In recent decades the church has seen droves of people leave for a variety of reasons (for more on this trend, see the book A Recipe for Disaster by John Marriott, who is an adjunct professor at Biola University). One of the major reasons for this departure relates to the ethics of the Old Testament, especially in the areas of violence and sexuality. To counter this trend, Andy Stanley has proposed an elegantly simple solution: instead of trying to defend the Old Testament, we should just unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament. His proposal was first presented as a sermon that spread online and has now been published in book form as Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. The heart of his argument is that the old covenant was with ancient Israel, but the new covenant Jesus made with the church is brand new. The old covenant was good for its time, but is now obsolete and we should not try to graft any kind of old covenant thinking into the church. He even proposes renaming the Old Testament the Hebrew Bible and binding it after the New Testament in our printed Bibles. While the name Marcion does not appear in the book, Stanley follows in Marcion’s footsteps. Here is one summary of his views.
Bad church experiences are almost always related to old covenant remnants. Most bad church experiences are the result of somebody prioritizing a view over a you, something Jesus never did and instructed us not to do either. Self-righteousness and legalism usually stem from an imported approach to holiness. The prosperity gospel is rooted in God's covenant with Israel rather than the teaching of Jesus. (95)
As an Old Testament professor, it will not be surprising to hear that I disagreed with this argument. Jeff Volkmer has already responded well to Stanley’s views, but here are a few of my critiques to complement Volkmer’s thoughts.
Problems in the New Testament
One minor critique of his work is that Stanley disregards the problems people have found with the New Testament. Stanley believes that “our most embarrassing, indefensible moments resulted from Christians leveraging the old covenant concepts” (140). However, many counterexamples could be provided of Christians who acted in similar ways with the New Testament. One of the more prominent examples of this is the German Christians in Nazi Germany who leveraged various New Testament texts to promote their anti-Semitism (such as Matthew 27:25). This is an especially ironic example since the German Christians sought to use the New Testament to remove the Old Testament in a way that looks similar to Stanley’s method of rejecting the Old Testament for our time (though surely Stanley would vehemently reject anti-Semitism of the German Christians).
Stanley provides one example of how he would read a difficult text in the New Testament when he addresses the submission of wives to their husbands. He calls for a contextually sensitive reading in which mutual submission is emphasized, and then manages to blame bad readings of the text on the Old Testament: “A man who leverages Scripture to pressure his wife into anything is operating under old covenant thinking and assumptions” (213). However, this call to contextual reading is exactly the kind of practice that he rejects when reading the Old Testament. If this text was in the Old Testament, then one guesses that he would merely ascribe it to Old Testament thinking and reject any kind of positive reading of the text: he only rescues the text because it is in the New Testament. If he was consistent, then he should just reject parts of the New Testament as well that are difficult.
The Heart of the Old Testament
One of the major problems I have with Stanley’s argument is his misunderstanding of the Old Testament. While he desires to continue to see the Old Testament as inspired and good for its time, a major plank of his argument is to show how different the Old Testament is from the New Testament. This is illustrated nowhere better than his comment about means of salvation in the two testaments.
We were taught to view the tension between the old and new covenant as a tension between two different approaches to salvation. And while that's true, there's more to it than that. (133)
If Stanley believes that the Old Testament provides a different way of salvation (a way of works?), then this is a serious misunderstanding of the Old Testament. He likewise contrasts the way of forgiveness: today we can just ask for forgiveness and he forgives, but in the old covenant sacrifice was required (137). While Hebrews certainly makes clear that the sacrifice of Jesus was a better sacrifice than the sacrifices of the Old Testament, in both cases a serious sacrifice was required.
Likewise, his comment on the Ten Commandments is deeply troubling when he contrasts the work of Christ buying Christians as compared with the Old Testament covenant. “The Ten Commandments didn't even offer to rent you, much less buy you. The Ten Commandments never lifted a finger to help you” (137). This egregious reading of the Ten Commandments completely ignores the introduction to the Ten Commandments, which provides the basis for the obedience of the Israelites: “I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2). The Israelites are called and empowered to obey because YHWH saved them in the exodus, similar to the New Testament where the people of God are saved and then called to obey. Exodus 15:16 even refers to the action of YHWH in the exodus as “buying” Israel!
He sees no call to love enemies in the Old Testament. “You're familiar enough with Old Testament stories to know Israel never, ever, turned the other cheek… Ancient Israel did not love her enemies” (107). While there were certainly people of God in the Old Testament who did not love their enemies (Jonah is a good example), the heart of the Old Testament includes a love of enemies (as the book of Jonah teaches). The Abrahamic covenant promises that all of the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:1-3); this theme is picked in places as varied as the blessing on Egypt through Joseph in Genesis to the description of Egypt and Assyria as the people of God in the future in Isaiah 19. The Old Testament even includes more direct calls to love enemies (Exod 23:4; Prov 25:21).
The various parts of the Old Testament he condemns is seemingly endless, and each of them could be addressed at some length. He characterizes the Mosaic covenant as a camp commitment, which no one ever keeps (30). He strongly condemns the temple because Israel didn't need a temple (37), the temple was too similar to ANE temples (41), it reduced God to a location (45), and it was not part of God’s plan (49). Stanley also condemns various characters in the Old Testament. Based on the account of his life and the imprecatory psalms, “David saw no conflict between God's law and what we consider cold-blooded, racially motivated murder” (146). When examining the life of David, it quickly becomes evident that the narrators of the Old Testament also condemn David. David’s connection with the imprecatory psalms are more tentative, but a close reading of the imprecatory psalms reveals psalmists who are deeply concerned about justice, not cold-blooded killers. Even God does not escape Stanley’s censure, as God's behavior in the Old Testament was “uncivilized by our modern standards.” (163). This particular characterization desperately needs more attention. Does he mean that the Old Testament Israelites misunderstood God? Did God condescend to the level of Israelite understanding? Did God change with the coming of Jesus? Whichever view he follows would have significant impact on his understanding of inspiration of the Old Testament.
Finally, he contrasts the Old Testament and New Testament with what he calls the vertical/horizontal difference. A vertical stance focuses on one’s own relationship with God: “God's covenant with Israel was extraordinarily vertical” (176). Stanley attributes both sin avoidance and “going deep with God” (which he sees as problematic because the focus is on oneself) to Old Testament thinking (175). Jesus, however, views horizontal (including the other) as more important than vertical (180). “God is love is a uniquely Christian idea.” (223). He wants us to imagine a world where people were skeptical of Christianity until they saw how well we treated each other (216). “To put it in broad terms, under the old covenant when you obeyed, you were blessed. When you disobeyed, you were punished. Under the new covenant, when you obey, you may suffer. If you disobey, the world may applaud you and you may even prosper.” (100). This view of success also influences how he sees Jesus. “By old covenant standards, Jesus lost. By new covenant standards, he won. (164).
These broad generalities about the Old Testament can naturally find some texts to support them, but they miss so much of Old Testament teaching. For example, in Deuteronomy 4 Moses proclaims that when the people follow the instructions of YHWH the people around them will be curious about YHWH and his laws, a remarkably similar result to what Stanley desires to see for New Testament believers. Many parts of the Old Testament (especially the wisdom literature) call into question the automatic nature of the retribution principle. Many examples of the retribution principle can be found in the New Testament (such as the killing of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). As will be discussed below, love of neighbor (the horizontal emphasis that Stanley finds lacking in the Old Testament), is very common in the Old Testament.
Underemphasizes role of Old Testament in New Testament
This observation leads me to my final critique of Stanley. It is very important for him to see Jesus calling us to a horizontal view of the world and following God as opposed to the Old Testament vertical view. He defends this view by appealing to Jesus’ understanding of the greatest commandment: love God and love others (182-84). However, this is naturally going to be problematic for his argument because Jesus is quoting two Old Testament texts here! If Stanley wants to show that Jesus is doing something new, then this does not seem like the best way forward. He tries to downplay the Old Testament connection by stating that this was the first time the two Old Testament texts were used together (182) and that the Old Testament restricts neighbor to Israelite neighbors (185). However, even if this text was designed to be restricted to Israelite neighbors (the book of Jonah’s use of Exod 32 to apply to the hated Assyrians would make one think that this is not an intentional restriction in the Torah) this does not account for the still very horizontal nature of this Old Testament text: Israelites are still loving their Israelite neighbors. (On a side note, in this text Jesus says “do this and you will live”: is that not Old Testament thinking according to Stanley?)
Stanley also argues vehemently that “Paul doesn't leverage the old covenant to establish the standard for Christian morality” (204). Paul certainly uses the Old Testament, as “illustrations are scattered throughout his letters and his teaching as documented in the book of Acts. ... Paul never sets his application ball on an old covenant tee.” (168). Stanley emphatically says that the Old Testament “never” was the basis for Christian behavior in Paul (209). Instead, Paul commands us to follow way of Christ (204).
This line of argument is problematic on many levels. At a basic level, it appears that he seems overly focused on direct quotation, ignoring other kinds of reference (like allusion). For example, he calls the Corinthians not worship idols because they are temple of God and cites several Old Testament covenantal texts (2 Cor 6:16). To call this merely an illustration (as it seems Stanley would) is to misunderstand Paul: he is leveraging the Old Testament to help the Corinthians learn what it is to obey. The contrast he tries to draw between the law of the Old Testament and the “way of Christ” in the New Testament seems difficult to accept, especially when the laws in the OT are described in similar terms: Moses exhorted the Israelites to “walk in the ways of YHWH” (Deut 8:6). Finally, looking at the Old Testament texts Paul cites shows that Stanley’s claim is simply wrong: Paul does use Old Testament texts when exhorting his fellow believers about ethics. Here are just a few examples.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom. 12:19-20 ESV, citing Proverbs 25:21-22)
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:12-13 ESV, citing Deut 13:5)
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.” (1 Cor. 10:25-26 ESV, citing Psalm 24:1)
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, (Eph. 4:26 ESV; alluding to Ps 4:4)
In sum, the New Testament uses the Old Testament far more robustly than Stanley thinks it does. If the New Testament authors wanted us to unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament, they did a very poor job modeling that for us.
In conclusion, Stanley is to be commended for recognizing a serious problem in the contemporary church and actively attempting to fix the problem. However, his solution to the problem goes against the grain of virtually all of church history, misunderstands the Old Testament, and misreads the New Testament’s view of the Old Testament. In short, his solution would cause far more problems than it would solve, cutting us off not only from the basis of God’s plan for the world but also unique contributions to a variety of issues in our modern world (the image of God and care for creation are two that immediately spring to mind). Marcion proposed a similar idea centuries ago, and the church found it wanting. Instead of unhitching ourselves from the Old Testament, we must renew our desire to understand the Old Testament and show the world the glorious God displayed there.