Accusations of anti-Judaism are flying in Germany. In a 2013 essay, “Die Kirche und das Alte Testament” (The Church and the Old Testament), Notger Slenczka, a Protestant theologian at the Humboldt University of Berlin, argued that the Old Testament “should not have canonical validity in the Church.” Two years later, Friedhelm Pieper, a Protestant pastor and president of a leading ecumenical association, vigorously opposed this suggestion that Christians limit their Bible to the New Testament. He accused Slenczka of anti-Judaism, saying that his approach amounted to a neo-Marcionism, a revival of the ancient view of the Bible that sets the God of the Old Testament against the God of the New. Pieper was appalled that German Protestantism was not vigorously countering this heresy.
Pieper’s accusations set off a debate that made its way into German newspapers and became a matter of public controversy. Five of Slenczka’s colleagues publicly distanced themselves from his arguments. Several scholarly articles were published that commented upon and rejected Slenczka’s proposal.
But that was not the end of it. After the indignation died down, a group of Old Testament scholars organized a conference at the University of Berlin in the spring of 2016. The purpose was to discuss Slenczka’s contested arguments. The conference’s title, “Old Testament Hermeneutics,” was fitting. Slenczka has raised fundamental questions in Christian theology. How does Scripture bear witness to Christ? What is the relation of history to dogma? To what degree does the expertise of modern biblical scholarship properly shape the culture of the Church?
In his defense, Slenczka gives two main reasons for downgrading the Old Testament. The first is derived from the methodology of modern biblical study. He takes for granted that historical-critical exegesis has shown that a Christological understanding of the Old Testament of the sort we find in the Church Fathers (and well beyond them) is no longer possible. To read Christ into the suffering servant passages of Isaiah is to commit the fundamental error of historical anachronism. The Old Testament was written by and for ancient Israelites, not the Christians who come much later.
The second reason derives from a widely held view about the sources of anti-Semitism. According to this view, Christianity has endorsed “supersessionism,” which means Israel’s usurpation or replacement as God’s covenant community by the Church. This, in turn, fuels anti-Semitism and violence against Jews. To combat this tendency, Christians must embrace a scrupulous restraint that refuses to read the Old Testament as a Christian text. Thus, Slenczka says that, out of respect for Judaism and to promote Jewish-Christian dialogue, Christians need to renounce their “ownership” of the Old Testament.
To propose getting rid of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture seems extreme. But when I attended the Berlin conference, I came to see that Slenczka’s perspective is not as far-fetched or eccentric as I had imagined. In fairness, his proposal was raised, by his own admission, in a spirit of provocation. In that he succeeded. In the process, he exposed an unsettling reality. Some of the basic assumptions of modern biblical scholarship dovetail only too snugly with the basic assumption of modern systematic theology. Together, they make Slenczka’s rejection of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture frighteningly plausible. We’re culpably irresponsible if we don’t confront those assumptions.
In its early phases, modern study of biblical texts eroded confidence in the Bible’s historical accuracy. The source theory of the composition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, made it impossible to believe that Moses authored them. This, in turn, raised insuperable doubts about the historical reliability of the biblical accounts of the Exodus and other events. More dramatically still, biblical scholars cast doubt on the accuracy of New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus.
Modern German Christianity, especially the Protestant church, was profoundly influenced by the development of modern historical criticism in all its stages. As modern study of the Bible progressed, it became clear that the particular historical events testified to in the Bible are constantly being reevaluated by scholars as they embark on further research. Rather quickly in the nineteenth century, a consensus took hold that faith finds no sure foothold in contingent historical facts.
On what, then, is faith based? The Bible remained central, but its content was redefined. German idealism, for example, embraced the Bible’s symbolic and intuitive dimension. The Christian faith unites us with God, and the true faith was to be discovered in speculative thought, spurred and guided by the symbolic potency of the Bible. In this way, the content of faith need not depend on the ever-changing conclusions of the modern historian.
This modern theological tradition has taken many forms. It has a Hegelian phase, a “hermeneutical” phase, an existentialist phase, and a liberationist phase, among others. But the central theological claim remains constant: The Bible mediates a myth-concept-experience, and it is the myth-concept-experience that has the power of revelation, not the biblical text itself. In this tradition, historical research is accorded great respect. But it is ultimately deemed secondary, or even irrelevant, to the formation of faith. By this view, the old piety fixed on the literal words of Scripture needs to give way to a new form of religiosity that is attuned to the supposedly deeper truths that the Bible mediates.
Slenczka’s provocation has to be understood against this background. For example, he argues that Christianity is not a religion of the book. True, the fourfold account of Jesus’s biography remains at the center of Christian piety. It is not, however, to be taken as an historical account. Instead, the gospel accounts tell us of a “life appropriated.”
This way of thinking restricts the Bible’s meaning to purely horizontal dimensions. Thus, as Slenczka says, the Old Testament has significance for Christians solely because it serves as the medium in which Jesus’s life is put into language by the first Christians, who were Jews who believed in Jesus. As Jews, their experiences of God were shaped by the language and images of the Old Testament. It provided images of the kingdom of God, the suffering servant, the anointed one, and more. The Old Testament was the horizon of the religious imagination, as it were, and so the authors of the New Testament naturally thought and wrote in Old Testament terms.
As such, knowledge of the Old Testament is indispensable for a modern historical understanding of the New Testament and early Christianity. Since so much of modern theology has distanced itself from the historical particularity of biblical history, however, this indispensability is illusory. The job of the theologian is to use biblical science to distill the original Christian communities’ “experience of Jesus,” which must be articulated conceptually or symbolically, not in Old Testament terms. After all, we are not first-century Jews.
By this way of thinking, there can be no Christological interpretation of the Old Testament. One cannot say, for example, that the Passover foreshadows Christ’s saving death on the cross. The strict rule of modern biblical scholarship requires us to say only that the first-century Christians used their Jewish heritage to understand and articulate their experience of Christ.
In a real sense, the assumptions of both modern biblical scholarship and modern theological method combine to encourage us to set aside the Old Testament as the Word of God. It is meaningful only as the historical context of first-century Jewish Christians, not twenty-first-century Gentile Europeans. Thus, it should not be the subject of Christian sermons. There may very well be some texts in the Old Testament that can illuminate human existence. Genesis 3 may be read as a timeless story of sex and shame, for example. But in point of fact, most Old Testament texts no longer appeal to people in Western culture. This fact has to be acknowledged, this line of thinking continues, and its consequences drawn out. The Old Testament is a dead letter. It contributes nothing to Christian faith. In fact, what with the focus on law rather than gospel, the Old Testament is often a negative influence. It’s time to set it aside.
In short, we come to exactly Slenczka’s conclusion.
One of the central figures of modern Protestant theology was Friedrich Schleiermacher. Although he lived more than two centuries ago, his influence on the debate over Slenczka’s proposal is unmistakable. For two decades, the “Church Father” of nineteenth-century Protestant theology has been undergoing a remarkable renaissance. Schleiermacher is considered to be the founder of modern Protestant hermeneutics of Scripture. He understands Scripture as the expression of religious experience which acquires its specifically Christian stamp through a relationship with Christ. Our “God consciousness,” as he calls it, is realized and perfected in our awareness of Christ’s unique redemptive role. By Schleiermacher’s way of thinking, faith comes from an “interior communication”; it is a spiritual impression proceeding from the person of Christ. In this approach, the particular words of Scripture mediate this impression. But the proper object of theological reflection is the distinctive interior shape and logic of the God consciousness, not the Bible.
Schleiermacher was modern insofar as he insisted that this spiritual impression takes form in distinctive historical contexts. He sees Judaism and ancient paganism as “life worlds” that shape “God consciousness” in distinctive ways. The same is true for the Christianity of his own time, divided into Catholic and Protestant forms, which he saw as distinct modes of God consciousness. With remarkable rigor, Schleiermacher draws the logical conclusion to this approach. Not only is the Old Testament without dogmatic authority, the New Testament is demoted as well.
As he writes in the prolegomena to his great work of systematic theology, The Christian Faith, “It may seem strange that here the confessional documents of the Evangelical Church, collectively, are, as it were, given a prior place to the New Testament Scriptures themselves.” But this accords with his method. For it is the “life world” of Protestantism that stamps the God consciousness of Protestants, and thus its authoritative norms have an existential immediacy and significance greater than the verses of the New Testament, which in any event are shared with Catholics and do not contribute to the distinctive Protestant character of the faith Schleiermacher wishes to analyze.
Like so many theologians today, Slenczka presumes the basic outlines of Schleiermacher’s method. For example, he appeals to Luther, claiming that his approach accords with the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. However, the authority of Scripture does not reside in its words. It comes, rather, from the “interior testimony of the Holy Spirit.” The reader of the Bible should knock on the door of Scripture with childlike obedience, so that it might be opened to him and he might enter the inner space of the divine Word. This seems positively biblicist at first glance. But Slenczka qualifies: “This center is not to be located in content-related information . . . but rather the reading and questioning human being himself. The communication—the unification of God and man—takes place in the act of understanding itself.” Roughly translated, the Bible conveys an “experience,” a process or interior act within the believer.
According to Schleiermacher, it is the existential encounter with Christ, his decisive effect on our God consciousness, that should be the true object of theological study. This is what provides the proper norms for church life, not the words of the Bible. Slenczka makes exactly these moves. “The objective tenets of the faith are interpretations of living out a human life and an initiation of self-understanding. This is all they are.” One does not properly say that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, or that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Instead, in Slenczka’s mind, when we proclaim these truths, we are really saying, “I am made alive by affirming the Holy Trinity,” or “I feel closer to God when I contemplate Christ’s saving death.” As Slenczka put it, “Whoever does not thematize himself, does not speak of God—and the other way round!”
With this hermeneutical maxim in place, Slenczka reformulates the central principle of Protestant theology concerning the clarity of Scripture and its ability to interpret itself. The subject matter of theology is not Scripture; it is the “experience of dealing with Scripture.” Again, he turns to Luther as a warrant for this move from text to subject consciousness of the text. According to Slenczka, Luther understood the clarity of Scripture as requiring the reader “to knock” persistently on its door and with the right attitude. One can be assured a person is reading Scripture rightly when he expresses a new, liberating understanding of himself. Only in this way does Scripture become the Word of God.
Whether this is a fair use of Luther is dubious. But there can be no doubt that Slenczka follows the modern Protestant tradition faithfully. The great church historian Adolf von Harnack made the same moves more than one hundred years ago. Luther, Harnack claimed, rediscovered the gospel, which proclaims freedom in the Spirit of God rather than dependence upon the dead letter of the law. Harnack saw all dogmatic claims as legalistic in form, and thus part of the law that the gospel frees us from. But by Harnack’s reading, Luther was too indebted to tradition to wipe the slate clean. He retained ancient creeds and the Old Testament. In Harnack’s view, keeping the Old Testament was especially regrettable. It “was a fate the Reformation was not yet able to avoid.”
Slenczka works within the modern Protestant consensus. The logic of this theological outlook was already evident in Schleiermacher. Slenczka differs only in the fearlessness with which he presses the logic to its conclusion.
A Catholic must reject any proposal to downgrade the authority of the Old Testament. Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, unequivocally states that the Christian Bible consists of two testaments. Moreover, the Catholic tradition has responded to concerns that traditional theological claims about the Old Testament undermine Jewish and Christian relations. The 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission document The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible offers balanced and intellectually sound guidance.
The document affirms that Catholics are committed to the Christological potency of the Old Testament. “Christian readers were convinced that their Old Testament hermeneutic, although significantly different from that of Judaism, corresponds nevertheless to a potentiality of meaning that is really present in the texts.” But there is a difference between the order of reality and the order of knowing. “Although the Christian reader is aware that the internal dynamism of the Old Testament finds its goal in Jesus, this is a retrospective perception whose point of departure is not in the text as such, but in the events of the New Testament proclaimed by the apostolic preaching.” For this reason,“It cannot be said, therefore, that Jews do not see what has been proclaimed in the text, but that the Christian, in the light of Christ and in the Spirit, discovers in the text an additional meaning that was hidden there.”
That the light of faith in Christ illuminates meanings hidden in the Old Testament puts Christian readers at odds with Jewish readers at some points of interpretation (though by no means most). As the Pontifical Commission documents observed, however, “This discord is not to be taken as ‘anti-Jewish sentiment’, for it is disagreement at the level of faith,” and “although profound, such disagreement in no way implies reciprocal hostility.”
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Thomas Aquinas finds a clue to the relationship between Old and New Testament in the mystical understanding of the miracle of the wine at Cana. According to St. Thomas, the pure water in the kegs is a reference to the Old Testament. Jesus does not discard the water, but transforms it. In fact, all the water is converted into wine, not just part of it. This, says Thomas, refutes the Marcionites who reject the Old Testament. Jesus did not make wine out of nothing, but out of water, in order to show “that he was not proclaiming an entirely new teaching, discarding the old, but that he was perfecting it.”
These affirmations are crucial. But we need to recognize that we make them in a cultural context that works relentlessly to undermine them. Slenczka has found the courage to put Harnack’s program into action, and that program finds its rationale in very widespread theological assumptions, as well as the near-universal consensus of biblical scholars. Here, we need to listen carefully to Slenczka rather than reject him as an intemperate radical. As he writes in a crucial passage:
As soon as the consciousness is formed that this Book [the Old Testament] is not about the Church but about a religious community that it speaks to, a community from which the Church has separated itself, the Church’s relationship with this corpus of writings becomes highly problematic: from the outset then, this is no longer a book that speaks immediately to its [the Church’s] own history; rather, it is the document of another religious community whose identity it forms. This consciousness of a difference between Church and Judaism as two religious communities has prevailed—at least in Western Christianity—and has been reflected in the interpretation of the relationship between early Christianity and contemporary Judaism. . . . This means that the Old Testament can no longer serve as the basis of a sermon that interprets a text as an address to a parish: she—the Christian Church—is as such not the addressee in the texts of the Old Testament.
The consciousness Slenczka speaks of does not come solely from modern Protestant theology’s turn to the subject. It has been shaped by the theological assumptions made by the tradition of modern biblical scholarship. The most important has been the claim that the biblical text expresses the historical experience of its original authors and readers—and nothing more. This has crippled the capacity of the New Testament to speak directly to the faithful, to be sure, but it has destroyed the Christian relevance of the Old Testament, because it makes Christological interpretation illicit.
Historical scholarship of the Bible has a great deal to offer. Therefore, we need to more carefully formulate the principles by which we undertake our work as modern scholars. Otherwise, we’ll end up at the dead end Slenczka leads us to. I would like to propose the following principles regarding the role of the Old Testament in Christian theology. They are not comprehensive, but I hope these observations about biblical interpretation will point us in the right direction.
1. One should recall that for the early Church, the Old Testament was a given. It was in light of this Scripture that the identity of Jesus was discerned. Seen from the perspective of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, Scripture appeared in a different light. Jesus opens up the meaning of Scripture; he does not discard it (Luke 24:13–35). Hence, between Old and New Testament there is a reciprocal, not a one-sided, relationship. Both parts of the canon refer to each other and in so doing make up what Bernd Janowski has called a “contrastive unity.” The often-posed question of why the Old Testament belongs to the (Christian) Bible should really be—if it were asked in a historically and hermeneutically correct way—“Why does the New Testament belong to the Bible?”
2. The Old Testament addresses several themes which do not explicitly occur in the New Testament. These include the question of the relation between state power and the people of God. Far from representing a radical form of pacifism, the Old Testament argues for a realistic awareness of the fallen state of creation and for joining political authority with justice (Gen. 9:5–6). The use of force (violentia) is to be kept under control by a legitimate sovereign power (potestas). This constitutes the normative foundation of the state (or kingdom), and is upheld by the New Testament (Rom. 13:1–7). The existence of the people of God, however, is not predicated on any particular form of statehood. God’s people (Israel) were allowed to appoint a king for themselves, but by no means were they obligated to do so (Deut. 17:14–20).
3. The Old Testament develops a profound theology of creation and its fall. Sin is exposed as being, at its core, human rejection of God. Sin also clouds human consciousness and consigns creation to the command of demonic powers (cf. Gen. 4:1–16). Only by understanding this dynamic does it become clear what redemption truly is (cf. Mark 1:21–28).
4. The Psalter, as an integral part of the Old Testament, represents the prayer book of God’s people, arguably containing in itself all of the other books of Scripture (Athanasius). It is a “Little Bible” (Martin Luther).
5. The Old Testament is Christianity’s safeguard against a narrow-minded spiritualization of life. At the same time, the Old Testament’s realistic view of history and society prevents a blunt politicization of Jesus’s message: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
The early Church was right to reject Marcion’s efforts to “purify” Christianity. We also need to remain vigilant, not just defending the canonical status of the Old Testament, but renewing and deepening our faith by regular study of and preaching on its profound content. In an era when so much is both spiritualized into pious gestures and politicized into ideological slogans, we must stand with St. Augustine when he said: “I hold nothing more prudent, virtuous, and religious than all of those Scriptures which the Catholic Church retains under the name ‘Old Testament.’”
Ludger Schwienhorst-Schönberger is professor of Old Testament biblical studies at the University of Vienna.