Most of what the Bible says about God appears in the first two thirds of the book. Many Christians call it the Old Testament. Some call it the Hebrew Bible. Our understanding of God’s character would shrink greatly if we were to look only at the New Testament, and we cannot understand the New Testament without the story we find in the previous books of the Bible.
For these reasons, the church needs to maintain (or, in many cases, to reestablish) a prominent place for the Hebrew Bible. That’s why I get excited about works like Fleming Rutledge’s And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2011). The book contains fifty-five sermons; and the author’s goal is to nurture a passion for the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and a desire for communicating its world and message.
The author’s passion for the Hebrew Bible, which began early in her life through familial influence, continues in And God Spoke to Abraham. She points out that the Old Testament was the early church’s only scripture, and she claims its importance for today in two ways. First, the Old Testament functions as “the operating system for the New Testament;” “the Old Testament is indispensable for the New, and… it is not only possible but vital to preach from the Old Testament for the way it drives the New.” Rutledge challenges her readers to approach the Old Testament as Christians, not as if the New Testament were nonexistent. Second, Rutledge challenges preachers “to teach the Old Testament for its own sake.” One reason for this is respect “for the integrity of Jewish heritage… [reverence] for the story of Israel in light of the past hundred years.” A stronger reason is that the church needs a robust picture of God. “Thus we must read the New Testament in light of the Old.” In relation to this second reason, Rutledge also mentions that embracing both the Old Testament and the New Testament can prevent an unhealthy division of them, as seen in Marcion. Although the church long ago rejected his view, “the insidious tendency to reject or downgrade the Old Testament on the grounds of its inferiority is with us still.” Rutledge advises preachers to proclaim the Bible as “a seamless garment” but not to ignore “the individual biblical voices in their distinctive form[s].”
Rutledge approaches the Old Testament as a theologically informed explorer of the Bible. Her greatest contribution in And God Spoke to Abraham, however, is as a preacher, not as an academic theologian or Bible scholar; so let me shift from Rutledge’s passion for the Old Testament to her communication of it.
When I was in eighth or ninth grade, an English teacher taught my class that, as young writers, we needed to learn the rules before earning the right to break them. Rutledge seems to have accomplished both feats. Some of her sermons fit the standards of a college public speaking course; in others the preacher effectively takes great liberties.
Most of these fifty-five sermons begin with what speech teachers call “attention-getters” (e.g., news stories, poems, stories, hymns) to involve her listeners in the preaching experience, and some of the sermons end with connections to their openings. These openings, as well as illustrations throughout the sermons, frequently arise from the preacher’s higher-than-average familiarity with literature. That characteristic can benefit literate audiences or irritate listeners who prefer Madden over Milton.
Rutledge’s occasional spurts of linguistic artistry compel me to continue reading: “squirming desperately like worms in a can,” “a culture so lost to us that we know it only from digging it out of the ground,” “left the taste of ashes in my mouth,” “as though Death were shredded Kleenex.” My favorite of the rhetorical relishes appears near the end of the Easter sermon titled “A Way Out of No Way.” Looking at the resurrection through the exodus, the preacher assures her congregants that in “the face of death… there is another, greater Way; there is another, greater Life; there is another, greater Power.” Then, rhythmically, musically, in the spirit of Miriam, she thrice invites, “listen, listen, people of God… Listen, listen, people of God… Listen, listen, people of God…”
Scripture, theology, history, literature, music, movies, recent events, and personal experiences converse energetically in Rutledge’s sermons. The theological questions impress me; Rutledge guides her people through pondering that leads to answers (or at least to more faithful perspectives). At times, however, by using this skill the preacher can abandon the text; so preachers should be careful.
I earlier identified Rutledge’s dual call (1) to embrace a relationship between the Old and New Testaments and (2) “to teach the Old Testament for its own sake.” Some of the sermons in this volume clearly do the first part of that call. While her movement between the Testaments is smooth, impressive, and helpful, I benefit more from her preaching when it arises from the Old Testament itself without reference to the New Testament. Different opinions exist on this subject, and I do not claim any authority here. I simply am refreshed by examples of preaching that let the Hebrew Bible speak. Must we preach Jesus in every sermon, or may an Old Testament text speak on its own without input from the New Testament? Rutledge’s exploration of that question seems unfinished, as is mine.
Much of this post is modified from a review I wrote for the Biblical Preaching course at Harding School of Theology in February 2013.