Do We Know the Old Testament?

Throughout my adult life I have noted a marked unfamiliarity with the Old Testament among good, solid Christians. When I bring it up, however, most conversation partners seem unaware that this is the case (being themselves victims of the same condition), and certainly deny the significant problem that this has caused in Christian understanding of the meta-narrative of Scripture. I was heartened, therefore, to note that Dr. Haddon Robinson describes his experience of the same challenge.

“I have a good friend who is an Old Testament scholar. Several years ago, when his father turned eighty-five, the old gentleman determined that he would read through the Old Testament during the coming year for the first time. At the end of the year, the father testified, ‘I got through it, but I almost lost my faith!’”

“It would be pleasant to think that if the old man had attended a Christian college or seminary when he was younger, then reading through the Old Testament would have been a rewarding spiritual exercise. Anyone involved with Christian education, however, knows that is probably a wrong assumption. …They overestimate the knowledge modern young people— even those from religious homes— possess about the Scriptures. In one Old Testament introduction class, for instance, a teacher delivered a well-developed lecture on the evidence for an early date for the book of Daniel only to have a student ask after class, “Was Daniel a character in the Bible?” It’s hard to imagine such students ever coming to exclaim with David, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Aside from a familiar verse or two, they do not think much about the Old Testament at all.” — Haddon W. Robinson (Foreword to Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M Gibson. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 2006.)

When I say “know” in the title of this essay, I mean to use it in its biblical sense, where it suggests a deep level of intimacy and a thorough understanding. Indeed, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” It is appropriate to infer from this that our knowing, whether good or ill, will produce fruit, either good or ill. To the degree that we truly know the Old Testament our reading of Scripture will be that more accurate, and result in a comprehension of the telos of redemptive history, which will be otherwise mis-directed.

“Congregations who have seldom listened to preaching that opened up the Old Testament … may be excused for dismissing two-thirds of the Canon as unimportant and irrelevant. … It would never occur to them that the Old Testament was the only Bible Jesus knew and it was the Scripture of the early church.” – Ibid

“The indestructible unity and coherence of the Scriptures…is the foundational biblical doctrine.” wrote H. Freiherr Campenhausen in his 1968 tome, Die Entstehung Der Christlichen Bibel (The Emergence of the Christian Bible. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1968. 335.), capturing a truth that evades many in this post-modern age. The interconnectedness of Scripture stands in dramatic contrast to the sacred writings of other religions. James Orr, for example, noted, “The Koran…is a miscellany of disjointed pieces, out of which it is impossible to extract any order, progress, or arrangement.” (The Problem of the Old Testament. New York: Scribner, 1907. 31.) I cringe, therefore, when Christian theologians emphasize a discontinuity between the testaments, or betwixt Law and Grace, for this denies or denigrates the evident unity and requisite coherence that make the Christian Scriptures distinct from other claimants.

“Avoiding the Old Testament resembles strolling into the theater for the final act of a play and ignoring completely what the play is really about. It is to assume the playwright wouldn’t expect anyone to take the first two acts of the play seriously.”

W. Graham Scroggie suggested that the three laws of organic unity which were summarized by Georges Cuvier, the father of paleontology, might be helpfully applied to Scripture. For, as Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. observes, “The principle of a designed structure can be seen everywhere in Scripture and is a marked indicator of the Bible’s organic nature.” Cuvier’s three laws are as follows:

  1. Each and every part is essential to the whole.
  2. Each part is related to, and corresponds with, all the other parts–that is, all the parts are necessary to complement each other.
  3. All the parts of an organism are pervaded by one life principle.

The Bible tells a single story preoccupied with the people of Israel: their origins, their purpose, their future, and their salvation. Misreading, ignoring or relegating the Old Testament can happen in diverse directions and we see two poles of this mistake in the supercessionism of classic Covenant Theology and the mandatory distinction between Church and Israel of Dispensational Theology. Scripture, on the other hand, begins it progression with the calling of Abraham — the Father of Israel — whose eventual descendant would be the Jewish Messiah — the Christ of all nations. We ought to note then that the covenantal promises made to Adam, to Abraham, to Moses, to David — indeed to Israel — are never relinquished; rather, as Paul tells us, all who believe are the sons of Abraham.

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