Thursday, March 11, 2010

The value of the Old Testament (OT)

“Christians do not need the Old Testament. All they need is Jesus and the New Testament.” Do you agree or disagree? Justify your position. If you disagree, why do Christians need the Old Testament?

The value of the Old Testament (OT) for Christians has been debated since the second century when Marcion thought of it as ‘the unnecessary and embarrassing sibling to the New’ (Brunner, 1964, p. 243). Knowledge of the OT is fading amongst modern Christians who struggle when it does not make sense whilst what does make sense offends (Yancey, 1999, p. 18). Despite the inherent difficulties, the OT has been part of the canon since Christ, contains thousands of years of God interacting with his people, provides historical, cultural and religious context to the NT, and ultimately points us to Jesus.

The OT was the bible of the Early Church (Kaiser, 2003, p. 26) from which they received spiritual nourishment (Greidanus, 1999, p. 15). Jesus claimed, ‘I have not come to abolish [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17b) and ‘if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?’ (John 5:46). Matthew’s opening genealogy links his writings with OT authority. Stephen began his testimony with Abraham (Acts 7) (Achtemeir, 1962, p. 14). The author to the Hebrews acknowledged past revelation (Hebrews 1:1). Paul showed Jesus fulfilled the OT (Romans 15:3) and its stories were examples for our edification (1 Corinthians 10:11, James 2:25). In fact, there is no evidence in the NT that its authors went outside the OT to understand the Messiah (Kaiser, 2003, p. 24). Paul instructs Timothy that ‘all scripture’ is useful for (1) teaching, (2) rebuking, (3) correcting, (4) training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16) (Kaiser, 2003, p. 17) and (5) to be read publically (1 Timothy 1:43). ‘Scripture’[1] in the NT usually refers to the OT (Kaiser, 2003, p. 24). Thus, to place confidence in the NT is to place confidence in those who had confidence in the OT.

The early church maintained the OT canon (Brunner, 1964, p. 243). As part of the canon, the ‘standard for faith and life’ (Greidanus, 1999, p. 25), it possessed divine authority (Kaiser, 2003, p. 16). Its authority was later re-enforced in church doctrine; Article VII of the Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England (1563) (Kaiser, 1991, p. 16). Although the OT has had its opponents - most famously Marcion (ca. 85-160), Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Harnack (1851-1930) and Bultman (1884-1976) (Greidanus, 1999, pp. 18, 20, 21) - its position in the canon remains.

The OT contains thousands of years of God progressively revealing his person by special historical revelation and self-disclosure (Brunner, 1964, p. 253). His attributes are discovered in observing his interaction with his people, and the moral laws teach the unique holiness of God and value of relationship and human life (Kaiser, 2003, p. 23). Yancey puts it beautifully;

‘Without the OT we will always have an impoverished view of God. God is not a philosophical construct but a person who acts in history... from Genesis 1 onward, God has wanted himself to be known and the OT is our most complete revelation of what God is like’ (Yancey, 1999, p. 27)

The best understanding of the NT requires understanding of the OT (Kaiser, 2003, pp. 26-27). Texts such as Jude, Hebrews and Revelation require background knowledge for their interpretation (Yancey, 1999, p. 23). The use of language, parables, and symbols would lack their impact without conscious understanding of the peoples’ heritage (Greidanus, 1999, p. 30). Concepts including the church, Passover, covenant, the Kingdom of God, salvation, priests, atonement, law, faith, hope, Christ, Son of Man, Lamb of God, and good shepherd would be robbed of value without the OT (Greidanus, 1999, p. 29; Yancey, 1999, p. 23).

The OT also aids our discernment of false understanding of the NT. Marcion’s rejection of the OT creation stories allow freedom for him to claim there was a lesser creator God (Greidanus, 1999, p. 31). The Mormon claim of a second appearance of Jesus is not mentioned in the OT. The NT does not provide a worldview but assumes that taught in the OT (Greidanus, 1999, p. 28) and also points to subtle worldview changes as the church moved from a Hebrew to Hellenistic outlook (Greidanus, 1999, p. 31).

The NT is not intended to stand alone and in many cases presupposes knowledge of the OT. Theological issues of Creation and the Fall are limited in the NT. Divine judgement is clearly seen in the OT (Brunner, 1964, p. 257). Ethical issues of marriage and sexuality are enriched by the examples of David and Solomon. Practical issues of suffering are endured with examples of Joseph (Genesis 30-45) and knowledge of God’s faithfulness (Yancey, 1999, p. 30). The OT contains a realistic portrayal of life where we can observe success and failure for our wisdom (Kaiser, 2003, p. 24).

Prediction of the Messiah – the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – was clearly anticipated in the OT. God’s ultimate plan for his people and redemption begins in the OT. From the promise Eve’s offspring (Genesis 3:15), to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 1-11), return of the exiles culminating with Jesus Christ we see progressive revelation of God’s redemptive plan. There are over 455 OT references to the Messiah or Messianic times (Kaiser, 2003, p. 20). It is more ‘natural, logical and biblical to let God’s revelation unfold from prophecy to fulfilment’ (Kaiser, 2003, p. 26). Faith and relationship with Jesus is paramount in the NT and without the OT we do not know fully who Jesus Christ is (Achtemeir, 1962, p. 12).

A Gentile Christian approaching the OT can be likened to the first family function with the in-laws. You find yourself married into something that may be unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. However, you quickly realise that life existed before and outside of yourself. There are history, relationships, events, and values that have shaped your spouse, and the relationship you have with her. Without the OT our view of God would be impoverished (Yancey, 1999, p. 27), lacking three quarters of the history of God with his people (Kaiser, 2003, p. 27; Yancey, 1999, p. 27), and deficient regards our understanding of the Messiah/Christ (Achtemeir, 1962, p. 12). The natural path to ‘genuine understanding of the New Testament is by way of the Old’ (Brunner, 1964, p. 249).


Achtemeir. (1962). Why Bother with the Old Testament? In The OT Roots of Our Faith (pp. 11-16). New York: Abingdon.

Brunner, E. (1964). The Significance of the Old Testament for our Faith. In B. Anderson (Ed.), The Old Testament and Christian Faith (pp. 243-64). London, London: SCM.

Greidanus, S. (1999). The necessity of Preaching from the Old Testament. In Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (pp. 15-32). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Kaiser. (1991). The Old Testament as the Christian Problem. In Toward rediscovering the Old Testament (pp. 13-32). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Kaiser. (2003). The Value of the Old Testament for Today. In Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (pp. 15-28). Grand Rapids: Baucer.

Yancey, P. (1999). Is the Old Testament worth the effort? In The Bible Jesus read (pp. 17-42). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[1] The meaning of ‘Scripture’ in this context is debated and may be taken as individual passages, the whole OT, or OT plus NT (Kaiser, The Old Testament as the Christian Problem, 1991, p. 27).

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