Neglecting the Old Testament
- Al Mohler President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- 2015 4 Feb
Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus rebuked those who should know, who should see, who should hear, who should believe—and yet, will not. Jesus indicted the people who claimed to be not just the sons of Moses, but also the sons of Abraham—yet would not hear, believe, and be saved.
The Jews said to him,... ”Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him [cf. John 5:37: “His voice you have never heard”]. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:52-58)
But these words also rebuke the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in our own generation for our misuse and neglect of the Old Testament. In our own way, we can commit the same insult to both Christ and the Scriptures. For many, the Old Testament is simply a problem. Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have been those who have struggled to understand what to do with the Old Testament. Some of the sources of the problem are ideological and theological.
First, in a context of political correctness—particularly within the academy—some call the Old Testament the “Hebrew Scriptures” or the “Hebrew Bible.” Unless that designation does no more than highlight the dominant language, a Christian cannot accept the term because it insinuates that the Old Testament is someone else’s book, that it is foreign territory to the church.
Second, there is the historical Marcionite impulse to reject the Old Testament as revealing a different deity. It is frightening to see how many evangelical children and young people just assume that this is indeed the pattern. They pick it up one way or the other and are little Marcionites. You wonder where they get this idea, and then you talk to their parents. There are Marcionites in our pews and in far too many of our pulpits. Many of them do not know it. They are practical Marcionites, even if not card-carrying ones.
Third, some argue that the Old Testament should be read only on its own terms without any reference to the New Testament. Some suggest this even within the Christian church, even within some evangelical institutions and faculties. It comes down to insisting that Christians need to do synagogue readings when we come to the Old Testament.
Fourth, classical dispensationalism is right to see ethical development but wrong to deny continuity. Taken at face value, the classical dispensationalists argued for what amounted to two completely different ethical systems in the two Testaments. They were certainly right to point to the higher law found in the New Testament, but wrong to argue against the basic continuity of the covenants, with the Old Testament and the law completely fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. This exegetical and theological error has opened the door to much mischief and misunderstanding.
Fifth, there is a moral argument against the Old Testament, an updated Marcionite temptation. It is not particularly new, but it became more focused in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In his Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching, given at Yale in the early part of the twentieth century, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke of the task of preaching the Old Testament in general, and a very specific text in particular, as “intellectually ruinous and morally debilitating.”6 Fosdick said that modern people rightly recoil from these Old Testament texts, and that it would be an insult to modern morality to try to preach them or even to try to rescue them in some way. Fosdick said we should not try to harmonize them or come to terms with them. Rather, we should just write off sections of the biblical text as the musings of an ancient nomadic people and be done with it.
More recently, Kenton Sparks, in his denial of biblical inerrancy, wrote of the Old Testament and “biblical texts that strike us as downright sinister or evil.”7 In like manner, Brian McLaren wrote about the Genesis account of God’s actions in the story of Noah and described the story as “profoundly disturbing.”8
Ignorance and Neglect of the Old Testament
But these ideological and theological dismissals of the Old Testament are not the main problem in our midst. In our circles—our pulpits, Sunday school classes, and Bible study groups—the biggest problem is the ignorance and neglect of the Old Testament. We must admit it: a good many evangelical preachers and Bible teachers simply have no idea what to do with the Old Testament.
Few remember Leslie Poles Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, and most people tend to remember only the opening line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” To many Christians and even pastors and preachers, the Old Testament is a foreign book. They do things differently there. And they certainly do: arks and animals in a menagerie afloat, dead animals and hewn bullocks, rams in thickets, slavery in Egypt, burning bushes, staffs that turn into snakes, bronze serpents, manna in the morning, pillars of fire and columns of smoke, convoluted history of conquests of kings, intrigue, adultery, murder, incest, a preoccupation with bodily fluids, bears who eat boys, boys who kill giants, prophets who taunt idolaters, prophets who throw fits, prophets who sit by gates and weep, poetry that reads like praise, poetry that reads like existentialist philosophy, Persian writing on walls, foreign kings who roam like wild beasts, a prostitute who hides spies, spies who lose heart, women who summon courage, donkeys that talk, a strong man who commits suicide, stuttering leaders, naked patriarchs, majestic praise, predictive prophecy, lamentation, law, statutes, ordinances—in all of its glory. And all of it reveals Christ. Every bit of it.
They do things differently there, and that is the point. These things all anticipate Christ. They look forward to Christ and make us yearn for Christ. They should help us to recognize the Christ. “It is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).
How Evangelical Preachers Misuse the Old Testament
In what ways do evangelicals preachers misuse the Old Testament?
First, many preachers simply avoid the Old Testament at all costs. I have actually heard some preachers state as a matter of principle that they preach from the New Testament because it is the Christian book. They are practical Marcionites. They are robbing their people of the knowledge of Christ from the Scriptures. How impoverished is that preaching and how undernourished are those congregations. Speaking of the Old Testament, Fosdick said, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could hardly drag them [i.e., preachers] into dealing with certain [Old Testament] passages that used to be the glory of our fathers’ preaching.”9
Second, many evangelical preachers actually teach Old Testament texts and say a few words about them, but mostly as background—as though the Old Testament were a different story before we get to “our” story, the real story. But Christ says in John 5 (and the rest of the New Testament agrees) that it is all one story. The Old Testament is not the story we have to know before we know the real story. Rather, the gospel is in all of it.
Third, preachers moralize the Old Testament. We know we ought not to do that, but it is second nature to us. God made us moral creatures. We moralize even when we do not want to do so. We moralize about moralizing. Of course, apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only alternative to a moralizing creature is a sociopath.
The problem starts very early. We are raised to hear the Scripture, especially the Old Testament, in moralizing terms. That is how we are taught from the very beginning. Look at the Bible story books for children. Most of them (not all of them, thanks be to God) are dripping with morality tales. It is as if the Old Testament is our Jewish-Christian form of Aesop’s Fables: do this; do not do that. It starts at the parent’s knee, and then continues in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School—all the children’s church programs ratify it. We have updated our pedagogical technology from flannel graphs to PowerPoint, but it is still moralizing.
So, when we arrive at the period of adolescence that Christian Smith and his colleagues studied, we discover that the basic belief system of most of our adolescents is moralistic therapeutic deism. Well, that is what they received from us, and not just from our preaching of the Old Testament; moralizing is what they heard from virtually all our preaching. In fact, if there is any period of life that tends to be subjected to moralizing in the most eccentric and intensive ways, it is adolescence. That is what most Christian youth ministries do. From generation to generation, they just update and add new subjects to the moralizing of adolescents.
But moralizing is not what our text is about. More precisely, moralizing is not the redemptive purpose of the text. That is not how it testifies of Christ. There are moral lessons there, and we are wrong to ignore them. Even the New Testament sometimes cites the Old Testament in terms of moral lessons we should learn. When it does, we must learn them. But it is wrong to think that moralizing is the main point of the New Testament’s use of the Old. It is tragic to make moralizing the main thing.
Those whom Jesus rebuked in John 5 would agree with every moralistic point that any Christian preacher makes and probably a great deal more that we would not even think to make. It is not wrong to see David as a boy who demonstrated courage because of his faith in God; David killed the giant when others cowered. The problem, however, is in missing the greater point. The redemptive content is that David was God’s anointed, the king whose dynasty would never end. This content points directly to King Jesus, seated on David’s throne—the one who is prophet, priest, and king.
Moralism is the default mode for preachers. It’s second nature. But it horribly misinforms the congregation. It horribly malforms their understanding of the gospel because it tells them what they really want to hear, which is that they can please God through moral improvement. But moralizing cannot save. We must do better than this if we are to escape the rebuke of Christ: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me” (John 5:46).
6. Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Modern Use of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 27.
7. Kenton L. Sparks, “After Inerrancy: Evangelicals and the Bible in a Postmodern Age, Part 2,” The BioLogos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue, June 10, 2010, accessed http:// biologos .org /blog/after-inerrancy-evangelicals-and-the-bible-in-a-postmodern-age-part-2. Cf. Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
8. Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 108.
9. Fosdick, The Modern Use of the Bible, 1.
Taken from The Scriptures Testify about Me: Jesus and the Gospel in the Old Testament, edited by D. A. Carson. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
The Bible’s storyline is grand in its sweep, beautiful in its form, and unified in its message. However, many Christians still struggle to understand how the Old and New Testaments fit together, especially in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ. In this collection of expositions of various Old Testament texts, eight prominent evangelical pastors and scholars demonstrate what it looks like to preach Christ from the Old Testament. This book offers readers a diverse collection of approaches to gospel-centered preaching from the Old Testament by some of the most skilled expositors of our day.