I have written before about the “unhitching” of the Old Testament from the New, and the furor caused by some suggestions Andy Stanley made in his preaching. My previous post considered some statements he had made in public speaking. Having now read his book, Irresistible, I want to consider some of what’s in it and whether it offers a better explanation of his public preaching. There was a strong reaction against Stanley, and the invocation of “Marcionism” over what he was saying. I don’t believe he has embraced full blown Marcionism. Stanley is not claiming there is a separate God in the Old Testament from the God of the New, but at the same time, I can’t go with him in his suggestions that Christianity does not need the Old Testament.
The Mosaic Covenant and the Christian
Stanley is absolutely correct in highlighting the differences between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. He enumerates the long centuries of Judaizing that have plagued the church, including some discontinuities between Old and New Covenants. “Why do some churches have priests?” (p. 90) Stanley points out the temporality between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. (“Jesus had come to put in place something designed to fulfill and replace all that had been in place before.” (p. 77) The types and shadows of the law find their fulfillment in Jesus, as Hebrews explains) and the Mosaic Covenant is brought to an an end by Jesus, as 2nd Corinthians 3, among other places, explains. Stanley also is right in saying that the Old Covenant is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t cherry pick it. (p. 143) (Though this is indeed what many people do with the laws of the Mosaic Covenant.)
He correctly notes the real continuity is between the Abrahamic Covenant (a covenant that preceded the Mosaic) and the New. “The inauguration of a new covenant signaled the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.” (p. 85)
The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian
Earlier in the book, Stanley writes, “I’m not discounting the importance of the Jewish Scriptures. When it comes to Jewish sacred texts, I’m with Jesus, his view is my view.” (p. 69) But the later parts of the book undercut this statement, and indeed, demonstrate a view that is quite different from the one Jesus had. At the core of much of what Stanley worries about is the way in which the Old Covenant can “get in the way” of our evangelizing. (This is my paraphrase of his concern.) In short, if we have to explain why there is so much violence, arcane rules, in short—defend the harmony of both Testaments, it is something that too few Christians can do in a way that convinces non-Christians or new believers. The result is that those who hear the gospel balk at so much of what is in the Bible, while new Christians can end up “de-converted” because the tension has become too great for them to reconcile.
The problem with this approach is that it is not the way Jesus or the apostles dealt with the Jewish Scriptures. Stanley too often conflates Old Covenant with Hebrew Scripture. “Christianity has a compelling, verifiable, historical story to tell. The moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace.” (p. 158) Perhaps Stanley is just being inexact here, not distinguishing enough between Mosaic Covenant and Hebrew Bible, but it does bring the mind what Jesus himself said in Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” While the reference to Moses includes the history of Abraham, the inclusion of “all the Prophets” makes it very likely that Jesus spoke of all 5 books of the Pentateuch and the rest of Israel’s history, too. That is, he leveraged the Jewish Scriptures to demonstrate that he, the Christ, is found throughout. That is even more undeniable by what Luke records later in the chapter. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Lk. 24:45. The Lord Jesus himself shows how even in the law—obsolete as it is—points us to him.
Paul wrote that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully. Without question, there is a lot of unlawful and unwise use of the law today, but Paul also showed how justification by faith is found in the “law” as well, that is, in Moses. But Stanley dismisses this sort of use of the Hebrew Scriptures with such statements as “The Jewish Scriptures describe God’s activity in connection to one particular people group.” (p. 161) This is at odds with apostolic use of the Jewish Scriptures. When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to justification by faith, and that this justification is for both Jew and Gentile (Rom 3:21-23) it is not a description of God’s activity only with the Jews.
How do you know what you know?
A lot of Stanley’s method is to get beyond a mere reliance on things like “the Bible says” in order to convince unbelievers of the truth of the Christian gospel. “As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture, and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people beyond Scripture.” (p. 314) But this is wordplay. How do we know what Jesus said, or what Paul said? We only know it because of what we have written in Scripture. Appealing to eyewitnesses was valid as long as there remained living eyewitnesses. But now we have the record of those eyewitnesses, and to suggest the written record is somehow less valuable, less trustworthy, is dangerous. I can’t help wondering about Stanley’s view of the power of God’s word. That is, in his concern to be relevant to the surrounding culture with the gospel, he seems to dismiss God’s ability to use his word to convict and convert, as if our time and culture are unique. I don’t believe they are, nor do I think the gospel somehow faces longer odds than it ever has. God’s word is still powerful, living and active. We don’t need to accommodate it to the culture, we need to preach it.
Love above all
One of the things Stanley points out in the stark difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant is that love is the guiding principle of our ethic now. How do we treat others? With love. Why do we not murder? Not because the 6th Commandment says not to, but because as followers of Jesus it is wholly unloving to do so. Indeed, Paul exhorts us “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Eph 5:1-2. All of this is true, but if we cast aside the authority of Scripture, what keeps us from applying the love principle not as God defines it, but as we do? In other words, what prevents someone from saying that just as the Hebrew Scriptures have no lasting applicability to believers now, in fact, neither does the New Testament have any such applicability. What matters above all else is love, and if we want to win in the marketplace of ideas, we have to go to what they understand. Much of Western culture is decrying Christianity and the ethic that accompanies it as intolerant and unloving. I see no reason at all for someone who takes Stanley’s logic about the Hebrew Scriptures from doing the same thing with the New Testament. Indeed, there are examples all around of many who have done just that.
Stanley hints at the proper solution to the dilemma he addresses, and that is, to rightly divide the Word; to see what is applicable to Israel, and what is applicable to Christians. But that is not the same as casting aside the Hebrew Bible as no longer relevant. Paul wrote to Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:15) Paul is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures when he says that are able to make wise unto salvation. In other words, there is gospel in the Old Testament.
No one doubts that reconciling the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament presents challenges, but the solution to this is not capitulation, but further study. The faithfulness of God to his people in the Old Testament is a vivid portrait to us of our promise-keeping God. The sentiments expressed in the Psalms, while not all of them are those we can echo, are yet a rich trove of praise to the God whose lovingkindness endures forever. Christians today need encouragement that there is inestimable value in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are as surely God’s Word as the latter 27 books.