Thursday, March 14, 2013

Not the Same Without You:
Why Christians Need the Old Testament

Today begins a series of guest posts on Chasing Yoder in response to the question, "Does the Old Testament Matter for Christians?" And, "How?"

It is a question that first came up in this year's Scripture study at St. Francis House. "My preachers growing up just skipped to the gospels," some shared. Truthfully, the question has quietly, and somewhat surprisingly, been at the center of many conversations with students and colleagues in my first months as a campus minister. In addition to the surface-value importance of the question for how we engage Holy Scripture - and what it means to call something Holy Scripture - it is a question I found unexpectedly emerging this past year in conversations on race, as in, "What do Christians do with the People of Israel?"

The first - and really excellent - guest post suggesting how and why the Old Testament matters will go up later today. Before that post goes up, I wanted to make sure I had first conveyed the concrete nature of the present challenge: a Church that increasingly regards the stories of the Old Testament as 1) long and difficult, 2) outdated/irrelevant, if not 3) embarrassing, and - most disconcertingly - 4) not essential to being shaped - individually and as a people - by the Christian story.

To set the stage, then, here is a description of the current predicament by Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge:
In recent years, the mainline churches have become increasingly dependent on a common lectionary for worship and preaching on Sundays. An Old Testament text is always indicated, and yet sermons on Old Testament texts have become increasingly infrequent. Many preachers, especially in my own Episcopal denomination, routinely base their Sunday sermons on a passage from the Synoptic Gospels; some have even assumed it is a rule! In an age when biblical illiteracy is widespread even in the church, the Old Testament has fallen into the background and, in some poorly informed circles, has even become suspect. This may or may not be the result of lectionary use, but it has happened concurrently with its widespread adoption… The most serious problem with the lectionary is the lack of context. When everyone is reading from a printed sheet, no one is learning where in the Bible the passage is located, or how it is linked to what comes before it and after it. A whole generation of churchgoers is being raised with no sense of actually handling the Bible, of finding the passage and reading it in its sequence. The large Bibles on the lecterns are sitting unused, their pages gathering dust; some have been removed altogether. The wonderful sight of the reader mounting up to the lectern and turning the pages to find the place is seldom seen today in Episcopal churches; the readers come up with flimsy little pieces of paper which for the most part will be left in the pew or thrown away. The lectionary has certain advantages, but concentration on one book at a time, in its total context, encourages biblical literacy more than shifting every week from one to another. Because of the crucial need to provide context, seriousness, and continuity in biblical proclamation, a preacher is blessed when he or she has a steady pulpit from which to preach on most Sundays. When one is preaching every Lord’s Day to the same congregation, one can take one’s time to expound a whole book. One of the preachers I most admire has recently preached all the way through Ecclesiastes and Jonah, to very eager congregations. Moreover, the hearers were expected to follow along in a copy of the actual Bible, rather than from a printed excerpt. This sort of expository preaching is not a model for everyone in every place, but surely it should be considered; the present lectionary-based system is not improving the knowledge and understanding of the Bible among Christians.


  1. My sense is that the limitations of the lectionary and the neglect of the Old Testament are two different, albeit related, problems.

    To focus on the latter, I think the real challenge is that the thought world of the Hebrew Bible is even further removed from our own than is the New Testament. So it ends up being a lot more work to preach on the Old Testament.

    The lack of OT preaching is so tragic, in my opinion, because the OT helps set us free from black and white thinking. It's messy and gritty and gray, like our world. There's a "people's wisdom" in stories that took so long to be written down, wisdom that on occasion makes someone like Paul seem kinda naive in comparison (don't get me wrong--I love me some Paul).

    We desperately need both testaments, and I'm so glad you're hitting on this important topic.

    1. Great point, Kyle. As a lectionary-lifer, I have found myself over the years wanting to emphasize the word 'different' over 'related' with respect to problems of OT literacy and the lectionary. I still think that's right. But I also think the loss of the Daily Office in regular practice makes it harder to defend the Sunday lectionary alone as sufficient for achieving biblical literacy (the ability to tell and understanding the arch of the story).

      On another note, and as you point out, the contextual limitations of the lectionary do put more work on the preacher. I have been encouraged by the responses of the the guest writers in the series that there are many good preachers and teachers out there still who are up for this work - praise God!

      Thanks for the note. I'll be keen to hear your thoughts as the conversation unfolds!

  2. Jonathan,
    Exciting set of questions you've put forth in this post. Glad I got to contribute a small part, and eager to see how the rest of it unfolds.

    1. Thanks, Paul. Really grateful for your contribution. Equally eager to see where the conversation goes.