Weird, strange, foreign, old, irrelevant, outdated, useless, violent, are among the words people have used to respond to the question “what is the Old Testament?”
In contemporary Australia people have rarely responded by saying, it is ‘the word of God’ or ‘Scripture’.
The UCA Basis of Union says, The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.
And yet, there are many who believe that, “We have the New Testament now” – making obsolete the Old Testament or seeing it as superseded or replaced by the New Testament.
This is often matched by poor knowledge of the contents of the Old Testament, its culture, language or history. Several ministers have expressed hesitancy to preach from the Old Testament and some congregations have stopped reading the Psalms because they see them as inherently violent.
Therefore, I ask, “does the Old Testament have any authority within our Church?” How do we define it? How might you answer? How might we advocate for the Old Testament and help individuals and congregations regain trust in the Old Testament and discover its many truths and ‘the word of God’ that resides in it?
I have found it helpful to read a 2017 book entitled, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment, by Brent A Strawn (Baker Academic). He addresses the life of the Old Testament within the Christian church and concludes that it is ‘dying’ if not ‘already dead.’
His diagnosis is based on his observations and experiences of teaching the Old Testament. He also examines the data of a 2010 survey on religious literacy among the general US populace and analyses sermons, hymnody and the lectionary.
He states that “for many contemporary Christians, at least in North America, the Old Testament has ceased to function in healthy ways in their lives as sacred, authoritative, canonical literature. These individuals—or in some cases, groups of individuals (even entire churches)—do not regard the Old Testament in the same way (or as highly) as the New Testament, do not understand the Old Testament, would prefer to do without the Old Testament, and for all practical purposes do exactly that by means of their neglect and ignorance of it, whether in private devotion or public worship or both (p.5)”.
I come from a country where the Old Testament is still popular and meaningful. Individuals and congregations wrestle with this corpus of Scripture and its multifaceted challenges. Even if people are largely ignorant of the history and scholarly debates surrounding the Old Testament, they are fairly knowledgeable of its contents – the narratives/stories, characters, Psalms, and prophetic preaching. This is aided by regular reading of the Old Testament, and through memorisation and recitation of Scripture both within the home and within the church. The Old Testament and Scripture as a whole are ‘alive and kicking’ and play a predominant role in the spiritual life of the community.
Strawn’s diagnosis is provocative and his recommended remedy for the North American context is to work towards regaining biblical fluency and proficiency. This can be done by employing mechanisms that ensure the survival of biblical languages, the culture, and the history. We need to equip people with the ability to “speak Scripture”, incorporating the Old Testament with all its amazing diversity and challenging complexity into Christian worship, preaching, and hymnody.
What is the status of the Old Testament within the Australian church? How might we improve biblical literacy and fluency, especially of the Old Testament? Perhaps we begin with impressing on our people that the Old Testament is Scripture, and that it was the Scripture that also formed and influenced Jesus Christ who cited it liberally. He questioned it, challenged it, reflected upon it and drew inspiration from it but he did not reject it. Our understanding of the New Testament is impoverished when we distance it and its connections to the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is a library, an anthology, of diverse material and genres from varied times and periods and therefore it contains repetitions, contradictions and counter arguments. Its richness, power, beauty and usefulness lies in the fact that those responsible for creating the canon of the Old Testament did not harmonise these texts so that they would all say the same thing.
Instead, they juxtaposed these writings and we as readers are invited to join the conversation, so to speak, and to arrive at our own conclusions … conclusions that are relevant, edifying and uplifting for the life of the individual and the community.
The many issues the Old Testament addresses, troubling as they might be – violence, gender, ethnicity, nation, land, human injustice, disturbing behaviour of the divine and the like, should not deter us from wrestling with it. It provides opportunity for us to address similar issues today.
There is much to be done in developing biblical literacy – through practice and use – exercised with wisdom, caution and care to ensure the survival, the continuity and relevance of the Old Testament. This is a daunting but necessary task for a church as it strives to live up to its belief that Salvation depends on the Word of God “heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church” (UCA Basis of Union).
The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it. (Amos 8: 11-12, NRSV)
Monica Melanchthon is the Coordinator of Studies-Old Testament at Pilgrim Theological College.