Church of England Diocese of St.Albans St. Peter Bushey Heath

Vicar's letter for September

The Christian use of the Old Testament (continued from August)

St. Paul taught that the will of God was to be found primarily in the Spirit-filled fellowship of the Church and so the New Testament would always have primacy over the Old. Even so, the Church retained the Old Testament as part of the canon of scripture for a number of reasons. The following list is by no means exhaustive.

Over the centuries Christians cherished the Old Testament as an inspired foundation document. The stories of the creation and the patriarchs present an understanding of the origins of the world and the calling of a people by God. For Christians, Abraham is their father ‘in faith’ who obeyed God’s call and trusted in him, something particularly important to non-Jewish believers who could not claim physical descent. For this reason Eastern Orthodox Christians refer to the key Old Testament characters like Abraham, Moses and Elijah by the title ‘saint’. They are those who in their lifetimes searched for God, but have now found the fulfilment of their search in Christ. For the Church the whole of the Old Testament is a study of vocation and redemption, providing a template for God’s merciful dealing with his people.

The Church has always made great use of the writings of the prophets. The writers of the New Testament took trouble to study the prophets (especially Isaiah) to understand how their proclamations and teaching pointed to the coming of Christ and to his passion. The psalms, being the hymns of the Old Testament, would initially have been a staple part of the worship of the Church as the very first Christians continued to worship in the temple and synagogue until they were finally ejected. The psalms have therefore been cherished ever since as psalms to chant, in metrical versions as hymns or just for private devotion.

The worship of the Church and the decoration of the church building owe a great deal to the life of the first Jerusalem temple. First temple Judaism was, at the time of Jesus, considered by many to be the authentic expression of the faith, focussing on the presence of God. By contrast, second temple Judaism and the synagogue movement focussed more heavily on the reading of the scriptures. As the Church taught that Jesus was God present in the world it was natural to reclaim that primal element by an adoption of aspects of first temple worship. Churches are often therefore decorated with examples of nature, such as foliage on pillars and stars on the ceiling to indicate that they are a microcosm of creation. The reservation of the Blessed Sacrament – the consecrated elements of Holy Communion – is a sign of God’s continual presence in the midst of his people, a presence day in and day out, not just a pious hope for the future.

Characters play an important part in understanding the relationship between the testaments. St. John the Baptist is the awaited Elijah figure whilst Jesus is presented variously in the New Testament as the new Moses reinterpreting the Law in the Sermon on the Mount and as the high priest of the order of Melchizedek. For children the figures of Noah and Jonah, rubbing shoulders with Jesus on the drawing paper still figure strongly in their early understanding of the bible, something not to be discounted lightly.

Finally, Christianity has retained the ethical elements of the Law such as the Ten Commandments. This is not a sop to the old, but a reflection of the teaching of St. Paul on the importance of a natural, God-given morality, something which is as evident to the Gentile as it is to the Jew who received the Law at the hands of Moses. According to the Apostle everybody has a natural sense of right and wrong and should live (and be judged) accordingly. The ethical teaching of the Old Testament helps form a universal code of behaviour, enhanced by the forgiveness and mercy expressed in the New.

What is the Christian to make of the Old Testament? It is a foundation for understanding the life and work of Jesus and the things which the Apostles taught about him. It is a sign of hope, telling the long story of God’s dealings with his creation and those he calls to know and serve him. Important though it is, the Old Testament does not define the Christian’s faith. That role is reserved for Jesus himself, the Word made flesh who died and rose again for the salvation of the world. Without the old, the new would be much harder work, but given a proper understanding of the relationship between the two, God can be praised for fulfilling his promises and bringing the faith to perfection in Jesus.

PRAYER FOCUS for September

For protection from pestilence and disease; for all those struggling with bereavement and loss.

For effective governance following the pandemic.

Image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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