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The problem of continuity

A proposition: Whenever the problem of continuity and discontinuity between the reality of Jesus Christ and the interpretive authority of the textual tradition(s) of Israel are negotiated in the New Testament, it is always those advocating for continuity that are judged by the apostolic witness to be unfaithful to the Gospel.

For the apostolic witness, continuity is a problem, for their adversaries discontinuity is a problem. In contemporary theological circles this situation is strikingly reversed.

38 Comments

  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Care to elaborate a little, Halden?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Just been spending some time reading through the Pentateuch lately and putting that in conversation with stuff from the Gospels and Epistles. It just stuck me that, as far as I can see, in the NT, the problem is always with people wanting to stress the continuity between Jesus and Israel’s tradition. Whereas the pressing concern among many theologians today seems to be the opposite. Just found it interesting.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  3. Eric wrote:

    Way, way, overstated.

    Sounds like you are suggesting that discontinuity was some kind of hidden principle in the earliest communities “most loyal” to Jesus’ message. I don’t think that claim could really be supported—especially not “always.”

    To the degree that the NT canon solidifies in opposition to Marcion, what counts as “apostolic witness” is emphatically a certain kind of continuity with a certain reading of the textual tradition of Israel.

    I don’t see what value there could be in affirming this kind of proposition? What does this get you if it were true?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I’m just noting what is going on in the NT. There seems to be a preponderant problem of people trying to grant theological authority to prior textual tradition(s) in a way that conditions or interprets the significance of Jesus. The Apostles always seem to oppose that turn. Not really saying much beyond that.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  5. Eric wrote:

    I thought you were probably saying something a bit more circumscribed than the proposition seems to imply.

    I want to recognize, though, that the Jesus’ significance is really only understood in the first place by means of the same texts. So, while you are right to say that there is significant resistance to limiting what Jesus’ life can mean in order to preserve continuities, it’s also important to see that the expanding meaning of Jesus’ life already is a certain textual continuity (no matter how much it is safeguarded by novel discontinuities).

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  6. Brad A. wrote:

    I see the opposite, Halden, regarding current theologians. I see many (even people I really like) wanting to treat Jesus quite outside and independent of the narratives of Israel when, in my reading, that would be quite impossible. The gospels are pretty clear to me on that, as well as a number of epistles. I don’t think the NT is remotely monolithic in this regard.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I’d be curious to seems some examples of what you’re talking about, both in regard to current theologians and the NT. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that we ought to “treat Jesus quite outside and independent of the narratives of Israel.” Which I wasn’t saying either, rather the point is about authority and the use of prior traditions to control what Jesus “must” mean.

    I guess I’ve just never seen anything in the NT where the apostles are saying, “Whoa there, you’re totally taking Jesus as too unique and special! Don’t forget about Israel and Moses!” Rather they seem to always be saying, things like “There is no Jew or Gentile” and “Christ is the end of the Law”, that kind of stuff.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    Well, now you’re state things differently: “it is always those advocating for continuity that are judged by the apostolic witness to be unfaithful to the Gospel” vs. “use of prior traditions to control what Jesus “must” mean.” The first is simply an overstatement (and in my reading of the text, incorrect), and in no way necessitates the second.

    The theologians I have in mind are those whom I rely upon in many other ways, and who would not at all explicitly deny continuity or explicitly advocate an independent treatment. But their work, usually by omission, seems to take up Jesus’ story as almost utterly independent of Israel’s. Jesus is seen as definitive and normative (which, of course, he is), but with an insufficient sense of how, since (as an example) the covenant he claims to have fulfilled is never discussed.

    The continuity in the NT is all over the place in Jesus’ own teachings (anchored in the Sermon on the Mount) and is emphasized both in James and 1 Peter, among other places. Even some of the logic of the Pauline corpus suggests it.

    Of course, the apostles aren’t critiquing claims of uniqueness, because they’re often talking to the Jews themselves, in discussions with whom Israel is already assumed. The problem – and this is part of the problem with overlooking Israel – is that the discussions have in part to do with competing narratives about Israel, both in the OT and in the NT. I think many of Jesus’ critiques of the religious leaders, for instance, have to do not with their emphasis on Torah, but with their divergence from Torah’s true intent. They’re not being faithful to their own core teachings, but Jesus is.

    This is a bit disjointed and off the cuff, but those are my thoughts atm.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I haven’t changed what I said at all, as the initial post makes clear that I’m talking about “the interpretive authority of the textual tradition(s) of Israel.” It is you have completely changed your position from what you said in your previous comment. First there were “many … wanting to treat Jesus quite outside and independent of the narratives of Israel” and now there is a still-anonymous group who don’t explicitly do this, but kind of do by accident or something. I’d still be curious who those folks are and where they do that.

    In any case I’m still not persuaded by this, even the way you’ve altered what you said initially. It seems clear to me that Jesus and the Apostles did away with central elements of the Law itself (Jesus expressly violating the Sabbath, Paul saying the circumcision is nothing, etc.).

    Also, I find it kind of weird that you often seem to respond to a request for examples of continuity by simply saying its “all over the place” and then letting that sweeping claim insulate you from actually showing any such thing to be the case.

    In case I have been unclear, let me say what think is really at work here. In the NT, as I read it, Jesus and the Apostles are consistently saying that all prior traditions, especially the Law as given in Sinatic Covenant, need to be re-understood, and in crucial and earth-shattering ways, set aside in light of Jesus. What I hear you and many theologians saying these days is something quite different, namely that we must understand Jesus and his message in light of Israel’s prior traditions which shape and in at least some ways determine the meaning thereof. I think that’s an important difference and worth pondering.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  10. Dom wrote:

    I personally don’t see that in the NT. Rather, where there is disagreement it seems to be with regard to what the continuity looks like. There are copious appeals to the OT by the apostles stressing that this Jesus is what it was looking forward to. To suggest that the OT is “always” just Jew vs. Gentile, Law, etc., and that the NT is “always” just a reversal of those things is simply wrong. For one thing, There’s plenty of stuff in the Pentateuch and the Prophets pointing to the blessing and incorporation of the Gentiles. For another, there’s a lot more in the OT than simply the Law that Christ is the end of. A good reading of the OT reveals a vision that has much more in common with what Jesus was doing than what was believed by those who opposed the gospel by (incorrectly) appealing to the scriptures.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I think my point is about how establishing any continuity ought to go. For the Apostles the continuity is always located in the singularity of Christ. We read Moses and the Prophets from Golgotha and not otherwise. What many want to do today though is read Golgotha from Sinai. That, I take to be a huge problem.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Yeah, I think my point is about how establishing any continuity ought to go. For the Apostles the continuity is always located in the singularity of Christ. We read Moses and the Prophets from Golgotha and not otherwise. What many want to do today though is read Golgotha from Sinai. That, I take to be a huge problem.

    I think this is a really important clarification, Halden. There is no doubting that the New Testament is difficult to understand without reference to its context within Judaism. There is no doubting that Jesus is understood as a new Moses, a new Adam, etc. And there is no doubting the attempt on the part of the NT authors to show, and even to demonstrate (by way of genealogies, etc.), how Christ is in continuity with God’s promise to Israel. We see this in the gospels and we see this in Paul (esp. in Galatians). The point that I hear you making is a theological one, derived from Jesus’s (and Paul’s) own stance vis-a-vis the “prior traditions.” I think we can all agree that the stance isn’t a kind of Marcion anti-Judaism. There is, however, a recurring insistence that the newness, what Halden calls the singularity of Christ, must mean a complete re-figuring of the tradition as such. And, indeed, I think we can see this happening already in the NT authors as they struggle to reinterpret the scriptures in light of the event of Christ. And I think this is why the NT authors end up completely bastardizing the scriptures because of the utter newness of the event.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  14. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I do think you should go ahead and “name names.”

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    To further clarify my above comments, what I’m wanting to get at is akin to what Ernst Kasemann says here:

    Whoever does not bear the image of the loving, gracious God who binds himself to the hopeless, poor, and outcasts — that person does not live in the gospel. But to this the Old Testament and the law of Moses must also be subject. We should not read first and foremost in them that God is the highest Judge and Protector of order, who sets all our life under his command. Rather, we must let these writings tell us that he redeems his people from Egypt and the wilderness, from the power of the enemy, and from error and guilt. We must interpret the Old Testament and the law of Moses from Golgatha, not Jesus and his disciples from Moses and the scribes.” (On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene, 91.)

    In particular, I think that last sentence gets to the heart of what I think is important in this discussion.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  16. Brad A. wrote:

    But I think an important counter-perspective, and one that is not entirely un-complimentary, is that Jesus – as Israel-and-Yahweh incarnate – is calling Israel back to Yahweh’s original intent. That intent is given in the Torah, rightly understood (which was in part how Jesus was challenging the so-called experts in the law), not in the rejection of Torah, which Jesus refused. That’s partially where I think our perspectives differ from each other.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    It’s a bigger issue than we can really parse in the comments here, but from my perspective “Yahweh’s original intent” is not codified in the Sinatic Covenant at all, but rather is precisely to do away with the Law and make a New Covenant one “not like the first covenant” as Jeremiah picks up on. If you’re interested in reading about this further, there is a comprehensive and highly-textual argument for this in John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  18. Brad A. wrote:

    Frankly, I can’t see how you can critique me for generalization considering your original comment. But I’m not going to quibble about semantics here, which we seem to always fall into doing.

    You’ve already read an early version of my work where I address those theologians (Yoder, Hauerwas, Cavanaugh, etc.). My mind hasn’t really changed on that, though my argument has developed.

    As far as NT examples go, they really are all over the place. Matthew is a prime example. The genealogies and prophetic fulfillment formulas that Ry mentions are good examples, but it extents well beyond that. Jesus claims explicitly to fulfill Torah. Why would Torah not matter significantly for understanding him, then? I think you’re right that Jesus and the apostles argue that Torah needs to be re-understood, but you’re assuming Israel properly understood it in the first place (or properly obeyed it), or that the understanding didn’t warp over time, requiring a definitive renewal with Jesus that would take Yahweh’s intent in Torah finally to the rest of the world. Indeed, as I alluded to already, there are strains of that intent throughout the narratives from Moses all the way through the prophets, strains that contended in the life of Israel over other strains of self-empowerment, human sovereignty, and state centralization (and then later, the absolutization of the temple leadership and it’s interpretation of Torah by Jesus day).

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    I’m really not quibbling over semantics. Its just that you said I did something when I in fact did not, and then you did exactly what you incorrectly critiqued me for doing. I just thought that bore mention.

    I do understand your position, and I think at this point all I can say is that I don’t really regard it as having much actual biblical support, in terms of current and serious OT scholarship. I mean this in terms of Old Testament studies specifically, not more general theological conversations, to be clear (obviously I know that you’ve read Hauerwas, Lohfink, and other similar theological thinkers who talk about the OT in much the same way as you are here). But the more you talk about “the Torah” the more it seems clear to me that the way it is operating in your schema reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the literary and textual role of the Sinatic Covenant in the Pentateuch itself, and in the Old Testament more generally. Obviously that’s not an issue we can resolve in these comments, but if you’re interested in pursuing the matter further, I’d again recommend the Sailhamer book I mentioned earlier, which bears strongly on this whole conversation.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  20. Brad A. wrote:

    I’ve read Sailhamr, and I think he’s off target, pitting Moses and Torah against Abraham like he does. I think that’s a disturbing way of reading the Pentateuch, to argue that the purpose of the Pentateuch was to ultimately reject Torah. If that’s your understanding, no wonder you take the position you do. But I think it’s incredibly problematic, especially his notion that the “prophetic ideal of an individual, personal relationship with God through the reading of his Word had become the rallying cry of the ‘Israelite church.’” Give me a break.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  21. Brad A. wrote:

    See my comments below. I will admit to favoring a narrative-canonical exegetical approach over a strict historical-critical one (without utterly rejecting the latter, that is), and perhaps that’s where part of the issue lies.

    And obviously, I interpret you differently than you interpret yourself. And vice versa.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  22. Brad A. wrote:

    The problem is that this quotation assumes that “the image of the loving, gracious God who binds himself to the hopeless, poor, and outcasts” is somehow absent from the OT and “law of Moses.” Why would we assume that?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    I agree that theologically he isn’t on the same page as me in many ways. But frankly, you’ve just confirmed my suspicions. You have to make the “Torah” fit into your scheme in a certain way, regardless of actual engagement with its text. He makes more sense out of the actual text, and does more textual work — which I’ve not seen seriously challenged — than anyone advocating the broadstrokes scheme you’ve been reproducing. You don’t seem interested in engaging his arguments simply because you find them distasteful as they cut against the way you want to fold the OT into your larger narrative.

    I’m sure his reading of the Pentateuch is “disturbing” to you, as it challenges the way you’re trying to use the OT in your salvation-historical scheme. But at least his actually works with the text and makes clear arguments rather than vague generalizations about what is allegedly “all over the place”.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Ok, forget that sentence. What do you think of the last one in the paragraph?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  25. Halden wrote:

    A “narrative-canonical exegetical approach” as exposited by who? How does it make actual sense of the polyphony of text in the OT? Does it even attempt to do so?

    You continually refer to a fictional consensus about this broad framework you rely on, but when pressed you never seem to be able to give any details about specific thinkers, specific texts, or specific arguments. You just insist that everyone else assume that you’re essentially right about the “big picture” and then we can sweep any specific questions under the rug. That’s a big part of what makes this conversation difficult.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  26. Brad A. wrote:

    But that’s just the point, Halden. The last sentence isn’t disconnected from the first. I don’t operate from an a priori assumption that Yahweh at Sinai and Jesus on the cross are opposed. The relationship here, and with the OT/NT generally, is reciprocal. Neither is intelligible without the other.

    (I’m sympathetic to the final sentence to a degree, but I wouldn’t reduce Jesus to Golgotha, either.)

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  27. Brad A. wrote:

    Why would you assume that my work doesn’t rely on a careful reading of the text for my own part, rooted in other work by people who attend just as closely as he does, but come to different conclusions? Why should I suppose that he does not engage the text from his own particular theological perspectives as well? Why is this suddenly a personal critique (as often happens here)? What is it that makes you think that anybody who disagrees does so simply because they want to artificially engineer things in ways you don’t like? Enough already.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    I’m not trying to be combative, nor do I see how any of this is some sort of personal attack in any way. From the beginning I’ve been simply asking for either your perspectives on the specific issues (rather than sweeping generalizations about what is just obviously “all over the place”), or for information about those you rely on who engage them (so that, perhaps I could look into their specific arguments if I had not encountered them). Yet you’ve consistently skirted such requests, so now I don’t have the opportunity to know whether your work relies on a careful reading or not, you won’t give me the chance to know.

    As for your last sentence, your response to Sailhamer was simply to scoff and call it “disturbing.” That sounds like an emotional and facile response, and certainly not one that makes any sort of argument. It left me wondering why you had no substantive response, only derision, that’s all.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  29. Dom wrote:

    As far as that last sentence is concerned, I think it’s a mistake to be too hasty to do either. We should read Moses and the scribes on their own terms just as we read Jesus and His disciples on their own terms. God has spoken in both. From our perspective we have the distinct privilege of taking the incarnation into account when we read the OT, and we certainly should. But I think to interpret from one to the other is a mistake–you really shouldn’t read anything that way. The loving God who “binds himself to the hopeless, poor, and outcasts” is every bit as evident in the OT as NT. Similarly, the “highest Judge and Protector of order” is found in the NT. Difficulties certainly present themselves in the Law, but interpreting Moses through Golgotha makes it to easy to simply cast the whole Law aside rather than wrestling with it as something delivered to Israel by God. There are nuances to be made in our understanding of God and how His purposes are accomplished in the world, and lessons to be learned from such wrestling, that will be overlooked if we jump to interpreting the OT from the NT. There is one God, one vision, one narrative. To fail to take the whole story with all its apparent difficulties into account on its own terms will be to fall short in understanding it.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  30. Nate Kerr wrote:

    No, do not ignore the first sentence. The crucified Christ is that image (Col. 1:15-20). There is no assumption that this image is not borne throughout the Old Testament witness, but it is to say that this image is even there borne by the one who was slain from the foundation of the world. The question at issue here really has to do not with the reduction of “Jesus” to “Golgatha,” but rather a refusal of the prevenience of Golgatha as constitutive of Jesus’ identity as God. Or, rather, the problem is the attempt to overcome this stumbling block by construing Christ’s identity according to some mode of the totus Christus that abstracts ultimately from the cross-event as constitutive of Jesus’ identity.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  31. Doug Harink wrote:

    “Yeah, I think my point is about how establishing any continuity ought to go. For the Apostles the continuity is always located in the singularity of Christ. We read Moses and the Prophets from Golgotha and not otherwise. What many want to do today though is read Golgotha from Sinai. That, I take to be a huge problem.” (Halden)

    “I think this is a really important clarification, Halden. There is no doubting that the New Testament is difficult to understand without reference to its context within Judaism. There is no doubting that Jesus is understood as a new Moses, a new Adam, etc. And there is no doubting the attempt on the part of the NT authors to show, and even to demonstrate (by way of genealogies, etc.), how Christ is in continuity with God’s promise to Israel. We see this in the gospels and we see this in Paul (esp. in Galatians). The point that I hear you making is a theological one, derived from Jesus’s (and Paul’s) own stance vis-a-vis the “prior traditions.” I think we can all agree that the stance isn’t a kind of Marcion anti-Judaism. There is, however, a recurring insistence that the newness, what Halden calls the singularity of Christ, must mean a complete re-figuring of the tradition as such. And, indeed, I think we can see this happening already in the NT authors as they struggle to reinterpret the scriptures in light of the event of Christ. And I think this is why the NT authors end up completely bastardizing the scriptures because of the utter newness of the event.” (R.O. Flyer)

    I think these two statements, and Nate’s, get it exactly right. Contra Dom, there is no “whole story” in a kind of single arch that runs from Genesis to Revelation. The “whole story” is Cross and Resurrection, which then reaches back to the story of Israel, and forward to the story of the church and Israel, to determine what those stories might mean, not “on their own terms” (Dom), but in the terms of “Golgotha.” Halden is right that continuity is only discerned within the subsuming (“prevenient”–Nate) discontinuity of the cross. But I would not say (as I think Halden did twice) that Sinai is cast aside–not even for Paul. Seen from Golgotha, the whole stretch of the OT, including Torah (cf. Paul’s extensive use of Deuteronomy; Matthew’s “this is what was spoken”), is viable for plundering as witness to Christ (R.O. says “bastardizing”–but Paul’s interpretive “method” shares much with other Jewish interpreters of the time, while his criterion of interpretation is radically different–it’s only bastardizing in terms of historical critical and “narrative” readings).

    A serious question in the background, though, is whether Halden’s opening statement straightforwardly implies a bad kind of supersessionism (church superseding Israel), and it’s on that matter that I think it is often thought that it is important these days to stress continuity. In a much longer post I would show that the stress on continuity (as in e.g. N.T. Wright) is far more likely to lead to bad supersessionism than the “apocalyptic” approach of Halden, R.O., Nate, etc. Only if the crucified and risen Christ supersedes and subsumes all, will there be no superseding of Israel by the church.

    Thanks for opening up this discussion.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    I think all this is very, very helpful, Doug. And I absolutely agree about how the sort of salvation-historical approach offered by Wright indeed results in precisely the wrong sort of supersessionism despite its claims to be serious about Israel and the OT.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  33. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    Very helpful comment Doug, after a greatly provocative post Halden. Thanks

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  34. What is the investment in which direction influence flows in this argument? I don’t see it. To collapse one particular direction doesn’t make any sense. Does this amount to a critique of people trying to over-determine the identity of a child with the parent? Are you then saying that in actuality the parent can only really be identified by the child? What’s the point?
    Repetition (as it is now often cited) is only such when there is difference. Is repetition continuity or discontinuity then? Halden, would your observation consider Christ a repetition of Sinai or not?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink
  35. Doug Harink wrote:

    @ David,

    The parent/child analogy is organic. The relation of Christ and Sinai is not organic but apocalyptic. Sinai, taken up and re-figured through death and resurrection into the Christ-event, is thereby rendered a fit repetition of Christ.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  36. Doug Harink wrote:

    This last point, by the way, is crucial for thinking about Messianic Judaism (see Mark Kinzer, et. al.). Their witness to Christ rightly includes faithful Jewish practice.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  37. So does repetition represent continuity or discontinuity? Or does that render those categories irrelevant?

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  38. Doug Harink wrote:

    Yes. No.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

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