De-hellenizing the Old Testament

Walter Eichrodt was a mainline German Protestant who nevertheless wrote an outstanding theology of the Old Testament.  The first fifty pages or so was sheer excitement.  I was floored.  Here was one of the world’s leading Old Testament authorities saying everything about Hebrew Thought and God that I had been saying, except he has tenure.

This is only the first two hundred pages of Old Testament theology.  These deal more with covenant and doctrine of God.   The second half deals with covenant leaders, which is important but not relevant to my studies at the moment.  Key here is the contrast between covenant religion and magic (ontology) religion.

“Real God becoming manifest in history to which the SCriptures of the OT bear witness” (15).

“That which binds together indivisibly the two realms of the Old and New Testaments…is the irruption of the Kingdom of God into this world and its establishment here” (26).

The Meaning of the Covenant Concept

  • Factual nature of divine revelation (37).  “God’s disclosure of himself is not grasped speculatively.”  As “he  molds them according to his will he grants them knowledge of his being.”
  • A clear divine will is discernable.  “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.’ Because of this the fear that constantly haunts the pagan world, the fear of arbitrariness and caprice in the Godhead, is excluded” (38).
  • The content of that will is defined in ways that make the human party aware of the position (39).
  • Divine election and kingdom:  Jer. 2:1; 1 Sam. 8:1-10; this dual pattern provides the interpretation of Israelite history.
  • The bond of nature religion was broken (42).  The covenant did not allow an inherent bond in the believer, the order of nature, and the god.   Chain of being is broken.  Divinity does not display itself in the mysterium of nature.  Election is the opposite of nature religions (43).  Israelite ritual does not mediate “cosmic power.”  “One indication of decisive importance in this respect is the fact that the covenant is not concluded by the performance of a wordless action, having its value in itself, but is accompanied by the word as the expression of the divine will” (44).

The History of the Covenant Concept

Eichrodt discusses the dangers the covenant idea faced.  Canaanite ideas quickly muted the sharp sounds of the covenant.  “The gulf set between God and man by his terrifying majesty was levelled out of existence by the emphasis laid on their psycho-physical relatedness and community” (46).  It is interesting to compare this description with Paul Tillich’s claim that the church placed the intermediaries of saints and angels over the Platonic hierarchy of Forms.

Refashioning of the Covenant Concept

Dt 4.13, 23 understands berith simply as the Decalogue.   A shift to the legal character.  Man can violate the conditions of the covenant, but he cannot annul it (54).

The Cultus

“Alien from primitive Yahwism, and introduced into the Yahweh cultus predominantly as a result of Canaanite influence, were the massebah, the Asherim and the bull image” (115).  The Canaanites believed this was a transference of the particular object of the divine power effective at the holy place as a whole.

  • Special places were always seen, by contrast, as memorials to Yahweh’s self-manifestation (116).

Pictorial Representations

“The spiritual leaders of Israel, however, always made a firm stand against this adoption of heathen image-worship, regarding it as an innovation which contradicted the essence of Yahweh religion” (118).

Prayer

“Indicative of the pattern of Old Testament piety is the fact that the dominant motives of prayer never included that of losing oneself, through contemplation, in the divine infinity.  There was no room in Israel for mystical prayer; the nature of the Mosaic Yahweh with his mighty personal will effectively prevented the development of that type of prayer which seeks to dissolve the individual I in the unbounded One.  Just as the God of the Old Testament is no Being reposing in his own beatitude, but reveals himself in the controlling will of the eternal King, so the pious Israelite is no intoxicated, world-denying mystic revelling in the Beyond, but a warrior, who wrestles even in prayer, and looks for the life of power in communion with his divine Lord.  His goal is not the static concept of the summum bonum, but the dynamic fact of the Basileia tou Theou” (176).

The Name of the Covenant God

Exodus 3:14:  “This is certainly not a matter of Being int he metaphysical sense of aseity, absolute existence, pure self-determination or any other ideas of the same kind.  It is concerned with a revelation of the divine will” (190).

The prophet Isaiah connects the fact of Yahweh is King with Yahweh’s eschatological act of salvation.

 

Covenant and Eschatology: Book Review

Instead of giving us Plato’s Two Worlds, Horton shows us Paul’s Two Ages.   It is this which structure the rest of theological prolegomena.  Horton is not giving us a systematic theology, but showing what theology would look like using the Covenant.

Eschatology after Nietszsche

Horton does not shrink from the challenges offered by Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Derrida.  In fact, he mostly agrees with them!  If we see Christian theology–particularly Christian eschatology–as dualistic, then it is hard to jump over Lessing’s Ditch.  Pace Derrida, the theology of the cross demands “deferral” against all theologies of glory, of any subsuming the many/now into the One/not yet (24).

It is with the Apostle Paul and the Two Ages that we are able to overcome these dualities without reducing identity and difference into one another.  Horton points out that “above and below” are analogical terms, not ontological ones (and while he doesn’t make this conclusion, this allows Christianity to avoid the magical connotations of the Satanic “as above so below” formula; covenant is always a war to the death with magic religions).

The Platonic Vision

Further developed in this contrast between is the difference (!) between covenantal hearing and Platonic (Greek) vision.

A theology of glory corresponds to vision (the direct sight of the One into one’s nous) rather than hearing (God’s mighty acts mediated in historical and material ways…Both crass identification of God with a human artifact (idolatry) and the craving for a direct sight of God in majesty spring from the same source:  the desire to see–without mediation–and not to hear; to possess everything now and avoid the cross” (35).

A Pauline Eschatology is able embrace both arrival and differance:  the age to come arrives in the first fruits in Christ’s resurrection, yet it is deferred until the consummation of the ages.  Horton further notes,

The Platonic paradigm of vision is based on the notion that this realm of appearance is a mirror or copy of the realm of eternal ideas…The Platonizing tendency also created a dichotomy between theoria and praxis, the former linked to the contemplation of the eternal forms, the latter to action in the real world (252, 253).

In the covenantal approach, what dominates is the ear, not the eye; God’s addressing us, not our vision of God (134)

Speech-Act

Drawing upon Vanhoozer, Ricoeur, and Wolterstorff, Horton outlines the basics of Speech-Act theory. He proposes (correctly, I think) this model as fitting with the covenantal drama he outline earlier.  He hints at how speech-act is able to overcome challenges from postmodernism:  “But unlike deconstruction, speech-act theory locates the activity in actors (sayers) and not in signs (the said) (126).

Horton ends with suggesting how a covenantal, speech-act hermeneutics would be lived out within the church.   This book truly was a bombshell.  If Horton’s arguments stand, the biblical covenantal religion is the only option for man.  Conversely, those traditions built upon Platonic and Hellenic frameworks must fall.

On not accepting high church authority claims

Musings from various Michael Horton works:

If the church determines the Bible, whether creating its canon or determining its meaning by some “semper ubique”, patrum consensus, or Magisterium, the following entail:

  • The church is no longer a summoned community but in fact has become the Speaker.
  • No longer a summoned community, and yet ministering to its people, is the church in fact just talking to itself?
  • Precisely why does Christ need to return if he is already here bodily (in the Eucharist) and in authority (Infallible magisterium)?  In fact, some Eastern eucharistic liturgies say exactly this.

What is missing from all of this?  Covenant and Eschatology

On the recent Triablogue discussion

One of my posts raised a  discussion on triablogue.   My intention in the post was simply to show that EO’s claim of “Well, we offer communion with God” isn’t unique.  That’s it.   I pointed out how other traditions can offer the same claim.  I did not intend to say that EO = Hinduism = Islam = Mooneyism.   My state was simply a literary rhetorical flourish.   Many simply did not see that (I’ve long suspected that Modern Reformed’s over-analyticism precludes its ability to see literary patterns.  I now have proof).

One gentleman asked, “But EO believes in the Incarnation and these other traditions do not.”

To which I say, “Yeah, but…”

EO believes that the Logos instrumentalizes a generic form of human nature for the sole purpose of deifiying the flesh (all of the Eastern Fathers are very clear on this point; cf Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, Routledge).   We believe, by contrast, that the Logos assumed a human body (remember the catechism’s language on this point) within the larger narrative of redemption.  So when the EO speaks of incarnation and Rho speaks of incarnation, they have two fundamentally different goals in mind.

We have a narratival ontology of the Word that Speaks; EO has a classical metaphysics of a substance “behind the thing” (which fits in nicely with their doctrine of essence/energies).

I noticed, interestingly, that many of my challengers didn’t respond to my comments about the Instrumentalization Thesis.

Let’s ask the question another way

What’s man’s basic problem?   As a good Reformed you would say something like “sin” or “rebellion against God.”  That would be correct.  That is covenantal, ethical religion.

Metaphysical religion will say that man’s basic problem is the fundamental slide towards nonbeing.

It really does come back to Chain of Being vs. Covenant.   Sharp EO apologists also know this, which is why they will decry Covenant theology as “nominalist” or “nestorian” or some other n-word.   They are wrong, but they are sharper than the sons of light in this matter.
Postscript:
One of the not-funny ironies of the Van Til tradition is that they really didn’t understand what Van Til was saying.  I disagree with CvT more than I agree with him, but I notice when I quote CvT on the influence of Greek thinking, Reformed people get very, very nervous (this isn’t necessarily true of the Triablogue folks–though it might be–I am making a general observation).  In fact, the only people who truly understood CvT were the recons.  I remember going on Puritanboard some months ago and saying, quoting Michael Horton word-for-word,
“Instead of copying Plato’s “two-world idea” scheme, maybe we should rather go with St Paul’s Two-Age scheme.”   That line was probably the most important line of ontology I’ve ever read.  The responses on PB were anywhere from silent nervousness to “We can’t have that.”

What do you have to offer?

The commenter known as “Anti Gnostic” asks a perceptive question:

What does Orthodoxy offer that other communions don’t?

He gets the standard cliched answer:

“What Orthodoxy offers is the promise of communion with the incarnate God, and theosis, leading to the salvation of the eternal soul…”

He responds,

So does Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. And Wiccanism, if I bothered to check. So tell me, why should I believe Orthodox Christianity over any other belief system?

All metaphysical religions die on this field.  If you teach “timeless truths” and overcoming estrangement, then you cannot escape this criticism.  Modern Judaism is gnostic and so falls prey to the criticism.  Ancient Judaism died covenantally in 70 A.D.  Islam is a monster of a different sort.  I am not claiming that this makes Covenantal Religion–meeting a stranger–superior, but it does begin to answer the question.

 

At least they approved one comment

Orthodox Bridge has put me on the perpetual probation list.  There are about four comments that probably won’t get approved (and about half a dozen from other sources refuting their Hellenism that will never see the light of day). While we are at it, I will put the spotlight on EO apologetics:

  1. Be loud on your “tradition.”  Notice how they will quote the apostles on tradition, but they never demonstrate that what the apostles mean by tradition is what they mean by tradition, especially relating to content?   Where did the Apostle Paul say you need to avoid food before Eucharist (contrary to 1 Corinthians 11:34)?  If one cannot show that what the apostles mean by tradition is what you mean by tradition, that is the fallacy of affirming the consequent.
  2. Ignore specific exegesis on Genesis 1-2.  This isn’t uniquely an EO problem.  All moderns are embarrassed by what the bible says on creation. A friend and I debate an Eastern Catholic who ridiculed creation theology.   We then backed the truck up and unloaded dozens of Fathers who affirmed–gasp–six day creation.   This is one area where Seraphim Rose cleaned house in debate.
  3. Apropos (2):   Creation theology teaches a firmament is placed between heaven and earth.  Later biblical theology identifies Jesus as the firmament between heaven and earth.   If Jesus is the firmament between heaven and earth, how then can saints intercede for those on earth when they are separated by the firmament?
  4. Ignore the 5 fold covenant model.   More and more I am impressed with Sutton’s fivefold covenant exegesis.  Henceforth I will no longer debate TULIP. If anyone wants to attack Reformed theology, deal with the Covenants.  Judicial Calvinism is all over the Old Testament.
  5. Does not the vaunted realism actually entail a chain of being ontology?  Isn’t this fundamentally the same thing as magic religion?  I agree that death is the main problem facing us, but the apostle Paul did not separate death from the judicial consequences of sin?

 

The 5-Point Covenantal Model

In the 19th century a German theologian was asked what he thought about Hegel’s philosophy.  He replied that it was a beautiful and powerful system, but it was like a loose tooth:  he was scared to “bite down” hard.   That’s how I feel about Ray Sutton’s That you may Prosper.   As his 5 points go, there can’t be any disagreement with any of them.   The danger comes when you put them together and filter the bible through them.   But that points to another problem:  even doing that, I still don’t see a danger.  Here are the points.   According to Sutton’s reading, which is based upon Kline’s, every covenant will have these points.

1. The transcendence and immanence of God
2. Authority/hierarchy of God’s covenant
3. Biblical law/ethics/dominion
4. Judgment/oath: blessings and cursings
5. Continuity/inheritance

By itself it wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the Tyler guys didn’t create mischief with it.   Ironically, even later Klineans like Horton are saying similar things.  That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it does lend to it an acceptability it formerly lacked.  I am going to walk through some of the basic points:

1.  Transcendence

Here is where it shines.   Sutton (and Jordan, North, and Rushdoony) wonderfully contrast the Hebraic, covenantal religion with that of metaphysical religion.  The former denies a continuum between creator and creature.  As a result, salvation is not metaphysical, but ethical.  This automatically leads to:

2.  Authority and Representation

When I reread this part, I couldn’t help but see parallels to Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations.   Someone must mediate and represent God’s judgments.  Ultimately, we see this in Christ though God did establish judges for the people.    God manifests his transcendence through mediators–but this mediation is not ontological, but ethical and civil (which shows both the power and shortcoming of Pseudo Dionysius).

3.  Ethics

Sutton wonderfully draws the contrast between Ethical and Magical religions (see pt 1).  The former is based on fidelity to God’s word.  The latter on manipulating reality.  Ethical religion’s relationship is “cause-effect” (though not entirely and absolutely so; that is why Sutton refines the model to read “Command/fulfillment”).

Interestingly, magical religions necessitate a chain of being ontology: as above/so below (74).   Sutton should have fleshed this out more.  Still, the connection on magic was spot-on.

4.   Sanctions

Blessings, cursings, and rewards come through judgment.  This often includes sacrificial judgment (and with our eyes on Christ, we see an echo to point 2, mediation).  We are dealing with oaths and witnesses and because Christ’s death in is in view, we also see the Lord’s Feast.  We shouldn’t be afraid of calling bread and wine symbols.  They have power because God’s Word says they have power (Word and Sacrament!).  This symbol of the Covenant represents God’s oath upon himself.  This is Covenantal Ontology.

I’ll deal with the last point, Continuity, later.