Does the Old Testament even matter anymore?
Naturally, the immediate response is, “yes, of course!” Intellectually there is no question that the Old Testament still matters, but practically is the answer the same? If we use the church as our source of perspective to answer this question, it seems that the Old Testament does not practically matter anymore. The Old Testament has become like the Hobbit movies to the Lord of the Rings, no one really wants to watch them but they set up the real story (maybe, I haven’t actually watch any of them after the abomination that was the first Hobbit movie).
Brent Strawn recently published a book entitled, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment. In this book he argues that the Old Testament, and knowledge of it, are like a language that has fallen out of usage and is slowly dying. He performs a survey and discovers that only 66% of Christians across the theological spectrum know the name of the first book of the Bible (Genesis), 57% know that the golden rule is not one of the ten commandments (the rest need to come to this small group), and only 41% know who Job is. He then analyzes several collections of sermons by prominent preaches and discovers that the ratio of sermons based on New Testament texts to sermons based on Old Testament texts is at best 2:1. We hope and pray that it will be better for us who use the lectionary, but Strawn discovers that 7 books in the Old Testament are never used in the lectionary and 13 books only appear once in the three year cycle. The Old Testament is not read as often or preached from as often and the congregation is then less familiar with it.
“The Old Testament still matters! (but we are going to avoid it as much as possible)”
We must ask, why does the church avoid the Old Testament, with the recognition that this is most likely not done intentionally but instead subconsciously? I think the aversion to Old Testament can be simplified into three categories or misunderstandings.
- The Old Testament is boring. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are a genealogy. Is there really anything more to say about this one?
- The God of the Old Testament (I hate that phrase) is a violent, vindictive God. The story of Noah is about God drowning every single living being because he is angry about their sin. In the book of Joshua he commands the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child living in the land of Canaan, so that the Israelites can live there instead.
- There is a disconnect between Israel and the Church. We hear phrases like “We are under grace, not under the Law” (despite Jesus’ own statements on the law) and if the law is the Old Testament then we don’t need it. Also, we are not ethnically Jewish so Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not really our ancestors so the vision of our religious history narrows to the first century and onward.
To overcome these aversions we need to have a fuller understanding of the implications of a rejection the Old Testament. If we don’t have the Old Testament then we don’t have any framework for understanding:
- Eschatology (An understanding of the end times. The book of Revelation is deeply indebted to the book of Daniel, not the lion’s den but the wierd stuff that comes after)
- Everything Jesus talked about.
If we don’t have the Old Testament then we don’t really have a complete picture of the story of the New Testament. The Old Testament is the first and second acts of a play in which the New Testament is the third act. The contents of the Old Testament are a vital part of the biblical story as well as setting the context for the New Testament. The Old Testament tells the story of God and humanity through the nation of Israel which reaches its climactic moment in the life of Jesus, but Jesus’ life does not make any sense without the story of the Old Testament. Jesus fulfils and expectation but we don’t know what that expectation is without the story of Israel.
It is necessary to take the Old Testament seriously but that means we then have to take seriously what is contained within it, which includes the law. The law is one of the passages that either seems so boring and outdated that we struggle to care what it says or what it means for us today. Or the law is a tool of vindictive and selective interpretation. The law is used to say this particular action that you are doing is bad but the parts about stoning our children to death clearly don’t apply any more (and the part about shellfish because shrimp is tasty and the prohibition against touching pig skin because football).
So how then can we take the law seriously, understand it within its ancient context, and then faithfully apply it to Christian life today? That is the topic for next week! We hope you can join us.
We meet Wednesdays, 6:30-8pm at North in Meeting Room 1. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org