Preaching Christ in the Old Testament: A Look Forward to the Upcoming Table Talk with Dr. Scharf and Dr. Luy

This post was originally published at Rolfing Unshelved.

On Wednesday, November 11 from 12-1:15 pm at the front of the library, Dr. Scharf and Dr. Luy will be facilitating a discussion on preaching Christ in the Old Testament. We will be examining some of the different perspectives and issues involved in that endeavor. Because of the complexity of this topic and the many subjects it raises to our attention, Dr. Scharf and Dr. Luy will begin the Table Talk by making some brief introductory comments. These initial remarks will serve to focus subsequent discussion. And after discussing these matters in groups, we look forward to a time of interaction with Dr. Luy and Dr. Scharf on further questions and group observations.

I hope that you will bring your lunch and join us!

This blog post seeks to introduce you to the subject at hand–preaching Christ in the Old Testament–and to expose you to some of the issues involved in that conversation.

As Dr. Scharf recently wrote me in an email,

The practice of preaching Christ in the Old Testament raises a host of questions and subjects the preacher to significant perils as well as offering great promise. Navigating these waters requires that the preacher have a defensible theology, a valid hermeneutic, and exegetical expertise (enriched ideally by a grasp of the history of interpretation of the preaching text) as well as a love for his or her listeners, the required spiritual gifting, and prayerful reliance upon the Holy Spirit.

You’ll immediately notice from his statement that the issues involved here are multi-faceted.

On the one hand, there are hermeneutical questions.

For example, many are concerned about preserving the original authorial intent of the text in its immediate literary and historical context. You may share my experience of sitting in classes with professors, typically Old Testament professors, who express such concerns. One question for preaching Christ from Old Testament texts then is, how do I connect the apparent authorial intent of this text to Christ (or, maybe better: preach Christ from this text) and still preserve faithfulness to its authorial intent, that is, without engaging in what might be called “Christo-eisegesis”?

Sometimes this particular question is posed in terms of an “either/or” issue. “Either you can preach the original intent or you can preach Christ. But, if you preach Christ, then you are necessarily not preaching the original meaning.” But are preaching Christ and preaching the authorial intent mutually exclusive or necessarily incompatible, or might that original meaning be organically related to Christ? Is not the latter the very claim of thoughtful advocacy of preaching Christ from the Old Testament, an advocacy based on a presupposition of the unity and Christocentric nature of scripture itself?

And with that latter point, what do we mean when we speak of ‘meaning’? Is it appropriate to make a distinction between two dimensions of meaning–original meaning and meaning unveiled through Christological connections?

These are some of the sorts of hermeneutical questions with which we need to wrestle if we are to think well about this matter.

But we can go on. It’s one thing to say we can preach Christ from the Old Testament, i.e., that it’s legitimate to do so and doing so does not necessarily violate scripture’s intention and meaning. But it’s another thing to actually do that sort of preaching.

The question at hand here may be, for example, “How does this text relate to Christ?” And this may be where Biblical theology enters the discussion as at least one possible avenue for answering that question. How does the Bible hold together? And where does this particular text fit into that larger redemptive-historical unity?

Second, I want to bring up the “why” question–why preach Christ from the Old Testament? What’s the point, the motivation, the driving assumption behind such preaching methodology? Is preaching Christ merely an alternative approach to preaching, one as equally as valid as others? Or do we have an obligation as Christian preachers to preach all of scripture in light of Christ?

One might argue that there is nothing wrong about preaching the Old Testament simply in terms of its original meaning, in terms of its immediate grammatical, historical, and literary context without consideration of its relationship to the broader Christian canon and Christ in particular. I mean, God purposed that original meaning. Thus, we may have a sense of wanting to guard ourselves from somehow implicating that this original meaning is deficient if preached solely on its own terms. But, at the same time, we may worry, “Can this sort of preaching be described as ‘Christian’?” In other words, what is distinctively Christian about it in such a case?

I’ve heard some claim that the Old Testament is inherently Christian. Thus, we don’t need to somehow Christianize it. The text does not need to be “baptized.” Preaching the original meaning is Christian preaching. To argue otherwise is to claim, by implication, that the text is deficient, somehow less than Christian.

But, to come at things from another angle, would this sort of preaching disclose the full significance of this text in light of the full witness of scripture and especially in terms of its relationship to Christ? Is that is what we mean by a distinctively Christian form of preaching, one the considers those broader theological connections?

How we answer these sorts of questions will likely effect the importance (or imperative) we place on preaching Christ from the Old Testament.

Along with these “why” questions are the often uninvestigated “what” questions. For example, when we say, “preaching Christ?” what do we mean by “Christ”? Is the goal to simply show the unity of scripture, i.e., how everything relates to Jesus? Or (and?) by “Christ” do we mean the Gospel, in which case “preaching Christ” is a synonym for “Gospel-centered preaching”?

We would do well to examine the nature of our particular contrual of “preaching Christ” before we enter discussions about what it would look like to do that from the Old Testament.

In other words, I’m trying to point out that many times when people advocate preaching Christ from the Old Testament, there are often (stated or unstated) assumptions about what this sort of preaching is and why it should be pursued. And, I think, in order to sort out our disagreements over these matters, we would do well to disclose those conceptions and their motivations and ask if they are legitimate. In short, let’s go to the source of the debate.

Finally, I want to revisit the “how” question I introduced above. As I said, it’s one thing to say we can (or ought) to preach Christ from the Old Testament, but it’s another thing to actually do it, and do it well. We must move beyond theory to methodology and practice if any of this discussion will affect our pulpits.

It’s worth asking a range of homiletical questions. For example, how do I convey these connections to Christ effectively? Winsomely? When do I preach Christ in the sermon? Do I tag it onto the end as a neat ‘bonus feature,’ or does the reality of Christ somehow pervade my entire message? How do I preach the original meaning of the text and preach Christ within my time restraints (presuming we have those)? These are a few of the sort of homiletical questions I think we want to ask as we approach the matter of preaching Christ from the Old Testament.

I hope you have found these thoughts stimulating and informative. I look forward to meeting with you at the Table Talk and continuing the discussion!