It’s hard for me to read Genesis without being transported back in time to the corner room under Lancaster Hall at Trinity church. There as a boy of 8, I came every Wednesday night and joined a dozen other children as my mother (Marilyn) and her friend, Judy, put us to the test. Perched behind our cardboard boxes, we’d listen to the multiple choice questions on Genesis then answer by pulling out one of the cards numbered 1 to 4. As a junior quizzer, I soaked up God’s Word; it still fascinates me.
We Christians underestimate the impact on our faith of Genesis and the Old Testament generally. Dr. Alvin Lawhead for many years taught Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. My wife and I attended the same congregation as he did in the Kansas City area. Sometimes he would preach and invariably his text came from the Old Testament. As he took his place behind the pulpit, some took out their New Testament and waited for him to announce his text. He’d ask us to turn to a portion in Jeremiah or Isaiah, then good naturedly would lower his glasses on his nose, smile, and query:
You haven’t left 2/3 of your Bible at home, have you?
Dr. Lawhead’s point was well-taken. Truth be told, we don’t practice a Christian ethic as much as we practice a Judeo-Christian ethic. The church decided early on – thanks to the controversy with Marcion – that we accept the 39 ancient books we inherited from the Jewish people as part of our Christian Scriptures. While it is true that we must always determine what a specific Old Testament teaching has to say to us in the light of Christ and the New Testament, it’s surprising how many Old Testament teachings are taken up without change by Christians.
When I’ve taught biblical interpretion to pastors in Africa, to explain the relationship between the Testaments, I’ve used the illustation of two e-mails announcing a meeting. Imagine that you check your e-mail and find the following message from me:
Please join me next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. in Helstrom 6 for a short prayer meeting.
On Monday, you receive a second e-mail from me:
Our short prayer meeting together next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. will be held in Helstrom 9.
I then ask my students: Where will you me meeting me for prayer next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.? Invariably, they will answer: We’ll be meeting you in Helstrom 9.
Now, a student might go to Helstrom 6 and end up praying alone. What went wrong? She hadn’t read my most recent communication which I’d sent. It would be no defense for her to say that my first e-mail cleary stated that Helstrom 6 was the venue. The later communication augments the former.
God has given us a more recent message called the New Testament. In this revelation – especially as seen in the birth, life, death, and resurrecton of Christ as well as his teachings – something important has been added. Michael Lodahl in The Story of God calls it a “new twist in the story.” And there is no denying that this is an important twist!
But let’s go back to the two e-mails. While the venue has changed to Helstrom 9 instead of Helstrom 6, it’s surprising to see how much has stayed the same. The teacher will still be meeting his students. They will still be praying briefly together and still meeting the same day and the same time. Much remains the same.
Is it possible that by our neglect of the Old Testament in our preaching and teaching that we have implied a discontinuity between Old and New Testaments? In an age when the word “new” is preferred over “old” – especially in Western cultures – perhaps it is time to speak of the “First” and “Last” Testaments. This would remind us that God did not start speaking with Jesus but has been speaking for much longer.
Lately, rather than the terminology of “Old Testament,” scholars favor the term “Hebrew Bible.” Yet does this distance the Christian from that collection of Scriptures? As a Christian, I might wonder what Hebrew writings have to do with me. Yet the first 2/3 of the Bible is part of the Christian Scriptures, too, so we must have a term that invites us to embrace them, not one that allows us to think that those writings belong to “them” but not “us.” The terms “First and Last Testaments” avoid the built in prejudice (at least for Westerners) that comes with the terms “Old” and “New.” “New” is often considered better, while “old” may be outmoded. “First” and “Last” also makes it clear that there won’t be more books added. There is a “Last” Testament; it is not a second installment in a series where we might expect a third, fourth or more. This closes the door to a Mormon understanding where other supposedly more recent Scriptures have been added after the New Testament.
A change to the language of “First” and “Last” may favor the kind of hermeneutic as laid out in my two e-mails example (Note: John Bright’s The Authority of the Old Testament inspired this illustration). When we lay the first 39 books of the Christian Scriptures side-by-side with the last 27 books, we discover much that remains unchanged:
- God is Creator and Sustainer of all that is.
- God desires to be in relationship with creation.
- God has given simple laws that are meant to help our relationship with God and others flourish.
- God has a heart of love and desires the well-being of all creation.
- God is a holy and just ruler and will discipline us for our own good.
The Hebrew word shalom (peace) summarizes much of the First Testament’s ethics, yet in the Last Testament, we see that in Christ, God the Father has also spoken a word of shalom. The incarnation is merely taking that shalom closer to where we live, God condescending to our limited human understanding. When the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14), the Word also became fresh, yet this more recent, enfleshed revelation emanates from the same God we had already known through his ealier self-disclosure. The lion’s share of the life and teaching of Christ – indeed, in the Last Testament as a whole, including the writings of Paul and others – reaffirms what the First Testament had already taught us. There is amazing continuity between the earlier and later installments of the drama.
Which reminds me of another story from Dr. Lawhead. John and Frank were neighbors. John wanted to share his faith with Frank, so one day when they were out working in their yard, John motioned Frank over to the fence. After they chatted for a while, John offered Frank a New Testament and invited him to read it. “When you’re done,” he said, “feel free to ask me any questions you might have.” Several weeks passed. On a Saturday, both men were mowing the grass when Frank motioned for John to join him a the fence. He pulled out the New Testament and thanked Frank for having given it to him. “It’ really interesting,” he admitted, “but it seems like it’s missing the first part of the story.”
I’m glad that my mother and junior quizzing started with Genesis, the first part of the story. The Book really only makes sense when we keep the First and Last Testaments together. Let’s recommit to recounting the whole story and not just part.