Below you will find an interview I had the great honor of conducting with Old Testament scholar and author Dr. John Walton whose NIV commentary on Genesis I personally and enthusiastically recommend. The interview has to do with the relationship between the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) for Christians.
Many Christians are in the fog concerning the relationship of the OT with that of the New. What are your own thoughts on this? How are believers to think and talk about how the OT relates to the New?
John: The Old Testament is the essential introduction to the plans and purposes of God as he initiated them in creation and covenant. The New Testament brings new focus to the Old as God’s plans and purposes take shape in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus and the establishment of the Church. They work together to unfold God’s plans and purposes.
Something being voiced more and more inside Christian circles (as well as outside) is the issue of violence in the Hebrew Bible. Some “solve” this by ignoring such texts and focusing solely on the God of the NT, while others embrace the violence in the text by saying that God is sovereign to do as he pleases. What is your response to these two very different reactions?
John: The consequences of sin result in a violent world. In whatever way we explain God’s administration of the world and his sovereign action in it, justice at times calls for stamping out injustice. Having said that, I believe that we misunderstand some of the actions of God reported in the Old Testament, so the question must also be addressed with exegetical rigor of the sort my son and I tried to provide in The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (IVP, 2017). Under no circumstances are we justified in being dismissive of OT texts or in concluding that somehow Jesus and the NT repackaged an unacceptable view of deity.
Besides “the texts of terror” noted above, why do you think a great number of bible-reading Christians prefer the NT to the OT? What are some long-term effects of neglecting the OT?
John: I think that some Christians have neglected the OT because of a truncated view of their faith, that being stated in its baldest terms: “As long as I get eternal life, the rest doesn’t matter.” It is a mistake for our faith to be focused on our benefit package rather than on the privilege of being in relationship with God. I illustrate this by suggesting that many Christians (especially American ones) think of their encounter with Christ in terms of driving along the highway of life in their luxury sedan, seeing Jesus by the side of the road, and inviting him into their car as a passenger to guide them to a successful and prosperous life and eternity in heaven. I believe that it would be more accurate that in the encounter with Christ along life’s road, we suddenly become aware that we are not driving a luxury sedan, but a broken down, rusty junker. We immediately abandon it by the side of the road and follow Jesus to the train, of which he is the conductor, as we become participants in God’s plans and purposes, denying our own. The long term effects of neglecting the Old Testament is a defective view of God.
For those who want to deepen their understanding of the OT but don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them? In your own Christian walk have you always had a good “relationship” with the OT?
John: Besides starting by reading the Old Testament, most Christians need a basic primer on how to read the Old Testament. There are numerous accessible and affordable tools to help people do that. Many could be mentioned, but I have tried to offer such guidance in books such as Old Testament Today (Zondervan) and The Bible Story Handbook (Crossway), as well as my Old Testament Theology for Christians (IVP) and the Lost World series (IVP).
Being that so many imperatives in the OT are not regarded as binding, how is the OT still relevant today? How can one even tell what’s still binding for Christians today and what’s not?
John: Every piece of literature is culturally situated, and that is true of the Bible as well. The important question is how this culturally situated literature takes on its role as God’s revelation to us. That requires an informed and carefully applied methodology. Again, this must be understood in light of what the Old Testament is and how it works. I address that at length in my Old Testament Theology mentioned above and will do so at length in the forthcoming Lost World of Torah.
Thank you Dr. Walton for your time!
John H. Walton has a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College in Hebrew and Cognate Studies (Old Testament and Ancient Near East). He is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School where he has taught for seventeen years. Dr. Walton has published nearly 30 books, among them commentaries, reference works, text books, scholarly monographs, and popular academic works. He was the Old Testament general editor for the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (NIV, NKJV), and is perhaps most widely known for the “Lost World” books (including The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve which has a contribution by N. T. Wright, and The Lost World of the Flood). He is in demand as a speaker at colleges, seminaries, universities, churches, conferences and seminars across the US and around the world. His areas of expertise include the importance of the ancient Near East for interpreting the Old Testament as well as the dialogue between science and faith. He and his wife, Kim have three grown children, all pursuing academic careers.