Over the last few months, Elizabeth and I have, once again, been teaching a course on “Exploring the Old Testament”. We have connected online each week with two cohorts of keen, active lay leaders in the church, drawn from across our own region in the ACT and southern NSW, as well as the southwestern region and some urban locations of NSW.
It has been a stimulating time. We have spent fourteen sessions with each group, investigating the various books of the Hebrew Scriptures, following the key themes, asking questions about the meaning of various passages, and pondering how we might preach on texts from these books within the worship of the Christian church.
The Old Testament has quite a chequered history in the church. In the early centuries of the church, there was a strong movement that advocated having nothing at all to do with any of the books in the Old Testament. This view was particularly prosecuted by Marcion of Sinope (a seaport on the southern coast of the Black Sea, northern Turkey), a teacher in the second century.
(For an introduction to the ideas and importance of Marcion, see https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/marcion-forgotten-father-inventor-new-testament/)
Marcion even prepared a version of the New Testament in which he excised all the Jewish references. He removed three of the Gospels, retained a heavily-edited version of Luke, and created a compilation of Paul’s letters, focussing on the places where he attacked those in the early churches who advocated for the Jewish Law (the so-called “Judaisers”). Not only did his Bible have no Old Testament, but also no Jewish elements in the New Testament!
In more recent times, the Old Testament has been criticised as being irrelevant, containing a host of laws that come from an ancient and very different society, bearing no relevance to contemporary life. The God of the Old Testament is often criticised as being a thoroughly vengeful creature, who is quite different from the loving God we encounter in the New Testament, and thus not worthy to be part of Christian faith. That claim, I believe, is most unfair; there are expressions of God’s love in both testaments, just as there is violence and retribution portrayed in each testament.
Another criticism often voiced is that all of the cultic (worship) provisions set out in the Old Testament are totally irrelevant to worship in the Christian church; only the moral prescriptions (the Ten Commandments and other select laws) remain relevant. Inevitably, this involves a large amount of cherry-picking, to select those passages that reinforce an already-existing point of view. It’s not really a very fair way to operate.
Underlying these criticisms is, undoubtedly, a supercessionist attitude towards Jews and the sacred texts of Judaism. There are signs of this attitude developing throughout the Middle Ages, and it certainly was fostered by key figures in the Reformation. Supercessionism came to its fullest flowering in the blatant antisemitism found most starkly in the brutal policies implemented by the Nazi regime in the middle of the 20th century, leading to the genocide of 6 million Jews in the tragedy of the Holocaust (the Shoah).
Supercessionism (a form of replacement theology) claims that Christianity has replaced Judaism; that Jesus Christ has abolished the Law; that the new covenant of Jesus replaces the old covenant of Moses; and that the chosen people of God are no longer the Jews, but Christians. It is a view that is no longer accepted within Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism and all mainstream Protestant denominations—although many of the “people in the pew” still articulate points of view that are fuelled by supercessionist ideas.
My own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, made a clear denunciation of antisemitism and supercessionism in a Statement on Jews and Judaism, adopted by the National Assembly in 2009, which can be read at https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/2658-jews-and-judaism. (To explore a longer theological analysis of supercessionism, see https://www.thescribesportion.com/dangerous-heresy-replacement-theology/)
Yet, alongside this negative and destructive attitude within the church, there are a number of striking facts to observe. First, the 39 books of the Old Testament remain an integral part of the sacred scriptures of the church. They are still in our Bibles! (Indeed, there are additional books contained with the Roman Catholic Old Testament.)
Second, the Psalms, which are part of the Old Testament, hold a central and beloved place within within the communal worship life and the personal devotional life of Christians all around the world. Any thought of banishing these poems from our spiritual life would be anathema to millions upon millions of faithful people!
Third, the Revised Common Lectionary which is widely used amongst many denominations of the Christian church (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and many Protestant churches) explicitly provides two readings from the Old Testament alongside two readings from the New Testament, for use in communal worship. There is a Psalm for each Sunday, and another reading drawn from other parts of the Old Testament each Sunday. These texts are intended to nourish the religious life of the faithful as equally and as constructively as the Gospels and Epistles.
Fourth, when we read and reflect on the New Testament, it should be clear that every one of those 27 books is, in some way, dependent on the Old Testament. Jesus quotes many passages from Hebrew Scripture; his distillation of “the two greatest commandments” draws directly from scripture, as he urges his followers to “love God” (Deut 6:4–5) and to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18).
Paul infuses most of his letters with scriptural citations; his theological legacy, set out in his letter to the Romans, is based on a single scripture text (Hab 2:4b, quoted at Rom 1:16-17), and a plethora of scripture texts are cited during the argument advanced in Rom 9–11, for instance. We can’t pretend to understand the New Testament if we ignore and sideline the Old Testament.
Finally, we need to note that there are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!
I’ll offer further posts that provide more detailed consideration of these key themes. Suffice it to say, at the moment, that if we eliminate all concern for the Old Testament, we will have an impoverished understanding of the New Testament, a flawed perception of spiritual realities, and an inadequate expression of faithful discipleship as a follower of Jesus. That’s a big claim; I hope to substantiate it in the series of posts that follow.
For subsequent posts, see