One of the many ‘hazards’ of being a professor of the Old Testament (OT) is that one is often called upon to answer questions or field challenges that relate to the matter of the relevance of the OT for “NT” (New Testament) Christians. Some of the questions are sincere, but many of the challenges are dismissive and at times blatantly derisive. The genuine questions are often rooted in an incomplete understanding of the content and/or purpose of the OT. Moreover, these questions are at times related to a misunderstanding or caricature of the OT by those that identify as “NT Christians”. I wish to address the audience posing genuine questions.
Not long ago, Andy Stanley, unleashed a firestorm when he suggested that Christians needed to “unhitch” their faith from the OT. He asserted that Christians have been focussed on the wrong concerns with their questions about the OT. His answer was dismissive towards the questions and challenges and in many ways dismissive towards the OT. Much virtual ink has been spilled in the backlash against Stanley’s view. This essay will not address the uproar around Stanley’s view. Instead it will approach the genuine questions of “NT Christians” from the perspective of the NT, specifically using the structure of 2 Timothy 3:16–17 as my guide:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
One of the dynamics that never ceases to amaze me when I talk to “NT Christians” is the lack of awareness amongst the general populace that for Jesus, Paul and the incipient/early Church the only Scripture they had was the Old Testament.
Unfortunately, we have neither the time nor the space to address the questions completely as this is not a treatise on the subject nor will we delve into principles of biblical hermeneutics that would aid in the “NT Christian’s” ability to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). My intention is to demonstrate how vital the OT is for understanding how one can gain confidence in “walking in God’s ways, keeping his statutes, his commandments and his judgments, and listening to his voice” (Deut 26:17, author’s translation) and doing this with all one’s heart and soul (Deut 26:16).
One of the dynamics that never ceases to amaze me when I talk to “NT Christians” is the lack of awareness amongst the general populace that for Jesus, Paul and the incipient/early Church the only Scripture they had was the OT. Yes, there were reports of and eyewitness accounts from the life and ministry of Jesus, and the epistles were drafted and then circulated amongst the churches, but for the better part of a generation (or more) after Jesus’ death, the term “scriptures” was reserved for the canon of the OT.
And Paul affirms that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful. There is no hesitancy; there is no equivocation. There is no hint of a nuanced understanding of what did or did not constitute Scripture for “NT Christians” as opposed to Scripture that was intended only for the OT people of God. There is no insinuation of a canon within the canon. Paul begins this pronouncement: “All Scripture.” Full stop!
God-breathed and Useful
All Scripture is God-breathed (or, inspired by God). The Scripture (or, the Bible) is acknowledged to be the Word of God. That the OT is the very Word of God is demonstrated in a number of ways. For example, in the Pentateuch Moses is told to “write down” the verbal instructions that God had given him (e.g., Exod 34:27; Deut 31:19). Moreover, the Ten Words (Exod 20:2–17) were originally delivered verbally by God to the Israelites and were later inscribed on tablets of stone by the very finger of God (Exod 31:18). Moreover, the expressions “Thus says the Lord” and “The Word of the Lord came to [the prophet]” make it very clear that the OT prophets were not speaking on their own authority. Later in the NT, Acts 17 recounts for us the “custom” of Paul on his missionary journeys was to find a synagogue and then “reason from the Scriptures” with his audience. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul gratefully acknowledged that the Thessalonians recognised his “text” as the very word of God. And as the Word of God—God who cannot lie or change his mind (Num 23:19; Heb 6:16) and who is perfect in all his ways (Deut 32:4; Ps 18:30) and who is eternal (Deut 33:27; Ps 90:2)—one can further derive the doctrines of the inerrancy and the infallibility (Ps 19:7; 33:4; Rom 3:4) and the eternality (Ps 119:89; Isa 40:8) of the scriptures.
As for its usefulness, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3, “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” as well as Psalm 91:11–12 and Deuteronomy 6:16 when tempted by Satan in the wilderness. The final seven words of 2 Timothy 3:16 describe for us four specific areas in which the usefulness of the scriptures is clearly indicated. Let’s see how these are exemplified in the OT.
The Greek lexeme rendered “teaching” is often translated “doctrine.” This describes the subject matter that is conveyed to a learner. John MacArthur describes this doctrine as the “comprehensive and complete body of divine truth.” So, Paul is hereby affirming that the entirety of the OT can be source material for doctrinal instruction. After recounting the Ten Words in Deuteronomy 5, Moses indicates that the Lord entrusted him to teach the Israelites, and the Israelite adults were then responsible to teach their children in the ordinary course of living life (Deut 6:7). However, unlike the systematic/didactic material in the Pauline epistles, one must often derive the doctrinal teaching through proper exegesis and/or exposition. The “NT Christian” should learn to pray like the Psalmist, “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth” (or, doctrine) (Ps 25:4–5).
Another facet of the OT’s usefulness is related to the aspect of bringing conviction of sin. Many would naturally associate this type of material with the Prophets. Undoubtedly, this is a mainstay of the prophetic corpus. For example, Hosea highlights the Israelites’ unfaithfulness for their syncretism in melding the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal (see Hosea 2), but he also issues a call for repentance (Hosea 6:1–3 and 14:1–3). Moreover, this characteristic is famously portrayed in the confrontation of the prophet Nathan when he exposed David’s sin of adultery and murder. When these, and similar prophetic narratives and/or reprimands, are properly exposited and understood, the “NT Christian” should appreciate that they, too, have been guilty of violating God’s commands and are in need of repentance.
That the OT is the very Word of God is demonstrated in a number of ways. For example, in the Pentateuch Moses is told to “write down” the verbal instructions that God had given him (e.g., Exod 34:27; Deut 31:19).
With the previous attribute of usefulness, the offence of the guilty person required repentance, a complete change of direction in one’s life. The functional aspect of correction is less radical and requires that one simply modify his behaviour (or attitudes, etc.) or amend her ways. Rather than a 180-degree change of direction, the individual in need of correction is generally going in the right way but is still off course to some lesser degree. Again, the Psalms provide the “NT Christian” with an exemplar of how this works: “Do good to your servant according to your word, Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees” (Ps 119:65–68). Here the Psalmist affirms that he had gone astray, but the affliction/correction offered by the Lord had helped him make the adjustment necessary to obey completely.
For Training in Righteousness
Finally, Paul asserts that Scripture is useful for training in righteousness. The Greek lexeme here speaks of “rearing and guiding a child toward maturity.” The practical instructions on how to accomplish this task are laid out by Moses (Deut 6). In this context, the Ten Words and the exposition of the same in Deuteronomy 7–26 served as the body of truth from which each Israelite family was to be taught. Moses anticipates a time when the children would ask: “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” (Deut 6:20). In this “teachable moment” the parent was to rehearse Israel’s history and the gracious works and gifts of the Lord and then explain that the keeping of the Law would teach them to fear the Lord. As the next generation lived in the fear of the Lord, they would prosper and be kept alive. And that obedience would be evidence of their righteousness (Deut 6:21–25).
Likewise, the Psalmist asks and answers the question, “How can one be trained in righteousness?” In Psalm 119:9–12 we read, “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees.”
God has Spoken
God has spoken “through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Heb 1:1). For this reason, to call Scripture the Word of God is quintessentially fitting. The question is: “Are we listening to his voice”? (Deut 26:17). If the “NT Christian” disregards the OT and considers it useless (not useful), then this Believer is not listening to the overwhelming majority of what God has said.
There are those who have suggested that only those commands or teachings in the OT that are repeated or reappropriated or “modified” in the NT are valid for the “NT Christian”. My question to those who think along those lines is this: “If ‘NT Christians’ had the scriptures, why would Jesus or the Apostles bother repeating everything that had continuing validity?” True, some commands and instructions were repeated as Jesus and the Apostles exposited the OT or applied an OT principle to a first-century situation, but that does not suggest that the rest of the commands or teachings of the OT were not considered to be important. Moreover, the NT could not possibly address every situation a believer would face, but in many cases this would be unnecessary since the OT instructions and/or narratives had set a precedent or provided an exemplar for how the child of God should react to or behave when faced with many of life’s challenges.
I believe that it is fair to say that the NT is rooted in and grows out of the OT. If that is true, then to disregard (or to “unhitch” one’s faith from) the OT is to deprive the NT of its roots and source. Likewise, when a “NT Christian” is uncertain about what it means to “walk in God’s ways” (Deut 26:17), and there are no explicit instructions in the NT regarding her/his situation, s/he can gain confidence with respect to how a Believer should live many times by reading the OT narratives of the lives of God’s people—the saints of old.
Looking back at the final phrase (the result clause) of 2 Timothy 3:16–17, one could reasonably conclude that if one is not engaging with all Scripture, one would not be thoroughly equipped for every good work. That is, the OT—the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44–45)—is a necessary part of the training manual for “NT Christians”. As noted earlier, “NT Christians” should not hesitate to seek instruction from the OT but rather they can have confidence that there is not a canon within the canon which needs to be discerned before they apply OT teaching to their lives or ministry. So the “NT Christian” can have confidence in pursuing their life with God and exercising their gifts in ministry for the sake of God’s people and for his glory—doing this with all their heart and soul.