A New look at the Old Testament

It’s been a while! Here are some ramblings of thoughts I’ve been having recently.

I once heard a well-educated Christian telling a new Christian that “you won’t understand the Old Testament until you understand the New Testament”. He was saying that the Old Testament has shadows of things and only with the light of the New Testament can we understand these shadows.

I don’t think I agree with this. In fact, if anything, I think a better statement would be “you won’t understand the New Testament until you understand the Old Testament”! I wouldn’t make the point that strongly, but to say that we need the New Testament to understand the Old Testament strikes me as rather odd.

First, for hundreds of years God’s people had the Old Testament but the New Testament hadn’t been written yet. Did these people have no idea what was going on? Did they have no anticipation of what the promised Messiah would be like based on what they had of the Bible? Did God decide for the Bible to be written the wrong way around? Chronologically it makes no sense that God would first give his people something that they wouldn’t be able to understand until hundreds of years later.

Also, the way the New Testament is written shows that a lot of it assumes that the reader understands the Old Testament. The New Testament isn’t usually saying “let me explain those things in the Old Testament that you didn’t understand”. More often it is saying “you know that stuff in the Old Testament that you do understand, well Jesus is the person that it’s about – he’s the one you’ve been expecting”.

In Acts 26:22-23, Paul says

“I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles”.

Paul was simply repeating what the Old Testament said about Jesus.

In Acts 13:26-27, Paul says

“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.”

Those who rejected Jesus were those who didn’t understand the Old Testament. Those who did understand the Old Testament knew who to expect and were able to recognise Jesus as being that person when they saw him.

Some parts of the New Testament explain the significance of Old Testament things and how they tell us about Jesus. However, some parts of the New Testament don’t come with an explanation, and it is expected that the reader will understand the significance already.

For example, Matthew (27:51), Mark (15:38) and Luke (23:45) all report that during Jesus’ crucifixion the curtain of the temple was torn in two. However, none of them explain the significance of this. They must have thought that the readers would already know what the curtain and the temple were about already. They assume Old Testament knowledge and don’t feel the need to explain it.

Therefore, if we read the Old Testament overly cautiously, only doing so through things that the New Testament explicitly confirms, there will be some things we miss because the New Testament authors thought it too obvious to explain!

For another example, let’s look at Matthew 16:5-12:

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

The number of baskets gathered after the feeding of the five thousand was twelve (14:20) and the number of baskets gathered after the feeding of the four thousand was seven (15:36). Jesus, talking to his Old-Testament believer disciples, couldn’t believe that the disciples hadn’t picked up on the significance of the number of baskets that were left over. He expects them already to know the significance of these numbers without him having to explain it to them. Matthew (or the rest of the New Testament) doesn’t say “ok, so here’s the significance of the numbers seven and twelve so that now you can understand their use in the Old Testament” – instead the knowledge is assumed of the reader.

So how can we get this knowledge today? I find it quite frustrating as most of the good Bible teachers out there are too conservative to go into aspects of Old Testament symbolism that aren’t explicitly stated in the New Testament, even though there are clearly aspects of this that the New Testament authors thought were too obvious to have to explain! On the other hand, if you search on the internet for an explanation of the significance of the numbers seven and twelve in the Bible, you will almost invariably find some crackpot website coming out with all sorts of rubbish. It would be great to see some more conservative Bible scholars stepping out of their comfort zone a bit so we can recapture some of the “obvious” stuff that’s become a little less obvious to folk like us in this day and age.

Gay Marriage – surprised?

So the big news in the UK this week is that the House of Commons has voted in favour of gay marriage becoming law. How should Christians feel about this?

Firstly, we shouldn’t be surprised. We now live in what has been called a “post-Christian” country, where the vast majority of political leaders and other people of influence do not know Jesus. It wasn’t always that way, and most of the laws and moral principles we have today were originally based on biblical foundations. This is demonstrated well if you look around old buildings of importance in London, such as the Royal Courts of Justice, which has on its roof a statue of Moses holding the ten commandments.

Politicians like to change laws. A lobbyist friend of mine tells me that one of the primary desires of politicians is to leave a legacy – something they can say they achieved while in power. They have to change things in order to achieve this, so their name can be stamped on the new thing. No politician is remembered for leaving things alone. Any change in law by a non-Christian politician to a set of laws that was based on biblical principles is very likely to be a change to a non-biblical principle. It’s therefore not surprising that we are seeing more and more such law changes.

But what is a Christian to do about this? For the gay marriage issue, many have felt compelled to write to their MP or otherwise campaign against the change of law.

We also shouldn’t be surprised when this doesn’t work. The arguments against the law change rely ultimately on the biblical position that homosexual relationships are a sin, and politicians know that this is what motivates Christians to campaign against the changes. However, the people in power have no regard for the moral standards of the Bible, so why would they listen to these arguments?

Christians in this country need to come to terms with the fact that, as things stand, more and more such law changes are going to take place. We should expect it to become more and more difficult to be a Christian in an increasingly non-Christian country.

The only way for things to get better is not to fight against the law changes but to fix the root of the problem – that our leaders and most of our society do not know Jesus.

I find it quite sad that a lot of Christians were writing to their MP campaigning against the law change, but they haven’t thought of writing to their MP to tell him or her the good news about Jesus. Imagine if all the work campaigning against the law changes had instead been put into spreading the good news that Jesus loves all sinners (both straight and gay people alike) and offers forgiveness to all who repent and trust in him. Then we might actually see some positive changes in this country.

Science Vs the Bible – is there really no conflict?

St Helen’s Church in London (of which I am a big fan) have produced some videos about Science and the Bible. Please take a look at them here.

It’s mostly good stuff, but I think that in their attempt to show that there is no conflict between science and the Bible they have presented a limited view of the Bible’s scope. A number of the videos contain a point along the lines of

“I see no conflict between science and the Bible because they relate to completely different questions. Science deals with “how” (i.e. how things work etc.) but the Bible deals with “why”. Science is limited and can’t address “why” questions, so we need to go to the Bible to answer those. There is therefore no conflict because they address different issues.” [my paraphrase]

I think this position is right about science but wrong about the Bible.

This position is particularly applied to the early chapters of Genesis. We’re told that if you try to use these chapters to ask “how” questions then you’re doing it all wrong, as these chapters are not there to tell us how creation happened.

However, when you read the text of these chapters, you see that the contention that the Bible is about “why”, not “how”, doesn’t stand up. These chapters actually don’t have very much at all to tell us about “why”, but mainly answer other questions, and “how” questions are probably answered more than any other type.

For example, the first verse of chapter 1 says:

“In the beginning [this is a “when”] God [this is a “who”] created the heavens and the earth [this is a “what”].”

Most of the rest of chapter 1 of Genesis doesn’t deal with “why”, but actually deals with “how”. For example:

“God said, ‘let there be light’ – and there was light”.

This tells us the “what” – that God created light, and tells us the “how” – that he created it with his word. Chapter 1 from verse 2 onwards mainly sets out the “how” of the “what” of verse 1. Verse 1 says that God made everything, and the rest of the chapter explains how God made everything. If you look for verses that explain why God made everything, you actually won’t find very much at all. Perhaps the odd hint here or there, but very little is said in this respect. We do find more on this explained later in the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 1), but there is very little scriptural support for the position that the early chapters of the Bible are about “why” questions.

The next few chapters of the Bible after chapter 1 are similar in addressing lots of different questions, not just “why”. For example, the flood narrative explains in detail how the flood happened as well as why it happened.

I get the sense that some Christians, if they had their way, would quite like to rewrite some of the early chapters of the Bible, as they are frustrated with the conflict they see these chapters as having created between the secular worldview of our day and the Christian worldview. They see this as being due to a misreading of these chapters, which they try to explain away by saying they are just about “why” questions. They see these chapters as a stumbling block getting in the way of the important stuff about Jesus, and would rather keep the focus there.

The problem with seeing the Bible as a “why, not how” book is that this view spreads through the whole Bible and actually conflicts with the way Bible talks about the events regarding Jesus, in particular his death and resurrection. In this area there is no conflict between Christians, as there is with how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. If the Bible is just a “why” book, then it is strange that the gospel writers spend so much time on “how” aspects as well. Of course, we are told the “why” in that Jesus died so that we might be saved from the punishment due for our sins, but we are also told lots of “how” points, such as that Jesus’ death was by crucifixion, that the crucifixion was ordered by Pontius Pilate, after Jesus had meetings with Jewish religious leaders, etc. The “how” parts of this account help to show us that it was a historical event, and the Christian faith depends on this being an historical event. It’s therefore vital that the Bible tells us how it happened, not just why, so we know it was a real historical event.

If we tell an unbelieving scientist that the Bible is a “why” book (in an attempt to remove the stumbling block of the early chapters of Genesis), why should we expect them to put their trust in the “whats” and the “hows” in the Bible regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection?. They would be likely to see the Bible as little more than a book of moral guidance.

If we try to restrict the “why” part of the Bible to just the early chapters of Genesis, they would see an inconsistency and ask, “how do you know this is just a “why” part while other parts of the Bible are more than this? Who gets to decide which parts of the Bible are which?”

Therefore, I think the attempt to separate the Bible and science into two distinct domains (“why” and “how”) actually diminishes the relevance of the Bible and undermines its authority.

I’d say that a better position would be to say that the Bible has something to say on all of life’s big questions (who, what, when, where, how, why…), but only says a finite amount about each. It tells us as much as we need to know to be able to satisfactorily answer these questions and restore our relationship with God. It mainly therefore gives us the big picture of things, leaving out the details. We can then (starting from the Bible) use science and other disciplines to find out more details about things. In doing science, we’re not exploring territory that the Bible doesn’t address at all, but we are finding out details where the Bible gives only a broad outline.

The Bible tells us certain things about the historical context of the time of Jesus, and we can do archaeology to find out more details about what life was like at that time. Similarly, the Bible tells us that there was a flood that covered the whole earth, and we can use science to find out more about the effects of that and why the world now looks how it does.

We know that we are fallible people but that God’s word is perfect, and so when we do science, we should treat God’s word higher than our own ideas and interpretations, and so we should trust God’s word in every area that it touches. If we come up with an idea or interpretation that contradicts what God’s word plainly teaches, we know that the idea is wrong. (This might seem unscientific to some, but actually science can’t operate without biblical assumptions anyway – see here.)

A better response to the “Bible Vs Science” conflict starts with the same point: that science is limited to “how” questions. However, the Bible doesn’t operate in a different domain but actually science only covers one of many domains that the Bible covers. The Bible has a wider scope and is more authoritative because it is God’s word.

The conflict we have today is not between science and the Bible but is between the Bible’s view of history and a view of history devised by fallible humans with a disposition against the existence of a divine creator. That is why the prevailing view in the secular world of science is that life essentially created itself.

Unfortunately there are many Christians who, in the event of such a conflict, are too quick to appease the views of those who don’t believe the Bible, and to try to make the conflict a non-issue so that they can get to the good news of Jesus. However, in many cases this won’t work as in doing this they have already undermined biblical authority, as I’ve explained.

Instead, we should first stand on the authority of God’s word in whatever it says in all domains, including “how” questions. We should then build our science on that, and not be afraid of disagreeing with scientific experts even if they know more than us about their field. God knows more than them (and us) and has given us broad answers to the big “how” questions in his word. So we know with certainty that if a clever scientist proposes something contrary to God’s word, the scientist is wrong. It’s not actually science that is wrong, just the belief of the scientist.

Steve Chalke comes out as a Bible grappler

No stranger to causing controversy in evangelical Christian circles (he of “cosmic child abuse” fame), Steve Chalke (sadly no relation of Charlie Chalk, a childhood hero of mine – see google images) has published this paper: http://www.oasisuk.org/article.aspx?menuId=31887

In it he advocates long-term homosexual relationships as being an ok thing for a Christian to be in. The main point I’d like to make in response involves the word “grapple”. Here are some quotes:

I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously

 

In my view, however, it is the task of all those worldwide who take the Bible’s text seriously and authoritatively to grapple constantly with what it means to recognise our neighbour and to love them as we love ourselves

There are some nice-sounding bits in the paper about his regard for Biblical authority, but the veil is lifted by his use of the word “grapple”. This word basically means to fight or struggle. This is precisely the wrong attitude to have when reading Scripture. He finds some bits of the Bible he doesn’t like, and then fights with them until he can reach a (still biblical, of course!) position that fits with how he thinks things should be.

If we are to understand Scripture properly, we must not grapple with it but must surrender to it and allow it to grapple us without resistance, whether it says what we want it to say or not. If we fight back we will inevitably impose our own ideas into it and stray dangerously from the truth.