Old Rabbi

Ten years ago I was asked by my church in Scotland to put together the Old Testament courses for our fledgling Free Church Seminary. As I didn’t really know where to start, I got on the Internet and emailed as many Seminaries as I could to get hold of their syllabi and course materials; and I broke the bank on Amazon.

However, with a few rare exceptions, I was quite disappointed with what I found. As I opened each package, some familiar patterns began to emerge which highlighted a number of significant problems with how the OT is being taught in Seminaries. They include:

1. Excessive Hebrew Grammar
In some OT courses, more time is given to the study of Hebrew Grammar than the study of the OT. Certainly, the ability to read and exegete the Hebrew Bible is vital, and ought to be pursued. However, it is not the first and most important area of study. Students may leave their courses with an ability to parse the many forms and stems of Hebrew verbs, and yet have little or no knowledge of the contents of Joshua or Chronicles. This is like studying a flower under the microscope without having looked at the field or landscape it came from. Instead, OT courses should prioritize covering the whole OT so that the student will get the “big picture.”

2. Excessive Concessions
Some OT resources tend to concede too much to historical and literary criticism. It often seems that evangelicals are prepared to concede evangelical truths and certainties in order to gain a hearing and win respect in the scholarly world.

No Christian scholar should abandon the presuppositions of biblical inspiration and infallibility when studying the Word of God. Nor should he attempt to approach the Word of God with an “open” mind and so-called “neutral” presuppositions, in order to interact with unbelieving scholarship. As Michael Barrett says in Beginning at Moses:

As believers, we must come with an open and receptive heart to receive and believe what God says. The mindset of a believer every time he opens the Bible must be the conviction that whatever the Bible says is true. We cannot trust our rea­son to determine what is true or false, right or wrong. By faith we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, and therefore we affirm its au­thority, infallibility, sufficiency, and effectiveness from cover to cover.[1]

The evangelical Old Testament scholar E J Young tried to approach the OT as Moses approached the holy ground of the burning bush (Ex. 3:5). He said:

This verse effectively disposes of the so-called “scientific” method, which assumes that man can approach the facts of the universe, including the Bible, with a neutral mind, and pronounce a just judgment upon them. It is time that we cease to call such a method scientific. It is not scientific, for it does not take into consideration all the facts, and the basic fact it overlooks is that of God and His relation to the world which He has created. Unless we first think rightly about God we shall be in basic error about everything else.[2]

The student of Scripture must not only adopt the right presuppositions but also the right attitude of reverence for the Scriptures. There has to be a receptive, teachable, and humble spirit if any spiritual progress is to be achieved.

3. Excessive Defense
In the face of critical attacks, and some evangelicals’ “critical accommodation,” some OT courses tend to focus all their attention on defending the OT from critical attacks.

While it is important for Evangelicals to robustly defend the Scriptures and expose the false assumptions and methods of liberal scholarship, the actual contents of individual books tends to be forgotten in the midst of the academics’ arguments and debates. It is as if a beautiful book was written and subsequently attacked by literary critics. Friends of the author then went to the defense of the book, writing articles and giving lectures on the weakness and faults in the critics’ case. However, in the midst of all the literary attack and counter-attack, the book went unread and the message went unheeded.

While the critics’ arguments may be regularly noted and rebutted, the focus of OT studies should be on the contents and meaning of the OT.

4. Cursory Survey
While some courses avoid the previous pitfalls, and do concentrate on communicating the contents of the OT books, they fail to give more information than a cursory reading of the scriptures would also yield. More is needed than just numerous summaries of the contents of individual books. Analysis is also required, and different analytical tools are available: the tools of Historical Analysis, Literary Analysis and Thematic (or Theological) analysis are all essential if we are to understand the form, content and message of the Hebrew Scriptures.

5. Selective Study
Some OT courses go to the opposite extreme of rapid cursory survey and instead focus on the detailed study of selected passages. For example, Genesis 1-3, or the Covenants, or other well-known passages may be studied in minute detail in Hebrew and English. However, again, the student then lacks an overall grasp of every book and they way each connects with rest of the Bible.

In-depth knowledge of a few selected passages, in the absence of an overall view of biblical history and biblical theology, is like a surgeon specializing in the kidney and liver, but knowing little or nothing about how they relate to the heart and other vital organs.

6. Specialized Analysis
Some OT Introduction books and courses, while focusing on the contents of the OT books, concentrate all their attention on either Historical Analysis, or Literary Analysis, or Thematic Analysis, instead of combining the strengths of all these approaches. This unbalanced specialization is like trying to drive a car with only one tire inflated. It does not lend itself to balance, or smooth and efficient running.

7. Disconnection from New Testament
I know one OT professor whose opening words in Lecture 1 are: “The New Testament is banned from this class.” Although few OT courses are as blatantly disconnected from the NT, many do suffer from a lack of mutual support and interaction. It is like trying to study a room in the dark, even though a torch is lying on the table. The tool of New Testament Analysis, then, needs to be added to those of Historical, Literary and Thematic Analysis.

8. Inconsistent Presentation
OT Introductions often approach the different books of the OT in different ways.  The outline of the lectures or chapters is unpredictable and often inconsistent. Some Introductions regard this as a virtue.

The human mind, however, greatly benefits from recognizable and consistent structures. It is much easier for a builder to vary and change the outward appearance of a house, if the basic foundation and structure is always the same. Research has shown that students seem to appreciate a uniformity of approach in lectures, and the benefits of this considerably outweigh any disadvantages. Consistent lecture structure will aid memory of the content and develop patterns of thinking which will guide the preacher in his approach to any portion of Scripture.

9. Devotional Deficit
Academic conclusions should never be the conclusion. All study of the Scriptures should aim at bringing the student to worship God and to personal, experimental application. Reading OT stories without a keen interest in the Spirit’s transforming influence in our lives can turn these texts into dry relics of ancient history. Technical, detached examination must not be substituted for personal encounter with God. As Dale Ralph Davies has said:

I do not think I can expect my students to warm to the Old Testament unless they sense it nurturing them as they hear it taught.[3]

If lectures do not result in more worship and more godliness, it is highly unlikely that the student’s Old Testament preaching will result in his hearers living more devoted and obedient lives. Professor J Pipa focused on this in a recent paper examining Seminary Education. He wrote:

Hardly a day passes that I do not think about the fact that no Christian institution of learning has ever remained faithful to God, none even as long as Princeton. This fact is sobering. A number of reasons may be offered, but the two most important are seeking academic acclaim and failure to teach from an experimental point of view – with love for God so that we do not turn our subject matter into abstractions. We must worship as we study. teach, and learn. Pray for us that we will be faithful, humble, and worshiping teachers.[4]

10. Neglect of Bible reading
Many Seminary students can testify that they read less of the Bible during the years of their formal training than at most other times in their lives. It is sadly possible to be engaged in the full-time study of the Bible and yet be reading little or nothing of it. Lasor, Hubbard and Bush conclude the preface of their Old Testament Survey with words we can heartily agree with:

In no way is our design to substitute for the Bible. What book can? Our hope is that it will be read as a guide and supplement to the biblical text itself, and that, as such, it will enhance the devotion and obedience of its readers to Scripture and to Scripture’s Lord….Obedience to God and worship of his holy name are our ultimate aim as God’s people. Such obedience and worship will be best informed where we have grasped the how, why, when, where and by whom of his sacred revelation. Both piety and study are essential to sound discipleship. To combine them has been the goal of our ministries and of this book.[5]

If OT courses would find 10 remedies for these 10 ailments, there would be a lot more blessed spiritual heartburn in our classrooms (Luke 24:32).

[1] M P Barrett, Beginning at Moses (Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2001), 5.
[2] E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: The Tyndale Press, 1953), 10.
[3] Dale Ralph Davies, Joshua (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000), Preface.
[4] J A Pipa, Seminary Education (Chalcedon Report, 2001).
[5] Lasor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), xiv.

  • http://www.prbctoledo.org/ David Charles

    Very helpful! Thank you Proff. Murray. Number 2 & 3 in particular drives me to near cursing! Would you give us a list of the best OT commentaries?

  • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

    Best OT commentaries? Wow, that’s a big request. How about I work away on that over the next few weeks and I’ll post it when complete?

    • Curtis Smith

      Calling it the “Old Testament” is very insulting to God. I’m not sure when he said “forget everything I just said, it’s old stuff.”
      Being able to understand Hebrew is the best way to understand what it truly says. Hundreds of examples I could list. “Wouldn’t hurt to learn some Greek too!”
      The reason why you should forget the New Testament when teaching the Hebrew Tanakh is so that Christians for a moment will stop trying to correlate every little thing with Jesus as the messiah. Especially in Isaiah after chapter 40.
      90% wasn’t misleading, better than most pastors! Best advice to readers is to read the Bible from beginning to end and read it as it says. If people have a hard time reading old English (i.e. King James Version); they probably have a hard time understand modern English.
      E-mail me anytime for clarification or questioning.

  • Cris D.

    Greatly appreciate the point you are making, knowing that I went through some periods where Scripture was lower on my reading list than textbooks during my M.Div. days (WTS back when there was only one).

    Much of these concerns are properly the realm of the session/consistory and presbytery/classis of the ministerial student. Even in a denominational seminary setting, there are some things simply outside the scope of the academy.

    I remember one strategy for mastering English Bible prior to licesure was to memorize the outlines of the Bible that are in Hendriksen’s Survey of the Bible (while reading said Bible, of course). Fixing 9 or 10 will help to fix the other (10 or 9), and alleviate imbalances in some of the other points.

    But really, can there ever be too much Hebrew?


  • http://www.grace2grow.blogspot.com/ Leah P.

    I am so glad to discover your blog! And LOVE this “head/heart/hands” emphasis. (soul/spirit/body?)

    Though not a seminary student (yet), I thank you for the above helpful list! In my life, one of my greatest errors, I think, has been my “adding new knowledge” approach to Scripture, as if everything I discover there is merely for the acquiring of more information, as if that in and of itself equates to growing in intimacy with God.

    What a conviction to discover, then, that while my head has been apt to grow quite large, my heart and my hands have virtually atrophied. Sounds terribly profound, I’m sure. Nevertheless, this list hits right at my, um, heart. Thank you. :)

  • http://www.shallwesingasongforyou.co.uk Stephen Steele

    Thanks for the post David. What OT intros/surveys would you recommend?

  • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

    Stephen, look out for future post on OT Intros and OT Commentaries.
    Glad you found this helpful, Leah.
    Cris, I presume your comment on Hebrew was tongue in cheek! Agree with you about impact of fixing #9&10.

  • http://all-grace.blogspot.com Penn

    Thank you for these insightful comments.

    I’m what you might call a possible seminary student, although I’m looking for low-cost or free training wherever possible, since I’m fully employed and recently married and broke.

    But my wife and I love reading the Old Testament together every day. We are taking it slow this time with a two year Bible reading plan just so we can meditate on and talk over what we read.

    God bless you as you teach men the Word!

  • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

    Penn: Glad to hear of our common love for the OT. May God bless you and your wife as you study it, and may He open a door for you to study for the ministry.

  • http://blog.christianfocus.com Christian Focus Booknotes

    Those interested in OT commentaries may want to consider the ‘Focus on the Bible’ series published by Christian Focus. You can see a list of the books in the series written by Dale Ralph Davis here: LINK.

  • Brandy

    Thank you for providing some excellent insight.
    I found your post while researching the arguments concerning general studies of the Bible by some academic focused Christians compared to Christians whos faith is more about the Holy Spirit and love. Can you offer any guidance on this subject?
    A very good friend of mine is constantly passing judgement on people who are not as structured and academic as he believes a person must be. This person concedes that worship in the form of payer and singing is unnecessary.

    Any feedback is greatly appreciated!
    Kind Regards~

  • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

    Brandy: Are you saying that there’s a Christian somewhere that does not believe prayer and singing are normal parts of the Christian life? That’s like saying there’s a human being who doesn’t breathe.

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