Don’t unhitch from preaching and teaching fullness of the OT
By including the Old Testament in our teaching, we actively find ways to connect the ancient roots of our faith to the stories about Jesus, bringing together one coherent, metanarrative.
For some Star Wars fans, the Original Trilogy is the story’s only canon. The seven additional movies detailing what preceded those films and what follows are the subject of great controversy, with episodes four through six the default story because they are the ones people generally agree are the core of this universe. Unfortunately, it seems frequently our preaching and teaching reflect a similar attitude. Though unintentional, many drift into a comfortable canon within a canon, gravitating towards a theological core comprised largely of the Pauline epistles.
A large percentage of sermons come from the New Testament, while the Old Testament accounts for roughly 70 percent of space in our Bibles. While the information contained therein is essential for the Christian life, we risk doing a grave disservice to our sisters and brothers by excluding, even if by accident, the OT from our preaching and teaching rotation.
An athlete who focuses exclusively on their arm strength will be malformed overall, and if we are forgetful, we risk malformation of our congregants in a similar fashion by overlooking the variety of formative aspects the OT offers. By utilizing the sum of the canon, we can better hope to speak across the swath of human emotions and ensure our people are holistically shaped.
The canon and the problem
Given the importance of the New Testament, it’s understandable why it is the focus of so many sermons. It tells us the good news about Jesus, the early church, and establishes a theological foundation on which we now stand and gives us the hope of how the story ends. But even among those letters, there is an affinity towards Paul’s works. This is not borne from malice — the cultural gap is much smaller than the Old Testament, it’s familiar, and his straightforward and rationalist approach simplifies the exegetical process. In the Old Testament, the language is incredibly different, theology is filtered through narrative, and the cultural differences seem more pronounced. It is enigmatic.
A didactic curriculum revolving around Paul (and other epistles) almost to exclusion of much else immediately presents two problems. First, there is a pedagogical element which incorporates not just what is being said, but also how. That is, if the locus is syllogisms and deduction, we can miss how the Old Testament speaks to the whole of human emotions. Since we are not simply brains on a stick, we must reckon with Scripture which discusses this wide range, including things like joy and sorrow, mystery and doubt. Second, we risk diverting people from a love of Scriptures if their experiences and the questions they wrestle with are absent from our teaching. That is, if a person needs to cry it is helpful for them to see others in Scripture cry (like King David and other psalmists) and not just talk about crying.
As a remedy to this, it is helpful to consider ways that a thorough and holistic approach to the canon of Scripture can form Christians in a fuller manner. To that end, here are three examples of how the Old Testament pictures the full range of human emotions.
There are moments we’ve experience of unbridled joy, such as when the Cowboys (or your favorite team) make the playoffs, an engagement occurs, or a friend receives that promotion they’ve worked for. Life is hard and celebration is uplifting, but is helps to witness it instead of merely discussing it. For example, in 2 Samuel 6 David dances over the return of the Ark of the Covenant. The king of Israel, one of the most important figures in the OT dances. Was it the Wobble? The Floss? We can only speculate, but his happiness is palpable. Hannah rejoices in the Lord in 1 Samuel 2 and joy is found littered across the Psalms — Psalm 95 drips with euphoria.
Anxiety and fear
Likewise, people have moments of great distress, of lament, fear, and doubt. After all, Jesus was a man of sorrows. These things do not define us, but are a part of life that everyone experiences. Marilynne Robinson puts it well when she says, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” And this brokenness is common to the Old Testament. Moses exhibits trepidation at going before Pharaoh in Exodus 3-4, and we see many examples of grief over the death of a child, too (Gen. 37:34; 2 Sam. 12:16; Job 3). And among the many psalms, there is an entire book of lament. This feeling can overwhelm even those who have done great things, as we see in Elijah, who, having just defeated the prophets of Baal, flees for his life (1 Kings 19) and is later comforted.
There is a profound sense of beauty to which the Old Testament speaks, which we can easily miss when focusing exclusively on granular aspects of Pauline exegesis. Psalm 104 is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry ever written and unparalleled in its evocative imagery.
The complexity of language in Ezekiel is illustrative of what he witnessed, profundity exhibited not only with the words used, but the ones unused too. Even the Genesis story testifies to the beauty of creation by incorporating poetic elements with a careful and meaningful creation story.
In the Old Testament, theology is extolled through stories. Happiness, fear, pain, confusion, struggles, and liberation all compose the history recorded from Genesis to Malachi and provide valuable insight into how these elements have played a role in the story we share.
However, it is not important simply because the text teaches us, but also because people approach the text with hopes that it can address their situations too. When a person becomes adept in theological concepts but has no bearing of comfort, we have missed an opportunity to speak truth and speak love into their life. The Bible has application to people through history and across cultures, and we should take steps to connect the text and its application to our congregants to ensure they are fully formed, emotions and all. This is one of the values of preaching and teaching from the Old Testament as it speaks to the complex emotional experiences we all go through, shaping us in every facet from our rational approach to faith all the way down to how our emotions interact with our beliefs too.
How do church leaders apply the OT themselves?
There are a few things this means for us and ways we as pastors, teachers, and leaders can apply this to our lives.
First, it highlights the importance of knowing deeply where our church members are and what they need, not just focusing on what we enjoy focusing on. Some churches may thrive on assiduous exegesis of certain passages while others learn better from biblically comprehending new portions of their childhood stories. If we fail to grasp what our people need we can miss the chance to teach and form them more fully into the image of Christ.
Second, this harkens us to turn our attention back towards the Old Testament. The text which was Jesus, Peter, and Paul used is one which we could all learn from. Instead of only discussing common stories of the Old Testament there is an opportunity to broaden people’s understanding of how God operates and how faith works in salvation history. It should remind us that the Old Testament should be regularly brought into discussion, if not for holistic formation (including the development of our emotions) but also because it will better prepare our people for understanding God’s Word fully and growing in grace.
Ultimately, it is important because our faith is not restricted to the New Testament. Common refrains note the huge differences between the Old and New Testaments, often artificial and lacking in substance. By including the Old Testament in our teaching, we actively find ways to connect the ancient roots of our faith to the stories about Jesus, bringing together one coherent, metanarrative.
The Bible is a dynamic book and we are complex people; our teaching ought to be treated as such.