7 Dec 2007

Marcionism & Churches of Christ Or What Use REALLY is the "Old Testament?"

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History

Sometimes, I must confess, I feel like putting some disciples in Churches of Christ on the witness stand and have them place their hand on the “book” and say “I promise to believe the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book.”

We in Churches of Christ claim to hold firmly to the Bible as not only inspired but also authoritative. We demand (on most issues anyway) ‘book, chapter and verse.’ A problem frequently arises, however, when either the book, chapter or verse comes from the so-called “Old Testament.”

When we speak of the authority of the Bible what is often meant is simply the authority of the Epistles … I speak hyperbolically but it is not far from the mark in reality. Churches of Christ have denied the charge of “not believing in the Old Testament” yet on a practical level one wonders if the charge is completely amiss.

My Goal

In my next series of blogs, I want to explore two things. First I want to try to understand our hermeneutic and why and how it guts three-fifths of the Bible in shaping our self-understanding as the people of God. Second I do not want to simply be a critic rather I want to point to why the “OT” (Hebrew Bible) is essential to our faith and life in the kingdom of God. Thus I will be looking at some theological matters, deconstructing some exegetical arguments sometimes used to limit the “force” of the “OT” and I will be pointing to applications matters that hopefully some shepherds, deacons, Sunday School teachers … and some preachers will have to deal with and then robustly teach.

Not a New Concern

This matter has been a passion with me for a long time. Even in college some of my friends labeled me an “Old Testament Christian.” But the impetus for this series is none other than renowned restoration biblical scholar John William McGarvey. For most informed people in Churches of Christ McGarvey needs no introduction.

McGarvey published a small Guide to Bible Study near the end of the 19th century. The book is, in my opinion, largely useless (I know I am being harsh). The notes are lacking and unhelpful. However the book was used by McGarvey in training preachers and church leaders. It was important to JWM to pay careful attention which “dispensation” a book or text is in. McGarvey at times simply does not know what to do with the “Old Testament.” He is bewildered by some of the books. I call attention to his comments on the Song of Songs … which was the straw that broke the camel’s back for these blogs:

The Song of Songs. The title which this short poem assigns itself is, ‘The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s’ (i.1). If there is any book in the Bible which found a place in it by a mistake or misjudgment of those who put the inspired book together, it must be this; for it is so totally unlike all the rest that it is difficult to see what connection it can have with the general design of the whole. Many interpreters have affected to find in it a parabolic meaning, and even a foreshadowing of the love of the Church of Christ; while others have regarded it as nothing more than a love-song with a very obscure connection of thought. According to either view it has afforded little edification to the great majority of Bible readers; and unless some significance can be found in it hereafter which has not yet been pointed out, it will continue to be but little read, and of but little practical value.” (my italics).

This is McGarvey’s entire interpretation of the Song and it is wholly negative. But this is in line with his evaluation of the OT as a whole.

A number of thoughts come to mind as I reflect on McGarvey’s subtle Marcionism. First is that he has utterly failed to grasp the Song precisely because of the inherited Greek glasses that he reads the Bible through. The Song is an ascetic and neo-gnostic nightmare! The Song, far from being out of sync with the “general design” of the Bible, squares perfectly with a Hebraic worldview. The Song celebrates the created world as a gift of grace. It tells us that God did not make a mistake when he made human beings in the “flesh,” in fact it is GOOD to be a human. It relishes creation and specifically that part that many in the Christian tradition have founid offensive (including McGarvey). The Song echoes Edenic goodness and says that desire, even “erotic” desire is itself good and holy.  The Song is the flashpoint of how Platonic dualistic “spirituality” and biblical “Spirituality” simply are incompatible but Western Evangelical traditions are deeply invested in the Platonic view.  That is why McGarvey could not see the value of it nor in fact for much of the Hebrew Bible.

Second one wonders if McGarvey had heard of either Rabbi Akiba or Bernard of Clairvaux? The Rabbi believed that the Song was the “holy of holies” of Scripture and Bernard spent eighteen years reading, “munching,” praying, and preaching the Song … and only making it to the beginning of chapter 3. The Song is part of the Passover liturgy and it most certainly edifies those who open themselves up to the passion with with God calls us to embrace life.

There are many things more to say about the Song and I may return to them. But the Song for now has provided a brief restoration window to how “we” have reacted so negatively to a book of the Bible … even to the point of saying the “inspired” folks made a mistake in including it.

The things we can embrace when our filters refuse to allow our beliefs to be challenged. Did it ever occur to McGarvey that perhaps, just perhaps, rather than the Song being out of place it was his perceived (and prejudiced) pattern for the “design” of the Bible that was the mistake and misjudgment. I am grateful for McGarvey but I think the editors were right and he was wrong.

Let’s embrace the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book … let it rattle our cage and shatter our cherished beliefs.

My friend Frank Bellezzi has posted, this morning (Dec 7) a thoughtful piece called Rehabilitating the Old Testament that is worthy of thought.

Bobby Valentine

P.S. For those seeking a thoughtful interpretation of the Song then I recommend Carey Ellen Walsh’s Exquisite Desire: Religion, The Erotic, and the Song of Songs (Fortress Press 2000).

Walsh’s book, like the Song, is not for the faint hearted but if you want some serious insight into the Song then there are few better contemporary writers. This does not mean I endorse all of Walsh’s views … but she takes the Song seriously and it spirituality. I find it refreshing.

20 Responses to “Marcionism & Churches of Christ Or What Use REALLY is the "Old Testament?"”

  1. Gardner Hall Says:

    McGarvey’s quote is interesting. I doubt you’ll find much commentary from notables of the Restoration Movement on the Song of Songs. I’ve quoted it in lessons on marriage, usually to the accompanyment of laughter (nervous and otherwise), to emphasize the importance of romance.

    No, I doubt McGarvey had ever heard of Rabbi Aqiba or Bernard of Clairvaux and wonder how many have! Look forward to the series.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Gardner I fear you are correct about JWM. But a scholar of his stature should know who Aqiba (sometimes spelled Akiba) and Bernard were. Aqiba is one of the greatest rabbis ever to have lived ranking up there with Gamiliel. His lived from the late 1st century through the second. Bernard was one of the most influential people (period)in medieval Europe. His sermons on the Song of Songs are not expository sermons by any stretch but they are masterpieces of “meditation” and the “allegorical” method. He has some great insight into the nature of love. The Song of Songs was the most commented upon book during the “Dark Ages” so someone thought it was edifying.

    Thanks for reading.

    Bobby Valentine

  3. Frank Bellizzi Says:


    After posting something about the OT today, I came to your place and saw what you were talking about (!)

    About the Song. One time I was doing a Wednesday night lesson series on the Five Scrolls. When we got to the Song, I was explaining the Jewish and Christian tradition of allegorizing it. As an example, I projected a section from one of Bernard’s sermons.

    After the class read it, one astute guy spoke up and said, “That might not be what the passage is about, but it sure is beautiful preaching, isn’t it?” I wasn’t ready for that and had to agree. Ever since then, I’ve been a lot more open to the notion of the sensus plenior.

    But, like you, at this point I’d be happier if the churches would pay attention to the sensus literalis!

  4. Adam Gonnerman Says:

    Go into most Churches of Christ and look at people’s Bibles and you’ll find that the most-read Bibles are worn mostly towards the “end.”

    At least McGarvey was being honest in his opinion of the book. I read the Song of Solomon recently on my way through the Bible and commented on my blog that I didn’t get much out of it. I take it pretty literally as a song of erotic love between a man and a woman. Good, but not meaty. I don’t buy into the allegorical explanations, but who cares what I think?

    After I became a believer in Christ I yawned through studies of the Gospels (still do, depending on who’s teaching). The OT had value to me, as did the Epistles, but the Gospels didn’t say much I cared about. That was until fairly recently when I discovered NT Wright and Walter Wink’s insights into the life, teaching and vocation of Jesus. It is revolutionizing the way I see Scripture.

    For many it is a matter of perspective. There’s a lot of treasure yet to be uncovered in the canon.

  5. Bob Bliss Says:

    Bobby, I think that McGarvey wasn’t reading with Greek glasses but restoration (and Protestant) glasses. He had a preconceived idea about the relationship between the OT & NT and that colored (or fogged) his glasses.

    It seems to me that McGarvey’s attitude toward the Song is similar to Luther’s attitude toward James. James didn’t fit into Paul’s theology or at least didn’t fit into Luther’s understanding of Paul’s theology. Luther also questioned James’ canonical status. As a result most of the Protestant world has a canon within the canon – Paul’s theology. Everything in Scripture is judged by their understanding of Paul’s theology. I think this is the reason why NT Wright is attacked by some conservative evangelicals – Wright doesn’t let Paul’s theology become his canon for reading the Scriptures.

    Good thoughts and accurate. Our fellowship has adopted two beliefs about the OT. One is a reformed attitude toward the OT of being ritualistic and legalistic. It is usually contrasted as “law vs. gospel.” Or “faith vs. works.” The other belief is that since the OT is replaced by the NT it is no longer authoritative nor relevant to the Christian. Both these beliefs are incorrect and a good reading of Scripture will reveal the fallacy of these two beliefs.

    I cannot imagine preaching through the year and not preaching from the OT. I have been doing this for at least 20 years. It has long been my goal to change our thinking about the OT.

    Seems to me that some in the circle of blogs I read had a post like this last year or maybe earlier this year. Even if true, it is always good to travel down this path.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    awesome, can’t wait for more on this topic. I love the OT!


  7. Bill Says:

    Great thoughts, Bobby. I look forward to walking down this road you.


  8. Clyde Says:

    Gr8–I look fw to your series. I’m close to finishing an MA in OT at HUGSR, so I share your passion for the OT.

  9. preacherman Says:

    Very interesting.
    I always thought the Old Testament revealed who God is to us. A God of love and grace. A God also of who wants people to follow Him. It is a standard of living. The Isrealites never understood it. It was all about the heart. I think that is why Jesus add’s heart to the law in the New Testament.

    Great post brother.
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry

  10. Bryan Says:

    Very good and very needed. Thanks!


  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Thanks everyone for commenting and adding great thoughts to my blog.

    Kinney I agree that both Testaments reveal the same God: one of love and grace; one of holiness and justice.

    I do have one small disagreement with how you phrsed your post. You said,

    “The Isrealites never understood it. It was all about the heart. I think that is why Jesus add’s heart to the law in the New Testament.”

    I think this is not quite accurate. I think Israel did believe that Yahweh was a gracious and loving God … at least the sang and prayed about it in their psalms to suggest they understood it.

    I guess I would have to ask what you mean by “Jesus add’s heart to the law in the New Testament.” The Hebrew Bible is all about “heart.” We are to love God with all our heart (Dt 6.5); we are to serve from the heart (Dt 10.12); we are to circumcise our hearts (Dt 10.16) … God will even circumcise the heart of Israelites (Dt 30.6).

    There is a more extensive section in A Gathered People about this matter.

    Thanks for sharing and I look forward to expansion on your previous comments.

    Bobby Valentine

  12. James Says:

    I once had an elder come to me on behalf of a few members that said I’d preached from the “Old Testament too much.” I think I was the 2nd week into a study of Hosea. The elder then winked and said, “There, I’ve passed on the message, now keep preaching from the OT.”

    I’m looking forward to this series, Bobby. It’s something dear to my heart. And “Amen!” to this post.

  13. Terry Says:

    A few years ago, I led a small group through a study of the Song of Solomon. We used the sermon series by Tommy Nelson to help us through it, and it was one of the best series that our group ever enjoyed.

  14. preacherman Says:

    Thanks. I forgot that many of Davids Psalms mentions it as well. I am sure the undersstood it. I want to thank you so much for pointing me to those scriptures and teaching me that they did really understand that the really did get it, in the Olt Tetametent. I am grace, humbled and very thankful and am going going to read those passages that you pointed out brother. I really do appreciate it.
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry

  15. preacherman Says:

    I have had people in the Church who have never heard a sermon from the Old Testament.

  16. David Says:

    I find it somewhat enjoyable to point out to some good brethren that when the noble Bereans searched the scriptures, they searched the Old Testament. I also get a good laugh at showing that when Paul spoke of ‘all scripture being inspired by God…’, he’s speaking of the Old Testament.

    What’s sad, though, it that it took me until I was 25 years old to figure this out, even though I went to Sunday school in churches of Christ every morning since I was a week old and had heard those passages used dozens of times.

  17. Kent Says:


    Now this is a practical post. What I have found in my brief ministry is that this is an issue that a lot of people really struggle with. The majority of people have been brought up with the Jule Miller films and the dispensation theories and so when we talk about the OT and when we try and teach that the Bible is all one story, people get confused. People also still suffer from a misinterpretation of Colossians 3:14. That text does not mean that the OT was nailed to the cross but that is what has been taught. The bottom line is that you cannot understand the NT properly if you don’t understand the OT. And it is all one continuous story and it is all our story. The story of Abraham is just as much our story as the story of Christ.

    With that said, I do find it funny that the ultra-conservatives, the people who would say that the OT was nailed to the cross, turn around and have to use various OT texts to back up their hermeneutic. You have pointed out in previous posts the Nadab and Abihu story or the Noah/gopherwood story. Those are critical texts for some foundational doctrines that the ultra-conservatives hold and they are from the OT! I always find that amusing in a twisted way and wonder how they can do that. I have never seen it questioned, though.

    Great post. Look forward to this series.

    Kent Benfer

  18. Kent Says:

    Oops! I meant that Colossians 2:14 is misinterpreted, not 3:14. Hopefully we don’t misinterpret 3:14.


  19. Falantedios Says:


    You should swing by Tim Archer’s blog. You and Tim are dealing with the same issue. I’d like to read what thoughts you might share on this topic along the pathway Tim is using to approach it.


  20. Darin L. Hamm Says:

    As has been mentioned I think dispensationalism is a greater influence than Marcion.

    Looking forward to reading along.

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