Food has no Religion. Food is Religion. Last year, this response from Zomato (a popular restaurant aggregator and food-delivery network in India) to a person who asked for an order to be cancelled because the delivery person belonged to a different faith cooked up a storm on social media and news channels recently. This was followed up by the delivery personnel’s refusal to carry certain food items. The whole country (figuratively) was embroiled in a social media war with people pointing fingers at other religions for their seemingly archaic rules, especially concerning food. I say seemingly because in a country like ours, nothing religious is ever archaic.
The Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit to the point that what we have is what God intended for the Scripture writers to write. In such a scenario, we cannot pick and choose which part of the Scripture is inspired and which isn’t.
While we may sit ensconced in our comfortable chairs thinking that it has nothing to do with us, let me remind you that you are not allowed to “wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19), which is basically all kinds of fabric right now. So, if anything, incidents like these prompt us also to reflect on our own faith in a fast-moving and ever-modernizing world, especially when we look at the Old Testament and the laws and events mentioned in it. Beyond the obvious reference to food—we’ve all wondered if it’s all right to eat the prohibited food items mentioned in Leviticus 11, especially in the context of Peter’s vision in Acts 10—there’s the question of the difficult passages such as God ordering Saul to kill the Amalekites, all of them, and the laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
This topic has not been without its share of controversy at different points in Church history—from Marcionism (which was a blatant heresy) in the Early Church to the debates around Andy Stanley’s book Irresistible in late 2018. Marcionism was based upon the teachings of Marcion who taught that the God of the New Testament is different from the God of the Old Testament, and that Jesus was the Son of the God of the New Testament. By talking about literally two different gods, he ended up with a host of problematic teachings, including the idea that the Old Testament is not authoritative for a Christian. Marcion was so zealously loyal to his idea that he formed his own canon of the Scripture which only consisted of a heavily edited Gospel of Luke (to remove any references to the Old Testament) and ten letters of Paul. He was refuted in writing by Church Fathers and Christian writers like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian and Hippolytus. Eventually, he was expelled from the Church in AD 144. While the more recent high-profile case of Andy Stanley is not associated with claims or actions as radical as Marcion, hints of it can been seen in his call for the believers to unhitch from the Old Testament.
There are two frameworks that can help us in understanding this issue and formulating a stand on it. First, the doctrine of Inspiration requires us to accept that both the Old and New Testaments are equally relevant and inspired. The doctrine of Inspiration refers to “the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers that rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or that resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology). In simple terms, it refers to the fact that the Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit to the point that what we have is what God intended for the Scripture writers to write. In such a scenario, we cannot pick and choose which part of the Scripture is inspired and which isn’t. Either we believe that the whole of the Scripture is inspired or none of it is. There is no place for variations in the degree of inspiration between different passages, books or Testaments as well. We also need to keep in context that the Old Testament is all that Jesus Christ and the First Century Church had as their Scripture, and none of them ever questioned the validity or the inspiration behind it. They merely questioned and attempted to correct the distorted interpretations of the Old Testament that were prevalent in those days among the Jewish people.
Second, we evangelical Christians often reduce the Scripture to a set of rules, to a set of dos and don’ts, to which our lives should conform. Leaders, like Andy Stanley, also talk about the Old Testament as a collection of laws, and try to show how the moral laws given in the Old Testament are not relevant in this day and age. We must understand that the whole of Scripture is to be primarily seen as a narrative, a story, that reveals God’s grand plan of restoring humankind to himself, and not just as a constitution by which to live. And in the context of that story, often a short piece may not provide meaning by itself or it may seem harsh to our modern sensibilities, but it fits in with the larger picture and derives meaning from it.
God’s Word in its totality has not been given to make us feel comfortable and irresistibly attracted towards it, but to convey the truth about God and humankind. It has been given to reveal the starkly dire state of humankind, and the righteous, holy and loving nature of God
In respect to the Old Testament laws, all Israelites were required to participate in the practical requirements of the Old Testament law while the principles behind those practices “revealed a greater righteousness that was rooted in the character of Yahweh himself”, which is further revealed with greater clarity in the New Testament as Paul points out in Colossians 2:17 (I owe this point to my mentor). Those who call for abandoning a chunk of the Old Testament in the present day and age often conflate or isolate practice and principle when it comes to the Old Testament laws. They either confuse the principle with the practice (the relevance of the moral and civil laws) or isolate the principle from the practice (the relevance of the ceremonial laws), often when it comes to New Testament principles that are based on the Old Testament, and locate the ground of the principle in question elsewhere. For example, Gordon Wenham, noted Biblical scholar, points out that the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament symbolised the calling of Israel as a holy and separated nation, separated from the unholy world around them. Interracial marriages were prohibited as it would eventually lead them to compromise the holiness and the sacred calling of the nation of Israel, which became evident later on in the lives of King Solomon and others in the history of Israel. So, while the practice of these stipulations may not be applicable now, the principle remains valid for the New Testament believers. In terms of the ceremonial laws, the letter to Hebrews provides the perfect example. Much of the theology of the letter to the Hebrews is based on the sacrificial laws and practices in the Old Testament, and as such we need to locate the principle there first, and only then the New Testament teachings will be clear to us.
Those who find certain passages in the Old Testament harsh and cite them for highlighting the irrelevance of certain Old Testament principles forget the difficult passages in the New Testament such as Jesus cleansing the temple (John 2) and speaking of destruction on the Judgment Day upon those who do not welcome the disciples or listen to their words (Matthew 10). They also sidestep the fact that God’s Word in its totality has not been given to make us feel comfortable and irresistibly attracted towards it, but to convey the truth about God and humankind. It has been given to reveal the starkly dire state of humankind, and the righteous, holy and loving nature of God. For all it matters, Paul in Romans 1 clearly points out that no human being at any point in human history can claim immunity from judgment on the basis of innocence or ignorance.
So, to answer the question—yes, the Old Testament is relevant. It is relevant because it is God’s Word, and throughout the Old and the New Testaments—every part of the Old and New Testaments—God is working and revealing his plan to redeem and to restore all creation to Himself and reconciling the members of the human family to each another.