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Author(s): John Holdsworth
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JOHN HOLDSWORTH was Principal of St Michael's College, Cardiff, before becoming Archdeacon of St David's.
The Old Testament: Have We Lost the Plot? When I was a theology student, the only people who were interested in the Old Testament part of the course were the kind of people who wore their school uniforms on Saturdays. Many of us will remember those standard texts, usually translated from German by people it was hard to believe had English as a first language, where the footnotes took up more of the page than the text. But it wasn’t just the inaccessibility of these works that repelled generations of students, and particularly ordinands. It was the impression given by this whole enterprise, that nothing that was being discussed held the remotest interest for church or Christian life. Authors appeared to be more interested in recreating accurately an ancient past, than in applying the text to the life of faith in the present. I remember having a curate colleague once who had been with us for a couple of months, and in an attempt to encourage him I said that interesting though his New Testament based sermons had been, I was looking forward to hearing him on the Old Testament. “Oh you won’t hear me preach on the Old Testament,” he said cheerily, “It’s a closed book to me.” I suspect he spoke for many in his generation, and actually very few people seem to care. Confirmation classes, nurture courses, evangelisation efforts, rarely give the impression that the Old Testament is certainly something to get your teeth into. And this is unfortunate for a whole variety of reasons, not least because the Old Testament is actually most of the Bible; but if it were possible, even more importantly, there has been a revolution in Old Testament studies over the past quarter of a century or so, and this lack of interest has meant that very few people know about it. And even those who do know, have no obvious way of telling the rest. And that is the problem that the new Church Times study guide hopes to address. What it describes is how a whole new critical approach has led to new questions, new avenues of exploration and new possibilities for reading. Crucially also, this new approach has coincided with a movement within theology itself away from dogmatics and systematics, and towards practical, applied and pastoral theology. Scholars are no longer reading the Old Testament in order to find evidence in favour of timeless truths and to support established doctrines. They are now demanding that the text be of some use as a reflective resource for a life of faith today. This process still seeks a popular British apologist. In the US, Walter Bruggemann has firmly established himself in that role, and most of his works are available here. As his books show, Brueggemann is not only an excellent scholar with an incredible output, but also he is deeply interested in popular culture – he’s a recognized film buff and keeps a regular cuttings file from mainline American newspapers. Above all they show him to be deeply pastorally committed, and willing, in imaginative ways, to deal with the text creatively in order to consider it as pastorally useful. The critical movement that has allowed him to do that, is the shift from historical to literary modes of criticism. Expressed like that, it sounds about as interesting as a wet Sunday in Aberystwyth, and indeed it is still possible to buy scholarly books that seek to describe the process in a style that makes Rowan Williams sound like Enid Blyton. But, as Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, it’s better than it sounds. Essentially, until the start of the so-called Modern Era, about two hundred and fifty years ago, the Old Testament was interpreted largely in terms of typology and allegory. The stories it contained were taken to have hidden meanings, either in their detail, or in the way they foreshadowed later New Testament events. However, with the Age of Reason and the rise of science there was a real danger that Biblical study might miss out in the academy if it failed to demonstrate sufficient critical rigour in regard to its texts and doctrines. Alongside scientific proofs and methodical historical enquiry, allegories and fables seemed rather primitive and second rate. If Bible texts were to be studied in this new critical way, though, a choice had to be made. What was the appropriate set off critical tools to apply to Biblical texts? Were they those of history or those appropriate to the study of literature? Scholars chose the tools of the historian. And so, for over 200 years we have been trying to learn how isolated texts were built up into books, how texts were transmitted and what the books would have meant to the people who first heard or read them. Open a book on the prophets and a great chunk of the introduction would deal with which parts of the book came from the seventh century, and which oracles are imports from a different place and a different time. They would go on to conjecture how the oracles were collected and transmitted, and the whole thing would be described against the background of a history, which it was supposed, was incontrovertible. Essentially they were interested in what really happened and how much we can know of what happened. Certainly, the ordinary reader would be left in no doubt that to access this text she would need expert help, and that since none of these questions seemed particularly relevant to contemporary faith except in a most convoluted way, it was hardly worth the bother, particularly as most experts seemed more interested in talking to each other. For the past thirty years or so, scholars have taken the second route, and begun to look at the Old Testament using the critical tools employed by students of literature. This doesn’t mean that these are godless cynics who regard the whole of scripture as bogus. Students of literature talk about inspiration, for example, in a way that is quite refreshing for theologians to think about. Literary scholars talk about narrative, character development and plot. They talk about the text as something crafted and created, not just as a record of fact, but as something that will put forward a point of view, an argument, something that might persuade others. And so they see how the reader is drawn into the argument, how rhetoric is employed and what effect that is all meant to have. Most importantly, this method is not so interested in what really happened when the text was written, as it is in what really happens when you read it. This has coincided with a series of conclusions from those who have been working in the historical way, about just how reliable the texts are as records of what happened. There is widespread acceptance of the view that the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, for example, did not in fact happen as they are recorded in books like Exodus and Joshua. This could be a real crisis for faith if we were to base that faith on the question of whether these things happened or not –the historical question. But when we ask different questions such as, why was this written, and in what circumstances did the author write? then new possibilities open up and new links with our own situation are made possible. We see the Biblical authors as people perhaps a little like Shakespeare, using historical sources to craft a work of great significance – indeed a significance of which he himself could hardly have been aware – but directed towards an audience in his own time, with a particular agenda. To judge Richard II or Anthony and Cleopatra on the basis of how close they were to historical fact, and to claim that any truth they contain for us is somehow tied up in the question of whether or not they were historically accurate, would be to misjudge them; to misread them, misunderstand them and miss the point. And that is precisely the danger the church is in today with regard to Bible texts more generally but especially those of the Old Testament. The reward for opening up the Old Testament is potentially huge. In my more hopeful moments I dream of a world in which people who go to worship are theologically literate, and interested in engaging with Biblical text in imaginative and creative ways. I imagine fondly how disputes within the church might be resourced by a Bible that really is seen as part of the solution and not part of the problem. I picture a time when people other than terrorists, fanatics and anoraks find real links between holy text, faith and action. And whilst no short study guide is going to achieve all that, it is at least, hopefully, a step in the right direction. John Holdsworth