Why ‘Character Study’ Approach is Problematic

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There are many more real-life situations to draw from in the Old Testament than in the New— many more historical narratives that reveal to us men and women who are realistically portrayed, ‘warts and all’, in their encounters with God. But the difficulties we met in the historical narratives of the Gospels and Acts are increased when we come to the Old Testament narratives. We cannot simply transfer the experiences of the past wholesale to today. There are two dangers to avoid in regard to historical narrative:

1. We must not view these recorded events as if they were a mere succession of events from which we draw little moral lessons or examples for life. Much that passes for application of the Old Testament text to the Christian life is only moralizing. It consists almost exclusively in observing the behaviour of the godly and the godless (admittedly against a background of the activity of God) and then exhorting people to learn from these observations. There is nothing wrong with character studies as such– we are to learn by other’s examples– but such character studies all too often take theplace of more fundamental aspects of biblical teaching. Paradoxically, they may even lead us away from the basic foundations of the gospel.

2. We must guard against a too-ready acceptance of the example of biblical characters, whether good or bad, as the source of principles of the Christian life. If we concentrate on how David saved Israel from Goliath, on what response Elijah made to the threats of Jezebel, on where Saul showed the chinks in his moral armour, as examples to follow or to avoid, then we have reduced the significance of these people to the lowest common denominator. This approach easily obscures any other unique characteristics that may be part of revelation.

The danger in the ‘character study’ approach is that it so easily leads to the use of the Old Testament characters and events as mere illustrations of New Testament truths, while at the same time giving the appearance of being a correct exposition of the meaning of the Word of God.

~Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel & Kingdom, Wisdom & Revelation