My Bible includes the Old Testament. This may sound like a simple statement, perhaps even obvious. But when I see a Salvation Army Song Book printed with just a New Testament and the Psalms or people carrying just the New Testament, I have to resist the urge to stop them and exclaim, “That’s not the Bible!” Or when I hear far more Scripture readings and sermons based on the New Testament than on the Old Testament, once again I want to shout, “But what about the rest of the Bible?” Perhaps for many Christians it doesn’t really matter whether we include the Old Testament as part of our Scriptures or not. After all, parts of the Old Testament offend, confuse and embarrass us. Nevertheless, we need to attend to the witness of the Old Testament in order to hear the full voice of Scripture.
From early in the history of the Church, Christians have had difficulty knowing what to do with the Old Testament. They have perceived profound tensions between the Old Testament and the New Testament. As read by many Christians, the Old Testament characterizes God as holy, just and wrathful, and the New Testament characterizes God as loving, forgiving and gracious. Attempts to bring these two characterizations together often run aground. An example of this fundamental tension has been the simplistic and misleading contrast between “law” (Old Testament) and “grace” (New Testament). The old chorus, “I am not under law, but under grace,” reinforced the dichotomy between the testaments.
This caricature of the Old Testament as “law” and, therefore, superseded by the New Testament’s “grace,” is not new. In the second century, the problem of the Old Testament reached a crisis point when the theologian Marcion advocated abandoning the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. Although the views of Marcion were condemned as heresy, the place of the Old Testament in Christianity has remained problematic for many. A latent Marcionism has crept into our thinking, truncated the Christian canon and given the Old Testament second-class status.
There are two observations that should give us pause when we dismiss the Old Testament in this way. First, in the time of Jesus and the Early Church, the books of the Old Testament were the only Scriptures available to our ancestors in the faith. There was no New Testament, although by the end of the first century the letters of Paul were in circulation and, together with the Gospels, later formed authoritative guides for the life of the Church. However, in the Early Church, the emerging New Testament did not replace the Old Testament (except for Marcion and his followers). Rather, the two testaments stood side by side.
Second, as Salvationists, our first creedal statement reads, “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the divine rule of Christian faith and practice.” Notice that this statement does not differentiate between the two testaments; both are affirmed as having been given by God’s inspiration and together they form the definitive guide for Christian faith and practice. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament on its own functions as Scripture in the full sense of that term.
“But,” you might ask, “why does it matter whether we read the Old Testament and make the effort to understand it?” I would offer four reasons.
1. A Reliable Witness. In the marvelous wisdom of God, the Scriptures of both the Old Testament and the New Testament provide a reliable witness to the long history of God’s love for and commitment to the world. When Jesus, in John 3:16, is quoted as saying, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” the love of God for the world is not presented as something new. It is found at the very beginning of the biblical story. In the act of creation itself, God expressed a deep devotion to the world. When God persisted in the divine care and provision after the disobedience in the Garden of Eden, we find evidence of God’s concern for the world. When God invited Abraham to venture into an unknown future in faith, this call was founded in God’s deep commitment to the world. Story after story in the Old Testament reflects God’s persistent, suffering love. Without this broader perspective, we might assume that it was only with the coming of Jesus that God suddenly began to love the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. The incarnation, life, suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus are the culmination of an already long history of God’s sin-bearing love for the world.
2. Corporate Salvation. When read in isolation from the Old Testament, the New Testament is often interpreted as being solely about individuals’ salvation. The danger is that salvation can become a private affair, the result of a personal relationship with God without any reference to others. We can become so focused on the salvation of individuals that we lose sight of the fact that not only is life lived in community with others, but salvation is found in community with others. When we read the Old Testament together with the New Testament, we learn that God worked through the life of Israel as a community. The work of God within the lives of individual Israelites built and shaped Israel as the people of God. The biblical drama in both testaments is focused on God’s effort to forge a faithful human community. This is true even in the New Testament. After all, Paul did not travel from city to city converting individuals; he founded churches, that is, communities of believers. The Old Testament, properly read and understood, can help to deliver us from the trap of an individualized, isolated and self-absorbed perversion of the gospel.
3. The Roots of Our Faith. I am convinced that reading the Old Testament provides us with a depth of understanding, and ultimately a depth of faith, that reading the New Testament alone does not. The Old Testament gives us the opportunity to dig more deeply into the roots of our faith so that we are able to stand firm in the long haul of our Christian walk. For example, the Psalms are a rich resource for faithfully finding our way through the triumphs and tragedies of life. The stories of Saul and David teach us about the ambiguities of power and the challenge of discerning God’s will in the particularities of our world. The stories of Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau speak to inevitable questions of jealousy and entitlement. The Book of Deuteronomy outlines what a community under God should look like. Ecclesiastes addresses the barrenness of a secularized, affluent lifestyle that is confronted by the reality of human mortality. The prophets Amos, Micah and Isaiah emphasize that the quality of community life depends on how we treat our most vulnerable members. I could go on, but the basic argument is that our neglect of the Old Testament deprives us of the rich resources that are available to strengthen and deepen our Christian faith.
4. The Full Voice of Scripture. By not listening intently to the witness of the Old Testament, we fail to hear what I call “the full voice of Scripture.” It’s rather like listening to only the cornets in a brass band or the violins in an orchestra: you may hear the melody, but you lose the rich, fully developed sound of the entire band or orchestra. If we only read the New Testament, or even if we further truncate our Scriptures to include just the Gospels and one or two of Paul’s letters, we may hear some of the “melody” of the biblical witness, but we deprive ourselves of the rich sound of the larger canon of Scripture that provides depth and texture to our experience. Why would we want to do this? Is it little wonder that the Bible holds such a lowly place in the lives of Christians? When we shorten the Bible, the result is a barrenness that extinguishes our thirst for the fullness of God’s wisdom and guidance.
I don’t mean to suggest that understanding the Old Testament is always easy. But when we fail to provide good resources for its understanding, or fail to make the effort to include the Old Testament in our devotions, study, worship and preaching, we are taking the easy road that keeps us from finding the fullness of life that is our inheritance as Christians. That’s why I am profoundly grateful that our ancestors in the faith kept the Old Testament as part of the Church’s rich heritage and proclamation.
Dr. Donald Burke is president and professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
Tips for Reading the Old Testament
There is no doubt that reading the Old Testament—or the New Testament for that matter—can be daunting. Here are some suggestions:
1. Choose your starting book carefully. Begin with stories in Genesis or 1 and 2 Samuel. Alternatively, you could pray the Psalms as you read them. Another easy entry point is a book of the prophets, such as Amos. Stay away from Leviticus!
2. Focus on one book at a time. Choose one Old Testament book to read carefully and regularly for at least a couple of months. It’s better to know one book well than to try to read too much, too quickly, and learn little.
3. Read slowly. Understanding the Bible does not mix well with speedreading. It may take a few days or weeks to read even one chapter and to have it sink in deeply.
4. Find a good study guide. Choose a solid biblical commentary to help you understand your Old Testament book. If you have difficulty identifying one, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for a recommendation.
5. Be patient. You won’t learn everything about the Old Testament in a month or a year. But if you persist, you will find that God will speak to you and shape you through these important biblical books.
Resources for Further Study
• Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch
• Bruce C. Birch, Hosea, Joel and Amos (Westminster Bible Companion)
• Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary and Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit
• Eugene H. Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion)