Do We Need the New Testament? A Review

Do We Need the New Testament? A Review July 18, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 6.14.14 PMJohn Goldingay. Do We Need the New Testament?: Letting the Old Testament Speak for ItselfDowners Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8308-2469-4.

Review by Michael C Thompson, doctoral student at Northern Seminary.

Every now and then a book comes along that grabs your attention just by the topic or, as in this case, the title. Do we need the New Testament? is probably a question which most modern Christians have thought about before, and perhaps has the potential to disrupt more than a few people in the pew. But here Professor Goldingay goes directly at the issue of whether or not the Hebrew scriptures have lasting value in light of the New Testament. Given his passion for what he calls ‘The First Testament,’ he is certainly the right person to have authored a book such as this, which finds its foundation on his conviction of a certain unity and continuity between the two Testaments (9).

At the outset Goldingay gives us his answer, and also issues a challenge, “Yes, of course, we do need the New Testament, but why?” (7). This takes the all-too-common discarding of the significance of the First Testament in many contemporary expressions of Christianity and turns it on its head. As the author highlights the importance of the First Testament, the reader is met with statements that will certainly give pause for thought. “In a sense God did nothing new in Jesus. God was simply taking to its logical and ultimate extreme the activity in which he had been involved through the First Testament story” (12). The underlying perspective here is that we cannot rightly understand the New Testament – most importantly Jesus himself – if we do not pay attention to what we have been given in the First Testament. Does such a conviction still exist in our churches today?

The challenge given by Goldingay doesn’t allow for a simple check-the-box acknowledgment of inerrancy, but pushes the reader to better understand the significance of the Hebrew scriptures as a part of God’s grand story and revelation. “God’s promises are not all fulfilled in Christ (in the sense in which we commonly use the word fulfill), but they are all confirmed in Christ” (26, emphasis original). This, of course, leads to the question that is found in Chapter 2: Why Is Jesus Important? In framing this part of the discussion the author states, “In none of the Gospels does Jesus tell his disciples to extend the kingdom, work for the kingdom, build up the kingdom, or further the kingdom” (34).

This pushes the reader to a reconsideration of who Jesus was and what it was that he did. It appears that Jesus came to announce the kingdom, and to draw people into an experience of the kingdom. Thus, the church is called to live in holiness and spread the knowledge of God throughout the world (46). “Implementing God’s reign is fortunately God’s business” (47).

From this the book goes on to explore the presence of the Holy Spirit in the First Testament, and the nuance of language that expresses the understanding of the Spirit in that context. In this fourth chapter Goldingay introduces what he calls Middle Narratives, smaller narrative units that express the Bible’s story (72). The Bible does not come simply as one overarching theme, but also incorporates other “extensive expositions of part of God’s story” (88). This helps the reader better understand the movement of scripture’s story as well as its interconnectedness.

Key to this reading also is Chapter Five: How People Have Mis(?)read Hebrews. This particular discussion is quite insightful, as Goldingay seeks to recalibrate what many casual readings of Hebrews get wrong. It centers on the nature of sacrifice. In keeping with the overall theme of the book, Goldingay pushes the reader to consider the importance of the First Testament as foundational for understanding what the New Testament says of Christ. The notion of a new and better covenant is a key element as well, and here the connection is made between the church’s role as analogous to Israel’s role (97). In the end it is the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice that is highlighted, in that he offers an eternal salvation, which is not found in the First Testament (100). Such a reading is vital for understanding the story of salvation.

Chapter Six identifies the loss of First Testament spirituality, a lament for that which goes missing whenever the church ignores its spiritual heritage. This section centers on the way the First Testament presents a worship that is intended to encompass the whole of life, drawing the community deeper into God’s narrative as found in the gospel. Goldingay asserts that in the forfeiture of First Testament use this is lost: “But in worship we have given up on those” (107). He believes that the way forward in this (Chapter Seven) is in recovering a sense of memory as part of hope and life. There are some good perspectives on Israel’s memory found in this chapter, as Goldingay identifies it as the means by which preserves history and ethic within the community, even when such memories conflict (124).

So, what about those times when the New Testament changes the ethical ideals of the First Testament? Chapter Eight addresses this question, and the notion that the New Testament presents a higher or better standard of ethic. “Jesus’ talk of fulfillment and his subsequent examples, then, point to one aspect of what is involved in interpreting the ethical implications of the biblical material” (141). Once more, the continuity of the biblical story becomes key to understanding these dynamics. There is a hermeneutical discussion about how the New Testament interacts with the First Testament, and this chapter has good examples of this as well.

The final chapter is a good summary of the method of theological interpretation from which Goldingay works in this volume. In a sense, this conclusion is the drawn-together theory his study as a whole. As such, he makes good and challenging statements to the process of biblical interpretation: “Theological interpretation is proper exegesis” (160). Goldingay admits that there is a diversity in the New Testament’s view of the First Testament, in that there are a variety of readings that can be identified throughout (161), and he strongly asserts that being christocentric is not the aim of the biblical story, or even of Christ. Rather, the story of scripture and the work of Christ is to be theocentric, which helps define the unity of the two Testaments (162f.).

In the end, this book is accessible to the pastor and a good deal of laypersons, though many in the church might not be ready to think about biblical interpretation quite at this level. But for those asking questions about the relevance of the First Testament to the church, this is a great tool to begin such an investigation. Foundational for this study is the understanding of the work of Jesus, not in bringing a new revelation, but in his life and message that give significance “in who he was, what he did and what happened to him, and what he will do” as the central figure of God’s grand story (177).

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