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"In the Beginning Was the Word"
Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture
Lucas Cranach the Younger, The Weimar Altarpiece1
“In the beginning was the Word...” (Jn. 1:1). In this Johannine commentary, the Apostle peers into the dateless past that defies even such temporal designations and points his prophetic finger towards the luminous figure of Jesus Christ. From everlasting, the Eternal Word has stood “face to face” with the Father, engaged in the Hidden Conversation that is the Holy Life of God. Then, in an act of superabundant generosity which is but the fruit of uncontainable glory, God sent forth His Word, and it did not return void.2 The result was Life, and that Life was the Light of Men. The Light shined in the darkness, and the darkness was dumbstruck.
From this stunning piece of apostolic theologizing we have learned much about the nature of creation. But with all of the emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ as Word and Light and Life, St. John’s Prologue to the Gospel makes for a fitting prolegomena to the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Is the event under consideration not the original act of revelation?3 Furthermore, does it not fall fundamentally under the auspices of spoken discourse? Further still, was it not written down for our instruction? Finally, does it not locate the Word as both source and center of God’s action in the world? I submit that the biblical evidence is at least suggestive of such an idea.
St. John may also help us by providing a hermeneutical key to unlock the treasure house of the Bible. It seems that the Theologian gives us sufficient warrant to acknowledge the presence of the Word in Sacred Scripture right from the very beginning.4 Verily, in the beginning was the Word.
This is but another way of saying that the Old Testament, as Old Testament, is already Christian Scripture. As the history of special revelation, the Old Testament is primarily the story of God.5 It is the record of God’s own works and words. God’s own Being is constitutive of its nature and character; and its designation as locus of divine revelation determines its “original context.”6 The human and historical elements are subordinate to the trinitarian self-disclosure of its Primary Author.7 In this sense, we may say that it is autobiographical. And even more pointedly, it is the autobiography of Jesus, the Son of God.8
As Scripture, the Old Testament is “Holy Ground.”
The Word of God is living and powerful; sharper than a two-edged sword. To navigate Holy Writ is to walk along the razor’s edge; it is to swim in the mighty current of Divine Mystery. Peering into the Blessed Page is tantamount to gazing upon the bush ablaze with the Sacred Presence; from thence the Voice calls out and says, “Put off thy shoes from off of thy feet. For the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” At first we wonder why the bush is not consumed, then, when we have come to our senses, we wonder why we are not. Surely, it is only on account of the Lord’s mercies.9
“Holy Ground” because we meet God there—the One who dwells in unapproachable light, whose presence is Consuming Fire, whose very name is Jealous. “Holy Ground” because we meet God there. Under the lowly signs of letters and language, God is present; we meet Him in His own territory, hallowed and sanctified; we meet Him on His own terms as we recognize the words of Scripture to be the regal voice of Christ; we meet Him in His own time, where it is always “Today,” and the wise do well to not harden their hearts.
When we gather around the Book our hearts are laid bare. Through the Law and the Testimony we are stripped down by Verbum Dei; searched out by Vox Dei. We are placed upon the high altar to present our bodies as living sacrifices—our God is a consuming fire…Mercifully, the Spirit of Burning comes to deliver rather than to destroy. By laying hold upon the Naked Word, we grasp the hem of Him whose train fills the heavens. He spreads His skirts over us to cover our shame; we are robed with the glorious garments of the gospel—beauty for ashes. By virtue of the sacred page, the Word comes riding on seraphic wings; touching our lips, touching our lives. Dross is consumed; gold is refined. The Fiery Pillar rests upon our heads; the Wind fills the house, the temple built of living stones shakes at His voice. There is left to us no corner of existence untouched by the Holiness of the Word; no stone left unturned which would bar the way to Resurrection, no barren valley of bleached bones upon which the Almighty does not breathe.10
Given this, it is almost redundant to speak of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, as there is really no other kind. The Lord Jesus need not be tacked on to the texts of Israel’s Scripture like some pious afterthought, or shoehorned into the text with liberal applications of eisegetical grease.11 Our Lord is no thief or robber, pillaging the storehouses of the patriarchs and prophets; he does not need to climb into the Old Testament through some crude back door. He is the Door. Verily, in the beginning was the Word.
While it is true that it is difficult to see Christ in the Old Testament without the aid of the New, it is not true that He isn’t there. Rather, it is because the Sun of Righteousness had not reached the zenith.12 The original command, “Fiat Lux,” gradually filled the world with light; casting dim rays on the tabernacle and temple, tracing the figures of kings and sages, waxing brighter in the clear morning of Isaiah’s prophecy before waning in the times of exile, until at last, a star shone over Bethlehem. “And there was Light...the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
During the Passion of Christ, the veil of the temple was rent in twain. From that moment, we have been able to walk into the pages of the Torah and see the Christ-shaped structure of it all. Since His resurrection we have been able to appreciate the surpassing glory of that Third-Day Temple, which made even Solomon’s Temple, in all of its glory, look like a shotgun shanty.
Gazing toward the garden tomb; we see the Great High Priest emerging from that impenetrable room, guarded on either side by angelic hosts. What is this but the Holy of Holies? On Easter morning, the Ark of the Testimony was opened: God kept His Word, the True Manna was given for the life of the world, and Aaron’s rod blossomed to full bloom.
While our Lord slept, God reached into His side and brought forth a bride. As the Lord Jesus came forth from the grave, He stepped into the garden as New Humanity liberated from the chains of death. He stepped into the garden. He stepped past the angelic messengers. He stepped beyond Eden to a brand New Creation. Who is this Second Man, this Last Adam? In the beginning was the Word.
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In the piece we see Jesus in the foreground twice. He is shown as the Crucified, lifted on the cross. As blood pours from His wounds, one stream from His side projects out and curves so as to hint that it will hit Martin Luther squarely in the face, a possible sign of divine approbation. Luther stands to the right of the picture, his finger pointing to a passage in an open book, presumably his translation of the Bible. Behind him stands Lucas Cranach the Elder, the painter’s father, who may have been an early convert to the Reformer’s cause. Behind Cranach is a figure that is usually interpreted as John the Baptist, wearing a red cloak, the symbol of martyrdom, over his goatskin clothing. He points up at the Crucified Christ and down at the Paschal Lamb. At the left of the painting we see Jesus again, as the Risen Savior, triumphing over Death and a monstrous devil. In the central background we see Moses delivering the tablets of the Law to the people, while a skeletal figure chases a near naked man away from the group. Above the heads of Luther, Cranach, and John the Baptist we see the episode of Moses setting up the Brazen Serpent.
J. Brandon Meeks, “The Holy One of Israel in the Midst of Thee: Incarnation and the Holiness of God,” The North American Anglican, https://northamanglican.com/the-holy-one-of-israel-in-the-midst-of-thee-incarnation-and-the-holiness-of-god/.
This Revelation is never merely epistemic; to “know God” is to be swept up in His redemptive embrace. The end of Revelation is that you may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Numerous New Testament passages could be marshaled together to defend this claim, but I am interested in making a theological point drawn from the implications of St. John’s opening salvo.
Israel’s God makes Himself known as Author of her story, then condescends to write Himself into the script. In the Old Testament, God identifies Himself to and with Israel: as “I Am” and “I Am the Lord Thy God; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” In just this way, the God of Israel transcends all other concepts of transcendence. Though Holy, He is the “Holy One in the midst of Israel.” God so identified with His people that He was willing to share with them His own Name, an expression of humility only surpassed by His later determination to share with them their own nature. Such is the continuity between the story of God as told in both Testaments that Robert Jenson was able to famously identify God by it: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”
Scripture is divine speech. To faithfully hear it is to bow to one reality: Deus Dixit, thus saith the Lord. The Bible as a medium of Revelation admits a temporal character, but that time is “God’s time for us,” redemptive time, to appropriate a phrase from Barth for my own purposes. When we hear the Living Voice of God in Scripture, God has spoken, God is speaking, and God will speak yet again. There are no dead promises buried in a valley of textual bones. His precepts have not been worn flat by the sands of time. The Scriptures cannot be broken because God will not be silent. This is but to say that His Word is indeed “quick and powerful.”
Holy Scripture, as such, is utterly unique, both in terms of its content, and in terms of its genre. The Bible should not be regarded as part of some other literary canon, or as an artifact of the genus “history.” It is sui generis. It is a book like no other. So strange and far removed from ordinary books that it can not even be fully contrasted with them. In this way, the Sacred Page bears the stamp of the Lord whose Word it is.
J. Brandon Meeks, “The Beauty of the Naked Word,” The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition, The North American Anglican Press, 2020.
ibid., “Christ the Center”
“The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before.” Benjamin B. Warfied, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical Doctrines, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 141-42.