The Old Testament and the Significance of Jesus: Embracing Change - Maintaining Identity

By Fredrick C. Holmgren
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1999). xviii + 204 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 127-130

 Supersessionism comes under fire in this book by Fredrick C. Holmgren, Research Professor of Old Testament at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He lauds the Jewish preservation of revelation distinctly critical of Israel (1-12). With the Book of Jonah as his primary example, he takes issue with the Christian claim that God has rejected the Jews because of their blindness to divine revelation, especially the revelation that Christians claim speaks of Jesus. In the next chapter, the author attacks the promise and fulfillment interpretation of the OT (13- 37). Interpreters who believe that OT prophecies present two messianic advents are charged with “arbitrary exegesis” (18). Holmgren explains that accurate exegesis involves “depth” or “creative exegesis” (21) that was adopted from the rabbinical interpretations of Scripture (23) and is illustrated by the NT writers who, “after meeting and following Jesus, searched the scriptures and discovered him in the Old Testament” (30). Support for this conclusion is presented in a brief examination of 1 Cor 10:4 and Eph 4:8 (31-33).

Citing Jesus’ declaration in Luke 24:26-27 that Moses and the prophets had testified concerning Him, Holmgren accuses Jesus Himself of employing the O T in the same allegorical fashion as Melito of Sardis (40). Highlighting the seemingly free use of the OT, the author offers a variety of examples (Hos 11:1 and Matt 2:15; Ps 41:9 and John 1:18; Jer 31:15 and Matt 2:16-18) to attack any view that would include prediction and fulfillment as authorial intent in the OT (43-47). He argues that the NT writers favored the use of the Septuagint because it more readily corroborated their Christian faith (47-53). Holmgren totally ignores the fact that the NT writers and early Christians merely follow ed the lead of Jesus who had established His identity and destiny based on OT promises, claiming that He Himself was the fulfillment of OT prophecies.

The fourth chapter examines the problem of OT law and NT grace (56-74). Basically, Holmgren proposes that the apostle Paul could not support the views of the writer of the Book of Hebrews (59), that the apostle “overreached the truth” (62) in his allegory of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians, and that Paul w rote Romans 9–11 in a “divided state of mind” (70). In stark contrast to the biblical view of apostles and prophets borne along by the Holy Spirit to pen clear, confident, and inerrant revelation, Holmgren believes that the apparent contradictions in Paul’s writings are due to his inability to explain his experience in the new faith (73-74).

Two full chapters (75-104) are dedicated to an interpretation of the “new covenant” in Jer 31:31-34. Rightly understanding that it was directed to Israel (rather than to the church), the author concludes the first chapter’s treatment by declaring that the covenant is just “one more call of Jeremiah to renew commitment to the Sinai covenant” (95) clothed in satirical irony. According to Holmgren, the NT employs only the imagery of the O T’s “new covenant.” The NT “was written to nourish faith, not to transmit the plain meaning of the scripture” (104).

In “The New Testament Proclamation of Jesus: What Does the Old Testament Contribute?” (105-18), the author argues that the OT is a necessary and independent part of the Scriptures. It complements the NT by providing clearer instruction on how to live a life of faith in the real world. In his view, inattention to the OT “contributed to a late response in engaging the social issues of our day” (112).

Chapter 8 (119-38) returns to the attack on supersessionism, discussing the legitimacy of calling the earlier testament the “Old Testament” and concluding that the NT does not supersede the OT. Holmgren declares that “supersede” should be eliminated from our vocabulary when discussing the relationship between the two testaments (126), because “it represents an overreach of the church which has resulted in a denigration of this scripture as well as of Judaism” (127). However, while “Hebrew Bible” and “First Testament” are potential alternative titles, they also have potential for misunderstanding. Therefore, a judicious use of all alternative titles alongside the traditional designations is to be preferred (134-36).

The Old Testament and the Significance of Jesus sometimes proposes atrocious theology and sometimes it offers thought-provoking observations. The final chapter (“Jesus: Human and Divine,” 139-91) best exemplifies this awful tension. In the “Foreword” Walter Brueggemann emphatically “stressed that Holmgren is not ‘soft’ on Christian claims” (xii). However, that is a grave misstatement that most evangelical readers will recognize immediately, as Holmgren states repeatedly that the deity of Christ is not to be taken literally (139, 149 n. 26, 150, 155, 178 n. 95, 188; cf. 163-65). Instead, the NT writers’ intention was merely to depict Jesus as someone “intimately related to God” (151) and “that God’s presence dwells in him as in no other” (155). As he explains, “True, the Gospel writer declares that this ‘Word became flesh and lived among us’ in Jesus, but this is not the same as declaring: ‘Jesus is God’” (154). At the end of the chapter, Holmgren denies any suppression of “the divinity of Jesus” (190), but then goes on to declare that such an affirmation must avoid any tendency “to literalize his divinity” (191). The book comes full cycle with this self-contradictory and unbiblical view of Christ’s deity. The author’s theology is apparently governed by a misplaced political (or, should we say) religious correctness illustrated by the following declaration:

But the tragic truth is that persecution of Jews by Christians has been strongly linked to a high Christology which frequently was interpreted to mean that Jesus—actually, literally—was God. Such a Christology, when logically pursued, makes the Jewish refusal to become followers of Christ a crime against God (165).

In spite of the author’s mutilation of the biblical Christology in regard to the deity of Christ, he rightly notes the significance of the remarkable similarities between the personification of Wisdom in the OT and the NT association of Jesus with it (157-58). In addition, his observation that the early church creeds were merely interpretations of biblical teachings colored by Greek philosophy (172-73) is sound. That observation leads him to declare with emphasis, “The creeds should not be privileged above scripture!” (174).

Doubtless this volume will serve as a catalyst for advanced seminars in Christology and continuity/discontinuity of the two testaments. There is nothing evangelical about Holmgren’s views. The only emphasis of any enduring value is the insistence upon the fact that the Christian faith is a faith that is not just a NT faith.