This is the twelfth in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century.
This post: the very difficult question of how a christian should view the Old Testament.
Looking back at our journey
First I looked at what the Bible said, and showed, about itself. The outcomes of this assessment are at Interpreting the Bible: the story so far. Some important facts relevant to understanding the Old Testament were:
- Jesus and his apostles treat their Bible (our Old Testament) as scripture. They don’t say whether it is without error (it isn’t clear whether they would have even been concerned about this question), but they interpret it flexibly and creatively, not literally.
- As christians we are in a new covenant of grace and the Spirit, and the Old Testament does not have the same authority for us now as the New Testament does, though it does reveal much about God and the coming Messiah.
- The Bible is more story than textbook.
- There is clear progression in the Bible’s teachings.
In the first post on this topic, I outlined a number of Old Testament problem areas for christians:
- There are many Old Testament teachings which christians no longer obey or think are relevant. How can we justify accepting some and not others?
- The God of the early Old Testament seems very different to the God of Jesus. In particular, commands to wipe out whole tribes are difficult to come to terms with.
- Current thinking on science, history and archaeology seems to contradict the Old Testament at several points, notably creation, the flood, the exodus and the conquest of Canaan.
Can a christian believe in the Old Testament as scripture?
Broadly, I believe there are four possible responses a christian could make.
1. It’s God’s word, no mistake
For many christians, the Old Testament is God’s Word, to be trusted and believed – Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, the lot. But in the twenty-first century, this requires being able to overcome a whole bunch of difficulties:
- There are many scientists who are christians who accept evolution, so evolution is increasingly accepted as true by christians. These christians may find ways to fit the Adam and Eve story in, but many now believe it to be myth.
- Noah’s Ark is difficult to believe now we understand the number of species that would have had to have been on the ark.
- The genocidal commands are difficult to square with the teachings of Jesus, and those who attempt to justify them end up sounding inhumane. The fact that it appears they were never carried out makes little difference.
- So many Old Testament teachings are either horrific by New Testament standards (e.g. stoning of adulterers and homosexuals) or irrelevant (e.g. animal sacrifices and the treatment of mould in houses), making it hard to justify obeying others. Even the Ten Commandments are questionable – e.g. the commands about graven images and keeping the Sabbath (which is Saturday).
It is therefore difficult to maintain that the whole OT is still God’s word for us today, and most thoughtful christians have to at least allow for some element of myth in Genesis 1-11, and some sense of the OT being for then more than now. Many christians will, in faith, and to some degree in defiance of facts, continue to hold that the Old Testament is “true”, but they will generally have to be inconsistent at some points.
I conclude that there must be a better way.
2. Just another ancient religious document
At the other extreme, scholars and more liberal christians often stress the similarities between the Old Testament and other ancient religious and historical documents. To them, the OT reflects the human search for God in a fairly primitive form. It is easy for them to disregard, and even ‘write off’, parts of the OT that create difficulties.
But, believed consistently, this reduces the importance of prophecies of the Messiah, God’s commands for justice through his prophets and the whole of Jewish sacred history. It solves the problems, but creates a new set. I think there has to be a better way than this too, though it too contains truth.
An extreme form of this view is sometimes held by non-christians. Without faith in Jesus, there is reduced reason to give any credence in the Old Testament. In fact, for many, the difficulties in the OT become a reason to disbelieve in Jesus. But this too seems poor reasoning. The gospels are different books, written in a different genre, time and culture to the OT, and they can stand whether the OT does or not. It seems to me that rejecting Jesus because of the OT means one’s unbelief is based not on evidence but on one’s preconceived views of what a scripture should be.
3. Inspired but not perfect
Many christians find themselves coming to a view somewhere between the two extremes. Several principles are becoming more accepted, or at least are being suggested:
God revealed his truths gradually, as people were able to understand and accept them. The early OT is therefore very primitive. For example, the command of “an eye for an eye” was a step forward from fierce tribal vengeance, but still well short of Jesus’ teaching of “love your enemies and forgive …” But learning comes in smaller steps, and the people of the day may have been unable to grasp or accept the later teaching.
A record of culture
People responded to God imperfectly, and the imperfection of these responses is clearly shown in the OT. We see this clearly in the Psalms, where the psalmist’s enemies are cursed and God entreated to avenge. But it can be seen elsewhere.
For example, the commonly quoted command to wipe out the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-3) is not actually presented as coming from God, but is a report of what Saul claimed came from God. So it is possible to see this command as another misunderstanding.
Some christian scholars (e.g. John Goldingay in Models for Scripture) point out that the Old Testament contains many different genres of writing, aimed at different responses. It may be a mistake (it is argued) to accord the same status and authority to these disparate components of the OT.
Re-thinking traditional understandings
Many christians (e.g. Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns) are beginning to re-think some traditional interpretations such as Adam and Eve, original sin, and more. They see this as being faithful to God and Jesus.
Challenging the Old Testament
One christian scholar at least (Eric Seibert in When the “Good Book” is Bad: Challenging the Bible’s Violent Portrayals of God) suggests we should challenge the violent portrayals of God in the OT. This would involve seeing the violence from the victims’ viewpoint, and reading the text in the light of Jesus’ teachings on non-violence.
4. Don’t think twice, it’s alright
Many christians don’t have the time, interest or education to examine all these questions and nuances. Their lives are full of making a living, surviving in a hostile world and/or doing God’s work. They believe in Jesus, they have no doubts about him, and good reason to continue to follow him.
Many such christians simply don’t try to resolve these matters – they are not of sufficient practical importance to them. They prefer just to read the OT without questioning to much. But some christians just can’t do that.
I wish we could all follow the last option, not bother about these difficult matters, and just get on with following Jesus. But once the questions have been asked, we can’t really go back to that simple approach.
For reasons already given, I can’t feel happy with either of the first two options, so I don’t suppose anyone will be surprised to know that I think the only way forward is option 3.
But I’m still working out exactly what I believe. Progressive revelation is not too contentious, and can be held even by someone who regards the Bible as inerrant. But the other principles outlined are more radical. I’m inclined to think there’s truth in all of them, but I’m not yet comfortable with accepting them all fully.
Some obvious questions
Can a perfect God produce something imperfect?
Our world is obviously less than perfect, and so are people. The church is less than perfect. So it seems that God can produce things that are not perfect, or become imperfect. In fact it could be argued that as soon as God creates anything, it will be less than him and therefore less than perfect. There seems to be no reason in principle why God could not inspire a Bible that human authors wrote imperfectly but sufficient for God’s purpose.
The end of certainty?
As I have already pointed out, we didn’t have certainty anyway. With text copying and translation errors, we have minor mistakes before we start. And the Bible offers no guarantees of accurate interpretation and application – in fact, inerrantists cannot agree on significant matters of doctrine. I suggest the truth is that these uncertainties should drive us to prayer for the Spirit’s guidance, not seek false hope in a doctrine of inerrancy that scripture doesn’t support.
The bottom line
But the bottom line is this. The Old Testament is scripture, inspired by God but written by fallible human beings. It belongs to a bygone age and culture, and with the revelation in Jesus, we don’t need the OT laws. But we do need its history and culture to understand God’s working through the Jewish people to prepare for the coming of Jesus. We should read it and allow God to speak to us through it, but we should be wary of basing any doctrine on the OT alone.
We can believe in faith that God has led the writers to give us what we need, though we must exercise restraint and the guidance of the Spirit to interpret it for today.