A Physical/Spiritual Dichotomy in Reading the Two Testaments

A Physical/Spiritual Dichotomy in Reading the Two Testaments

The Old Testament prioritizes lineage, family, children, liturgy, feast days, priests, rituals, buildings, and land. The New Testament does not abolish these things. On the one hand, it actually further emphasizes their importance; the realities are more plainly manifested and understood. On the other, they are shown to be penultimate realities, for the telos is Christ Jesus. All of these wonderful things find their end in Him. How else could they matter? And how else could they matter more?

The Church’s encounter with Marcion in the 2nd century taught her many things. When this innovative heretic-to-be suggested that Christianity existed in opposition to the Jewish Scriptures and the Jewish God, the Church quickly showed him the door. In this process, above all, she learned that her identity and the identity of the Gospel which she was given is dependent upon the Jewish Scriptures, this Old Testament (or, “OT”). This, of course, goes back to the words of the Apostle Paul himself. When narrating to the Corinthian Christians the matters of “first importance,” he roots his statements in the testimony of the “Scriptures,” i.e., the OT (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV). That “Christ died for our sins” is “in accordance with the Scriptures”; so also the fact “that he was buried” and “that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). When Marcion suggested that the Church of Christ cut the umbilical cord to those Jewish texts which, in his view, chained her to their religious immaturity, the Church noted, aptly, that the scissors were not aimed at any cord, but at her legs.

The Old Testament, then, is here to stay. To the extent that it vanishes, so do the people of God whose name is written in its language. Removing the Old Testament from Christianity would be like removing color from a sunset; it makes up the base material by which such a glorious sight is constructed. Anyone who misses this has yet to put the Synoptic Gospels and 1-2 Kings side by side, or perhaps has ignored all the miniature footnotes in his Bible when reading the book of Revelation. Birdwatchers have tuned their ears to distinguish the calls of a vast array of species amidst what most people (including myself) hear only as a cacophony. Reading the books of the Old Testament tunes the Christian’s ears to hear the Lord Jesus, to recognize nuances of sound and harmonic allusions.

Approaching the Old Testament, therefore, is no mean task. Quite the opposite: the way one approaches this body of texts will determine his slant on many issues of Christian theology. So often, the hermeneutical lens with which the OT is read ends up, whether intentionally or not, sifting various texts into categories of “Use” or “Do Not Use” for the purposes of the Christian Church. This twofold systematization is built upon a certain dualistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.

This primary dualism—the one dualism to rule them all—is a physical/spiritual dichotomy. We must discuss this in detail, because matter matters, and so matters about matter matter. This dualistic principle, in general, states that the OT contained physical promises, physical worship, and physical rituals which have now been surpassed and superseded by a truer and more spiritual version of all these things. There is certainly some truth to this. When asked if worship should take place on the mountain of Jerusalem or of Gerizim, our Lord stated that true worship would exceed the worship in Jerusalem (which heretofore was the correct answer), and that God’s people would worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). In this way, Jesus relativizes the specificity of worship. In the Old Testament, God ordained that worship would occur in Jerusalem. In the New, He has restructured the liturgical system such that Jerusalem is no longer central. This example is crucial, but this principle could be extended to other themes (e.g., inheriting Canaan to inheriting the whole earth, sacrificial system to the sacrifice of Christ, etc.)

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