Does Christian Theology Neglect the Old Testament?

Last week I finished indexing The Pietist Option. I know that many authors regard that task as a chore to be outsourced. But can I be honest with you all? I love doing that kind of thing.

(Doubt it? I once helped my kids reorganize their books… according to the Dewey Decimal System.)

A bit of my attempt at indexing scriptures in The Pietist Option
The beginning of my (unofficial) attempt at a Scripture index for The Pietist Option

In fact, I enjoy indexing so much that I even took a shot at our book’s index of Bible verses, even though I’m pretty sure our publisher does that for us. Not just because that kind of work makes my brain happy (as our son would say), but because I was curious to see any patterns in how we engaged with Scripture.

In the end, Mark and I quoted, paraphrased, or otherwise alluded to passages from 26 of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible. Here’s that top 10 list:

  1. John (19 — whew! in our introduction I claim that the typical Pietist’s Bible falls open to this gospel)
  2. Romans (16)
  3. Matthew (15)
  4. Psalms (9)
  5. Acts (9)
  6. Hebrews (9 — all but one in my chapter on the “common priesthood“)
  7. Luke (8)
  8. Galatians (8)
  9. Genesis (7)
  10. Jeremiah, Mark, and 1 Corinthians (6 each)

To be honest, I’m relieved to see that three Old Testament books show up even this often, and we quote from five more. Altogether, about 22% of our biblical allusions are from the larger, older section of Scripture. (Versus 36% from the gospels, 38% from Paul’s epistles, and 26% from the rest of the New Testament.)

That’s not a lot of reflection on the Hebrew scriptures, but it’s actually much more than seems to be typical with Christian theological writing.

theLAB - Logos Academic BlogLast month Caleb Lindgren drew Christianity Today readers‘ attention to a big data study by Rick Brannan of Logos Academic. Brannan analyzed over 800,000 Bible citations in over 300 systematic theology books and found that, of the 100 most popular verses, only 9 came from the Old Testament: eight from Genesis — though nothing after ch. 3 — and one of Isaiah’s messianic prophecies.

One book’s absence is especially notable. Ps 51:5 (hamartiology) and 103:20 (angelology) are popular for subfields, but not a single verse from a single psalm cracks the top 100! Which is almost enough by itself to make me question the entire project of systematic theology. Australian theologian Michael Bird felt similarly, telling Lindgren that “the Psalms… really do provide the substructure to apostolic preaching, and yet they are virtually absent from the analysis. The lesson I’m taking from this is that systematic theologians need to spend more time in biblical theology—in particular, in a biblical theology of the Old Testament.”

First page of Genesis in the Gutenberg Bible
FIrst page of Genesis in the Gutenberg Bible – Wikimedia

(For the record, I counted 18 of Brannan’s top 100 mentioned in our book, including Gen 1:26 and 27. We quote from Isa 6 and 42, not 9. Oddly, while we refer to Romans a lot, we’re clearly reading different parts of that epistle than the systematicians — I don’t think any of the verses that inspired us appear on the top 100. Of course, we’re not doing systematics, but… One other point of interest: the Epistle of James — “The Proverbs of the New Testament” — doesn’t appear until #163 on Brannan’s list; we quote it four times in three different chapters.)

The theologians to whom Lindgren spoke for his CT report were understandably troubled by Brannan’s findings. Indeed, they led a couple of those scholars to hint at the need for the decolonization of systematic theology. William Dyrness of Fuller Seminary pointed out that the corpus studied was “not representative of the Majority-World church and other minority groups, whose voices are mostly ignored, or at least underrepresented in such collections.” He was struck, for example, “that my African students can find such theological meat in the genealogies of Scripture, which often contribute little to our Western theologies.” “One wonders,” added Canadian scholar John Stackhouse, “what Anabaptist, Pentecostal, African, Latin American, and Asian theologies will emphasize as they multiply, God willing, in the generations to come.”