No Stream without a Source

Part I

A few days ago, an email brought to my attention a review of a new book by Emory OT professor Brent Strawn (The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment [Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017]). Strawn concludes from surveys of biblical knowledge, statistics concerning sermon texts, the structure of the lectionary, and anecdotal evidence, for example, that contemporary Christianity neglects the Old Testament and that this neglect threatens the health of the church. Although I have not conducted systematic, scientific research on the specific question and have not yet read Strawn’s book, my three decades of experience in the college and seminary classroom and observations made from the pew lead me to agree with Strawn’s thesis. Obviously, this two-part blog entry will not be a review of the book (see, however, http://religionnews.com/2017/05/18/is-the-old-testament-dying/). Instead, I will offer my reflections on the phenomenon, itself: this week its causes and next week its dangers.

Causes.  For thirty years, my students have consistently come to OT introduction courses predisposed to consider the OT inferior to the NT, if not altogether superseded and dispensable.  To begin, the names “Old” and “New” themselves suggest that the “New” has replaced the “Old.” Misperceptions bred of unfamiliarity abound, especially false dichotomies that contrast the supposed character of the contents of the OT with that of the NT, as though there were no continuity whatsoever between Israel and the Church.

  • The OT is a book of “law” and the NT of “grace,” for example. Yet, God chose Abraham, and through him, Israel, as an act of pure grace, BEFORE the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. God delivered Israel from Egypt because God remembered the PROMISE made to Abraham.  Israel did obey the law in order to BECOME God’s people, but because they already WERE God’s people.  Conversely, Jesus insists in the NT that he did not come to destroy the law, but to give it full expression (Matt 5:17).
  • Relatedly, the OT requires “works” for salvation while the NT calls for “faith.” Yet, Martin Luther came to his understanding of salvation by faith while lecturing on the book of Psalms and the NT author, James, expressed succinctly the necessity of avoiding such false dichotomies when he wrote that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
  • The God of the OT is wrathful while the Father of Jesus Christ is love itself. Yet, the love implied in this dichotomy is sentimental and saccharine. Anger at injustice or misbehavior demonstrates the very purpose of anger. To illustrate by way of analogy, a parent’s anger over children’s misdeeds is entirely compatible with parental love; indeed, it arises from and expresses parental love. Parents who tolerate misbehavior without correcting it fail their children. “When Israel was a child, I loved him…The more I called them, the more they went from me…I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love … How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger….” (Hos 11:1-9 RSV)

In addition to these misperceptions concerning the nature and character of the Old Testament, a number of social phenomenon contribute to the turn away from it.  Several observers of contemporary culture have called attention to the revolution in how people consume information currently underway. People increasingly prefer digital forms to the printed word. The web page serves as the ideal format:  graphically intense, ideas in bullet points, interactive, easily and quickly scanned.  Summary and simplicity carry greater weight that sustained argumentation and nuance. This preference for discrete bits of information manifests itself in the attraction to “bumper sticker theology” and the apparent mistrust for nuanced and sophisticated reflection on the sources of Christian belief and significance of Christian faith. Furthermore, in this age of information explosion, technological advance, and cultural change, many regard “old” as the equivalent of “irrelevant.”  What can the Old Testament, which reflects a patriarchal, agrarian, pre-technological world, possibly offer the twenty-first century?  Such attitudes undervalue ancient wisdom.  Modes of transportation may have changed drastically, but, whether on camels or in the driver’s seat, human beings still have the same hopes and fears, loves and hatreds.

Finally, it seems to me, at least, that a fundamental shift in the nature of Christianity may be in process, a shift toward a faith that would not need the Old Testament.  Three attitudes, in particular, manifest or motivate this evolution.  First, contemporary Christianity often assumes a form of piety/spirituality that exhibits significant affinity with Gnosticism. It regards Christian faith as an almost exclusively subjective matter – a personal experience. One lives one’s faith in one’s heart, not in the world.  This personal Christianity severs faith from any context in the created order. Second, and related, is the a-historical individualism that leads people to conclude that a believer can live a life of faith in isolation from a community of fellow-believers and from the tradition of faith that came before.  How can one follow Jesus Christ, truly and authentically, without maintaining contact with the apostolic tradition recorded in scripture?  What prevents private Christianity from evolving into something that Jesus would not have been able to endorse?  If individuals create their own versions of Christianity, Christianity becomes virtually polytheistic, venerating as many “Christs” as there are “Christians.” The insistence on unity of reality that constitutes a vital element of monotheism (“Hear O Israel, YHWH our God is one…” Deut 6:4) evaporates. Third, this “Christianity in isolation” reinforces the notions that the “old” has been replaced, that the “old” is irrelevant, and that the “old” is other.  It severs Christian faith from its roots.

There can be no stream without a source.