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The Danger of Neglecting the Old Testament

November 28th, 2018 | 25 min read

By Joshua Heavin

By Joshua Heavin

“How I love your torah, O Lord!” (Psalm 119:97)

Love for torah is always fittingly strange by the grace of God. But I am concerned that literacy of and love for the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament among North American Protestants is in decline. Here I outline three possible reasons why this is the case, and offer suggestions for a path forward.

The Functional Marginalizing of the Old Testament

First, even amongst confessional churches that theoretically confess belief in and love for the Old Testament as Holy Scripture, the Old Testament is often functionally marginalized. As Brent Strawn has recently diagnosed in his haunting The Old Testament is Dying,1 if the Old Testament can be compared to a language which can live or die by its use, this is a language rapidly in decline. Strawn clarifies:

Let me be clear: I have no doubt that the Old Testament is read, at least occasionally, by many Christians and in many churches, but part of my larger point – not to mention the larger problem – is not simply if the Old Testament is present (somehow), read (intermittently), or preached from (sporadically), but how it is present, read, preached from, and so on and so forth. The Old Testament was also present in Nazi Germany, at least for a while, but how? – which is to ask, To what end?2

Even amongst the most Bible-oriented churches, many of us spend the bulk of our time teaching and preaching from the New Testament rather than the Old. Moreover, when preaching and teaching from the New Testament, preachers and teachers often rely mainly on personal anecdotes or pop cultures references for illustrations rather than the Old Testament. Although this trend perhaps allows for non-churched listeners to more readily make connections, this arguably hinders disciples from becoming trained to make connections across our canon of sacred writings. But additionally, it is very easy for us to functionally mute or subvert the distinct voices contributing to the biblical canon’s symphony. Although we may be preaching from Habakkuk or Ezra, we can easily preach these texts only as illustrations of some aspect of Paul’s or John’s theology, and in so doing, we blunt the integrity of distinct, holographic witnesses to the One God revealed in our sacred library. However, beyond these rather accidental or functional subversions of the Old Testament, there are at least two trends contributing in a more deliberate way to this problem.

Is the Old Testament Theologically Reliable?

Second, among more serious or academic theology, certain readings of Paul can lend themselves to regarding the Old Testament as an unreliable theological witness. Perhaps the most significant recent example of this trend is the approach to Paul of Duke New Testament scholar Douglas Campbell. Although Campbell rightly prioritizes participatory and apocalyptic themes in his Quest for Paul’s Gospel and The Deliverance of God, Campbell nonetheless creates a such a stark contrast between God’s liberating and adoptive action in Christ and the actions of God described in Israel’s history that John Barclay, in his work on ‘gift/grace’ in Paul, raises the rather startling concern:

“Campbell’s claim that the language of divine wrath and divine deliverance represent ‘fundamentally different conceptions of God’ – the one a ‘retributively just’ God, the other, ‘the God of Jesus Christ’ (Deliverance, p. 543) – is a product of his perfection of grace as ‘singular.’ At such points his viewpoint is strongly reminiscent of Marcion.”3

In recent years there have been several debates related to Paul’s perspective on history, with some arguing that Paul preached an ‘apocalyptic’ gospel of divine invasion and disruption, and others arguing that Paul preached a ‘salvation history’ gospel of Christ as the climax of Israel’s story.4 To be clear, by no means do the nuanced perspectives in these complex debates all trend towards a modern Marcionism. Nonetheless, the integrity of Israel’s Scriptures as a theological witness is sometimes called into question. Although the apostle Paul understood Israel’s Scriptures through the prism of the Christ-event, we should note that Paul continued re-reading Israel’s Scriptures in light of the Messiah’s death and resurrection, as Paul made abundant use of the Scriptures pastorally in his epistles to the churches.

Andy Stanley’s View of the Old Testament

Last, at a popular level, although denigrating views of the Old Testament are mass marketed to American Christians in the form of prosperity preachers and others, a more nuanced but nonetheless severely problematic appeal is currently being made by Andy Stanley. Stanley began receiving public criticism after preaching a sermon last April in which he advocated that Christians need to “un-hitch” their faith from the Old Testament. Subsequently, Stanley responded to criticism by clarifying his intentions, that “we are working hard to engage with our post-Christian culture.” More recently, Stanley wrote an article more narrowly focused on the Ten Commandments, in which he argued that “the new covenant replaced the old one. The covenant established by Jesus retired the covenant God established with the nation of Israel.” Stanley has a new popular book out on the subject, and Stanley has responded to critics as follows:

We can take cues from the NT writers, especially the example in Acts 15, but this does not mean that the OT law directly applies to Christians today. Should we stone rebellious children (Ex. 21:15-17)? Prohibit interracial marriage (Deut. 7:3-4)? No. Because the old covenant has been fulfilled and ended and a new and better way of relating to God is now available to us.

As I explain in Irresistible, the OT asked us to base our love for others upon our own standard of fairness—how we want to be treated. Jesus said this was the great commandment of the OT, to love your neighbor as yourself—the golden rule. But then he takes us one step further. Jesus gives us a new and better command, one that’s not based on you or me, but on the standard of love Jesus has shown to us. I call this the platinum rule. Jesus Christ has ended the old covenant once and for all, with all the Old Testament practices, promises, and expectations. We need to stop mixing the old with the new, because God has given us something better in Jesus Christ and his new command.

Although Stanley arguably misrepresents Deuteronomy’s prohibitions of idolatry and also does not account for the Old Testament’s own sacrificial provisions for forgiveness, Stanley commendably has framed his programmatic shift as an attempt to promote Christianity in an increasingly post-Christendom society. But Stanley’s re-packaging of essentially dispensationalist views on the covenants and Israel is problematic for many reasons. The church does not replace Israel or make void God’s irrevocable promises.

According to Romans 11:13–36, Gentiles who are ‘in Christ’ have been grafted into the mercy of Israel’s God, the God who makes irrevocable promises and in whom Abraham believed, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17). The Old Testament is not something limited to Israel, with a fundamentally untrustworthy account of who God truly is; the reception of the Spirit by gentiles who are ‘in Christ’ is the fulfillment of what was promised beforehand to Abraham (cf. Galatians 3:7–14), and the God in whom we believe “preached good news beforehand” to Abraham (Galatians 3:8).

But more broadly, Stanley appears interested in promoting equality or responding to skeptics of the Christian faith who desire to oppose violence and racism, but ultimately Stanley’s theological program is incapable of doing so. For church traditions among black and historically marginalized communities, where themes of exodus and liberation have long been driving forces for hope and justice, Stanley’s proposal is devastating.

Although I doubt neither Stanley’s sincerity nor good intentions, his program is frankly an obstacle for the realization of one of the most famous speeches in American history as Martin Luther King Jr. made direct appeal to the Old Testament “No! No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Dr. King made abundant use of the prophets throughout his career, and Amos 5:24 resounds in in such masterpieces as “Letter From Birmingham Jail” where amidst equivocation and silence from “the white moderate” King wrote:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’”

We do not need to un-hitch our faith from Dr. King’s Old Testament.

Politically, American Christians should be concerned about the ethical implications of all three of these influences with respect to the relationship between Christians and Jews. In 2017 Neo-Nazis and the KKK marched in support of brazen white supremacy in Charlottesville, VA, murdering Heather Heyer in the process. On the night before their rally to promote a Confederate War Memorial, they marched through the streets with burning tiki-torches chanting “Blood and soil!” and yelling “Jews will not replace us!” On October 27th, 2018, a white supremacist entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, murdering eleven people while shouting that “All Jews must die.”

According to Wesley Hill’s moving reflections on the largest anti-Semitic attack in American history, the shooter apparently had made prior use in his social media presence of John 8:44 and other passages used historically to promote Christian anti-Semitism.5 Hence, it is acutely urgent that we heed Brent Strawn’s haunting observation about the Old Testament for our contemporary context:

According to Doris L. Bergen, the Nazis were able to enjoy success among German Christian groups in part because of widespread biblical – and here one should be specific: Old Testament illiteracy. The Nazi movement succeeded, at least to some degree, among German Christians because they didn’t know their Bibles, especially their Old Testaments. Bergen has chronicled the Nazi’s systematic elimination of the Old Testament – how that began with denying the canonicity of the Old Testament and then moved censorship of liturgical elements and church hymnody. This type of censorship is nothing if not forced language death, executed (literally) within a linguistic community wherein the language is supposed to be practiced and so flourish in worship…. In the light of Marcion – both the Old and New varieties, from the secondary century to the Holocaust in the twentieth, even up to the present day – the repugnization of the Old Testament and its movement toward death become even more ominous and far more deadly…

As Fleming Rutledge has observed, “Many Christians continue, unthinkingly, to speak of ‘the God of the Old Testament’ as though this supposedly wrathful and judgmental God had been supplanted by an endlessly tolerant and indulgent Jesus. This ill-formed attitude is not exactly anti-Semitic, but it can be called into the service of Anti-Semitism.” The death of the Old Testament is one example of such anti-Semitism, but it is equally also a contributing factor to the same.6

Amidst these pitfalls, I offer the following four suggestions, the first of which will be the longest in explanation. These are by no means all the needs to be said in these regards, but are at the very least a starting point.

A Theological Account of Scripture

First, we need to reclaim a theological account of Scripture itself. Even for many Christians who love the Bible and regularly read and hear the Bible preached and taught, too many of us have an inadequate grasp of what Scripture is or why our faith has a book at all. In a past generation of evangelical Old Testament scholarship, Meredith Kline sought to draw attention to the covenantal shape of Christian faith, and hence the fittingness of having written documents as covenant testimony.7 But perhaps the most helpful step forward today is the trajectory set by John Webster, who circumscribed the doctrine of Scripture within the doctrine of Providence and Sanctification: “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence.”8

Webster’s thoroughgoing theological account of the canon as divinely determined rather than merely the product of the interpretive community means that it necessarily makes claims upon us rather than merely being another object of our mastery: “Reading Scripture is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming; and overcoming sin is the sole work of Christ and the Spirit. The once-for-all abolition and the constant checking of our perverse desire to hold the text in thrall…can only be achieved through an act which is not our own.”9 Specifically, with respect to the canon of Scripture, Webster has argued as follows:

Holy Scripture and its interpretation are elements in the domain of the Word of God. That domain is constituted by the communicative presence of the risen and ascended Son of God who governs all things. His governance includes his rule over creaturely intelligence: he is Lord and therefore teacher. In fulfillment of the eternal purpose of God the Father (Eph. 1.9, 11), and by sending the Spirit of wisdom and revelation (Eph. 1.17), the Son sheds abroad the knowledge of himself and all things in himself. He completes his saving mercies by making known to lost creatures their true end in the knowledge, love and enjoyment of God. In the domain of Christ’s rule and revelation, Holy Scripture is the embassy of the prophets and apostles.

Through their service, and quickened to intelligent and obedient learning by the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints is instructed by the living Christ. And so in terms of their occupancy of and function in this domain – in the economy of grace and revelation – that we are to consider the nature of Scripture and what may fittingly be expected of those who hear it in faith.10

Hence, Webster’s incisive essay on “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon” charts a course for us as follows:

… a prudent theology will treat questions concerning the nature and interpretation of Scripture indirectly, that is, as corollaries of more primary theological teaching about the relation of God and creatures: this, because Scripture is (for example) part of God’s providential supplying of the life of the church, and we will remain unclear about Scripture as long as we are unclear about God, providence and church. Indeed, part of the strain evident in some modern conceptions of Scripture and hermeneutics originates in their unhappy alienation from their proper doctrinal habitat: uprooted, they find themselves exposed, lacking the resources afforded by a larger theological and spiritual environment, and so unable to flourish….

Accounts of Scripture and its interpretation which are governed by a theology of the divine economy were the common currency of the premodern church, but remain at the margins of some dominant tendencies in contemporary theological work… however, we ought not to approach these matters as if we found ourselves at a point of particularly acute declension in the history of theology and exegesis. This, because theology takes place in the domain of the Word of God, and in that domain the living Christ rules. He is not defeated by theological reason’s defection. Theological and hermeneutical work is enclosed by the promise of Christ’s instruction.

It is a principle of Augustine’s hermeneutics that God, ‘being asked, gives understanding, who gave his Word unasked…  In crude, shorthand terms, the mislocation occurs when the Christian theology of Scripture is transplanted out of its proper soil – essentially, the saving economy of the triune God – and is made to do duty as a foundational doctrine. Scripture, and therefore the canon, share the same fate as the doctrine of revelation. Instead of being a consequential doctrine (consequential, that is, upon logically prior teaching about the provenience of God in God’s dealings with creation), it shifts to becoming a relatively isolated piece of epistemological teaching.

This process shifts the location of the doctrine, forcing it to migrate to the beginning of the dogmatic corpus and to take is place alongside, for example, philosophical arguments for the existence of God. And the process also modifies its content, as it becomes largely disconnected from its setting in trinitarian, pneumatological and ecclesial doctrine…. My suggestion, then, is that, if the canon is not to be seen as (at best) an arbitrary or accidental factor in Christian religious history or (at worst) an instrument of political wickedness, it requires careful dogmatic articulation. At the very least, this will involve appeal to a variety of doctrinal materials: an account of revelation as the self-communicative presence of the triune God; an account of the mediation of that self-communication through creaturely forms and activities (‘means of grace’), including texts, which are annexed and sanctified by God; an account of the church, in particular, the doctrinal specification of the process of ‘canonization’; and an account of the sanctified or faithful reader of the canon.

The account which follows is frankly dogmatic. It assumes the truth of the church’s confession of the gospel, regarding that confession as a point from which we move rather than a point towards which we proceed. Readers disposed to anxiety about the viability of such an exercise will find little here to still their hearts. Theologia non est habitus demonstrativus, sed exhibitivus. In the matter of the canon we are in the sphere of dogmatics: of faith, church, creed, prayer, holiness.11

This is carried out by Webster as follows: “canonization… is to be understood in terms of the church’s character as assembly around the self-bestowing presence of the risen Christ”; “second… if the church’s speech is governed by the self-communicative presence of Christ, the church’s acts of judgment (its ‘decisions’) are governed by the Holy Spirit who animates the church and enables its perception of the truth.”

Hence, this act of compliant judgment has four aspects:

  • “first, the church’s judgment is an act of confession of that which precedes and imposes itself on the church (that is, the viva vox Jesu Christi mediated through the apostolic testimony) and which evokes a Spirit-guided assent”;
  • “second, this act of confession, the church’s judgment with respect to the canon, is an act of submission before it is an act of authority”;
  • “third, as an act of confession and submission, the act of canonization has a backward reference. Through it, the church affirms that all truthful speech in the church can proceed only from the prior apostolic testimony”;
  • “fourth, as an act of confession, submission and retrospection, the church’s judgment with respect to the canon is its pledging of itself to be carried by this norm in all its actions.”

In sum, by locating the doctrine of Scripture and specifically the canon within the domain of God and his sanctifying relations with creatures, we can have a framework for avoiding some of the pitfalls of various forms of academic and popular Marcionism.

This is not to ignore the many difficulties in understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testament, nor is this to pretend that there are not many episodes in the Old Testament that at least on the surface or in their depths are cringe-inducing to contemporary North Americans, which can be addressed in more or less helpful ways pastorally.12 But it does provide the theological infrastructure necessary for constructive reflection on these questions.

Relating the Interpretation of Scripture to Love of Neighbor

Second, we need to axiomatically prioritize an interpretive principle from St. Augustine. With respect to interpreting Scripture, Augustine famously concluded: “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”13

A totalizing demand of any genuinely Christian interpretation must be regard for one’s neighbor. Although our age is by no means unique, ours is a world normalized to dehumanizing rhetoric, specifically which denigrates the dignity of persons or groups of persons in public discourse. The radical, occasionally bizarre-sounding conviction that every person is created in the image of God with dignity, value, worth and purpose regardless of their age, ethnicity, race, gender, class, orientation, criminal background, disabilities, or any other demographics requires that we must pay sensitive attention to the effects, and not only the intentions, of our interpretations of Scripture.

Although we should be cautious of how our arbitrary desires and sinful impulses towards expediency can unhelpfully pre-determine our conclusions, we can nonetheless love our neighbors by paying attention to how our use of Holy Writ affects our neighbor. Our ability to empathize by imaginatively placing ourselves in the position of another can be a powerful ally towards this end, and regular immersion in novels and poetry, particularly from personally unfamiliar cultures, can be an effective moral exercise towards this end.

How would someone who is Jewish hear our sermons when we mention ‘the Jews’ in John’s gospel? Or, how are our non-Jewish listeners trained to think about Jews from our teachings on Galatians? While the mere confession that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah will necessarily give offense to someone who doesn’t believe that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, it is more urgent than ever that we are proactively concerned not to demonize a Jewish other while commending the gospel.

Amongst Pauline studies, the Paul Within Judaism movement of the last few decades has not necessarily been interested in creating readings of Paul that comport with traditional Christian doctrine.14 But Paul’s Jewishness has by now become indisputable, such as the testimony of Acts that Paul the Jew continued to “walk, keeping the law” as a follower of Jesus (Acts 21:24). That this was the case for Paul the Jew, emissary of Israel’s Messiah who is the Jew Jesus of Nazareth, should make us particularly aware of how caricatures of Jews and Judaism have historically and contemporarily pervaded Protestantism, stereotypes that can easily lend themselves to Anti-Semitism.

Understand the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments

Third, we need to reaffirm or rearticulate how the Old and New Testaments are related. Jesus is not the fulfillment of Israel’s story such that Israel’s story is now obsolete because of God’s new action, nor because a new God has acted to supersede Israel with the Church as a ‘New Israel.’ Rather, Jesus of Nazareth’s particular history as Israel’s Messiah is the fulfillment of Israel’s story in his own person through his incarnation, appearance, kingdom-inaugurating words and deeds, crucifixion, death,  resurrection, ascension, present rule, and intercession.

In other words, there would be no gospel and no Christian hope without Israel, through whom the one God freely determined to bind Godself in covenant relation. The Messiah, who gifts the Holy Spirit to gentiles for adoption as sons and daughters of Abraham, makes us co-participants as gentiles in the cosmos-renewing story of Israel’s God. Paul indicates that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4) and that events in the Old Testament such as the wilderness testing “happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Hence, those who are ‘in Christ’ become re-readers of Israel’s Scriptures in light of Christ’s death and resurrection at the end of the ages. Those who are co-crucified with the Messiah, who are indwelt with the Spirit of the Father who raised Jesus from the dead, are the community that continues to listen for the Spirit’s address in the instruction, narratives, promises, laments, praises, poetry, wisdom, and prophetic testimony of Israel’s Scriptures through which the Holy Spirit continues to speak (cf. Hebrews 3:7; Revelation 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22). We not only must appreciate that all the Scriptures testify to the Messiah’s death and resurrection and the preaching of repentance to the nations (Luke 24:44–49), and we must not only appreciate that Paul continues to read the Old Testament as instruction for the church who is in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 5–10), but we also need some coherent account of Holy Scripture as a collection, with harmonious voices nevertheless distinctively testifying to listeners about God and the things of God.

One of the most recent efforts in this regard is in the work of Chris Seitz, who has chosen to use the term “Elder Testament” for his project rather than “Old Testament” for the following reason:

“Elder Testament” was chosen as a term of reference to avoid the sense of an “old witness” being now improved upon in some essentially chronological sense, moving as first episodes toward a more significant finale the put them in a fresh and appropriate shade, itself to be called the New Testament. We have sought to slow down that movement by paying attention to the way the First and Only Testament did its proper work in the early church and also to interrogate it altogether.

The problem with an historicizing of the first witness was both its failure to attend to the canonical sense toward which it gives account for its theological ontology and its tendency to “honor” the first witness by distancing it from claims being made about its crucial role as Christian Scripture. Our hope is that the conceptual lens on the Elder Testament has been widened so that as canon it may properly speak of One God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.15

Immersing Ourselves in the Old Testament

Last, theologically framing the canon, aiming to love God and every neighbor, and listening to the symphony of the canon’s particular voices, we need to immerse ourselves in Israel’s Scriptures in our preaching, teaching, and Bible reading. Arguably there is no better first step than to slowly, prayerfully, deeply read Psalm 119. Pause. Meditate. Read it aloud in its entirety with friends or family. Pray for the Spirit of God to stir up within your listening community a hunger and thirst for God’s instruction sweeter than honey, the torah more precious than silver or gold; the Logos of God.

The Old Testament is not a safe book, but it is good because the God who reveals himself therein is good and his steadfast love endures forever (cf, Psalm 136). Christians East and West have confessed as much since Nicaea, that “we believe in one God, the Father Almighty… and in one Lord, Jesus Christ… and in the Holy Spirit… who together with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.”

Joshua Heavin lives in Dallas, Texas and is a Phd Candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen.

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