The Prophetic Hope and Messiah and the New Humanity
This is an initial look how the prophetic tradition may be linked to visions of a new and better humanity.
We may wish to affirm with Duns Scotus and Bonaventure that the prophets point to Christ but we must also consider the historical circumstances in which the prophecies were first spoken.
Even so something greater than what the prophets originally spoke about was still come and still is to be completed.
Prophecy according to Scotus and Bonaventure
Scotus included something on prophecy in his argument about the Sufficiency of Scripture. He included that God alone naturally foresees future dependent events and hence God alone can enable someone to predict the future with certitude. More-over many events are foretold in Scripture and have been fulfilled. We could link this with Scotus’ theory of God’s knowledge of future events and that God knows what He wills. More simply, God wills and knows things for the future and He reveals such possibilities to His servants to serve His purpose of what He wills.
In a different but related way Bonaventure writes in Breviloquium about the Breadth of Scripture that there is “a wondrous accord” between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament aspects of Christ are foreseen in narrative, moral and prophetic texts and hence it bears testimony to the Word who will become Incarnate and complete the work of salvation. In both Scotus and Bonaventure therefore is the implication of the Old Testament texts preparing for the Christ in a somewhat predictive way.
This affirmation of the prophets envisioning the future Messiah cannot today stand without some qualification. Both Scotus and Bonaventure both predate the advent of historical-critical analysis of the setting and background to the biblical texts and perhaps we would not have expected them to write otherwise. We should today however allow for insights from historical research and history critical theories that may point us to seeing Old Testament prophecy in a slightly different way. Yes there are things in the Old Testament that can be seen to have certain visionary foretaste of things that were made more effective and present in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. However I think that it is quite another thing to say that the OT writers were actually foreseeing the person of Jesus as the Christ from their own time and place. It is only in retrospect of Jesus in the experience of the apostles and the writing of the gospels that the connections were made with the OT. We know the early church needed to make such links in their apologetic witness to Jewish communities and therefore made as much use of the OT as they could to demonstrate that belief in Jesus as the Christ was in great measure the answer to what was left unfulfilled and incomplete in the life of the people of Israel. We can cite many prophesies that were used by the gospel writers in a somewhat creative manner by the church that were admittedly taken out of the original historical context and then applied to Jesus. It may well be legitimate for the church to have applied symbolic representations of the Messiah in the prophetic texts to Jesus but we must honestly admit it is not always apparent that the original prophets and writer’s context foresaw Christ in precisely the way the church later came to see and proclaim Him. We should recognise there was an original historical context for the prophesies but things in the message were later applied to Christ, not always in the direct way the prophet originally envisaged and having nothing to do with the original situation in which they may have been uttered.
Therefore while we may affirm the basic belief that Scotus and Bonaventure had in their statements that the OT in some way foresees the character of Christ and bears witness to Him, it is not in such a simple and precise way they envisaged. It was rather that some of the messianic and community images in the OT came to have a greater significance in the life of Jesus and that specific images are better filled out by Him in His ministry and future hope and glory because they had not previously come to the fullest fruit in their original setting and immediate aftermath.
2. God as the First Cause and Exemplary Cause of new revelation
To the prophetic tradition we may also employ some of the philosophical emphasis that Scotus and Bonaventure applied to the nature of God. We can apply Scotus emphasis on God as First Cause in relation to revelation in the prophets. The prophetic visionary experience and new areas of thought they received are at the instigation of God towards the divine unfolding purpose for Israel and towards all humanity. The prophets correspond to the further revelations of God’s will in addition to the law and beyond the law. Each new vision is in essence from a First Cause of something potentially new and towards the finality of willed purpose of God that is started in creation. Although God gives humanity freedom in our minds to will as we may God conveys to human consciousness something of new thought and vision and ways of being, to point in a new direction towards His intended goal in the Messiah and our Intended Being. By providing such visions for us humanity may be given the potential of new direction that may be freely accepted and fully in accord with the divine purpose for the humanity and the cosmos.
In the acceptance of the new visions and the message by some in the community God is the First Cause of new things in society and shaping a new and better future. The prophets were often the critics of the society in which they lived and this criticism of the institutions of Israel is a sign of a new revelation to initiate things to new ends, towards a final end that will be better for all society if it is freely accepted. In the lives of the prophets God offers some individuals to be the avenues of those new visions and by their faithful acceptance of their commission and being true to the vision they enhance the society in which they live.
Also in associated with God as the author of causation of events in the cosmos and in history we may also apply the description of Bonaventure of God as an Exemplary Cause. Thus the universe was created according to the Divine Plan, from the things present in the mind of God from all eternity. God in causing things to exist and work towards a purpose shows something of God’s own character. If we apply this to prophecy then what is revealed in prophecy is related to God’s character and purpose for the development of the cosmos and human society. This is shown in the events of the life of Israel and the visionary messages of the prophets towards the immediate future, related to God’s former and revealed covenant with the patriarchs and the people of Israel.
Historical aspects of the Prophetic Tradition.
The movement known as the Historical –Critical textual analysis has grown up in various parts of the church. Its own history of development need not concern us. There are various parts of the church for whom such a textual analysis is too subjective and may claim that is does damage to the authority of scripture as it has been received. However I firmly believe that as with science today the analysis of biblical texts from a historical critical standpoint may do much to cast light on the reasons why particular texts were written or passed on in oral tradition and developed within the communities of Israel over e long period before taking the written content that we know. It is when we see the prophetic texts in the light of the probable historical situations that the texts can become grounded in an original historical experience of the people who then thought it important to preserve them. An appreciation of the life and the conditions of the prophet and the societies in which they lived does much to ground the scriptures in experience and offers interpretive keys for today. A historical approach can in fact help us to find modern resonance with current events and issues.
A case in point is the now “classic” historical-critical division of the text of the long book of Isaiah into three historic periods and the work and ministry of several authors and editors who put together this long text. The parts of Isaiah related to three historic periods are generally as follows.
Chapters 1-39. Largely concerned with the events in Judah and Jerusalem during the lifetime and ministry of Isaiah ben Amoz in Jerusalem, most particularly during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah.
Chapters 40-50. Often known as Isaiah II or Deuteo-Isaiah is argued to be largely the work of an author and prophet living among the exiles in Babylon after 597 BCE.
Chapters 55-66. Often known as Isaiah III or Trito-Isaiah is largely the work of one or more authors living in Judah after the return of the exiles, living under the Persian kings.
In the first place the original prophet from whom the book is named exercises his ministry to the court and people. His prophecies can be shown to be linked with the politics of the time and his attempted advice to king and people. He is a critic of what he sees as desertion of the covenantal faith and laws, warning of punishments to come if people will not change. But in the context of his critique he also offers visions of a better society to be brought by a righteous ruler. It is this mixture of critique of the present but hope for a new future that pervades his work and forms the backdrop of so many familiar prophetic passages about the Messiah and Emmanuel (God with us).
In Deutero Isaiah we have the circumstances of the community of exiles in Babylon, dispirited and guilty of the past failures of Israel and Judah. But here there is also a renewed hope of a return to the Promised Land and a new purpose for them. There is the hope of a new Exodus from Babylon to Israel along a highway built by God as the road home through the desert. It is in this context that we come across the famous text of the Suffering Servant, which although later applied to Jesus may have originally meant the suffering exiled community (and which Jews still interpret as such). The suffering community is spoken of as one person who has suffered for the sins of others but in this there is salvation that will occur. Some suffer for the cause of the many. It may well still be seen to apply to Jesus in His greater fullness as God’s agent in history but probably referred to others innocent suffering first, bruised by the sins of their forebears and the faithless multitude back in Judah.
Finally in Trito-Isaiah we have various situations in years after the return of some of the Jewish community from exile in which society still needs renewing visions because of continued failures to be the people of God. There are still adverse circumstances and there is still mending to be done. There is still bondage, sickness and ruins. There is still hope of a continued vision of a brighter and better Zion that will be a focal point for the nations of the world. It is in this context we meet the other famous text of Isaiah 61, quoted by Jesus himself, bringing a new good news of things that are still to come, anointed to instigate a renewal of the people.
The Messianic hope and the New Humanity
Therefore in view of a historical-critical approach I want to suggest that the prophetic hope of the Messiah points to the hope of the community of Israel living rightly under the righteous ruler and so includes elements of what the righteous ruler is like and what life under that rule includes. Firstly for Israel it was focused upon the royal line of David as God’s anointed king through whom the people were to live in security and righteousness. Both David and all the kings that followed are either good or bad in this respect. It became part of a prophetic hope that there would be a good king on the throne to perpetuate this ideal and continue the line of David upheld by God. When individual kings failed there remained the new hope there would be a future agent of God who would live out the vocation of the true king, and true regent of God’s rule, and under whom the nation would prosper in all goodness and that ultimately the gentiles would also come share in it and God’s fullest glory would be seen in the new societies that developed from that new life.
The prophetic critiques of Israel and Judah are in the context of the failure of the society of Israel that the new hope of the Messiah and therefore a renewed community is needed. The oracles of the prophets are both a critique and judgement of the society and an opening up of an alternative way to be that God will bring about. The requirements of the law were not enough and indeed can never be enough for the right living of society. The very failure of the people to be good under the covenant shows something more radical is needed. The kings, priests and people were failures and this failure is not only theirs in their times, it also our failure too. We too fail to make right laws, we too fail to live in an equitable and good society. We too need something beyond laws and rituals to help us become out Intended Being that God wishes us to have. It is in this context that the prophetic hope of the Messiah who is both Ruler and Saviour of the community emerges and eventually does find fulfilment in the event of The Christ, made present in Jesus of Nazareth and leading us in to our New Humanity.