Seeing the Old Through the New

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

What’s a follower of Jesus supposed to do with the Old Testament? 

That’s not a small question.  The OT – which tells the story of creation up through the history of ancient Israel – accounts for approximately 75% of the Bible’s pages. 

Through the centuries some Christians have treated the Old Testament as essentially equal to the New Testament.  “If it’s part of God’s Word, it must be God’s word to me.”  But those same Christians are almost always selective in how they apply the OT – applauding its call for capital punishment, for instance, even while eating a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich. 

Other followers of Jesus see the Old Testament as baggage that needs to be tossed aside.  The medieval scholar Alan of Lille went so far as to claim that it hadn’t even been inspired by God.  The OT had been given “by the prince of darkness, that is, by the malignant god, while the law of the gospel was given by the prince of light, that is, by the merciful god.”

Perhaps it’s wise to leave such esoteric questions to “the experts.” 

But here’s where the rubber meets the road:  What if you’re moved by something you find in the OT?  Does it have the same authority as a verse you find in the NT?  Is it OK to make a key life decision based on something that stirs your heart in Proverbs?

An illustration might help. 

Think of the Bible as the house where you live.  You walk into your house through the front door.  You spend almost all your waking hours in the family room, kitchen, and study.  These “living areas” represent the life of Jesus as reported in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), along with the NT letters written by Paul, Peter, John, and the other apostles.  Those Bible books are where life happens every day.

So where is Proverbs?

Proverbs is in the basement, alongside the rest of the Old Testament.  It’s part of the foundation which holds everything up – not to mention the critical functions of plumbing, electricity, and HV/AC. 

If you were showing someone around your house, you wouldn’t bring them in through the basement window.  Likewise, we introduce people to Scripture by coming in through the front door of the life of Jesus.  Is the OT important?  Absolutely.  But it’s not where we live.  We can go so far as to say that the reason the foundation was laid in the first place was to provide a secure platform for the ground floor, where we get to know the Son of God on a daily basis.   

That brings us to what is hands-down the most interesting and controversial theological topic in the book of Proverbs.

Chapter 8 is a lengthy speech delivered by Lady Wisdom, the personification of the spiritual virtue of wisdom that we met earlier in the book.  Some of her statements are eye-catching:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old;  I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be…” (8:22-23)   “I was there when he set the heavens in place…” (8:27)  “…and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.  Then I was constantly at his side.  I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (8:29-31) 

Most interpreters understand this as poetry.  It’s beautiful.  It evokes just how important wisdom is as a spiritual value. 

Some, however, have read these verses literally.  Is Lady Wisdom a real entity who co-created the universe with God the Father, or perhaps an appearance of Jesus before his birth at Bethlehem?

A few theologians have even suggested that a goddess called Sofia (the Greek word for “wisdom”) should be considered part of the Judeo-Christian godhead.  Others have taught that Jesus, the male Messiah, must be re-interpreted in light of the female principles of divinity that are revealed here in Proverbs.

Talk about turning a house upside-down.

This is where it matters how we understand the relationship of the two main parts of the Bible.

Over the past 20 centuries, the mainstream understanding of Jesus’ followers has always been that we read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament – not the other way around.  To put it another way, we see the book of Proverbs through “Jesus-colored glasses.”  Since the NT makes it clear that Jesus is the unique Son of God and co-creator of the cosmos (note Colossians 1:16-20, where we read that “all God’s fullness dwells in him”), we refuse to entertain the notion that there might be a rival god or goddess emerging in her own right from the book of Proverbs.

Bible scholar Dale Bruner puts it well: “The OT and NT sing a duet, but the NT carries the melody.”  That means we always examine life’s most important decisions in light of what we read in the New Testament, not just what happens to inspire us in the Old. 

Do you want to grow in wisdom?  

Proverbs, which is a delight to read and study, will serve you well.

But when it comes to growing deep in the things of God, it’s just one of the many places we get to visit.

Jesus, on the other hand, is the one place where we get to live.