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Interpreting Scripture as if Jesus is the Center and not the [Nation] of Israel

Is the nation of Israel distinct as a people of God, or was the nation of Israel the prefigural and pre-incarnate mode of God’s Self-revealing life in the unfolding reality of salvation history; such that Jesus then is the distinct person[s] of God who is the Israel of God, and indeed the point of the nation of Israel’s existence? I hold to the concept that Jesus is the ‘Israel of God’; however, I did not always hold to this interpretation. In my previous life as a Dispensationalist I held that a defining feature of  salvation history, and God’s prophetic plan for the nations was that Israel was distinct from the Church (which is probably the sine qua non of what it means to be a dispensationalist in any of its expressions); and that God’s primary intention with his dealings with creation had to do with the nation of Israel (the Church was simply an ‘add-on’ in God’s plan). But this old belief of mine runs contrary to the Patristic (early Church–’Church Fathers’) interpretation of Scripture, and even more importantly, I believe it runs counter to the Apostolic and Dominical (Jesus’) interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and we have their interpretation deposited for us in the New Testament writings). Robin Parry (Gregory MacDonald) provides a really good and precise statement on my belief:

The insight that throughout the New Testament Jesus is portrayed in terms that recall the nation of Israel and its mission is so commonplace I shall not spend long defending it. The kinds of evidence appeal can be made to include the fact that many titles for Jesus have strong associations with Israel. For instance, Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man as influenced by Daniel 7 (e.g., Mark 14:62), where it refers to Israel or Israel’s representative of the nation. This could suggest that Jesus, in his role as messianic king of Israel, represents and embodies the destiny of that nation. Now the title Son of God did evolve during the New Testament period and afterwards into something closer to the later title of God the Son, but its messianic connections are still clear in places. This insight helps explain some otherwise peculiar Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, such as when Matthew takes the words of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son,” which in their context refer to the exodus of the Israelites, and applies them to Jesus’ flight to Egypt after the death of Herod (Matt 2:15). Once it is perceived that for Matthew Jesus is Yahweh’s son because he is embodying the story of Israel, this apparent misuse of an Old Testament text begins to make sense. The title Messiah/Christ could also suggest one who represents the whole nation before God; and, in light of our arguments in the previous chapter, thinking of Jesus as Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh, as the early Christians certainly did (Mt 3:17/Isa 42:1; Mark 10:45/Isa 53:10; Acts 8:30-35/Isa 53:7-8), is to think of him as one who fulfils the story and mission of Israel. On top of this, we can see how the Gospels can tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to parallel the story of Israel. For instance, after Jesus is baptized he goes into the wilderness for forty days before crossing the Jordan into Israel to begin his mission just as Israel went into wilderness for forty years before crossing the Jordan into Canaan. However, where Israel failed its testing in the wilderness, Jesus succeeds. [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 75.]

This way of interpreting Jesus’ reinterpretation and “re-living” of the nation of Israel has been called recapitulation; something that dominated Church Father, Irenaeus’ method of re-interpreting the Old Testament, and the nation of Israel, in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. J. N. D. Kelly remarks in regard to Irenaeus’ method:

The conceptions, Pauline in its ultimate derivation, of the inauguration of a new, restored humanity in Christ seems to have reached Justin [Martyr] from the theological tradition of Asia Minor. It was taken up and deepened by Ireanaeus, who was also the first to work out comprehensive theories both of original sin and of redemption…. [J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christ Doctrines, revised ed., 170.]

So this is

… the distinctively Irenaean interpretation of the work of Christ. ‘Because of His measureless love,’ he writes, ‘He became what we are in order to enable us to become what He is.’ The method he outlines in the oft-repeated assertion that what we lost in Adam we recovered in Christ; its premiss is the idea that, if we fell through our solidarity with the first man, we can be restored through our solidarity with Christ. The key-conception which Irenaeus employs to explain this is ‘recapitulation’ …, which he borrows from St. Paul’s description of the divine purpose as being ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. He understands the Pauline text as implying that the Redeemer gathers together, includes or comprises the whole of reality in Himself, the human race being included. In close conjunction with this he exploits to the full the parallelism between Adam and Christ which was so dear to St. Paul. Christ is indeed, in his eyes, the ‘second Adam’ …, and ‘recapitulated’ or reproduced the first even in the manner of His birth, being generated from the Blessed Virgin as he was from virgin earth. Further, just as Adam contained in himself all his descendants  so Christ (as the Lucan genealogy proves) ‘recapitulated in Himself all the dispersed peoples dating back to Adam, all tongues and the whole race of mankind, along with Adam himself’ [sic] Thus, when He became incarnate, Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn. As a result (and this is Irenaeus’s main point), just as Adam was the originator of a race of disobedient and doomed to death, so Christ can be regarded as inaugurating a new, redeemed humanity. [Kelly, 172-3.]

As we can see from Kelly’s description of Irenaeus’ method, the whole of it is shaped by a deeply rooted christological conditioning; such that all of Israel’s history, both in its obedience and disobedience (mostly the latter), and in its Adamic heritage is taken up in a Christian way, so that Christ is understood as the center of what it is to be God’s primary hope and purpose for all of creation, for all of the nations.

It is this method of interpretation, an Apostolic (if you will) method that is at the heart of my own hermeneutical theory. It is working in a ‘depth dimension’ as Thomas Torrance has called it, and Adam Nigh has developed it in our edited book, Evangelical Calvinism, and Nigh’s chapter, The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism. And as can be observed, this kind of method has soteriological shape to it, such that Scripture is to be interpreted through the saving and mediating (e.g. ‘Priestly’) person of Jesus Christ for us. It is this kind of hermeneutic that leads to (and from, really) an ‘ontological theory of the atonement’, which we have developed in detail in our book (already mentioned).

Maybe this will better help some appreciate where I am coming from with even more clarity than heretofore. And maybe it will help some of you who have known me in my past to better understand why it is that I have rejected dispensationalism as my hermeneutical method.

Postscript

Recapitulation has been developed further, and has been taken up, in certain ways, by what has become known as (especially in Reformed circles) ‘Covenant theology’. I advocate a certain form of this kind of theology, one that is tied to what Barth and Torrance have called an ‘analogy of faith’ versus an ‘analogy of being’ interpretation of the text of Scripture (which in my application of this refers to God’s life and Self revelation as a God who is grace and not Law … which is fodder for another post).

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4 thoughts on “Interpreting Scripture as if Jesus is the Center and not the [Nation] of Israel

  1. Pingback: Holding Scripture Together: Either Jesus or You §1. « The Evangelical Calvinist

  2. Matt,

    I just read his quick abstract and thesis statement; I don’t think Israel is no longer significant in God’s plan — to the contrary, Jesus will always be the Jew from Nazareth — but I think Israel is not the center of God’s plan. I think Vlach is already framing the issue from the wrong direction to start out with; we’ll see where this leads him.

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