224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 5, 2010
In his introduction of the speaker for the Brethren Press Breakfast, David Leiter, pastor of Green Tree Church of the Brethren in Oaks, Pa., noted, “What impresses me most about Bob is his dedication to serve the overall church in his retirement years through teaching and writing.”
Speaking on the topic, “The Hebrew Bible is the Foundation of a New Testament Church,” Neff began by describing his personal pilgrimage, noting that when he arrived at Yale Divinity School he had no idea what he would focus on or what he would do with his life. Neff said he could truly state “I was saved through Old Testament 101.”
All that followed in his career–Old Testament professor at Bethany Theological Seminary, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, president of Juniata College–began with that O.T. 101 class taught by Brevard Childs.
At first he felt like “a fish out of water” as an Old Testament professor for a denomination that proclaims it has no creed but the New Testament. However, whenever he went out to preach and teach at local churches he would only take the Hebrew testament with him, which was the Bible of the early church.
“The First Testament provides the storyline for the New Testament,” Neff said, pointing to Old Testament references in the first two chapters of Matthew. “Jesus’ place in history is placed in Israel and the Messianic line…. Matthew was saying that the next big event in Israel’s life is the birth of Jesus.”
All four gospels, he stated, begin with references to the Hebrew scriptures, and he continued by giving many other examples of New Testament passages that are “inexplicable” without knowledge of the Old Testament. “If we are going to take Jesus seriously we’d better understand the narrative out of which he grew,” Neff said.
In addition, the life of worship in the New Testament depends on the Hebrew scriptures. “It expresses a deep devotion that cannot be understood apart from the First Testament.” He also focused on the place of the Song of Songs and the Psalms, which were integral to not only the life of the early church, but essential to early Brethren hymnody.
Neff concluded by emphasizing the focus of the Hebrew scriptures on the dispossessed and the suffering, as well as the stewardship of creation, which is essential to the understanding Jesus had for his own ministry. This is embodied in Jesus’ choice of scripture when he spoke in his hometown synagogue. “Matthew 25, our favorite text, stands in the tradition of the prophets who brought judgment on the nations,” Neff said. “What are we to do? Feed the hungry, give something to the thirsty, stand with the alien…the deep passion for that underbelly of society.”
The breakfast concluded with a surprise honor for Neff, who did not know that the new book from Brethren Press, “The Witness of the Hebrew Bible for a New Testament Church,” was compiled and published in his honor in the German academic tradition of a “festschrift. The co-editors of the book–David Leiter, Christina Bucher, and Frank Ramirez–presented him with a copy. Several of the book’s contributors were also present.
“To be blessed with a passion is God’s gift to us,” Neff said in response. Thank you very much.”
–Frank Ramirez is pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren
The News Team for the 2010 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel; website staff Amy Heckert and Jan Fischer Bachman; and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
Go to www.brethren.org/Newsline to subscribe to the Church of the Brethren Newsline free e-mail news service and receive church news every other week.