Review of How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth by Christopher J. H. Wright

February 14, 2017

Wright, Christopher J. H. How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, pp. 288, $18.99, softcover.

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Christopher J. H. Wright serves as the International Ministries Director of the Langham Partnership, an organization dedicated to the international advancement of the Gospel. He has also taught the Old Testament in various countries and has authored several books dealing with the Old Testament, ethics, and mission.

The structure of the table of contents for How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth shows that it deals with points of theory and practice. The first five chapters answer the question, “Why should we preach and teach from the Old Testament?” (p. 9). Here Wright connects the major contours of the Old Testament to the theme of redemption revealed throughout Scripture. Thus, the author begins his work with a focus on theory. The final ten chapters respond to the question, “How can we preach and teach from the Old Testament?” (p. 9). Wright here covers practical concerns when preaching from the different genres in the Old Testament. The book then concludes with two appendices and a bibliography which supply summary details for readers who wish to engage in further learning and practice.

For those acquainted with introductory resources on hermeneutics and biblical studies, the title for Wright’s volume should sound familiar. It is a recent installment in a series which began with Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1981). This series provides an overview for interpreting Scripture well, and Wright’s contribution to this series accomplishes this goal in at least three key ways.

First, the author writes like an effective communicator. He provides excellent illustrations and practical examples throughout the book for rather complex hermeneutical concepts. Second, Wright demonstrates how to preach from the Mosaic Law in a multifaceted manner. For instance, when discussing various reasons why God gave His Law to Israel (pp. 138-158), the writer notes that the Law should be understood from positive perspectives in light of God’s overall plan of redemption and not only in reference to Paul’s discussion of the Law as he contended with first-century Judaizers (pp. 138-141). Third, the author interacts with each major section of the Old Testament, that is, its narratives, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (pp. 85-283).

While this resource should prove helpful to students in light of the above points, there are still aspects of the book which could use additional clarification. To begin, since the title of the book mentions the words “preach and teach,” it would seem readers who are interested in hermeneutics and homiletics could expect clarity on both of these fronts.  However, the structure of some of the sample sermons may be confusing to readers focused on homiletics in particular.

For example, Wright’s first sample outline focuses on Genesis 22:1-19, and his sermon unpacks this text with a brief discussion of verses 1, 2, 5-8, 9-10, 11-14, and 15-18 (pp. 134-136). So the flow of thought in his sermon aligns with the flow of thought in the focal passage. However, the next sermon outline is taken from Genesis 18:19-21. Yet, Wright’s text selection only deals with a portion of its larger context and covers verse 21 first, verse 18 second, and verse 19 third (pp. 159). While only three of Wright’s nine outlines show a lack of alignment in this way, this nevertheless accounts for a third of the outlines in the book, and since the book’s title mentions preaching, additional clarity on this point would be helpful.

Lastly, Wright appears to take a special interest in Old Testament narratives, and he makes great points in this section of his work (pp. 87-133). Among the various nuances related to this topic, he emphasizes how biblical narratives should not be severed from the overall biblical story line of redemption in order to be presented as isolated stories about moral principles or deeper spiritual insights. Rather, the connection of Old Testament stories to their larger contexts should remain in clear view (pp. 119-133). Yet, the proverbial baby may get thrown out with the bath water because one has to wonder if this point is over emphasized at times, especially when Wright and the biblical text seem to demonstrate how Old Testament narratives teach various principles in addition to their main theological thrusts.

For instance, Wright explains, “Many of the single stories and longer narratives in the Old Testament show what it means to hear God’s promise and respond to it . . .  So, at one level, they point to the trust and obedience of human characters. But more importantly, they point to the faithfulness of God. God can work through even the most difficult or dangerous circumstances (think of Joseph)” (p. 113). While the author provides an excellent emphasis on God’s faithfulness in the biblical narratives, he nevertheless appears to acknowledge that these stories also provide illustrations of principles for obedience and faithfulness and how they can apply today.

Also, it seems the biblical text recognizes how scriptural narratives teach God’s truth in a variety of ways. For instance, in Joshua 22:13-20 some Israelites conclude their thoughts in this passage with an articulation of a theological principle they learned from a previous narrative event in the nation’s recent history, specifically, the sin of Achan (Joshua 6-7). Obviously, the Israelites learned from this narrative that when one person in the covenant community sins, there is collateral damage. Additionally, in 1 Corinthians 10:6-13 Paul refers to several Old Testament events to challenge the Corinthians to avoid various types of sin and temptation. Twice in this passage Paul teaches that these Old Testament stories are examples for New Testament Christians to take to heart in their sanctification process. Thus, the Old Testament narratives supply teaching about God’s overall story of redemption as well as valid principles and application points for contemporary Christians.

In fact, Keller emphasizes a related point in his Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking, 2015). He contends, “In some Bible passages it is not easy to discern one clear central idea. This is especially true in narratives” (p. 43). While Keller does not completely dismiss the idea of a central theme for biblical texts, he nevertheless urges expositors to consider how “Not only the [biblical] author’s major points but also his minor points should be attended to, since they are also from God” (p. 250). It would be helpful for Wright to include more clarity on this type of balanced view for preaching Old Testament stories as well.

Wright’s work is an excellent hermeneutical resource for those who are beginning a serious study of the Old Testament, especially with a view to teaching it well in the church. He presents solid material in an accessible manner, and he provides direction to readers who wish to engage this information in a more technical fashion. However, readers who are primarily interested in the homiletics side of the title may not find as much help in Wright’s book. For these students, a standard introduction to expository preaching should provide assistance such as Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker Academic, 2001) or Tony Merida’s Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion, and Authenticity (B&H Academic, 2009). A combination of Wright’s hermeneutical insights coupled with Robinson’s or Merida’s homiletical insights should furnish learners with a great introduction to the areas of interpreting and communicating the Old Testament effectively.

Pete Charpentier

Grand Canyon University

Grand Canyon Theological Seminary, Phoenix, AZ

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