Dei Verbum, chapter 4: The Old Testament

The fourth chapter of Dei Verbum is about the Old Testament. It is shorter than the previous chapters (only three paragraphs) because it does not involve such difficult and controversial subjects.

The first paragraph focuses on the Old Testament considered in itself (DV 14). It explains how God progressively revealed himself to the Israelites, first through the covenant with Abraham (Genesis), then through the covenant with the whole people of Israel (Exodus), and then through the prophets (e.g., Isaiah). Through these men and women and the divinely-inspired books written about them Israel “experienced God’s ways with human beings and understood them more thoroughly and more clearly” (ibid.).

Its most important point comes at the end, when it states that the Old Testament books “hold lasting value” (ibid.). The key word here is lasting (perennis). This is a rejection of the heresy of Marcionism. Marcion was excommunicated by the Church in Rome in the second century for rejecting the Old Testament (as well as parts of the New Testament). He believed it contained a different God, who was not the Father of Jesus Christ. (This belief was also part of Gnosticism, but Marcion was not a Gnostic; in fact, he was the son of a Catholic bishop.)

Although Marcionism was an ancient heresy, a kind of “functional Marcionism” is a lingering specter within Christian orthodoxy to this day. “Functional” means that, while all Christians acknowledge the Old Testament as part of the Bible, many ignore it in practice. The belief that the “Old Testament God” was somehow different from the God of Jesus is a very widespread, pernicious error. Here I recommend the recent piece by biblical scholar, Dr. Angela Rasmussen (my wife).

By saying that the Old Testament retains “lasting value,” the Church means that its Scriptures are just as valid as the New Testament. Occasionally I have experienced people reacting to Old Testament quotations in religious arguments by saying “Yeah, but that was the Old Testament,” as if these were lesser or second-class Scriptures that had somehow been superseded or rendered obsolete by the New Testament. This is simply wrong and at least implicitly heretical. (I don’t mean that Catholics who say things like this are heretics; it’s usually a case of ignorance and confusion.) This point was very much driven home to me when I began studying the exegesis and sermons of some of the Church Fathers. They use and quote and discuss Old Testament texts in the exact same way they do New Testament texts. It is all one Bible. Nor can you utilize the principles of historical context to relativize the Old Testament as if in contradistinction to a supposedly absolute New Testament. If you read my post about historical context and why it matters, you’ll know that what I say there applies equally to both Testaments. Both are equally embedded in humanity and in history, and both equally convey God’s Word within that history.

But isn’t there some kind of real tension between Old Testament and New Testament? After all, Christians don’t follow the Mosaic Law in its entirety! Yes, and the second paragraph of Dei Verbum, chapter 4, gets into this. It says that the books of the Old Testament, “though they contain things incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show a true divine pedagogy” (15). The phrase “divine pedagogy” (paedagogia divina) is a Latin translation of Heilspädagogik, the German word used by Pope Pius XI in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”).[1] This encyclical was written in German because it was directed to the German bishops and the Third Reich. Drafted in condemnation of Nazi antisemitism, this section of it affirms the beauty and lasting value of the Jewish Scriptures.

The word pedagogy suggests how teachers adapt themselves to the level of their pupils. Rather than revealing himself all at once, God judged it better to reveal himself gradually. Human beings have limited intellects; we must be taught step by step with a lot of hand-holding. You cannot teach a person calculus all at once; you have to start with counting and then arithmetic. Think of how a child may learn a very simplified – and therefore, strictly speaking, inaccurate and misleading – presentation of a complex subject. It is not that teachers want to deceive or mislead, but you have to work up to the complete truth through years of study.[2] In the same way, throughout the Old Testament God reveals more and more of himself, all in preparation for his definitive self-revelation in the man Jesus, in whom “dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (Col 2:9). This is why the Old Testament says some things that are, considered in themselves, “incomplete and temporary.” Not wishing to disparage or undervalue the Old Testament, the paragraph goes on to reinforce the point that, despite its limitations, it remains eminently valuable to Christians. Specifically, it contains “lofty teachings about God, salutary wisdom about human life, and a marvelous treasury of prayers” (DV 15).

The third paragraph is very short and is mostly St. Augustine’s maxim that “The New lies hid in the Old, and the Old is made clear in the New” (DV 16).[3] Most Christians are familiar with how we interpret certain passages of the Old Testament with a Messianic meaning. In this way the coming of Christ was “foreshadowed by various types” (DV 15). A “type” in Greek (typos) was literally an image, like a figurine, mold, or model. Various Old Testament characters are types of Christ, such as Adam, Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek.

Spiritual and allegorical readings, however, should not be the only way the Old Testament is perceived by Christians. In fact, according to theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas, following a principle that stretches back to Origen of Alexandria, all higher, mystical readings of Scripture are dependent upon the plain, literal meaning (CCC 116). The literal sense always holds primacy because it is the foundation for all higher senses. If we want to see how someone like Moses serves as a type of Christ, we must first learn his story in its own right!

If the Old Testament is made clear by the New, it’s also true that the New is made clear by the Old. The Old Testament is the essential context from which the New Testament was written. To the human authors of the New Testament, the Old Testament was their whole Bible, the only Scriptures they knew. As such, they drew upon it heavily in composing their books. There must be thousands of quotations, allusions, and parallels to the Old Testament in the New. Correctly interpreting the New Testament requires knowledge of the Old Testament. For this reason, I recommend people embarking upon serious study of the Bible to begin with Genesis and Exodus at the very least before approaching anything from the New Testament.[4] You have to get the foundation first, or you’ll be trying to understand something without its essential context. The temptation to only read the New Testament must be resisted. It is all the Word of God, and skipping the Old Testament is another example of “functional” Marcionism.

Image: Michelangelo’s Moses, Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (ca. 1514), Creative Commons

Footnotes

  1. The Flannery translation of the documents of Vatican II mistranslates this as “authentic divine teaching.” This is a rare case where the old and flawed Daughters of St. Paul translation on the Vatican’s website is better, as it correctly has “true divine pedagogy.”
  2. There is a series of videos by Wired Magazine that tackles various subjects explained by experts at five different educational levels. This is a good illustration of the basic notion of pedagogy.
  3. In vetere novum lateat et in novo vetus pateat.
  4. After those, I’d recommend hitting some highlights, such as Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, Psalms, Job, and Isaiah.

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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

The Old Testament is not second-class Scripture
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