Here at the Center for Theological Studies (CTS), I am always blogging on theological issues, such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism and Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology. In today’s post however, I will still consider the theological topic of dispensationalism and covenant theology, but I will do so from a philosophical perspective.
In case no one has ever told you this, philosophy and theology go hand in hand, like a ball in a glove (“philosophy is the handmaiden of theology”). Because philosophy supports theology, one’s theology will reveal an individual’s philosophy.
This morning, while up reading a chapter in John S. Feinberg’s “Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments,” I read a chapter on the debate on continuity and discontinuity of the Testaments throughout church history. Feinberg tells us that there were two schools of theology at the time:
“They [the theologians] were generally oriented around two ‘schools’ of theology, one located at Alexandria and the other at Antioch. Both understood the OT as an historical document, ultimately the work of the same divine Spirit as that present in the NT. Both agreed on certain key events and the way in which these foreshadowed Christ and the church...both believed that the new was contained in the old. DIFFERENCES APPEARED IN THE MANNER BY WHICH THE NEW REVELATION WAS DISCERNED IN THE OLD AND IN THE INDEPENDENT STATUS OF THE FORMER REVELATION IN LIGHT OF THE NEW” (“Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments.” Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1988, page 20).
The relationship of the Old and New Testaments was the subject of frequent dialogue and debate in church history. Contrary to what some may think, this issue did not just start with contemporary theologians as a newly-created debate to keep believers in continual disagreement. No---the debate itself has existed since the completion of the New Testament canon...and according to Paul, since the time of the Romans to which he wrote his epistle.
Now, the question becomes, “What ideas did the two ‘schools’ consist of?” In other words, “What did these two schools believe about theology?” That is what I will detail now.
First, let’s start with the school at Alexandria. This school was founded by Origen (c. 185- c.254), who promoted allegorical exegesis. According to Rodney Petersen, Origen was inspired by the Jewish exegete Philo, who “argued for the importance of a DEEPER SPIRITUAL or ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATION BEHIND THE HISTORY OR LETTER OF THE TEXT” (“Continuity and Discontinuity,” page 20). Further, “the OT...was filled with enigma. It was an allegory or spiritual symbol. MEANING---and in a way THE NEW DISPENSATION---WAS CONCEALED IN THE OLD WITH DEBATABLE REGARD FOR HISTORY. IT WAS THE WORK OF THE SPIRITUAL EXEGETE TO FIND THE SPIRITUAL MEANING” (21).
To put this clearly, the Alexandrian school believed that the actual text itself did not contain meaning, but POINTED TO MEANING (“meaning was concealed in the old”). The Alexandrian school, devoted to allegorical interpretation, believed that the true meaning of the text was not found in the words, but something “behind” the words; and this “something behind the words” was to be discovered by the exegete himself. Exegesis, as a result, became more of an exercise in creative imagination than an exercise in understanding and comprehension. The text, in Alexandrian theology, participated in a game of “hide-and-seek”: true meaning was hidden, but could be found with enough diligence.
And what about the Antiochene School? The Antiochene School argued for typology:
“This relationship was seen as correspondence, not simply symbolism. It was believed to be found in Scripture itself (Isa. 51:9-16; Gal. 4:24). EVENTS AND PERSONS IN AN EARLIER REVELATION WERE ‘TYPES’ OF THAT WHICH WOULD APPEAR LATER. IN THIS WAY THE SPIRITUAL MEANING AND HISTORICAL SENSE OF THE TEXT WERE CLOSELY BONDED. Through insight (theoria) one might discern both the historical reality and proper spiritual intent of a text set within a clearer picture of the development of revelation (fuller truth about Christ is found in the Gospels, not in a spiritual interpretation of the OT). THIS HAD THE ADVANTAGE OF OFFERING A MORE INTEGRAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE UNITY OF THE BIBLE. Allegory appeared to lose this through unreliable or illegitimate associations” (21).
The Antiochene School argued for typology, insisting that the historical event and a greater spiritual reality were BOTH important to understanding the text.
If we use an example, let’s use the example of the Israelites in Exodus. God told the Israelites to place the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doorposts. This had to be done so that the death angel would “pass over” them (thus, the “Passover” event, Exodus 12:21-30). Historically, this is important: the Israelites were “literally” told to obey God’s instructions. Since the Egyptians did not do this, they lost the firstborn in all of their homes. Failure to take a lamb, slaughter it, and place its blood on the doorpost would result in the loss of the firstborn child. For the lives of Jewish firstborns, it was imperative that the Israelites hear and obey everything God told them.
However, there was also a future spiritual meaning to the act. The act of slaughtering a lamb and sprinkling its blood to cover them and prevent death foreshadowed Christ who was to come. This is why Paul would go on to write in 1 Corinthians while condemning the church for allowing a man to remain in their midst who was sleeping with his stepmother:
“Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. FOR INDEED CHRIST, OUR PASSOVER, WAS SACRIFICED FOR US. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6-8, NKJV).
Here we find that the slaughtering of the lamb in the Old Testament was not meant to be just a mere command and tradition; rather, by celebrating the Passover (slaughtering a lamb, and so forth), the Israelites were actually anticipating the Christ event that was to come. Now, in lieu of Calvary, the believers in the early church (and us today) are to remember the death of Christ, remember what He died for---that being our sin. Because He died for our sins, He commands us to “reckon yourselves dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead...” (Rom. 6:11-13)
The “old leaven,” what Paul labels as “malice and wickedness,” is that which the “old man,” the man before Christ, would do. But the new man in Christ is to have newly unleavened bread, that being “sincerity” of heart and truth (everything he does is to be pure, just, and right).
Now, Paul’s words are good to the New Testament church about the spiritual commemoration of the Passover; but does this nullify the commandment God gave the Jews about Passover? What is the commandment God gave the Jews, anyway?
“And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance FOR YOU AND YOUR SONS FOREVER. It will come to pass when you come to the land which the Lord will give you, just as He promised, that YOU SHALL KEEP THIS SERVICE. And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ that you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households’” (Exodus 12:24-27).
The Jews were told to commemorate that special night when they entered the Promised Land. It was not just told to them to remember it once or twice, but to be done by them “and...sons FOREVER”. It would be performed every year, from generation to generation to generation. In the eyes of Scripture, then, the foreshadowed meaning of the Passover and Christian ethics in light of the future event (Christ’s death) does not cancel out the necessity of the Jews to remember God’s command to celebrate the Passover. In the Antiochene School and its use of typology, both the historical event and the spiritual significance are upheld, side by side. Neither is negated for the other.
In this daunting post, I have described the Alexandrian and Antiochene Schools of Theology and their hermeneutics (interpretive methods) regarding Scripture. In my next post, I will cover the popularity of the Alexandrian School (focusing on Augustine in particular) and the underlying philosophical thought behind the two theologies.