Can we give up the OT?

(Part 4 Guidance in the Pentateuch. Re-reading Moses with Luther.)

Professor Notger Slenczka (Alexander von Humboldt University, Berlin) provokes with his statements concerning the relation of Old and New Testament (2015). This fundamental theological debate sparked fireworks even in the public square. Provocare! The public broadcaster takes up the debate a year later with the question in the “Deutschlandfunk”: „How much Old Testament does the Christian church need?“  This does not only irritate Evangelicals, but Roman Catholics too. Another Sasse than Hermann, we know, puts it into theological and ecclesial perspective for his colleagues amongst the “Pfarrerschaft” Finally the controversial Professor offers a detailed review of his own book (Slenczka 2017) and resume of the profound discussion.

Once the preliminary excitement cooled off, the Professor explained himself most eloquently: “Vom alten Testament und vom Neuen. Beiträge zur Neuvermessung ihres Verhältnisses“ (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig. 2017) His study provides a contentious setting for our theme. He asserts an ambiguity (duplicity/multiplicity?) of the Old Testament displaying “viele Aspekte” (Ebd. 29), which are not just complementary, but even contradictory. With this position he reflects common sense in contemporary critical exegesis. Thereby the principally different, sometimes even opposing and mutually exclusive positions, faiths, sects, and religions (Jews & Christians) are explained and excused, intentionally at least – similar to Ernst Käsemann´s thesis, that various denominations are a natural given due to the diversity inherent in the NT canon.

The astute Professor vies, that the OT has for the most part been given up in practice by the protestant church, which no longer holds that the OT has its center in Jesus Christ as the NT (and the Lutheran Church!) still does. He contends, that the OT does not point directly and unambiguously to Jesus Christ, nor does it find its only fulfillment in him either. It does not solely proclaim him even if it might do so mysteriously (sacramentally?). This admittedly has changed remarkably from previous outlooks – Martin Luther and the confessional Lutheran church begs to differ – as will be shown below… Slenczka knows this full well and writes:

Für die meisten Theologen bis ins 20.Jahrhundert (bezeugte) das Alte Testament Jesus Christus bzw. den dreieinigen Gott, und zwar nicht erst in einer >geistlichen< Auslegung, die sich vom wörtlichen Sinn des Textes weiterverweisen ließe auf eine übertragene Bedeutung der Worte oder der bezeichneten >Sachen<; vielmehr ist die kirchliche Tradition weit überwiegend der Überzeugung, dass das Alte Testament wo nicht in seinem Literalsinn, so doch jedenfalls in seinem unbeliebig und alternativlos gewonnenen, die ursprüngliche Intention des Textes zur Sprache bringenden geistlichen Sinn ein Zeugnis für Jesus Christus ist. 

Vom Alten Testament und vom Neuen 2017, 21

Slenczka explains this change in perspective, which results in the loss of the OT as clear Christological witness with reference to the historical-critical approach dominant in main-line church circles and the prevailing Christian-Jewish dialogue there. This is common sense amongst critical scholars on both sides of the Atlantic as just the following exponents show: Walter Brueggeman: “Theology of the Old Testament. Testimony, dispute, advocacy.” Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1997 and Achim Behrens: “Das Alte Testament verstehen. Die Hermeneutik des ersten Teils der christlichen Bibel.“ Göttingen, Edition Ruprecht. 2013.

Here are some points in Slenczka´s argument:

  • He credits Adolf von Harnack as having been right all along, however different to common sense.
  • He emphatically denies that this position disqualifies the OT from playing a significant role in the church, its sermons, and its divine service. 
  • He strongly promotes a confession of NT predominance over the OT – somewhat along the lines of Luther´s distinction between canonical and apocryphal.
  • He advocates, that the church should publicly acknowledge (hold, teach and confess) that it reads the OT from a NT (i.e. Christological, evangelical (“evangelisch”) bias and principally, basically as gospel “justified by faith”.
  • To clarify, he differentiates, distinguishes, and separates the relationship of the Christ confrontation (“Begegnung mit Christus”) and the presupposition of God talk (“Rede von Gott”) in the OT by both early Christians and contemporary Jews.

We conclude, if the OT does not preach IX, then that answers the question of unity and center of the OT with a non-Christian-bias, leaving us with a map without a marked center or goal. Sounding much like the “New Perspectives on Paul” leaving us with a legalistic reading contrary to our confession of “Justification by faith alone”. This is brought to the fore in Slenczka´s controversy with Krüssemann. More than this, however, we need “new perspectives on reading Martin Luther” as Ulrich Asendorf suggests: “Luther neu gelesen. Modernität und ökumenische Aktualität in seiner letzten Vorlesung.“ Neuendettelsau, Freimund-Verlag. 2005.

Although Slenczka contends to be in a Lutheran drift and even in some kind of agreement with our confessions, this still sounds far off from Luther´s conception of what to look for in Moses (“How Christians should regard Moses” 1960) and in the rest of the OT (“Preface to the Old Testament” 1960).

So, the suggestion, to look yet again, how the venerable Bible-Doctor and professor of Biblical Theology holds, reads, and teaches the great and holy prophet Moses in line with all true prophets. A timely exercise as Volker Stolle just offers a revision of Luther´s reading of the Jews as re-orientation in Lutheran theology: “Biblische Orientierung in der Begegnung von Christen und Juden. Die Abkehr vom Judenbild Luthers in der lutherischen Theologie.” (Leipzig, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt. 2021.) 

For our re-reading of Moses with Luther we follow beaten tracks (Asendorf, von Meding, Maxfield etc) in pursuit of a Lutheran way to read Moses. I suggest five steps as we pursue our question: What would ML have us look for in the Pentateuch?

  • Start with Luther in controversy: “Judensau
  • Look at Luther as Bible translator (Heinz Bluhm, 1965: „Martin Luther. Creative translator.”)
  • Luther as biblical preacher: “Was ein Christ in Moses finden soll?”
  • Luther as biblical teacher: Genesis lectures.
  • Luther´s final Testament: Wir sind Bettler. Hoc verum est

We close this excursion with three quotes.

These lectures on Genesis… are worthy of serving as an introduction to Luther´s world of faith.

Maxfield 2008, 1 quoting Obermann

Der Professor reflektierte Bibeltexte so gründlich gesamtbiblisch… als schriftgewordene Lehre des aktuell redenden Heiligen Geistes… bleibt ein Heiliger in meinem Herzen, so ist Christus verloren. Denn jeder bedarf genauso des Herrn Christi wie ich. Entweder Christus allein oder keiner.

Wichmann von Meding, Pg. 365f on these lectures from Moses

Luthers Spätwerk, so die Grundthese A.s, ist die Krönung seines gesamten Schaffens. Mehr noch als dasjenige des jungen sei das Denken des späten Luther geeignet, dem heutigen Christen Glaubensorientierung zu verschaffen und für Theologie, Kirche und Ökumene Wege in die Zukunft zu erschließen.

Gunter Wenz notes on Ulrich Asendorf´s conclusion

Read more here: “So, what does Martin Luther want us look for in the Pentateuch?” Part 5 of “Guidance in the Pentateuch. Re-reading Moses with Luther.”

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Bibel und Übersetzung, Gedankensplitter, Lutheran World, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Theologie, You comfort me + and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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