I Couldn't Have Said It Better

How the Old and New Testaments Work Together

A Hydra Named Marcion

From as early as the first century, Christians have wrestled with how the Old and New Testaments fit together. One of the first major controversies came from Marcion of Sinope (AD 85-160). Marcion took a hard stance against most aspects of the Old Testament, even going so far as to say that the God of the Old Testament was not actually God, but instead the true God was God the Father in the New Testament.

When you chopped one head off a mythological Hydra, two more grew back in its place.

Perhaps Marcion’s most significant legacy was in his effort to make a list of approved books. Marcion’s canon had only 11 books in it: Parts of Luke’s Gospel and several of Paul’s letters. Everything else, he rejected.

The first attempts at forming an orthodox Christian Canon came as an effort to combat Marcionism. Which books do we all hold to be inspired? Though the early church dealt a strong blow to the heretical teachings from Marcion, it turned out he was much like a mythological Hydra. When you chop off one head, another emerges.

Recent Sightings

In my own faith tradition, the Restoration Movement, there has been a definite Marcionite slant in some circles. I first encountered this when I began preaching for a small church in rural Arkansas. I had been preaching some Old Testament passages. Two or three of the members let me know they thought that was weird. One in particular pulled me aside and said, “Look, your lessons have been interesting, but I don’t understand why you’re wasting time studying and teaching from the Old Testament. It was nailed to the cross so that we don’t have to read it. It’s all dead letter, as far as I’m concerned.”

Of course, much of our traditional emphasis has been on seeking out and restoring practices of the earliest church. If your main hermeneutical interest is, “How did the early church do things?” then it is easy to see why the Old Testament under a previous covenant would seem less useful. Ecclesial governance and worship practices are a pretty narrow scope. While these items are undoubtedly part of what Scripture is about, they are hardly the full extent of it.

Andy Stanley, Senior Pastor of Northpoint Community Church

More recently, Marcion’s head has popped up again in relation to some lessons by Andy Stanley, senior pastor of Northpoint Community Church, a megachurch with broad influence. He draws strong contrasts between the God of the Old and New Testaments, and a headline describing his controversial lessons summarized his stance being that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament.

In response, some have argued that Stanley has embraced Marcionism. Others defend Stanley and insist this isn’t true. Either way, the situation is a good reminder that Marcion is always lurking nearby, threatening to pop up a new head for the orthodox Christian community to confront.

Persistent Questions

The questions remain: What ought Christians to do with the Old Testament? How ought we understand the connection between the Old and New Testaments? I will offer a few thoughts.

A Broad Record of Experience with God

A fundamental value of the Old Testament is that it represents such a broad span of time. The early parts of Genesis reach back to the inception points of written human history. Even if you start with the time of Moses, you still have at least 1,500 years of experiences recorded through the lens of a people who tried to walk faithfully with God.

There are times when God has been especially near. There are times when God has seemed largely absent or at least silent. The Old Testament is a faithful witness for what it means to walk faithfully during either of these extremes, and during everything in between.

The New Testament was written in the space of just 60-100 years, largely within a smaller context. It is a great record of the earliest church’s experiences. And of course, no point in history could compare to the time when Jesus walked the earth. The eyewitness accounts in the Gospels are invaluable to us in seeing God through the person of Jesus.

Even so, if we limit ourselves to only the New Testament, we give up the larger portion of God’s revealed word, as well as the informative experiences of those who have lived out of their faith in God. No matter what your emotional state, for example, you can always find a Psalm that captures in beautiful words what it is your heart is trying to express.

Old Points to New

I believe that the Old and New Testaments hold each other in high regard. There are many ways that the Old Testament eagerly anticipates the New. I think of the prophet Daniel. In response to some of the visions he was seeing, he begged God to tell him, “My Lord, what will all the outcome of this be? The Old Testament could get glimpses of things that it was not yet possible to comprehend.

I think for example of the expectations of where the Messiah was to be born.

  • Micah predicted a great ruler would arise from Bethlehem; one whose origins were ancient.
  • Hosea is referenced in the New Testament, who claims, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
  • Possibly making a pun off of the word nezer “branch” in Isaiah, Matthew claims it is according to prophecy that Jesus would be known as a Nazarene.

Can you imagine trying to put together how someone could come from Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth at the same time? Yet Jesus was born in Bethlehem, had to flee to Egypt under the threat of Herod until it was safe, and was then raised in Nazareth. God wove it all together, and in a way no one could have imagined beforehand. Peter describes how the ancient prophets longed to understand the mystery of how God’s mighty hand would bring about salvation. It is our privilege as Christians to know what the ancients longed to know.

New Defers to Old

The Old Testament gives depth to the New. You can hardly find a page of your New Testament that does not in some way build on or refer to the Old Testament. Frequently, you will see a verse or two quoted in the New, and I believe that in many of these instances, the writer expects you would catch more of the reference than just a verse or two.

For example, Jesus on the cross speaks the first verse of Psalm 22. If you go back and read the entire psalm, it is one of deep despair, but even deeper hope. I know Jesus’ original Jewish audience could have heard the one line and easily remembered the rest.

There are many sections of the New Testament that seem to defer to the Old, because the Old has already stated so well what the New would affirm.

One of my favorite examples is Isaiah 53. It was likely written down more than 700 years before Jesus walked the earth, but it is like watching the crucifixion through binoculars. It is vivid and visceral. And interestingly, it is only barely referenced in the New Testament. The clearest reference is in Peter’s letter.

There is so much to Isaiah 53 and its Messianic overtones that one would expect it to see it everywhere in the New Testament. Why don’t we? Perhaps because the New Testament writers assumed that Isaiah had already stated everything so well, there was no need to repeat it. “Of course every Christian should have a deep familiarity with the prophets,” they might assume. The Old Testament is Christian Scripture.

Beauty in Tension

The Old and New Testaments together paint a robust portrait of the God we follow, most clearly revealed in the person of Jesus, who was the embodiment and fulfillment of the Old Testament aspirations. Together they show us a God who is full of lovingkindness and compassion, but who cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. We see a God who is higher than our highest thoughts, but who loves us even more dearly than our own parents could, knowing even the number of hairs on our heads. We see a God who acts powerfully in history, but who refuses to overwhelm us, instead inviting us to be the vessels who carry forth his mission in this world. There is wisdom to make us wise beyond our years. There is a Helper who carries us in our weaknesses and intercedes on our behalf. God is an embodiment of beautiful contrasting traits, held together in elegant tension.

The Old Testament provides depth and context to the New Testament. The New Testament provides a close up, timely portrait of the God we experience over centuries in the Old. Each Testament defers to the other, and supports the other’s testimony about the Love of God. The depth of these combined is much richer than either could be in isolation.

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