Sep 8, 2007

What's the Best Way to Read the Old Testament?

Or to ask the question a different way, what's the right 'direction' to read the Old Testament? I love reading the Old Testament and get stuck in it from time to time. A great deal of my personal Bible reading lately has been in Exodus-Deuteronomy. I'm beginning to move into Joshua. One of the questions I have while I read Joshua is how it relates to the New Testament.

Like many parts of the Old Testament, Joshua is hard to read and get a lot out of because it is largely a historical narrative of Israel's conquest of the promised land. Some critical scholars think that Joshua is worthless for Christians because of the concept of Holy War it details. As an evangelical, I can't share that opinion. Moreover, I'm critical of the reasons. So I went looking for some info. I found a good article at the always trustworthy Biblical Theology Briefings website.

They've posted a good essay on Biblical Theology by Gordon McConville. I love his commentary on Deuteronomy in the Apollos/Pillar series by IVP. The link will take you to a PDF of a lecture he gave at the Finlayson Memorial Lecture in 2001, entitled, "Biblical Theology: Canon and Plain Sense."

Some excerpts...

What is Biblical Theology? At the simplest level, it is letting the Bible speak today... the issue at stake is how the Bible might be used in church and the world... Indeed, Biblical Theology is in essence an activity of the church. The spirit of it's recovery as a concept is precisely the conviction that the Bible belongs to the church, as its inheritance, and that the church may not be deprived of it by hegemonic academicism that effectively frustrates its use. The church's interpretation of the Bible, for itself and for the world, is not only its right, but its obligation. In this sense Biblical Theology has important parallels with that other primary activity of biblical interpretation, preaching. (Emphasis mine).

One of the more interesting questions he analyzes, and what is central to Biblical Theology, is how the Old Testament relates to the Christ and if the Old Testament, therefore, can be read in a "plain sense" way. This is a very important question. McConville puts it like this:

"Does the Old Testament, in its communicative intentions, help us understand the full range of the meaning of the Christ-event? Or are parts of the Old Testament's witness ruled out on the basis of a Christology derived from a method that gives priority to New Testament texts?"

To put it another way, does the OT stand on it's own in its "plain sense" or does it have to be read differently now that Christ has come? He takes as a test case the idea of Holy War in Joshua, a theme that underlies one of the imprecatory Psalms that says "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Ps 137:9).

The idea of a 'plain sense', in my view, faces a more immediate test where the Testaments appear to disagree. Pslam 137, and behind it, Joshua and the Holy War strand of the Old Testament, is such a case. Here is a test, sharper than most, of the capacity of Biblical Theology to sustain the witness of the Old Testament in its theological synthesizing.

He dismisses Brevard Childs' and James Barr's interpretive techniques that essentially state that the event is single and unreapeatlbe (Childs) or "the Bible is simply wrong on this" (Barr). McConville, as an evangelical, cannot agree with Barr on the basis of the Bible's authority and offers a much stronger theological method than Childs.

McConville interprets Joshua and Holy War within the context of the Old Testament which provides a good basis for understanding Holy War in the New Testament. In essence he displays his method of Biblical Theology - one I wholeheartedly agree with - and one that I think we should emulate.

"If the Book of Joshua is to participate in a canonical theology then it must be possible to say what its role is... We can ask whether this part of the two-testament canon teaches something in particular that the other parts do not, and how it does so in relation to Scripture's witness to Christ."
[We'll never get anywhere with the hard parts of the Bible unless we are willing to do some hard and clear thinking!]

McConville's Method

1) Consider Joshua's position in the canon, vis-a-vis the Pentatuech and the rest of the OT
  • It continues the narrative of Numbers-Deuteronomy.
  • It marks the end of the wilderness non-posession of the land and is a prelude to posessing it.
2) Look to how the theme of Holy War and conquest are developed by latter parts of the OT.
  • Reading Psalm 2 and Isaiah help us understand that God's rule through the messiah over his enemies, and the ultimate eschatological rule of YHWH, will know no bounds (Is 60-66). "[T]he element of victory continues to be represented by the language of conquest, and the pictures of salvation are shot through with those of subjugation."
3) The NT reflections on the victory of God are expressed in terms of the life, sufferings, and death of Jesus. "The victory of God is won in the heavenly places."
  • The victory of Jesus is a victory over the world and the powers that hold sway in it. "The coming of the kingdom is described in the language of violence at least twice in Jesus sayings (Matt 10:34; 11:12)."
  • The story of the church in Acts is a story of contention in which rulers like Felix, Agrippa and Caesar loom large.
  • Rome as Babylon in Revelation is the empire that is judged by God using Holy War language reminiscent of the Old Testament. Compare Rev 17:1-18:24 with Jer 50-51.
4) Summary

"What is the proper direction of canonical reading? That is, should a Christian read forward from the Old Testament to the New? If so, does one read the Old Testament first as if without knowledge of the New, as might be implied by a commitment to 'plain sense'." So asks McConville. His answer, in short, is yes and no.

Yes, we should read the OT towards the New! And importantly, a forward movement is structured into the Old Testament, and failing to understand that can lead to a misreading of the OT. What he's saying, I think is this. Read the OT in it's plain sense, which inevitably takes you forward to the NT. Furthermore, as his method illustrates, we have to read the OT in context and follow the development of themes. Too often, I'm afraid, we simply either radically allegorize the Old Testament or ignore its witness altogether. The main problem, though, is that we usually don't listen to the whole Bible, just parts of it. And the solution to that, I think, is to keep reading the Bible. And then read it some more.


Charlie said...

I was beginning to wonder if there were any "Evangelical Anglicans" out there. Looks like an interesting blog.

I have a blog dedicated to Reformed Anglican theology and Reformed/Calvinist theology at


Charlie Ray

Tim Chesterton said...

Very interesting article, Scott. I'm also a newcomer to your blog. More of an 'Anabaptist Anglican' than an 'evangelical Anglican' - but the problem of the OT is common to us all.

I've recently read Tom Wright's 'The Last Word' (published in the UK as 'Scripture and the Authority of God'). He poses the question of what it means to say that a book that is 90% narrative is 'authoritative'. He explores the idea of the authority of a story, and the vital importance of knowing where in the story you are.

The Old Testament, in his view, is an earlier stage of the story. The early church thus understood that parts of it were still applicable to their life, but other parts were not, because the coming of Jesus had brought the story of Israel to its appointed climax, and a new stage of salvation history had begun.

There seems to be an interesting summary of the book on Wright's website here.

Scott said...

Yeah, I agree with what Wright is probably trying to do, which is pay attention to the progressive nature of the revelation. I think McConville is trying to do that too. He's trying to show that we don't simply dismiss the OT for bad reasons, but instead show that themes find their fulfillment in Christ. How they are fulfilled is harder, and Beale in _The Right Doctrine from the Worng Texts?_ argues for several different ways (typological fulfillment, allusion, direct fulfillment, framework, etc.). So readings in the OT that don't take into account the witness of the NT fail the test of validity, in my opinion. Alternatively, not all of the OT relates to Christ. Much of it does not for generic or historical reasons (a narrative for instance). What McConville does well, in my view, is to argue against the unstated adversary - the "literalist" or the "plain sense' white elephant. This kind of reader often reads the text and jumps straght from text to application in a number of different ways; sometimes moralistically, sometimes allegroically, sometimes in a way that is utterly unique to the reader (post-modernly?). McConville, and others, would stress that there is a proleptic (future/forward oriented) trajectory built in to the text itself, that when failed to be percieved and followed, would result in a 'plain sense' mis-reading of the text. Hence, being Christ-centered and future-oriented in a reading is actually what the text would lead us to do. It's not something foisted artificially on the text by fancy exegetes. And it isn't just something that we suddenly decide to do because the apostles say so (cf. the famous sayings by Jesus in Luke and John that the OT testifies to him) but it's actually already there in the OT.

Sunny said...

Hi Scott,

Just stumbled across your blog today in the process of searching for Mark Ashton talks (it was quite a convoluted trip).

In regards to biblical theology, I was just wondering if you had any thoughts/comments on the works by Graeme Goldsworthy. I used to live in Brisbane (Australia) but now reside in Sydney, and around these parts, that's the most prominent name associated with BT. I'm keen to know if you have any thoughts on his writings.