Harmonizing Scripture

In response to the Christ the King 2020 Sermon I wrote and delivered recently, a friend wrote me the following note:

For some number of years, you gave yourself to the world; but must have found not joy, but an emptiness.  I sensed this, but knew better than to attempt to become your conscience, one sinner to another.  The sermon you have provided (thank you!) reveals that through the years of exile and your hapless return, something higher and deeper yet was a spirit and a mind that might, God Willing, teach you to know yourself and finally to discover your true calling.

The world in which you NOW reside is in sore need of your ministrations.  I include myself in that state of need; for I have become a believing Jew, recently in shock and confusion in the face of the so-called “New Testament” and its seeming break with what is called the “Old Testament.”  My long and deep studies of political philosophy (from the Pre-Socratics to Nietzsche) brought me to a fork in my spiritual journey in which the OT was a drink of cool water to a thirsty man.  To contemplate the transfiguration of Yahweh to “Ha Machiach” and God, the Father, was as difficult for me as it was for the People of the OT.  So, I approached my reading of the NT as a critic.  Yet, I found wisdom in the Words, but of a personal nature as opposed to a litigious spirit derived from The Law of Moses and the Prophets.  More contrary was Jesus’ apparent support of the OT as a Rabbi speaking to me as a seeming go-between me and my Creator.  Your Sermon does not persuade for me nearly so much as it commands my task at hand — to come to terms with the Bible in its entirety as have passed through the thickets of contradictions to find a unity such as you presented in your words.  At 79, I am of a need to see through the complexities of comparison of the two Bibles. and your sermon has set forth one possibility of that fusion.  I must read and re-read it for my soul’s destiny.

In response to the above note, I wrote the following to my friend:

Thank you so much for your comments. I shall offer here a preliminary response to your points. The hope is that these first thoughts may inspire, and perhaps even refine, further discourse on the matter. 

You write that “your sermon does not persuade for me nearly so much as it commands my task at hand.” This is a good sign. A persuasive sermon is one that probes an issue or suggests an answer that is too mundane. The Christian faith contends with mysteries that defy full rational explanation. They do not defy reason, of course, for otherwise we would be delving into the arts of magic and fantasy. Nevertheless, reason is the starting point of an inquiry that finds its richer developments in liturgy (faith in practice) and, finally, in beatified contemplation.

Just as the Holy Spirit alone converts a man’s soul to Christ, so does grace alone persuade. There are various instruments of grace. Some have been formalized by the Church, such as the Bible, the Sacraments, and a Sermon. Other instruments of grace can seem to come out of left field and, in that sense, be much more personal to the recipient. As we Catholic Christians remind ourselves: Though we are certain as to where we may find the Holy Spirit, such as in the Sacraments, we may not be certain as to where we may not find the Holy Spirit. God is not bound by His Church. Personally, I am inclined to believe that God’s grace overflows as much as His mercy. As such, there is much more divine grace to be encountered in nature, and in natural religion, than we baptized Christians have been inclined to acknowledge. Is not the Declaration of Independence a sacred document? Is there not divine wisdom in those words as much as in the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus or the canonical Book of Job? There is an abundance of grace in the world because the world, though fallen away from Eden with the Old Adam, remains still God’s handiwork. As we pray in the Te Deum laudamus: “Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.”

Grace moves a soul closer to God. If a sermon moves a man to step just a little closer to his Maker and his Redeemer, then that sermon has been an instrument of grace. Let God persuade in His time and manner, if He is so inclined. Or perhaps God chooses not to persuade. Perhaps, the man’s Cross is to remain diligent in pursuing God even when unpersuaded. In the end, I suspect God is much less concerned with persuading any one of us on this or that theological question. What matters to Him is that we continue to move as close to Him, as He is already close to us. He will show or withhold what He must for that to happen. 

You write about “the New Testament and its seeming break with what is called the Old Testament.” From the very start Christians have been inclined to separate the two revelations. In the Acts of the Apostles, we already see “the Jews” demarcated from the followers of Jesus, and this is before Saint Paul starts his ministry among the Gentiles. To some extent, this is because the earliest Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, regarded the faith in strongly eschatological terms. They presumed the Second Coming would happen within their lifetime. The persecution orchestrated by Nero and the destruction of the Temple exacerbated this mindset. Clement of Rome is the first major Christian writer to urge his disciples to avoid martyrdom, if possible, and to settle in for the long haul. The Books that comprise the New Testament reflect the earlier eschatological focus, though, and that accounts for the distinction in style, if not in deeper substance, from the Jewish Scriptures.

Interestingly, there is a more apparent fit between the New Testament and the Septuagint, for the Septuagint reflected the same Hellenized Jewish turmoil that led to the Maccabee revolution. There is also a more apparent fit between the New Testament and the post-exilic Prophets in the Jewish Scriptures, and the reason is much the same. Whether we are speaking of post-exilic Judaism, or the Maccabee revolution, or the early Church, we are speaking of the People of God in turmoil. In each case, God’s Kingdom has been disestablished by foreign oppressors. God’s Law is now God’s Judgment. God’s People are now the martyred and the scattered. The faithful remnant pray for deliverance, and as any soldier like yourself knows a prayer in a foxhole is likely to be more personal than legalistic or philosophical. Christ the King may hearken back to Ezra’s Restoration of the Law, but for the majority of first century Christians suffering persecution the focus will be on Christ the Pastor and the prayer will be closer in tone to King David’s Miserere mei, Deus.

By contrast, the pre-exilic Jewish Scriptures downplay the eschatological focus. God is building His Kingdom in Israel, and when His chosen people and their kings fall short of His will He raises up judges and then prophets to urge them back into line. The point is in bringing back Israel from the precipice. Christ Jesus, on the other hand, says that His Father’s Kingdom “is not of this world.” This is the fault line on which the two revelations have been separated, notwithstanding what Christ Jesus said about not overturning “one tittle of the Law.” The former seems focused on the polity of kingdom restoration and as such is intrinsically political. The latter seems focused on the experience of personal salvation and as such is intrinsically spiritual.

Of course, Marcion and the Gnostics played upon this apparent distinction, and they were especially persuasive among Christians of a more intellectual bent. Polity is empirical, political, and scientific. It is in essence Aristotelian; and for all of their pseudo-intellectualism, it is interesting that the Marcionites were jettisoning the Old Testament as too “this worldly” (focused on the empirical, the political, and the scientific) to fit in with the “otherworldly” spiritual truth of the New Testament. They were intellectuals downplaying the intellectual for the spiritual, or so they presumed. I believe as a side note that this explains in part the Gnostic predilection for the occult. So often it is the mind of the scientist who will fixate on the demons and the fairies.

Returning to the fault line on which the two revelations have been separated, I would submit in rebuttal that the pre-exilic Jewish Scriptures are much more spiritual than we are inclined to believe, and the post-exilic Jewish, Maccabee Jewish, and early Christian faiths have a more structured polity than their spiritual or eschatological focuses would seem to admit. I suspect that the deeper harmony between the two revelations will be found in the hypostatic union of pre-exilic Jewish spirituality with post-exilic Jewish, Maccabee Jewish, and early Christian liturgical polities. The hypostatic union between the two revelations is foreshadowed in the Old Testament but becomes realized in the Incarnation: Very God and Very Man, Spirit and Polity, and Law and Grace.

In Christ Jesus, we see that the Old Testament reveals an Israel that is and always has been first and foremost spiritual and “not of this world.” In Christ Jesus, we see also that the eschatological focus of the New Testament is and always will be liturgically structured and corporeal which is to say sacramental. Without Christ Jesus, it is impossible to reconcile the Old and the New Testaments. Moreover, it is impossible ultimately to be with Christ Jesus, and therefore to be able to reconcile the two revelations, unless one be with Him in faith. Philosophy fails to find Christ Jesus.

Though Christ Jesus Himself “passes through the thickets of contradictions to find a unity,” we may endeavor ourselves to find hints of that unity in reading and praying upon the Psalms. I would urge the daily practice of prayerful reflection upon the Psalms as a key component of this intent. In praying the Daily Offices of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, I go through the entirety of the Psalms every month, and the more I do so the more I find New Testament spirituality in the Old and also Jewish liturgical polity in the Church. Like in classical music, the harmonies are often very subtle, such as a literary allusion in a particular Psalm verse that calls to mind a New Testament verse or a liturgical act still practiced in the Church today. In particular, I have found a number of allusions in the Psalms to the resurrection of the dead and the everlasting life of the faithful, and interestingly these eschatological or spiritual references are very often embedded in Psalm verses that are otherwise focused on legalistic or philosophical matters (Psalm 119). Recite the Psalms not with the mind of a scholar but in prayerful adoration, like when one appreciates classical music without first endeavoring to break down in his mind how and why it is composed as it is. 

After sending the above note, I wrote the following to my friend:

Earlier this afternoon I wrote you a lengthy response to your email about my Christ the King Sermon. In reading over my response, I realized a few minor points on which I might elaborate. 

First, I wrote that “from the very start Christians have been inclined to separate the two revelations.” The two revelations are in reference to the Old and the New Testaments. In retrospect, I should have written “some Christians,” for there always has been a contingent that saw a seamless continuation of the Jewish Scriptures into the New Testament. The Marcionites gained a lot of adherents in the second century A.D. in particular, but the Church as a whole remained stalwart in opposition. Indeed, the Arian heresy a century later turned out to be considerably more popular and harder for the Church to defeat. 

Secondly, a few times I referenced “liturgical polity.” This is a phrase I shall explore in more depth later. For now, it is sufficient to say that I see ecclesiastical polity and liturgical worship within the Church as intrinsically interconnected. Church polity is a formalization of how the Church worships. Both have their origins in the ministry of Christ Jesus. He set apart the Twelve and, as such, established an apostolic order that in the Acts of the Apostles becomes an episcopal order. The apostles/bishops ordain deacons to assist them in ministering to the afflicted. Though not specifically called “priests” in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles/bishops also ordain elders who support them in their sacramental role. This threefold ministry is the source of ecclesiastical polity. Christ Jesus institutes the worship that will be carried on by His Church, and the threefold ministry organizes as it does precisely to carry out that worship.

Third, “liturgical polity” preexists the New Testament. The threefold ministry, and the worship of the Church, are already underway before Saint Paul writes his first Epistle, let alone before the Epistles and Gospels are canonized. Because the Church preexists the New Testament, the New Testament serves the faith and practice of the Church, and not the other way around. The main problem we Catholic Christians have with the Reformation is the propensity of some Protestants to divorce the New Testament from preexisting Catholic faith and practice. The slippery slope of course leads to the preeminence of personal conscience in the interpretation and application of the New Testament. Today, for too many Christians, modern psychology and various political philosophies have established the new “faith and practice” to which the New Testament must serve. These post-modernists are rendering unto Caesar what is God’s.

For our purposes, this is important because from the Catholic Christian perspective the New Testament really cannot be rightfully interpreted, let alone harmonized with the Old Testament, outside of the practice of the faith. The New Testament serves the Church like a hymnal serves the choir. Remove the choir and the musical instruments, and the hymnal is not particularly efficacious alone in inspiring worshipful music. A person studying the hymnal may get a sense of what worshipful music is like, especially if that person happens to be well versed in music scholarship; but I suspect he will get a better appreciation of how music can move a soul toward God from hearing a pagan beating his Bongo drums.

Having said that, I do not mean to dissuade anyone from studying Holy Scripture with the intent of harmonizing the Old and the New Testaments. I am only suggesting the limitation of the effort if not rooted in prayer. I do not believe that the scholar must be a Catholic Christian, but I do believe he should undertake a regular practice of prayer in asking for the Holy Spirit to provide him grace in his effort and, more importantly, for his soul. My comments here are not directed at you. I am just using the occasion of this discussion to elaborate a bit on the larger issue of Biblical scholarship and faith in action (prayer).

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

2 thoughts on “Harmonizing Scripture

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