It is indisputable that even evangelical Christians demonstrate a neglect of and ignorance towards the first three quarters of the Bible. Ironically, the evangelical view of Scripture itself can make the problem worse. For the “modernist” is happy to dismiss as crude and primitive those parts of the Old Testament which he finds morally offensive. The “conservative,” on the other hand, has to find some way of reconciling his view of the Old Testament as the Word of God with such things as…Israel’s slaughter of the Canaanites, the cursing of enemies in some Psalms, or the wide prescription of capital punishment in the law of Moses. Even if parts of the Old Testament do not appear morally reprehensible to the “conservative” Christian, other parts appear to be completely irrelevant.
For some, the problem with the Old Testament is simply that on the whole they find it dry and uninteresting; it is wordy, cumbersome, and confusing. Whatever their view of Scripture, the sheer weight and complexity of this collection of ancient books (more than three times the bulk of the New Testament) leads to boredom, apathy, and neglect rather than deliberately thought-out rejection.
There is a simple way to avoid these difficulties. Our consciences are less likely to prick us for the neglect of the Old Testament if we are giving ourselves to the study of the New! After a while the Old Testament drops right out of sight and that does not cause us any pain at all.
Happily there are people who still read the Old Testament. Their conviction that the Old Testament is part of God’s written revelation is no doubt partly responsible for this. Also, if it is interpreted correctly, the Old Testament yields much to interest both young and old. Children’s teachers and designers of Sunday school curricula are among the most consistent users of the narratives of ancient Israel, for they contain a wealth of excitement and human interest to capture the imagination of children of all ages. Tell a good story about one of Israel’s battles and you can have the kids on the edge of their seats! Yet pitfalls abound for the teacher who wants to draw out a Christian message from the Old Testament, though they may not be apparent until the unity of the Bible is understood.
A Wrong Turn
Failure to recognize the unity of Scripture led some of the early expositors to follow false trails. The emergence of the allegorical method of interpretation in the early church provides a good example. Because much of the Old Testament was seen as unhelpful or sub-Christian, the only way to save it for Christian use was to distinguish a hidden “spiritual” sense, concealed behind the natural meaning.
Allegory seemed to be a legitimate method of interpretation because it was controlled by the content of the New Testament or, later on, by church dogma. What was lacking, however, was the kind of control the New Testament itself applied when it used the Old Testament. Instead, the relationship between the natural meaning of the Old Testament and the teachings of the New was left to the ingenuity of the expositor. One serious effect of the allegorical method was that it tended to hinder people from taking the historical or natural sense of the Old Testament seriously.
Nor did this problem exist only for the Old Testament. In the Middle Ages, the logic was taken a step further. Not only was the “unhelpful” natural sense of the Old Testament given its spiritual sense from the natural sense of the New Testament. Even the natural sense of the New Testament was seen to require its own spiritual interpretation, which was found in the tradition of the church. Thus, authority now lay, not in the natural meaning of the canon of Scripture, but in the teachings of the church as it interpreted the spiritual meaning according to its own dogma.
The Reformation Return
It was the Protestant Reformers who helped the Christian church see again the importance of the historical and natural meaning of Scripture, so that the Old Testament could be regarded as having value in itself. When the Reformers recovered the authority of the Bible, they not only reaffirmed a biblical doctrine of the church and salvation, but also a biblical doctrine of Scripture. Protestant interpretation was based upon the concept of the perspicuous (clear and self-interpreting) nature of the Bible. By removing an authority for interpretation from outside the Bible—the infallible church—the Reformers were free to accept and see the principles of interpretation that are contained within the Bible itself.
So the self-interpreting Scriptures became the sole rule of faith-Sola Scriptura was a rallying cry of the Reformation. The right of interpretation was restored to every believer, but this did not mean that the principles of interpretation found within the Bible could be overlooked and every Christian follow his own whim. The allegorical method became far less popular, because the historical meaning of the Old Testament was found to be significant on its own, within the unity of the Bible.
Perhaps we understand the Protestant position better in the light of other great principles which emerged at the Reformation. The Reformers maintained that salvation is a matter of grace alone, by Christ alone, through faith alone. “Grace alone” meant that salvation is God’s work alone, unconditioned by anything that man is or does. “Christ alone” meant that the sinner is accepted by God on the basis of what Christ alone has done. “Faith alone” meant that the only way for the sinner to receive salvation is by faith whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed (credited) to the believer.
What did this have to do with the Old Testament? It meant that the Reformers were establishing a method of biblical interpretation in which the natural historical sense of the Old Testament has significance for Christians because of its organic relationship to Christ. God’s grace, seen in his dealings with Israel, is part of a living process which comes to its climax in his work of grace, the gospel, that is in the historical events of the Christ who is Jesus of Nazareth. Just as it is important to assert that this Old Testament salvation history must be interpreted by the Word, Jesus Christ, it is also important to recognize that the gospel is God acting in history-more specifically, through the history of Jesus.
Medieval theology had internalized and subjectivized the gospel to such an extent that the basis of acceptance with God, of justification, was no longer what God did once for all in Christ, but what God was continuing to do in the life of the Christian. This dehistoricizing of what God had done once and for all in the gospel went hand in hand with the allegorizing of the history of the Old Testament. The Reformation recovered the historical Christ-event (the gospel) as the basis of our salvation and, in turn, the objective importance of Old Testament history.