Do We Need the New Testament? (John Goldingay) -- Review

DO WE NEED THE NEW TESTAMENT?: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself Downers Grove, IL: IVPAcademic, 2015. 183 pages.

                Do we need the New Testament? Now that’s an odd question for a Christian biblical scholar to ask. Of course we need the New Testament. How else would we know about Jesus and the church’s earliest testimony about him? For many Christians the question has been the opposite. Why do we need the Old Testament? My own tradition has emphasized our identity as “New Testament Christians.” As I was recently reminded by a theologian who wrote a commentary on Deuteronomy, Christians often take a rather Marcionite view of the Old Testament/First Testament. The church may have declared Marcion a heretic for suggesting that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t the same as the God of Jesus, but in many ways we read the Bible in that fashion. At the very least, our tendency to read the Old Testament through a New Testament filter/lens causes the Old Testament to lose its ability to speak for itself. The First Testament (Goldingay’s preferred title for what Christians traditionally call the Old Testament) essentially becomes superfluous. It had its moment, but that moment has passed.

The person asking the question—do we need the New Testament?—is John Goldingay, an evangelical scholar of the First Testament teaching at my alma mater -- Fuller Theological Seminary. In this book, Goldingay not only declares his displeasure with the way Christians treat the First Testament, but he wants to present an argument for letting the First Testament speak for itself.  While he recognizes the place of theological interpretation, he warns against so narrowing the scope of interpretation that the witness to God found in the First Testament is silenced. 

The book’s title is meant to shock us. It is meant to catch our attention. We who hallow the New Testament at the expense of the First Testament are being called back to the First Testament to hear its testimony to God anew. The message that Goldingay wants us to hear is this: neither Jesus nor the New Testament reveals anything new about God that's not already present in the First Testament. What the New Testament does is show us how Jesus embodies the God revealed in the First Testament. The New Testament also sharpens our focus on the message already present in the Old Testament. Goldingay does believe that we need the New Testament because of its story of Jesus, especially the story of his death and resurrection and its meaning for our lives. But, this story doesn’t tell us anything truly new about the God revealed in Jesus. With regard to the nature of God, Goldingay notes the impression many have of the God of the First Testament. The God revealed there is a God of wrath, but the God of Jesus is a God of love. Goldingay helpfully points out that Jews don’t get that impression. Yes, “Yahweh is indeed capable of acting in wrath, but he relationship of love and wrath in Yahweh is well summed up in a line from the middle of Lamentations. “According to the common rendering, Yahweh ‘does not willingly afflict or hurt people’ (Lam 3:33)” [p. 20]. Yes, in the First Testament God is described in terms of compassion and mercy. Of course, you will also find testimony to divine wrath in the New Testament (from the lips of Jesus).  What the New Testament does, in Goldingay’s mind is give the “story of God’s known character embodied in someone visible, embodied in concrete life” [p. 21].

What Goldingay wants Christians to do is let the First Testament speak for itself, without imposing a New Testament imprint, or even that of Christian tradition on top of it. With this in mind, he invites us to consider some questions, such as whether Jesus is important to God’s story. The answer is yes. Jesus embodies all that is revealed in the First Testament, making God’s purpose more explicit. He asks whether the Holy Spirit is present in the First Testament. He distinguishes between the Grand Narrative (the Biblical story) and the middle narratives that are present in both Testaments. He invites us to consider how the Book of Hebrews may have caused problems for our interpretation by suggesting that this new covenant in Jesus was a better covenant that superseded what came before, so that what came before is simply a type of what is to come. Of course, Hebrews is a favorite of many so called “New Testament Christians.”  He speaks as well of the "costly loss of First Testament Spirituality." He speaks of the importance of memory and the hardness of hearts. Finally, he addresses the challenges of theological interpretation. For Christians this last chapter might be difficult to deal with, because he suggests that our interpretation of the First Testament should not be Christo-centric, Trinitarian, or limited by the Rule of Faith. He writes that our theological interpretation "will make the assumption that the God who speaks and acts in Scriptures us the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but it will not read that formulation into Scriptures, because that would skew what we might learn theologically from particular texts" (p. 175).

This is a most intriguing book. There are parts I found strongly compelling, and other parts of course not as compelling. What I most appreciated from reading the book was his encouragement to truly listen to the First Testament on its own terms, and that as a Christian I should recognize that the message of Jesus and the early Christians is firmly rooted in the First Testament and does not depart from that message. Reading this book should give Christians pause before they dismiss the narratives present in the First Testament. Let us remember that Jesus may have brought the two great commandments together in one formula, but both the call to love God and the call to love one’s neighbor are firmly revealed in the First Testament.  Therefore, perhaps its time to let go of our Marcionite tendencies and read the First Testament not only with new eyes but respect!


Steve Kindle said…
Interestingly, the same point (I think) was made by Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin in his The Jewish Gospels. Do you plan on reviewing that book?
John McCauslin said…
I have read "Understanding the Old Testament" by Bernhard Andersen and reached similar conclusions. God as reveal in Jesus is fully revealed in the First Tesament, that Jesus as the Incarnation, serves as a filter allowing us to focus on those values/aspects of God which are of paramount importance: love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Jesus brought these values/aspects into clearer focus. The God of the Gospels is the same as the God of Deuteronomy, Amos, Micah, Hosea and Isaiah.

Right now I am reading "How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian" by John Sominic Crossan. The book attempts make sense of the God of Wrath and the God of Love, both of whom are depicted in both the First Testament and the New Testament.

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