United Methodists are having an important and, at times, lively debate over the way we interpret and appropriate different parts of scripture, not least the Old Testament. The debate over how we approach scripture has emerged as part of conflict over differing understandings of human sexuality and has focused most recently around posts from Adam Hamilton and Bill Arnold. The questions under debate are important, and I want to draw attention to a new book from a Wesleyan scholar that has potential to guide us in learning how to read the Old Testament scriptures. The book is Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Kindle) by Gareth Cockerill, Academic Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He blogs at From Mangoes to Mechizidek. Dr. Cockerill is a friend and colleague, and I’m excited about this book because I think it has potential to significantly deepen Christian engagement with the Bible that Jesus and his first followers read, prayed, and lived. I conducted this interview before the posts from Hamilton and Arnold were published. So, you won’t see direct engagement in explicit language they use. Nevertheless, Cockerill’s book is dealing with the very same issue and will function as a reliable guide. I’ve divided the interview into two posts. Part 1 follows. Check back early next week for part 2.
Incarnatio: Why should the average Christian embrace serious study of the Old Testament?
GC: One way to answer this question is to refer to the sub-title of this book—The Bible of the Apostles. The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and of his first followers. Can we, then, afford to neglect it? To read the New Testament without the Old is like reading only the last chapter of a novel. Christ understood his own mission as the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promises, history, longings, and message. Christian Faith in the Old Testament shows how each part of the Old Testament looks forward to and finds fulfillment in the Christ of the New. Let me quote from the introduction to my book, where I discuss this subject at length: when we neglect the Old Testament
“we end up with an anemic view of Christ, a superficial understanding of the atonement, and an individualistic view of the church. Our God shrinks because we no longer see the majesty of his creation, the grandeur of his work in history, or the glory of his salvation in Christ. We have little basis for social ethics. We live in rootless isolation because we no longer see ourselves as children of Abraham and part of the people of God, stretched out across history and on its way to glory. If we do not have The Bible of the Apostles, we will not have the true apostolic faith” (page 13).
Incarnatio: You’ve spent considerable time serving as a foreign missionary. How did that experience affect your work on Christian Faith in the New Testament?
GC: I am sure that my nine years in Sierra Leone, West Africa, have had a profound impact on this book. I began my time in Africa as chaplain and Bible teacher for more than four hundred students at Kamakwie Boys Secondary School. The school was taught in English, which was a second language for all those who attended. Most students had no understanding of the Bible’s big picture. Some didn’t even know the Old Testament from the New. I began to work hard at putting the Bible’s message together in a way that would be clear and understandable for them. As time went on, I found that it was difficult to adequately address either the animistic or the Muslim world view without a solid knowledge of the Old Testament and the way in which it was fulfilled in Christ.
Incarnatio: You’ve given a significant amount of energy to working on the New Testament book of Hebrews. How has that work prepared you to write this book on the Old Testament?
GC: Anyone who studies Hebrews must wrestle with the way in which the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ and with its continuing relevance as Scripture. After all, Hebrews begins by affirming that the God who spoke in the prophets has now given his final self-revelation in one who is his Son. All that follows in Hebrews can be seen as the development of this premise. As the introduction to my NICNT commentary on Hebrews
shows, I have found Hebrews approach to the Old Testament both coherent and relevant to contemporary practice. The writer to the Hebrews is confident that, when examined on its own terms, the Old Testament points forward to Christ. Thus I would say that there are three ways that study of Hebrews has enriched Christian Faith in the Old Testament. First, Hebrews’ own understanding of the Old Testament has informed my thinking. Second, Hebrews has encouraged me to examine the Old Testament on its own terms and to see the many ways in which it points forward to fulfillment in Christ. Third, study of Hebrews has led me to look at what other parts of the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and the Reformers say about the continuing relevance of the Old Testament. I have tried to present the insight that I have gained from these sources simply, clearly, and coherently in Christian Faith in the Old Testament
Incarnatio: You devote two chapters to Genesis and six chapters to the other 38 books of the Old Testament. Why did you decide to put so much emphasis on Genesis?
GC: This is a very understandable question. The answer lies both in the nature and importance of Genesis and in the purpose of Christian Faith in the Old Testament. None can deny the crucial importance of Genesis. All would acknowledge that the first eleven chapters establish the framework for the rest of the Bible. The Patriarchal narratives in chapters 12-50 are also crucial. The rest of Scripture is about God’s fulfilling his promise to Abraham given and passed on in these chapters. As the beginning of the people of God, the patriarchs and matriarchs embody and set the course for the history of God’s people to come. In brief, Genesis is crucial because the “beginning” is determinative for all that follows. Second, although Christian Faith in the Old Testament gives an overview of the Old Testament, it is not simply an Old Testament survey. Its aim is to show people how to read the various parts of the Old Testament, how the parts fit together, how they point to fulfillment in Christ, and how each part is relevant for today. Simply put, the emphasis given to Genesis prepares us to read the rest of the Old Testament correctly.
Part 2 of the interview will go live early next week. Check in to hear Dr. Cockerill discuss other issues including the importance of the Old Testament temple for Christian worship and what we do with obscure and seemingly harsh Old Testament laws.