Friday, May 11, 2018

Why Andy Stanley's Statement on the Old Testament Concerns Me . . .

Andy Stanley rocked the internet this week by saying that Christians ought to “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. No doubt a great many who heard this were relieved. There’s a lot of gnarly stuff in the Old Testament that people struggle with (I should know. I’m an Old Testament professor whose students line up to see me during office hours.) Stanley’s pastoral motivation for making the statement is commendable. He has watched countless people leave the faith because they could not swallow the Old Testament or its God. His hope was to win them back by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. But unhitching from the Old Testament is not the right solution.

Stanley is not the first person to talk this way. Not long after the resurrection a leader arose in the early church who felt the same way. His name was Marcion. Marcion saw a strong distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament. He rejected the Old Testament and even those New Testament books that he thought were “too Jewish.”

And he was rightly condemned as a heretic early in the 3rd century.

But why?

What’s so important about the Old Testament?

Stanley concedes that it is inspired, and that it gives us the “backstory” so that we can understand the New Testament. That in itself should be enough to motivate us to keep reading it. The New Testament makes little sense without it. But the relevance of the Old Testament goes deeper than that.

New Testament authors consistently use the Old Testament as their primary source for ethical reflection. In fact, they appeal to the Old Testament far more often than they appeal to things Jesus said while he was on earth, not just for the backstory, but to guide their behavior.  In other words, they are not just reminiscing about the “bad ole’ days” when they cite the Old Testament. It remains their authority. It tells them how to live after the resurrection.

Stanley made his appeal for Christians to “unhitch” from the Old Testament while preaching on Acts 15. This is a grand irony. Acts 15 narrates the proceedings from the first church “council” meeting. Leaders have gathered to figure out what to do now that there are Gentiles who want to become disciples. Do they have to convert to Judaism first? Or can they follow Jesus as Gentiles? Conversion requires circumcision, but these folks have already received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which complicates matters. The Spirit is a sign of covenant membership, but these are not Jews, at least not yet. What to do?

James stands up in the meeting and delivers the clincher. He quotes Amos 9 (which is, if you don’t know, in the Old Testament). It’s a mic drop moment -- not because he has just undermined the Old Testament Law, but because he demonstrated from the Old Testament itself that Gentiles can be considered covenant members without first converting to Judaism. The council is unanimous – no circumcision necessary for Gentiles. Still, they issue 4 directives for Gentile Christians – no eating food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals, and no sexual immorality – each of which is associated with pagan worship practices. The reason given for these directives is the law of Moses (Acts 15:21). Did you catch that? The book of Acts demonstrates precisely the point that Stanley's statement seemed to deny, namely, the law of Moses retains relevance for both Jewish and Gentile believers.

Reading it well can be tricky. Each cultural situation requires us to re-engage with it, asking new questions as we seek to be faithful to the covenant. But what we cannot do is relegate it to the archives as something of merely antiquarian interest.

So before you head out and buy your copy of the new “Perforated Bible” (which allows you to remove the parts you don’t need), wait first and read the New Testament. You’ll discover that the Old Testament cannot be so easily dismissed.


Update (3/29/19): Stanley requested an interview with Dr. Michael Brown in July 2018 in which he clarified what he meant by his controversial statement. I can now better appreciate what Stanley was trying to do. That is, Stanley sees the early church leaders unhitching from the wrong worldview they had developed, a worldview associated with the Old Testament law that had misunderstood it at some level. The evidence of this worldview is Peter's unwillingness to enter a Gentile home before his vision in Acts 10. That mistaken worldview was in conflict with the new covenant and it was time to let that go. Stanley doesn't want to get rid of the Old Testament altogether. He affirms that the Old Testament, when properly understood, is essential and enriching to the Christian life. He insists that we should take our cues from Paul and Jesus for how to read it.

Stanley's primary burden is to introduce people to the reality of the resurrected Jesus first, before trying to make sense of the Old Testament. He wants them to set aside any baggage they have about the Old Testament that prevents them from entering into a relationship with Jesus. So the Old Testament is not discarded, but put on hold temporarily. I'm relieved that we have more common ground than it seemed at first. I've updated this post in light of Brown's interview, which was recently shared with me, but I'm not deleting it because Stanley's original statement still concerns me. I hope I've articulated an important corrective to the growing sentiment among Christians today that the Old Testament is irrelevant.

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