In the most recent entry in this blog, I reacted to Brent Strawn’s, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by offering reflections concerning factors that may contribute to the phenomenon Strawn describes. This second entry on the subject will examine some of the dangers for believers and for the church inherent in neglecting the Old Testament.
In ways that far surpass the New Testament’s capacities, the Old Testament deals honestly with the breadth and depth of human existence in God’s good world. It celebrates fidelity in relationship (Ruth) and the wondrous gift of human sexuality (Song of Songs). Its leading figures model ingenuity and the willingness to assume responsibility in time of crisis (Joseph, Esther). Yet, the OT does not lionize. Jacob is a cheat and David a scoundrel, at best, and more accurately a criminal. Christians, from the earliest period of the church, have often turned away from this nitty-gritty honesty, looking, instead, for “spiritual” truth in the OT. Although spiritual readings of the OT employing allegory and typology have enabled interpreters to find in its pages confirmation of the major Christian doctrines such readings threaten to rob the OT of its earthy truths. Christianity loses something important when it neglects the accounts of ancient Israel’s successes and failures in its effort to negotiate the challenges of the real world.
In this regard, deep familiarity with the nitty-gritty Old Testament can be an antidote to the ephemeral spiritualism that fails to recognize the importance of faithful living in the world God has given us. The biblical theme of redemption presupposes the biblical assertion that God created a good world. The biblical God intends to redeem that creation, not to abandon it. When people increasingly understand faith and spirituality as private, internal, “other-worldly” matters, the Old Testament asserts the kinship between humanity and the rest of the created order. God created humankind from the clay of the earth and “animated” them to become “living creatures” just as the fish in the sea and the birds in the air are “living creatures.” God created humankind male and female to live in relationship. God commissioned humankind first, not to seek to attain heaven by abandoning the material world, but to manage the created order and to fill it with life. I sometimes wonder why people think that God will entrust them with life in the age to come when they have not appreciated the wonderful life God has given them to live in this world.
Another component of the Old Testament’s down-to-earth character involves its preference for narrative. It tells a long story from the time when God began creating the world, to the call of Israel’s ancestors, the Egyptian sojourn, the Exodus, and all the way to the return of the Exiles and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. It constitutes a trove of testimony to Israel’s experience of God in relationship. Understood properly, its longitudinal depiction establishes a “trajectory” tracing God’s engagement with God’s people through time. In this way, familiarity with the Old Testament remedies the tunnel vision that ignores the lessons of the past and that encourages a-historical individualism. This generation of the faithful did not discover or invent its faith; instead, God calls upon this generation to find its place in the story that began when God called forth light to shine in the darkness.
One of the most significant features of the Old Testament from the perspective of the course of a believer’s life involves the resources it offers for negotiating the difficult times that will surely come to all. Joseph in prison and Job on the ash heap offer models of endurance and faithfulness in crisis. The Psalter provides models of prayer in such times in the form of the so-called “psalms of lament.” Ecclesiastes explores doubt as a component of faith (“I believe, help my unbelief”). Cumulatively, passages such as these affirm that there is no shame in struggling for faith when circumstances make faith difficult. Indeed, they demonstrate how to do so.
To use theological language, the Old Testament stands ready to correct any view of Christian faith that focuses over-much on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) to the neglect of the doctrines of creation, God, anthropology (who are human beings before God), ecclesiology (who are the people of God), and ethics. Although it is a mischaracterization to do so, Christians seem to find it easy to read the New Testament as though its only concern were “personal salvation.” Of course, this misreading reflects the egocentrism and hubris constitutive of the original sin. Its focus on self prohibits one from properly emphasizing God and neighbor. It nurtures the false grace/law//faith/works dichotomy discussed in last week’s blog. It encourages withdrawal and interiority. Salvation understood strictly in terms of the status of one bound for heaven, leaves no room for sanctification, to use theological jargon again. The Bible calls us to love justice, to do mercy, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to hunger for rightness. This unity of soteriology and ethics, if you will, has deep and firm roots in the Old Testament covenant and prophetic traditions that, according to his testimony, Jesus came to actualize. Disturbingly, however, the notion that salvation is a status concerned only with eternity leads many to a variety of libertinism: since my behaviors do not impinge upon my eternal destiny (I am “saved,” after all), I am free to do as I wish. The Old Testament stands with Bonhoeffer to condemn this “cheap grace.” God does not call people to privilege, but to responsibility.
Finally, of course, without the Old Testament there would be no New Testament. The authors of the New Testament knew the Old well. They quote it, interpret it, and assume it as the basis. To read the New Testament without a solid understanding of the Old Testament is like studying calculus with no grounding in algebra.
There can be no stream without a source. Streams are useless unless we drink deeply from them.