The Old Testament as Christian Scripture (Part 1)

We once visited a church once where my wife heard the pastor’s wife boast, “I don’t read anything but the Bible.” Staking that claim to illiteracy was bad enough, but she dug herself in deeper: “In fact, I just read the New Testament—not the Old Testament.” Janice waited until we were many miles down the road away from that church before she reported that conversation. She feared I might turn right around head back for an argument.

The New Testament itself treats the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture, useful for doctrine, practice, and teaching. That was Jesus’s approach (Matt 5:17–19), it was Paul’s approach (2 Tim 3:16–17)—it’s the approach of historic orthodoxy. The Bible without an Old Testament purges the very Scriptures that Jesus and the apostles used. They argued, “It is written…” and used the Old Testament as the very word of God. A “Bible” without an Old Testament is not a Christian Bible. Studies that consistently avoid the Old Testament are not biblical Bible study. Bible translations that begin with the New Testament and move slowly to include the Old Testament pass along this unbiblical infection to new audiences. They give Christian converts the Bible in an order that contravenes the order of divine revelation; it gives them the New Testament in a context that differs critically from the context in which God himself set it. On the other hand, we must advance beyond Old Testament revelation, or we risk opting out of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus.

Extremes

Generally speaking, finding the happy medium isn’t an apostolic mandate for the church. But in this matter, the church must avoid extremes, from the Marcionite rejection to moralistic legalism or even Judaizing apostasy.

Marcionite Rejection

One extreme that genuine Christianity has always avoided is that option that the Gnostic heretic Marcion (AD 75–155) propounded. He rejected the Jewish Scriptures and their God, because he viewed any God that would get his hands dirty with the grubby material world as inferior to a God who was pure spirit—in the way Marcion saw “pure spirit.” So he taught a total distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the Christians, rejected the Old Testament entirely, and accepted only an abbreviated and mutilated New Testament. And once he had weaned his New Testament of obvious Old Testament influence, he didn’t have much left. This view still hangs on around the fringes of Christianity. I can remember arguing with one of my faculty colleagues years ago. He would have stoutly insisted that he was an orthodox Christian, but he wasn’t. He adamantly refused to attribute the same authority to the Old Testament that he recognized in the New Testament—despite what the New Testament itself declares about the Old Testament’s authority. I argued, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true” (2 Tim 3:16); but he responded, “Yes, but not as useful.” My rejoinder was, “as useful as the Bible can be!” When I pressed my colleague on this essential issue of early Christian orthodoxy, he told me that he could understand how Marcion could take the position that he took. The believing church has refused to go there.

Moralistic Legalism

The opposite error, which genuine Christianity has struggled with from apostolic times till today, is to approach the Old Testament as the source of a moral code that will keep God happy with us if we’re pretty much able to obey its commands and manage to emulate its heroes. Paul fought against this in his doctrinal battles with the Judaizers who tried to impose the old covenant sign of circumcision upon the Gentile believers in Galatia. Beware of any form of Christianity that accepts that God provides our initial salvation, but then says we must then employ the works of the law to work our way into a sanctified life.

Judaizing Apostasy

The final danger, is one that the book of Hebrews addressed. It’s necessary to highlight it again these days, with people who talk about going back to our “Hebrew roots.” If they meant “back to our Scriptural roots in the Old Testament,” I would fully concur. But they appear to mean back to the Old Testament types and shadows even though the reality has come. I warn that the least of the dangers this siren call poses is legalism, and the worst is the apostasy about which the book of Hebrews warns us. The book opens, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1). This opening implies that the Old Testament is the word of God. But it also speaks of moving to a different level of revelation and a message that poses a greater manifestation of God’s salvation. We now have one greater than the angels (Heb 1–2), better than Adam (Rom 5:12–21), better than Melchizedek (Heb 7). We now have a better covenant with a better priest (Heb 8), a better tabernacle (Heb 9), and a better and final offering (Heb 10). Trying to return to old covenant forms is not just a matter of going back to what’s old and familiar—or even ancient and exotic. It’s rejecting the only salvation there is. This salvation revealed in Jesus Christ isn’t just an optional development of the salvation foreshadowed in the Old Testament; it’s the only true fulfillment of God’s biblical plan of salvation. It’s the final work of salvation that which came in Christ Jesus (Heb 2:1–3; 10:19–13:25).

6 thoughts on “The Old Testament as Christian Scripture (Part 1)”

  1. This is spot on. I am regularly befuddled by the treatments of the OT as if it is not “our” text/s. Or as if we simply attempt recreations of obedience to random instructions to somehow convince ourselves we are now following Scripture (and don’t get me started on the moralizing…as both an OT professor and a Homiletics professor these are things that are central to my very calling to overcome among those I am discipling and instructing).

    1. Rick, I think it’s hard for people do anything other than cherry pick, ignore, or moralize from the broad array of OT texts unless they regularly hear Christ preached from a broad array of the OT. But then, too many pastors have never learned or implemented an approach to the OT that reflects Jesus’s Emmaus road lessons in the kind of Christological hermeneutics that would produce proper Christological exposition of the OT.

    2. On the hermeneutical side of addressing this issue, I love Graeme Goldsworthy’s work; on the expository side, that of Sidney Greidanus, E. P. Clowney, and Bryan Chapell.

  2. Dale, thank you for this balanced article and opening the door to what should seem obvious. Sadly, it is not in too many circles. In social science circles, some would have scholars call the Old Testament Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament, Christian Scriptures. The problem with this mentality is that the Christian Scriptures include both the Old and New Testaments.

    We too quickly forget that Jesus, Paul, and the apostles preached the new, Christian reality, utilizing what we call the Old Testament. I am afraid that Kaiser’s warning to hold fast to expository preaching has been dismissed. Now we see Churches without Sunday School, biblical illiterate saints, Christian Universities that barely teach the Bible, and American Christians picking and choosing a Jesus and a Christianity in their own image, much like the Judges, “each man doing what is right in their own eyes.”

    The Old Testament warns us that the people of God turn away from their Creator and Lover when they stray from the scriptures. The fall of Judah into the hands of Babylon occurred because of the toxic leadership of the shepherds who “stole from one another words” and who did not seek God’s counsel in his word, which is powerful like fire, like a sledge hammer breaking rocks into pieces, and weighty like grain, instead of flighty like chaff that blows in the wind.

    May we return to the wonderful words of the Old Testament, which speak not only to the Jewish people then, but to our time now. If we heed the warnings of the people of Israel, then as grafted Christians we may not lose our good standing.

    Romans 11:21
    21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you (ESV).

    1. Rather than wondering what they should do with the Old Testament (i.e., Scriptures), the early church may have had some wondering to do with the various books that became the New Testament (i.e., Scriptures).

      As for your comment about the lack of expository preaching. I think the problem may be complex, multifaceted.

      • Lack of ability to do the exegesis necessary for the exposition
      • Inability to move from commentary-like exposition to homiletical exposition
      • Inability to principialize in a biblical-theological way
      • Insufficient sermon prep time, due to laziness or missplaced priorities

      It’s that third item on the list that I’m hoping to address in a series of blogs from late October–November. Following that, I’ll do a month of application of that approach in the “Jesse Tree” series. That’s an approach to Advent that focuses on how the Old Testament looks forward to Christ. Those will be simple daily blogs that follow that approach.

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