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Ringing in the Old

16 November 2010

This aims to encourage preachers to reach for the OT, says John Barton


MANY PREACHERS have a slightly bad con­science about neglecting the Old Testament, but do not know what to do about it. This book, written by a panel of Evangelical biblical scholars on the basis of papers given by them at the Tyndale Fellowship Old Testa­ment Study Group in Cambridge in July 2009, tries to put new heart into those who would like to “preach the Old Testament”.

Each chapter concentrates on a particular genre, book, or group of books — narrative, law, lament, praise, wisdom, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Ezekiel, apocalyptic, Minor Prophets (where is Jeremiah?) — and there are also chapters on preaching from “difficult” texts, and on preaching Christ from the Old Testament.

Almost all the chapters are of high quality, though they vary a good deal in style and structure. Each ends with a sermon outline as a worked example of the advice given. Usually this advice consists of observations on the theological content to be communicated, but sometimes there are hints about how to adjust one’s style to different congregations, or how to challenge without outraging them.

The most sophisticated chapter is certainly Walter Moberly’s on “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament”, an introduction to a canonical approach in nuce, and full of inter­esting ideas that could make a book in them­selves.

Also to be singled out are Laurence Turner’s excellent chapter on preaching from the plot of biblical narratives, and Chris­topher Wright’s on preaching from the law — an activity few preachers ever attempt, but which is shown here to be a potentially exciting project. Hugh Williamson contributes a perceptive piece on Isaiah, showing how a congregation can learn from critical scholar­ship without unnecessary confrontation.

As a non-Evangelical, I felt myself to be in an interesting, important, but slightly alien world. The expression “preaching the Old Testament” (or “preaching Ezekiel”, or what­ever it might be) rather than “preaching from/about the Old Testament” suggested a kind of self-identification with scripture which is not part of my own tradition in the way that it is for the contributors, who identify themselves as coming from An-glican, Baptist, Charismatic, Congregational, independent Evangelical, Methodist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Uniting backgrounds.

It produces a powerful commitment to the truth and cruciality of the Old Testament, and a strong rejection of Marcionism. This is seen most vividly in Gordon Wenham’s piece on difficult texts, such as those on creation, talion, violence, ethnic cleansing, and impre­cation, all of which turn out to contain a good and wholesome message when read properly.

The contributors generally assume that one will preach within the contours of an Evan­gelical theology, and that the Old Testament does not question this. All this means that the value of the book for non-Evangelicals will lie more in its examples of good practice than in its theological underpinning. But it is an important book, and deserves to be pondered carefully; and if it stimulates preachers in any tradition to take the Old Testament more seriously, it will have done a useful job.

Canon Barton is Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford.

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