Wright, Christopher J. H. How to Preach & Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 289 pp.
A moralistic sermon. A good character study. A study of spiritual truths scribed in antiquity about Israel and their God. For many pastors and teachers, preaching and teaching from the Old Testament often falls into one of the categories listed, that is if an attempt is ever made to explain anything written in the first two-thirds of the Bible. There is much confusion as to how Christians are to understand the Old Testament, and much of the confusion is due to pastors and teachers failing to rightly teach the Old Testament as the beginning of the story of God’s work to create a kingdom for his glory in Jesus Christ. In How to Preach & Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth, Christopher J. H. Wright provides a helpful resource for the church that assists with faithfully preaching and teaching the Old Testament.
Wright book consists of two parts. The first section of the book lists several reasons why Christian pastors and teachers should preach and teach from the Old Testament: because the Old Testament is the word of God that is profitable to the church (2 Tim. 3:16-17), because the Old Testament is foundational to the story of the redemptive work of God in Jesus in which we New Testament Christians live, and because the Old Testament causes us to understand who Jesus is as the Christ. The second, and much larger, section of the book addresses how Christian pastors and teachers should preach and teach from the Old Testament. Mixing biblical theology, hermeneutics, and exegesis, Wright helps his reader understand the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature—how to understand the way they each function to communicate truth as different literary types, how they fit together in God’s grand story called the Bible, how to interpret them within multiple contexts (immediate context within the Old Testament, Christ-centered/New Testament context, and eschatological context), how New Testament Christians are to apply their lives to them, and how one might assemble exegetical work into potential sermons or lessons to preach or to teach.
From a practical standpoint, Wright’s book is more like a hermeneutics book than a preaching book. In many preaching books that attempt to teach people how to teach and preach, Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching for example, the emphasis of the book lies on the component parts of sermon preparation and delivery: (briefly) how to exegete a text, how to derive the theme or big idea from a text, how to develop sermon points/moves based on the text type, how to illustrate a text, how to apply a text, how to create an intro and conclusion, and how to deliver a sermon. Wright’s book, very similar to Walter Kaiser’s Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church, focuses on how to rightly exegete Old Testament texts using sound hermeneutical principles so that the preacher/teacher is able to faithfully prepare and deliver a sermon from the Old Testament. For example, on the Psalms, Wright focuses on Hebrew parallelism (226-229), poetic word pictures (229-231), poetic emotionalism (231-232), the types of psalms (232-242), and psalm books (242-245). Wright then gives a few tips for preaching, a checklist of questions to consider, and a few example outlines of preaching the psalms (246-261). So if you are looking for a book on how to prepare and deliver a sermon from the Old Testament, this book is probably not for you; however, if you are looking for a book that will help you rightly interpret the Old Testament so that your prepared and delivered sermon is faithful to the text, edifying to the church, and glorifying to God, this book is for you.
Wright clearly intends for this book to be used by any and all Christians who preach and teach the Bible, this as opposed to usefulness merely for academics and seminarians. Wright does a fantastic job discussing biblical theology, literary analysis, contextual horizons, and many other relevant exegetical matters of importance to the Old Testament in concise, earthy language that is accessible to the layman as well as to the pastor. On typology and understanding Jesus and the Old Testament, for example, Wright declares
Another word for that kind of explanation is “analogy.” An analogy is where you use one well-known thing to explain some new thing that has some similarities. They are not exactly the same, but you can see correspondences between them. In the Bible we find analogies drawn between Jesus Christ and events, persons, institutions, themes, and images that are found in the Old Testament (69-70).
Rather than use technical words like typology and rather than attempt to get into the weeds of degree of correspondence, heightened significance, and other important matters of typology, Wright explains the subject of typology from a general standpoint using language that the common churchman can understand as if the book is an Old Testament hermeneutics primer. Consequently, this book should be valuable at the small group discussion level and at the sermon level.
Because the overwhelming majority of the book is excellent and because commending the numerous ways in which Wright’s book is massively helpful would take pages to pen, it’s easier to commend the whole book then describe the most significant disagreement: Christ-centeredness. Wright contends that every Old Testament text points to Jesus but not every text is about Jesus, and then he argues that “making every Old Testament text somehow be “about Jesus” can have …bad effects,” such as ignoring the original meaning of the text, fanciful interpretations, overlooking other big things that God teaches, flattening the Bible story and removing the uniqueness of the incarnation, preaching all sounds the same (54-60). A few words of response are in order.
First, it seems that Wright is trying to say, on the basis of texts like Luke 24 and others, that every Old Testament text points to the Christ as a coming figure; however, no Old Testament text is about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ come in flesh. Wright’s emphasis is that the Old Testament text can be about the Christ but not about Jesus as the Christ because Jesus was not known as the Christ until the incarnation, which took place after the Old Testament period concluded. Any Old Testament text in its original context, the pre-incarnation context of the Old Testament being central to Wright’s thought throughout the book (see pages 52-61, 71-72, 120-123, 211-212, 241), pointed to the Christ without knowing the Christ by name as Jesus; therefore, faithful interpretation of a pre-incarnation text can point to the Christ or to the Son of God but it cannot be about the Christ or the Son of God as Jesus who did not exist until the incarnation. Consequently, Wright contends that “we really should not use the name “Jesus” before his birth, and talk about Jesus in the Old Testament” (59).
While understanding an Old Testament text in its original context before the incarnate Son of God appeared in Jesus is necessary for faithful exegesis, to say that New Testament Christians should not talk about Jesus in the Old Testament or to say that Old Testament texts only point to but are not about Jesus as the Christ flies in the face of Jesus’ and the apostle’s Old Testament hermeneutical principles that guide Christian interpretation of the Bible post-resurrection for people like us. For example, Luke 24:27 says that Jesus the Christ interpreted to his disciples things from the Old Testament Scriptures “concerning himself.” Jesus did not say that the Old Testament was about the Christ; he showed them how the Old Testament pointed to himself as Jesus the Christ of Nazareth. Peter, as another example, writes in 1 Peter 2:6, “For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’” (ESV). This he quotes from Isaiah 28:16 in reference to the church in verse five who “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (ESV). Peter preaches Isaiah 28:16 not merely in light of the Christ but in light of Jesus the Christ.
To live in light of the resurrection knowing that the veiled messiah of the Old Testament is now revealed as Jesus of Nazareth means that all the words of the Old Testament were not just about a messiah; they were about Jesus the Messiah who we now know more fully, and, who now knowing him more fully, we can better understand the Old Testament from a canonical perspective possessing the interpretive key to the Old Testament. Because we live after the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, we not only say that the Old Testament points to the Christ, we must faithfully preach that each Old Testament text is about the Christ who is Jesus from a promise-fulfilled canonical context while also preaching the text in its promise-made original context.
A second, briefer comment about Wright’s assertion is that all of the bad effects of preaching every Old Testament text about Christ are non-sequitar illustrations, which means they do not necessarily follow if every text of the Old Testament is declared to be about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. And while the “bad effects” are indeed bad, the problem cause does not stem from every Old Testament text being about Jesus; the problem stems from poor preparation and sermon delivery from the preacher. I commend David Prince’s sermons as sermons about Christ that do not produce these “bad effects”, so the bad effects simply do not necessarily flow from the premise.
How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth will benefit any preacher or teacher of the Bible who desires to faithfully preach the entire counsel of God. Apart from debate concerning the extent of Old Testament Christo-centricity, Wright’s exegetical principles and insights into Old Testament literature within the biblical metanarrative will certainly help Bible teachers better understand the Old Testament so that they may indeed preach and teach the Old Testament for all its worth. May the church be served well and may the Lord be glorified through this resource as the preachers and teachers learn how to rightly proclaim Old Testament texts more clearly in light of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.
Note: A review copy of the book was provided to the Prince on Preaching blog in exchange for an honest review.