Getting to Know the Old Testament

Part One

Why Christians need the Old Testament

by John N. Oswalt, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature, Asbury Theological Seminary Elder, Kentucky Annual Conference, United Methodist Church

When a new pastor learned that children in the local Sunday school were encouraged to memorize the Ten Commandments, his response was, “why learn the Ten Commandments? We are Christians.” It is perhaps too easy to be righteously shocked by such a report, for, in truth, many of us tacitly believe this whether we say it or not. Most Protestants who read the Bible at all, read almost exclusively from the New Testament. Most Protestant preaching is from the New Testament—according to one recent study, a ratio of 10 New Testament texts to one from the Old Testament. And if those sermons based on the Book of Psalms were excluded, there would be almost no Old Testament preaching in Protestant pulpits, evangelical or otherwise. Thus it seems many of us echo the above-quoted pastor in life, if not in word.

Why does this condition exist? How is it that so many of us can virtually ignore the first two-thirds of the book we call the Word of God?

One answer is, of course, that the Old Testament is not of the same stuff as the New Testament and is thus not deserving of equal attention. From this point of view, it is ancient Oriental literature which exists as helpful background to the understanding of the Incarnation. Here and there, say these Old Testament minimizers, are flashes of the Divine Nature. But by and large the Old Testament is merely a collection of Hebrew literature which testifies to that people’s developing consciousness of God. As such, we are often told, the Old Testament is fraught with all the difficulties of ancient folk literature. The New Testament, on the other hand, partakes of the peculiar authority of the Incarnation. What was formerly perceived only in a fragmented and often perverted way is now seen with clarity. This new clarity gives rise to the Church. Thus the Church ought not to look for its roots in the Old Testament. They are not there.

However, this answer does not satisfy many. For many have been taught to believe that the Old and New Testaments together comprise the Word of God. They were reared from childhood on the stories of the Old Testament. Many others have been converted through a clear Biblical witness; one which treated both Testaments together as being authoritative for the life and faith of the believer. These people cannot believe that the Church ought to treat the Old Testament as a senile grandparent who, although he or she cannot be done away with, can at least be largely ignored until time takes its toll.

Yet, when such sincere believers begin to read the Old Testament, determinedly, they are confronted with seemingly overwhelming problems. To begin with, they are faced with a lifestyle largely different from that of the West in the Twentieth Century. They meet customs which are strange and meaningless. The impact of these differences is to suggest, however subtly, that the problems of nomads and peasants of 4,000 years ago are utterly unrelated to needs, attitudes, and problems of modern, technological man.

But more disturbing to some is the tone of the writing of the Old Testament. It seems to be essentially legalistic and judgmental: if you are good you will be rewarded; if you are not good, you will be punished. And somehow, it seems as if those people were being punished most of the time. This idea points to the heart of the issue: a gnawing feeling that, apart from some exceptions, the Old Testament is sub-Christian in its conception of God and in its projection of morality. For example, where is the morality in the Israelites’ slaughtering men, women and children in the cities which they had conquered? What Christian has not felt a twinge of embarrassment over the savage sentiments expressed in some of the Psalms? How can the antics of Samson, God’s chosen, be reconciled with Jesus’ and Paul’s calls to sober Christian character? Where is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the raging Tyrant who has to be restrained by a man from obliterating His people?

But even if the sincere reader can push these troublesome problems into the background, there are other, more concrete problems which also make it difficult to appreciate the Old Testament. Much of it is simply obscure. Fortunately many of the newer translations and paraphrases help immensely. Nevertheless, allusions to places and persons familiar to an ancient Near Easterner are lost on most modern readers. This is especially so with the prophets. There being no story line to hold a modern reader’s attention, and since he has often little or no awareness of the historical situation to which the prophet was addressing himself, modern readers frequently become bored and depressed by the prophets (incurring not a little self-guilt thereby).

One factor which relates to the entire Old Testament is what seems to be the excessively dry and repetitious style employed. The first 10 chapters of I Chronicles, the last 10 of Exodus and the whole of Leviticus and Numbers are special cases in point. No matter how these chapters are translated, if the translation is at all faithful to the original, these materials are never going to be gripping reading for Americans of the latter Twentieth Century.

This raises another, and for purposes of treatment, a final problem. Most of us have been taught to read the Bible devotionally. That is, we expect to find some devotional or didactic (teaching) material that applies to our own immediate situation. Much of the New Testament can be read this way with profit (whether this is the best, or only, way is another question). But major portions of Old Testament cannot profitably be read this way. This being so, many potential Old Testament readers become discouraged and say that the Old Testament is “too deep” for them.

The truth is not that the Old Testament is “too deep,” but the reader, being essentially “message”-oriented, is using an inappropriate method to mine the treasures that are to be found in the Old Testament.

For all of these reasons, then, people who devoutly believe in the equal authority and inspiration of the Old and New Testaments are, commonly, almost totally ignorant of the Old Testament. They know the most dramatic stories vaguely and are familiar with a few Psalms, but that is almost the entire extent of their Old Testament knowledge. The present series of articles is intended to be a modest step toward dealing with this problem. First, the attempt will be made to show why the Church, despite the reality and the seriousness of the aforementioned problems, dare not lose contact with the Old Testament. Second, some suggestions will be made as to ways to meet and deal with the various problems. Third, some techniques for studying the Old Testament will be offered. Finally, as an aid to this study, a thumbnail sketch of the Old Testament history and message will be given.

Before embarking upon these tasks, however, it would be well to have in mind the nature and history of the Old Testament. Perhaps the best definition is that it is an anthology—that is, a collection of diverse kinds of literature united by having a common author, or if different authors, by a common theme. Depending upon one’s point of view, either of these last two qualifications could apply. One could claim that there is but one author: the Holy Spirit. However, it is clear that the Spirit did not use the writers as merely secretaries to whom He dictated the material. Rather, He has allowed their own concerns, personalities and styles to shape what they were writing. For this reason, then, it seems more appropriate to say that while the Old Testament has one ultimate source, it has come to us through many different authors. It is this unity of source which accounts for such diverse materials having been collected into one book. What unity could there be between cultic[1] regulations such as those of Leviticus 1 to 11 and love poetry such as that of Song of Solomon? Only this: the mature opinion of Jewish saints and scholars was that both proceeded from the living God who had revealed His will and nature to Israel alone.

How the various Old Testament books were admitted to this sacred anthology is still somewhat of a mystery. It is known that a council met at Jamnia in Galilee in 90 A.O. The chief result of this council was a declaration that the collection (or canon) was now closed. The Apocrypha (un-official books added to the Old Testament when the Greek translation of the Old Testament [the Septuagint] was made about 250-100 B.C.), was finally excluded from the canon.[2] Whether there were similar councils prior to 90 A.D., where some books were pronounced sacred and others not, is unknown. Certainly the three basic divisions of the Jewish Old Testament predated Jamnia, but no one knows by how much.

The three divisions are: (1) The Torah, or Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy) (2) the Nebiim, or Prophets (Joshua-Malachi), excluding the following which appear in the third division (3) the Ketubim, or Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, I and II Chronicles). Some have argued that the Jews utilized these three divisions to indicate greater or lesser inspiration and/or earlier or later date, the Torah being the oldest and most inspired, and the Writings being the latest and least inspired. However, there is no external evidence to support this idea. It is at least equally likely that the Writings includes simply miscellaneous literature which would not fit the other two categories.

At any rate, the Old Testament anthology includes at least 10 different types of literature coming from the hand of (from our conservative point of view) at least 30 different authors spanning at least 1,000 years in dates of writing (and many more years if oral tradition[3] is included). On the other hand, the New Testament includes but four types of literature coming from the pens of seven or eight men within, at most, 50 or 60 years. It ought not to be strange, then that the Old Testament poses many more problems to the understanding than does the New Testament. These greater problems, however, are not ample reason to remove the Old Testament from the Christian’s Bible, either directly or indirectly.

What is the value of the Old Testament?

If it is admitted that the problems mentioned above are genuine, so genuine that many would-be readers and students are “turned-off” before they get well started, could it be that the so-called “values” of the Old Testament are trumped up to support the ecclesiastical status quo? In an effort to answer this question we need to look at the attitude of the New Testament and the early Church toward the Old Testament. Are there indications that they considered the Old Testament alien and sub-Christian?

Any investigation of the New Testament attitude toward the Old must begin with Jesus. It is evident that He treated it with the highest respect. The “Scriptures” which Jesus often quoted and obviously revered were none other than the Old Testament (Matthew 4:1-11 and elsewhere). His judgment of the Pharisees was that they had elevated their own traditions on a par with the written Word (Mark 7:13). He contrasted His own teaching with that of the Pharisees by saying that they made the Law ineffectual while He had come to give that inspired interpretation which would bring it to true fulfillment. He reiterated that He had not come to destroy the Law, but to complete it (Matthew 5:17, 18).

Furthermore, it is evident that Jesus consciously patterned His ministry around the Old Testament. A case in point would be His use of Isaiah 61:1,2 in His announcement of His ministry (Luke 4:18,19). Another would be His (and the evangelists’) concern to demonstrate how His ministry fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (John 19:36,37). The discourse on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35) is one more indication that Jesus, far from seeing His ministry as being of a different quality from (or indeed, in contradiction to, the Old Testament), saw it as the natural, and in fact, necessary outgrowth of the Old Testament.

The same can be said of Paul. At least since Martin Luther rediscovered Romans and Galatians and the principle of salvation by grace alone, Paul has been depicted as teaching a contradiction between Old Testament Law and New Testament Grace.[4] That Paul the Apostle teaches a distinction between salvation through the works of the Law and salvation through grace by faith is very clear. But whether this constitutes a contradiction between the Old and New Testaments is not at all clear. It may be argued that the Old Testament never teaches salvation through works of the Law. It is significant that the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt prior to the giving of the Law. Thus it can be seen that the Law was not intended to be the way to God, but rather the guide to the walk with God.

In a real sense, Paul says the same thing in Romans and Galatians. Having pointed out that one is saved only through a trusting response to God’s gracious offer, he goes on to point out in specific detail the kinds of character. which are (yes) demanded of Christians. To be sure, these are not spelled out in the absolute detail which is characteristic of the Law in the Old Covenant, but this is not an essential difference, as will be shown below. The fundamental principle is the same: those who are being saved must manifest the character of God in their life responses. If they will not, or do not, they cannot be saved.

The idea that rigid Law-keeping, in and of itself, could produce a right relationship with God is excoriated by the prophets. They declared that the only Law-keeping pleasing to God is that which flows from an attitude of the heart. The only Biblical parallel to the prophets stinging language is found in Jesus’ attacks upon the Pharisees (Matthew 23), men who were guilty of the same sins as their Old Testament counterparts.

Thus, Paul was not attacking the Old Testament correctly understood. Rather, he was attacking that false conception of the Law which made it a ladder by which man, in his own strength, could climb up to heaven. Furthermore, Paul was denouncing the idea that the Old Testament Law was primary and that Jesus was merely an appendage. He was crying, quite rightly, that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God and that all else in Scripture must find its meaning in relation to Him. Thus it may be said that Paul, like Jesus, was not arguing against the Old Testament, but was arguing for it—arguing against wrong understandings which had perverted it through the years, and against those who at that time refused to see the Old Testament in the new light of God’s perfect self-disclosure. In this respect, it is important to point out that Paul’s strong statement concerning the inspiration of Scripture as found in II Timothy 3:16 referred primarily to the Old Testament. Far from being an anachronism which the Church could now slough off because she was under Grace and not under Law, the Old Testament Scriptures were held up by Paul as a fundamental tool for attaining Christian maturity.

The early Church took the same position as its Lord and its greatest apostle: the Old Testament was the Scriptures of the Church. In its pages the Church found itself, its life, its meaning. To be sure, the difficulties were felt, sometimes sharply. But when, in the Second Century A.D., Marcion proposed that the Old Testament (and significant parts of the then-accepted New Testament) be dropped from the Christian canon {largely because he felt the Old Testament God to be incompatible with the God of the remaining New Testament) the Church lost little time in declaring this proposal heretical. For the Church knew then—as the true Church does now—that to live without the Old Testament was to be impoverished and, finally, more impotent.

Why? Because the remaining Scriptures, the New Testament, would be impoverished without the Old. Virtually all the theological concepts of the New Testament are based upon the Old. Such ideas as salvation, justification, sanctification, atonement, redemption, mercy, grace, peace, etc., etc., assume their fundamental New Testament meaning from their Old Testament formulations. Again and again we find that important New Testament words will have a different connotation from that found in other Greek literature. Why? Because the way in which the idea was formulated in the Old Testament produces this new connotation. Thus it is no accident that the articles in the massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Kittel and Friedrich always begin with the Old Testament usage.

It is no wonder, then, that so much preaching today is vapid, vague and nebulous. It is cut off from its roots. For instance, how can one understand the new covenant properly until one understands the whole idea of covenant in the Old Testament? The New Testament writers assumed that their readers knew all about the covenant idea from their familiarity with the Old Testament, and so New Testament writers did not usually repeat these fundamentals.

This truth becomes even more evident in some more crucial areas where the New Testament simply builds upon the Old Testament without repeating. To take the New Testament as a complete whole at these points is as disastrous as attempting to build the second story of a house without first building the foundation and the first story!

The first of these crucial Old Testament concepts which the New Testament assumes is the concept of God. Both the Old and New Testaments, when correctly understood, rightly depict God, both in His total otherness and in His love. But each stresses one aspect and it is largely through the help of the other Testament that we are made aware of the less-stressed element.

Whence have come some of the sugary, sentimentally blasphemous conceptions of God in the Church and elsewhere? Are they not the result of a humanly perverted idea of love coupled with the teaching that God is love? What must be coupled with the truth of God’s love is the truth that God is utterly, totally other than man. He is other in character, for He is utterly holy and we are at heart unholy; He is truth and we are untruth; He is straight and we are bent. He is other in glory, for His glory is primary and real, ours is secondary and reflected. Most important, He is other in essence, for He is totally transcendant.[5] He is not contained within the universe, rather He contains it; He is totally unconditioned, we are totally conditioned.

The sin of paganism (in both its ancient and its modern humanistic forms) is that it reduces God to the level of man. That sin confronts us at every turn, evangelical or not, and we will succumb to it unless we are constantly reminded, through the Old Testament, of the tremendous gulf between ourselves and God—both by virtue of our created natures and our fallen natures. The miracle of salvation is not that we bring Him to our level, but that He, transcendant God, has voluntarily come to us and lifted us up to Him. A Holy, Glorious, Transcendant God who loves is sublimity beyond words. A sentimental grandfather-God who loves is inanity unworthy of words.

Another Old Testament conception which is fundamental to New Testament understanding, but which the New Testament merely assumes, is the inseparability of verifiable facts, history, from revelation.[6] True, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are taught as undeniable historic fact by the New Testament. But a great portion of the New Testament can be (and often is!) treated as basically non-historical if it is separated from the Old Testament.

The result of such thinking is seen in the work of the German New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann. He has argued that since much of the New Testament is merely teaching which is not rooted in historical event, the gospels are as well. In fact, Bultmann teaches that the Gospels are largely “myth,” that is, timeless religious truth conveyed in story form. Whether or not the story really happened is immaterial, according to Bultmann and his many followers. In fact, Christians will be better off if they will strip the story away from the religious truth it conceals. It comes as no surprise to learn that Bultmann does not consider the Old Testament to be the Word of God. The Old Testament, for the most part, consists of message and story inseparably intertwined. The Hebrews only know anything about God as they experience Him in their life as a people or a nation. Take away those historical experiences and the message falls to the ground. This point will be explored.

If one examines the New Testament in the light of this understanding, it becomes plain that it takes the same position as the Old. Such passages as I Corinthians 15 and I John 1 are cases in point. In the light of the Old Testament teaching that historical event is the basis of revelation it becomes obvious that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the culminating revelation of God in history. Far from being a “mythical husk” which can be shucked off to leave the essential truths about life more manifest, these accounts so faithfully repeat the acts of God in time and space that by reading them today you and I meet God face to face. If God did not act in the Man Jesus Christ, as reported in the Gospels, the Epistles are not great religious truth, but empty platitudes, based upon one of mankind’s more remarkable delusions! The Gospels must be understood in the light of the Old Testament, and the Epistles must be understood in the light of the Gospels, rather than in the reverse order.

A further Old Testament contribution which the Church cannot afford to lose is an outworking of this theme that God reveals Himself in history. While mystical, devotional experience of God is important in the religious life, it is not primary. God is concerned about history, the events where human lives meet, the marketplace where hard ethical and moral decisions are made. In the Old Testament to “remember” God is to keep His commandments. These have largely to do with social and political righteousness, as well as private morality.

People often ask why the New Testament seems to have so little a vision of this kind of righteousness. There are probably many reasons, but surely the chief one is that presumably the point has been made so profoundly in the Old Testament that it does not need to be repeated. The problem comes when Christians read the New Testament as if the Old Testament did not exist. When this happens, the result is an aberration-people with impeccable piety and personal morality who are nonetheless blind and deaf to the ways in which their social and political responses are primarily selfish.

After the communists had completed their takeover in China, missionary Arthur Glasser was asked if he would have, in the light of events, done anything differently in his leadership of the Chinese Christians. He replied that he would have greatly increased his preaching from the Old Testament. When asked why, he pointed out that it is in the Old Testament that the divine perspective upon political and social systems is given. He feared that because Chinese Christians were not very familiar with this perspective they were both blind to the great social ills which Communism purported to cure and they were also unprepared to withstand the political hammer blows which were to come to them after the Communist takeover.

One further contribution of the Old Testament is its emphasis upon the importance of community in the outworking of redemption. Once again it is plain that the New Testament also makes the same point (Ephesians 4; I Corinthians 12, etc.). However, it is easy to miss it unless one is steeped in the Old Testament. Then it becomes obvious that while every man, woman and child may have a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, no one is saved in isolation from others. Persons were meant to live in a community relationship. Thus, God is just as much interested in the character of the community as He is in my personal character. No one who reads the New Testament in the light of the Old could ever believe that God only cares about how many individuals get to heaven. He wants to redeem groups through redeeming individuals, and He wants to redeem individuals through redeeming groups.

The preceding remarks should not be construed to mean that the author wishes to replace one error with another. It would be even more disastrous to hold the Old Testament without the New than it is to hold the New without the Old. For the Old Testament is not complete in itself. Salvation is viewed almost entirely from the side of political liberation of groups. Righteousness is almost exclusively seen in social and political terms. A personal faith response on the part of an individual is limited to a few key figures, such as the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, David, etc. Such a one-sided view accounts for much of the unbiblical ” missionary” strategy of the day. It has been formulated on the basis of the Old Testament as if the New did not exist. This is tragic, for the Old Testament knows itself to be incomplete. In order for the social and political righteousness for which it call s, to be achieved, something must take place within the hearts of individuals (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, etc.). That “something” is never realized in a more than prototypical way in the Old Testament. It awaits the culmination in the New.

Moreover, the Old Testament in itself is a tale of unfulfilled hopes. Humanity cannot bring in God’s kingdom; it awaits the Messiah from heaven. When that Messiah comes, all the former categories by which God ‘s kingdom was understood were subject to reinterpretation in more spiritual terms. This reinterpretation did not negate the Old Testament understandings, but embraced them and went beyond them. The tragedy of Judaism is that it would not submit to the reinterpretation. How ironic that so much of the modern missionary enterprise now wishes to duplicate the Jewish response to the Gospel!

No, what is being called for here is not the submersion of the New Testament into the Old, but rather the full acceptance of the Old alongside the New as Word of God together. No one who really appreciated Tolstoy’s War and Peace would recommend that one simply read the last couple of chapters and thereby get the essentials of the book. How much more this is true of God’s Word! In order to understand, appreciate, “get” the final chapters of His masterpiece, one must understand the previous chapters, and seeing how the coming of Jesus and what He means is the grand unfolding of what all of life means.

 Coming in the next issue of Good News PART II: “Answering Some Old Testament Problems.

[1] Cultic – having to do with a cult, In this case, Israel’s worship and dally religious practices.

[2] This action gave rise to the present-day exclusion of the Apocrypha by Protestant churches. The early Church, largely composed of Greek-speakers, naturally used the Septuagint as their Old Testament. This meant that the Apocrypha was Incorporated Into the official Latin versions which were later produced from it. However, when the Protestant reformers, in their newfound zeal for the Word, began to work with the original languages they were influenced by the Jewish decision of 90 A.O. Thus Protestants have excluded the Apocrypha from the inspired Old Testament.

[3] Oral Tradition – the Idea that Scripture’s message was passed along verbally from generation to generation before It was written down as God’s revelation In more permanent form.

[4] Grace – The unmerited favor, love which God, through Christ, extends to sinners.

[5] Transcendant – high above, unconditioned by and superior to that which He created. However, this does not mean that He does not intervene In His world.

[6] Revelation – God’s revealing of Himself and His truth In the written Word of Scripture and In Christ, the Word made flesh.


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