Sunday, January 6, 2008

Modern-Day Marcionites?

In our 3-year Bible study plan, we spend the first year studying the Old Testament, the second studying the Gospels, and the third studying the Epistles. In week one, we started with the question: why study the Old Testament?

Let's take a look at what Jesus said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 5:17-19

Jesus states that he stands squarely upon the foundation of the Law (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the so-called "Minor Prophets"). His purpose is to fulfill them. How can you understand his ministry unless you really grasp the Law and the Prophets?

Paul also weighs in on the question:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Christians often use this verse to encourage each other to read the Bible, which in practice often means reading a Psalm and a passage from the New Testament. But Paul is not talking about the four Gospels or any of his letters; his admonition is about what we call the Old Testament. The "holy Scriptures" that Timothy had known from infancy could only refer to the Jewish Bible! Paul states that the Jewish Bible makes us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus"; it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves and our world so that we know how much we need Christ. For now, I won't elaborate on what it is we need to learn from the Jewish Bible, since I'll be blogging on that for the next year or so. Paul also points out that God uses the Jewish Bible to reshape our attitudes, to correct our behavior, and to make our righteousness grow. We neglect the Old Testament at our peril.

And so many of us Christians are living in peril. I know from my own experience that an evangelical Christian can attend church for years without hearing a sermon based primarily on an Old Testament passage. And even what we do hear presents an incomplete picture; many are the sections of the Old Testament that we neglect. When was the last time you heard a sermon about Habakkuk? When was the last time that you read a chapter from Habakkuk? Can you even find Habakkuk in your Bible?

We are too much like Marcion, the second century heretic who taught that the Old Testament--full of works, law, and wrath--stood in contrast to the Gospel--full of grace, faith, and mercy. This is similar to the way many Christians think; based on Paul's jeremiad against law and works, we often associate Judaism and the Old Testament with a harsh legalism. Marcion accepted only the gospel of Luke and 10 Pauline epistles in his canon, and condemned the reading of the Old Testament. In contrast, we tolerant moderns (who regard the Old Testament as Scripture) just ignore it. You have to give Marcion some credit, though; at least his view of the canonicity of the Old Testament and his behavior toward it were consistent.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we cannot realize that it is as full of grace and mercy as the New. Paul's warning against legalism was not a warning against the Old Testament, per se, but rather a warning against pharisaical pride. Paul's view of the Jewish roots of grace, hope, and mercy are worthy of an entire post. In fact, scholars far more capable than I have written tomes on the subject. For the moment, then, I will simply repeat the observation that Paul heartily commended the study of what we now call the Old Testament.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we can miss its strong concern for social justice. In America, abolitionists and civil rights leaders have drawn their inspiration from prophets like Hosea and Isaiah, and have quoted from them liberally. For decades, though, many evangelicals have acted as if Jesus were the first anti-tax Republican. If we don't pay attention to the prophets, we cannot hear his echo of the prophets' call for social justice.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we may undervalue the role of ritual. True, there is such a thing as empty ritual. But there is also such a thing as empty praise and empty rhetoric. The Old Testament reminds us that God authored a set of rituals for His people. So maybe we evangelicals shouldn't be so suspicious of liturgy.

Finally, when we fail to study the Old Testament, we ignore the history of hope. Hope is everywhere in the Jewish Bible. Ezekiel has a vision of scattered, dry bones taking on new life; Isaiah speaks of a day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, the swords will be beaten into pruning hooks, and the crooked roads will be made straight; Jeremiah looks forward to the day when the Lord will establish a new covenant with His people, a covenant in which God renews their hearts. If we do not ponder these passages, the message of the gospel can seem like a glib formula, when it is in fact God's loving plan finally unleashed in a dark and despairing world.

I am looking forward to this next year. I hope you will come back often to share this journey with me.

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