It is without doubt a mixed blessing that whatever Christian leaders say in public nowadays often gets distributed immediately and very widely via social media and YouTube – and once it is “out there,” it is difficult to get it back. I wonder if Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, would like to “get back” some of the words he used in a sermon recently concerning the Old Testament.1
If this had been a sermon about the need for Christians to read Old Testament Scripture well rather than badly, and even about the necessity of churches devoting far more resources than they currently do to helping their members to achieve this, I’m sure that many people would have applauded; certainly I would have done so. But what Andy actually urged Christians to do was to “unhitch” the Old Testament from their Christian faith.
He acknowledged that these “Jewish scriptures,” as he called them, are certainly an important “back story” for “the main story” of Christian Scripture – they represent a divinely inspired description of “God on the move through an ancient, ancient time.”
However, the Old Testament – “or the Law and the Prophets as they called it” – was not regarded in the early Church as “the go-to source regarding any [his emphasis] behavior in the church.” Those early Church leaders “unhitched the church from the worldview, the value system, and the regulations of the Jewish Scriptures,” including the Ten Commandments; “they unhitched the church from the entire thing … everything’s different, everything’s new.”
And we should follow their example: “Jesus’ new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures.”
Andy acknowledged in this sermon that his comments might be considered “a little disturbing” by some listeners, and judging by the reaction on social media, he was quite right. Significant numbers did not applaud. In many ways, however, it is a mistake to focus simply on this sermon, for in doing so we run the risk of getting distracted from a larger and more important reality: that the kind of position Andy has articulated is not unusual in the contemporary church worldwide.
And it is this fact, rather than the words of one preacher in one sermon, that we ought to find truly disturbing. For to regard the Old Testament (OT) as anything less than actively relevant Christian Scripture, in precisely the same sense that the New Testament (NT) is Christian Scripture, is to step outside the bounds of historic, orthodox Christian faith. It is to step aside from following Christ. And many Christians appear not to realise that this is so.
Jesus and the Old Testament
Long before there was a Church, there was already a Scripture.2 Its prior existence is indicated in the Gospels in what Jesus himself names on a number of occasions as “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g., Luke 16:16) or close variants (like “Moses and the prophets”) – selected human words recognized as representing at the same time the word of God, and as such preserved for posterity.
That is to say, they were recognized as prophetic, in the broad sense; they were recognized as “inspired.” It is this canonical collection of Law and Prophets that in Jesus’ own lifetime and in the history of the earliest Church “was viewed as a privileged, stable witness against which the claims of the gospel were tested and shown to have been established from of old”3 – was understood, indeed, as “the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2).
In Matthew 5:17-20, for example, Jesus tells his hearers:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
In line with this, we find Jesus again and again in the Gospels basing his teaching or arguments on the OT, sometimes prefacing what he is about to say with phrases like “it is written that” (e.g., Mk. 14:27; Mt. 11:10) and thereby drawing people’s attention to the authority upon which he rests his case. After the resurrection, Jesus rebukes two of his confused and downhearted disciples precisely for failing to take these same Scriptures sufficiently seriously when trying to understand their present experience:
How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
The central importance of the OT Scriptures is emphasized again shortly afterwards, in Luke 24:44, when Jesus advises all the core disciples and others that “[e]verything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” If the disciples, after the resurrection, want to understand what is going on in the world and in their lives, they must attend to these OT Scriptures. Jesus himself sends them there.
The Apostles and the Old Testament
The remainder of the NT reveals that the earliest Church took this advice very seriously; we would of course expect this of disciples of Jesus. This comes to expression clearly in the famous words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV): “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The primary reference here is of course to the OT, since the NT does not yet exist; and we notice immediately how impossible is any idea that these “Jewish scriptures” are merely “divinely inspired backstory” but not at the same time a “go-to source regarding … behavior in the church.” The OT is inspired Scripture designed precisely so that it is useful to the Church in “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” It is the very canon (or measuring-stick) of Christian faith and practice in the first century AD.
We see this played out in the book of Acts, where Christians are described as sharing with Jews a commitment to hearing what “the Law and the Prophets” have to say (Acts 13:15) and to believing it: “I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,” affirms the Apostle Paul to Felix in Acts 24:14. Various of his letters to the Christian churches of the first-century Roman world illustrate the seriousness with which he took this idea. Everywhere in this correspondence he grounds his teaching in the pre-existing Scriptures.
For example (and this is important especially in the light of Andy Stanley’s advice that Christians should not obey the Ten Commandments), Paul applies the Ten Commandments to the various ethical situations with which he is confronted in the emerging churches (Rom. 7:7, 13:9, Eph. 6:2-3).
For Paul and the other apostles, it was impossible to speak of Christ without speaking of him ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ of Israel that already existed – Scriptures that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21) – which the Church at its origin received . . . as the sole authoritative witness . . . These Scriptures taught the church what to believe about God: who God was; how to understand God’s relationship to creation, Israel and the nations; how to worship God; and what manner of life was enjoined in grace and in judgment.4
Indeed, the apostles largely spoke of Christ only in relation to the OT, as Martin Luther once astutely observed, noting “how little Paul and Peter report the individual acts of Jesus in their letters: Paul wrote gospel by making mighty sermons out of a very few passages of the Old Testament.”5
Scripture in the Early Post-Apostolic Church
The generations of Christians who came immediately after the apostolic age unsurprisingly followed the apostolic example. They held stubbornly to the belief that it was the Scripture of Israel that gave the Church its fundamental orientation to reality – the fundamental story of which it found itself a part – and that their reception of this literature as their Scripture was intrinsically bound up with their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. They could not have the one without the other.
As Craig Allert notes, “it is axiomatic that authoritative Scripture for the Apostolic Fathers [AD 95-150] were [sic] the Hebrew Scriptures,” albeit that they usually read them in Greek translation, because so many of the early Christians could not read Hebrew.6 This is already true of 1 Clement, which dates from the closing decade of the first century AD:
“Approximately a fourth of the entire text consists of Old Testament citations”7 The Epistle of Barnabas, which was written sometime during the opening decades of the second century AD, likewise understands “the corpus of the Old Testament, including its entire portfolio of texts, as a document of revelation in which are found valid propositions for the present.”8
From the pen of Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-165) we have two surviving ‘apologies’ (defenses of the Christian faith), written in the middle of the second century AD, and in both of these the OT is likewise central: “Justin . . . appealed to the Scriptures (the Old Testament) as a prophetic witness for the Messiah, Jesus Christ . . . The Old Testament in Justin is without question recognized as the Scripture of the Christians.”9 This is the case even though Justin, like others before him, knew some of the writings of the apostles that would eventually form the NT.
Yet “the New Testament is not actually interpreted [in his work]. Its character as ‘Scripture’ does not appear to have been held … Demonstrations of the Christian truth … are capable of being obtained only from the Bible held in common with the Jews.”10 As to this ‘commonality’, it is striking that even though significant Jewish-Christian disagreement surfaces in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho in a number of areas, this is not the case on the question of which are the books in the Bible. On that question, at least, they do not disagree.
Marcion of Sinope
Twice in his First Apology, Justin mentions someone who did take a very different view of the OT: Marcion of Sinope, who centered his Bible on ten of the Apostle Paul’s letters and rejected the OT as Scripture in its entirety.11 Marcion did this in broad companionship with others in the early Christian centuries who have come to be described by Christian writers as “the Gnostics,” and he has often been regarded as essentially a Gnostic himself.
These Gnostics substituted for the OT’s fundamental distinction between the Creator and his good material creation a distinction, instead, between the spiritual (good) and the material (evil) world. They proposed that salvation involved not the redemption of the whole world, including the body, but the escape of the individual spirit from the material world (and centrally from the body).
This being so, Gnostics had no place in their philosophy for an incarnate deity dying for the sins of the world and rising bodily again so that others could do the same. The gnostic analysis of the world, indeed, did not find sin to be the obstacle to salvation, but rather ignorance – from which elite and esoteric ‘knowledge’ (Gk. gnōsis)would deliver the initiate.
The marginalization of the OT that we find in Marcion’s approach to Scripture greatly facilitated this kind of conforming of Christian faith to the norms of a certain type of Hellenistic philosophy.
However, this Marcionite move was widely understood in the post-apostolic Church as wrongheaded, and to be certain, if accepted, to change the very character of apostolic Christian faith. The change is already illustrated in Marcion’s own teaching on the basis of a slimmed-down collection of Scriptures that did not (and could not) include even apostolic writings (like the Gospel of Matthew) that indicated significant continuity between the OT and the NT.
Marcion was therefore condemned as a heretic, and the great opponent of both Marcionism and Gnosticism in the second century, Irenaeus, deployed OT Scripture extensively in his attempts to discredit their doctrines. It is not surprising that in mounting this assault Irenaeus became the first Christian writer in history to cite and allude to more apostolic than OT documents.12
Marcion and the Gnostics had explicitly put on the agenda the question, is there genuine continuity and coherence between the two sets of truth claims? This forced writers like Irenaeus into far greater citation of NT texts than anyone before him, in order to demonstrate the continuity and coherence. Indeed, we find in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (c. AD 180) about twice as many NT as OT citations.13
So it is that by the end of the second century AD we see “the development of the authority of these [NT] texts,” as they begin to be cited alongside OT texts in ever greater numbers.14
Scripture in the Later Post-Apostolic Church
The serious attention given to OT texts by Christian writers during the first two centuries AD continued all the way down through the succeeding ones, even as the final contours of the NT corpus were becoming firmly settled in the Church.
Both Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215) and Tertullian (c. 160-240) continue in this line in the early part of the third century. Slightly later, so does Origen (c. 185-254), and after him in the fourth century come such important writers as the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’ (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), and in the fifth century Theodoret of Cyrus, for whom (even at this late stage) “commentary on the New Testament [remains] in a minor key.”15
Worthy of especial note as we move into the fifth century is Augustine (AD 354-430). Not a single one of these early Christians believed that it was possible or desirable to “unhitch” the Old Testament from their Christian faith. Not a single one of them believed that the old Scriptures were merely “Jewish scriptures” describing “God on the move through ancient, ancient times,” rather than active Christian Scripture providing a “go-to source regarding . . . behaviour in the church.”
All of them believed that Scripture preceded the Church,16 as well as being produced in the Church, and that the truth-claims of the Church had to be grounded in prior Scripture, even as it was producing new Scripture. Augustine provides an especially powerful example, in fact, of the post-apostolic Church’s convictions concerning the unity of Christian Scripture, OT and NT, when he remarks in Against Adimantus that
. . . in it [the OT] there is such strong prediction and preannouncement of the New Testament that nothing is found in the teaching of the Evangelists and the apostles, however exalted and divine the precepts and promises, that is lacking in those ancient books.17
In conclusion, “the Christian Church was born with a Bible in its hands,” as Stephen Dempster puts it,18 and it always had one thereafter, looking for its guidance on faith and life to the prophets, and then to the apostles, on whose foundational teaching the Church had been built – looking to what the Clementine Homilies (in the second or third century AD) name as “the prophetic rule.”19
Early attempts by people like Marcion to “unhitch” the OT from Christian faith were rejected by the post-apostolic Church, whose leaders recognized that this represented a fundamental assault on apostolic faith, and ultimately on the lordship of Christ.
It is the whole Bible that orthodox Christians must continue to regard as Scripture, at the same time always striving to read it well across its whole scope. Bad reading of the OT should certainly always be rejected.
The OT itself, however, can never be “unhitched” from Christian faith. Its words remain “the very words of God” for the Church, shaping both its faith and its practice – words to which Jesus Christ himself directs our attention.
1 Accessed on May 13, 2018, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pShxFTNRCWI&feature=youtu.be.
2 The substance of the argument below is taken from my new book, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), chapter 2.
3 Christopher R. Seitz, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets: The Achievement of Association in Canon Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 35.
4 Christopher R. Seitz, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible (STI; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 17.
5 Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament (trans. E. W. and R. C. Gritsch; ed. V. I. Gruhn; Mifflintown, PA: Sigler, 1997), 85.
6 Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 109.
7 Henning G. Reventlow, History of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 1: From the Old Testament to Origen (trans. Leo Perdue; RBS 50; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 127.
8 Reventlow, Biblical Interpretation, 1:120.
9 Reventlow, Biblical Interpretation, 1:140, 146.
10 Reventlow, Biblical Interpretation, 1:146.
11Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Significance and Development (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), 90-99.
12 Allert, High View, 119.
13 It is significant that while this is true of a work explicitly directed against heretics, it is not true of his non-polemical Epideixis tou apostolikou kērygmatos (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, trans. Joseph P. Smith; ACW 16; New York: Newman, 1952), which proceeds in a more traditional manner. Reventlow, Biblical Interpretation, 1:157-58.
14 Reventlow, Biblical Interpretation, 1:155.
15 Robert C. Hill, Reading the Old Testament in Antioch (BAC 5; Leiden: Brill, 2005), 44.
16 Hill describes the Antiochene commentators in general (Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom), e.g., and not just Theodoret, in the following way: they “think that their canon is Jewish in origin and … that all the books came to them from Judaism.” Hill, Antioch, 23.
17 Augustine, Contra Adimantum (Against Adimantus) 3.4, as translated in David F. Wright, “Augustine: His Exegesis and Hermeneutics,” in Hebrew Bible /Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation,ed. Magne Sæbø, vol. 1/1 (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1996), 701-30 (714).
18 Stephen G. Dempster, “Canon and Old Testament Interpretation,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 154-79 (159).
19 Clementine Homilies, 2.15.
Iain Provan is Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College. He has written extensively on matters of biblical interpretation, including two recent books published by Baylor University Press: Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says, and Why It Matters (2014), and The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (2017).
This comment is re-posted by permission of the author.