Reading the Old Testament through the Great Commandment Lens
In my time on social media, I’ve been called (in no particular order), woke, a liberal, an SJW, a radical leftist, a Marxist, a communist, and a theonomist. To all of which I reply, “Call me what you want. Just don’t call me late for dinner.”
Social media—and my propensity toward pugilism—is to blame. Most people who know me would never seriously think I’m any of these things, though I do occasionally brag that someone once called me an Obama-era, George-Soros-funded radical leftist plant in the Southern Baptist Convention. It was the same person, in fact, who also called me a theonomist. If you’re not familiar with either George Soros or theonomy, consider yourself blessed; suffice it to say one cannot simultaneously be both.
The first time I heard the term SJW, it came on the lips of a vice president at the college where I was teaching.
“I saw your post about Colin Kaepernick,” he said. “You sound like an SJW.”
Mildly confused, I mumbled something in return and headed off to my office to Google “SJW.” It wasn’t a compliment. Later that year the president of the college pulled me aside to warn me not to embarrass him by criticizing Donald Trump.
In the case of Kaepernick, I’d commented that we should believe him when he said he was protesting the oppression of “black people and people of color.” Significantly for my context, Alton Sterling had recently been killed by police just a few hours from the Southern Baptist school where I taught. My comments about Donald Trump, to my mind, were equally benign. I thought, and still think, that Christians should refuse to support a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women.
I eventually deleted all of my social media accounts (then re-opened them, and then got back off for good, I hope) because I don’t think it’s a helpful medium for communicating most things. Plus, I’m not an SJW or Obama-era infiltrator or Marxist, but it seemed to me that something about the way I used Twitter and Facebook made people think I was. The truth is that I was, and am, just trying to be faithful to what the Old Testament teaches us about loving God and loving people. I call it reading the Old Testament through the Great Commandment lens.
Both willful neglect and inconsistent cherry-picking make for an anemic faith.
I would imagine most of you are familiar with the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24, when Jesus met up with a few disciples mourning his death and “interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). That story has spawned a method of interpreting the Old Testament called the Christocentric hermeneutic. It encourages us to read Christ in the center of every Old Testament passage.
Its sister-method, the Christotelic hermeneutic, holds that Christ is the telos, or “end,” of the Old Testament. Our reading of every Old Testament passage should point us toward Christ. Other methods of reading Jesus in the Old Testament include typology (like we saw in Hebrews) and allegory (made famous by Origen). These interpretive tools each have their rightful place in the Bible reader’s repertoire of tools, but there’s another New Testament passage we should consider.
When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:34–40)
We can’t miss that Jesus is talking to the most learned people in his culture. They are the folks who should know what the Old Testament teaches. The Pharisees prided themselves on knowledge of and strict adherence to the Old Testament rules and regulations. They even tithed the smallest of herbs. Throughout the Gospels Jesus clashes with them because, in Jesus’s view, they “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). They were right to obey the Torah diligently, Jesus tells them, but they should have also embraced justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Christians today must take care not to do what the Pharisees did, though I doubt any of us are in danger of tithing from our spice rack. We are in danger, though, of neglecting the Old Testament altogether or plucking out our favorite passages to prooftext our hobby issue. Or both. We see the former in Andy Stanley’s recommendation that we “unhitch our faith from God’s covenant with Israel” because, in his view, “the Old Testament is usually the culprit” when people struggle to believe the Bible.¹ The latter is perhaps most clear in conversations surrounding abortion and LGBTQIA issues.
For example, the same people who have called me Marxist and woke for wrestling with Leviticus 19:34 (“You will regard the alien who resides with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself”) eagerly marshal Leviticus 18:22 in their defense of biblical marriage (“You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable”). Both willful neglect and inconsistent cherry-picking make for an anemic faith.
Jesus’s hermeneutic of loving God and loving neighbor, though, lightens our path through the Old Testament. His hermeneutic gives us the two questions we should ask of every passage in the two-thirds of the Bible that everyone loves to hate: “How does this passage teach me to love my neighbor?” and “How does this passage teach me to love God?” If the answer to either of those questions makes me a woke, Marxist, radical leftist social justice warrior—or even a theonomist—then I’ll gladly take the label, though I prefer another derogatory moniker first applied to followers of Jesus in Antioch: Christian.
¹ Andy Stanley, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018). I recommend Michael Kruger’s review of the book.