Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles? September 29, 2018

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Do the Old and New Testaments belong together? (Commenting from a stance critical toward Christians, Norman adds that ignorance of history underlies their “comfortable view that the Bible is one and that there is no problem between the Old and New Testaments.”)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This classic and complex theme is erupting anew thanks to a U.S. Protestant megachurch pastor cited below. Also, churches have long faced strife over the authority and interpretation of the Old Testament due to the now-disputed teaching (that was carried over into the New Testament) against homosexual relations.

In this “Religion Q & A” item (your new postings via the Website always welcome!!), Norman accurately calls attention to some history. The status of the Old Testament became a pressing issue the church needed to decide in the 2nd Century A.D. Marcion of Pontus, among others, drew a radical distinction between what he saw as the problematic Yahweh of the Old Testament versus the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ in writings that were to form the New Testament.

The church declared Marcion a heretic and consolidated for all time that the Old Testament is part of its Bible alongside the New Testament books, authoritative Scripture for Christians as well as Jews.

Norman further observes that influential 20th Century liberal Protestant thinkers in Germany such as Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann echoed Marcion by downplaying the spiritual worth of the Old Testament. He says they “unknowingly contributed to the rise” of the so-called German Christians with their “non- and anti-Jewish” version of the faith. This movement pretty much gained control over Protestantism and accommodated the blatantly anti-Semitic Nazi rulers. Theologians like “neo-orthodox” titan Karl Barth courageously defied this unbiblical heresy in the great Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934).

Regard for the Old Testament as Christian Scripture raised numerous questions of application. From earliest times, Christianity dispensed with many Jewish laws, including ones Jesus himself would have observed as a faithful Jew. Direct divine revelations in the New Testament canceled two major aspects for non-Jews, the kosher food laws (see Mark 7:14-19 and Acts 11:4-18) and the circumcision of males born into the faith or joining through conversion (see Acts 15:1-20).

Christianity saw other Old Testament laws under three categories. Many elaborate rules on ceremonies and sacrifices became moot when Rome destroyed the Jerusalem Temple (A.D. 70) and Christians developed their own rites. Second, ancient rules governing civil society were bypassed when Jews lacked their own nation while Christianity became a missionary faith seeking believers in all nations.

That left the third category of moral laws that remained in force. There was, of course, some debate on which were binding. In the late 20th Century, liberal Protestantism began dropping the tenet about homosexual acts, though it still upholds the other sexual prohibitions in that Leviticus 18 passage (adultery, incest, sexual exploitation of animals).

The 2018 debate over the Old Testament is raised by the Rev. Andy Stanley, a former Southern Baptist minister trained at Dallas Theological Seminary. That “Dispensationalist” school emphasizes that God’s purposes operate differently in distinct eras, a point everyone might accept as a generality depending on what this means specifically. In 1995, Stanley founded Georgia’s independent North Point Community Church, which reports 30,000 members at six campuses.

In an April 29 sermon, available on North Point’s Website, Stanley said the Old Testament is “divinely inspired” but a back story to show “God on the move through ancient, ancient times.” It is not “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.” Stanley said Jesus’ original apostles “elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish Scriptures and, my friends, we must as well.”

With Christ’s resurrection from the dead, “your whole house of Old Testament cards can come tumbling down,” which can be “liberating” for those who cannot “embrace the dynamic, the worldview, and the values system depicted in the story of ancient Israel.” Amid hostile reactions, Stanley clarified that he did not mean people should “unhitch” from any “specific biblical imperative.”

Then Stanley put further fat in the fire with a September online article for Relevant, a magazine aimed at Christians in their 20s and 30s. He contended that the Ten Commandments were part of “the old covenant” that created Israel through “moral guidelines” that separated this new nation from its neighbors.

However, Jesus’ death and resurrection “signaled the end of that covenant and all the rules and regulations associated with it.” Therefore participants in “the new covenant (that’s Christians) are not required to obey any of the commandments found in the first part of their Bible” — a remarkable assertion.

He said that instead Christians are to follow the one commandment from Jesus to “love one another.” Referring to the fateful decision in Marcion’s day, Stanley said the 2nd Century “church leaders essentially kidnapped the Jewish Scriptures and claimed them for their own.”

Critics of Stanleyism will cite the Sermon on the Mount (shelved by some radical Dispensationalists as part of the bygone covenant) where Jesus proclaims that he did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (a synonym for the Old Testament; see Matthew 5:17-19).

They can also refer to Paul, the New Testament apostle to non-Jews, who taught that salvation is God’s gracious gift through faith, offered to all, not a reward for law-keeping. But “are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). By “sin,” Paul as a well-trained Jew meant immorality defined in the Old Testament.

Traditionalist Jews and certain Christians say the laws of Moses were given to Jews while the Bible’s seven “Noachide” laws early on in the Book of Genesis bind all people: Do not blaspheme against God, or turn from the one true God to worship idols, or kill innocent life, or commit adultery (customarily applied to other sexual sins), or steal, or eat flesh torn from a living animal (extended to any abuse of God’s creatures). Plus one positive commandment, to establish courts that execute impartial justice.

It’s possible the Stanley fuss will soon be overshadowed by a book due in February, “The Lost World of the Torah” (referring to the Bible’s first five books with all those laws). This book is written by the certifiably evangelical John H. Walton, Old Testament professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and formerly at the Moody Bible Institute, and his son J. Harvey Walton, a graduate student at St. Andrews University. The publisher is the certifiably evangelical InterVarsity Press.

Note these chapter titles: “We cannot gain moral knowledge or build a system of ethics based on reading the Torah in context and deriving principles from it.” “Torah cannot provide proof-texts for solving issues today.” “The ancient Israelites would not have understood the Torah as providing divine moral instruction.” “Taking the Torah seriously means understanding what it was written to say, not converting it into moral law.”

We can anticipate more lively Christian debate ahead regarding the Old Testament.

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