By: Stuart Kellogg
It was my first seminary class. I was jumping into part of the Bible I’d studied least and rarely heard taught from the pulpit or any Sunday School class. Not only was my first class on the book of Isaiah, the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament, but my teacher was one of the world’s foremost experts. In fact, he would later publish the NIV Commentary on Isaiah. It was the fall of 1999, and it was like my first time in the deep end of a pool; thrown in with fear and trepidation! The scales quickly fell from my eyes. It was as if the doors at the previously closed giant wing of a building were finally opened. I realized that now I was experiencing all that the architect meant for me to see. Why didn’t I hear more about Isaiah and all the books that make up 70% of the Christian Bible?
Well, for one thing, there is a lot of disturbing material in the Old Testament. It’s easier to ignore than learn and explain. Yet, here is God telling us we are so important that He is creating a relationship with us. It’s explaining why we are called to follow Him. Why He promised to send the Messiah. It’s an object lesson in cause and effect, disobedience and consequences, hope and judgment and, of course, love that never dies. If we don’t understand the Old Testament, we really don’t understand God.
Dr. John Oswalt has taught in seminaries for more than half a century, and is currently the visiting distinguished professor of Old Testament as Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. Dr. Oswalt has authored or edited 16 books, including three commentaries on Isaiah and one on Exodus. At 82 he continues to travel around the world teaching and lecturing. He’s also still writing. His latest book, a commentary on Kings, will be published soon. Next up: commentaries on Amon and Ezekiel. Not only was he my Old Testament professor more than two decades ago at Wesley Biblical Seminary, I also was blessed to be part of the small group he led.
He is fighting a very tough battle, as he patiently and passionately shares the joy of God’s gift to us through the Old Testament. Far too many leaders in the evangelical church are downplaying the Old Testament in a misguided attempt to make the Christian faith more accessible, easier to defend and appealing. The fruit of this endeavor is clear to see, as study after study shows the disturbing rate of biblical illiteracy within the church.
Dr. Oswalt likens the Bible to a two story house. If you don’t have the Old Testament basement and first story, there is nothing upon which the second story, the New Testament, can sit. “Very clearly, I believe, in the Old Testament we have the revelation of God’s character,” he told me during a recent stop in Baldwin County. “We have the revelation of the character God wants us to share, and then the hint of how that’s going to be possible. The New Testament is going to make it possible. The Old Testament and New Testament fit right together and you cannot separate them. If you do, you will in fact short circuit the New Testament.”
“Too often we try to defend and incorporate the Old Testament into Christian faith, and we simply don’t need to do that today.” — Andy Stanley/Pastor North Point Ministries
One of the more recent dust ups came from megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. He leads the multi-site nondenominational North Point Ministries in suburban Atlanta. Not too long ago he advocated that Christians “unhitch” from the Old Testament. He claimed that since Jesus is the Messiah, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, there really isn’t any reason to fool with this part of the Bible. The only thing that mattered was Jesus resurrected. He said it took the apostles 20 years to “break that habit” of mixing Jesus and Moses. “Too often we try to defend and incorporate the Old Testament into Christian faith, and we simply don’t need to do that today,” he writes in his book Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World.”
Stanley’s concern is that the Old Testament is hard to understand and explain. He says confusion has made people lose their faith because they can’t accept as fact all that is included in the books. He claims that relying on the Old Testament undermines the credibility of the Christian faith. “Too often we try to defend and incorporate the Old Testament into Christian faith, and we simply don’t need to do that today,” he said during a sermon series several years ago.
The problem with this thinking is that Jesus is not only prophesied throughout the Old Testament (scholarly estimates are between 200-300 times) but He also, of course, knew the scriptures and frequently quoted them. In other words, these ancient sacred scriptures were important then, as they are now.
“If you don’t have the Old Testament, you don’t have the God to whom Jesus is reconciling.” -Dr. John Oswalt/Biblical Scholar
Dr. Oswalt says we need the Old Testament to understand the goal of the Christian life and the reality and importance of this world. It also “ gives us the full orbed picture of who God is. Who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? He is not a little god living under our bed to answer our prayers, which is the case for many New Testament Christians. So if you don’t have the Old Testament, you don’t have the God to whom Jesus is reconciling.”
Now, one of Pastor Stanley’s points is certainly fair: there is disturbing material in the Old Testament that skeptics love to bring out as they depict God as this immoral monster. I faced that onslaught recently when I was the guest on Michael’s Wiseman’s The Bible Says WHAT!? podcast. He constantly interrupted as I patiently tried to explain why God’s chosen people had to destroy the enemies who wanted to keep Israel from fulfilling God’s ultimate promise.
Dr. Oswalt says this common critique of the Old Testament must be answered. “The Hebrew people are former slaves….They are going to be very, very susceptible to the sophisticated, elegant Canaanite culture. If they are not going to be protected from that, the world is going to be lost. So, again I say first of all, this isn’t going to be, ‘well we’re going to wipe out the Canaanites because we want to put the Hebrew people in there.’ It’s an act of justice and of love for the world.”
There are plenty of other disturbing, hard to understand examples of what seems to us needless violence, as there are plenty of examples of God’s people acting immorally. There are plenty of examples of just plain confusing scripture. The answer is not to forget or ignore 70% of the Bible. It is to delve in, ask questions, get answers and stand firmly behind all of scripture. As Dr. Oswalt pointed out to me, any Bible story book for children is filled with Old Testament stories. “So it’s not difficult to teach the Old Testament, but it does mean you have to spend time learning it, discovering what it’s saying and that’s not easy. I’m a seminary professor, I’ve spent my life in the theological education racket. This is too easy to say but I still believe it with all my heart. Seminaries have to do a better job teaching the Bible so pastors will indeed be the Biblical theologians they are called to be.”
The burden is on those in the pulpit. And those in the pews. The Old Testament is a powerful reminder of who God is. It can’t just be ignored.
Stuart Kellogg, is author of The Post Covid Church: An Action Plan to Thrive Not Just Survive, available at amazon.com He is host of What Now? The Post Covid Church Podcast, available at