I begin teaching a class tomorrow, under the umbrella of our local community college – there are usually 40 to 50 non-Orthodox who attend these weekly classes. But my subject is “Christ and the God of the Old Testament.” From many conversations over the years I hear more confusion about the Old Testament from Christians many of whom have opted for some quiet form of Marcionism. That is, many simply dismiss the Old Testament as inferior to the New, or that the revelation contained in it is enfeebled, or worse yet, that the God depicted in the Old Testament is somehow different than the God revealed in Jesus Christ. “I don’t believe in the Old Testament God,” is the way it is sometimes boldly stated.
There is nothing at all new about this situation. The early Christian community faced the same challenge (after all, Marcion was not a New Testament professor at Tubingen). But the Church has frequently failed to teach to Scriptures as understood and interpreted by Tradition. I’m not sure where to place blame (or if it’s even important). But the fact is that the Old Testament remains a closed book for most Christians.
This is a great tragedy since when the New Testament says “Scripture” it means what we mean by “Old Testament.” All that Christ did and accomplished was “in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is part of the proclamation of the primitive Church – indeed it is embedded in our Creed.
However, in order to understand what the early Church meant by this phrase, we have to start with the New Testament rather than the Old. We have to learn to read the Old through the New, for Christ said, “These are they which testify of me” (Jn. 5:39). This is among the most radical of Jesus’ claims. His statement is that the entirety of the Old Testament is in fact a witness of Himself – it is about Him. Thus we hear in Luke’s gospel that while he spoke with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he [Christ] interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27).
At some point Christians ceased to look at Scripture in the way that Scripture looks at Scripture and yielded it up captive to various historical theories (literalism and historical criticism are simply two sides of the same historical coin). With Scriptures captivity to history, its truth is captive as well and the book remains closed and our hearts are blind.
Fr. John Behr has probably written as well on this in recent years as anyone. I have made reference to his work earlier and continue to commend it.
But if we are to understand the Scriptures we must begin with the One whose life is “in accordance” with them. Otherwise we remain lost and blind.
This is one of the greatest things that I have learned by becoming and continuing to put on the Orthodox mind, is how to interpret Holy Scripture correctly. I don’t have the gift of Jesus opening my mind and heart, though I know a few people who THINK they do, so I must rely on His church to help me out. I am so grateful I have Her to help me! 🙂
and Fr. Stephen’s blog too!
The Old Testament can be so difficult to interpret and understand.
I have often thought: How great to be able to listen to that sermon on the way to Emmaus as Jesus himself explained how each part of the Old Testament was a picture of the Christ.
Then one day in Matins it occured to me. I do get to hear that sermon. Undoubtedly those two listeners on the road faithfully passed on Christ’s teachings, and the Lord likely said the same things to others. Those beautiful pictures and images of Christ in the Old Testament now show up in abundance in the church, especially in the stichera of vespers and matins.
I remember how for such a long time I wondered what Aaron’s flowering rod was about in the ark of the covenent. The manna clearly foreshadows the eucharest and the Decalogue points to the gospels, both of which are staples in the New Temple.
Then during a service where flowers are poured all over the cross I finally saw Aaron’s rod in today’s church. But someone pointed out to me that the allusion had been in the stichera all along.
No doubt becoming Orthodox made the OT come alive to me. Dean is right about the hymns of the church enlightening the OT. I teach adult Sunday School at my parish and we have spent some time in the OT over the years. One year we used the Canon of St. Andrew as a template for learning the OT. We walked through each ode and explained each OT allusion and how it related to what St. Andrew was teaching.
Next year, I think I am going to do a class about the OT sacrificial system via Leviticus. As Fr. Jon Braun says it is a “primer for the Eucharist”. Hopefully the Orthodox Study Bible for the OT will be published soon.
While a Protestant, our church participated in the Bethel Series. It is a Lutheran based course of study and material. It is a two year program of instensive (college level)study; one year dedicated to the Old Testament and the second year dedicated to the New Testament. I described it to others as, “Showing us the golden thread of Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, from the beginning of Genesis to Revelation.” It gave a wonderful overview of the big picture.
What an amazing program of study! I was privileged to complete the course of study and became a ‘certified’ teacher. I taught the material for four years and watch the lives of over 100 people be transformed through God’s grace.
It was this program of study that prepared my heart for Orthodoxy. Subsequent to the Bethel Series, I started working on my Bachelor’s degree and took a course “The History and Theology of Eastern Orthodoxy.” And here I am…two years in the Church.
Many years ago I also participated in a study of the History of Israel which took us through Chronicles and Kings. THAT was totally amazing! I came to love both books because of that study.
Understanding and embracing of the revelations in the Old Testament are crucile to our love for the Trinity.
It would perhaps be nice to have an OT reading in the Byzantine morning liturgy, but if you keep the full cycle (beginning with the hours and Vespers, starting on Saturday) you still get an OT reading many times. I rather like that. Time to work it through rather than trying to make one service do everything.
One of the positive changes to the Roman Rite, I think, was the inclusion of an Old Testament reading for Sunday liturgy. It almost always directly mirrors the Gospel.
I understand the Episcopal Church adopted the Roman Rite lectionary in most places. Any thoughts on your experience w/ that, Father?
but if you keep the full cycle (beginning with the hours and Vespers, starting on Saturday) you still get an OT reading many times
Agreed. But not everybody prays the full cycle of liturgy.
I was speaking more of how the Roman Rite tried to be explicit in putting Old Testament typology directly in line w/ the Gospel. It seems to be a source for some potential good preaching. It’s probably the one change to the Roman Rite that’s a positive improvement.
Don’t worry. I’m not trying to trick you into saying something positive about the Roman Church and her lectionary. 🙂
I attend a Byzantine Catholic church. But our pastor and a few of us attend a Roman Catholic bible study that’s based upon the Roman lectionary. The best part of the night is comparing the OT and NT readings.
I am a new reader of your blog, so perhaps this has been covered. But I am quite keen to get a synopsis of your class. A sort-of-lapsed-Catholic in a Bible study I lead has asked how to explain to his son the violence which is commanded by God in the OT. I talked to my priest and then sent this fellow an answer, but I would be curious to hear from you about it.
The Fathers of the Church read the OT largely backwards, starting at Christ, thus the result was often allegorical or spiritualized. The violence was not treated as a command or example of literal violence but a reference to our own spiritual violence in our struggle against sin. Jesus’ rebuked his disciples when they suggested calling down fire from heaven to consume a village say, “You know not what Spirit you are of.”
In a sense, the Christian claim is that we cannot read the OT apart from Christ. He is the key, its meaning in all things.