Reading Christ in the Light of Torah

Reviewed by Ellen Charry

No one reads without filters. In high modernity, rationalists hoped for “objective” reading. But there is no such thing. There are only interested readings; all reading is interpretation. Reading the Bible is particularly contentious because it is read through many lenses, and axes to grind that find what they expect to find.

Richard Averbeck’s Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church addresses two important yet quite different concerns. One is the age-old Christian preoccupation with interpreting the two testaments as one Bible. The second is Christian nationalism, which only becomes clear toward the end of the book.

Classically, Christians christianized and christologized the Hebrew Scriptures, imposing a post-biblical interpretation of Jesus as the meaning of the story of God’s life with Israel. Averbeck argues for the reverse. He knows that reading the earlier texts through the later texts is anachronistic and that the proper hermeneutic is to read the later testament through its predecessor because it makes historical sense and renders the later text theologically meaningful. “I come at the reading of the New Testament teachings about the Old Testament law through the eyes of the Old Testament,” he writes. “Jesus came at it this way, and so did the earliest church” (225).

Averbeck treats legal material, but his corrected hermeneutic applies broadly to Scripture in the New Testament. Given this correction, it is disturbing that the subtitle of this book is the precise opposite of what Averbeck is arguing! It should be Reading Christ in the Light of Torah. Regardless of whoever selected this subtitle, it illustrates that Averbeck is working uphill against 20 centuries of misdirected reading, perhaps even against his Christian instincts.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples of Averbeck’s corrected hermeneutic are the transfiguration stories in the Synoptics. On his own, Jesus had no training or authority for his activities. This causes great confusion.

The transfiguration narratives read the startling event through Malachi 4:4-5 and shockingly liken Jesus both to Moses, representing Torah (Ex. 34:1-9, 29-30), and Elijah, who represents prophecy (1 Kgs. 11). In the transfiguration, God ranks Jesus with them, adapting Psalm 2: “My son, my chosen, listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Only the likes of Moses and Elijah could authorize Jesus! No wonder his companions were terrified.

Perhaps the most easily recognized readings upended by Averbeck’s proper hermeneutic are Isaiah’s servant poems, especially Isaiah 53. Jesus’ followers read his death through them. Isaiah’s poems render the later events theologically meaningful. Without them, the cross is just another Roman crucifixion.

Averbeck nails the Christian mistake. “When we start with the New Testament, we come at it all backward …. Actually, the term Old Testament is anachronistic. Jesus never called it that, and neither did the apostles …. It was simply the Scriptures, or the Hebrew Bible, or its translation in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek Bible” (226). Knowing this, it is unfortunate that Averbeck continued using the anachronistic terms, along with the triumphalist terms B.C. and A.D., now respectfully adjusted to B.C.E. and C.E. It is a missed opportunity.

Despite intending to invert the traditional Christian hermeneutic, he repeatedly cites Jeremiah 31:31–33, as Christian theologians frequently do. The prophet identifies a new covenant: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” The last phrase cites Leviticus 26:12. Here later Scripture is interpreting itself through earlier Scripture, as Averbeck wants to read the younger through the older texts. The “new covenant” idea in Jeremiah 31:31 is speaking to Israelites. Applying it to Gentile Christians 600 years later enables them to locate themselves within God’s covenant with Israel. But the new covenant does not explain Jeremiah.

Averbeck’s hermeneutic is sound and much needed. Sadly, he does not make that explicit, even though he quotes the closely related injunction to Israelites to circumcise their hearts in Deuteronomy 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4. Rather, he uses this idea to argue that divine law is “weak.” Perhaps that is a concession to Christian habits. His position that “the law … never had the power in itself to push fleshly human corruption out of the human heart and motivate godly living” (285) is a Christian belief imposed upon the text. Averbeck has lost sight of his point.

Chapter 11 gets to the second, perhaps deeper purpose, behind encouraging Christians to interpret the Bible historically. Here Averbeck is walking on eggshells and speaks guardedly about the unity of moral and civil biblical law. His version of unity opposes Christian nationalism’s version of that unity. Without saying so directly, he aims at evangelicalism’s alt-right that wants to replace U.S. democracy with some form of biblical theocracy:

“Theonomy” or “Christian reconstructionism” … holds to the thesis that “in the realm of human society the civil magistrate is responsible to enforce God’s law against public crime.” Those who hold this view want to apply both the moral and the civil law today. The main problem with this is the attempt to apply the Old Testament law outside of a redemptive covenantal context …. The problem with theonomy is that it wastes so much time and effort on controlling the politics by imposing theocratic values on non-theocratic governments. (315).

Unfortunately, Christian reconstructionism is more dangerous than Averbeck avers here. Apparently, he tiptoes because his readers are at least potentially sympathetic to this movement if not advocates of it, for he fails to use the word democracy, let alone mention the First Amendment.

Neither does he mention incidents where the desire to establish Christian fundamentalism as the national religion has been acted out violently. An example is the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an obstetrician-gynecologist who performed abortions, by Scott Phillip Roeder on May 31, 2009, in Tiller’s church. Another is the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. government on January 6, 2021, by an anarchist-leaning mob, among whom were numerous Christian nationalists. One hopes that the broad evangelical community would police this dangerous element in its midst by speaking out in support of democracy.

Averbeck argues for the unity of moral, civic, and ceremonial biblical law but restricts its application to the Church because there is an unbridgeable distance between ancient Israelite governance structures and democracy today. “No government today corresponds to the theocratic rule of God in ancient Israel” (315). Given the timidity of his language and the spread of Christian nationalism, however, his important distinction may not carry many minds with it.

Averbeck’s book is important both in proposing a correction of the Christian hermeneutic when interpreting uses of Scripture in the Younger Testament and beyond, even if inconsistently, and in opposing Christian nationalism, even if modestly.

Dr. Ellen Charry is the Margaret W. Harmon Emerita Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.


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