by Peter Ditzel
I want to warn you against neo-Marcionism. Some preachers and writers either now promote or are just on the verge of blindly rushing into this dangerous belief. Around the middle of the second century AD, Marcion of Sinope began spreading his belief system that came to be known as Marcionism. One of his central teachings was the claim that the God of the Old Testament couldn’t be the God of the New Testament. The God of the New Testament sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior. The Old Testament God was a legalistic God of retribution. Marcion’s solution to this seeming contradiction was to reject the Old Testament from the Christian canon.
Today, we have teachers who are saying that the God that Jesus reveals is so different from the God of the Old Testament that the Old Testament must be wrong. Other preachers are standing at their pulpits and suggesting that the Old Testament, with its Law of Moses, is a hindrance to the Gospel and, thus, we should unhitch the Old Testament. I grant that the Old Testament can present problems to the uninformed. I also grant that for centuries, teachers have often had the problem of wrongly bringing the Old Covenant into the New. The neo-Marcionites are likely reacting to this and have good intentions. Yet, I have no doubt most bad theology is the result of good intentions. But is the answer to the misuse of the Old Testament to just jettison it? After all, isn’t all of the Bible the Word of God? Does God give us another solution to this problem?
Misunderstanding the Relationship of the Covenants
The core reason Marcion detached the Old Testament was that he misunderstood it and its relationship to the New Testament. Neo-Marcionites have the same problem. Through the centuries, vast numbers of Christians have had a poor understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps the most common manifestation of the problem is what I would call flat covenant theology—not seeing the true distinction between the testaments and failing to grasp that the New is the superior revelation and the interpreting testament. Even many who have some notion of the New Testament as a superior revelation often see the relationship between the testaments as being expressed by the terms Old/immature and New/mature. They see the same covenant in the Old and New Testaments with the New Testament merely introducing a better, more mature administration of it.
New Covenant Theology addresses these deficient and misleading views by teaching that the relationship between the testaments is one of type and antitype. In the Old Testament, we find the history of the temporary and shadowy Old Covenant of law and works; in the New Testament, is the eternal and real New Covenant of grace and faith. But some people, rushing headlong away from flat covenant theology are apparently not satisfied with sound, New Covenant Theology. They see a distinction between the covenants, but instead of seeing the type/antitype relationship, they see the two covenants as divided into a wrong/right pattern, or at least they consider the Old Testament as so flawed and inferior that it is a liability and not worth hanging on to.
These people point out differences between the Old and New Testaments and declare that they prove that the Old Testament contains errors. After all, they say, the Old and New Testaments contain so many differences that they both cannot be correct. One must be wrong, and that’s more likely to be the Old Testament.
By errors, it’s not always clear whether they mean textual errors (i.e. the Bible does not faithfully record what was said or what happened), or whether plain statements that are not textual errors (e.g. “The LORD sent fiery serpents amongst the people, and they bit the people. Many people of Israel died”—Numbers 21:6) are factual errors, or whether they believe God actually made mistakes (e.g. God made a mistake to say, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” and Jesus corrected this error). Is the Old Testament wrong? Does is contain errors? Should we just ditch it because it causes more trouble than it’s worth?
The Old and New Testaments Don’t Really Contradict
The law of non-contradiction states that two contradictory propositions cannot both be true. Yet, two seemingly contradictory things can actually both be true under different circumstances.
God is perfectly righteous. His standards are perfect. God’s laws to Israel were merely types of His righteousness. After Moses delivered these laws to the people of Israel, they agreed to them and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). But, of course, God knew they would not do them. His real purpose was to teach through Israel’s bad example that humanity is so sinful that no one can consistently obey even the shadows of His righteousness. No one is able to attain his or her own righteousness. All need a Savior. Most of the Jews never understood that lesson. They became puffed up in thinking they were living up to God’s standards.
When He gave His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exposed man’s dilemma when He said, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” It was as if He were saying, “So, you think you are righteous by keeping the Mosaic shadows? Well, to really be righteous, you would have to be doing this; you would have to even have perfect thoughts.”
Those who denigrate the Old Testament should note that Jesus never said the Old Testament was wrong. The Old Covenant only had authority over Israel. Jesus pointed out that even that limited authority was drawing to a close because He was going to fulfill the law and end it. When Jesus spoke, He knew that soon no one would have to try to keep the law or attain God’s perfect standards to be righteous. Jew and Gentile could just trust Him as Savior. He would rescue all believers from their hopeless situation.
By His paying the penalty of the law for us and putting us into the New Covenant under which there is no condemnation, we would then be free to grow in love as He empowers us through the Holy Spirit. We wouldn’t have to worry about failing because there is no condemnation under the New Covenant. That way, we could keep trying and growing in love. Love perfectly expressed is God’s holy and righteous standard, Jesus has met it, and His righteousness covers us.
No Contradiction Between the Testaments
In John 10:35, Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken.” Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament. It had its purpose. Jesus came to end it and begin the New Testament. We can still learn much from the Old Testament because it is shadows pointing to Christ and the New Covenant. Look at it this way: Jesus is the body or substance or reality that casts a shadow into the Old Testament (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1).
The Old and New Testaments are both the Word of God. They are both God-breathed, but for different purposes. The button to work a window in a car is as much a part of the car as the crankshaft. But they don’t serve the same purpose and are not of equal importance. Just as Paul says of the Law, “The law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good,” (Romans 7:12), the entire Old Testament is holy, righteous, and good. But the New Testament is of greater importance to us now under the New Covenant. Both dropping the Old Testament altogether and giving it equal weight to the New Testament are serious errors.
If we say there are contradictions and mistakes in the Old Testament, we are setting a dangerous precedent. We will end up picking and choosing what we like and rejecting what we don’t, and we will soon find ourselves far from the truth. Yes, we have the Holy Spirit, but we must also remember that we are still flawed humans who can deceive ourselves. Perhaps a good analogy is that the Holy Spirit is our locomotive who keeps us going forward, but the Bible is the track that keeps us within the truth.
Good Intentions? But Reckless Theology
One of the people I feel is in danger of falling into neo-Marcionism is Andy Stanley. I’m not one of his followers, so I’m not an authority on everything he’s said. But because he’s been in the news lately, I’ve looked into some of what he’s said. Some of what he asserts rightly exposes the serious error of giving equal weight to the Old and New Testaments. But I also see that, like many today, he seems to prefer hip and contemporary sound bites over theological precision. So, some of the criticism aimed at him is deserved.
Stanley has been faulted for saying, “when it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the Old Testament is right up there at the top of the list” (Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, 280). In this same book, he later says, “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?” (315). He has also apparently said, “[First century] Church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures,” and, “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well” (“Christians Must ‘Unhitch’ Old Testament From Their Faith, Says Andy Stanley”).
He certainly likes the word “unhitch.” It is the first and last quotes that I have the most problem with. The Old Testament needn’t be a problem if preachers were to teach its true purpose and its proper relationship to believers under the New Covenant. I have no problem with unhitching Christian teaching from the “worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures” as long as that simply means that we are not to take them as our own, and I’ll assume that the quote from page 315 basically means the same thing. But none of this adds up to or excuses the last statement. Peter, James, and Paul did not unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures, and we must not either. All Peter, James, and Paul did was put the Hebrew (better descriptive) Scriptures in their proper place.
Now, I’ll admit that if I were a prisoner being sent to a concentration camp with a choice of taking only one book with me, and the Old and New Testaments counted as two books, I would take the New Testament. It is most certainly the better revelation and the one that applies directly to me as a Christian. Nevertheless, though not as clearly and directly as the New Testament, the Old Testament Scriptures are able to make us “wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus” and are “God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
There Are Ditches on Both Sides of the Road
Flat covenant theology has led to legalism, works salvation, Christian Dominionism, multiple varieties of cultism, and, when accompanied with failure to apply the basic tool of interpreting Scripture in context, has even led to the shameful practicing of racial bigotry and slavery because they are “found in the Bible.”
We can go very wrong if we look at the Old Testament and say such things as, “The Bible says to keep a Sabbath day,” or, “The Bible tells us to slaughter our enemies.” But the fault is not in the Old Testament. The fault is our own for not first understanding the basic tenets of the New Testament before delving into the Old.
When I was a teenager, for my first attempt at reading the Bible, I started in Genesis. I got to the myriad sacrifices in Leviticus and gave up because I found it boring and irrelevant. A few years later, I again became interested in the Bible and started with the Gospels. The difference was astounding! Unfortunately, I also started reading the literature of the Worldwide Church of God and became influenced by it. The Worldwide Church of God’s theology was as flat as west Texas. There was no understanding of what God was doing with the Old and New Covenants. It was merely, If the Bible says to do it, we need to do it. Thank God that He eventually brought me out of that church!
When the Bible says that God told the Israelites through Moses to not eat pork, and so forth, it is not a textual error. Nor did the Israelites misunderstand God about these things. Nor was God wrong to say such things. It was right for the context, and that context was a step in God’s plan. But that context is not our context. We must see it for the historical event and shadow that it was. When we do that, it can be profitable.
Do you know a new Christian or someone interested in learning? Encourage that person to first read the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament while delving into the Old Testament verses only as they are referenced in the New. Later, with that foundation, reading through the Old Testament can be profitable.
We must not accuse the Old Testament of being wrong. We must not throw it out. We must not “unhitch” from it. But let’s make sure we see it from the perspective of a sound understanding of the New Testament.
Copyright © 2019 Peter Ditzel Permissions Statement.