Ignorance of the Old Testament is a threat to New Testament faith

I’m not a fan of red letter Bibles, because I think they promote a view of inspiration and the canon that is inconsistent and unsustainable. The words recorded by the apostles as well as those of Jesus are equally the product of the Holy Spirit. The idea of some parts of the New Testament as more inspired than others is an impoverished view of the Scriptures. But another view of inspiration has crept into the church, and it is more dangerous than red letter editorial decisions. That is, a demotion of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In one sense, this is but a return to Marcion, an early heretic who rejected the Old Testament (and much of the New) as Christian Scripture, reducing his revelation to Luke’s gospel, and Paul’s writings. I don’t claim that Christians who ignore the Old Testament are endorsing Marcion. Rather, they are achieving by default what he actively pursued: a reduction in scope and authority of God’s Word. By infrequent visits to the OT, they are making the world of the Hebrew Bible foreign territory to themselves. Brent A. Strawn’s new book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment, is a wake up call to the church to reclaim the theological ground it has abandoned, by a practical disuse of the Old Testament. Strawn relates an anecdote from his own teaching that proved a sobering realization of the extent of the problem. He was teaching a Sunday School class on biblical poetry, working his way through various parts, and came to the cry of dereliction that Jesus utters from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Strawn goes on to say:

“Given what I had just said, I figured the class was following me and that it was relatively clear that this saying from the cross was (a) poetic and (b) a citation from the Old Testament. So I asked the class of hoary heads what Jesus was quoting. Where, I questioned, did his words come from? Total silence. No one knew. Or if they did know, they certainly weren’t telling. But the pause was long enough and the silence deafening enough to make it clear to me that this wasn’t a case of being tight-lipped. It was a case of not knowing. One sweet-faced, white-haired woman finally shook her head, confirming my suspicion. No, they did not know the answer to my question. Not even this elderly group of “saints” knew that Jesus’s cry was a direct quotation of Psalm 22.”

Strawn’s book proceeds in a certain direction, that of likening the OT to a language, a dialect, through which one perceives the world, and by which one constructs a worldview. A big part of what he has to say has to do with the primary languages of the OT; Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancillary languages such as Akkadian. I don’t doubt the value of that approach. But I would submit that for most Christians, learning Hebrew is a hill they are unlikely to climb, and yet they can still immerse themselves in the OT. Indeed, we must immerse ourselves in the OT if we are at all to understand the NT.  The examples of this are many, and I am tempted to say, so obvious as to not need citation, but this is one of Strawn’s points: they do need citation because we have become ignorant of them.

When one opens John’s gospel, at 1:19, we read of “priests and Levites.” This presupposes a knowledge of the OT, and what a Levite is. When Paul tells the Philippians that he is being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of their faith, he assumes they understand his reference back to Numbers 15. The book of Hebrews is unintelligible without reference to the OT, citing quotations over 30 times.  22 of the 27 books of the NT cite the OT, for a total of about 850 citations or allusions. Hear the apostle Paul on the importance of the OT in our faith: “Whatever  was written before was written for our learning, that through patience, and comfort of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4), and “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11).  I would put it thusly:  Ignorance of the Hebrew Bible is a direct threat to Christian belief. It opens Christians to the very thing Paul warned the Ephesians of, being tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and human cunning.  The promise of a redeemer is there in the proto-evangel of Genesis 3. Substitutionary atonement is there in Genesis 4, and throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. The doctrine of justification by faith is there in Genesis 15. The gospel itself rests on these biblical foundations, and if we do not know them, we are apt to cast aside the need for something such as substitutionary atonement.

I also had an experience like Strawn, a few years ago, when I was in a small group Bible study. This was a study on the life of Moses, so although it was in a sense topical, the material of course comes from the Pentateuch. One of the participants admitted, “I’ve always been more of a New Testament kind of guy, so this has been good for me.”  But one cannot be a New Testament type of Christian without the foundation of the Old Testament. The narrative of biblical history, the progressive revelation of salvation history – these things rely on the Hebrew Bible, and ignorance of this portion of Scripture means at best an incomplete understanding, and at worst leads to error.

If you are daunted by the prospect of acquiring a deeper familiarity with the OT, it is not as difficult as you may imagine. I can scarcely think of book with more drama than Genesis, and even those parts which people seem to love rolling their eyes at – Leviticus, for example, are deeply rich troves of pictures of Christ and his work.  And despite the fact that there has never been more helps to understanding of the OT, engaging with the text of Scripture itself is still the best method. The word of God will do its work in our hearts if we but expose ourselves to it. Do not give in to the temptation for a pre-digested version of the OT story. Read for yourself, and re-read. One of the best ways to understand is to read a book of the OT through several times. Each time you go through, you’ll find more than the previous time.

The Christian faith is a faith based on historical events – the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. But prior to these, there were other events that we cannot be ignorant of.  Since nearly 80% of our Bible is made up of the Old Testament, it is imperative for Christians to cultivate a deep knowledge of this part of God’s Scriptures.



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