The Old Testament has always been an easy target for critics of Christianity. On the surface, its harsh moral codes and ancient cultural norms come across today as obsolete at best, barbaric at worst. While this is hardly new, it has led recently to louder calls to downplay its significance, such as when prominent pastor Andy Stanley suggested in 2018 that Christians should “unhitch” the Old Testament from their theology. But many Bible experts disagree. This is the first in a six-part series of essays from a cross-section of leading scholars revisiting the place of the “First Testament” in contemporary Christian faith.
Already in the second century, the arch-heretic Marcion pressed this question and came to the conclusion that the Old Testament offered almost nothing to Christianity. He was excommunicated for his views. In the 20th century, the Nazis enacted a remarkably successful elimination of the Old Testament from Christian faith and countless “German Christians” followed suit—to horrific ends. In more recent days, preachers from micro-congregations to multi-campus megachurches struggle with what to do with the Old Testament. Many do their best, many less than that. Some see no way forward but to “unhitch” the two testaments of the Christian Bible.
All of this difficulty with the Old Testament is unfortunate because every page of the New Testament depends on it—extensively, almost exclusively. The very first verse of Matthew is a case in point: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (ESV). Without the Old Testament, readers have no clue what “Christ” means, who David and Abraham are, or how all these figures are related. The original text is even more suggestive: “The book of the genealogy” is biblos geneses in Greek—a rather obvious allusion back to the Book of Genesis.
But the New Testament’s dependence on the Old goes beyond mere information—in some passages, the New Testament suggests that the Old Testament is fully sufficient all by itself for a saving knowledge of God. Consider Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where Abraham informs the rich man that no one will be sent back from the dead to warn his wayward brothers because, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31).
Texts like Matthew 1 or Luke 16 are everywhere in the New Testament and no doubt give rise to well-meaning statements like: “You can’t understand the New Testament without the Old Testament,” or, per the adage from St. Augustine: “In the Old Testament the New lies concealed, in the New Testament the Old is revealed.” There is nothing wrong with such truisms, but they seem mostly ineffective in completely solving the problem because, in point of fact, many Christians continue to wonder about the Old Testament in a way that they simply don’t (and never will) about the New Testament. And so the question remains: “What does the Old Testament offer to Christianity today?”
My own answer is: Much. Maybe everything.
There are at least four significant gifts the Old Testament offers to Christian faith. If these gifts are not unique to the Old Testament, they are nevertheless far more present in the Old than in the New, and so constitute precious aspects of the whole counsel of God.
The Old Testament is candid, even brutally so. The often arresting, occasionally off-putting candor of the Old Testament frequently offends modern sensibilities. Think, for example, of the vicious sentiments about enemies found in various psalms, even in a much beloved one like Psalm 139. That is my mother-in-law’s favorite psalm (except for verses 19-22). But this honesty is a gift, not cause for alarm. If we ourselves are candid, we must admit we have occasionally thought or wished similar things on our own enemies—and not always in prayer! Throughout the ages, it has been the brutal honesty of the psalms, especially in hard times, that has led to their popularity.
But it is not only the psalms; the whole Old Testament is honest in a way that, to be frank, many Christians simply are not. Stories of Israel’s disobedience and sin come to mind at this point. These are often grist for homiletical moralizing, even Christian disparagement of the Old Testament (and biblical Israel). But we must remember that these accounts are only preserved in the Old Testament because of its candor. Christians only know these stories because Israel was honest enough to relay them. Honesty about sin and suffering are two of the many ways the Old Testament sets us an example of being honest before God and the world and being honest about God and the world. Israel’s history is no more full of failure than the church’s, which is also pockmarked with failings of the most egregious sort. Israel’s history is full of honesty. That is a gift to be emulated.
It is not surprising that a book as honest as the Old Testament abounds in poetry since, as Garrison Keillor puts it, good poems matter because they “offer a truer account than what we’re used to getting.” Fully a third, maybe more, of the Old Testament is poetic in form. Contrast this with the New Testament, which offers us precious little poetry. Moreover, the little that is found there—particularly in Revelation—is typically steeped in the language and symbolism of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament’s poetry lives especially in the psalms, but also in the prophets who sought (to quote Mark Twain) the “right word” as opposed to the “almost right word,” since that is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. If the psalms offer the poetry of praise and pain in prayer, the prophets offer us poetry that is the very “Word of the Lord.”
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower
and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out
from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for
which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10-11)
Poetry is a key feature in other books as well, where it becomes an ideal medium for discussing wisdom for life (Proverbs), suffering (Job), death (Ecclesiastes)—even love and sex (Song of Songs). But the topics are not limited to these; neither are the books. Wherever it is found, poetry seems preferred whenever the subject matter is tricky—and what could be more difficult to discuss than God and God’s ways in the world?
Speaking of the daring imagery of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann wrote that “no easy language will ever get this God said right.” Poetry is not easy language, and so is far better when speaking of the infinite God than flat prose—certainly superior to straightforward proposition. Poetry alludes even as it eludes; it evokes and reveals even as it obscures and remains reticent. In its reticence and in its revealing, poetry communicates and protects the holiness of God, the Lord of—and the Lord above—all language. Christians learn from the Old Testament’s poetic penchant a deep respect for the mystery of God, who should never be spoken of lightly.
The third gift—closely related to the second—is theology, narrowly defined in this case as speech about God. A quick concordance search of “God” in the Common English Bible gives 1,109 hits in the New Testament, but 3,189 in the Old Testament. Those statistics are hardly surprising. The 39 books of the Old Testament comprise 78 percent of the Protestant Christian Bible (even more in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican canons). But there is more going on in this third gift than simply the length of the Old Testament relative to the New.
The Old Testament has long been considered a primary repository for the doctrine of God—more specifically, of the first member of the Trinity. Here is where one learns first, foremost, and most extensively of the One whom Jesus called “Father.” In light of the incarnation recounted in the Gospels and the giving of the Spirit in Acts, the Old Testament is the place that affords special insight on “God the Father Almighty,” though Christians are quick to confess that these Three are One. But divine oneness is missed whenever Christians side with Marcion in pitting “the Old Testament God” against Jesus in the New.
Such sentiments reveal as much ignorance about the New Testament as they do about the Old, especially since this distinction is typically drawn with reference to the wrath and judgment of God. These topics abound in the New Testament as much as the Old, and not just in Revelation. They are common in Jesus’ preaching, as his forerunner John the Baptist saw so clearly (Matt 3:7-12). So on this matter too, no less than others, Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:22).
This unity of the Testaments—and among the members of the Trinity—demonstrates that God indeed “displays his wrath every day” (Ps. 7:11b). But it also explains what such wrath is for: It is in service to justice, since “God is a righteous judge” (Ps. 7:11a). Despite the divine standard of justice, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but wants all to change their ways and live (see Jer. 18:7-8; Ezek. 18:32; Jonah 3:10). Throughout the Bible—Old Testament and New—God’s judgment has an object: sin and injustice. When those are set right, wrath disappears.
The People of God
The Old Testament teaches Christians something crucial about ecclesiology—about being the people of God. One such thing would be to love righteous deeds exactly like the righteous Lord (Ps. 11:7). But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The list of what the Old Testament teaches about what God’s people must do and who they must be would take many pages. The point at hand is not the details of all that but the simple fact of all that.
The New Testament, of course, does much the same thing. The term “ecclesiology” derives from Greek ekklesia, used in the New Testament for the church (e.g., Matt. 16:18). But ekklesia also appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it reflects the Hebrew word qhl (“assembly”), a term that conveys much the same idea: the community of faith. Be that as it may, this fourth gift concerns the nature of Israel as a group: a family, then a people, then a nation with land—one that stands together in covenant with God (Ex. 19:8), united in prayer and praise, rewarded and, yes, sometimes even punished as a group. The New Testament, too, reflects corporate understandings, sometimes in ways that are shocking (see, e.g., Acts 5:1-11).
Nevertheless it is quite common, especially in the individualized, industrialized West, to read the New Testament as mostly a privatized affair—“Jesus and me”—and to leave politics and social justice out of it. The King who judges among the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 knows better, and the severity and the criteria he uses to make his determination there sounds exactly like the Lord who legislates care for immigrants, widows, and orphans in Exodus 22:21-24—yet another instance of the unity of the Testaments.
This fourth gift of the Old Testament teaches Christians that the life of faith is rarely—perhaps never—a matter of solitary, personalized piety. It is, instead and at root, a communal matter, extending beyond matters of the heart alone. To be sure, the Lord’s words must be inscribed on the heart in Deuteronomy 6, but it doesn’t stop there—the external body must also bear the Lord’s instruction, where it is in constant view on hands and forehead, and then written on houses, on the city, and even on the body politic (Deut. 6:6-9).
The Marks of the Old Testament
To conclude: “We can’t understand the New Testament without the Old” is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough, since the Old Testament is, all by itself, indispensable for Christian faith. Augustine’s famous statement, too, while accurate, is also insufficient. Much in the Old Testament is revealed—all of it, in fact, according to Christian theology, not to mention the testimony of 2 Timothy 3:16 (where “Scripture” refers to the
As that verse and the next go on to specify, the Old Testament is eminently useful —“for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This is true because “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).
Imagine a Christianity marked not by cover-up and denial but by honesty; a Christianity that spoke of God humbly and artfully—poetically—because the divine mystery dwells beyond all language; a Christianity attuned to the theology of the Three-in-One, one in mercy and judgment so as to free the world of sin and injustice; a Christianity unified as the corporate people of God, ransomed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). That would be a Christianity adorned with the gifts the Old Testament provides.
Brent A. Strawn is professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment.
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