On the Death of the Old Testament

Andrew Bunt of ThinkTheology has shared an overview and some thoughts on Brent Strawn’s book The Old Testament is Dying.

Strawn’s basic thesis is that knowledge, understanding and good use of the Old Testament are waning; in short, the Old Testament is dying. He uses a helpful analogy to explore this by likening the Old Testament to a language. Languages help us make sense of reality, and the Old Testament has the potential to do the same. But languages can die, and so the analogy provides a useful way for Strawn to explore the possibility that the Old Testament is dying…

Strawn then explores how this demise can be seen more broadly, and it is here that he makes particular use of the language analogy. The process of a language dying is called repidginization because as the original language dies out the simplified version that is left is like a pidgin language. When languages repidiginize sometimes the pidgin version then develops into a new, but different, language called a creole. Creoles are completely regular – they remove all the complexities of the original language.

Strawn argues that the use of the Old Testament in New Atheism and in Marcionism, including its modern forms, is comparable to a pidgin version of the language of the Old Testament; they result from a very limited understanding of the whole. He then examines the use of the Old Testament by what he calls the ‘Happiologists’, preachers of the prosperity gospel, and argues that their use of the Old Testament is an example of a creole and has likely developed because they have only known a pidgin version of the Old Testament.

Bunt then observes, “Strawn also makes what I feel is a particularly important distinction here, noting that the key question is not just if the Old Testament is present, but how it is present. We need not just to hear and to use the text more, but to hear and to use it well. We don’t want to pick up the language with the wrong accent or with unhelpful colloquialisms.”

I think this distinction by Strawn is absolutely vital for the health of the church. My experience is that many Bible-believing Christians interact with the Old Testament regularly, but in unhelpful ways: Old Testament figures are reduced to moral examples (Dare to be a Daniel!), the accounts are disconnected from redemptive-history (Noah’s ark is fun and interesting, but doesn’t have any direct bearing on the work of Christ), the prophetic books are exclusively viewed as having a future goal (Isaiah 7:14 only has Christ as its object, rather than possessing any immediate meaning for Ahaz), or it is viewed as an uncivilized yoke from which we’ve been freed. This is the repidginization Strawn identifies, and it leaves evangelicals vulnerable to a creole tongue of the Old Testament, like the prosperity gospel.

There is a huge need in pastoral ministry to fight for the right accent in speaking the Old Testament. It is easy to reject creole versions of it when they crop up, but the hard work is the effort of moving from pidgin to the complexities of the original. This is difficult for several reasons. First, pidgin is compatible with the original as a simplified version of it. It is often hard to see where the danger lies in a pidgin version since it itself is not dangerous, but only (allegedly to the speaker) leaves the speaking community vulnerable to danger. And since it is compatible with the original, speakers struggle to see how the complexities of the original are any different from how they are speaking. Second, pidgin is the language used by most people, and the complexities of the original can seem like a creole to people not fluent in it. Finally, in a setting where pidgin dominates, it can be exhausting to actively filter it out and protect against it, especially if there other pressing priorities.

Not having read Strawn, I don’t know if he’s made this point, but I suspect the case could be made that the New Testament and the Bible as whole are dying as well, though probably not in the same way. Lifeway Research and Barna Research have shown that biblical literacy, even among Christians, is low. Ligonier Ministries has found that this biblical illiteracy corresponds to theological illiteracy, which should not be surprising. To switch analogies away from language, too many Christians are spiritually malnourished on a diet of watered down skim milk, and think that because they’re consuming something with minimal nutritional value that they’re healthy.

Pastoral ministry is first and foremost ministry of and from the scriptures. Strawn’s book is a reminder that quantity of exposure and use does not correlate to quality of exposure and use. If we want to take scripture seriously, and prevent repidginization of the Bible, then the ante needs to be upped in the substance and manner in which our churches use the Old Testament. This needs to happen first in preaching, and second in the manner in which the vocabulary and themes of the Old Testament are employed throughout the rest of the worship service. Sinclair Ferguson has often made the point that the way in which the pastor preaches the Bible is inevitably how the congregation will end up reading the Bible. The same could be said of the content of prayers and songs in the worship service.