Obituary for the Old Testament
The Old Testament is dead—dead at the conspiratorial hands of rationalists, Jews, medieval allegorists, theological liberals, existentialists, evangelicals and others. The Jews denied the Old Testament its appointed goal in the gospel and thus transformed it into a dead legalism. Medieval church scholars followed Origen by capitulating to Gnostics who said the Old Testament was materialistic and unspiritual. Rationalists, liberals and existentialists bowed to the philosophical fads of their day and found the Old Testament incompatible.
But are evangelicals, the "people of the Book," involved in this conspiracy? We evangelicals are more guilty than all. We have prided ourselves on honoring the whole Bible as God's Word and have cast pharisaic stones at the adulterous higher critics and liberals. Yet we have conspired in such a way that our protestations of love for the Bible are either halfhearted or hypocritical. Where are the sound evangelical commentaries that seek to grasp the Christian significance of the Old Testament? Where are the sermons on the Old Testament that preach Christ without bumbling allegorizing or untheological character studies? Where are the evangelical Sunday School courses which teach the Old Testament without legalistic moralizing?
Evangelicalism has reached a terrible impasse. We have come to regard two things as great crimes of evil intent. One is criticism by nonevangelicals. The other is self-criticism. We call this unloving, divisive and intolerable. A terrible insecurity seems to be driving the evangelical world from a willingness to critically test its claims to be biblical and thus from a readiness to reform. Woolly-headed pietism has replaced a clear grasp of the theological issues of the Bible and even the desire to know them.
How was this impasse reached? One thing is clear: The Old Testament was "killed" by the loss of the gospel of the living and dying of Jesus Christ, the God-man, for sinners. Marcion and the Gnostics rejected the Old Testament because of their wrong view of the gospel. Liberal and higher-critical assessments of the Old Testament were the consistent outworking of an erroneous understanding of the gospel. Bultmann's existential gospel led him inevitably to a negative view of the Old Testament. And the new-birth oriented "Jesus-in-my-heart" gospel of evangelicals has destroyed the Old Testament just as effectively as has nineteenth-century liberalism.1
"You are fools," said the Stranger, "and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have said. Ought not the Messiah to have suffered and to have entered into His glory?" (Luke 24:25). Then from the Old Testament He told the two confused, unhappy men walking to Emmaus all about their Master, Jesus Christ. Later He let them see that He Himself was their Leader, risen from the dead. And He went on to tell a crowd of disciples how all the Old Testament Scriptures spoke about Him (Luke 24:44-47).
Fools indeed, and so are we if we pronounce the Old Testament dead by our neglect. Who was this Christ who rose victorious from the tomb? He was not the Jesus of sentiment and ethical religiosity. He was not the Jesus of inner peace or respectable conformity. Nor was He the vague spiritual presence of "Jesus-in-my-heart" piety.
He was none of these. He was Jehovah's Word. He was, and is, the incarnation and fulfillment of the spoken and written Word of God in the Old Testament. When Jesus Christ rose from the grave, He brought the Old Testament with Him. In proclaiming Himself from the Old Testament, He declared that to bury it was to bury Him. In the apostolic preaching of the gospel the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Christ are the two most frequently mentioned elements. They go hand in hand. To separate them is to remove the Christ event from that which testifies to its meaning.
Those who pronounce the Old Testament dead pronounce the Christ of the gospel dead. Such a pronouncement is a man's last defiant gesture of anger toward his self-inflicted rigor mortis. It is a sure sign that his own putrefaction is well advanced.
Some may object to the severity of this rebuke. After all, no one denies some continuity between the Testaments. Let us assume the most positive relationship and say that the Old is the promise and the New the fulfillment, the Old is the shadow and the New the solid reality, the Old is the preparation and the New the realization. Then is not the Old superseded by the New? Should we be concerned with a shadow when the full light of reality is revealed? Many Christians argue this way. They protest that disuse of the Old Testament is not a sign of disrespect but of profound respect for the goal of the Old Testament, which is the gospel.
While this view sounds plausible, we dare not accept it. How, then, does the Old Testament function for Christian faith?
The Old Testament Interprets the Gospel
It is true that the gospel interprets the Old Testament by showing that its final goal and meaning is the saving action of God in Christ. On the other hand, the Old Testament interprets the gospel. It gives the context in which the New Testament vocabulary may be understood. Furthermore, as the foreshadowing of New Testament salvation, the Old Testament uses concrete world-related expressions of this salvation. These expressions guard the meaning of the gospel and prevent it from being abstracted from the real history of man into a world of ideals or mystical inward experience. "Grace," "truth," "life," "peace," "salvation" and "heaven" all have a long history in the Old Testament. The Old Testament shapes the meaning of each term. And the Old Testament meanings of these terms are not abrogated by the New.
Jesus and the apostles were men of the Old Testament. They spoke the Word of God in Old Testament terms. The authors of the New Testament were so close to the Old and to the Israelite background of the gospel that they did not redefine each technical term. If we are to understand their words, we also must try to enter the world of the Old Testament. The New Testament does not completely supersede the Old. In the New Testament the Christ event is consistently defined in relation to the Old. Thus the Old Testament is an essential part of the New Testament's witness to Jesus Christ. The whole Bible is one organic unity which witnesses to Jesus Christ. We dare not dispense with part of that witness.
The Old Testament Universalizes God's Purposes
In view of its concentration on Israel as the chosen people of God, the Old Testament may seem to be quite non-universalistic. But the Old Testament does universalize the purpose of God in two ways:
1. The Old Testament Shows That Salvation Affects the Whole Universe in the Same Way As Creation and the Fall. Pagan Greek ideas such as the immortality of the soul and a bodiless or matterless hereafter would not have entered the church if the Old Testament had been given its rightful place. God created man as a total entity, not as a permanent soul with a disposable body. Moreover, He created man within a material environment suitable to man's psycho-physical being. When Adam sinned and was judged, God in His goodness submitted the entire universe to a similar judgment so that it remained an appropriate environment for fallen man.
Every Old Testament expression of salvation involves the restoration of the saved people of God to a renewed environment appropriate for their fellowship with God. Just as the Bible never conceives of man without a material body, so it never views him without a material environment appropriate to his bodily existence. The Old Testament repeatedly refers to a salvation accompanied by the renewal of the created universe. It underlines the significance of the resurrection body and the everlasting life of the believer in the new earth.2 The New Testament does not change this. The concept of "going to heaven when you die"—meaning an eternal spirit existence in a spirit sphere—is foreign to the Bible.
2. The Old Testament Shows That Salvation Has Its Universal Effect Solely through the Plan Expressed in Promises to Israel and Fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The first twelve chapters of the Bible show that all of Adam's race are included in the plan revealed to Abraham. Some may question the wisdom of God's ways in using so exclusive a plan for so universal a purpose. But the Bible is clear on the matter, and we may summarize it as follows:
a. God is King of creation (Ps. 24:1; 47:2; 93:1; 95:3f.).
b. God is King of the nations (Ps. 47:3; 99:2; Jer. 10:7).
c. God is King of Israel (Isa. 6:5; 41:21; 44:6; 52:7).
d. The nations are the heritage of God's Son (Ps. 2:6-8; 72:1, 8-11, 17-19; Zech. 9:9-10).
e. Israel is a light to the nations (Isa. 42:1, 6; 49:6).
f. The nations reach their destiny through Israel (Gen. 12:3; 1 Kings 8:41-43; Isa. 2:2-4; 60:1-3; Zech. 8:20-23).
Thus, when the New Testament shows that Jesus is this Israel, it assumes the universal scope of salvation given in the Old Testament.3 And Old Testament salvation exclusively through Israel reinforces the New Testament prohibition against relativizing the gospel and allowing many roads to God.
The Old Testament Historicizes the Gospel
The gospel is no timeless ideal or myth-based ethical principle. The Old Testament unrelentingly binds us to the acts of God in history. Some may think of Jesus Christ as an idealistic figure created by the early church to embody the lofty aspirations of the human spirit. But such a view must confront the challenge of nearly two thousand years of Israelite history moving toward its appointed goal. The Christ of the gospel claims to be this goal. When faced with the Old Testament, self-directed or inner-directed religion, whether mystical, pietistic or existential, is a total enigma. Either the gospel is concerned with the objective historical acts of God which reach their goal in the objective and historical Christ, or the Old Testament must be severed from the New. To neglect the Old Testament exposes us to the danger of turning the objective Christ event into the subjective Christ ideal.
If one is immersed in the Old Testament perspective of the objective acts of God for His people, he is not likely to fall prey to the craze of preoccupation with the subjective experience of the believer. Docetism, with its view that Jesus was truly divine while only appearing to be man, was a great curse to the early church. John referred to it as the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:1-4). An actual though not confessed docetism is rife today. Many Christians think of Jesus almost exclusively as the present, indwelling, experience-giving Spirit. The life of Christ within the believer (by the Holy Spirit) is given greater prominence than the life of Jesus of Nazareth for the believer (in the gospel). Serious consideration of the nature of the Old Testament and its relation to the New makes this kind of docetism impossible.
The Old Testament Eschatologizes the Gospel
The Old Testament not only historicizes the gospel. It establishes the gospel within a particular kind of history.4 This kind of history can be understood in the contrast between Israel's historical and goal-oriented faith and the cyclic ritual view of reality among the Canaanites. Canaanite religion was an abomination to the Lord not only because of the idolatry and ritual immorality practiced within its fertility cult, but principally because it was a radically different interpretation of reality. Canaan's faith was in the ritual maintenance of the present means of sustenance. Canaanite religion was the forerunner of comfortable middle-class respectability and conformity in religion. It guaranteed the maintenance of the social and material status quo.5
Israel's faith was in a God who was guiding history toward a great and final goal of transformation and renewal. Her faith was in the sovereign Creator-God, whose action in human history upset the status quo and radically reinterpreted existence in light of the great future day of the Lord. No middle-class respectability could withstand the shaking of the foundations of the earth and the complete re-creation-regeneration—of the heavens and the earth. Even the Pharisees, including Nicodemus, fell prey to the paganizing view of self-betterment within a static universe. In contrast, Jesus declared the total renewal which the gospel is bringing not only to the individual, but to the whole world order. "Are you a teacher in Israel and you do not know these things?" (John 3:10). Should not a teacher of the Old Testament have understood that Jesus came not to bring a timeless ideal for moral improvement, but to declare the event of the end of time in Himself. He is the goal, the end, and the shaking has begun (Hag. 2:6-9).
The Old Testament Historicizes the Believer
Jesus Christ is the believer's Substitute both in His living and dying. If the historical life of Jesus was the life lived on our behalf, then the gospel concerns our historical existence. Historical existence is given for historical existence. The gospel is about your history and mine. It touches every moment of our human experience. Some may not become Christians until later life, but the gospel comes to them as God's provision for every moment of their existence. Justification brings acceptance with God of the whole life.
By historicizing Christ, the Old Testament historicizes the believer. The whole life of Israel was under the summons to be perfect and holy. Yet Israel failed. Here we see our own failure to live as we ought before our Maker. Here we see our own condemnation for this failure. Then we see the promise and the grace of God in the plan to make a truly obedient and loving people. The demand to live perfectly will be met by God's own provision. It is in Jesus, the last Adam and the real Israel, that the true life was lived. The believer's identity in the gospel is not the achievement of an ethical ideal or even an inner light. It is the grand declaration that our historical existence is justified in the historical existence of our Substitute, Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament Structures the Gospel
The Old Testament begins with God the Creator, man in the image of God, and the created order under man's dominion (Gen. 1:26f.). Human life is given relational definition. Death results when man seeks to change the relation by trying to be God. Death is the disorder of all the relationships which constitute human life. Salvation is God's activity in restoring the proper relationships among God, man and the created order.
This salvation work of God involves the living and dying of Jesus Christ. The New Testament gives abundant interpretation of what Christ does, but it is in Old Testament terms. Thus the New Testament proclamation of the gospel presupposes the Old.
Many distinct expressions in the Old Testament contribute to the full meaning of the term salvation. Noah's ark, the Exodus from Egypt, the judges' battles of deliverance and the prophetic view of Israel's restoration from captivity are differing models of the reality of salvation. But they all point to the salvation wrought by Christ. Old Testament revelation provides a clear definition of the structure of the gospel. It acts as a safeguard against distortions of the gospel. The most extensive structuring of salvation is seen in the history of Abraham's descendants, which we may summarize as follows:
1. The election and calling of Abraham
2. The promise of salvation
3. The captivity of the people
4. The miracle of God's bringing release from bondage (Exodus)
5. The covenanting at Sinai
6. The entry into inheritance
7. The structuring of kingdom rule (Jerusalem, temple, kingship)
This is a historical demonstration of the process of salvation by grace. But the promises to Abraham, though fulfilled by events in Israel's history, still do not find a perfect consummation. The prophets take them up, renew them, enlarge them and direct the gaze of the faithful to the glorious day of God's kingdom. And all the promises to the fathers of Israel are declared to be fulfilled in the Christ event (e.g., Acts 2:30-32; 13:30-32; 2 Cor. 1:20). This is nothing less than the fulfillment of the whole saving purpose of God in Christ.
Jesus Christ is the true seed of Abraham, who is found in perfect covenantal partnership with the living God. He is the miracle which releases from bondage. He fulfills man's obligation to live perfectly before God. He is both the way into the inheritance and, in Himself, is the inheritance. He is all this in His person and work for us. He is the promise and its fulfillment. He is the law and its obedience. He is covenanting Lord and covenanted people. He is king and subjects. He is temple and true worshipers. He is priest and victim. He is city of God and citizen. He is promised land and inheritor. He is the new creation of heavens and earth and the new humanity. He is all this for us in the gospel.
The power of God for salvation is made clear in the gospel. God's way of bringing His people to ultimate perfection is to work His judgment upon their sin and to work out the true and perfect relationship between Himself, man and the world—all within Another. Yet even the gospel dimension of the One for and in the place of the many receives its initial expression in the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, king-messiah and suffering servant.
The Old Testament Structures the Bible
The Old Testament establishes a dynamic progression of revelation.6 This progression highlights the distinctions among the successive biblical expressions of salvation or kingdom. But all revelation expresses the essential relationship of God, man and the world.
In the Old Testament we distinguish the epochs of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and the prophet kingdom. This sensitizes us to the distinctions among the gospel event, the inauguration age (Acts) and the apostolic church (Epistles). The Old Testament thus creates the dynamic biblical structure which prevents us from treating all Bible texts on the same level. The theologian attuned to the Old Testament is less likely to engage in the proof-texting often encountered in the arguments of sectarian cults.7
Proof-texting ignores the contextual relationships of individual texts. It fails to consider the transformation in meaning that occurs when progressive revelation finds its goal in the gospel. It ignores the humanness of the biblical authors as their words reflect the historical, cultural and religious conditioning of their own times.
The Old Testament Strengthens Critical Theology
Theologians are concerned with a crystallization of biblical truth into Christian doctrine. They are also concerned with the critical assessment of false doctrine and how it arises. Critical theology seeks not only to refute error, but to disclose the destructive implications of an apparently inoffensive omission or overemphasis.
It is instructive to observe how certain aberrations of the Christian faith have been accompanied by a false approach to the Old Testament. We suggest that those who accept the Old Testament seriously will be less prone to these errors. Marcion, the second-century Gnostic, completely rejected the Old Testament as un-Christian. Modern existentialists like Bultmann find the Old Testament's principal value in a negative relationship to the New. Liberal idealism agreed with the higher-critical assessment of the Old Testament as a record of the evolution of human religious ideals. In modern evangelicalism we find dispensationalism with its strange use of literalism applied to Old Testament prophecy but allegory applied to Old Testament history. We also find Keswick holiness theology with its tendency to allegorize Old Testament history.8 And we find a preoccupation with subjective experience which is almost always accompanied by a general neglect of the proper use of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament dead? Let those who think so take heed! Christianity without the Old Testament is like a man without a backbone—flabby, misshapen, grotesque. It is a building without foundations (Eph. 2:20). It is the fulfillment of nothing, the goal of a path from nowhere. Let us learn from our Lord Himself and the men of the New Testament, who quote the Old Testament hundreds of times. Let us make it the warp and woof of the fabric of the gospel.
Dead? Yes indeed if we mean a history fulfilled and a dispensation renewed. But the cloud of witnesses still surrounds us. And what was said of Abel may be said of the whole Old Testament: "He being dead yet speaks" (Heb. 11:4).
Graeme Goldsworthy is an Anglican clergyman. He received his doctorate at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, and is presently working for the Theological Education Program of Australia.
1 See Geoffrey J. Paxton, "The False Gospel of the New Birth," Present Truth Magazine 7, no.3 (June 1978): 17-22.
2 The Old Testament stresses the earthly nature of the kingdom by its references to universal renewal (e.g., Isa. 11:6-9; 35:1-10; Ps. 98:4-9).
3 John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:4, 5.
4 A. A. van Ruler, The Christian Church and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971).
5 G.E. Wright, God Who Acts (London: SCM Press, 1952), p.24.
6 This has ben discussed in my article on "The Kingdom of God and the Old Testament," Present Truth Magazine 5, no. 1 (Feb. 1976): 16-23.
7 E.g., see the Watchtower handbook of proof texts: Make Sure of All Things (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1953).
8 E.g., Alan Redpath, The Victorious Christian Life; W. Ian Thomas, If I Perish I Perish and The Saving Life of Christ; Andrew Murray, Absolute Surrender, chap. 1.