Prelude: What’s Going on in the Old Testament Anyway?

The Place of the Old Testament

          As we embark on God’s response to humanity’s revolt against him we face the fact of the Old Testament. This sprawling, daunting, mystifying, complex story occupies the vast majority of the Christian Bible. That alone makes us ask “What’s going on in the Old Testament anyway?”

          The church adopted the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible as their own and joined them to those documents that eventually became the New Testament to form it Bible. So what is the relation they discerned between these two sets of texts that made it possible and plausible to read them together?

The church understood its existence as a part of the long story of what God had been doing in and for the world from creation onwards. However complicated and difficult it may be to understand that relation at points, the fact of the Christian Bible as Old and New Testaments requires us make the effort.

This has not always been the case. Since the middle of the 2nd century till today some have sought to jettison the Old Testament as a hindrance to the proclamation of the Gospel. A leading theologian of the late 19th – early 20th century, Adolf von Harnack, summarized and epitomized this approach in this pithy statement:

          To reject the Old Testament in the second century was a mistake which the church

rightly repudiated; to retain it in the sixteenth century was a fate which the

Reformation could not yet avoid; but to continue to keep it in Protestantism as a

canonical document after the nineteenth century is the consequence of religious

and ecclesiastical paralysis....[T]o sweep the table clean and honor the truth in

confession and teaching is the action required of Protestantism today. And it is

almost too late.”[1]

Whatever else we may want to say about this proposal, perhaps the most damning it that is just this kind of view that separated Jewish faith from Christian faith that lead to the persecution of the Jews throughout western history (often at the instigation of the church) and culminated in the unthinkable horror of the Nazi death camps and Hitler’s “final solution” of the eradication of the Jews. While Harnack thought it “almost too late” to effect this “cleansing” of the Old Testament from Christianity, Hitler proved it far enough along to effect the effort to “cleanse” the west of Jews! A church which reads the whole Christian Bible as the one story of God with humanity through the Jews can never accept such a view of the majority of its Holy Book. The church may and must never forget that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn.4:22).

If the Old Testament is not some mere historical prologue to Christianity that may and must be “cut loose” from it as Harnack proposed, what else may we say about it? The church has never persuasively answered this question in a way that emerges organically from the story our Bible itself tells. Or at least not until quite recently. If the Old Testament is inextricably a part of the church’s Bible, how does it nurture Christian faith in Jesus Christ and equip the church to serve Christ in a world far distant from it in both time and thought?

The majority effort to answer this question was to seek for “Messianic prophecies” in the Old Testament. Verses or passages that could be seen as foretelling the coming of the “Christ” (=Messiah) were highlighted and served as a bridge of sorts between the two testaments. We experience this approach to the Old Testament every Advent in churches that follow the liturgical calendar. Here texts from the prophets (primarily Isaiah) are read, sung, and preached as we anticipate the celebration of the Christ child at Christmas. While there is nothing wrong with such an approach, the relatively few prophecies of this type in the Old Testament form a precarious bridge across the testaments. This paucity of references has advocates of this view to strained efforts to find more of them, often by engaging in allegory. This has only served to reveal the real limitations of such an approach.

Again it is the understanding of the Bible as one story that helps us here. A story differentiated within itself by the six acts of its drama I sketched earlier. Though far distant in time and thought as one act of this story may be from others, each is organically related to the others as the unfolding tale of God’s work to reclaim and restore his creation. Therefore, we may reasonably expect to find resemblances and similarities in the life and work of ancient Israel in spite of the evident differences and distance between them. We come to know which if these resemblances/similarities are significant and helpful for God’s people today by reading and living them in light of the surprising and unexpected act of God for us and our world through Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

Thus, we can capture this continuity as well as the astonishingly new and unexpected turn it takes in Jesus Christ by adapting a saying of St. Augustine: the New (Testament) is prefigured in the Old (Testament); the Old is transfigured in the New.

What about all the Failure in the Old Testament?

But since the story told in the Old Testament is pretty much one of abject failure, the question persists, even if this is the story from which Jesus and the church come out of, what are we to learn from that story of failure itself? If in Jesus the Old is transfigured, that is, we see its true intent and direction, why muck around with all the failure, and disappointment, and death, and sometimes appalling stories we find there? T. F. Torrance is the theologian who has seen deeper than most what is going on in the Old Testament. In his book The Mediation of Christ he writes:

"If we are to know [God] and speak about him in a way that is appropriate to him, we need to have fitting modes of thought and speech, adequate conceptual forms and structures, and indeed reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him. Let us consider God’s historical relations with the people of Israel in just this light. And let us think of it, for a moment rather anthropomorphically, in this way. In his desire to reveal himself and make himself knowable to mankind, he selected one small race out of the whole mass of humanity, and subjected it to intensive interaction and dialogue with himself in such a way that he might mould and shape his people in the service of his self-revelation. Recall Jeremiah’s analogy of the potter at work with his clay, which is so apt here. He takes a lump of clay, throws it down upon the potter’s wheel, and proceeds to rotate it under the steady pressure of his fingers until it is moulded into the kind of vessel suitable for his purpose. But when the clay proves to be lumpy and recalcitrant he breaks it down and remoulds it in accordance with his design, and he does that again and again until he has formed and fashioned a vessel to his liking which will serve his purpose well. That is how the prophets, and St Paul also, regarded Israel, as clay in the hands of the divine Potter which he subjects to his will, yet not in the mechanical way of a human potter with his impersonal handiwork but in the way in which a father imparts distinctive characteristics to his offspring. Thus God established a special partnership of covenanted kinship with Israel, so that within the intimate structure of family relations he might increasingly imprint himself upon the generations of Israel in such a way that it could become the instrument of his great purpose of revelation. 

Far from being restricted to the people of Israel itself, that was a purpose which God had for all mankind, for he took Israel into his hands in this unique way in order to provide the actual means, a whole set of spiritual tools, appropriate forms of understanding, worship and expression, through which apprehension of God could be made accessible to human beings and knowledge of God could take root in the soil of humanity[2] (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 6-7).

Torrance brilliantly integrates the

-“fitting modes of thought and speech,”

-“adequate conceptual forms and structures,” and

-“reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him,”

into the reality of Israel as God’s “covenanted kinship” within the intimacy and order of which he might “imprint himself” on it so that “Israel” could become the instrument of his great purpose of revelation.” 

          Or, in other words, even in Israel’s defiance, duplicity, and denial, the Lord was accomplishing his purposes of creating the “tools and the template” we might say for what it would take to make Israel, and through it, his Abrahamic people (Gen.12), “a light to the nations” (Isa.42:6).

In the terms we have used here, and remembering that God is not in a hurry but respects the patterns and potentialities of change and development in the creatures he made, Jesus comes out from among the people of Israel. That people was chosen to carry the destiny for all other peoples from their inception. Thus they became the “place” where the Lord created and refined his means of achieving his purpose – his presence with humanity in fellowship and peace. The covenant, the temple, the kingdom became the benchmarks through which the rest of the world, and even Israel itself, could finally see and respond to the fulfillment of this purpose in Jesus – God’s covenant, temple, and kingship-in-person. The fullness of meaning of each of those benchmarks, family, presence, and rule, could not be made knowable apart from the path God took with Israel. We owe Israel an incalculable debt in innumerable ways for its election and service of God. Even its failures and foul-ups we have seen God take up and use in achieving his purposes (Rom.9-11). And he will do no less with us!

But Why Israel?[3]

          But why Israel? On the one hand, it’s a presumptuous question. Who are we to interrogate God’s wisdom or choices in this matter? On the other hand, we have already noticed that the manner of God’s acting in choosing and using Israel gave us some important indexes to God’s style of working. And further, God himself reflects on his choice of Israel in the Bible and that gives us some leave to try and think along with him. Deuteronomy 7:78 is classic on this: 

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

But, as Lohfink observes[4], there is a bit more to it than that. In Gen.18:17-19 God muses:

The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

God wants to share with Abraham, and by extension, his family, what he is doing for them, in them, and through them. By this knowledge they may be full participants with him in working toward his purposes. Election is election to serve, and to serve in freedom. They may love God in this service by maintaining loyalty to him. And by doing this they will be a people in whom “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” And this freedom to love God and serve his purposes[5] is the royal priestly duty we have from him.

Election, freedom, and love – these are three words that always belong together. To consider election apart from love and freedom makes one vulnerable to seeing God’s sovereignty in terms of sheer power. And that leads right into the dead ends that end up positioning election or God’s sovereignty/power over against freedom/human power in a contest of strengths.

To lift up freedom apart from election and love is to fall right into the arms of the central preoccupation of the liberal consumeristic capitalism that surrounds us all. “Choice” is the be all and end all of this ethos and an emphasis on free and unconstrained choice in religion would fit hand-in-glove with its dicta.     

Love apart from election and freedom threatens to devolve into sentimentality, emotion, or “feeling.” With no source beyond us and no end to direct us, “love” proves itself an inadequate and unreliable guide for us. Love (pace The Beatles) is not all we need. Or better, God’s love is the basis and norm of human love providing it with both a source and an end or goal that gives love shape and form.

God’s election of us is based in his love and his love aims for the freedom of his creatures. It has nothing to do with some pre-temporal sorting by God of those who will be saved and those who won’t. Rather, “God freely chooses or predestines himself and all humans to be in loving relationship with and through Jesus Christ. God will have it no other way; he loves humanity and will not be without humanity.”[6]

It is God’s eternal love of and his being forever for us that makes our freedom possible. And God wants our free response to his love. Not automatons. Not captive forces made to obey. Not coerced in any way. Thus, election, freedom, and love embrace as the most radical way to express the grace of the gospel. No wonder Karl Barth claims that election is the “sum of the gospel.”[7]

God chooses humanity to be his, to be free in relation to him, and in that freedom to love each other.

That election as we find it in the Bible is indeed the “sum of the gospel” is best seen in God’s creation of a small new family through Abraham and Sarah. Lohfink captures this well:

“It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, no through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have the opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.”[8]

These dynamics we have observed in this section lie at the heart of what is going on in the Old Testament. They must also reside in our hearts and minds if we hope to read this ancient story to our benefit and edification.





[1] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1921), 127, 222.
[2]Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ
[3]For this section I depend on sections 5 and 6 of Part 1 of Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?: Toward a Theology of the People of God (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999).
[4] Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?, 31.
[5] A Declaration of Faith, ch.1, l.46: “To serve God is perfect freedom.”
[7] "The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best." Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics, V.II.7.32)
[8] Lohfink, Does God Need the Church, 27.



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