The Relevance of the Old Testament

In his article, “The Changing Face of Old Testament Studies,” (Christian Century 109 [October 21, 1992, pp. 932-35]), Christopher Seitz spoke of the problem professors face when teaching the Old Testament to new students in seminaries, divinity schools, and universities. The problem, according to Seitz, is that “students simply don’t have the sort of familiarity with the content of the Bible they once had” (p. 932).

When seminary students approach the study of the Bible today, they do so lacking a “deep-seated, long-nurtured, instinctive, prerational commitment to the Old Testament in its present form.” Seitz gives several reasons for this crisis of “truly momentous importance.” One of them is “the decline of mainstream Protestantism and the strong pulpit associated with it” (p. 933).

By placing some of the blame for this lack of commitment to the Old Testament on the pulpit, Seitz touched a very sensitive area affecting the ministry of the church, for today’s church is facing a crisis of knowledge. This crisis is reflected in the fact that today, the majority of Christians who are involved in the work and ministry of the church, do not know the content and the message of the Old Testament. This ignorance of the content of the Old Testament could be called “a circle of incomprehension” that can severely damage the ministry of the church.

Godfrey E. Phillips, in his book The Old Testament in the World Church (London: Lutterworth Press, 1942), describes how the Old Testament was studied in China. He tells the story of a Chinese pastor who made a statement that reflects the same attitude that exists among the present generation of Christians. That pastor said: “Intending missionaries or evangelists waste their time if they spend a lot of it studying the Old Testament…. The Old Testament teaching given in theological colleges in China is, in the experience of most students, devoid of interest or value for their after work. Reading the Old Testament is like eating a large crab; it turns out to be mostly shell, with very little meat in it…. We don’t need to start with Moses and Elijah. It is enough to teach men about God as Jesus taught or revealed him” (p. 23).

Several years ago, Christianity Today published an article in which Richard Morgan severely criticized the scandal of biblical illiteracy that prevails in the churches. Morgan presented the results of a test given to 150 freshmen in a Christian college. These students were selected because they were active members of evangelical churches and because they grew up going to church. The result of the test re-emphasizes the facts that today’s church is facing a crisis of knowledge. What Morgan discovered almost a half century ago, has been compounded and intensified in recent times.

The answers that students gave to the questions on the test were startling. The history of Abraham was found in the book of Ruth. The greatest event described in the Old Testament was the Roman persecution. The Exodus was the return of the Jews to Palestine after World War II. Jesus gave the Ten Commandments to Israel on the Mount of Olives. Some of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament are: the Book of Acts, Paradise Lost, and The Lord of the Flies. Genesis was the first Gospel; the name of the Hebrew heroine who saved the Jews from the hands of Haman was Joan of Arc. The mother-in-law of Ruth was Mary Magdalene and her famous great-grandson was Noah. Jesus was baptized in the Red Sea, was betrayed by Samson, and died in Bethlehem.

These answers may not reflect the intellectual abilities of those students, but they reflect the crisis facing the church today. The answers indicate that there is a lack of adequate biblical knowledge among church members and this biblical illiteracy may betray the kind of religious education churches are offering to their members. In describing the problem of biblical illiteracy, Seitz asked: “What happened to Sunday School, Bible reading at home or knowing a thing by heart?” (p. 933).

What is the source of this unfamiliarity with the Old Testament found among church people today? As Seitz suggests in his article, one reason for this problem is the lack of strong pulpits in today’s church. When ministers do not know the Old Testament, when they do not preach or teach from the Old Testament, then the church is in trouble, for the attitude of ministers is eventually transmitted to the people who listen to them regularly.

One of the goals of my web page is to promote an appreciation of the Old Testament as an integral part of the Bible. The Bible does not begin with the Gospel of Matthew; it begins with the Book of Genesis. In addition, I hope readers of will learn more about the Old Testament through interaction. Read my articles and book reviews, ask questions, react to what I write and I promise you that in the end, your knowledge of God’s Word will grow and you will come to love the Old Testament as much as I do.

Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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1 Response to The Relevance of the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: Sunday School and the Problem of Biblical Illiteracy | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament

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