Shouldn’t Christians read the NT more than the OT??? Last week, I dealt with the extreme form of a “Yes” answer to this question, a heresy called Marcionism. (Click here for Part 1.) But on a more practical level, very few cultural Christians discard or reject the entire OT. Instead, they adopt subtler forms of minimizing the OT – agreeing the OT is part of the canon of Scripture, likely acknowledging the inspiration and inerrancy of the OT, but not holding the OT in the same esteem as the NT. At first glance, this “soft Marcionism” might seem like a minor problem, just a difference in preference. However, I believe this “soft Marcionism,” which is so prevalent in cultural Christianity, is even more dangerous, precisely because of its subtler deception.
At this point, it will help to explain further the origins of what I have labeled cultural Christianity. Again, by “cultural Christianity,” I mean the form(s) of Christianity that developed within American culture, that enjoyed the greatest influence over the last 100~150 years (particularly in the “Bible-belt”), and that fall into the secular world’s stereotype of Christianity in general. From the mid-to-late 1800’s, two cataclysmic events reshaped American Christianity: (1) the Second Great Awakening (SGA) and (2) the spread of Dispensationalism. Those two events threw American churches into an ecclesiastical and theological “wild West” and detached many evangelicals from their theological moorings.
Unsurprisingly, the cultural changes in 19th century America during westward expansion affected not only individuals, but most churches as well. As individualism (which idealized the independent, self-made man) began to supersede the longstanding corporate mindset (which emphasized a life lived in community, congregation, etc.), the “pioneer spirit” led many to jettison both generational wisdom and confessional theology (i.e. theology summarized in a confession of faith). Leading figures of the Second Great Awakening, with their “New Methods” (e.g. Charles Finney), valued conversion experiences over ongoing discipleship, manipulative evangelistic techniques over sound biblical preaching, and the drama of tent revivals over the regular rhythms of Sabbath observance. In other words, much of American Christianity abandoned the time-tested teaching(s) of the Reformation for the newfound thrill of “my experience of Christ,” and pioneering lone rangers of theology garnered greater followings than faithful, confessional pastors.
As a quick editorial qualifier, I am neither denying that many genuine conversions occurred during the Second Great Awakening nor am I stating that dispensationalists cannot be true believers (many are!). Additionally, I must admit the role these events / movements played in catalyzing the American Church’s commitment to missions. In hindsight, though, I believe the ways in which they rebranded and repackaged Christianity did more harm than good.
Again, unsurprisingly, the seeds sown by the Second Great Awakening brought forth fruit in both individuals and churches. The long-term consequences of the Second Great Awakening were to undermine the Church’s authority and to denigrate the value of theology. Personal convictions, emotions, and experience (e.g. “my personal walk”) became the final authority for most professing Christians, thus eliminating the need for Church leadership, teaching, doctrine, etc.
In turn, this provided fertile ground for new spinoffs of Christianity. Nearly all major Christian cults that exist today (e.g. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, etc.) emerged in the decades following the Second Great Awakening. Denominations considered borderline heretical before the Second Great Awakening (e.g. Pentecostal, charismatic, “Free Will,” etc.) were accepted into the American evangelical fold and enjoyed unprecedented growth. Countless other denominations emerged from the post-SGA ecclesiastical and theological “wild West” as well. Even the Presbyterian Church in the USA (founded 1789) found itself splintered into four denominations at the beginning of the Civil War (1861).
This decentralization and destabilization of the American Church as whole, combined with the now dominant individualism in American culture, opened the door for a “new evangelicalism.” By the end of the 19th century, many Christians sought a new theology that could unite the Church’s splintered factions against the growing threats of modernism and liberalism (topics for another time). This void was largely filled by a “soft Marcionism” called dispensationalism, which ironically did not emerge in America but was imported from the Plymouth Brethren Movement in England.
Dispensationalism was the brainchild of John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren. (For some helpful resources on dispensationalism, click here.) The most significant theological innovation of Darby was to shatter Scripture’s unity (and redemptive history) by dividing biblical history into divergent dispensations, in which God saved believers in different dispensations by different means. Those living from Adam to Noah were saved in one way; from Abraham to Moses in another; from Moses to Jesus by keeping the law and offering animal sacrifices; and in the NT Church, by grace through faith. Darby’s different means of salvation, in turn, forced believers of different dispensations into different kingdoms. On the one hand, believing OT Israelites / Jews (e.g. Moses, Joshua, Ruth, etc.) were to receive the Promised Land with a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem (by which Darby meant the physical, geographical area in the Middle East). NT Christians, on the other hand, were to receive a “spiritual kingdom” in the new heavens and the new earth (David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, etc. not invited!). Same God, same Bible (or so Darby claimed) but different people, different eras, different promises, different benefits – those were the lessons of dispensationalism.
If those things do not sound familiar, how about these? The new Temple in Jerusalem, with a renewed sacrificial system; the concept that modern Jews worship the same God as Christians, despite the NT’s condemnation of Pharisaical / modern Judaism; the Great Tribulation, characterized by the rise of Anti-Christ, the one-world government, and the secret Rapture of believers – do those things sound familiar? They should (!!!) because nearly every Christian today has been influenced by the tenets of dispensationalism. The great “dynasty” of American evangelists (D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham) as well as nearly every televangelist in the late 20th century propagated Darby’s teachings. As the first celebrity pastors, those men exerted untold influence upon Christianity and American culture in general. Have you read the Left Behind series or wondered if you will be left behind in the Rapture? Dispensationalism! Have you seen commercials asking Christians to help their Jewish brothers and sisters around the world? Dispensationalism! Whether you realize it or not, this theology has influenced you.
Ultimately, the subtle, widespread influence of dispensational theology has led many professing Christians, even true believers, to think the NT is more important than the OT. “Soft Marcionism” – holding dispensational theology and valuing the NT more than the OT – has plagued our churches for several generations, but too few Christians are aware of its influence.
As Reformed believers, though, we believe something quite different – covenant theology. Unlike dispensationalism, which revels in the disunity of biblical history, covenant theology rejoices in the unity of God’s promises to believers of all times and ages. If God does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), then why would we think the OT gospel is substantively different than the NT gospel? Yes, “He is who least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John the Baptist],” (Matt 11:11). NT believers truly do enjoy greater benefits than the greatest figure of the OT! But the fact that we enjoy greater / fuller benefits than OT believers, even John the Baptist, does not imply that we enjoy substantively different benefits than they did.
OT believers needed the Holy Spirit to regenerate their hearts, just like we do, and they too were saved by grace through faith. Some OT believers enjoyed the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (albeit to lesser degrees than all NT believers), but not all OT believers enjoyed that presence. The promises they received by faith (not yet fulfilled by the long-awaited Messiah) are the same promises we receive by faith (already fulfilled in the person and work of Christ Jesus). Yet they (OT believers) and we (NT believers) still await the final consummation of God’s work of redemption. To summarize… What they enjoyed to a lesser degree, we enjoy more fully. What we enjoy more fully now, all (both OT and NT believers) will enjoy to its utter fullness in eternity. In the same way, what God revealed through shadows in the OT, we now see clearly in Christ. But even the clarity we now possess as NT believers cannot compare to what all of us will see in eternity…
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” ~ I Cor. 13:12
So, after this long post, do you still think Christians should read the NT more than the OT? Check back next week for the final part of my answer to that question. Here’s a preview…
What is hidden in the Old Testament is revealed in the New, and what is revealed in the New Testament is hidden in the Old. ~ Saint Augustine