30 May 2019

The “Old Testament,” Why it Matters: Reflections on a Thirty-One Year Journey of Discovery

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Bobby's World, Discipleship, Hebrews, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Journey, Patternism, Restoration History

The New Testament is the first Old Testament theology” – Christopher J. H. Wright

Statements from Years in Ministry

“Why are we studying this? That’s the Old Testament, we are New Testament Christians.” “The Old Testament was nailed to the cross.” “Thank God he killed that legalism.” “It is a shame, Bobby, that Psalms is in the Old Testament, there are some good things there.” And many more.

Conversely, I have received these statements. “That is the first sermon I ever heard on Genesis in my 60 years as a Christian.” “I never knew so much of the ‘Hebrew Bible’ is in the New Testament.” “Bobby you have my entire perspective not only of the Old Testament but of the New.” “I never understood why we ignore the Old Testament.” “I’m so grateful I see God’s love so clearly now, thank God you have taught me the Psalms.” etc, etc.

These actual statements made to me over the years illustrate both where we often have been and where I think we need to be. What we think and believe about the Hebrew Bible has a profound impact upon who we think Jesus is, what he did and what we as the church are supposed to be. In my view the stakes are extremely high.

Transition to a Holistic Biblical Paradigm

I have talked about the Hebrew Bible many times and its necessity for anything called Christian faith and practice. I have stated that I grew up in a fellowship that has a “love-hate” relationship with the “OT.” I did learn some basic OT stories in VBS but rarely did I hear a sermon. But it remains a fact that for the most part, the “Old Testament” was simply irrelevant to faith and practice as a Christian. We drove a deep and wide wedge between the two Testaments almost as if they told a story of two different Gods.

If you desire more see my series written eleven years ago “Marcionism & Churches of Christ” back in 2008. The first one is linked in the previous title.

Today there are popular voices that assert the same thing and do so loudly. Some of those voices are in Churches of Christ and some outside.

But this trend, in my view, cuts against the positive movement forward within “Restoration” theology for the last thirty or so years. Perhaps this is a personal story but maybe it is more.

I first became aware that the “Old Testament” was not a bunch of legalism through a book I read in 1988 by Samuel J. Schultz called The Gospel According to Moses. It was on Deuteronomy. It was a small book and now probably simplistic. But it rocked my naïve world. I had no idea that Deuteronomy was so filled with love, joy, and grace. I had no clue Deuteronomy exercised such a huge influence on the rest of Scripture. I had no idea that Jesus was incredibly shaped by Deuteronomy and lived in it during his trial in the wilderness. Every answer to Satan is taken from Deuteronomy. I have been hooked ever since. In 2006 I wrote one of my earliest blog series called Deuteronomy, the Gospel of Love. Studying Deuteronomy can cause serious conflict with our assumptions over what Paul is doing in Galatians and Romans. Since World War II there has been nothing short of a revolution in understanding the Hebrew Bible which also provided the fodder for much of what is now called “the New Perspective on Paul.” See article “The New or Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament” from 2017. This was the first chink in the dispensational heremeneutic I grew up with (I did not know it was called dispensationalism then).

Also in 1988, I was also introduced to a book by Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen and Michael Weed called The Worldly Church. I previously knew nothing of my heritage, this was a wake up call. As I recall Jim Martin required us to read the book in a class. At any rate, I became aware of an ongoing discussion about hermeneutics within Churches of Christ that had been going on, at some level, since the 1960s. That is how I got connected Thomas H. Olbricht. Olbricht had argued that the biggest hermeneutical issue originally with “us” was not CENI but “dispensationalism.” That is the distinction between the covenants, i.e. separating the “Old Testament” from the “New Testament.” This attempt to “rightly divide” the Testaments dominated most of our historical discussions on how to interpret the Bible. One reads in vain to find Alexander Campbell suggesting that authority established via commands, examples, and necessary inferences.

Due to Alexander Campbell’s influence (or a misunderstanding of what he said), the Old Testament became a secondary at best and simply inconsequential to faith and practice for many. Olbricht, and a number of others, led the charge that the Old Testament was necessary for genuine biblical theology. Yes necessary. So, Olbricht published works aimed at the church like “He Loves Forever: The Enduring Message of the Old Testament” (a fantastic little book) and others. The Old Testament provided the structure and thought world for the writings of the New Testament. The Old Testament is the “container” for the teaching of the New.

Again in 1988, I took a class with Stephen Broyles called “Introduction to Exegesis.” Among the things we studied was how the NT and OT relate. We read a chapter in a book edited by Howard Marshall called New Testament Interpretation by Earle Ellis called “How the New Testament Uses the Old.” It was a very eye opening study. How could the Old Testament be so authoritative for the apostles themselves and mean virtually nothing for us. Among the many things that were set in my mind like a ticking time bomb was the fact (it is a fact) that a full third of the NT (34%) of the very words that make up the text of the New Testament are literally the worlds of the “Old Testament.” This is just the direct quotations … one in every three words in the NT are directly from the Old Testament.

Then it was 1990, I believe, and Leonard Allen returned to the fray with an epic book called The Cruciform Church. Among other things, Allen suggested that in order to be a church that is renewed, to be a “cruciform” church we in Churches of Christ needed to “expand out canon.” By “expand” he did not mean put new books in the Bible (as Curtis Cates and others seemed to insinuate). Rather it was a call for us to embrace the whole Bible and not continue to live within our “canon within a canon” (which was parts of Acts and the epistles rearranged in a series of propositions and topics). The two biggies he noted to be incorporated into our biblical wrestling, was the Old Testament and the Gospels. The material on the Hebrew Bible in Cruciform Church was outstanding (there is now an updated edition btw). It seemed like we were heading in the right direction.

A few years later, 1993, I enrolled in my very first graduate class at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis. It was a week long short course. There were seven textbooks and a spiral bound book called “Readings in Restoration Hermeneutics” that contained hundreds, and hundreds, of double column pages of Xeroxed articles … there was a test the first day of class on the reading! The teacher of Theological Hermeneutics was Dr. John Mark Hicks, now at Lipscomb University. Now we dove in the Marianas Trench, and we read everything, not just from restoration writers but the wider academic world.

I soon discovered that “dispensationalism” may look nice on sheet sermons and debates but it hardly does justice to the Story of God in Scripture. I discovered that contemporary preachers among us often “Out Campbelled” Alexander Campbell, because AC simply would not go along with the chunking of the Hebrew Bible from a normative status in Christian doctrine. Campbell did not do such a thing, he simply limited its use regarding a church PRACTICE. But AC believed strongly that the OT was essential for actual Christian theology … including NT theology. It seemed like we were going in the right direction.

By 1996, I read my first N. T. Wright book of significance, the New Testament and the People of God. By this time I had, for all intents and purposes, rejected several cardinal tenants:

– Dispensationalism
– that the law taught that Jews were saved by works
– that the Hebrew Bible was “carnal”
– that the Hebrew Bible had been nailed to the cross
– that the Hebrew Bible was not “spiritual” and all that other bunk.

By this time I had Gerhard von Rad, G. Ernest Wright, Elizabeth Achtemeier, Walter Bruggemann, John Bright, Marvin Wilson running through my veins (and Eugene Peterson!). By this time I had Richard Oster (who hammered away at the presence of the “Old Testament” in Paul and Acts) who is as good an “Old Testament” scholar as a Pauline scholar, because you cannot understand Paul without the Hebrew Bible/Septuagint. The so called “Old Testament” was literally everywhere in Paul.

I have frequently said that N. T. Wright has never changed my mind on anything. This is actually quite true. Wright, however, confirmed what I was already thinking. I found Wright to be an amazing communicator of complex ideas. New Testament and the People of God opened up what Wright calls the worldview of Jesus and the early church. That worldview was rooted in, molded by, told in accordance with the faith and values of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism. Without the Hebrew Bible we easily rewrite the New Testament into whatever contemporary image we wish to unconsciously impose upon it. NTPG reveals just how profoundly Jewish the Christian scriptures are.

There are plenty, perhaps most (oh I hope not), who think this is all academic and of no material consequence. I think history shows this is not the case. N. T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God reviews the history of “Historical Jesus” research. Jesus has been turned into everything under the sun from a Teutonic warrior to a Cynic, because the Hebraic/Jewishness of the structure of Jesus’s identity and message and the early church was simply ignored. So as Susannah Heschel notes that Jesus is actually a Nazi, and “Aryan Jesus” and how that has impacted so much of 20th century biblical scholarship and even preaching and piety.

In the early 2000’s, I discovered Christopher J. H. Wright (no relation to N.T.W.). Wright’s book, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament simply should be required reading of anyone that wants to be a teacher among God’s people. But then Wright gave us The Mission of God: Unlocking the Grand Narrative. Missional theology (Bartholomew and Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story; Goheen’s, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church in the Biblical Story; Frost & Hirsch, The Shaping of things to Come; etc) promotes a healthy holistic approach to the Story of God.

There is no “mission of God” without the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus paradigm is stamped into the worldview of Scripture. It looked like we were going in the right direction.

So What!

I am on record, and I will go on record again, we cannot understand the New Testament Jesus properly without the so called Old Testament. We cannot properly understand the message without the Scriptures. Yes, I realize that many will argue with me on this. But history shows us what has happened when Jesus is divorced from the Hebrew Bible and Judaism:

1) we get Marcion

2) we get Gnostics (and there are plenty of those still running around)

3) we get the Aryan Jesus. I do not think it is wise to ignore this. Ideas have consequences, painful ones.

True we may not want to begin with the genealogies or the wars in Joshua. However, and there is a however, we need to read the New Testament well enough and honestly enough to know two facts immediately …

1) the New Testament itself begins the story of Jesus with a genealogy and

2) though we obscure the fact that Jesus is not connected to that “OT” book called Joshua, every Jew knows that Jesus’s name is not Jesus, but Joshua! Joshua did not escape the legends associated with his name anymore than a person in Alabama can whose name is Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford or Jeff Davis.

Today we have some who want to limit the Hebrew Bible. It is embarrassing to them. It is troubling, difficult or something.

The Old Testament does not proclaim what they believe their Lutheran Paul taught (and they just ignore Jesus), Lutheran Paul trumps Jesus in most classic Protestant theology. This is no surprise given our “dispensationism” and our attachment to certain forms of Protestant Evangelicalism. But for the record, Moses proclaims the love of God and the grace of God as much as Paul ever did. Exodus comes before Sinai.

“Old Testament” and “Jewish” have functioned as ciphers for old fashioned anti-Semitism. Critical scholars have long known that Judaism “taints” the New Testament. Two of the most influential NT scholars of the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann and C. H. Dodd, cast the book of Revelation aside because it was more “Jewish” than Christian. Dodd writes,

“The God of the Apocalypse can hardly be recognized as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor has the fierce Messiah, whose warriors ride in blood up to their horses bridles, many traits that could recall Him of whom the primitive kerygma proclaimed.”

This statement is rooted in a grotesque view of the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant vision of a Paul who liberated Christianity from the god of wrath and his perverse dedication to ritual and legalism (in the caricature of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism).

Truth be told, John’s Apocalypse is no more “Jewish” than Paul, or better, Paul is just as Jewish as John. We have just hidden it because we denied the Hebrew Bible is the structure of his thought. Paul after all was anti-law! (tongue firmly planted in cheek).

It is not the case that the Old Testament produces anti-Semitism and Crusades as Andy Stanley recently claimed. I can hear Abraham Heschel, Amy Jill-Levine or Elie Wiesel groaning when such statements are made.

Can anyone point to a time, since Joshua, that Jews saddled up their horses and engaged in genocide or went on some crusade against anyone? No! Because the Jews read their Bible better than we did. Cherry picking Scripture is not the same thing as reading Scripture.

When Christians slaughtered Jews it was not on the basis of Joshua beloved, but the GOSPELS! “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Mt 27.25) is a text that has wrought horror through the centuries. The Nazis did not put an Old Testament “lego” on the Gospel to butcher Jews and others. They rejected the Old Testament. They rejected the Jewishness of Jesus.

In the middle of Nazi Germany, Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad bravely stood up can challenged the Germans who had sold their soul to the idol of nationalism. Now more than ever the Hebrew Scriptures needed to thunder in the pulpits in Germany because there may be many pagan paths into the New Testament but there is only one that leads to the real Jesus he said, and that is through the road called the Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible provides the contours of the worldview of Christianity. It is the fodder, it is the DNA, of Jesus. Thus: Jesus is a Jew, an Israelite

Jesus is the Son of David the King – Messiah – of the Jews. (as a Christian I simply cannot confess the Messiahship of Jesus apart from Israel)
Jesus is the result of the “OT” promise, promises made to Israel and as a Gentile I benefit from that only because Yahweh is faithful to the promise made to Israel.

Jesus has an Old Testament identity.
Jesus has an Old Testament mission
Jesus taught Old Testament values
Jesus proclaimed an Old Testament hope, the “hope of Israel.”

I love the Hebrew Bible because it has done for me precisely what Paul said it does,

ever since you were a child, you have known the holy scriptures — from these you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation …” (2 Timothy 3.15-16, Jerusalem Bible).

Note the words, “from these …”

Salvation is not dying and going to heaven. Salvation is God healing his people, his world, his cosmos. Salvation is being put back together. And this is what I have discovered in Genesis to Malachi (what Timothy knew as a child).

With few exceptions, it is the pages of the so called Old Testament that brought healing during the days of disorientation in this life. It is the pages of the Hebrew Bible that show us the way of living with justice, mercy and faithfulness. There are no “Negro spirituals” without the Hebrew Bible beloved … salvation took root among those slaves just like in the book of Exodus. And those same Scriptures enable me to hear the Messiah of the Jews who is Lord of all.

If you have read this far, thank you. This post is not really aimed at anyone. Rather it is my own testimony. I have no intention of minimizing 76% of the canon. Like Leonard Allen, I want to expand it.

That is what “salvation” is. Salvation, according to Paul, is the “hope of Israel” (Acts 28.20).

Shalom.

Leave a Reply