Main Menu

Commentary: What’s at stake in use, neglect of Old Testament

Commentary: What’s at stake in use, neglect of Old Testament

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: What’s at stake in use, neglect of Old Testament

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | July 14, 2009 {1046}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

Often the Old Testament does not occupy a very prominent place in the life of many congregations. Is the Old Testament being read during every Sunday service, or, at least, on a very regular basis? Is the Old Testament a source of texts for preaching on a regular basis? Is the Old Testament being taught as part of the congregation’s program of Christian education? Most of all, do the people revere the Old Testament in some sense as the Word of God for the church today?

I suspect that, if the Old Testament is being used in congregations, it is more likely being taught than being preached.

It is primarily through preaching that the Bible becomes a means of hearing the living Word of God.

The Voice of the Lord by J. James Tissot. Courtesy of Christian Theological Seminary.

As Karl Barth emphasized, preaching the Word of God is human talk about God in which and through which God speaks about God’s self. If the Old Testament is being taught more than it is being preached, then are we subtly implying that the Old Testament is useful for providing the background for the New Testament, but that it does not deserve a place in the worship of the church as the preaching of the Word of God? Isn’t the practice of relegating the Old Testament to a department in the church school an implicit admission that we may view the Old Testament as inferior to the New Testament and, therefore, not a primary source for the spiritual and theological formation of Christians?
There is a lot at stake in our use or neglect of the Old Testament; however, before discussing these concerns, there are a couple of observations worth mentioning.
I am aware that there is something problematical in the use of the traditional name for the part of the Bible we call the “Old Testament.” Increasingly, it is a practice to call the Old Testament the “Hebrew Scriptures,” the “Original Testament” or the “First Testament.” One problem with the name “Old Testament” is that it implies that this part of the Bible is merely a preparation for the New Testament, and those who prefer other names want to maintain the integrity of the original message of this part of the Bible. After all, it was the New Testament, not the Old Testament, which was added to the early church’s Scriptures, for the Old Testament is what the early church called its “Scriptures.” Another problem with the name “Old Testament” is that it implies support for the theology that the church has completely superseded or displaced the people of Israel. Nevertheless, on the positive side, the traditional name of “Old Testament” does point toward the new covenant God has instituted through Jesus Christ.

Photo by Anna Cervova. Source:

I think we should also be mindful that our neglect of the Old Testament makes us “practical Marcionites.” Marcion was the son of a bishop who became a member of the church in Rome around A.D. 140. He came to view himself as a reformer of the church. He believed that the church had substituted a Jewish legalism in place of the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. He concluded that the source of the church’s corruption by legalism was the Old Testament itself. Therefore, he tried to persuade the church to excise the Old Testament from its Scriptures. Legalism was not Marcion’s only concern. He was also a Gnostic who believed that the Father of Jesus was not the Creator of the world since the material creation is a prison for the human spirit. He was excommunicated for his ideas, and he formed his own church, the Marcionite Church. Very few of us would admit to accepting the heresy of Marcionism, but we often act like Marcionites when we neglect the Old Testament in the life of the church.
What is at stake in our use or neglect of the Old Testament?
The identity of the God we worship and serve. The most significant contribution of the Old Testament to the life of the church is its identification of the particular God we worship and serve. According to the Old Testament, the one, true living God is a particular God, Yahweh, the Lord, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel. The church looks upon the Trinity as a fuller understanding of the one God who is revealed in the Old Testament. The name “God” may be an empty vessel into which human beings pour any meaning they want; however, by hearing the Old Testament, we are warned against idolatry and reminded that we are not free to worship or confess any god other than the God of Israel.

Alister E. McGrath, the Anglican theologian, has said, “To allow our ideas and values to become controlled by anything or anyone other than the self-revelation of God in Scripture is to adopt an ideology rather than a theology; it is to become controlled by ideas and values whose origins lie outside the Christian tradition — and potentially to become enslaved by them.”
Creation as ‘the theatre of God’s glory.’ The God of the Old Testament is more than just another tribal deity of the ancient Near East. This God is the Creator of the whole universe, and, therefore, is the one, true God. Because God is the Creator, the creation itself is highly valued in the Old Testament as being “very good.” The Old Testament is a stumbling block to all philosophies and religions that try to dismiss the value of creation, whether it is a neo-Platonic vision in which the creation is only a “shadow” of what is truly real or the Hindu vision in which the creation is an “illusion” of what is truly real.

The Creation by J. James Tissot. Courtesy of Christian Theological Seminary.

John Calvin eloquently expressed the meaning of the creation in the Old Testament as “the theatre of God’s glory.” This is an apt expression because all of creation is doxological and exists to give praise to God’s glory. Leslie Newbigin once spoke of the nights he spent in the jungles of India. He said the dark was full of sounds — the roar of the lions and shrieks of jackals and jabbering of monkeys. “And,” asked Newbigin, “who hears all these things — there in the depths of the jungle of India, night after night?” The answer of the Old Testament would be that God hears them: God’s creatures sing songs to the Creator, and God is pleased that the creation is very good. This attitude toward creation shapes our spirituality toward a joyful gratitude for life and also forms our social ethic toward caring for the creation.
History as the locus of revelation. The God of the Old Testament is a God who reveals God’s self in the events of history. Sigmund Mowinckel said: “History is the real workshop of God. There does his works; there faith can see and sense [God’s] secrets. The revelation of God is a history of revelation. This is the main view of the Old Testament.”

Our study of the Old Testament causes us to pay attention to what God is doing in history and God’s call to us to practice righteousness, justice and peace. When we just hear God’s Word in the New Testament, there is a tendency over time to overly spiritualize our understanding of the Christian life and ignore our responsibility to be a responsible participant in history.
The public dimension of faith. The Old Testament contains an extraordinary range of subject matter. Kendall Soulen has written: “The Hebrew Scriptures deal with the creation of the heavens and the earth and the population of the world by animals and human beings, but also with the rise and spread of families and nations, with battles and conquests, with marketplace, temple, and courthouse. The Scriptures touch on a virtually inexhaustible spectrum of human experience, including slavery, betrayal, migration, drought, childlessness, jealousy, theft, lust, war, infirmity, murder, and childbirth.”

In other words, the Old Testament provides the basis for understanding God’s relationship with the whole of life, especially the public arena. When we preachers complain about parts of the Old Testament, “But it won’t preach,” we really mean that it won’t preach to the felt needs of individuals in our congregations. But who says that the only subject worth preaching is that which is directed at individuals and their personal lives? Preaching may also be directed at the issues and concerns of our public life. Ironically, if preachers will proclaim the larger drama of God’s action in the world, they will find that such preaching has a strangely healing effect upon parishioners who are going through difficulties in their personal lives because they are reminded that they live in God’s world, and if God is the sovereign of the world, then surely God is able to handle the little crises in our own lives.

Liturgy as a means of worship. The worship of the early church was modeled on the worship of the synagogue and the Temple in the Old Testament. The worship of the Israelites was liturgical worship. See the last five chapters of the Book of Exodus. By liturgy, I mean rituals proven over time to be able to mediate the story of God’s self-revelation so that God’s presence encounters every generation.

Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem by J. James Tissot. Courtesy of Christian Theological Seminary.

The difference between Israel and the pagan religions is that Israel had a liturgy, while the pagans had an orgy. The pagans believed they could induce an experience of the immediate presence of the divine. The Israelites had a liturgy with rituals that contained a sacred memory of what God had done in history. Their liturgical worship assumed that God’s presence is always mediated through the rituals that contain the memory of God’s self-revelation in history. The reason that Israel’s worship of God was always liturgical in this sense is because Israel worshipped a different kind of God. The God of Israel is a holy God who is wholly other than us and who can be known only insofar as God has revealed God’s self and who has revealed God’s nature and will in the events of history. Therefore, God can be approached truly in worship only through the mediation of the story of God’s self-revelation in history.

Members of the great Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel’s synagogue was once approached him and told him that the liturgy did not express what they felt and they wanted him to change it. He replied that it was not for the liturgy to express what they felt; it was for them to learn to feel what the liturgy expresses. As Jews, they were to learn the drama of worship and say it over and over again until it captured their imagination and assimilated it into the deepest places in their hearts. Then and only then would it be possible for them to live properly their own personal dreams.

In an era of consumerism, the liturgical weightiness of the Old Testament is a necessary counter-balance to a demand for instant spiritual satisfaction.
The Old Testament is still our Holy Scriptures. Without them the church is not only impoverished, but its message and witness will be seriously deformed over time. When the Old Testament is treasured and used, then we shall discover that it is “inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.