Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Today in the Mission Yearbook

Seminary professor holds an online Old Testament treasure hunt


The Rev. Dr. Dennis Olson is a guest on the Synod of the Covenant’s ‘Equipping Preachers’ series

June 3, 2024

Photo by Mick Haupt via Unsplash

“Rediscovering Lost Treasure: Old Testament Resources for Christian Faith and Life” is the title the Rev. Dr. Dennis Olson gave to an online talk he delivered recently as part of the Synod of the Covenant’s “Equipping Preachers” series. Watch Olson’s talk encouraging preachers to engage Old Testament texts in their sermons — especially those passages that aren’t part of the lectionary — by clicking here.

Olson is the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology and Chair of the Biblical Studies Department at Princeton Theological Seminary. He lamented that some preachers and faith communities “don’t know the history and background of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.”

“It’s a crowded and complex history,” Olson said of the Old Testament, “and it’s sometimes hard for us to get our arms around it.”

Some of the Old Testament “seems useless or even repugnant to the modern Christian,” Olson said. Preachers are “sometimes repelled by a God portrayed as an angry judge or divine warrior,” as in Psalm 137:9, another verse often censored by lectionary committees.

Less than 30% of the Old Testament is read in worship among churches following the Revised Common Lectionary in worship, Olson noted, adding, “What happens when we strip down the Old Testament to 30% of its full voice?”

We can miss lessons on the stewardship of Creation, as Leviticus 25 provides. “The theology of the land and its care reflected in Leviticus 25 is actually quite profound,” Olson said. “It reminds us we humans do not own the land or other resources that make life possible. Rather, we are temporary stewards of the Earth.”

One professor calls Psalm 148 “a theological argument for the Endangered Species Act, the independent praise of God by non-human Creation,” Olson said. “The symphony of praise is lessened when a species goes extinct.”

Not only does the Old Testament speak of God and other complicated topics, it tells us about ordinary life, too. “The Old Testament affirms God’s ongoing and blessing activity that often works in hidden, quiet, but no less real ways,” Olson said.

Just last summer, Olson was teaching a group of pastors in South Africa. Thirty years before, they’d celebrated the fall of apartheid. But the nation continues to struggle with economic inequality, crime and the influx of refugees who are even poorer than many South Africans. “These pastors find great resonance with Old Testament stories about … Israel’s struggles in the post-exilic period … but also profound hope and trust that God is still working in these difficult circumstances, and, in the end, God will be faithful,” Olson said. Congregations that are “going through these struggles and difficult times can also find a place that echoes and resonates to them in these texts,” he said.

Answering a webinar participant’s point that if some people in worship “don’t hear about Jesus, they haven’t been to church,” Olson advised letting the exegesis of the Old Testament passage “take you to resonance in the New Testament.”

“They may complement one another or contradict one another, or they may supplement each other in some sort of way,” he said. “There’s no one easy answer how they speak to each other. It takes discernment and exegesis, and it’s hard work.”

Another said he’s heard from people who tell him, “I’ve never heard that about God’s love in the Old Testament. I have found that very affirming and transformative for a lot of people,” this preacher said.

“Ultimately, it’s God working,” Olson said. “It’s not dependent solely on us.”

“It’s helpful to share a critical reading of Scripture with our congregations. We may not think they’re ready for it, but they are, and they welcome it,” Olson said. “I have heard stories about congregations telling the pastor, ‘Why hasn’t anyone else told us about understanding the Bible as an ancient document and yet a powerful document that continues to speak to us as well?”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Rev. Dr. Dennis Olson is a guest on the Synod of the Covenant’s ‘Equipping Preachers’ series

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Carlton Johnson, Associate Director, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency 
Kirstie Johnson, Administrative Assistant, Director’s Office, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency 

Let us pray

Dear God, thank you for loving the world and sending your church to grow in service, discipleship and effectiveness. We are grateful for examples of those who are listening to your Spirit’s voice. Guide all those involved in innovative ministry. In Jesus’ name. Amen.