If you asked a group of Christians “Is the Old Testament important?” they would likely answer affirmatively. If you asked “How important is the Old Testament?” you might get a variety of responses. And, you would likely get even more of a variety of responses if you asked “How should Christians approach the Old Testament?” The unfortunate fact is that many of us don’t understand the Old Testament well. Many of us have not been taught to approach the Old Testament in a way that upholds the overall authority of the text. Indeed, many of us would have a difficult time articulating the value of the Old Testament beyond creation theology and Messianic passages. (Perhaps I’m a little pessimistic here, but this very brief analysis is based on my personal experience of growing up in the church and ministering in the church.)
John H. Walton, Author of ‘Old Testament Theology for Christians’ from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.
If you are familiar with John Walton’s other books (particularly in Walton’s The Lost World series of books), you will recognize classic Walton emphases in Old Testament Theology for Christians. An understanding of the cultural and literary context of the Old Testament is crucial to understand the text most completely. “What had authority for them continues to have authority for us to the extent that it transcends the framework of the old covenant, and we must therefore glean its truth by using their lenses rather than by imposing our lenses on them” (p. 5).
Walton discusses various theological concepts from the perspective of Israelite (Old Testament) theology. These include: Yahweh and the Gods (ch. 1), Cosmos and Humanity (ch. 2), Covenant and Kingdom (ch. 3), Temple and Torah (ch. 4), Sin and Evil (ch. 5), Salvation and Afterlife (ch. 6). He does briefly interact with developments in New Testament theology within these chapters, but those discussions are quite brief as they are peripheral to the purpose of the book. In fact, Walton claims that “the Old Testament offers a sound theology (from a Christian’s point of view), complete in its own right, even though it is not a fully developed theology in terms of modern systematics” (pp. 11-12).
Two particular points of emphasis in this book are worth specific mention. First, Walton suggests that the primary theme that is carried through the Old Testament, and the Bible in general, is the presence of God. God’s presence among his people is foundational in the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. He doesn’t deny that other themes are operating in significant secondary roles–for example, kingdom or covenant–but argues that these themes are part of the larger theme of God’s presence.
Second, Walton utilizes the term “christotelic” rather than “christocentric” to describe the Old Testament’s relation to the New Testament. He notes: “In the christotelic approach, we recognize that all of God’s revelation reaches a new plateau in Christ, so all of it can be seen as heading in that direction” (p. 5). He contends that a “christocentric” approach only reads the Old Testament in light of the New and does not adequately consider the original meaning for the implied (ancient) audience. Yet, while we ought to read the Old Testament contextually, we obviously do not read it in isolation. “The shape and direction of our partnership with God is found in the new covenant and through Christ” (p. 294).
Overall, this book will challenge your assumptions of the Old Testament and help orient you toward the theology of the Old Testament beyond a lens imposed on the text by our own culture or assumptions. This is a worthwhile read for anyone eager to have a more competent grasp of Old Testament theology.
- Walton suggests that the primary theme that is carried through the Old Testament (and the Bible generally) is the presence of God.
- Walton utilizes the term “christotelic” rather than “christocentric” to describe the Old Testament’s relation to the New Testament.
Modern readers of the Bible often find the Old Testament difficult and even disturbing. What are we to do with obscure prophecies of long expired nations? Why should we read and study ancient laws that even the New Testament says are eclipsed by Christ? How can we reconcile Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with the Old Testament’s graphic narratives of sex and violence? What does the Old Testament offer that is not surpassed and even made irrelevant by the New Testament?
John Walton has spent a career engaging deeply with the Old Testament’s text and ancient context. He has studied, taught, and written about the issues. His signature approach can be introduced in one sentence: The Old Testament was written for us but not to us. We must not conform it to our own understanding. We will fully grasp the Old Testament and its theology only when we are immersed in the ancient cultural current of Israel within its broader cultural river of the ancient Near East.
In Old Testament Theology for Christians, John Walton invites us to leave our modern—and even inherited Christian—preconceptions at the threshold as we enter the world of the Old Testament. He challenges us to see it anew—as if for the first time—as guests in a strange and fascinating foreign land. Then we will rediscover its testimony to God’s great enterprise.
In this capstone to a career of studying and teaching the Old Testament, Walton unfolds a grand panorama of Yahweh and the gods, of cosmos and humanity, of covenant and kingdom, of temple and torah, of sin and evil, and of salvation and afterlife. Viewed within its ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, the text takes unexpected turns and blossoms into fresh and challenging insights. No matter how you are accustomed to viewing the first testament of the Bible, Old Testament Theology for Christians will challenge and sharpen your perceptions.
Author page on publisher’s website: https://www.ivpress.com/john-h-walton