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The Old Testament and Churches of Christ

Jarrod Davies

 
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
— Søren Kierkegaard

The Stone-Campbell Movement has within its DNA a desire to represent a simple, accessible Christianity. The Churches of Christ denomination draws much of its preaching and theology from the person of Christ as revealed in the New Testament.[1] The centrality of God’s Word, especially the New Testament, was seen to be crucial in the pursuit of unity.[2] It might be argued, however, that this emphasis on the New Testament has contributed to a de-emphasis on the Old Testament. This is a topic that many have wrestled with throughout church history, and it is important for us to wrestle with as a community today. It is my contention that the Old Testament has much to offer the modern-day Christian, enhancing our understanding of God and the work of Christ, and in doing so offering the Churches of Christ denomination a richer experience of being members of God’s universal church.

Churches of Christ Context

“The lordship of Christ and the authority of His Word is foundational.” – James B. North, Union in Truth

 In his retrospective look at the Restoration Movement, James B. North argues that the preeminent danger for the movement is specifically related to a shift away from scriptural authority,[3] which was characteristic of the early movement and can be traced back to Thomas Campbell’s formative Declaration and Address (1809).[4] Here, Campbell identifies the movement as having the ‘sole purpose of promoting simple evangelical Christianity,’ with the emphasis on the New Testament and overarching preference for simplicity.[5] Conceding the Old and New Testaments are ‘inseparably connected,’ Campbell notes that, ‘the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline and government of the New Testament church,’ while the Old Testament was for the Old Testament Church.[6]

Campbell’s views were not just historical but shaped Australian Churches of Christ today. Minister and college lecturer Gordon Stirling, held a view of the New Testament closely linked to that of T. Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address.’ For Stirling, the question of the Old Testament is one of relevance.

 ‘The New Testament tells a story, and in that story we can find out what basic Christianity was in the beginning and then work out what it should look like at any time and in any circumstance, especially in our time and in our sort of world.’[7]

Alexander Campbell’s ‘Sermon on the Law’ (1846) is also crucial to gaining an understanding of the emphasis of Churches of Christ on the New Testament and the de-emphasis on the Old Testament, or the ‘law.’[8] A. Campbell asserted that the law is superseded by Jesus’ summative words in the gospels—to love God and neighbor—and that adherence to the law was incapable of producing righteousness and eternal life: Jesus Himself was the fulfillment of the law.[9]

‘The term "law," denotes in common usage, "a rule of action." It was used by the Jews, until the time of our Saviour, to distinguish the whole revelation made to the Patriarchs and Prophets, from the traditions and commandments of the Rabbis or Doctors of the law.’

‘We find all things whatsoever the law could not do are accomplished in him, and by him—that in him all Christians might be perfect and complete—for the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.’

‘Certainly, it is inconsistent to say that Christians should equally regard and obey the Old and New Testament.’ (A. Campbell, ‘Sermon on the Law’)

 

Early Church Context

 ‘I see nothing in Scripture except Christ and Him crucified.’ – Martin Luther[10]

Crucial in the discussion of the place of the Old Testament is consideration of church’s engagement with this issue throughout history. Finding the Old Testament’s ‘place’ in a Christ-focused perspective has been the subject of much debate – the likelihood being that reconciling the two testaments will always be debated. Important, albeit controversial figures such as Marcion, Origen, Luther and Erasmus, have held notable positions on this issue.

 

Contemporary Reflections

God of the Old and New Testament

The Old Testament plays a significant role in understanding the New. Recent authors have expressed that the Old Testament is underutilized within the contemporary church, even ignored.

If the God of the Old and New Testament is the same, then, as Goldingday argues, ‘We need the Old Testament for an understanding of the story of God’s working out His purpose, for its theology, for its spirituality, for its hope, for its understanding of mission, for its understanding of salvation, and for its ethics.’[11] Likewise, Barry L. Blackburn identifies a clear connection between the covenantal failures and subsequent exile of the Israelites, and the impending arrival of Jesus and God’s kingdom.[12]

Further, a narrative picture of God across the testaments provides a richer view of God’s character and our need for the Messiah, a deeper appreciation for concepts such as sacrifice and forgiveness, as well as the benefits of studying flawed characters who were used by God. All these aspects are diminished in rigid distinctions between old and new.

Importance of the Old

Another benefit of the Old Testament is that it is a story of a community who at times were faithful and honored their commitment to God, and at other times failed in this same pursuit. This is relevant in understanding the mixed ‘outcomes’ of the church today. Additionally, the stories of individuals like David, Esther, Ruth and Nehemiah offer hope and inspiration for today’s believer. Their lives show that God has a plan, that He forgives and that He uses ordinary people to accomplish His perfect plan. There is much material to be effectively preached and heard amongst such stories!

‘Given that portions of the Old Testament are polemical (opposing certain situations), better understanding the situations of God’s people being confronted will aid in understanding it’s authoritative truth.’ (Cochell, The Religious Establishments of Jereboam I, 85)

Most significantly, it is in hearing and understanding the authoritative truth of the whole of Scripture that might effectively bring about unification and the simplification of the gospel message – both key motivators behind the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Voices for the Old Testament Today

Where influential ‘voices’ such as Gowan, Brueggeman and Goldsworthy identify the difficulties associated with communicating God’s Word as revealed in the Old Testament, this should not be a reason for avoidance.

 As Jacob’s nocturnal struggle with God is analogous of the wrestle of God’s people, it is also an analogy of the ‘wrestling’ with the things of God – that is a crucial aspect of the Christian journey and includes the difficulties to be found in the Old Testament.[13] Churches of Christ seems to have embraced this ‘wrestle’ as a denomination, evident in the numerous writings on issues by figures such as Gordon Stirling and E.L. Williams.

Yet this struggle to understand has another side. For myself, from my early days as a Sunday School attendee to a middle-aged churchgoer today, stories of Samson’s fatal flaw and sacrifice, the courage of Esther as she confronted the Persian King, the thrilling test for Gideon, the brutality of Jael and the tent-peg, the grace shown by David to Mephibosheth—just to name a few—cause me to struggle to find the Old Testament boring!

  

Conclusion

The Churches of Christ denomination places high value on the Bible. In the movement’s efforts to restore and unite the global Church, and return to the basics of the faith, the emphasis on the New Testament is prominent. There are a wide range of perceptions of the Old Testament – sometimes as useful but inferior, to irrelevant and useless. This wrestle with the biblical canon has roots in the early church days and it is possible that some of these views have influenced Restoration thinking. It is also apparent that there are a variety of voices within the contemporary Stone-Campbell Movement encourage a fresh look at the value of the Old Testament.

For the Churches of Christ in Australia, I recommend strong consideration is given to the Old Testament in preaching and Christian thought. In particular, the value of the Old Testament’s contribution to the story and work of Christ; the depth of understanding of key themes and concepts such as sacrifice and covenant; the capacity for today’s Christian to draw strength from the characters used by God to achieve His purposes; as well as the role played in the unfolding revelation of God’s restorative purpose for the church. All this suggests that embracing the Old Testament is a worthwhile wrestle!

Jarrod Davies is Chaplain at Cornish College and is a post-graduate student at Stirling. He is married to Kelly and has four children, Archie, Grace, Lydia and Jude.

Bibliography

Blackburn, Barry L. ‘Liberation, New Covenant, and Kingdom of God: A Soteriological Reading of the Gospel according to Mark.’ Stone-Campbell Journal 12 (Fall, 2009).

Briley, Trevor. ‘The Old Testament “Sin Offering” and Christ’s Atonement.’ Stone-Campbell Journal 3 (Spring, 2000).

Brueggemann, Walter. The Word Militant. Preaching a Decentering Word. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Campbell, Alexander. ‘Sermon on the Law.’ Millennial Harbinger, 1846.

Campbell, Thomas. Declaration and Address. First Edition, 1809.

Cochell, Trevor, ‘The Religious Establishments of Jereboam I.’ Stone-Campbell Journal 8, 2005.

Duke, James O. ‘Hermeneutics of the Early Stone-Campbell Movement,’ Stone-Campbell Journal 12, 2009.

Ellison, H. L. The Message of the Old Testament. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1969.

Goldingday, John. ‘Do We Need the New Testament?’ Stone Campbell Journal Conference Address, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2013. Republished in the Stone-Campbell Journal 16, 2013.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological Foundations and Principles. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel & Kingdom. A Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1981.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture – The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching. Nottingham: Eerdmans, 2000.

Gowan, Donald E. Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980.

Heine, Ronald E. ‘Origen and a Hermeneutic for Spirituality.Stone-Campbell Journal 14, 2011.

Main, A.R. ‘The Centrality of Jesus.’ Pamphlet: Austral Press.

Shields, Bruce E. ‘Campbell, Paul, and the Old Testament.’ Stone-Campbell Journal 2, 1999.

Webber, Robert. ‘Book Review: Graeme Goldsworthy “Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.”’ Stone-Campbell Journal 5, 2002.

Williams, E.L. A Biblical Approach to Unity, Melbourne: Austral Press, 1957.

Wilson, Alex V. Should Doctrinal Issues Divide Christians? Kentucky: Word and Work, 1997.

 

Endnotes

[1] ‘The creed of the Church is definitely expressed in terms of Christ.’ A.R. Main, ‘The Centrality of Jesus,’ 6.

[2] See E.L Williams, A Biblical Approach to Unity and Alex Wilson, Should Doctrinal Issues Divide Christians?

[3] North, ‘Union in Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement,’ 368.

[4] Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address.

[5] Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, 4. See also Gary Holloway’s discussion of Thomas Campbell’s work.  Holloway argues that the common saying which originated with Campbell, ‘Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,’ was closely aligned with the search for restoration. Holloway, ‘Restoration, Unity, and Freedom,’ 169.

[6] Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, 16:4.

[7] Stirling, ‘Churches of Christ - Reinterpreting Ourselves for the New Century,’ 45.

[8] Alexander Campbell, ‘Sermon on the Law,’ n.p.

[9] Alexander Campbell, ‘Sermon on the Law,’ n.p.

[10] Martin Luther. In A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word – Martin Luther: Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, 169.

[11] Goldingday, Do We Need the New Testament?

[12] Barry L. Blackburn, ‘Liberation, New Covenant, and Kingdom of God: A Soteriological Reading of the Gospel according to Mark,’ 221.

[13] Some prefer ‘angel.’ Nevertheless, it is clear he has struggled with the Divine, and the meaning of the name he receives confirms that he has encountered God in a unique way.

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