s covenant with man in both testaments
Although Calvin follows in Luther’s footsteps, he places a much greater emphasis on the literal and historical meaning of the Bible texts. That suits him better too. Christ’s work of redemption is naturally at the centre of his thinking as well, but he is above all a theologian who looks at the covenant and God’s relationship with man. He sees the Old and the New Testaments as a unity, which illustrates the history and the development of the church – a history of salvation with two dispensations in fact. It is a pity that his view of Israel so is clouded by his bias towards the church. There is, in my opinion, enormous potential, in principle, to emphasise God’s faithfulness to Israel within his vision of the unity of the Bible, the literal interpretation of the text and the value of history. But he was maybe too much a child of his time for this, and influenced by the theology of the church-fathers.
What is at stake is my existence
We take a big step once again and land now in the twentieth century. Much discussion has taken place in preceding centuries concerning the historical veracity of the Bible. Is it a source of information about reality, a Divine encyclopaedia of knowledge, or is there a great amount of accommodation – adaptation of the Revelation to what people are able to understand? What is also striking, however, is the great emphasis on the central place of man in the Word of God. Whether the Bible is seen as a book that educates man in great virtuousness, or as teaching on the practice of piety, it is all about me.
Bultmann (1884-1976, German theologian) carries this further in a certain manner, peeling Biblical history loose from its supposed message as it were. He makes a distinction between what he calls the “myth” and what the Bible says to me as a person in my existence.
Great questions as to who I am and the reason for my being prey on my mind as a human being. Scripture answers these questions. It is striking, in this respect, that he sees the Old Testament as a failure. It is the report of man’s failure to fulfil God’s demands, whereas the New Testament is the great testimony of grace.
Bultmann can do nothing with the stories of the fall, the crucifixion and the resurrection as historical facts. At best they proclaim that God is a God who sets man free.
The present time
I think that there are elements in current theology and preaching that we came across in the above-mentioned hermeneutic models. In line with Bultmann many modern theologians emphasize that what is important in the Bible is the message and not the history. Their motto is: “It is true, but it did not really happen.”
The great criticism of this approach is whether the message, stripped of its history, can still claim to be true. From where does it derive its reality? From a God who is maybe not more than an image; from history that appears to be a myth? If the only truth of the resurrection of Christ is that sunshine follows rain or that people live on in our thoughts, what revelation content is there left in the Revelation?
A present form of allegory: liberation theology
It could be claimed that the allegory returns differently in the different forms of liberation theology. Israel and the church are not more than onlookers in a history that actually does not matter much. Biblical history is an example of how it could or should work now, with other major players and in another era. Palestine was set free from Egypt, the walls of Jericho have become the walls of the state of Israel, Jesus is a Philistine and salvation is no longer of the Jews but of the Philistines.
Modern theologies of justice put Israel in the dock
A variant of this is theology that says that what is most important in Scripture is righteousness. Of course, when we read the prophets, we notice how they point out to the people of Israel that a society before the face of God cannot be riddled with violence and oppression, but that preaching is always within the context of God’s covenant with his people. And conversion never only means the performance of righteousness; it is always tied to the fear of the Lord and to faith in the promises of God. It is a theology that seems to be perplexed with personal life with God, the notion of the expiatory suffering and death of Christ, the future of the kingdom of God and the special place of Israel in the story of salvation. In a manner of speaking, if it serves humanity, Jerusalem will also become a universal city in the eschathon – a place where the world’s religions greet one another with peace, regardless of the fact that when righteousness is preached, Israel usually has to sit in the dock. If this theology is to be normative in this respect, we shall eventually have an eschathon without Israel.
The meaning of the kingdom of God
Evangelical and reformed preaching can hardly be accused of not taking the historical reliability of the Biblical stories seriously, but they will nevertheless have to continue to be careful to give history a clear place in their thinking. This is about more than our personal salvation and sanctification moreover.
We have been transferred from darkness to life and in Christ the kingdom of God has already broken through; the powers of the age to come have already been given to it, but God is indeed pursuing his story of salvation, right through the events of this century, and the church is there in the midst, praying, witnessing and praising. Its Lord and Saviour is the chief of the kings of the earth and God is sustaining and managing world events. Our future is more than life out of death and the glory of heaven. Through redemption in Christ God is preparing us for life on a restored earth. In this respect attention must be given to the (lasting) historical significance of the Old Testament. Although it cannot be denied that there are wise pastoral lessons to be found in the Old Testament, this cannot mean that that is all there is to be found there or that that is of primary importance.
The “Comfort, comfort my people” of Isaiah 40 is definitely not primarily an appeal to encourage one another in the church.
The Doctrine of Dispensations
A theology that contains some elements of our Israel theology is that of so-called Dispensationalism, or the Doctrine of Dispensations. Its premise is the brokenness of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament describes God’s way with Israel; the New Testament concerns the church, with Israel standing in the shadow. What the Old Testament has in store, the prophesies that are not yet fulfilled, become reality when the dispensation of the church has come to a close, the church of Christ is raptured and Israel emerges once again from the shadows to begin the last year-week. Its hermeneutics are thus strongly influenced by a phasing of redemption history. Apart from the exegetical choices that are made, I find the partition of the Two Testaments difficult. I believe rather that “The Old Testament carries on in the New Testament.” Israel may indeed not accept the Gospel for the most part, but right up to the last lines of the Book of Revelation it is Jews who are witnessing, seeing visions, dreaming dreams and offering salvation to the world, and when Old Testament prophesies are completely fulfilled, the church is at hand.
Hermeneutics of a theology of Israel confirms the content of the OT
Our Israel theology gets the “Sola Scriptura” from the Reformation: the Scripture explains itself and we have furthermore no reason at all to distance ourselves from the literal meaning of the text. History does not disappear behind the message; it is rather a part of the message. History is not wrapping but has lasting value.
The unity of the Bible is also important. In this respect we come closest to Calvin, except that Israel is not replaced or carried forward by the church with the coming of the Gospel, but maintains its own position among the peoples, alongside the church. The Old Testament does not spill over into the New Testament, there to evaporate or to be spiritualised in Christ; rather it is a permanent horizon of the New Testament. It is true that the Gospel brings new Revelation: that the Messiah is the Son of God and that, in Him, God himself bows down under the burden of the world’s sin, that He thereafter appears in Him as the king of the end-time and that the nations are so involved in salvation that they become co-inheritors of the promises to Israel. This is at least much clearer than in the books of the First Testament, but this new Revelation does not fade or remove anything from the Old Testament; rather it confirms and guarantees the content of the Old Testament. It continues testifying to the fulfilment of what the prophets said, in all its concreteness and worldliness. It speaks of the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. It speaks of a new world in which Israel maintains her unique place as the first sphere surrounding the Messiah. Her king will bring the dispersed daughters and sons of Judah and Israel back from exile once and for all. He will shepherd his people on the mountains of Israel. He will fight against all who oppress Zion and establish his kingdom in the promised land. The New Testament does not distance itself from this. Whoever reads the nativity Gospel notices how Jesus appears there as the King of the Jews, who will see to it that his people, freed from all who hate them, will be able to serve God.
The coming of the Kingdom
The disciples’ last question to Jesus is not a question about or concerning heaven but about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. So if there is just one hermeneutic key to a theology of Israel, it has to be “the coming of the Kingdom “. This is what it is about. As Van Ruler (Dutch theologian, 1908-1970) puts it: it revolves around Christ, but it is about the kingdom. Christ is also in the service of the kingdom in a certain manner.
The First Testament recounts the dispersion of the peoples following the fall, the flood and the building of the tower of Babel, and tells of the creation of Israel, the people that, as the chief of all peoples, will be the channel through which God will bring the coming of the kingdom closer. Israel does not lose this position, nor does it do so with the coming of Christ. Christ is moreover not only the Son of God, He is also the King of Israel, the One who has become her head and who embodies and represents her, leading her in the fulfilment of her calling and even serving her (Rom.15:8).
Israel the centre of revelation
Israel and the church both have their role to play. The church witnesses to the fact that Christ is its head, living through His Spirit and showing that the kingdom has already taken shape therein. It has received salvation through the intermediary of Israel and it celebrates its redemption, even though this is provisional and in the midst of all that is broken. Israel remains the people through which God is writing the story of salvation.
God does not gradually dispose of the history of Israel. Israel is not dissolved in the church and the earth is not dissolved in heaven. Christ reaches his saving hands out to the world, but He does not lay David’s crown aside while doing so.
The fact that the church shares in Israel’s promises means, in particular, that the church shares her spiritual riches. The land remains allotted to the children of Israel, Jerusalem their heritage. This is part of her calling. And the church stands in a ring round Israel, praying and singing when God appears as the Holy One in the midst of Israel, before the eyes of all the nations.
The Kingdom is the key
The Kingdom is the key! Did Jesus himself not preach about the coming of the kingdom? Did He himself not send out his disciples to proclaim it and to lay hands on the sick as a sign thereof?
In that light personal salvation and sanctified life do not disappear; in that light notions of righteousness and life through the Spirit do not disappear; they stand in that light! But what is true has to be said. Israel theology concerns me somewhat less. God is more than the king of my heart. He is the King of the universe, who has chosen to give life to the world via the narrow way of Israel.
Whoever opens the Scriptures with this key, enters into the heart of God’s revelation.