Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Christian Preaching from the Old Testament #1

[This is the first in a serialisation and slight revision of an old essay of mine, in the hope of getting some interaction from others and also making it more accessible.]

Hebrew Scripture for Christian Preaching

One of the Early Church’s most famous heretics, Marcion, decided that the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in Christ were incompatible.  In what was arguably the first attempt to create a Christian canon of scripture, he sought to dispose of the OT entirely and purge OT references from the New Testament.[1]  Notwithstanding Marcion’s many other theological quirks, his objection to the OT is perhaps something we can still relate to.  It is still not uncommon to hear a Christian today describe themselves as a ‘New Testament Christian’ as opposed to an ‘Old Testament Christian.’  Apart from the apparent dichotomy of legalism and grace between the testaments there are also ethical issues raised by the text: genocide, incest and misogyny, among others.   These and other perceived problems translate into a general neglect of the OT as a source for preaching and, when it is used, uncertainty in the appropriate way to do so.[2]  Three problems confront any Christian wanting to preach from the OT: how to relate the OT and NT, how to correctly exegete the OT, and how to discover the contemporary relevance of any particular OT passage.[3] 

However, evangelicals are rightly restrained from following Marcion’s lead, primarily by the NT itself.  Verses such as Luke 24:44 and John 5:40 show Jesus clearly stating that the OT is in some significant sense about him.[4]  Numerous passages in Acts reveal that apostolic preaching repeatedly argued that Christ fulfilled the OT.[5]  The gospels, epistles and Revelation are laced through with OT quotations and allusions to the OT scripture.[6]  In addition to this, the historical record clearly shows that the primary source for the theological reflection of the early church on Jesus Christ was the OT.[7]  So by using the OT as a source for preaching we are following Christ, the Apostles, the authors of the NT and the Early Church Fathers.

Part of the problem arises in the fact that Christ and his early followers drew upon a deep and established tradition of scriptural interpretation that modern scholars only have limited access to and the ordinary Christian has no understanding of.[8]  Not only so, but many of the hermeneutical devices employed quite satisfactorily in the 1st century appear dishonest and unscientific in the 21st.[9]  If the early church relied on Second Temple era hermeneutics to make Christian sense of the OT should present day preachers use the same methods or can modern hermeneutics also find that the OT speaks of Christ?

[1] John Bright,, The Authority of the Old Testament, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997), 16, 60-62; F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, (Glasgow: Chapter House, 1988), 134-144
[2] Steven Mathewson, The art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 13, 23-4; Walter Kaiser, Preaching and teaching oorm the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 10; Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching The Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), VII, XII; SG 15-6; Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 15-16, provides statistical data on the subject, un-named denominational statistics show <20% of Sunday sermons are on OT passages and a preaching journal reports <10% of submission are on an OT text.
[3] Martens, Elmer A., ‘Preaching from the Old Testament: A Bibliographic Essay’ Direction  (April 1982 Vol11 no 2, 30-39), 1. (accessed 16/04/08)
[4] David Peterson, Christ and His People in the Book of Isaiah, (Leicester: IVP, 2003), 12; N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 32
[5] Peterson, Christ and His People in the Book of Isaiah, 23; e.g. Acts 2:16-39, 8:30-35. 13:16-41, 17:2-3. 
[6] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: a comprehensive introduction to Biblical interpretation, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 323, ‘There are approximately three hundred quotes and literally thousands of allusions.’
[7] See Donald Juel, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old testament in Early Christianity; Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 35-6
[8] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who is to Come, (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007); and G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (eds), Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), XXV
[9] See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids:Baker, 2005), 158-160; Of course the operative word here is ‘appear’, but the method of NT writers in their use of the OT is still a topic of considerable debate and requiring knowledge of Second Temple Judaism far beyond most pastors, see Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 332


  1. G.K. Beale's book Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts asks this same question (from the end of your blog entry). Should one use the methods of the NT writers... Longecker says "no" and Beale, answering his own question, says "yes". But Beale qualifies it down to being a "yes" as long as one realizes that the NT writers were sometimes doing it in a descriptive and not normative fashion.

  2. Thanks for the chat today, Jonathan. I look forward to more in this series.

  3. Thanks Justin and Ryan. I've argued this a few times before and we'll hopefully get round to it again, but i think the porblem with a distinction like Beale's is that it is pretty hard to argue that the NT writers were self consciously dividing their uses of OT into normative and descriptive, it is just crazy talk. If you heard a preacher today, you would not be able to analyse his sermon at the end and divide his uses of scripture in to descriptive and normative. It would just be a nonsense exercise based on the predisposition of the analyst. The other problem is people like Rick Warren who claim to copy the NT author's approach to scripture but in fact do not even begin to understand it and just assume that they can proof text willy nilly because that is what they think they see the NT authors doing.

  4. Only just starting this series :(

    And because of various time pressures I'll comment bit by bit...

    You wrote: of the "apparent dichotomy of legalism and grace between the testaments" I'm so glad the "apparent" is in there, as people who see such a dichotomy seem not to have read the prophets :)

  5. Hey, thanks for a really stimulating post, sorry if I keep latching onto details :(

    "Jesus clearly stating that the OT is in some significant sense about him." No he didn't, he said he fulfilled it, and "until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything is fulfilled."

  6. Another detail: "many of the hermeneutical devices employed quite satisfactorily in the 1st century appear dishonest and unscientific in the 21st" note the weasle word "appear" are they or aren't they?

  7. @ Tim. Well if i told you all the answers in the first post, there would be nothing to make you read the rest, would there? :-)

    I take your point about the difference between "about" and "fulfilling", have to think about that.

  8. Tim. I've thought about it and I stand by my original statement. Luke 24:44 and John 5:39-40 are pretty down the line, the scripture concerning (περι) and witnessing to (μαρτυρουσαι περι) Jesus Christ.

  9. The Wright Brothers' aircraft was not about the Concord, but (at least in some senses and provisionally) the Conchord fulfilled the promise in the Wright Brothers' aircraft...

    Because the WBa WAS about humans flying, and Conchord despite its economic and social failings was a superb example of humans flying!


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