I had the great honor of asking Dr. Ed Gallagher (Associate Professor of Christian Scripture, Heritage Christian University) a few questions regarding the role of the Old Testament (OT) in the lives of believers.
My questions are in bold.
Many Christians have the view that the OT focuses on God’s wrath while the NT on God’s love. What, if anything, is wrong with such a picture?
Ed: Well, let’s see, what would the evidence for such a view be, i.e., that the OT is more concerned with wrath and the NT more concerned with love? It’s not too hard to imagine how people who hold this view would support it. There are a lot of pretty specific laws in the OT, 613 of them according to the traditional Jewish reckoning, and some of these laws have pretty severe punishments attached to them—such as, “Whoever curses his father or his mother must be put to death” (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9). God seems concerned in the OT about stuff like what people eat (Lev 11; Deut 14), and whether or not they wear clothes made of multiple materials (Lev 19:19; Deut 21:11). And, of course, he commands the genocide of the Canaanites (Deut 7:2; 20:16–18) and Amalekites (1 Sam 15:3). On the other hand, the New Testament presents a Jesus who is all about love (Mark 12:28:–34) and acceptance (Mark 2:13–17; Luke 7:36–50; 14:21; 19:9–10), against the hypocritical Pharisees who like to exclude people from God’s love (Matt 23:13). In the Old Testament, God is jealous (Exod 34:14); in the New Testament, God is love (1 John 4:7).
This is a caricature. It’s a very shallow view of both Testaments, and for that very reason it is a popular conception. Because it’s shallow, it is easy to understand and doesn’t take much study. It is a lazy version of biblical theology. Again, that partially explains its appeal—people like to be lazy.
Christians—to say nothing of Jews or really any person who cares about reading—should be uncomfortable with this dichotomy between the Testaments because, if for no other reason, it undermines Christian theology. From the first pages of the New Testament, Jesus is presented to us as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises; that’s what the first verse of Matthew tells us. Jesus seems to think that the main point of the Law and Prophets (= Old Testament) is not genocide or exclusion but treating others kindly (Matt 7:12). Jesus tells us that when we read the Old Testament, what we ought to see as most important are the laws for loving God and loving our neighbors (again, Mark 12:28–34). Paul says the same (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). If our reading of the Old Testament shows us a God of wrath more than a God of love, then we are not reading like a follower of Christ. It was not for nothing that C. H. Dodd called the Old Testament “the substructure of New Testament theology.” If we agree with the heavenly voice at the baptism of Jesus that this Jesus is the son of God (cf. Matt 3:17), just what God do we think he’s the son of?
So, our reading of the Old Testament ought to reveal to us a God of love, if we claim to follow Jesus. And such a depiction of God is all over the Old Testament. I hesitate to single out any particular passage, lest readers infer that this limited selection exhausts the Old Testament depiction of God’s love, but let me reiterate that the depiction of God’s love is all over the Old Testament. To be a little more specific, I’ll point to the famous description of God in Exod 34:6–7, a depiction of God echoed in other passages (e.g., Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Another example: all of Hosea is a reflection on God’s love for his people; particularly striking is Hos 11:9, where God turns away from punishing his people for their sins because “I am God and not man … I will not come in rage.” At this moment in Hosea, God’s love overpowers his wrath.
But let’s not be guilty of another caricature. Of course, God does express his wrath in the Old Testament, including in the two passages to which I have pointed: Exod 34:6–7, where he promises to punish the guilty; and Hosea, where God’s promises of punishment for sin are intermixed with his promises of blessing. The same interplay between wrath and love characterizes the New Testament depiction of God—as we should expect, if we think that both Testaments reveal to us the same God. Jesus threatened brutal punishment (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”) on a number of occasions (e.g., Matt 25:30, 46), and Paul emphasized God’s coming wrath in his evangelism (e.g., 1 Thess 1:10; Rom 5:9). And in the New Testament, God can be awfully quick to bring punishment on people, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). “Behold, then, the kindness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22).
There are still issues to be debated, such as how the commands to exterminate the Canaanites and others fit in to our view of God. But just writing off this stuff with a comment like, “Well, that was the Old Testament,” is not going to be very helpful. It is the Old Testament that was in view when the New Testament describes “all scripture” as “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).
What do you feel are key factors in the negative attitude many Christians hold towards the OT (especially in light of a positive view of the NT)?
Ed: I think they have not read the Old Testament or New Testament very closely. If Christians have a negative view of the Old Testament, they have not learned this view from Jesus. Perhaps they have heard a distorted view of Paul’s distinction between the Law and the Spirit, based on a mis-reading of Galatians and Romans. Paul’s view of the Law is something that scholars continue to debate, because Paul says different things about the Law that seem hard to hold together within the same view (e.g., Rom 7:4–13). But Christians should try reading through Romans and Galatians with these questions in mind: Does Paul have a positive view of Old Testament Scripture? Does Paul believe that the Old Testament is God’s word for Christians? Does the Old Testament teach Christians about their God? About God’s Christ? About God’s people? About how God’s people should live? The only conceivable answer to any of these questions is “yes.” So, Christians today who have a negative view of the Old Testament should read their New Testaments more closely, and this reading should encourage them to read their Old Testaments more closely.
It is clear from the outset that the narrative of the OT does not ask our modern sentiment for advice. Women can be portrayed as second-class citizens, slavery is viewed as normal, and genocide of even women and children is ordained by God. What are Christians to make of the offensive parts of the OT? How are we to approach the texts that make many uncomfortable?
Ed: I don’t know. These are difficult questions. I’ll tell you my own approach in these situations. I am committed to the principle laid out in 2 Tim 3:16, but I am not committed to my own interpretations of texts. I am committed to the idea that I’m almost certainly wrong about a good many things, and I just don’t know what those things are. There are passages in Scripture that I find hard to fit into a Christian theological system, so I try not to force them into a procrustean bed of my own theological opinions that could well be wrong. I have read enough of the history of biblical interpretation, including both ancient and modern interpretation, that I know that people throughout the ages have been guilty of this kind of thing, and I probably am, too, more often than I realize. But I try to leave matters open as much as I can, give myself the space to think about things, continue reading Scripture and meditating on it, pray, talk to other believers about it, read scholarly monographs, and perhaps grow a little bit in my understanding. But ultimately I am comfortable with uncertainty, with not knowing how to fit everything together—or, at least, I try to be comfortable with this.
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?
Ed: That’s a good question, one on which Christians have disagreed and continue to disagree since Christianity has been around. Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen (Acts 7), was accused of blaspheming Moses and teaching people to ignore the Law (Acts 6:11–14). I wish I knew what led to these accusations, what Stephen had been saying to make some people think he wanted to change the customs of Moses. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 does not directly address the charge, but he does talk a lot about Moses and it’s pretty clear that he does not think that Moses is unimportant for the Christian. A few chapters later, Christian leaders meet in Jerusalem to determine what requirements to make of Gentiles, and they come up with a pretty minimal list (Acts 15:20), apparently based on Lev 17–18 (see, e.g., here). So, yes, the role of the Mosaic Law for Christians has been a matter of dispute since the earliest days of Christianity, according to our New Testament.
Let’s just say none of it’s binding. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there is no commandment in the Old Testament that applies directly to Christians today, so that the requirements of the Christian faith and godly behavior are found exclusively in the New Testament. Would that mean that the Old Testament is irrelevant? Mē genoito! Surely we do not accept the notion that the New Testament is relevant to us only where it makes commandments. Are the parables of Jesus irrelevant? Are the stories about Jesus in the Gospels or about the apostles in the book of Acts irrelevant to us simply because they do not contain commandments for Christians? That is not how most Christians I know think. Such scriptural passages have a great deal to teach us about the character of our God and about what he wants for his people, even in the absence of direct commands. There are passages in the New Testament with direct commandments that (at least, American Protestant) Christians typically think are not directly binding on people today, such as Jesus’ command to his disciples, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33), or Paul’s instructions for women to wear veils (1 Cor 11). I know that some churches do have their women wear a head-covering, and some people have taken a vow of poverty, but most Christians do not feel compelled to follow these New Testament commands to the letter. But I don’t think Christians would say that these commandments are irrelevant to them, even if they are not directly binding on them. I imagine Christians have too much respect for Jesus and Paul to say that their words are irrelevant, meaningless. Whether or not Christians like what these passages say, whether or not they believe God requires of them the strict observance of these commandments, Christians still read these passages expecting to hear God’s voice, trusting that God will use these inspired texts to train them in the ways of righteousness.
I take it that the same approach would apply to the Old Testament. First of all, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in the Old Testament that cannot be characterized as Law. These are stories about God and his people, or wisdom sayings, or psalms, or prophecies. I don’t see how the Christ-event would have diminished the authority or relevance of these passages in any way. But even the laws that Christians consider non-binding say something about the God of the Bible and his people. What exactly they say is a matter to be determined through careful study with other believers.
For those who want to deepen their understanding of the OT but don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them?
Ed: Don’t try to read through the Bible in a year. Certainly, do not make that an annual reading strategy. Instead, pick a book you want to know more about—whatever book: Genesis, Exodus, 1 Samuel, Jeremiah, whatever—and read through it five times in a row. Read 2–3 chapters per day, and when you finish it, immediately start over and read it again. The first time through, just try to get some basic understanding of the book, like what’s going on, but also be looking for interesting things, like what God is called, or what God wants from people, or a view of the future (eschatology), or whatever. The second time through be looking for these features on a systematic basis. Take notes. (I use Google Docs for this purpose.) The third time, look for other features that have occurred to you, like sins that are condemned, punishments threatened, promises made, etc. After 5 times through the book, decide if you need to go through it again; if not, pick another book and do the same thing. I would not recommend the Psalms or Proverbs for this exercise. Instead, add a Psalm and a chapter of Proverbs to your daily reading, or alternate every other day between these two books as supplemental to reading your main Old Testament book.
At some point you’ll want to read modern books on the Old Testament. I would recommend Christopher Wright as a good author to start with. Gary Anderson would be for more advanced students. You’ll also want to read John Goldingay, Walter Brueggemann, Walter Moberly, Jon Levenson. By the time you’re through with those, you’ll have figured out where to go next.
Thank you Dr. Gallagher for your time!
The author of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity (coauthored with John D. Meade) as well as Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory, Ed Gallagher continues to research and write on the reception of Scripture in early Christianity, and is currently Associate Professor of Christian Scripture at Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama.