Sunday, December 09, 2007

How Should Christians Use the Old Testament?

When he delivered the Gray Lectures at Duke Divinity School in November 1959, the unassuming John Bright never imagined that his speeches would become a book that would remain popular for several decades to come. But they did, and with good reason.

Perhaps better than anyone else, Bright proposed and explained a Christian approach to the Old Testament that honors both the OT's position as one of the two parts of the Christian Bible and the biblical mandate to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). That's not an easy task. As Bright explains in the Preface to the book The Authority of the Old Testament, the question he takes up is one that had plagued him for many years:

"I suppose that it is inevitable that it should have: it is a problem that no teacher of Old Testament studies can forever evade. Certainly I was unable to do so. I had long found myself troubled by the fact that so few preachers--myself included, I fear--really seemed to know how to proceed with the Old Testament, or were guided in their preaching from it, if they preached from it at all, by any conscious hermeneutical principles. . . It early became clear to me that the place of Old Testament studies in the theological curriculum was not something that could be taken for granted. I was driven to the realization that if I could not present my students with some positive position with regard to the place of the Old Testament in the Bible, and provide them with some guidance in their use of it in the pulpit, they might justifiably regard all that I was trying to teach them, however interesting it might be historically, as of questionable theological and practical importance."

What exactly is the question regarding the place and authority of the Old Testament? Bright sums it up as follows:

People who affirm "that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose and will . . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings and expressions . . . to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed in the church?" (p. 18).

At some point in the course I teach on the Old Testament, I ask my students some version of Bright's question. After all, it doesn't do much good for a person to know the content of the OT if she doesn't have a good idea of how it should be used by the church (I teach students from the Bible Belt who are, almost to a one, religiously engaged).

So what would you include in a response to Bright's question?


Bob Bliss said...

Frank, I have not read Bright's book but obviously I should. I do believe that we have a number of NT passages that tell us we should be reading the OT and that it still speaks to us today. Romans 15:4, 2Timothy 3:16-17, James 2:8-13, and so forth. Plus we have the NT writers quoting OT passages at least proving that in order to preach the gospel we need to be preaching the OT as part of the story line. Most of our evangelism methods are designed to convince people that baptism is essential but fail to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of a story line that began in Genesis.

Scott J. Hafemann is editor of Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect that has some great articles about the OT and its relationship to the NT and the church. It's worth a read as well.

Keep writing.

the Pres said...

Throughout my 30 years of teaching, I've found it vitally important to have a complete understanding of the Old Testament in order to understand what Jesus was teaching to the people of His day. Jesus taught from the Old Testament because that's all there was. He was the fullfillment of all the prophesies as stated in the Old Testament scriptures. Every word happened exactly as God said it would hundreds of years before Christ. Most of Jesus' teachings were based on what the common man of that day understood.
Much of that is strange to us because our lifestyle is so different now, but the people understood Jesus' explainations because the examples were based on common knowledge. The shepards, the vine dressers, farmers, fishermen, etc. I once questioned the relevancy of the Old Testament, but after I began studing, I realized just how important it is. I truly believe there can be no complete comprehension of the New Testament without a firm understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures.

preacherman said...

Thank you brother for letting us know about this book and about your review of it. I greatly appreciate it alot. I have been remembering you in my prayer and hope that God blesses your ministry as you serve Him. God bless you brother in name of Jesus Christ. I hope you have blessed week.
In Him,
Kinney Mabry

royce said...

In reference to the OT Jesus said in John 5:39, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me."

The idea that we can fully appreciate Jesus and fully appropriate Him sans the OT is foolishness.

His peace,

Leland V said...

Frank, I believe a more unified view of The Bible would probably help in many aspects of our life in Christ. Separating the Book into an OT volume and a NT volume has introduced a somewhat artificial distinction that has resulted in a lesser importance-greater importance distinction, and binding only a NT volume into a coat-pocket book has reinforced that. I like Bob's comment that it is all part of a "story line that began in Genesis." If we truly believe in one God, then we must believe in one narrative. (Of course, one can carry this to an extreme. I don't think I will start carrying LXX so that I don't have only a Greek NT with me.)

I still appreciate your pointing me toward some of the writings of Christopher Seitz a few years ago, and his comments on the OT.