Yes, it’s normally the other way round. ‘Tail wags dog ‘ implies there’s something awry.

That was certainly the case with the email I received the other day from a Christian lady I have known for years. She lives overseas and has recently moved from one end of the country to the other for health reasons. Her health, I’m pleased to say, has responded well to the change of climate. But her church life has taken a nose-dive. The town of only five thousand citizens has some forty Protestant churches, and finding the right one is proving difficult.

She told me about the one she visited last week. It was, she had been warned, ‘into that Israel thing’, but she could never have guessed how deeply. ‘Everything’, she wrote, was ‘more Jewish than Jesus Christ himself’. The songs were all Jewish in origin or written by Jews. There was no mention of Jesus, just of ‘Yeshua’, and the song-sheets had ‘G_d’ instead of ‘God’[1], who was named throughout only by his Hebrew titles. The whole thing, though avowedly Christian, was Israel-centred from start to finish. All very unhealthy, and a clear case of ‘tail wags dog’. How on earth does this sort of thing happen?

That church was the way it was for one reason alone: faulty hermeneutics.[2] Mulling this over took my thoughts back a few hundred years to the Reformers of the 16th century, who went overboard, I think, with one of their principles: the ‘perspicuity of Scripture’. This is the notion that the Bible’s meaning is clear to all and that ordinary Christians, with no theological training, can read it for themselves, interpret it and understand it.

The Reformers were reacting, of course, to the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which taught that only ‘mother church’, through its official learned channels, could say what Scripture meant. Hermeneutics, said the Catholics, could not be trusted to the rabble.

I have some sympathy for the Catholic position in this respect. Take a look around. How many Roman Catholic denominations are there? One. And how many Protestant denominations? Around 33,000.[3] Since the Reformers released the handbrake of ‘official’ hermeneutics, the vehicle has run out of control. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can proclaim himself the Bible’s interpreter—guided by the Holy Spirit, he will claim—and start yet another church or denomination.[4]

The plain fact is that the Bible is anything but an easy book. For a start it is very long, so long that many Christians, including some church-founders, have never actually read it all. Then it comes out of ancient cultures that remain a mystery to most folk today. If some knowledge of those cultures is vital for getting at its meaning, few ordinary Christians will ever manage it. And it is written in Hebrew and Greek. Sure, we have translations, but reading in translation is a bit like sucking toffee with the paper on: you can’t get at the full flavour.

Most difficult for modern readers is getting the Bible’s ‘big picture’. Many of them live fearfully busy lives. They dip into Scripture for a ‘thought for the day’ and perhaps hear a little exposition in the Sunday sermon, but life is too hectic to do the kind of large-scale Bible-reading required for a solid overview of its ‘shape’ and message. That’s no fault of their own; that’s just life.

Little wonder, then, that Protestantism, especially at its fringes, remains littered with way-out doctrines and practices like the ones my correspondent described. Whoever started that church had read the Bible and got the wrong end of the stick. The Bible moves from Jewishness to Jesus and his church; they had done an about turn. The Jewish tail was wagging the Christian dog. Now I’m no expert in hermeneutics, but my sixty years of Bible-reading and Christian experience have taught me at least a bit on the subject, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say a thing or two about ‘the big picture’ and ‘that Israel thing’. Stay with me.

First, the Old Testament story. God called a Babylonian polytheist named Abraham into relationship with himself. A few generations later his grandson Jacob’s sons became the tribal heads of what grew into the nation of Israel, to whom God made himself known better over the centuries through their prophets. The Israelites settled in their Middle Eastern land, with worship centralised in Jerusalem and its temple. So far so good.

God, however, had always had a worldwide agenda, not just a Jewish one. He had made that clear at the start in his promises to Abraham.[5] The Jews, in fact, were to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’.[6] But instead they proved wayward and ungodly, triggering God’s judgment in the sacking of Jerusalem and its temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, with most of the citizens being then dragged off into exile.

A small number eventually made it back to their own land and rebuilt the temple, but the Jewish people remained under foreign domination—of Persians, then Greeks, then Romans—right through the four hundred years of the inter-testamental period and into the time of Jesus. Understandably many Jews felt that, in practice, they were still in exile.[7] They yearned for the day when the promised Messiah would arrive to sort things out, which meant, in their view, his casting off the foreign yoke and restoring Israel to prominence among the nations.

That never happened, of course. True, the Messiah arrived—in the person of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. But he was a very different kind of Messiah from the one they had expected. Instead of beating the Romans he got himself crucified by them. No Jews had spotted that in the Old Testament!

But then, the master-stroke: God raised him from death! The tomb was found empty. Jesus reappeared with a strange new body, much like his previous one, but endowed with wondrous new powers, a body now incapable of death, an eternal body, splendid and incorruptible. And in that body he vanished into the Father’s presence with promises of a glorious return and similar new bodies for those who believed in him.

It was the resurrection that caught first-century Jews like Paul, Peter, James and John unawares. It shook their understanding of God’s purpose so radically that they could never read their own Hebrew Scriptures in the same way again. They were forced to review the Old Testament and re-interpret it in the light of the astonishing events they had witnessed.

Now here’s where the hermeneutical process gets interesting. By re-interpreting their Old Testament in the light of these events, the New Testament writers were reversing the normal direction of things. And here’s where ‘tail wags dog’ became, for once, a good thing. Timewise, the Old Testament appeared first, compiled over many centuries and pointing to the Messiah who would come later as its fulfilment. The Old Testament was the dog, so to speak, with the New Testament attached to the end of it as the tail. One would therefore expect the Old to have wagged the New, the Old to have shed light on the New, prompting the likes of Paul to write the New Testament in that light. But they did the very opposite! Staggered by the enormity of the Christ-event, they looked back into the Old Testament and concluded, ‘Well, we can see now that there was a meaning there all along that makes sense only in the light of Jesus, a meaning that the likes of Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah never understood. But we understand it, and we know that this is what God has been driving at all along!’

And what was that? It was that God’s promises to Abraham of worldwide blessing had, just as he had always intended, come to fruition in Jesus.[8] Jesus was, in fact, the true Israelite, the real ‘son’, who was in himself everything that the Jews as a nation had dismally failed to be.[9] And what’s more, people everywhere could, when joined by faith to him, become true Israelites, too—regardless of their ethnic or religious pedigree. Believing Gentiles were accepted without having to embrace the standard marks of Jewishness like observing Torah and being circumcised. Faith, expressed in submission to baptism, was all that was required!

This was mind-boggling stuff, hermeneutical dynamite. The age-long middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile broken down for good and all. Just one people of God, all Abraham’s descendants by faith, from every tribe, language, people and nation. This was Israel redefined, the real Israel, the ultimate and only true Israel: the church.

It was the dawning of this understanding that caused the New Testament writers to boldly give Old Testament passages a Christocentric meaning that no amount of grammatical-historical interpretive tweaking of the Hebrew text could ever have produced. They embraced a daring new hermeneutic, taking up the torch of Christ, shining it back into the dark recesses of Old Testament theology and declaring, ‘Aha! Look what’s there!’[10]

The Old Testament dog wasn’t wagging its New Testament tail, the tail—hallelujah!— was wagging the dog. The New Testament now determines the meaning of the Old, not vice versa. The Christ-event affects everything, and that’s how it must always, gloriously, be. So Jewishness in the old sense simply doesn’t matter anymore, just Jewishness in its new and final sense, in which ‘those who have faith are children of Abraham’.[11]

So the church I mentioned earlier as being ‘into that Israel thing’ has, due to its faulty hermeneutical sat-nav, turned into a blind alley. Its Jewish focus will get it nowhere except into an obsession with all things ethnically and religiously Jewish. And that, far from furthering God’s declared purpose of a worldwide family in which such things no longer matter, will serve only to leave it washed up and stranded on the beach of weirdness and obscurity, an odd-shaped bit of ecclesiastical driftwood.

Copyright © David Matthew 2012


For more on the topic of Israel today and its alleged role in the fulfilment of biblical prophecy see Red Herring In Galilee.

1. Echoing the old Jewish practice of not using the name YHWH (Jehovah, or ‘the Lord’)lest they might unwittingly ‘take the name of the Lord in vain’ and thus break the third commandment.

2. ‘Hermeneutics’ means the principles governing the interpretation of Scripture.

5. Genesis 12:2-3, especially v3: ‘And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’

Tail Wags Dog

Which Testament governs which?

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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3. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001 edition.

4. The greatest number of denominations is in the USA, where there has never been a controlling ‘state church’ and where freedom of speech is highly regarded. Interestingly, this is the background that spawned all the major cults: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Science etc.

6. E.g. Isaiah 49:6

7. And indeed they were. The real return from exile would be the spiritual one introduced by Jesus, a release from the dominion of sin and death through faith in him.

8. See Romans 4.

Anointed with oil

9. For Israel as God’s ‘son’ see Exodus 4:22.

10. This is not to suggest that every Old Testament passage has a hidden reference to Jesus, but that the Old Testament as whole, in its full, developing message, was pointing to its fulfilment in him. The apostles adopted a Christotelic interpretation, that is, one that viewed the Old Testament as finding its ‘end’ or ‘outworking’ (Greek telos) in Christ. For more on this see Peter Enns, Inspiration And Incarnation, Baker Academic, 2005; especially chapter 4, ‘The Old Testament and its Interpretation in the New Testament.’

11. Galatians 3:7

Tail Wags Dog

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