Why We Can’t Unhitch from the Old Testament

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Few would disagree that we’re now living in an effectively post-Christian world. Secularism is on the rise, church attendance is in decline, and hostility to Christian values is ever-increasing. In light of this foreboding landscape, it’s appropriate to ask whether the church is on the right track. Have we missed something? Are we doing something incorrectly that we need to change?

Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World
Andy Stanley
Zondervan (2018). 336 pp. $24.99.

Jesus’s arrival signaled that the Old Testament was fulfilled and its laws reduced to a single verb—love—to be applied to God, neighbor, and enemy. So, what is required if we want to follow Jesus’s example and radically love the people around us? We almost always know the answer. The hard part is actually doing what love requires.

Andy Stanley’s latest volume, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” We have been on the wrong track, and we need to change if we’re going to reach the next generation with the gospel. What is this wrong track? It’s that modern Christianity relies too much on the Old Testament. The problem with the modern church is “our incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives” (91).

As a result, Christianity has lost its mojo. These vestiges of the old covenant have led, Stanley says, to a variety of vices in the church: “prosperity gospel, the crusades, anti-Semitism, legalism, exclusivism, judgmentalism,” and more (158). Thus, Stanley offers a clear call to church leaders: “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?” (315). This is necessary because “when it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the Old Testament is right up there at the top of the list” (280).

Put simply, when people struggle to believe, “the Old Testament is usually the culprit” (278).

Bold Thesis

Needless to say, Irresistible certainly doesn’t lack in boldness. Indeed, the claims laid out above are genuinely breathtaking. In essence, Stanley has pinned virtually all the major problems of the church—from the Crusades to legalism—to our continued use of the Old Testament.

And his solution is no less bold. If the Old Testament is the problem, just cut it off.

Andy Stanley’s thesis is so far-reaching that his arguments become equally far-reaching—moving far beyond what the Bible (or church history) can support.

Of course, such a forceful, wide-ranging thesis would need to be backed up by an equally forceful and wide-ranging argument. But that’s where this volume runs into serious challenges. As I will argue below, Stanley’s arguments can’t bear the weight of his thesis. Indeed, his thesis is so far-reaching that his arguments become equally far-reaching—moving far beyond what the Bible (or church history) can support.

What Stays and What Goes?

In a limited review such as this one, I can only offer a few specifics. I begin with Stanley’s view of what it means for the old covenant to be “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). Stanley is certainly correct that many aspects of the Mosaic economy are abrogated under the new covenant. Indeed, I commend his entire first section (1765), which is quite a helpful discussion of how old covenant worship—with temple, animal sacrifices, and earthly priests—is now fulfilled in Christ.

But Stanley assumes that the abrogation of old covenant cultic laws means all kinds of laws present under the old covenant are also abrogated. He treats “law” under the Mosaic economy as a singular, undifferentiated lump. If part goes, it all goes. But this isn’t how the New Testament treats these laws. Nor is it how theologians have historically treated these laws. It has been widely recognized that there are “moral” laws under the old covenant order—in particular, the Ten Commandments—that have abiding relevance. After all, the foundation for moral laws (God’s own character) doesn’t change.

Because Stanley misses this distinction, he is willing even to reject the Ten Commandments: “The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None. To be clear: Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments” (136, emphasis mine). He goes even further: “Paul never leverages the old covenant as a basis for Christian behavior” (209).

Aside from the rhetorical shock of such statements, they’re flatly contradicted many places in the New Testament. Just one example is Ephesians 6:1, where Paul calls Christian children to obey their parents. Surely, he must ground this exhortation in the new covenant teaching of Jesus, right? No, Paul actually cites one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother . . . that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (Ex. 20:12).

Stunningly, Stanley does mention Exodus 20:12 but only as an example of what New Testament writers supposedly never do! “We new covenant types don’t honor our father and mothers so we can ‘live long in the land’” (236). Apparently, he missed Ephesians 6:1; he never mentions it.

Divide and Conquer

In order to keep Christians away from the Old Testament, Stanley adopts a number of strategies. One of those strategies is to insist on as much discontinuity as possible between the covenants. They are, in Stanley’s mind, fundamentally opposed to each other (146).

For him, the old covenant is about hating enemies, the new is about loving them (107). The old covenant is filled with “misogyny” (290) where women are “commodities” (214), but under the new they are “partners” (215). In the old covenant God is “holy,” but in the new covenant God is “love” (223). The old covenant God is “angry,” but the new covenant God is “brokenhearted” (257). In the old covenant people relied on the Bible, but in the new covenant they just love people (234).

In essence, Stanley’s book stokes a radical discontinuity between the covenants in a manner reflective of the hermeneutics of classical dispensationalism. That may motivate people to “unhitch” from the old covenant, but whether it faithfully represents that covenant is another matter.

Take, for instance, the idea that the old covenant was about hating one’s enemies. Stanley appeals to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43–44). Stanley mistakenly assumes Jesus is arguing against the old covenant itself. Nowhere does the Old Testament say “hate your enemy”—it’s not there. Theologians, therefore, have rightly recognized that Jesus is arguing against Pharisaical distortions and abuses of the old covenant. After all, even the Old Testament says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty give him water to drink” (Prov. 25:21).

This is a common problem throughout Stanley’s volume: He often confuses distortions of the old covenant with the old covenant itself.

This is a common problem throughout Stanley’s volume: He often confuses distortions of the old covenant with the old covenant itself.

Another example is when Stanley talks about racism in ancient Judaism. He tells a story about a modern white couple who opposed their daughter’s marriage to a black man because they believed Moses was judged by God because he married a dark-skinned Midianite (148). But this story is perplexing for the reader. Clearly these parents have profoundly misunderstood (and misused) this Old Testament story to support their racist views. But what does that have to do with the nature of the old covenant itself? Is Stanley implying that the old covenant is racist or leads to racism? Surely not. But then why tell the story at all?

This strategy ends up caricaturing the old covenant as a harsh, cold, legalistic arrangement that we should all be happy to be rid of. Nowhere are we reminded that old covenant believers, though they were under a provisional arrangement filled with types and shadows, were still saved by grace through faith in the coming Savior (Heb. 11:22–40). Nor are we told that Paul indicates that circumcision was a sign of justification by faith for Old Testament saints (Rom. 4:11).

In other words, the discontinuity between the covenants isn’t nearly as radical as Stanley supposes.

Lesson from Church History?

If we want to know how (or whether) Christians should use the Old Testament, we might ask what the earliest Christians did. Would the church fathers of the second and third centuries have agreed with Stanley’s view? No; they not only read, studied, and used the Old Testament in worship (e.g., see Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67), but they insisted that Christ was their main subject. The Old Testament was valuable because Christ was there.

If we want to know how (or whether) Christians should use the Old Testament, we might ask what the earliest Christians did. . . . [T]hey insisted that Christ was their main subject. The Old Testament was valuable because Christ was there.

Incredibly, Stanley isn’t deterred by this fact. Instead, he doubles down and insists that the church fathers were simply wrong too! They just “ignored [Paul’s] warning against mixing and matching” (155). Indeed, he goes even further, insisting that attempts to find Christ in the Old Testament are simply instances of the Jewish Scriptures being “hijacked” by Christians who are “ignoring original context” (156). Even more, he argues this Christ-in-the-Old-Testament approach has led Christians toward anti-Semitism.

Many readers will be stunned by such statements. According to Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.

But there is a figure from church history who held a view similar to Stanley’s—the second-century figure Marcion. I only say similar because there are notable differences (Marcion rejected the Old Testament as the product of a false god). Nevertheless, they both share a deep conviction that the Old Testament is fundamentally at odds with Paul’s pure gospel. In fact, Marcion would’ve viewed himself as someone trying to help Christianity. He was trying to protect the gospel. Christianity had to be saved—even if it meant saving Christianity from itself.

According to Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.

However, Marcion’s view didn’t win the day. His approach was roundly and widely rejected by early Christians. Indeed, his story stood as a sober reminder for many generations thereafter that the church was fundamentally committed to the abiding value and relevance of the Old Testament.

End Game

What is the pay-off of Stanley’s proposed paradigm-shift? He thinks it will help reach unbelievers more effectively. In essence, the final chapters of Irresistible offer a new (it’s not really new) approach to apologetics: take the focus off the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and put it on the resurrection.

People don’t need to believe the Bible to be Christians, Stanley reminds us. So, why debate its truth? That’s just a distraction. He states, “The good news is even if none of those [Old Testament] things actually happened it does nothing to undermine the credibility of our new covenant faith” (306).

Stanley is partly right. People don’t have to believe the Bible to be saved (at least not all of it). Indeed, they don’t even need to know a Bible exists to be saved (imagine a missionary preaching to a tribe in the remote jungle). But Stanley leaves out (or doesn’t himself realize) a key distinction: While a person doesn’t have to believe the Bible is true to be saved, the Bible has to be true for them to be saved.

Why? Because Jesus said the Bible is true. And if it’s not true, then he was wrong. And that raises issues for our salvation. But it’s even bigger than this point. If Jesus is the divine Lord of the universe, then he is also the author of the Old Testament. He (through inspired human authors) wrote it. So, yes, it does matter if it’s true.

Thus, Stanley’s view of the Old Testament stands in direct contrast to Jesus’s view of the Old Testament. Sure, Stanley claims to follow Jesus’s view (69), but there is an unresolved (or perhaps unresolvable) tension in his position. He does not recognize that the authority of Jesus is linked to the truth of the Old Testament. They stand or fall together.

Road Block

Let me say that I appreciate the heart behind Irresistible. We all want to reach more people for Christ, and any road block that can be removed ought to be removed. We all can learn a profound lesson from Stanley’s passion for the lost. I wish more churches (and pastors) labored over how to reach non-Christians like he does.

Stanley stands against the entire history of the church as well as the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation. . . . He’s even out of sync with the Bible itself.

But not every road block can be removed. Some doctrines are too central to the truth of Christianity and the health of the church to be taken away. When it comes to presenting the gospel, Stanley has become convinced the Bible, especially the Old Testament, simply gets in the way. I disagree. But it’s not just me. Stanley stands against the entire history of the church as well as the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, as I have argued, he’s even out of sync with the Bible itself.

There can be a sad irony in defending the faith. We can be so eager to oppose any and all obstacles, that we end up, unwittingly, opposing Christianity itself. If we’re not careful, we might end up losing the very thing we’re trying to save.

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