Frequently Asked Questions #1: What about the Old Testament?

A side series on this blog is titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” In these F.A.Q. posts, I’ll address questions I get quite often from various people.

Probably the number one question I get asked about Christianity isn’t anything about the gospel, the deity of Jesus, or anything like it. The most frequently asked question I receive is “What about the Old Testament?”. It’s easy to see where this one comes from. Christians consider themselves under the plan of salvation and the lordship of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament, but we also say our holy writings contain the Old Testament record of Yahweh’s relationship with the Hebrew/Jewish people. What, then, is the relationship between the two? Do we have to follow the law of Moses, or do we discard it entirely — or is there a third way?

I think one reason we’re hesitant to make full use of the Old Testament is because many people, following an early church heresy called Marcionism, see the God of the OT as a separate, distinct God from the one of the NT. The OT God created the world — then destroyed it in water. He tried to get Abraham to sacrifice the son He had promised to him. He became a genocidal deity who ordered the mass murder of entire people groups in order to give the Israelites the Promised Land. Noted militant atheist Richard Dawkins famously wrote this in The God Delusion:

 “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

 Many people, though they disagree with Dawkins’ atheism, still feel some sort of sympathy for his assessment. How could a God who truly loves His creation commit the seemingly atrocious actions recorded in the OT? It doesn’t get any easier when we read in the NT that God is love (1 John 4:8) in such a way that He sent His only son to die for our sins (John 3:16, Romans 5:8). How can this possibly be the same God?

So, like Marcion of old, these people throw out the whole testament, saying it doesn’t reveal a true Christian God. (Others, as one friend famously phrased it, think God “really mellowed out after He had a kid.”) The cognitive dissonance, the tension of holding OT God and NT God as one figure is extreme.

Then there’s the whole matter of the law. If we live under grace and not law, as Paul writes in Romans and elsewhere, why do we even need to keep the Torah around? It’s not binding for us; it’s just a historical curiosity of sorts. We don’t have to offer sacrifices, or ritually bathe to cleanse ourselves of impurities, or drill holes in the ears of the slaves who don’t want to leave us. Salvation comes by grace through faith, not by obedience to a rigorous set of 613 separate commandments. So why keep them in the Bible? Why pay any attention to them whatsoever?

The main reason is because Jesus himself said, “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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). At the very least, this means we can’t remain ignorant of the law; it should still exist and be part of our history and our faith. When Christ says he fulfilled the law and the prophets, however, it means that we can’t do it ourselves. The sacrificial system was completed by a single blood sacrifice, the shed blood of a God-man (Hebrews 10 [esp. v. 10]). The law requiring blood atonement wasn’t dismissed; it was fulfilled to the utmost.

Christ himself, before his crucifixion and resurrection, quoted the Old Testament with regularity. The same is true of many authors of the Old Testament. Even the order of the gospels is due to the use of the Old Testament in the NT. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience, and so he quotes Isaiah and other prophets regarding the coming Messiah in order to show how Jesus fulfills those prophecies. In short, Matthew uses the OT to prove the central message of the NT: Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. And so his gospel is placed next to the OT in your Bible (and in mine, too). Paul’s epistles do the same thing; Hebrews uses the priestly imagery of Leviticus; the General/Catholic Epistles mention Noah, Moses, and others; and Revelation borrows some of the imagery from Daniel. In short, we also keep the Old Testament around because so much of it is in the New and shaped its authors, texts, and foundation.

Alright; we still have the OT. But what do we do with it?

The law was fulfilled, and we live under grace. Just so. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from the underlying principles of the OT in the age of the Church. It’d be pretty hard for most of us to deliberately leave part of our grain crops behind so others can glean the leftovers in accordance with Leviticus 19:9,23:22 or Deuteronomy 24:19-21, for example, but we can still show hospitality and love for visitors and immigrants. We look at the view of women (revolutionary for its time) and realize we need to take steps towards gender equality and reconciliation. We see rules made to set apart a people from other cultures and create a community of faith, and we continue to live Christian lives different from the moral standards of our surrounding world. All of these guiding principles are reappropriated in the Church, and we as believers still follow the guides set forth in the Mosaic Law, the Prophets, and the rest of the OT.

Of course, anything explicitly restated in the NT still goes, too: laws regarding murder, sexual sin, lying, etc.

Christians should find a faithful friend in the Old Testament, just as in the rest of Scripture. God still uses the OT to speak to us and provide us with guidance and identity. And if you look closely, you will see a loving God of grace readily apparent even in the Old Testament’s darkest moments.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26


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