Friday, November 23, 2012

Daniel Block Interview on Old Testament

There is an excellent interview with Old Testament scholar Daniel Block over at the Gospel Coalition blog.  Dr. Block is the author of a new commentary on Deuteronomy and he has some interesting thoughts on typological connections between Moses, Christ, and Paul.  The interview brings out two items that I found significant.

First, Dr. Block has helpful thoughts on understanding the Old Testament in a Christological manner.  He comments:
Perhaps we need to distinguish between "Christological preaching" and a "Christological hermeneutic," as if under the latter we expect to find Christ in every verse of the Bible. While it's not difficult to identify overtly Messianic texts (Psalm 2; 110; Isaiah 53; Micah 5:1-5; etc.), technically the OT rarely speaks of ho Christos, the anointed Messiah. Unless we overload that expression beyond what it actually bears in the OT, I don't find "the Messiah" on every page. Still, YHWH is everywhere, and when I preach YHWH, I'm preaching Jesus, Immanuel, the Redeemer of Israel incarnate in human flesh. When I readExodus 34:6-7, I see a description of the One whom John characterizes as glorious, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
Actually, we'd improve our hermeneutic if we interpreted the OT Christotelically rather than Christocentrically. While it's hermeneutically irresponsible to say all OT texts have a Christocentric meaning or point to Christ, it's true that all play a significant role in God's great redemptive plan, which leads to and climaxes in Christ. This means that as a Christian interpreter my wrestling with an OT text must begin with trying to grasp the sense the original readers/hearers should have gotten, and authoritative preaching of that text depends on having grasped that intended sense.
However, my work as a Christian interpreter doesn't end there. I must ask several additional questions:
  1. Where does this event or institution fit in the grand scheme of redemption, whose goal and climax are in Christ?
  2. What lexical and conceptual vocabulary does this text contribute to later interpretation of the mission and ministry of Christ?
  3. What view of God that we later find embodied in Christ is presented here?
  4. How was YHWH's redemption and calling of Israel analogous to our redemption and his calling of us in Christ?
These brief comments set a helpful trajectory for understanding the Old Testament in terms of the larger story of Christ.  Dr. Block's comments also help avoid simplistic reductions of the Old Testament as some are so eager "to see Jesus" in the Old Testament that they either run past the truths that are there or force fit Jesus into texts for pedagogical or preaching purposes.

The second significant item was Dr. Block's comments on the law and its applicability for today.  The following comments were especially noteworthy:
Chris Wright helpfully speaks of Israel's constitutional texts (my expression for what most call law codes) as presenting a picture of righteous living that's "paradigmatic" for God's people in all contexts for all time. Let me concretize the issue with a specific example: In Deuteronomy 22:8 Moses says, "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it." When people ask me whether Christians need to keep this command, I explain this is the wrong question. The question for me as a Christian is not, "Do I have to keep this law?" but rather, "How does God, my Redeemer and covenant Lord, expect me to keep this law?"
When we realize this isn't a mandate for a certain style of architecture but an opportunity to display covenant righteousness, the answer is obvious. This command assumes the head of a household is responsible for the welfare of everyone who enters his house, that he'll take all steps necessary to protect their well-being. In Chicago this means I "fulfill righteousness" if I shovel the sidewalk in front of my house after a snow so that all who pass by are safe. Not all commands are this straightforward, but the question, "How does God expect me to fulfill this command" is generally more helpful than, "Do I have to keep this law?"
Admittedly, the regulations of Deuteronomy are culturally conditioned, but we must accept as normative God's revelation communicated through these contextualized regulations. After peeling away the cultural husks of the laws in Deuteronomy, modern Christian interpreters must accept as normative the ethical and theological principles they communicate. In cases where the work of Christ has brought an end to a given practice (e.g., food regulations), the theological principles underlying those regulations remain relevant.
I found these comments very similar to the teaching of Dr. Greg Bahnsen as he had developed his "theonomic" understanding of God's law in relation to the Christian.  Dr. Bahnsen would even use the same text (Deuteronomy 22.8) as an example.  In discussing the "discontinuities" with the Old Testament law and contemporary application Bahnsen comments:
 Some discontinuities with the Mosaic law (or laws) are redemptive-historical in character and pertain to the coming of the new covenant and the finished work of Christ, while others are cultural in character and pertain to simple changes of time, place, or lifestyle.  The latter are conceptually unrelated to the former.  There are cultural differences not only between our society and the Old Testament, but also between modern America and the New Testament (e.g., its mention of whitewashed tombs, social kisses, and meats offered to idols); indeed, there are cultural differences even within the Old Testament (e.g., life in the wilderness, in the land, and in captivity) and within the New Testament (e.g., Jewish culture and Gentile culture).  Such cultural differences pose important hermeneutical questions--sometimes vexing, since the "culture gap" between biblical times and our own is so wide.
However, the differences are not particularly relevant to the question of ethical validity.  That is, it is one thing to realize that we must translate biblical commands about a lost ox (Ex. 23:4) or withholding pay from someone who mows fields (James 5:4) into terms relevant to our present culture (e.g., about misplaced credit cards or remuneration of factory workers).  It is quite another thing to say that such commands carry no ethical authority today!  God obviously communicated to his people in terms of their own day and cultural setting, but what he said to them he fully expects us to obey in our own cultural setting, lest the complete authority of his word be shortchanged in our lives.
Moreover, it should be obvious that in teaching us or moral duties, God as a masterful Teacher often instructs us not only in general precepts (e.g., "You shall not murder," Ex. 20:13, "love one another," 1 John 3:11), but also in terms of specific illustrations (e.g., rooftop railings, Deut. 22:8; sharing worldly goods with a needy brother, 1 John 3:17), expecting us to learn broader, underlying principles from them.  Again, those biblical illustrations are taken from the culture of that day.  After the New Testament story of the good Samaritan, Jesus said, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).  It does not take a lot of hermeneutical common sense to know that our concrete duty is not thereby to go travel the literal Jericho road (rather than an American interstate highway) on a literal donkey (rather than in a Ford) with a literal denarii in our pockets (rather than dollars), pouring wine and oil (rather than modern antiseptic salves) on the wounds of those who have been mugged.  Indeed, one can be a modern "good Samaritan" in a circumstance that has nothing to do with travel or muggers.  Unfortunately, however, this same hermeneutical common sense is sometimes not applied to the cultural illustrations communicated in Old Testament moral instruction.  For instance, the requirement of a rooftop railing (Deut. 22.8), relevant to entertaining on flat roofs in Palestine, teaches the underlying principle of safety precautions (e.g., fences around modern backyard swimming pools), the obligation of placing a literal battlement on today's sloped roofs.
There are, then, cultural discontinuities between biblical moral instruction and our modern society.  This fact does not imply that the ethical teaching of Scripture has been invalidated for us; it simply calls for hermeneutical sensitivity.  Greg Bahnsen "The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel" in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views edited by Wayne G. Strickland (Zondervan, 1993), pp. 100-102.
I was encouraged to see Dr. Block endorsing similar sentiments regarding the ethical use of the laws from Deuteronomy.  I have no doubt that Dr. Block would have differences with Dr. Bahnsen's full-blown approach but, nevertheless, there is a similar desire to appropriately apply God's law today.