Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Two Ways of Reading

In order to really grasp the doctrine of the Trinity, we need a solid rooting in the Old Testament. This may strike some people as anachronistic or just plain wrong-headed. After all, the doctrine of the Trinity isn't even fully spelled out in the New Testament. What can we expect to find in the Old Testament?

Others might even find such a suggestion offensive. These are Jewish scriptures, after all. Will I really have the hubris to suggest that the ancient Jews were Trinitarian? I will not.

But the very fact that these are Jewish scriptures is critical. The earliest Christians, remember, were Jews. These were their scriptures too. It was out of these fertile soils that the Christian movement emerged. These writings were the air that the early Christians breathed. And so we also must breath this air in order to understand the development of early Christian thought.

Later Christians had a collection of uniquely Christian writings that they considered scripture, but they also maintained devotion to the earlier writings. And so the Old Testament witness to God continued to inform Christian thought throughout the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I do not think that we will find the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament, no matter hard we look, but what I hope to show is that we can find Old Testament teachings about God throughout the doctrine of the Trinity. And therefore we will find what I would call "hints" about the Trinity in the Old Testament.

Before I dig into the Old Testament writings, I'd like to distinguish between two different ways of reading the Old Testament: the patristic way of reading and the critical way of reading.

The patristic way of reading the Old Testament is the way that the Early Church Fathers read it. Among Christians, this was the dominant way of reading the Bible until the 18th century. This way of reading sees Jesus Christ as the center of the Scriptures. Everything is imagined as pointing toward Christ. No exposition of the text is complete until Christ is found there.

In particular, historic Christian interpretation of the Psalms has been heavily influenced by this method. Even in the New Testament we find psalms being interpreted as prophecies of Christ, and in later Christian interpretation this was taken to the extreme with the Psalms being understood as Jesus' personal prayer book.

It should come as no surprise to us, that the doctrine of the Trinity turns up all over the Old Testament when we read it this way.

A second way of reading the Old Testament is the critical way of reading (usually called the historical-critical method). This way of reading emphasizes the fact that each book of the Old Testament was written in and for a particular historical setting. This method seeks to understand what the writer of the text intended, and how the original audience would have understood what was being said.

In general, this method rules out any appearance of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament because the community in which the text appeared held no such belief.

As we try to see the doctrine of the Trinity through the lens of the Old Testament, we need to keep these two ways of reading in tension. We need to think about the patristic way of reading to try to see the text the way the early Christian Church would have seen it, to look for the things that would have resonated with them. But we also need to keep in mind the critical reading in order to keep ourselves from getting carried away.

Continue to "Elohim"
Go back to "Who Is God?"


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