Friday, September 22, 2006
Preach the "Old Testament" #1
This post was written out of frustration ...
This post, and perhaps a few more to follow, has been inspired by a series of discussions with two preaching brothers I have had in the last few days regarding the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. I was most distressed by the course of the conversations. The conversations were a reaction to this statement I made: "I would love to write a book that finally convinced folks that the God of the "Old Testament" is truly a God of love and grace...the same exact God in the "New Testament!"."
Conversations like these make me really doubt the validity of our old dispensational hermeneutic that has been so vitally important in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Yes, I believe there is a "new" covenant and we are part of it. But "old" covenant cannot simply be equated with "old testament," nor can the "new" covenant be divorced from, or even understood, apart from the Hebrew Bible.
The dispensational hermeneutic, in my view, seriously handicap's our ability to hear God's word in the first 39 books. In what way? Because the the Old Testament was not and is not allowed to speak for itself. It is the contention of my dialogue partners that God was NOT a God of grace and love in the First Testament, that the Old Testament was essentially legalistic and concerned with carnal (fleshy) perspectives - because John 1.17 states that "law" came through Moses but "grace and truth" came in Jesus. I maintain that this text does not mean there is no grace in the Old Testament, if I make that claim do I also claim there is not "truth?" Surely not. I believe the view of many of our brothers is in fact subtle Marcionism. Even if we do not believe in two literal gods we have turned the one God into a schizophrenic! Not only are we often not so subtle Marcionites, we may even be Bultmannians unaware (Bultmann maintained that the Old Testament was ultimately a failure and worthless to the Christian). In my years of preaching I know that my own personal experience has been confirmed through countless conversations. Just one example. A few years ago I did a sermon series from Genesis (of all books) and had a 78 year old sister thank me for preaching from the OT because she could never recall hearing a sermon on Genesis. Whether her memory was accurate is beside the point. There was not enough of it to make an impact. I am quite comfortable in cutting across the grain on this however.
I have often observed that my brothers who maintain such a low view of the Hebrew Bible for Christians have a corresponding low grasp of both the actual content and the meaning of the "Old Testament." Here are some critical facts though from the "New" Testament regarding the "Old" (such language is not biblical btw and I resort to the NT rather than the OT here because the latter is often not allowed to testify for itself in these conversations):
1) The Law of Moses is Spiritual, holy, righteous and even good (Rom 7.12, 14).
2) Paul uses the Law and the Prophets to prove his doctrine of salvation of grace through faith. That is Abraham is the paradigm of justification through faith; David celebrates this truth; and Habakkuk bore witness to it (Rom 4)
3) Paul told Timothy the Hebrew Bible was good for equipping the people of God unto every good work (2 Tim 3.14-16)
These three cardinal truths are often not even given lip service in our churches and our preaching. The Old Testament is Spiritual according to Paul but many claim it is "fleshy" (code for unspiritual, legalistic or unimportant). In the Old Testament salvation is utterly by grace and not law keeping! In fact the Old Testament calls the relationship between Yahweh & Israel a "covenant of love" (Deuteronomy 7.9, 12) not covenant of law ... there are many who will reject this simply out of hand.
Yet, the treasure of the Hebrew Bible is more relevant to our lives than simply teaching us about grace and faith though that is of utmost importance. Without the Hebrew Bible it is impossible to understand who the Creator God is, what humanity is, or even to grasp the meaning of Jesus. In future posts I will explore these in more detail.
Before we can preach from the Hebrew Bible I must be convinced it has a powerful word from God that address us today. In order to be convinced of this we must also master the content and the meaning of that content. To do this we need to learn to listen to the text. Let me recommend three books that will help us be better listeners to the text and at the same time move us to appreciate the essential narrative unity of Scripture.
Ronald M. Hals, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament (Augusburg). This small hundred page book has only six chapters and is incredibly easy to read. If I were teaching OT Survey I have no doubt this little book would be required reading for both the midterm and final. Unfortunately this book is out of print but get it through an interlibrary loan and copy it. Also Amazon is a wonderful place to buy older used books. Run, do not walk, to get this small treasure. Devour it - read it - then read it again.
Thomas H. Olbricht, He Loves Forever: The Enduring Message of the Old Testament (College Press). Again this is a short and easy to read introduction to the heart of the OT. The book plunges into the meat of Exodus 34.6-7 and traces God's redeeming love throughout. This is also a very good book to use for an adult Bible class and I have done so several times through the years.
Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Baker Academic). This is the most academic book in this list but it is still easy to read. This book models the narrative unity of Scripture and shows how it invites us to become participants in the drama.
Tomorrow I will use the book of Exodus as a model or test case to see if we can preach from the Torah. As for me and my house we will maintain that Yahweh has always been nothing but a God of supreme love and grace. Any other god one finds in the "Old Testament" is an idol of their own making.
Thank you for letting me vent. Tomorrow will be better! I promise, :-)
While we wait ... here is a verbal exercise: Read Psalm 136 orally and see what the impact is.