Christians and the Old Testament: An Interview with John Goldingay

Christians and the Old Testament: An Interview with John Goldingay

Dr. John Goldingay is a leading Christian Old Testament scholar who currently teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is an ordained priest in the Church of England and studied at Oxford University and at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of over 25 books relating to Old Testament studies. Recently, Holiness Today (HT) sat down with Dr. Goldingay (JG) for a discussion about biblical literacy and the importance of the Old Testament to Christians. 

HT:  What are your thoughts on the state of biblical literacy today, both among laypeople and ministers?

JG: The people with whom I have the most contact are students who arrive at the seminary. Many students who arrive at seminary seem to have had less involvement in reading the Scriptures and studying the Scriptures compared with what would have been the case when I came to the United States 20 years ago.

HT:  What are some reasons for this, and what can the Church do to help change it?

JG: One of the things I have noticed is that an average church doesn’t have the reading of Scriptures in the services that you used to get. What you get is quite a lot of singing, then the pastor starts preaching the sermon, and then he or she will quote a text. So, the priority of Scripture reading is much lower than it has been historically.

This approach isn’t one that encourages us to pay attention to Scripture in its own right. In many ways, this may have led to the situation in the church that existed before the Reformation. People aren’t accustomed to interacting with Scripture for themselves. Many simply rely on the pastor or experts for their interaction with Scripture, and we need more than that if we are going to be a biblically literate Church.

HT: What first sparked your interest in Old Testament studies?

JG: There were a variety of things. First, I was inspired by a mentor, an Irish scholar and preacher called Alec Motyer, who I heard preach from the Old Testament. My studies of Hebrew in the university helped spark an interest as well. The explanation of why I am still interested in the Old Testament after all these years is that I think it’s fantastically illuminating about who God is and who we are. The stories of God’s interactions with His people assist my preaching and my approach to God and others.

HT: You recently wrote a book entitled Do We Need the New Testament? This is an unusual question for a Christian minister and scholar. Could you expound upon the theme of that book and how it speaks to your current interest?

JG: I think people often formulate assumptions about the Old Testament without having read it. For example, one of the assumptions they carry with them is that the God of the Old Testament is rather nasty and the teaching of the Old Testament is legalistic. One of my concerns in Do We Need the New Testament? is to show that the way in which the Old Testament and the New Testament speak of God is not different.

The God who became incarnate in Jesus is the same God who was relating to Israel over the centuries.

The fact that God continued letting Israel kick Him in the teeth while ceaselessly loving them shows how, when Jesus came, He was the embodiment of the God who had been involved with Israel. Likewise, what the New Testament gives us about what it means to be human beings and what it means to be the church isn’t so different from the way in which the Old Testament instructs Israel about what it means to relate to God and what it means to be human.

HT: How do you assist church members and students in navigating through those misunderstandings or misconceptions of the Old Testament?

JG: I invite people to come to the Old Testament and embrace the charm of unfamiliarity. One of the key things I try to do is to give them questions to ask that derive from my own study of the books themselves. So, I’ll ask things like: What does it tell you about God here? What does it tell you about being a man or about being a woman? What does it tell you about how God relates to us?

A key aspect of being able to read the Scriptures in an intelligent and helpful way is having some questions to ask which can unlock what is actually there. An image I use with people is the image of counseling. A key skill of a counselor is the capacity to ask questions that enable the client to say what he or she needs to say. So, in our reading of Scripture, we need to be asking the kinds of questions that draw out what the text is actually trying to say.

HT: How would you direct someone new to Christianity and to the Bible about where to start in order to become more familiar and more at ease with the Old Testament?

JG: The Psalms is a good place to start. The key reason why the Psalms are in the Bible is to show us how to worship God and how to pray. Then I would suggest looking at the way in which the New Testament refers to the Psalms, especially in regard to worship and prayer. Jerome, the early Church Father, once said that if you lost the entire Old Testament and only had the Psalms, you would actually be able to almost reconstruct the key themes of the Old Testament from them.

HT: What other assumptions do you think should be addressed in order to help people read, understand, and apply the Old Testament?

JG: The point of the Bible is to tell us about God and about God’s involvement with people.

The Bible reminds us of the good news that God works through human beings, but it doesn’t all depend on us.

What we need is the inspiration from God that enables us to go and live the life we know we should live.

For example, I happened yesterday to be reading the story of Gideon. Gideon is a great guy, but he also makes mistakes. The story of Gideon is as much about how God works through us despite ourselves as it is about Gideon being a good example. That’s really encouraging because the people in the Bible are kind of mixed up characters in the same sort of way we are, but God still uses them. This is great news.

HT: Are there particular tools that make good companions to help people become more familiar with the Old Testament?

JG: As an Episcopalian, I am involved in making sure that in every church service there are four passages of Scripture read. We read something from the Old Testament in general, something from the Psalms, something from the Epistles and something from the Gospels.

There are groups, including my own, that have a three-year lectionary, a way of working through the Scriptures as a whole over a three-year period. In churches that use these tools every week, people are being soaked in the Scriptures, and the Scriptures set the agenda for worship every week. Sometimes I will preach a few minutes on each passage instead of one long 30 or 40-minute sermon.

Regardless of what tools the church uses, being intentional about using a wide range of Scripture, including Old Testament passages, is a beginning point in assisting the congregation to become familiar with the entire Bible, not just a narrow range of passages.

Some people read the Bible a lot during worship but don’t take any notice of it. Others say the Bible is very important but don’t read it very often. A balanced approach can help us become more literate and less intimidated by the Scripture God has given to us as His people. 

Dr. John Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament in the School of Theology of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Holiness Today, Jul/Aug 2018