Plenty has already been written about Andy Stanley’s recent comments about “unhitching” the Hebrew Scriptures from Christianity (this one is especially good), so I am actually a little reluctant to pile on. However, as this issue of what to do with the Hebrew Scriptures looms so large in Churches of Christ, I feel like it warrants some additional thoughts. In sum, Andy Stanley wants to make sure we as a church place no unnecessary burden on those we would see come to faith in Christ Jesus. One obstacle he sees is the difficulty many face in accepting the violent passages found in the Old Testament. Stanley’s solution is to intentionally create distance between Christian faith and the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. To support his case, he points to the apostolic council of Acts 15, claiming that it defines the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament – “Moses is out and Jesus is in.”
Here is what needs to be considered.
1. That Isn’t What Happens in Acts 15
Andy repeatedly states in his sermon that “there was no Bible” for the church in Acts 15. The apostles would have been surprised to learn this! The argumentation in Acts 15 comes in two basic points. First, Peter testifies that he had seen the Spirit given to the Gentiles “just as he did to us” (v. 7-11). Barnabas and Paul add their testimony that “signs and wonders” had been done by God among the Gentiles (v. 12). However, the experience of miraculous power among the Gentiles was insufficient to settle the matter! The issue is not concluded until after James demonstrates that the Scriptures written by the prophets “agree” with these experiences (v. 15). He then cites Amos 9:11-12 regarding the Gentiles who would be called by God’s name (v. 16-18). Please notice this principle. Even in the face of apostolic testimony of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, the early church would not accept a verdict until the Scriptures of the prophets had weighed in with agreement. This is in keeping with Moses’ tests for prophets. A prophet was to offer a sign to demonstrate his authority (Deuteronomy 18:22). However, even in the presence of a prophet and a sign, the prophet was to be rejected if his word would lead them away from the God revealed by Moses (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Torah, not experience, testimony, or even miraculous signs, were held as the definitive test of a prophet claiming to speak for God. In Acts 15, the church is surely impressed by the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles, but it is only after James demonstrates continuity – not discontinuity – with the Law and the Prophets that the matter can be settled. James’ proclamation concerning blood also comes from this same section of Deuteronomy.
Likewise, Paul – a passionate advocate for the place of Gentiles in the churches – continues to teach Gentiles that the law was to be read and considered. To the confused Corinthians, he ends his verdict relative to gender behavior with “as the Law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:34). We struggle with what to do with that passage too, I acknowledge, but the point remains … Paul does not seem very unhitched from the Law. His letters read like a commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures more than a rejection of them. Doesn’t Paul realize how much of a burden he is placing on the Hellenists by referencing unfamiliar passages from the law of Moses? Doesn’t Paul realize that Christianity was about the Resurrection and not an old Jewish book? I think Paul would furrow his brow at such questions … before yelling at us.
The council in Acts 15 is not a pattern for rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures. Nor is the council is a pattern for how the Hebrew Scriptures may be minimized to increase the likelihood of conversion to Christ. Instead, the council is a model for how Scripture ought to be wrestled with and poured over in the life of the church. If any part of Scripture is deliberately set aside for the purpose of causing conversion, the church will find it impossible to pick up that Scripture at a later date. The church in Acts 15 knew that it could not simultaneously preach Jesus from the Scriptures and then ignore Scripture when it came to how a person should live. They struggled mightily with how the law was to be read – a task we should emulate – but they never stopped reading that word of God.
2. We Have Been Down This Road Already
If the first Christian heresy was the submission of Jesus’ gospel to circumcision as addressed in Acts 15, then the second great heresy was the attempt to abandon the Hebrew Scriptures altogether in the second century. Marcion of Sinope formed his sect in Rome around 144 AD, motivated by a claim that the God of the Jews portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures could not be the same as the God revealed by Jesus in the New Testament. What makes this relevant to our discussion? Marcion specifically believed “the Old Testament was a scandal to the faithful and a stumbling-block to the refined and intellectual gentiles by its crudity and cruelty, and the Old Testament had to be set aside.”1 Marcion’s theology was different than Stanley’s to be sure, but his chief motivation and plan of action are shockingly similar. Both wish to unhitch the Hebrew Scriptures in order to make Christianity more palatable to unbelievers. Irenaeus specifically rebuked Marcion for the very issue that Stanley raises, the violence of the Hebrew God. He writes that Marcion “advanced the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the law and the prophets, declaring Him to be the author of evils, to take delight in war, to be infirm of purpose, and even to be contrary to Himself.”2 In the end, Marcion went the full distance, of course, offering an alternative canon, one omitting the Old Testament and even the Jewish sounding portions of the New Testament. The Church rejected Marcion, his doctrine, and his canon. Today, the church must also reject Marcion’s resuscitated motives.
More recently, the church has faced the credibility question from the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann, in tune with modernism’s love of all things scientific, fretted that no modern person using electric lights could be convinced of the “mythology” of the Hebrew Scriptures. He wrote,
Can the Christian proclamation today expect men and women to acknowledge the mythical world picture as true? To do so would be both pointless and impossible. It would be pointless because there is nothing specifically Christian about the mythical world picture, which is simply the world picture of a time now past which was not yet formed by scientific thinking. It would be impossible because no one can appropriate a world picture by sheer resolve, since it is already given with one’s historical situation.3
What was “unbelievable” must be dismissed for the sake of the Gospel. Bultmann was more thorough than Stanley, realizing in the end that there was nothing more believable in Scripture than the Resurrection of Jesus. Their point was much the same, as each believed that the worldview created by the Hebrew Scriptures is unnecessary for producing faith in Christ.
We have been down this road already. It was heresy in the second century, and it was heresy in the nineteenth century. It is heresy today.
3. Jesus Read the Hebrew Scriptures
A point even more pressing is Jesus’ personal relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures. We know he knew them (Luke 2:46-47), and plenty has been written on that point. Now we must ask the more specific question, “What did Jesus think about passages of violence in the Old Testament?” Surely the great Prince of Peace had an opinion on the slaughter of the Amalekites.
First, Jesus did not believe that violence in the Old Testament warranted distance from the Scriptures as a whole. If he found the violence troublesome, at the very least we can conclude that he did not view it as a deal breaker for the Torah. He references the book of the Exodus (home to the violent plagues) at least seven times. He quotes even more liberally from Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and the Psalms. At some point he quotes from every book of the Torah, plus many of the others. While he is happy to reinterpret these passages and correct traditional views, at no point will you see Jesus rebuke them or show disdain for them. To the contrary, he proclaims that undoing them was specifically not his purpose (Matthew 5:17-20). When questioned about eternal life, he simply replies, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). Jesus taught there was a right and a wrong way to read the Torah, but without question it was to be read.
More to Stanley’s point, Jesus manages to teach his doctrines of love from those same Scriptures. I once sat through a presentation where the speaker, like Stanley, advocated “less Leviticus and more Jesus and love.” I chuckled then and now when I recall that Jesus taught love from Leviticus (Matthew 22:34-40; Leviticus 19:9-18). In the teachings of Jesus, the Scriptures of Israel are the indispensable source for knowing and showing the love of God. How can we neglect the Scriptures which shaped the heart of our Lord? The early church did not. Jude, likely the brother of our Lord, wrote his letter with considerable dependence on the Hebrew Scriptures (and even somewhat on extra biblical Jewish sources). He certainly did not see the violence of God in judgment as threatening to Jesus’ teaching, but rather as corroborating it (Jude 5-16). Do we know better than Jude what is “hitched” to Jesus and what is not? If the Hebrew Scriptures shaped the heart, home, and disciples of Jesus, why would we believe now that they are adverse to his cause?
4. Jesus Is Defined by the Scriptures
Finally, and I cannot stress this point enough, it is not actually possible to know Jesus fully and definitively without the Hebrew Scriptures. Even if someone is won to Christ without them, their Christian development will someday lead them through those sacred pages. Here once more the analogy to Acts 15 breaks down. A Gentile convert would never need to be circumcised. Are we willing to say that a Christian convert troubled with the Old Testament need never read it? Ever?! If we wish to know Christ, the New Testament demands and that we ponder those things written aforetime as the source of our hope (Romans 15:4).
What Stanley and so many others have done is to determine the necessary identity of Jesus, and then tell us that any part of Scripture not in alignment with that vision of Jesus is of secondary importance or less. Determining the identity of Jesus is not however the task of any preacher. The definitive outline of Jesus is the text itself – all of it. If I have conceived of a Jesus who could read not Exodus or Joshua, I have conceived of a false-Christ. I have imposed the Jesus I want onto the Jesus I am given. Canon – not my imagination or philosophy – is the definitive source for the identity of Jesus, including the Hebrew Scriptures so important to Jesus himself.
Hearken to Martin Luther’s warning concerning the Old Testament:
These are the Scriptures which make fools of all the wise and understanding, and are open only to the small and simple, as Christ says in Matthew 11:25. Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings, and think of the scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies.4
If I am converted to a Jesus other than the Christ of canon, what Jesus will this be? Can he be my savior? Can I humbly submit to him while at the same moment willfully determining to unhitch my faith from the oracles of his prophets?
I too wrestle with the violence of the Old Testament. I open its pages and ask my questions. I argue with sages and scholars and often stand defeated and unsettled by what I read. However, at the last, I recognize that is my place to sit beneath Scripture with my questions. I am the one to be judged by God’s voice in the text, rather than rendering my incredulous verdict against it. I refuse to believe I know Jesus better than Moses does. I refuse to believe I understand Torah better than Jesus does. Instead, I let it judge me as it must.
To all those who see the violence of the Old Testament as a hindrance to their personal conversion to faith in Jesus, we say, “Come on aboard. We are all uncomfortable here.”
- “Marcionites,” Catholic Encyclopedia, newadvent.org
- Against Heresies I.27.2
- Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (1984), 3.
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 35: Prefaces to the Old Testament, 236.