“Do We Need the New Testament?”
That’s the title of a recent book by theologian and professor John Goldingay; and yes, he’s trolling us with the title. Goldingay isn’t seriously suggesting we scrap the New Testament: In the book’s first paragraph he says, “Do we need the New Testament? Of course we do.” His point is that while we’d never ask if we need the New Testament, we commonly ask if we need the Old (or as he calls it, First) Testament. He believes modern evangelicalism has arrived at the conclusion that while the OT is nice, it isn’t strictly necessary.
A recent study by Faithlife, the company behind Logos Bible Study software, suggests Goldingay might be right. Faithlife tracked the most common Bible verses found in systematic theology books and found that of the top 100, only nine were from the Old Testament. Eight are from Genesis, with the lone OT outlier being Isaiah 9:6 (“for to us a child is born …”). The implication is the most important things to know about Christian life and doctrine, according to evangelical theologians, are almost exclusively from the NT.
In an article for Christianity Today, Michael Bird, a lecturer in theology for Ridley College, said “While one might expect New Testament references to dominate [this survey], even so I would have anticipated a decent spattering of the Old Testament precisely because the New Testament is saturated with Old Testament allusions and citations. I mean, the Psalms—especially 110, 2, 118 and 16—really do provide the substructure to apostolic preaching, and yet they are virtually absent from the analysis. The lesson I’m taking from this is that systematic theologians need to spend more time in biblical theology—in particular, in a biblical theology of the Old Testament.”
What Bird briefly touches on is a significant topic for leaders in the church to consider: How important is the OT in understanding the NT? Presumably very few Christians in the evangelical community would suggest the OT is inspired by God and “profitable for doctrine, reproof,” etc. It’s more a question of why the OT is still valuable. A brief Google search of “why does the Old Testament matter” brings up dozens of articles, but a lack of substance.
A post on Answers in Genesis’ site adamantly claims the OT’s importance, but stumbles to explain what value it has beyond saying something akin to “it’s God’s word and the stories in it provide good moral lessons to learn from.” A post at Patheos says the OT is useful because the old covenant laws still teach us important moral lessons and remind us of our sinfulness. In both cases, readers are told the OT has devotional value, but not that it’s an irreplaceable linchpin in truly understanding what it means to be Christian.
This suggests Faithlife’s research might be right: American evangelicalism isn’t great at articulating why the OT is necessary for understanding God, Jesus, faith, salvation and eschatology.
“If the seeming absences [of Old Testament texts] really evidence the absence of those texts from Christian theology, then we are the worse for it” Michael Allen, professor of systematic theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, said. “Jesus proclaimed his gospel by means of its roots in eternity and in the economy of God’s covenant with Israel. Therefore, we cannot be Christ-centered without being canonical in our approach. We can start with the beginning or the end for pedagogical reasons, so long as we realize that materially the life of God with Israel provides the only context within which Jesus serves as a mysteriously fitting climax.”
The point for those of us who are church leaders is to flesh out what Jesus means when he said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill. Jesus’ message is continually rooted in the long journey of God’s chosen nation, and Jesus claimed he was the climactic resolution of that story.
Our job is to show—just as Paul repeatedly did—how we as New Testament God-followers have, through Jesus, been grafted in to the ancient story of God’s redemption plan for his world.