Dear Jonathan (and Chasing Yoder readers),
It’s a joy to devote some time and typing responding to the question in the title of this post. Thanks for the invitation! I hope what follows at least serves as good discussion fodder, and perhaps is even true. Let me know what you think.
To begin, the question “Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?” could be asked in at least two ways.
Unfamiliarity might lurk behind the question. Just as a low-church Christian stumbling upon an Advent wreath for the first time might ask with curiosity and openness “Why do Advent wreaths matter?,” our question might be asked out of unfamiliarity but with openness towards the Old Testament itself.
Or, the question might imply a value judgment: “Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians… when we have the New Testament?” or “…when we believe the Old Testament points to Jesus?” or some other suggestion that for Christians the Old Testament is no longer necessary because something better has replaced it. This view expresses what is typically called supersessionism.
I have 5 responses.
1) The Old Testament matters for Christians because it informs our “Rule of Faith.” In the 2nd century AD, Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote that Scripture has an order, which he called the “Rule of Faith.” This Rule of Faith makes a claim about the order of Scripture, though it is not necessarily articulated in Scripture itself, but rather has been passed down through the church from the apostles. Ireneus articulates this Rule of Faith in various ways, so it’s clearly not quite as set and defined as our Creeds, but Ireneus’ account always follows the same narrative path from creation, through Christ, to everlasting glory. Two contemporary examples of a Rule of Faith might be the Reformed articulation of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Kingdom of God, or one developed at the Duke Youth Academy using 7 Cs: Creation, Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church, Calling, Coming Reign of God. But what’s most important for Ireneus is that whenever Scripture is used, it must be interpreted in accordance to and never contrary to the Rule of Faith – this is the “rule” or “measure” of how faithful an interpretation is. What’s important for us is that Scripture and the Rule of Faith have a cyclical relationship: the Rule of Faith is derived from Scripture, and Scripture can’t be interpreted faithfully unless it’s done in accordance with the Rule of Faith. And the Rule of Faith has always situated Christ somewhere between creation, God’s covenant with Israel, the church and everlasting glory, as if Christ was the climax of Scripture’s grand narrative – or, Rule of Faith. So logically, if our ability to read Scripture faithfully depends on understanding the Rule of Faith, and our Rule of Faith is derived from Scripture – including the Old Testament, than the Old Testament matters for Christians because it informs our Rule of Faith.
2) The Old Testament ought to matter to Christians because the church catholic still believes that the Old Testament is part of our canon of Scripture. Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics offers a helpful description of “God’s Word,” “Scripture,” and the “canon.” For Barth, “God’s Word” is the second person of the Triune God, who revealed God most concretely in the person of Jesus Christ. “Scripture” is the medium by which the church recalls the revelation of God’s Word in Christ, but Scripture itself is not exactly God’s Word. Rather, from time to time Scripture becomes God’s Word, when God is pleased to speak to the church by means of the words of Scripture and when God’s Word grips us and enables us hearers to say and believe “The Bible is God’s Word.” In other words, Scripture itself is not God’s Word, unless God is pleased to act through Scripture. And our “canon” of Scripture is the set of texts through which the church catholic has regularly heard God speaking. In other words, the canon is not a set of texts that the church has chosen for itself, but rather a set of texts that God seems pleased to speak through and through which the church has received and is receiving God’s Word. So, unless the church catholic suddenly stops hearings God’s Word through the Old Testament and discerns that God is no longer pleased to speak God’s Word through the Old Testament – and as far as I am aware this is not under serious consideration in any part of the church catholic – then the Old Testament matters because God seems pleased from time to time to speak God’s Word through the Old Testament. In other words, the Old Testament matters because God seems pleased to use it.
3) Relatedly but directed more pointedly to the supersessionist version of our question, the Old Testament matters just as much as the New Testament, neither of which contain or possess the fullness of God’s revelation. Again Barth is helpful. As noted above, Barth thinks that God revealed God’s self most concretely when God’s Word took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Scripture is a means through which the church recalls God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus Christ, but is not itself the revelation. Second, Barth differentiates between the Old and the New Testament describing the Old Testament as pointing forward to the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and the New Testament remembering the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Therefore, because the Old and New Testament both point to the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, but neither contain nor possess this revelation, Jesus is not in the New Testament any more than Jesus is in the Old Testament, and the New ought not to be privileged over the Old. I have a story to help illustrate this idea.
My Grandpa began giving me Savings Bonds when I was two years old. My Grandpa knew what he intended these bonds to be used for and so did I: for college or for a house in the future. But this does not mean that my knowledge as a child was the same as my Grandpa’s knowledge; my Grandpa knew from experience what paying for college or a house was like, but I had no clue. But as I grew closer to the moment in which I would buy a house or go to college, I began to appreciate these Savings Bonds more and more. Finally, when I needed money for a down payment on a house (really needed it!) and I cashed in the Savings Bonds, when I was, therefore, in the concrete moment to which my Grandpa’s gift had originally pointed, then and only then did I fully understand and experience the goodness of my Grandfather’s gift. And now, at this moment, I can recall the moment I received the fullness of this gift, but I no longer possess this gift itself and I am no longer receiving this gift. For, the gift was given in its fullness at a particular moment in time that is now past, and no story no matter how faithful or vivid will enable me to again grasp this gift.
Similarly, while the Old Testament points ahead to the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the New Testament recalls the event of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, neither contains nor possess the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The Old and New Testament certainly have different vantage points on Christ, but there is no reason to privilege one Testament over the other – as our question seems to do.
(For example, I have a Good Friday sermon that uses both Psalm 22 and John’s Gospel as my routes to the cross, though the passive objectification of Christ in Psalm 22 could not be any more different than the active subject Christ seems to be in John. Both routes lead to the cross and both routes illumine the cross in a unique way. Sermon available by request.)
4) The Old Testament matters for Christians because it offers us a starting point in interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims. (Admittedly, I’m now writing about something of which I know very little, but hope it to be true.) The Christian Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible share common books, though we arrange these books differently. The Quran shares common stories with the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, though the Quran tells these stories a bit differently. Might these commonalities be a starting place for dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims? If we think interreligious dialogue matters, then the Old Testament matters for Christians.
5) Finally, the Old Testament will not matter for Christians unless we begin to read it with more regularity. Just as prayer or exercise become vital for those who do them regularly but seem inconsequential for those who do not do them regularly, the Old Testament will matter more to Christians the more we read it and hear it preached on. There are many ways to begin reading the Old Testament, but in order to set yourself up for success you may want to start with something accessible or short, like reading a psalm a day, or reading through all the minor prophets over the course of a month. Like any new discipline, you may not love it or get anything out of it at first, but over time you’ll grow familiar with the psalmist’s cries for help or words of praise, or you’ll grow familiar with the prophets calling God’s people out on their faithlessness and calling them back to their faithful God. Or if you preach, make a commitment to preach once a month on the Old Testament, or perhaps even preach for a whole month on the Old Testament. And help yourself out by starting your sermon prep a tiny bit earlier than normal, because you’ll have to work hard to preach on a text with which your congregation is unfamiliar.
And perhaps if we begin to read and preach on the Old Testament with a bit more regularity, not only will we begin to discover for ourselves that the Old Testament matters, but we may even discover that the Old Testament is one of God’s great gifts for God’s people.
Paul lives in Durham, NC with his wife and two daughters, studied at Duke Divinity and the University of Wisconsin, works as the Youth Minister at Church of the Holy Family (Episcopal) in Chapel Hill, NC, and blogs at http://otlampsandlights.blogspot.com.