Making Sense of the Old Testament

Jul 18, 2019

Recent remarks about “unhitching” ourselves from the Old Testament have renewed the controversy surrounding the challenging material found in these ancient pages. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron seek to redress some of the confusion by discussing the continuity between both testaments.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I am your co-host, Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McCallister: And I am your co-host, Cameron McCallister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, I'd like us to...oftentimes we speak about specific things that are happening in the world around us and then try to attach or make sense of it in the light of our Christian faith. And often what we're doing there is were hoping people see how scripture speaks to real life, to real issues that we run into, and how scripture is a source for helping us make sense of the world around us. That being said, when we say scripture, that has a lot of different connotations for a lot of different people. And one of the nuanced ways that that has come up recently, in fact just a day or two ago I met with somebody who said, "You know, preachers are always saying read your Bible," he's like, "And then you start reading through the Old Testament, and you come up with some pretty big questions."

So I think there's a general culture of curiosity and confusion around how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament, and specifically, you'll see how we'll connect this here, I think, to issues of culture around the use of the Ten Commandments, and that whole idea of what does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century in culture? And how does the Old Testament relate to the moral dictates, maybe, of our faith, and that sort of thing?

What are the examples of that you've seen? Or anything pop into mind as you think about sort of our cultural moment in conversations within Christianity about how we use scripture to justify positions?

Cameron McCallister: Well, I was thinking about this the other day. I was in Leviticus, which is an extremely-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Uplifting, yeah.

Cameron McCallister: ...culturally comfortable book to read. No, but I was reading about the scene where Aaron's sons offer...don't follow the proper protocol with their offering. And not only does God strike them down, but even the mourning rituals are prohibited. I mean, it's a very uncompromising scene. And as I read that, it's hard for me, given what I'm doing and the people you talk to on the road, it's hard to not think in terms of, wow, I can't imagine how this would play if say a skeptic were reading it. But then another side of me thinks this is exactly what I want a skeptic to read, because I want this whole…There's a very kind of truncated approach to scripture in contemporary culture right now, and it's not just the division between the two Testaments and the way we tend to favor the New Testament exclusively, it also speaks largely to our overlooking of certain key aspects of God, His righteousness, His holiness.

Now, of course, you've made this joke before as well. There's a certain book in the New Testament that we tend to assiduously avoid that highlights these features as well. That's the Book of Revelation. So I can see that personally as well, but of course in the broader culture, there's been huge controversy surrounding, say, Andy Stanley recently, and other ministers of large influence who are trying to distance themselves in various ways from the Old Testament. And this is where it's helpful to get a little history, maybe, and there's a long precedent, by the way, for drawing a shard divide, and we can get there in a second.

Nathan Rittenhouse: No, go ahead, take us way back.

Cameron McCallister: Sure, way back. Actually, it can be helpful sometimes to study ancient heresies, because the ancient heresies...Here's maybe a place you didn't think we'd go, here, Nathan. But heresies usually begin with the best of intentions with somebody trying to clarify and just get away from all of the ambiguous details or all of the points of tension. So think about all the heresies surrounding Jesus Christ, where they tend to either emphasize His humanity, to the exclusion of His divinity, or His divinity to the exclusion of His humanity. But these are attempts just to clean up thinking, but they do a disservice in that they go too far, and they try to polish away all the tensions.

But also, a lot of the thinking of the great, the fathers of the church was also in response to these heresies. So we've clarified our positions as Christians because of it, so it's helpful to look back. The tensions imposed by the Old Testament in the New Testament, we've got some ancient heresies that can add some clarity to our thinking and show us that our problems, some of those tensions that we're experiencing now are by no means new. You think about Marcion, who actually, Marcion went so far he has a heresy named after him, Marcionism.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, that's the one I was thinking of earlier, yeah.

Cameron McCallister: Yeah, well he went so far as to actually say that we're dealing with different figures in the Old Testament, there's different gods.

Nathan Rittenhouse: The favorite way that this has been asked to me, somebody once asked me if God got saved between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Cameron McCallister: Oh, wow.

Nathan Rittenhouse: How He's sort of this wrathful, angry, vengeful God, and then the hippie, mellow Jesus gets Him to tone it down a little bit. So as you say, there's always been that, and I think, just to put my cards on the table here for the sake of time, is that people often do read about the extreme holiness, and justice, and jealous God of the Old Testament, and then they look at the Jesus, the mercy, love, and this, all that sort of thing and say, "Wow, what's going on here?"

And I think you would agree with me that if you read the Old Testament and you miss out on God being worshiped as a God of steadfast love abounding in mercy in His faithfulness and the beauty, and His kindness, and His graciousness, and slow to anger, if you don't get that, you're not reading the Old Testament well. And if you read the New Testament, and you don't get a vision of the holiness, and the justice, and the wrath of God, you're not reading the New Testament well.

So what I see is a total continuity in the character and the nature of God, no difference there. Jesus talks about hell maybe more than he talks about heaven, depending on how you factor the kingdom of heaven language there.

Cameron McCallister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But what has radically changed is the way in which God asked His people to interact with the people around them. So there isn't a change in the character and the nature of God, there has been a huge change in the posture or in the way in which God uses humans as agents in establishing justice and order on earth. And I think that's the part maybe we want to push into here, as we clarify of we're not denying the Old Testament, but the majority of our ethics as Christians comes from the New Testament, in the sense that the New Testament affirms and isn't rejecting the Old Testament, but claims Jesus said, "I haven't come to abolish the law, I've come to fulfill it."

Cameron McCallister: Yes.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So Jesus takes what's taught in the Old Testament, doesn't abolish it, but actually amplifies it, and intensifies it in some uncomfortable ways, frankly speaking. And so the flow of that, the trajectory of that, of no, I don't necessarily need to quote Leviticus to come up with my modern moral justification for things, I can look at what Jesus said about that. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that I'm punting or infringing upon the character of God, or God changes His mind on certain topics and issues.

I think that's the general...there's a lot to flesh out there, but kind of the general framework that I think is helpful for me to have.

Cameron McCallister: Well, there is a really theologically rich exercise that you can do with scripture that was recommended to me many years ago. But pair up the book of Leviticus with the Book of Hebrews, you have this intricate, elaborate sacrificial system because the ultimate sacrifice has not yet been offered in the Book of Leviticus, because we're talking old covenant here, and so the high priest has to go and intercede on behalf of the nation of Israel, and he has to continually do it, because he, himself, is just a human being. He is the high priest of Israel, but then when you see the Book of Hebrews, Jesus Christ is presented as the ultimate high priest, who enters into the holy of holies once and for all time.

So there's that fulfilling of the law aspect, and those are the elements of the cross that sometimes get downplayed.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think you're right, and so I think that's the real danger here, is that if you don't understand the Old Testament, you're not understanding the New Testament.

Cameron McCallister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I mean, so just thinking here like Paul in Romans 3, "But now a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known, to which the law and the prophets testify."

Cameron McCallister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So he's saying, "This is a new thing. It's from God. The law and the prophets are pointing to this," like Jesus on the road to Emmaus, all of this points to me kind of thing, and so it's a fulfillment. And so we have to have, without rejecting the Old Testament, we're not doing that move, but we have to see a development and a fulfillment in the will of God and our role in His plan that's happening there. That's something that Paul was very excited about because he's like, "Look, the Old Testament tells us that this thing is coming."

Cameron McCallister: Oh yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That doesn't nullify it. You don't chop off the foundation of your house, it's what this is all built upon, but it is categorically different. And that's one of the places that...Maybe let me throw this wrench in and make some wrinkles here. I've been thinking about our quasi-infatuation with the Ten Commandments, specifically in America, so I don't know how this goes down in other places around the world, but I would imagine that maybe our version of it is a bit unique. And there hasn't been anything too recent, at the time of this recording, who knows, but just a year or two ago you had a lot of lawsuits about the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, about people running over the Ten Commandments as an act of defiance. I just saw a bumper sticker of the Ten Commandments on a car yesterday that says, "follow the commands of God."

That's kind of fascinating. So there's that judicial, cultural element of it, and then, I was reading one of the old sermons on The Beatitudes by Martin Lloyd Jones, and he points out that why is it that we put the Ten Commandments on the courtroom, but nobody posts The Beatitudes?

Cameron McCallister: Huh.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So I've been kind of spooling off of that thought, and this is not universally true, but I wonder if there isn't a little bit of a Christian focus on the Ten Commandments because they're so much easier than what Jesus commands. It's almost like a base package that I feel like I can fulfill without making too much change to my life. And I'm not talking about this in a judicial legal system-

Cameron McCallister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...but if you truncate, follow the commands of God, and Jesus does say, "Obey the Commandments," let's be clear about that, but that's almost a reduction of the moral responsibility that Jesus calls me to if I only put those on a bumper sticker on the back of my car.

Cameron McCallister: Jesus raises the stakes so much because He immediately...If you're fixated on mirrored behavior modification, that's not enough. And that's part of what He's getting at when He says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the pharisees," these were men of tremendous learning and influence, and they were really good at following the letter of the law.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Paul says he was perfect in regard to that.

Cameron McCallister: Yeah. So if you want, and there is something that makes perfect sense to us as human beings when it involves mastering some kind of a moral system-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes.

Cameron McCallister: Because now, and Tim Keller points this out a lot, you can kind of enter into a quid pro quo mindset, "I meet all of these requirements. I do this. Yes, it's a lot of pressure on my shoulders and it's a lot of work, but heck, I'm doing it. So now I'm in good standing. We're even."

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McCallister: But that doesn't recognize the actual condition of your heart. And what it also does is it tends to lead to spiritual pride and elitism, and you tend to forget that you are in desperate need of grace. And spiritual pride, actually, if that becomes malignant, that's one of the most serious conditions a person can find themselves in. In fact, the Pharisees are in a very, very grave spiritual condition, as Jesus makes clear, He's got some of His most unsparing words for them, because they believe that they don't need any help, they believe that they can save themselves, essentially, through their own.

So yes, in that sense, we do...I find often...And Americans, we Americans are so darn pragmatic, we just want to know how something works. Whenever we give a Q&A, you can bet somebody is going to, "Okay, yeah, but how does this actually work? How do I apply this?" That's a perfectly legitimate question, but it also belies this kind of mindset where, "Okay, if we just get the right technique, the right strategy, the right methodology, we're going to master this, and then we'll move forward."

Nathan Rittenhouse: But what I'm saying, though, is...and I want to be careful here because a lot of people do this with a good heart, but how does posting more copies of the Ten Commandments make somebody who doesn't believe in God more obedient to your system? And I think the tension that we're...Let me just throw it out there, and then you help me unravel it. So you have the Ten Commandments given for a nation to operate as a theocracy.

Cameron McCallister: Yup.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And they are fundamental to stable life and culture.

Cameron McCallister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I mean, I don't think we would disagree with that at all.

Cameron McCallister: Nope.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But what we're trying to do, and this takes it back to our moment, is to what extent, then, can we map the law given for a theocratic construction onto a democracy and a republic in the 21st century? And I think that maybe our generation uniquely is feeling the crunch of that a bit as we find ourselves strung out in between a generation that still can remember a more "Christian" version of America, and we ourselves never saw that just because that ship had sailed by the time we were born. And then see this tension of how do we take good, wise, and socially stabilizing commandments, and then craft, or merge, or mix, or knead that into what we're trying to do right now? That's the question I want to take us in.

Cameron McCallister: Yeah, you're just going for it. Let's get political.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Dun, dun, dun.

Cameron McCallister: Dun, dun, dun. Yeah. Well, so I think one of the unique challenges for us, people our age today, that we are dealing with right now as American Christians, so Christians in North America here, is we are dealing with a very powerful loss of Christian influence on the nation, on the one hand. Now, I have to flesh this out a little bit, I won't go too long, because it requires some unpacking.

I don't want to start the conversation of whether American was formerly a Christian nation. I'm not really advancing that argument.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, that's a whole other topic.

Cameron McCallister: Right, that's a different topic. What I am saying is that in the past, the Bible and Christianity had a tremendous influence in American culture, such that even skeptics and atheists would have a healthy respect for a long time, and probably a lot of scriptural knowledge, even 50, certainly 100 years ago. Now, that's drastically changing. There's a lot of people who, they don't want the Ten Commandments anywhere near public spaces. They view that as purely private expression. And they certainly don't want In God We Trust on our currency. So we're moving away from that.

Also, there's a growing fear about sort of theocratic aspirations. Now, the reason for that, obviously, on the global stage is also because of certain radical segments of Islam. There are many different factors contributing to that. But in the United States, politically now, our generation, we're having to figure out, "Okay. How do Christians proceed without power, or without serious cultural influence?" We've had it in the past, Christians have. And also, there's been a tendency to simply conflate Christianity with political conservativism.

Again, let's not get into too much trouble here. I'm not going to make any commentary on whether that's right or wrong, but I will say, that's a very uniquely American assumption. You will not find that operative in the church in Europe, for instance.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. And before you go on, let me make a distinction there, too.

Cameron McCallister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Just because it's prevalent, doesn't mean that it's shaping.

Cameron McCallister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So we do have a lot of churches and a lot of Christian radio stations, and it's there, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's culturally formative.

Cameron McCallister: Yes.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So I think just to stick that in where you're going there.

Cameron McCallister: Well, so now the question for a lot of people seems to be, "All right, if we really care about the good of the nation, if we care about the common good, then we will, by any means necessary, ensure that we have a way to legislate sound family values and traditional values, even if that means that we have to compromise some of our convictions on the leaders we elect," and so on and so forth. You can see where I'm going.

But let me give you a quote that I think is really helpful. This is from a young Christian writer, theologically conservative. His name is Jake Meador, he actually has a book coming out, and I believe it's called In Search of the Common Good. Great thinker, really great guy, pretty young, about your age, Nathan. But he said this in a recent article, he was weighing in on a big controversy that had erupted because there was kind of an attack on David French recently, conservative thinker. And what the attack was concerning was they were saying David French is very committed to civility in the public square, and give it civil dialogue, civil disagreement, and this particular article was arguing that, "No, that's a very naïve view. The culture is now so far gone that those kinds of tactics simply are ineffective if you want to win."

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay.

Cameron McCallister: If you want to win. Win.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Win being an interesting word there.

Cameron McCallister: Very interesting word. So here's what Jake wrote, "The test of our work as Christians must be not only does something advance a Christian ideal, but does it advance it in a Christian way."

Nathan Rittenhouse: Right.

Cameron McCallister: There you go.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So it's a means and message compatibility.

Cameron McCallister: And so my friend had texted me and said, "What do you think about this?" I thought, "Yeah, so we as Christians, in North America, I think we're going to have to wrestle with the implications of losing cultural influence and cultural power." Then I said, "But as all the Christians worldwide would say, 'Welcome to the club!'"

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, come on in, boys, the water is fine.

Cameron McCallister: Yeah. So there's nothing new to that, but I really think that that's going to be an aspect of us as 21st century North American Christians. We need to ask, "What does victory look like to us?" If it ends in the political sphere, we've got a really limited vision.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yup.

Cameron McCallister: We need a more expansive vision.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yup. So there's that, at maybe more of a meta level, but on the practical level of having conversations, a lot of the current pushback that you hear about Christianity is that it's violent or dangerous, and people point to other stuff out of Leviticus.

Cameron McCallister: Oh, absolutely, yup.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So that's where I'm saying if this is worth spending some time thinking about as a Christian, because if you're fuzzy about how the Old and the New Testament fit together, you're going to get skewered to the wall saying, "Well how much do I have to sell my daughter for? Do you have to kill me because I'm x, y, z, whatever?" There's that type of thing that-

Cameron McCallister: These laws that apply to this theocratic nation of Israel in a very specific time in the ancient Near East.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yup, so even if you do have that sorted out well in your mind, we need to think about how that's being communicated, because it isn't happening well right now as far as I know. And so that's a bigger question we have time to really wrestle with right now, but I think it comes back to that emphasis on there's no way in which we can proclaim the message of Christ in a non-Christlike way. And that'll force us to reconsider some of the limitations of our political power and influence moving forward.

Cameron McCallister: And it also has to do, I think, with just Biblical illiteracy is responsible sounds very simple, but is responsible for so much, I think, of the deficiencies in these conversations going forward.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure.

Cameron McCallister: And I think recovering robust teachings on the Old Testament, both in the pulpit and also in our own devotional lives, really digging into it, finding reliable commentaries, maybe set aside the year...I mean, to me, there's something really powerful about, when I encounter those points of tension in the Old Testament, or passages that I find really alarming, there's something exciting about it to me in the sense that it's a reminder that this book is so much more complex and so much more rich than I ever thought, and it's inexhaustible. So I think that might be a key ingredient in recovering interest in the Bible, rather than seeing is as just some dusty collection, or the Old Testament in particular, some dusty collection of ancient writings that have either limited application or are being grossly misapplied by certain triumphalist segments of people who call themselves Christian.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and it's not just that the scripture an idea into who God is that needs to be continuously reformed, it also gives us a lens into who humans are.

Cameron McCallister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: In a shockingly...And actually that's been part of, I think, Jordan Peterson's Biblical series, the kind of cult-like following of that-

Cameron McCallister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: it's saying this shows us something about humanity that I'd like to discuss with you. I have some-

Cameron McCallister: We got to do that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...not as flattering thoughts about some of that as maybe a lot of other people do.

Cameron McCallister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But I'm just saying, the interest is there.

Cameron McCallister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And it's worth sorting that out. So I don't think this conversation is going where I thought it was going to go, but I think where we're ending with this is to say that there are fundamental things about how you view scripture and how you interpret scripture, and how you think about the relationship between covenants, Old and New Testament, and that sort of thing, that are radically necessary and formative to have clarity on in order to engage culture well in a way that is consistent with what God wants for you in our time.

So we spend a lot of time reading a lot of different books we've reviewed on the show, and we spend a ton of time reading people we disagree with, and all sorts of ideas, and probably you do too, if you're somebody who tunes in frequently to this show. But maybe this is a plea to remind you to go to the original source, also, and to not have an unbalanced diet, as it were, of things that aren't nearly as formative, or nearly as rich, or nearly as true as scripture.

So we can't get out over our skis, so to speak, and be off balance in a way, we have to be able to know what we're talking about when people ask us what we believe as Christians in these categories.

We started off talking about the relationship between the Old and New Testament, about heresies, and you know what's really helpful in preventing heresies, is people who know scripture really well.

Cameron McCallister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I think we have those conversations, don't we, where we say, "Hey, have you ever thought about this?" And you say, "Well, you know," and we go back and forth, and then we say, "Well, you don't want to say that in public because this, that."

Cameron McCallister: Yes.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So this is not...I think it's wonderful if you have some community that can be a formative part of helping you interpret scripture also, because I often think about this, say you're sitting in a room with 50 people who have been Christians for 20 years. That's 1000 years of Biblical knowledge and studying sitting in that room. How do you capitalize on that as a young person? How do you glean from that type of lived wisdom and experience?

So yeah, I guess, like I said, not the direction I thought we were going, but a plea that if you want to be part of thinking about the influence and the impact of Christianity on our culture, please read scripture. And not just read it, but meditate on it, think about what does this mean, and then ask good questions with your Christian community, ask good questions in your household and your family, and rustle through these things. And if you do this properly, you will come away with a grander view of who God is, a deeper sense of clarity about who humanity is, and a deeper joy and optimism about what it is, and gratitude for what God has done, is doing, and will do.

So as you engage culture, let's not forget that we have something that deeply forms and shapes us as we prepare to engage it. Anyway, just a few closing thoughts there. Thank you for sticking with us. You have been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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