Old Testament Spirituality
How about a preview of what’s coming in the fall? One academic book that’s heading for publication in October is John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology, Vol. 3: Israel’s Life. And yes, volume three is the final installment of this truly magnum magnum opus. If you’ve been following Goldingay, you know how these volumes unfold. But let’s have Goldingay set it out in his own words:
The first volume of this study of the theology of the First Testament sought to describe Israel’s gospel: not its history as we might reconstruct it on the basis of sources within the First Testament and without, but its history as the First Testament wanted people to remember it and learn of it. Volume Two sought to describe Israel’s faith: not what Israelites actually believed as we might infer it from within the First Testament (which records much critique of what Israelites actually believed) and from archeological discoveries (which also indicate that their religious practice was not what the First Testament says it should have been), but Israel’s faith as the First Testament reckons it should have been and should be. Analogously, Volume Three studies Israel’s life: not the life Israel actually lived (which is also often critiqued), but the life the First Testament reckons Israel should/could live or should/could have lived.
It’s been several months since I read through the manuscript of volume three (between Christmas and New Year, much of it before a crackling fire), and as I returned to it today my enthusiasm was rekindled. Here are a few excerpts (with footnotes deleted) on the topic of spirituality from the Old Testament’s perspective.
In the First Testament and in twenty-first century Western spirituality, the image of life as a journey is prominent, but the image has quite different significance in the two contexts. Western spirituality emphasizes that each of us is on our individual journey. Further, the journey is largely one we are undertaking inside our heads (our hearts or spirits, we may prefer to say). The emphasis of First Testament spirituality (taken up by the New Testament) is that Yhwh has laid out a moral path or track before Israel within whose parameters we are all to walk. This walk does involve the mind or heart or spirit, but it more obviously involves the feet (and hands and mouth), because a walk is something visible and outward. Letting our thinking develop in ways that are authentic to us is not enough, though it is also not enough to be outwardly walking Yhwh’s way but inwardly or privately worshiping other gods or plotting trouble for people. The question is whether we are letting our lives develop in ways that correspond to where Yhwh points. What counts is not the distinctive journey that I make as an individual, finding out who I am and making my distinctive personal contribution to the achievement of Yhwh’s purpose; indeed, looking for my own way is likely to mean finding it is the way to death rather than the way to life (Prov 14:12; 16:2, 9, 25; 21:2; Is 66:3; Jer 21:8). What counts is whether I am walking in Yhwh’s way with other people who are also committed to that way. We walk after or follow Yhwh like an army following its king as it advances to battle and/or follows the standards with the divine symbols that symbolize the divine presence.
Later he says:
Thus to speak of “fearing Yhwh” is to speak of being a true believer, of worshiping Yhwh in the proper way, of recognizing Yhwh as the real God (1 Kings 8:43). “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” In the First Testament it is “the principle religious virtue.” “Fear of Yahweh” or “service of Yahweh” is the First Testament equivalent to “spirituality.”
When Christian spirituality speaks of longing and thirsting for God, it often refers to an inner sense of God’s reality and presence. When Israel speaks thus, it refers to a longing to get to the sanctuary, a longing that relates to the assurance that Yhwh is objectively present there. Yhwh is not elusive, and an assurance of being in Yhwh’s presence is not dependent on a worshiper’s inner feelings. Yhwh actually dwells in the sanctuary. It is Yhwh’s “shelter” or “house” (Ps 42:4 [MT 5]). To be there is to be with Yhwh and thus (for instance) to know that Yhwh has heard one’s prayers and praises. This is not to imply that people’s inner beings are not involved. Psalm 42 makes clear that relating to God involves the whole person, body and spirit, and it involves the individual but in relation to community.
Then in Chapter 6, entitled “Spirituality and Character,” he opens with this:
“Spirituality” can have many different meanings, but in some way it suggests a stress on a realm or experience or reality not confined to the material or this-worldly or empirical. While a sensitivity to spirituality may make people look outward to the way they relate to the world and to other people, it is a realm they are aware of by looking inside themselves. In that respect, our Western notion of spirituality reflects “our modern sense of the self” which is “related to, one might say constituted by, a certain sense
of inwardness.” This finds expression in our emphasis on reflection, silence, retreat, quiet times, meditation, centering, and journaling.
There is none of this in the First Testament or the New Testament, where the sense of self (if people have such a thing) is relentlessly constituted by a sense of outwardness, external expression, noise, and activity. Within a scriptural framework, this entire volume on “Israel’s Life” concerns the realm of the spiritual, which embraces the way we relate to God, the way we relate to other people, and the way we relate to ourselves. The sons and daughters of God are the people who are led by the spirit of God to walk in God’s ways (Rom 8:14).
In speaking of “spirituality” as an aspect of “living with ourselves,” then, I am using the word in accordance with its resonance in a contemporary Western context. Modern and postmodern people cannot help belonging to their culture, and God meets us where we are, with our need for withdrawal, silence and journaling if we have that need. At the same time, if our sense of self is thus culturally-shaped, we can only gain from the broadening that the Scriptures offer us.
That’s a sampling. There’s much more, of course.
Any preacher who thinks the OT is dull and that preaching it will empty the pews owes it to their congregation to come under the tutelage of John Goldingay. His enthusiasm for the OT runs deep and is contagious, and his insights are sharp and often unexpected.
Posted by Dan Reid
at June 23, 2009 12:30 PM