In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus finishes a long series of parables by asking his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” They reply, “Yes.” Then Jesus closes his teaching, saying, “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (13:51–52).
Like many Matthew scholars, I think that the “new” that Jesus refers to is his teachings passed on to his disciples, as with the immediately previous parable. The “old,” then, refers to the Scriptures that Jesus has on his lips throughout the gospel: the Law of Moses and the psalms of David and the words of the prophets. Not all Christians have received the old as “treasure,” however. At least since the time when Peter and Paul carried the good news of Jesus beyond the boundaries of Israel, Christians have struggled with the Old Testament (OT). Some outright reject the OT. Others simply ignore the OT unless it somehow illuminates a passage in the New Testament (NT). Whether through disdain or neglect, Christian history tells us that many Christians have not found the OT a “treasure” to their faith.
Within this long tradition stands Andy Stanley, who received some sharp criticism earlier this year for claiming in a sermon that Christians should “unhitch” themselves from the OT. But, to be fair to Stanley, many preachers and teachers have unhitched themselves in practice from the OT, even if they have not made that clear in the stark way that Stanley did back in April.
Thus, while I find Stanley’s position troubling, I also think it provides an opportunity for us to consider the place of the OT in the life of the church and the Christian. Given that Stanley’s comments pushed this topic to the fore in recent months, I begin my reflection on this topic by offering some comments on his recently published book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, which elaborates on some of his preaching from earlier this year. After looking carefully at Stanley’s work, I want to offer some positive comments on the OT within Christianity. Christians have good, biblically based, irresistible reasons for treasuring the OT.
Removing Every Obstacle?
The desire to eliminate anything that makes Christian faith resistible is what drives Stanley to make his provocative claim. I understand this concern. The percentage of people claiming to be Christians continues to decline in the US, which includes the decline of people claiming to be evangelicals. Correspondingly, the percentage of “nones”—religiously unaffiliated people—is on the rise. Furthermore, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, many of these “nones” were raised religious. Stanley, like many of us, wants to stem the bleeding.
According to Stanley, many “nones” resist or reject Christianity because of the OT. In his argument, Stanley points to a number of problems the OT presents to young people in our culture. In our scientific age, some may reject faith because they see that the creation story does not fit with the teachings of evolution, for example. Archaeological discoveries and historical research at times seem to undermine some of the historical claims of the OT. Others, past and present, have been turned off the by the portrait of God’s violence in the OT. These same people are likely to also be offended by the apparent endorsement of slavery in the OT. And so on.
Perhaps as importantly, Stanley finds precedence for Christians unhitching from the OT in select NT passages. Acts 15, which he discusses at length, proves especially helpful given his concern to eliminate barriers to Christian faith. Luke offers a summary of the Jerusalem Council, which met to settle a dispute over whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to become Christians. According to the text, Paul and Barnabas, Peter and James, and none less than the Holy Spirit convinced the council to send a letter to Christians in Antioch with the aim of reducing their burden of what was necessary in their practice of Christianity. The letter listed a total of only four—four—items that the Gentiles were to avoid as they adopted Christianity. That’s a far cry from the 613 commands recorded in Torah.
This story is, of course, not the only vision in the NT of the important place of the OT in Christianity. Stanley observes that Jesus, Peter, and Paul held texts that now comprise the OT in high regard, as carried along by the Holy Spirit, and as authoritative. But there arises a problem in the way that Stanley discusses some of the key passages.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims to have come, not to abolish the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). Stanley claims that “fulfill” means “to bring to a designated end.” But, even if this understanding is accurate, the problem is that Stanley does not follow Jesus to the end of his thought, where Jesus says that those who are great in the kingdom of heaven are those who do and teach the Law and Prophets (Matt. 5:19). Similarly, Stanley quotes 2 Timothy 3:16, affirming that Paul saw the OT as God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness. But Stanley does not finish out the sentence, in which Paul claims the OT is inspired “so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Both Jesus and Paul see the positive impact of the OT on the practice of Christianity. But it seems that Stanley leaves out these parts of these texts because they do not cohere with his thesis that the moral teachings of the OT should not be mixed with Christian moral teaching.
So, does Stanley think the OT has any role to play in Christianity? He says, yes, it serves as the backstory to the Christian faith. In some cases, the OT can provide some good principles for life, for example, in the wisdom provided in the Book of Proverbs. But, Christians should be careful not to look to the OT for “behavioral cues.” It is the life and teaching of Jesus as taught in the NT, and there only, that Christians find guidance for Christian living.
Should we, then, accept Stanley’s vision for the OT in modern Christianity? I say, “No.” And I look to Paul to help me explain why.
Old Testament Wisdom for New Testament Christians
As Stanley writes about 2 Timothy 3:16, he encourages us to consider what else Paul says and to watch what else Paul does with the OT. Let’s follow his advice and watch what Paul says about and does with the OT in the Letter to the Romans as we consider further the function of the OT for Christianity today.
Romans seems like the perfect case study because, at one point in the letter, Paul asserts that Christ is the end of the Law (10:4). This word, telos, can mean “end” but can also refer to an attainment or goal, or the highest point or ideal. And, in light of the fact that Paul quotes from the OT in Romans more than in any of his other letters, we need to look at what Paul says about and does with the OT to understand his claim that Christ is the “end” of the Law.
Nineteen times Paul uses “as it is written” to introduce a passage from the OT, four other times “Scriptures says.” To substantiate his argument, he invokes Moses (3x), David (2x), and Isaiah (5x). The sheer prevalence of the OT in Paul’s argument indicates that the OT is not “obsolete” for Paul. In fact, his use of the OT in Romans offers us a vision for the potential for the OT in modern Christianity.
1. The OT can help Christians understand the implications of the gospel for our lives.
“The righteous will live by faith” (Rom. 1:17; Hab. 2:4). Paul writes to the church in Rome though he did not found it and had never visited it. Still, he finds himself eager to preach his gospel to them (Rom. 1:14–15). Paul feels no shame about his eagerness because he knows that his gospel (a) is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16) and (b) reveals God’s justice, “As it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).
There is some debate about Paul’s purpose in quoting “the righteous will live by faith” in this passage. But, apparently, Paul saw a parallel between the circumstances of the church in Rome and that of Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in a world dominated by injustice, both in Judah and especially in the larger, Babylonian Empire. Paul sees that the small group of Christians in Rome live in a similar situation, with both Jews and the Roman Empire propagating injustice.
God’s proclamation, “the righteous will live by faith,” exhorts both the prophet and the first-century church to practice the justice demanded by God, trusting that God has things well-in-hand. The justice the gospel reveals, then, refers to the justice that God demands from the church in spite of the pressures they face. Paul quotes from the OT because he sees that Habakkuk 2:4 helps clarify the implications of the gospel for the Christians of Rome.
2. The OT can illuminate Christians’ understanding of God’s way in the world.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Rom. 9:15; Ex. 33:19). In Romans 9–11, Paul focuses his discussion on his concern for his fellow Jews, which reflects God’s own concern for the Jews. Leading figures in Rome like Cicero and Seneca wrote disdainfully of the Jews for their practices of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath rest. Paul apparently recognizes that Christians in Rome could easily adopt such disdain, especially given that Romans emphasizes the way Jews sinned against God and did not accept the gospel of Jesus. Paul pauses to disabuse the Christians in Rome of disdaining the Jews themselves.
To convince the church, Paul works to explain what God is doing in the present moment, using a number of passages from the OT to support his argument. First, Paul admits that God’s election proves confusing: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13; Mal. 1:2–3). One cannot ascertain why God accepts one but rejects another. People may question what God is doing but that seems like a vessel questioning the potter that made it (Rom. 9:20; Isa. 29:16). What Paul does know is that the temporary stumbling of the Jews over Jesus reflects what God has done before, laying a stumbling block in Zion (Rom. 9:33; Isa. 8:14; 28:16).
Simultaneously, God has also always kept a remnant of Israel devoted to God, like the 7,000 in Elijah’s day who had not bowed to Baal (Rom. 11:2–4; 1 Kings 19:10, 14, 18). Paul, though, saw that the present salvation of the Gentiles would lead to all Israel being saved, just as God promised in Isaiah to send a redeemer to remove godlessness from Jacob (Rom. 11:25–26; Isa. 59:20–21; 27:9). Paul finds great treasures of old in these texts that help the church comprehend God’s mysterious workings. God’s present actions are consonant with God’s actions of the past, teaching the church of Rome humility in their relationship to the Jews.
3. The OT can provide a foundation for Christian moral conduct.
“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; Deut. 32:35). In the last third of the Letter to the Romans, Paul instructs the church in their conduct. In 12:14, Paul moves from instructions on how the community cares for one another to the way they should conduct themselves with outsiders. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Paul writes to the church in Rome, which means these commands are no mere generalizations. Instead, Paul is offering concrete guidance to the church facing persecution from the authorities in Rome.
Paul warns the church not to repay evil for evil (Rom. 12:17), concerned that the Christians might set themselves against or stand against what God has arranged (Rom. 13:2). The words translated “rebel” and “resist” in the NIV are both battle images, indicating the Paul fears the church may rise up in violence against the Roman authorities.
It seems a bit ironic that in passages encouraging nonviolent response to Roman authorities, where invoking the image of Jesus would make sense, Paul does not mention Jesus. Paul certainly knows Jesus’ story, but Paul never quotes any words of Jesus in the Letter to the Romans, and seldom in his other letters. Instead, in Romans 12, Paul quotes Deuteronomy, the Law, encouraging the church’s nonviolent resistance on the basis of the OT promise that God will avenge them. Clearly, Paul thinks the OT promises apply to the church, which will enable them to resist Rome without resorting to violence.
These examples barely scratch the surface of how Paul employs the OT in his instructions to the church in Rome. But it should be clear from the examples that Paul thinks the OT has much to say that can instruct the church in what it believes and practices; Paul is far from advising that Christians unhitch themselves from the OT. In fact, as he draws the body of the letter to a close, he writes, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Our Best Witness
Stanley and I must be talking to different people. In the past several weeks, I have had conversations with “nones” and with people still in the church but with their “hand on the door,” to borrow a phrase from Stanley. In every case, what disturbs these folks who have left the church or are considering leaving is the church’s failure to do the good in the world. They understand that in spite of the problems present in both the OT and the NT, Christian Scripture teaches people love, goodness, justice, and compassion. Jesus commends those who teach and do what the Law and Prophets command when he instructs his disciples to let their light so shine before others that “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). A church living out the best of the Old and the New Testaments is a church living its best witness in front of an on-looking world.
Certainly, there are some who struggle with the OT in the ways that Stanley describes. But unhitching ourselves from the OT does not eliminate the problems Stanley identifies. People will still struggle with the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of the dead in a scientific age, with whether archaeology and history support all that the NT reports, with images of a violent God in the NT, and with passages that seem to condone slavery in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter. But if we unhitch ourselves from the OT, we divest ourselves of a wealth of God’s teaching and exhortation toward love and justice, mercy and compassion, goodness and faithfulness. If we are worried about our witness to this generation, I would argue that we need more scribes of the kingdom, who bring out treasures new and old that this generation may see our good deeds and glorify our God who is in the heavens.
Robert L. Foster is a lecturer in New Testament and religion at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Wrestling with God and World: The Struggle for Justice in the Biblical Tradition.