How Not to Read the Old Testament

Preaching Christ in All of Scripture Diagram

“Some people have understandably been deterred from the kind of Christ-centered approach that I am describing here. They may have had bad experiences with people who saw Jesus behind every bush (burning or otherwise) in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon, for example, said that if he ever found a text without Christ in it he would go over hedge and ditch to find the road to Christ4—and if you read his sermons, it seems at times that that is exactly what he has done. Not every perceived connection to Christ in the Old Testament is valid.5  So in this section, I want to look at various wrong ways to approach the Old Testament as preparation for learning to read it correctly.

It is helpful to begin with a diagram borrowed (and adapted slightly) from the late president of Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Edmund Clowney.6

The first wrong way in which we read the Old Testament is what I have called the way of allegorical moralism, in which we extract a detail from its original context and apply it directly to our own lives without reference either to its original context in Scripture or to Christ and the gospel. For example, a woman visiting our church recently told me how meaningful Ezekiel 48 had been in her life. In the prophet’s vision of Israel’s future, the passage describes the borders of the different tribes, and she had taken away from this the message, “the boundaries of Dan need to be restored.” This was significant for her because her husband’s name was Dan and, as she read this text, she realized that her husband had not been keeping good boundaries between work and home.

While this observation may have been true and relevant for her life and could probably have been drawn legitimately from other passages of Scripture, this insight is hardly the purpose for which the Holy Spirit inspired Ezekiel to pen the chapter! She had moved directly from text to application to herself without understanding the flow of the text or the significance of its original context. A great deal of preaching in evangelical churches today resembles this process of interpretation: it is allegorical in that it fails to connect the passage with its original context, and it is also moralistic because instead of showing us Christ and the gospel, it simply seeks “timeless truths” or “life principles” in each passage to become guides for our behavior.

The next wrong approach to the Old Testament is allegorical interpretation, whereby people (especially preachers) fasten once more on superficial details of the text, but this time use them to find references to Christ where none was originally intended. This approach has been pursued with great popularity throughout the history of the church. For example, in a sermon on Ezekiel 40:6–8, the church father Gregory the Great identified the east gate of Ezekiel’s temple as Jesus, the steps leading up to the gate as the merits of the virtues that lead to salvation, and the threshold of the gate as the ancestors of Jesus.7

In more recent times, a Christian author argued that the reason that the tent pegs of the tabernacle were partly in the ground and partly out of the ground was to teach us that the gospel is not just about the death of Jesus Christ (the part in the ground) but also about the resurrection (the part out of the ground).8 While this doctrinal conclusion is important and true, I would suggest that the reason the tent pegs of the tabernacle were partly in the ground and partly out of the ground was simply that otherwise it would have been impossible to secure the ropes that held the tabernacle to them! We may admire the desire to connect the Old Testament to Christ, yet find the outworking of the methodology misguided.

In an effort to avoid the wild excesses of allegory, many modern interpreters have rightly placed the emphasis on understanding an Old Testament passage in the light of its original context. They encourage people to discern the message of the text within the broader concerns of the book in order to search out the intent of the original author in writing it. Having discerned this original idea, the next step is often seen as discerning the “timeless truth” that stands behind this particular historical writing.9 What life principles does it teach us that are universal and unchanging? How can we then take those same universal principles and apply them skillfully to our own daily lives?

There is much that is right and laudable with this approach, yet I have labeled it moralism because of its inevitable tendency to place the reader in the center of the interpretive process and make the Old Testament fundamentally a story about us. In looking for universal principles of behavior that I can apply, this approach generally ends up urging me to “dare to be a Daniel” or “just say no to being a Jephthah.” It flattens out the contours of the Old Testament history of redemption, and treats Old Testament characters such as Abraham and David as if their primary function were to model a life for me to live by.

This is the strength of Dr. Clowney’s diagram, which reminds us that we must indeed begin by putting every passage of Scripture in its appropriate literary and historical context. We must start by seeing how this verse, passage, event, or institution relates to other verses, passages, and events around it. There is no place for the kind of allegorical speculation that takes a passage out of its original setting and completely ignores the human author’s intent.

Yet we must also ask where this passage fits in the larger history of God’s dealings with his people and what the divine Author’s intent was in including it in our Bible. How does this event or story advance God’s program and point us to the great work that God is accomplishing in this world, which is the work of salvation in Christ through the gospel? How does this passage show us the sufferings of Christ and the glories that follow? For example, does it uncover the sins for which Christ had to come and die? How does it demand or demonstrate the righteous behavior that Jesus came to perform in our place? Only after we ask these kinds of primary gospel-focused questions can we properly get to the secondary question of personal application: how does this gospel then teach us to live in light of this specific portion of God’s Word, out of gratitude for what God has done? Application is important, but the gospel comes first. What is more, even after we have applied a passage rightly to ourselves in this way, we constantly need to return once again to the comfort of the gospel’s focus on Christ, for even as believers we will never live up to the standard of perfect holiness that God demands.”

4Charles Spurgeon, “How to Read the Bible,” a sermon preached in 1879 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, http://www.spurgeon .org/sermons/1503.htm (accessed June 8, 2012).
5Spurgeon himself warns of making connections that strain credulity—for example, the preacher who spoke about the Trinity from the three baskets on the head of Pharaoh’s baker (Lectures to My Students [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972 reprint], 97).
66. Adapted from Edmund Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 32.
7The Homilies of Gregory the Great on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. T. Gray (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1990), 179–85.
8Martin R. DeHaan, The Tabernacle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), 37, 65.
9See, for example, Steven Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 101. Mathewson certainly wants to avoid moralism (see pp. 102–103), yet his method of application inevitably pushes him in that direction.

Duguid, Iain M. (2013-02-04). Is Jesus in the Old Testament? (Basics of the Faith) (Kindle Locations 144-198). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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