An article in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK) addressing Christianity's relationship with the Old Testament. Click 'Read More'!
As Christians, we have an inevitable tendency to focus our attention on the New Testament of The Bible. It is there that we come to know Jesus Christ. And it is from there that we extract so much of what has become the church, Christian tradition, and our own identities.
I like to suggest that the New Testament is often aspirational. It encourages us with the ideal: ideal forms of discipleship, ideal forms of ministry, ideal forms of prayer, and ideal forms of self-sacrifice. In a world so broken, we often need to be confronted with the ideal. For by seeing the ideal that is Christ we come into an awareness of our own brokenness and sin, and yet God’s undying love for us.
By contrast, Christians have had a historically uneasy relationship with the Old Testament. It often seems foreign and strange to us. While we may use it to orient ourselves to the coming Christ, we are often left perplexed by it when considered on its own. Its heroes – those like Moses and David – are themselves highly complex and sometimes contradictory. In its pages we find genocide, violence, misogyny, slavery, and evil of the most profound sort. Perhaps most distressing is the reality that we see God – as opposed to simply man - doing and commanding things which often seem unconscionable.
The challenge comes in our frequent inability to reconcile God as presented in the Old Testament to God’s self revelation in Christ as presented in the New Testament.
Even the name “Old Testament” makes it seem less relevant than the “New Testament”.
In a word, the Old Testament is messy.
However, in the Old Testament we also find a God who – in spite of everything – will not abandon His people.
I wish that I could suggest that my own journey towards the ministry was more New Testament-like than Old. I wish I could tell you that my accepting of God’s call in my life was like that of Peter and his brother Andrew. You will recall from Matthew 4:18-20 that these brothers had been working as simple fishermen at the Sea of Galilee. When Christ speaks to them they cannot resist: they dropped all that they had and followed him. It is a very New Testament sort of discipleship: ideal and aspirational.
Unlike Peter and Andrew, my own story probably more closely resembles that of Jacob. In Genesis 32:22-31 we find Jacob not willfully submitting to God but, rather, physically wrestling with the spirit of God. All night Jacob and the spirit engage in conflict. Indeed, at the end of the night Jacob is wounded and limping. But he is blessed.
In much the same way I wrestled with God’s call to the pastorate in my life. I pushed it aside, desiring to do other things. I denied it, telling myself that God wouldn’t want me. I refused it, preferring instead a life that seemed more stable and predictable. In short, I fought it for years.
But God wrestled with me. He didn’t allow me to give up on his Word. And finally, at daybreak, He overpowered me. Finally submitting to His will I was a little beaten up: but I felt blessed. And, now, writing from Princeton Seminary I feel, finally, as though I am on the track that God wants me to be on.
This underscores the rationale for falling in love (or back in love as the case may be) with the Old Testament. Messy and confusing as it may be, it is a deeply relatable body of texts. Our world bears similarities with the world of the Old Testament, and we often bear similarities to the characters of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is messy because our world is messy.
In today’s world the Kingdom of God can seem like a distant or imaginative idea, a dream even. But the Old Testament reminds us that in that swirling chaos God still remains loyal. God’s love for us endures the troubles that characterise the human condition. It reminds us that our doubts, our betrayals, our losses, our joys, and our rejections are no match for the enduring love of God.
There can be no doubt that, as Christians, the whole of the Bible serves as an invaluable resource for faith. It is, in its entirety, the bedrock of Christianity – especially in our Reformed tradition. But we do well to remember that the Old Testament exists in our canon not simply as a prologue to the New Testament but as a meaningful, rich, and deeply relevant element in its own right. It has been, for me, a guide and friend throughout my journey. I pray that is, or becomes, a friend to you as well on your own unique journey.