Knowing Jesus in the Old Testament? A fresh look at Christophanies
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IN PLACES in the Old Testament, the "angel of the Lord" appears: for example, to Samson’s parents in Judges 13. Some early Christian writers, notably Justin Martyr in the second century, suggested that these were in reality pre-incarnational appearances of Christ ("Christophanies").
This idea might seem merely a historical curiosity, but it has been taken up by some conservative Evangelicals, especially James A. Borland (Christ in the Old Testament: Old Testament appearances of Christ in human form, Mentor, 1999), and so has become a kind of orthodoxy in those circles.
Andrew Malone presents a careful, learned refutation of the theory of Christophanies in the Old Testament, showing that the "angel of the Lord" normally stands for God, simply. He examines all the relevant biblical evidence. He takes pains to emphasise his own orthodoxy and conservative-Evangelical credentials, and he writes in a way that should be acceptable to his constituency, with great courtesy towards those he disagrees with.
Readers outside this constituency will soon find themselves wondering why the question is important, especially as they may suspect that the relevant stories are just that — stories — of which it does not make sense to ask how many, and which, persons of the Trinity were involved.
The answer does not come until page 194: "One huge debate over the last two or three decades . . . concerns whether a person must recognize the person and work of Jesus Christ to be saved. It has been suggested that modern missions might be optional if it can be shown that Old Testament figures . . . were saved by God without a specific faith in Jesus; God could obviously still save people without such overt knowledge. Old Testament Christophanies are one weapon recruited into the conservative arsenal to combat such inclusivism."
The whole issue is thus an inner-Evangelical one, with high stakes for Evangelicals, but fascinatingly presented in a way that should interest non-Evangelicals, too. Malone does not disclose whether he himself believes in the inclusivism that an appeal to "christophanies" is meant to avoid.
The style is chatty, but the scholarship is careful. Most but not all the secondary literature discussed is Evangelical, including some unpublished dissertations. My sense was that Malone, despite his disclaimers, sometimes veers in a "liberal" direction: for example, he allows for anachronism in the Bible, and he is willing to entertain the possibility that biblical books differ in their profile and cannot be simply added together to make a single coherent picture. I hope he will write more, on themes of interest to a broader readership.
John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.