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Christian approaches to the Old Testament

Many liberal churches don’t focus on the written word
Iain Provan
Iain Provan is professor of biblical studies at Regent College and an ordained Church of Scotland minister. Growing up, he developed an integrated attitude toward the Old and New Testaments. Photo Dan Toulgoet

When I was a kid, my parents thought I could use some religious instruction, so they sent me to the nearest church in East Van for Sunday school. It happened to be a Baptist outfit and it was decades later that I discovered many friends who are Christian didn’t have the same knowledge of Old Testament stories as I did. Given the limited education I had (until I delved deeper into such things at university), I thought all Christians treated the Old and New Testaments as a single book. Turns out, there is a huge range of Christian approaches to the Old Testament — and a local expert says this is not even the defining scriptural division among Christians these days.

Iain Provan is professor of biblical studies at Regent College and an ordained Church of Scotland minister. He is also the author of Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters.

“There’s sort of an ebb and a flow,” Provan says of Christianity’s approach to the Jewish Bible. “You’ll get stages where the Old Testament more or less drops out of sight in Christian faith and practice and people come to think of the New Testament as being the only important set of scriptures that the church should have. Then there are other phases where people, for whatever reason, become dissatisfied with that and go back into the tradition and history and say, hang on, this can’t be right.”

Growing up, Provan developed an integrated attitude toward the two books.

“It would be an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading and the expectation was that the preacher would bring the two together and show how it’s all part of the one thing and woe betide him, actually, if he didn’t,” Provan says.

Over his life as a scholar and an ordained minister, Provan says he has had cause to nuance many things he was taught as a child, and to reject some entirely. But viewing the Old and New Testaments as a cohesive whole is not one of these. Provan believes you can’t understand the latter without the former.

“I think the New Testament everywhere presupposes that people know the old and that what the New Testament offers is fresh exegeses of the Old Testament in the light of Jesus and his life and teaching, his death and resurrection,” he says.

What about contradictions between the two? Provan doesn’t see any.

“I think what we have is a developing story that is not the same at different points because stories develop in time,” he says. “In the Old Testament, you largely have the story of God working in the world through one people group and then in the New Testament, of course, it’s a rather different situation. A lot of what people think of as contradictions are simply the story having different phases and moving on.”

Likewise, Provan rejects the simplistic view that the God of the Old Testament is angry and judgmental and the God of the New Testament is forgiving and more gentle.

“I don’t really think that a serious reading of the Old Testament leads to that impression. One of the most recurring things that the Old Testament has to say about God is that God is, for example, slow to anger,” he says. “That’s a recurring motif. Notions of compassion and love and so on are routinely associated with God. From a Christian reading of Scripture, the fact that Jesus refers to the God of the Old Testament as the father and talks about the father in the way he does, makes it impossible, I think, for Christian readers of Scripture to accept this dichotomy between the two pictures. I think this comes under the heading of not very good reading of Scripture leading to that opinion.”

The diversity of Protestant churches, in particular, makes it impossible to issue broad statements about Christianity’s approach to the Old Testament, he says. In some churches, the Old Testament is referred to frequently, in others rarely. But there is another tendency that Provan sees as more significant in today’s Christianity: churches that don’t refer to either the Old or the New Testament as a foundation of their services.

“There are whole swaths of the North American church that honestly don’t really take Scripture as such very seriously in terms of reading it a lot or really grounding their views in it very much,” he says.

If there is a noticeable divide among Christians on the issue of Scripture, according to Provan, it “would be between the more evangelically committed Christian communities, where Scripture is still very central to the question of identity, and large mainstream denominations where oftentimes that has ceased to be the case.”

Provan is careful about using descriptors to define complex groupings of ideas or people, but the implication is clear. There are churches that might be described as liberal that do not focus much on the written word at all. This, rather than an affinity for the Old or New Testament, may be the more relevant difference among Christians today.