Shouldn’t Christians spend more time reading the New Testament vs. reading the Old Testament??? Though I do not think this type of thinking is particularly problematic here at CPC, it is commonplace (if not prevalent) in the cultural Christianity I have been critiquing over the last several months. You or I might never have said, “The New Testament is more important, applicable, etc. than the Old Testament,” but most of us can admit a point in our lives when, at the very least, we leaned in that direction. Thus, you and I must consider this question as we rethink how cultural Christianity has influenced us and those around us over the years.
The gravest error in devaluing the Old Testament is to state or imply that the Old Testament was “for them” (Israelites / Jews), not “for us” (Christians). In large part, this position is a reaction to what are perceived as the harsh, stringent aspects of the Mosaic Law, as well as the graphic judgments and oracles later uttered by the prophets. And from a subjective, human-centered perspective, this position is understandable. How can two such seemingly dissimilar gospels (the OT gospel vs. the NT gospel) be harmonized? How can the law given at Mount Sinai be harmonized with the coming of Christ, Love incarnate, full of grace and truth? I understand how new / young / immature believers would struggle with such questions and, to some degree, sympathize with them. If they have never “endured sound doctrine” (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4), I see why, after reading Paul’s epistles, they would struggle to find benefit in reading the OT law. Still, despite the sense of pity I (or any other believer) might feel, such people stand in a precarious predicament, and I cannot “let them off the hook” by failing to confront their position that the NT is more valuable than the OT. To do so would be unloving, and truly un-Christian.
Sadly, over the years many churches, both true and false, have taught the error that somehow the NT is more important, applicable, valuable (?) than the OT. Sometimes they have done so explicitly; other times, implicitly. Many (most?) cultural Christians hold this conviction, albeit in varying degrees. In attempts to be loving, gracious, or compassionate to family members or friends who are professing Christians, many well-intended believers often “let this issue slide.” But is that really what God calls us to do, to show love at the expense of truth?
Here is a hypothetical scenario. Susan, a true believer, knows Stanley quite well. Stanley professes faith, attends church, and exhibits moral integrity. At some point, Stanley says to Susan, “I love reading my Bible – the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters! But the Old Testament – with its doom, gloom, death, judgment, and the long list of laws – I just don’t think that applies to me today.” Susan decides not to say anything because of a long-standing friendship with Stanley. Later, Susan says to another friend, “Stanley thinks the Old Testament doesn’t apply to Christians today. I don’t agree but know Stanley is still a good Christian.” But what Susan did not realize is that Stanley did not just make a statement of preference; Stanley admitted to being a heretic! Strong language, I know, but bear with me to the end of this post…
The first major figure in Church History who openly advocated abandoning the OT in favor of the NT was Marcion (A.D. c.85~160). More telling than his complete abandonment / rejection of OT, however, was the reason why. (As a side note, Marcion selectively discarded portions of the NT as well, as did Founding Father Thomas Jefferson in The Jefferson Bible.) For years, Marcion sought to harmonize the message of the OT with the message of the NT but struggled to do so. (See the second paragraph of this post for reasons why). When his own intellect failed to provide the satisfactory conclusion he sought, he took the next logical step and invented his own solution, which was to declare the Creator God of the OT – whom he viewed as mean, vindictive, and cruel – to be altogether different from the redemptive God of the NT, incarnate in Christ Jesus – whom he viewed as loving, compassionate, and merciful. Marcion’s views slowly spread in Christian circles for the next couple centuries, and many professing Christians were led astray. During that time, the true Church passionately refuted Marcionism and, in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicaea, overwhelmingly rejected it as heresy.
Forgive the history lesson, but I found it necessary because you need how truly dangerous and destructive is the idea that the OT “doesn’t matter, apply, etc.” to Christians today. If you know anyone who holds this position, do not simply write it off as immaturity or “no big deal.” Instead, confront the person lovingly and boldly and explain that such thinking is, in fact, heretical. (You don’t have to say it’s heretical…just say it’s wrong!) Yet I refer to heresy again here because heresy, by definition, puts a person outside the Church. In other words, a person believing or teaching heresy cannot rightly call himself or herself a Christian!
So, do I truly believe there are committed Marcionites running around in our churches? Well, no, they would not describe themselves as Marcionite heretics… But yes, they do exist! Many cultural Christians, including church attenders, are functional Marcionites. They say they believe in the God of the Bible (even if they do not really read or understand the Bible), embrace and promote biblical morality (superficially similar to biblical teaching but, at the core, characterized by works-righteousness), and can give a factually accurate summary of the gospel (that Jesus died on the cross to forgive sins and rose from the dead). However, it is not those things they say or do (see the previous sentence) that betray them as wolves in sheep’s clothing, it is what they believe.
The few previous paragraphs might make it sound as though I am building to a condemnatory conclusion. I am not! As I said at the beginning of this post, there are indeed true believers who, for various reasons, might unwittingly slip into Marcionism at some point in their lives. Yet that is why it is all the more incumbent upon us to confront such a dangerous and destructive error. Is not this the very thing James encourages at the conclusion of his epistle?
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. ~ James 5:18-19
Brothers and sisters, do not treat it lightly when someone downplays the OT!!!
Admittedly, what I have written thus far is only the first part of my answer to the original question. I have only highlighted the extreme position of those who would say, “Yes, Christians should read the NT more than the OT.” Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand the extreme position (heresy) of Marcionism before examining the “gray areas” more fully.
Over-emphasizing the “positive” aspects of the NT and de-emphasizing (i.e. rejecting) the “negative” aspects of the OT pushed Marcion down the path of heresy, ultimately leading him to deny the same God in whom he so vehemently professed faith! Or, to put it another way, when Marcion divorced the OT from the NT, he (intellectually) divorced the Trinity itself! Scary stuff, isn’t it? Yet, how much more alarming is it that cultural Christianity, at one point or another, has conditioned so many, even some of us, to adopt a “soft” Marcionism?
In closing, and as a bridge into next week, here is the moral of the story: de-emphasizing or over-emphasizing any part of the Bible at the expense of another is eternally dangerous and destructive. Tampering with Scripture (“picking and choosing”) is not permissible for any true believer. Is this not the final warning God gives in his book, the Bible?
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. ~ Rev. 22:18-19
May God impress that warning upon all our hearts!
My apologies for no posts the last two weeks! I decided not to post anything two weeks ago, thinking I could do so the next week, only to end up quite sick last week! Barring any providential hindrances, I will return to weekly posts for the foreseeable future.