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How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth by Christopher J. H. Wright

Stephen J. Tracey

How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth, by Christopher J. H. Wright. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016, 288 pages, $18.99, paper.

The little phrase “for all its worth” in the title sets a high standard for this book. It draws one in, expecting to learn how to milk the Old Testament for all its worth in our preaching and teaching. And the book gets close—very close—to achieving this.

Christopher J. H. Wright has produced numerous helpful and insightful studies relating to the Old Testament. This book is packed with sound instruction and practical advice. The checklists are very useful.

The book is divided into two sections. Section one answers the question, “Why should we preach and teach from the Old Testament?” Wright gives three reasons: 1) It is God’s Word, 2) It sets out the foundations of our faith, and 3) It was the Bible of Jesus. He then gives three thoughtful chapters on understanding the flow of Scriptures and how to connect them with Christ.

Section two answers the question, “How can we preach and teach from the Old Testament?” with detailed discussion on preaching narrative, law, prophets, Psalms, and wisdom literature. These are all beefy chapters, full of details and well informed in the issues of hermeneutics, with good homiletic pointers. This book would be profitable to seminary students, and also as a refresher to preachers who know these things, but amidst the pressure of pastoral commitments sometimes take shortcuts through the hermeneutical work.

There are four areas where I think Wright doesn’t reach the expected standard of “for all its worth.” To be fair, the book was first published in 2015 in the UK under the title, Sweeter than Honey: Preaching from the Old Testament. It seems that the American publisher pushed the book into a “for all its worth” series format.

First, the book does not discuss the issue of divine and human meaning in Scripture. With so much of the book dealing with hermeneutics, this is a surprising omission. By concentrating on human authorial intent, he seems at times to weaken divine authorial intent. Wright does recognize that the Old Testament is authoritative and relevant. He says that “breathed-out by God . . . means that, although they [the Scriptures] were spoken and written by ordinary human beings like us, what was said and written down was as if it had come from the mouth of God” (19). More discussion of the relationship between divine and human meaning would have been helpful.[1]

Second, and related to the first issue, is the question of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Wright devotes three chapters dealing explicitly with this subject: chapter 3, “Understanding Jesus Through the OT,” chapter 4, “Don’t Just Give Me Jesus,” and chapter 5, “Connecting with Christ.” His emphasis is that Christ is the destination of the Old Testament, that “the Old Testament is essential to understand the identity and mission of Jesus” (39). Consequently, he says the OT is not all about Christ, but it points to him. What he is against is “a simplistic method of interpretation in which every verse in the Old Testament somehow has to be ‘about Jesus’ ” (54, his italics).

His warnings in this section are to be heeded. However, since the death of Jesus was according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), it is hard to escape the conclusion that every word God subsequently speaks in time is founded on and shaped by this decree. Perhaps more, every word God subsequently speaks is in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ was known in the mind of God before he created the world. Wright does not want to flatten the incarnation, but I wonder if he ends up flattening the eternal decree, or the eternal Sonship of Jesus. It is not as though Jesus had no ministry prior to the incarnation. Both John and Paul reveal that creation itself is through Christ, to Christ, and for Christ (John 1:2, Col. 1:15–20). Of course, we must not fall into a simplistic method of interpretation, but we must also not overlook the place of the Eternal Son in his eternal glory. In other words, it is too simplistic to see Jesus as merely the destination. He is more than the end. He is also the beginning. He is alpha and omega (Rev. 22:13). My real frustration here is that Wright does not consider Christ and the decree in the context of the metanarrative. His metanarrative is too small. The whole of Scripture must be read in the context of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8 NKJV, KJV). I recognize that there are different translations of this verse, but even if the phrase “before the foundation of the world” applies to the writing in the Lamb’s book, it still implies the pre-time knowledge of the cross.

Third, Wright’s work on understanding and preaching from Old Testament law is very helpful, emphasizing that Old Testament law was given to people who had experienced grace. It would have been more helpful had he also outlined the way law comes to us as creatures. It is wonderfully true that we do not earn our salvation by law keeping. But there is an obligation to keep the law simply by virtue of our being humans made in the image of God.

Fourth, I was surprised to find that in the section on poetry Wright sticks to the old threefold division of parallelism. Fokkelman, reflecting other scholars, is scathing in his view of this threefold division: “Poems wilt when subjected to this sort of boorish and wooden treatment.”[2]

Nevertheless, I highly commend this book. As part of the discussion of preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, it is readable, thoughtful, and helpful; I am just not sure he milks it “for all its worth.”

Endnotes

[1] Cf. Vern S. Poythress, “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 241–79.

[2] J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox, 2001), 27.

Stephen J. Tracey is serving as the pastor of Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Rockport, Maine. Ordained Servant Online, April 2018.

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