Discipleship and the Old Testament

By Dr. James Spencer

Published November 1st, 2020

            In Irresistible, Andy Stanley suggests, “The Christian faith doesn’t need to be propped up by the Jewish Scriptures.”[1]  In my most generous reading of Stanley’s work, I appreciate his pastoral insight regarding the challenges the Old Testament poses within a post-Christian society though I’m not precisely sure how it is that the New Testament fairs much better.  In general, however, I find Irresistible to wrongheaded and uncareful. While I sympathize with his desire to refocus on the resurrection and on “what love requires,” it seems to me that the Old Testament is crucial not only to understanding “what love requires of you,” but “what God requires of you.”[2]   
            Our discipleship is incomplete if we do not understand the Old Testament Scriptures.  As Trueman nots, “As our reading, our sermons, and our times of corporate worship neglect and, sometimes, simply ignore the Old Testament, we can expect a general impoverishment of church life and, finally, a total collapse of evangelical Christendom.”[3]  It may well be true that the apostles “never claimed their faith was based on the integrity of the documents themselves.”[4]  It is faith in Christ that saves.  Yet, Christ’s resurrection was intelligible to the apostles because of the Old Testament.  The whole shape of the gospel is informed and given nuance by the Old Testament even as it is rooted in the bodily resurrection of Christ.  The book of Hebrews, which Stanley refers to at several points, draws heavily on Israel’s sacrificial system that is described at various points in the Old Testament.  Without the expectations of the Old Testament, Jesus is less intelligible.

            Whatever biblical interpretation Stanley advances, his argument is less driven by a nuanced reading of the scriptures than it is by pastoral concerns in a post-Christian age.  As such, many of the underlying issues Stanley raises deserve further discussion.  We cannot abandon, for instance, the millennial generation.  We must stand as faithful witnesses in a post-Christian world.  As significant as such matter are, it will not serve the body of Christ to set aside (whether functionally or formally) the revelation of God to accommodate those for whom the Old Testament has become an obstacle.  So, in contrast to Stanley, I would argue that the solution is not to do less with the Old Testament, but to do more.  The solution is not to set aside what we don’t understand, but to commit ourselves to understanding with greater depth and nuance.    
            Such depth and nuance will likely require us to approach the Old Testament on its own terms without ignoring the interpretive frameworks offered to us by the writers of the New Testament.  As I have suggested elsewhere, “Respecting and studying the discrete witness of the Old Testament cannot be separated from the canonical task of describing the Triune God as he is presented in both the Old and New Testament.”[5]  We cannot simply read the Old or New Testaments in isolation and think that we will get a complete picture of God.  Without a complete picture, we can be sure we will not offer a comprehensive witness.  
            So, how might we approach the Old Testament with an eye to discipleship?  Core to allowing the Old Testament to form us into disciples is a right understanding of the more basic relationship between discipleship and the Scriptures.  Becoming a disciple “is less about identifying key propositional truths than inhabiting the Bible’s symbolic universe.  It involves our ability to indwell the richly patterned story-world of the canon, to imagine the world that Scripture imagines and to mirror in our lives the reality that Scripture mirrors…”[6]  When we seek to “imagine the world” that the Old Testament imagines, much of what might seem strange becomes less so.  Indeed, the Old Testament offers new imaginings that might ultimately inform the way we interact in the world.  
            Consider, for instance, the initial chapters of Genesis and the way in which they might shape the way disciples “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”[7]  First, we are invited into the narrative world of the creation account which serves “as an artistic, literary representation of creation” which reveals a God who is not only sovereign, but wise and benevolent.  
            God is clearly sovereign as he speaks the world into existence without any from of resistance.  Similarly, his declaration of the world’s goodness is a judgment reserved for God who stands above the created world.  Yet sovereignty without wisdom would not necessarily result in a well-ordered world with harmony sufficient to allow for God’s rest (Gen. 2:1-3).  Sovereignty and wisdom alone, however, do not guarantee that the world God created is fit for human flourishing.  As such, God’s benevolence is displayed throughout the first three chapters of Genesis.  Whether it be the creation of humanity in His image (1:26-27), the divine blessing for humankind to be “fruitful and multiply” (1:28), the gift of the land’s produce (1:29-30), the provision of a helper to allow humanity to fulfill its destiny and to have communion (2:18-25), or the lush garden where humankind can enjoy God’s presence (2:8-17; 3:8), Genesis takes pains to showcase the myriad ways in which God seeks humanity’s good.  
            Sadly, in Genesis 3:1-7, the human couple come to believe that the beautiful setting in which they have been placed is less paradise than prison.  They doubt God’s benevolence thinking that he has giving them all the good gifts of the garden in order to keep them from under his thumb (Gen 3:1-5).  Led astray by serpent, the woman rejects God’s wisdom opting to trust her own perception and judgment as she determines for herself what is “good” (Gen 3:6).  As the woman and her husband eat the forbidden fruit, they chose to disobey God’s command, ignore his sovereignty, and tule themselves.   The impetus to “be like God” is repeated throughout Genesis and much of the rest of the Old Testament as humankind, whether from a place of ignorance or rebellion, seeks advantages that will bring security, power, and prominence apart from God (cf. Gen 6:1-5; 11:1-9; Exod 1:8-22).  
            It is within this story of creation that God’s covenant with Israel is made intelligible.  Humankind has lost something of unsurpassed worth by distrusting and disobeying God.  Disobedience not only throws creation into turmoil (Gen 3:14-24), but distorts humankind’s knowledge of God.  Through covenant, God seeks to correct humanity’s understanding of Him. As Walton argues, “If his [God’s] nature were concealed, obscured, or distorted, an honest relationship would be impossible.  In order to clear the way for this relationship, then, God has undertaken as a primary objective a program of self-revelation.  He want people to know him.  The mechanism that drives this program is the covenant, and the instrument is Israel.  The purpose of the covenant is to reveal God.”[8]  Surely the covenant also has a redemptive trajectory, but, particularly with regard to the Old covenant, what we find is the establishment of an explicit relationship between Israel and God in which Israel is intended to learn who God is so as to be a witness to the nations which will see that God is the one true God through his relationship with Israel (Exod 19:5-6; Deut 28:9-10; 1 Kgs 8:41-43).
            After the exodus from Egypt, Israel needs to learn what it means to be the people of God as opposed to becoming the new Egypt.  Whereas Pharaoh, who is ignorant of God’s blessing through Israel under Joseph (Exod 1:8), has little choice but to build an empire on the backs of the bruised.  As McConville notes, “In Pharaoh’s mind, the world threatens his order with war and sedition, and this leads inexorably to a policy of repression and cruelty.”[9]  Without God, Pharaoh is left with his own limited power, resources, and wisdom to sustain his nation.  Israel, by contrast, need no resort “repression and cruelty” because the nation is empowered by the wise, benevolent, sovereign creator of all things.  Israel has the opportunity to live differently than the rest of the nations because God has revealed Himself to them.
            As we look at the Old Testament texts, then, we would do well to remember that the primary task of Old Testament theology involves “presenting what the Old Testament says about God as a coherent whole.”[10]  As we read certain aspects of the Old Testament from the perspective of discipleship, then, we are not primarily looking for abstract principles or rules for living.  We are seeking to understand who God is and in so doing to “discern how our lives may be possessed by unacknowledged stories that make our ability to live in gratitude for the gift of our existence impossible.”[11]  In other words, as we read and discover in greater depth the character of God and what it means for us to walk with Him, we will begin to unearth the buried assumptions about life and its givens that hinder us from seeing and proclaiming God faithfully.
            What might this look like?  Consider the Ten Commandments.  While there is certainly room for analyses comparing and contrasting the laws recorded in the biblical text to other ancient and modern legal codes, such studies generally downplay the theological grounding on which biblical law was founded.  Whatever value there might be in examining biblical law to inform modern-day systems of justice, we must not forget that biblical law assumes God and the empowerment he provides.  As such it is unlikely that “the ideal or model community toward which they [biblical laws] point can inspire contemporary efforts to achieve a society—if not a world—in which the basic welfare interests of all, even those of low degree, are protected and affirmed through appropriate public policies and legislation.”[12]  Approaches that read Old Testament law solely as a legal code rather than as a set of God-given statutes miss the theological context out of which Old Testament law arises.  The principles of biblical law, in other words, will not produce a more just society when implemented apart from God and his theological empowerment, which allows humans to live “not…by bread alone…but…by every word that comes form the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3).  Truth be told, even when paired with a clear understanding of God and His ongoing presence, the Law was incapable of producing a more just society due to human sin (Rom 8:3).  A more just world that stands apart from God’s redemption in Christ is still a broken, fallen world subject to sin and incapable of glorifying God.  While it is not wrong to pursue justice, we have to be realistic about what such efforts can and cannot produce.
            Rather than reading the law simply as principles to be put into practice, we can read the law as revealing the “Bible’s symbolic universe,” which will allow us to “indwell the richly patterned story-world of the canon, to imagine the world that Scripture imagines and to mirror in our lives the reality that Scripture mirrors…”[13]  Why is it that God tells Israel not to steal, murder, commit adultery, offer false testimony, or covet?  While we should not rule out the fact that these actions run counter to some general notion of justice, that perspective is, at least in part, conditioned on the traditional division of the Ten Commandments into those concerning God (Exod 20:2-7; Deut 5:7-11) and those concerning the relations between neighbors (Exod 20:12-17 ; Deut 5:16-21) with the Sabbath command (Exod 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15) standing as transitional.  Setting aside this artificial structure, we can more readily recognize the theological underpinning of all the commandments.  
            The God “who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the place of slavery” (Deut 5:6; cf. Exod 20:2) now empowers Israel to live differently in the world so that they offer a faithful witness to God.  To dishonor father and mother is to deny the authorities God has placed in one’s life.  When we murder, we take on the mantle of decision about who lives and who dies that rightfully belongs to God.  Adultery represents an act against a covenant made before God.  Theft suggest that God’s provision is insufficient and that God is somehow incapable of caring for his people.  Offering false testimony denies God’s presence and represents him as impotent to deal with falsehood and injustice.  Finally, coveting questions God’s wisdom to distribute gifts as he sees fit.  In desires what God has given to another, covetousness also becomes idolatry because it “puts other persons or things in the position that should be occupied by God alone”[14]
            If we set aside the Old Testament with all its strangeness and oddities, we will ultimately miss opportunities to be strange and odd in the world.  Approaching the Old Testament as a disciple means that we recognize it as part of the word given by the Master.  We come to it in an effort to cultivate a way of being in the world that will showcase the God we serve.  As we develop our understanding of God from the Old Testament text, we expect to be changed for the better, to undergo a transformation.  So, even if “the Old Testament is one of the primary stumbling blocks for non- and post-Christians,” the solution is not to distance ourselves from the Old Testament, but to draw it close allowing it to change the way we live out our faith before “non- and post-Christians” (not to mention everyone else).[15]  In doing so, we will find a God whose will is set on the restoration of all that was lost as we see in Isaiah 49:6: “Is it too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  May we be captivated, shaped, and transformed by our heavenly Father as we come under the full counsel of his word in the Old and New Testaments. 



            [1] Andy Stanley, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), chap 22, Kindle. 
            [2] Ibid., chap. 19, Kindle.
            [3] Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Fearn: Mentor, 2004), chap 3, Kindle.
            [4] Stanley, Irresistible, chap 12, Kindle.
            [5] James Spencer, “Introduction” in Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology (Eugene: Pickwick, 2018), xvii.
            [6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 2016), 194.
            [7] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 23.
            [8] John H. Walton, Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
            [9] J. G. McConville, God and Earthly Power: An Old Testament Political Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 2006), 52.
            [10] Walther Zimmerli, Old Testament Theology in Outline (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1978), 12.
            [11] Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 29.
            [12] Richard H. Hiers, Justice and Compassion in Biblical Law (New York: Continuum, 2009), 218.
            [13] Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, 194.
            [14] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVaristy, 2004), 306
            [15] Stanley, Irresistible, chap. 12, Kindle.

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