As part of the release of The Foolishness of God, we are running a series of articles by J. Brandon Meeks.
The Old Testament is dying. Or so says Brent Strawn. I tend to agree with his diagnosis. In many of our parishes, it is already time for a toe-tag. Someone said to me recently, “I prefer reading the New Testament. I am not a big fan of the other.” To be clear, by the “other,” she meant most of the Bible.
This person was not a member of a progressive congregation priding itself in radical views and heterodoxy. She was a member of one of our parishes. Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson reminds us that our practice influences heart doctrine since we intuit the Faith through ritual action. He writes, “The churches most faithful to Scripture are not those that legislate the most honorific propositions about Scripture, or even those that most diligently scrutinize proposed theologoumena for their concordance with it, but those that most often and thoughtfully actually read and hear it.” This is one of the chief strengths of lectionary preaching. The cornerstone of the lectionary is not the church year, it is the canon. The best kind of lectionary exposition derives from the confidence that the words of God are life and light, and that the various passages speak with the same, untrammeled voice. Just so, learning to preach from all parts of the lectionary is an act of faithful listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Unfortunately, this happens on rare occasion. Even though our lectionaries require regular readings from the entire Bible, the Old Testament spends little time in the spotlight. Despite the fact that the Old Testament makes up 75% of the Christian Bible, it is only the subject of about 20% of Christian sermons. We treat Israel’s Scripture as though it were the Word of God Emeritus, forcibly retired from active duty, teetering around some country club in Palm Springs as it slips further into obscurity. It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that Heaven could look upon us and say, “Moses my servant is dead. The kings have gathered unto their fathers. And these are they which have killed the prophets.”
Historically, we have been a people shaped by the Word. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments functioned as the lifeblood of our liturgical tradition. The Book of Common Prayer, the backbone of Anglican piety, has been received as the Bible transposed into the music of the soul for every Christian to sing. Thomas Cranmer was interested in getting the common people into the Word, and getting the uncommon Word into the people. Bishop John Howe said of Cranmer’s scripturally-focused legacy, “In a stroke, he made the Church of England the greatest Bible-reading church in the world. Nowhere else is the Bible read so regularly, so comprehensively, and at such length as in the public worship of the Anglican Communion.”
Such an emphasis is evident when one considers the sublime language with which the Archbishop spoke of Holy Writ:
In the Scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul; therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing; they be the very dainty and pure feeding. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he should learn. He that is a perverse sinner, shall there find his damnation to make him to tremble for fear. He that laboureth to serve God, shall find there his glory, and the promissions of eternal life, exhorting him more diligently to labour.
For St James, the Word of God is a mirror that has the ability to do more than expose our blemishes—it can cleanse them as well (James 1:22-25). Following the inspired writer, many of the venerable worthies whose mantles we wear have paid significant attention to the transformative capacity of Scripture. Richard Hooker, for instance, uses this image to speak of the two testaments which develop “many histories to serve as looking-glasses to behold the mercy, the truth, the righteousness of God towards all that faithfully serve, obey and honour him.”
A generation later, George Herbert takes up the image again in the first of his sonnets on “The Holy Scriptures.” “Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glasse, / That mends the lookers eyes: this is the well / That washes what it shows.” Here, Herbert pretends to be appealing the feminine desire for physical beauty. But closer reflection reveals that he is speaking of a comeliness of soul that goes well beyond skin deep. As we look into the pages of the Bible, we see what our renewed selves might resemble. Beholding as through a glass the glory of the Lord, we catch a sight of Christ. And this look is a transfiguring gaze. We are changed “into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). This occurs as we see our reflection in the water at the bottom of Scripture’s well and discover that this water will wash away our blemishes. In the second of the two sonnets on the subject, Herbert describes something of the process by which this takes place. Scripture here is like the sky bedecked with stars and it falls to us to discern the shape of the constellations: “Seeing not only how each verse doth shine / But all the constellations of the storie.” The Poet draws our attention to the unity of the Scripture, despite its various parts. The law points to the prophets, and the prophets to a new creation. The Old Covenant unfolds itself into the New, and fresh vistas of redemptive insight are opened to our view. “This verse marks that / and both do make a motion/ Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:/ Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion, /These three make up some Christians destinie.” By knowing the Scriptures we come to have a truer knowledge of ourselves. Our lives become illustrations of what is printed on the sacred pages. We become “living epistles, known and read of all men” (2 cor. 3:2). “Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good, / And comments on thee; for in ev’ry thing / Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring, / And in another make me understood.’ It is through imbibing the full sweep of the biblical narrative that we encounter the God who is made present to us in the continuation of the story. And in that encounter we become a living commentary on the text. Through meeting God in history—a history shared with saints and sages and crooks and scoundrels—our lives become the gospel lived. However, if we do not live into the entirety of the biblical revelation it becomes impossible for us to live it out.
By our near exclusion of the Old Testament, we run the risk of creating congregations full of functional Marcionites. That is, men and women who assent to Article VII but deny it in practice. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Therefore, it is incumbent that we recover our tradition’s full-orbed focus on the totality of Holy Scripture by emphasizing that which is too often neglected.
Besides the incredibly rich patrimony we have received from the English tradition (as indicated above by these few historical witnesses), allow me suggest three biblical reasons, and five theological reasons for regularly preaching and teaching the Old Testament.
First, we should give attention to the Old Testament Scriptures because they are the Scriptures. When the Lord Jesus, or the Evangelists, or the Apostles spoke of “the Scriptures,” they were referencing the Old Testament. The Tanakh is the original “Word from the Lord.” To give short shrift to Israel’s Scriptures is to give little reverence to Israel’s God. St. Peter reminds us that he was present on the mountain when our Lord was transfigured. He heard the voice from heaven, saw the strange messengers, and was amazed by the majesty of the event. But when writing to Christians he was quick to say that the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures was a “more sure word of prophecy” than anything he might be able to recall of that experience with his own unaided memory. Verily, “ the prophecy [the Old Testament Scriptures] came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:16-21). Hear what Austin Farrer, whom Rowan Williams called the greatest Anglican philosopher and theologian of his time, says,
Why do I read the Old Testament? Because it is the spiritual inheritance Christ received, it is what he filled his mind with,…it is the body of doctrine which he took over and transformed. So whenever I am reading the Old Testament, I am asking, “What does this mean when it is transformed in Christ?” and whenever I am reading the New Testament I am asking, “How does this set forth Christ to us?
Second, the Old Testament gives us Christ. When speaking to the pharisees, Jesus told them, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). Again, during the first Eastertide, our Lord walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and gave them a crash course in biblical theology: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). I suggest that “beginning at Moses” is a wonderful way to go about the enterprise of explaining the person of Jesus if one is interested in a comprehensive and holistic approach. Martin Luther was of the same mind,
There are some who have little regard for the Old Testament. They think of it as a book that was given to the Jewish people only and is not out of date, containing only stories of past times…But Christ says in John 5, “Search the Scriptures, for it is they that bear witness of me”…[T]he Scriptures of the old Testament are not to be despised but diligently read…Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies…Simple and lowly these swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.
Third, the Old Testament Scriptures were written for us. The Apostle Peter said of Israel’s prophets, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you” (1 Peter 1:12). Their writings were, at once, the object of angelic fascination and prophetic anticipation so that they might be for us the subject of proleptic fascination.
St. Paul was equally convinced that the Old Testament penmen wrote for New Testament believers, living on the victory side of the grave. “For 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; 4:23–24). “Now these things happened to [Israel] as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 1:11).
Now we turn briefly to a handful of theological considerations. What is at stake? What do we lose with the death of the Old Testament?
First, we lose the fullest revelation of the fact that we do not live in a closed system. In the early accounts of creation we learn that the earth in its universe is subject to a God who is the Maker and Sustainer of all created things, whether visible or invisible. This God stands over and above all as Sovereign ruler. Indeed, it is the God who reigns in splendor and majesty, omnipotent over chaos, ordering the course of history, guarding and guiding his people, remembering his covenants, keeping his oaths, that the New Testament presupposes.
Second, we lose the clearest expression of what it means to be human. Atheism would reduce us to biology, nothing but chemical compounds and gears and synapses. Bipedal skin-sacks filled mostly with water. The wisdom of the world maintains that we are sentient creatures who have evolved just a little higher than the animals. But the Old Testament declares that we are creatures made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor. It is in the Old Testament Scriptures that we come to know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, fashioned uniquely in his image, given dominion over the earth, and told that it is not good that we be alone. Above all, it is in the Old Testament that we learn that humanity was formed to participate in the life of God, that we were created for fellowship with God, and that it is futile to try to understand what it means to be human apart from this relationship. This is the concept of human nature that is assumed in the New Testament.
Third, we lose the knowledge of the holy. It is the Old Testament that develops the portrait of God as radically “other than” his creation. We meet him with bare feet with Moses on the backside of the Midian Desert. We hide our faces from the lightning flashes of Sinai. We tremble in the dust beside Uzzah’s fallen corpse. We stammer with Isaiah as we hear the seraphic song and taste the flaming coals. It is this burning holiness, this utter transcendence that makes his immanence shine with the glory of grace. It is in the Old Testament that we learn that God is not a part of his creation, nevertheless he is not willing to be apart from it. That he is the God who is not one of us yet deigns to be with us is the glorious truth that assumed in the New Testament.
Fourth, we lose the identity of Jesus Christ. Who is this new figure who walks the familiar paths of the Judean hillsides? Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? Who is this man they call the Christ? The New Testament writers knew him to be the seed of Abraham and great David’s Greater Son. He was the fulfillment of their hopes, the answer to their father’s prayers, the end of the law, and the beginning of the new creation. To say, “Jesus Christ” is to invoke an entire Old Testament theology. The explication of his name alone requires an understanding of every book from Genesis to Malachi. There is no knowing who Jesus is apart from the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes the identity of the Messiah.
Fifth, we lose the mystery of the Church and our place within it. What is the Church? Of course it is the Body of Christ, but that metaphor alone doesn’t exhaust the scope of what it means to be the people of God. The Church is the dwelling place of God in the Spirit, the ”household of God” (Eph. 2:19). It is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” with Christ as Isaiah’s foretold cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). In Galatians, St. Paul calls the followers of Christ “the Israel of God” (6:16), the true children of Abraham (3:7), who have become the inheritors of the promise to the patriarchs (3:8, 29). The Church is now “the true circumcision” (Phil. 3:3), the new people of Yahweh envisioned by Hosea, the saved remnant foreseen by Isaiah (Rom. 9:25-27). We wild branches have now been grafted into the root of Israel (Rom. 11:17-20). We have become members of the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:12). All of this is so much gibberish if we are not a people conversant in the language of the Old Testament.
In short, if we do not know the Old Testament, then we can not really know the New Testament. If we do not preach the Old Testament, then we cannot faithfully proclaim the New Covenant. We have been tasked with proclaiming the “whole counsel of God,” so we cannot settle for puttering around the edges.
Let us remember that the Bible’s story is one story. It concerns the promises of God, and it is held together by the faithfulness of the God who cannot lie. Christians not only inherit this story by being baptized into the body of Christ as adopted children of God and therefore as historical heirs of the promise (Gal. 4:47), but also by the faith of the Church as that story is made our story every step along the way. The promises to Israel have become, through Christ, promises now made also to us, and so, by extension, every word to Israel is now the Word of God to us. There we are, writ large, upon every page of sacred Scripture, with God at each turn pouring out that judgment that is alien to his love (Isa. 28:21) and showering us with his saving mercy upon us. Our names are etched into the ongoing history of the work of God in the world, and it is that history that establishes our lives in the community of God’s people. It brings us into covenant relation with the living God and thus tells us who and whose we are. Such a relationship furnishes us with the power to live in love with God and neighbor. It gives us sufficient meat for the pilgrimage toward the final triumph of God’s rule, when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas.
- Brent A. Strawn The Old Testament is Dying (Ada: Baker Academic, 2017). ↑
- Robert W. Jenson “The Religious Power of Scripture,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 52, No. 1, (1999): 90. ↑
- Herbert Mayer reports, “Fewer than 20 percent of the sermons average church members hear are based on an Old Testament text. ↑
- John W. Howe and Sam C. Pascoe, Our Anglican Heritage (Eugene: Cascade, 2010), 18. ↑
- Thomas Cranmer, Preface to the Great Bible ↑
- Richard Hooker, Laws (I. 14.3). ↑
- “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral” Article VII, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. ↑
- Rowan Williams Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 661. ↑
- Martin Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 235-36.↑