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).