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Christian Preaching on the Old Testament #7

[This is the seventh 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. Funnily enough this section was judged by its one time marker as being totally pointless, but although perhaps it could use a rewrite I think the basic point it makes is hugely important. (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)]

The issue of authority

Kasier argues forcefully that Christians need the OT for ‘doctrine, ethics, practical living, and preaching.’[1]  Because the NT presupposes the OT many important subjects that the OT covers are not dealt with by the NT.  Both Bright and Goldingay suggest that the NT focus on explaining Christ from the OT was a response to 1st C. Jews struggling to understand the Christ who had come, rather than an exposition of the OT as a whole.[2]  But even if this is the case the NT does not provide us with a clear method for appropriating the OT for Christian interpretation.  The NT, with the gospels presenting Jesus as teacher and exemplar and the epistles giving pastoral and theological instruction to the early church, is the sort of literature that lends itself well to being authoritative.  With regard to authorial intent, it is clearly written with its own authority in mind.  But the literary forms of the OT cannot carry authority in the same way.  In what way are we to understand that aphoristic wisdom literature, strange narratives of incest or rape, erotic poetry, or ancient sacrificial rites, have authority over Christians?[3]  Even the legal passages are written to religious and national circumstances which no longer exist.

Peterson suggests that ‘The inspiration, unity and authority of Scripture are practically demonstrated and pastorally experienced as these ancient texts are expounded in the light of God’s ultimate purpose for us in Christ.’[4]  If this is true then authority is not a static characteristic of the text so much as the result of an experience with that text.  Not only so but Schleiermacher’s approach to texts that divides understanding from application is no longer useful, instead an approach like Hans-Georg Gadamer’s makes sense:

In both legal and theological hermeneutics there is an essential tension between the fixed text - the law or the gospel - on the one hand and, on the other, the sense arrived at by applying it at the concrete moment of interpretation, either in judgement or in preaching.  A Law does not exist in order to be understood historically, but to be concretized in its legal validity by being interpreted.  Similarly, the gospel does not exist in order to be understood as a merely historical document, but to be taken in such a way that it exercises its saving effect…  Understanding here is always application.[5] 

For a text to have authority over us it must also apply to us.   Although Kaiser and Mathewson intend to save the OT from being flattened out to only say what the NT says their approach using the bridge paradigm instead flattens out the OT into being an analogical vehicle carrying abstract theological principles.  The  inherent probloem with this is that by not relating the text first to Jesus Christ, they negate any connection the text has with the Christian audience.  The contradiction arises because their theology of scripture as divinely inspired is divorced from their hermeneutic which exegetes the OT as a purely human creation, only attributing authority to the principles discovered therein.

The Principlizing Bridge, while providing a method for relating the OT to Christians does not provide the authority for doing so.  We could equally well use it to relate Gilgamesh, Beowulf or any other ancient text to our congregations.  The contemporary Christian is most likely not a Jew, the OT is not their history.  Their commitment is to Christ, who we worship, not a collection of old books gathered by men.  Only if Christ is to be found in those books can those books claim authority over the Christian.[6]  The only way the OT can have authority over Christians is if it is a source of truth about Christ.  In this sense we can also argue that the only way the OT can be found to be relevant to modern life is through Christ.  Kaiser and Mathewson are rightly concerned to let each text speak with its own voice rather than allowing all texts to be seen purely as illustrations of the interpreter’s own theology.  But is their expectation that the voice of each text will speak, in principle, to today’s Christians valid?

[1] Kaiser, Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, 40
[2] Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament,  204; Goldingay, Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation, 113
[3] Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament,  18
[4] Peterson, Christ and His People in the Book of Isaiah,  25
[5] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans Garrett Barden and John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 309-10.  Cited in John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story, 28-29.
[6] In this way we do not worship Christ because we find him in the Bible but we read the Bible because in it we find Christ.  To not make this distinction is idolatry.


  1. "Only if Christ is to be found in those books can those books claim authority over the Christian."

    Great stuff, Jonathan. I've enjoyed this series. At the same I've been listening to Tim Keller's series on itunes on preaching Christ, which has been really helpful too.

  2. Thanks Ryan, your future congregation is going to be blessed to have a pastor who cares about preaching Christ!

  3. I wonder why your marker considered this section as totally pointless. I think I agree with the criticism. The problem in the section is the use of the word authority. People usually use it to prove a point 'so there'. E.g. a trivial example from a film I watched recently on a long plane trip. The Bishop wanted power over the people and a woman was teaching men so he used the text "I do not allow a woman to teach a man" as a law against such things and the woman was then stoned to death by the Christians. No one seemed to be able to read the text as representing a state of affairs in a particular place and time, but all including the woman's father were forced to read it as a law that gave authority to punish and destroy.

    Perhaps that was not your marker's criticism but I suspect many who cannot read still use the text this way and make a hatchet job of Gospel.

  4. There is nothing in the NT that gives authoirty to stone people for anything quite the opposite. To not point that out is gross dishonesty.

    As to the question, well I guess context is probably an important indicator of how you consider authority to important. I live and work in communities of faith who look to the scriptures to help them discern God's will, it is the primary authority in our lives so understanding how that authority does and should operate is essential. On the other hand if we dispense with it we are merely left with everyone's opinions and the good bishop still gets to stone rebellious women because there is no means to callenge his authority with a higher one. In an evangelical community no man can trump scripture, but if someone should try to use scripture as a trump card then we best be sure we are clear underwhat circumstances they are allowed to do so. The marker gave no reason, I suspect he just didn't get my point and couldn't be bothered working it out! Plus he was an academic not a preacher so he was probably approaching the question from a different angle.


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