Whole Bible Christian

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Over the years I have proudly stated that “I am a New Testament Christian.” That statement sounds noble at first glance. Think about it – who would object to someone wanting to go back to the founding documents of the church to draw their theology and practices in their own Christian walk?

The problem with saying, “I am a New Testament Christian,” is found in the reality that the original Christians would have no idea what that phrase means. Imagine you were able to get in a time machine and travel back to Corinth to the year 60 A.D. Let’s say you found the local house church in Corinth and you proudly proclaimed, “Hey guys I am a New Testament Christian!” They would probably look at you with a confused look because the only Bible they knew was the Old Testament, the letter Paul had written to them, and maybe one of the Gospels. Now one could argue that the New Testament encapsulates the teaching of the Apostles that churches like Corinth adhered to and found authoritative. This argument is true and valid. The NT does provide us with the authoritative teaching of Jesus through his apostles or their associates. But there is a deeper issue with saying, “I am a New Testament Christian.” When one considers how NT[1] writers viewed and used the Old Testament it becomes apparent that 21st century Christians should be “whole Bible Christians.” I hope that in this article I can make the case for the position of “whole Bible Christianity.”

One problem is that our truncated view of the Bible and neglect of the OT has robbed us of understanding the nuances and beauty of the theology and depth of the NT. We must realize that the NT writers’ minds and imaginations had been baptized and saturated in the thought patterns and themes found in the Old Testament. The NT is filled with echoes and allusions to OT themes and the writers assume that their readers are versed in those same concepts. One could make a case for the importance of knowing the OT because of the use of OT prophecy to prove the Messianic mission of Jesus, but it goes much deeper than that. What many do not realize is that the strands of theology that tie the OT and NT together run much deeper than just fulfilled prophecy. This is evidenced by two things we observe in how NT writers employ fragments and passages from the OT called intertextuality[2] and metalepsis[3].

Intertextuality simply means the writers of the NT used older bits of the Bible (OT) to make their point and to show a connection between the grand themes of redemption in Israel and the work of Christ. Metalepsis occurs when a NT writer quotes an OT text and wants to call the reader’s attention to an echo of the meaning of the original OT passage. Both intertextuality and metalepsis closely tie together the theology of the OT and the NT.

One could think intertextuality and metalepsis as a musician writing a new song but riffing off an older tune or melody in their new work. When the listener hears the old tune or melody their mind is transported back to the older song from which it originated, and it heightens the experience of the new song. This is similar to what the NT writers did when they embedded fragments and texts from the OT. If the reader does not recognize those echoes and resonances from the OT they will miss the message of the author. In our modern vernacular we do this at times. For example, I could say, “the New England Patriots met their Waterloo in Super Bowl XLII.” There is a cultural currency of thought in which one would know that this meant that in some way the Patriots suffered a shocking defeat. Without some knowledge of Napoleon’s battle with Wellington at Waterloo, it would be impossible to understand the full implications of this quote. Not only did the Patriots lose the game but the outcome was a stunning and shocking defeat. The writers of the NT are expecting a currency of thought and shared imagination with the reader.

I want to provide a quick example of how intertextuality and metalepsis work in the NT and demonstrate how recognizing these themes gives flavor and meaning to the text. In Hosea 11:1 we read, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (ESV).” This passage sounds familiar to us because we read in Matthew 2:14-15, “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son (ESV).” It appears that Matthew is saying that Jesus went to Egypt as a child so that He could fulfill the prophecy found in Hosea 11:1. My question is this, “are there clues that Matthew is giving us something deeper to consider than what we normally think of when we read the word ‘fulfill’?” To begin to answer this question consider this – Matthew employs the word ‘fulfill’ differently than we typically think. When Matthew uses the word ‘fulfill’ the OT passages he cites are typically not true Messianic prophecies. The one place where Matthew does quote an explicit OT Messianic prophecy is in Matthew 2:5-6 when he quotes Micah 5:2 in reference to where the Messiah would be born. In other words, when Matthew uses the term ‘fulfill’ he is asking the reader to go back to the passage being quoted and consider its context.

The passage in question of Hosea 11:1 had a specific meaning for its day and time. Does Hos 11:1 explicitly state that the Messiah will go down to Egypt? Hosea is not even concerned with the Messiah. He is looking back to the Exodus and using Exodus material for his 8th century BC context. God is talking to the northern tribes of Israel in Hosea and is looking back when he showed his love by redeeming them from Egypt. Israel will soon be put under the yoke of the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Exodus is the birthing of the nation and is one of the ultimate signs of God’s love and care. Matthew is applying those same themes to Jesus. It is true that on the surface Jesus is called out Egypt to return home, but Matthew wants us to delve deeper. Matthew wants us to consider how the ministry of Jesus will be a new exodus. One will notice that all through the Bible the theme of the Exodus is recapitulated. We are called to see that Jesus is much greater than Moses because he is God in the flesh, and he is bringing redemption from sin. Jesus’ liberation will be from the very root of all evil and oppression – sin. Jesus is even better than the original Exodus. Matthew is using Hosea 11 and its theme of Exodus and deliverance to Jesus as the ultimate telos (goal) of God in His grand scheme of redemption. Understanding the theme of Hosea and his message heightens one’s understanding of what Matthew is trying to communicate to us about Jesus.

This whole Bible approach to our faith also helps us see things like the entire shape of Matthew’s gospel as showing us that Jesus is a new and greater Moses. For example, a mind baptized in the theology of the OT notices that Matthew has a water event in the baptism of Jesus (Matt 3), a 40-day wilderness event with trials (Matt 4), and a mountain experience in the Sermon on the Mountain (Matt 5). One quickly notices the resonances with Israel and their Red Sea crossing as a water event, 40-day travel to Sinai with trials, and the receiving of the Law on a mountain. An imagination saturated in OT theology can also see that in John’s account he is telling you that Jesus is ushering in a new creation. John’s gospel starts with, “in the beginning.” When the reader gets to the passion week In John, we start to see a pattern emerge. In the final week of Jesus, we see that on day six (Friday) Pilate cries out “Behold the man,” on Saturday Jesus rests in the tomb, and on the first day of the week, he is raised. This pattern recapitulates and escalates the first creation by realizing the man is created on day six (Friday), God rests on day seven, and the first day of the week represents the start of a new creation. When one is working from an imagination saturated in the OT, they also  see that the church in the NT is more analogous to the ‘qahal’ of Israel instead of the Greco-Roman city-state concept of the ecclesia. Understanding the church in terms of God’s gathered covenant people has a deeper connection to the OT than with Greco-Roman categories. There are multitudes of examples to be given but just this overview demonstrates how important it is to have a thought world influenced heavily by the OT. My point in all this is that a mind enchanted with the world of the OT quickly picks up the themes of the OT and the resonances found in the NT.

I propose to you that we should become unashamedly “whole Bible Christians.” Part of being “whole bible Christians” means that we know the major themes and great acts of God from the OT. If we are going to espouse patternism the best type of patternism is to look to patterns of redemption that are recapitulated throughout the Bible. In connecting the Bible back together we have some wonderful insights such as the realization that the same Trinitarian God that is revealed more explicitly in the NT is the same God of the OT. In being whole Bible Christians we must also understand how the OT fits within the NT and how Jesus fulfilled the purpose and was the telos of the OT.[4] To truly be a restorationist people we must restore the early church’s love and appreciation of the OT in our churches today. [5]

[1] For the remainder of this article I will use the abbreviations of OT and NT for the Old Testament and New Testament respectively.

[2] Richard B. Hays defines intertexuality in the following quote: “The phenomena of intertextuality—the imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a latter one—has always played a major role in the cultural traditions that are heir to Israel’s Scripture: the voice of Scripture, regarded as authoritative in one way or another, continues to speak in and through latter texts that both depend on and transform the earlier.” Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 14.

[3] Metalepsis can be understood as occurring when, “a literary echo links the text in which it occurs to an earlier text, the figurative effect of the echo can lie in the unstated or suppressed (transumed) points of resonance between the two texts.

[4] One great resource for understanding the relationship of the OT to the NT is found in N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today and pay close attention to his five acts of a play model.

[5] For more research on metalepsis and intertextuality see Richard Hays’ book The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as the interpreter of Israel’s Scripture and Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.

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