The Importance of the New Testament in Modern Ministry

GIVING LOGICAL PRIORITY TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Tom Wells writes: “The large amount of baggage (presuppositions) that any of us bring to the Scriptures depends in a large measure on which part of Scripture we, subconsciously no doubt, read first, or treat as logically prior.”[1]  This explains why in so many debates over various theological or practical issues so many Christians talk past each other—they are not dealing with the underlying presuppositions that cause them to interpret the Bible the way they do.  Many of these have to do with which testament we treat as logically prior.

He gives an illustration which typifies those who hold to “covenant theology”:

“What will happen if we start at Genesis and build our doctrine of the people of God from consecutive reading of the OT?  Among other things, we will have a pretty thorough and extensive idea of who the people of God are, long before we come to the NT.  The people of God is Israel, the physical descendants of Jacob and, before him, Abraham.  Even if our eyes were more open to spiritual realities than were the eyes of the Jews in Jesus’ day, I suspect we would show little more comprehension of the breadth of the phrase ‘children of Abraham’ that the disciples did, not only before Pentecost but even afterward.  We very likely would have shared the astonishment of the disciples, who as late as chapter eleven of Acts say, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’ (11:18).

What would be the consequences of this reading?  Let me mention some.  We might easily assume that since there is one people of God, God would only have one covenant with them and one sign of that covenant, circumcision.  When we arrived at the Major Prophets, if we were particularly perceptive, we might make some small adjustments.  Of course, the NT, when we came to it, would change our convictions on these matters, but we could have a predisposition to find as little change as possible.  After all, we know there is one people, one covenant and one covenant sign.”

He goes on:

“Try to look at it sympathetically for a moment…if you do not do so, the following discussion will seem to be a parody, and I do not intend it that way, at all.  What would you do with the truth you felt you had learned from the OT?  Here is one possible scenario.  First, though the people of God is clearly Israel, you would have to make room for the Gentiles within that people… Second, you would have to wrestle with the one-covenant idea in the face of your previous conviction.  You could take one of two options: you could rename the two covenants so prominent in the NT.  You might these covenants…administrations of the one covenant.  This would tend to keep the changes forced on you by the NT to a minimum. 

Finally, you would have to deal with the covenant sign you learned from the OT.  Clearly circumcision must go.  That is the thing that is explicitly in the NT.  What could you do under these circumstances?  One possibility would be to insist that circumcision and baptism are virtually the same thing.  In these ways you would preserve the understanding you received by reading the OT… Given the premise that the OT must be given logical priority, the steps I have outlined are not in themselves unreasonable.  Perhaps that is the reason the Geneva Study Bible has its major article on baptism at Genesis 17.”[2]

Do you see the drastic theological effects that can result from giving priority to one Testament over the other?  It is not my intention (nor is that of Wells) to say that the above perfectly represents the explicit thinking of covenantal theologians, but it is a very reasonable explanation for some of their views.

It is here that I would like to present another possible problem with giving logical priority to the OT: the practicality of doing modern ministry.

THE PROBLEM WITH ALLOWING THE OLD TESTAMENT TO TAKE PRECEDENCE IN MODERN MINISTRY

Many adherents to covenant theology do not see much discontinuity between the New Testament and the Old (and as Wells has argued may give logical priority to it).  I think this may not only lead to theological conundrums and dead-ends, but that it hinders ministry in the modern world.  In my personal experience, many churches that are steeped in covenant theology end up looking a lot like little mini-OT Israel’s (many, not all).  This is a serious problem in today’s world.  Israel’s religion was designed to set them apart from the world; it was a “come see” religion, not a “go-tell” religion like that of the New Testament.[3]  In the whole of the Old Testament you see but a few non-Israelites who actually come to embrace Jewish religion.  What adult male wants to be part of a religion that requires you to go through an excruciatingly painful and bloody process like circumcision (especially back when there were no means of pain-relief like what we have today)?  But that was just one ritual in a long line of many others that were part of Israel’s religious program.  All of which were to set Israel apart from the nations which God let go their own way (Acts 14:16). 

Although traditional covenant theology claims that the ceremonial aspects of the law have passed away, they still retain other aspects of the law.  And, they bring in certain paradigms from Old Testament religion like the formal sanctifying of the visible covenant community through the application of the covenant sign.  These couple of OT remnants may not seem like much, but they inevitably bring other ideas with them.  The result is a Judaization of the New Testament.[4]  In some ways this is understandable because there are numerous examples of Christians in Scripture who had trouble letting go of the faiths’ Jewish roots (one thinks of Paul’s encounter with Peter in Gal. 2:11-14 and the whole Galatian heresy.  And those in Rome had trouble connecting the dots in Romans 9-11).

The problem is that the new covenant, in order to function as God intends, must shed the shell of the old covenant.  The old covenant is in many ways like a cocoon.  The butterfly will die (or be crippled) if it is not allowed to mature and fly free.[5]  The old covenant was not designed to do the kind of transformative work the new covenant is.  Why else did God command Israel to go in and slaughter the Canaanites instead of go in and reform them?  Is this the kind of command you would find in the New Testament?  Of course not.  The New Testament is a religion of heart reform and inward transformation (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).  The New Testament opens the door to all kinds of ministry that would have been totally illegitimate in the Old Testament.  Peter Kreeft writes “Saints always go into the ghettos, especially the moral ghettos.  They make waves… The waves make the garbage come to the surface, and the waves of garbage often drown the saints and make them martyrs.”[6]  You will be hard-pressed to find this kind of thinking under the old covenant.  New Testament (modern) ministry says, let’s go jump in the garbage for God.  Old Testament ministry says, let’s stay out of the garbage for God.

Take the most famous “go” commands of the Old and New Testaments for example.  In the Old Testament one immediately thinks of God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 12 to leave his home land and go to the country which God was going to show him.  God tells Abraham that he is going to make him a great nation (12:2).  In the New Testament, the famous “go” command is in Matthew 28: the Great Commission—“Go, therefore and make disciples.”  The contrast is striking.  Go, settle, and make a nation, verses go out into the whole world and make disciples.  The respective covenants were molded around these “go” commands and tailored to them.

This is absolutely crucial to realize in today’s modern America that is quickly abandoning its Christian heritage like a person fleeing a burning wrecked car.  Paul said: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).  Becoming all things was not the paradigm of the OT which called proselytes to become like Israelites.  Israelite religion could not be practiced wherever and however.  Just ask Aaron’s sons or the queen of Sheba.  Now there is no national people for Gentiles to become like except their own; for people worship in spirit and in truth, no longer on some mountain in Israel (Jn. 4:21-24).

Things are different now.  Very different.  The world is not impressed by all of our clinging to old rituals, garb, and formalities.  Let us worship God in Sprit and in truth and watch God give people the desire to serve him in their unique expressions (Romans 14).

_________________

[1] Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 13.

[2] Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 9-10.

[3] John Piper said this in a sermon once… I can’t recall where or when.

[4]Paul K. Jewett points this out in his book Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace: “With the advent of Messiah–the promised seed par excellence–and the Pentecostal effusion of the Spirit, the salvation contained in the promise to Israel was brought nigh. No longer was it a hope on the distant horizon but rather an accomplished fact in history. Then–and for our discussion, this THEN is of capital significance–the temporal, earthly, typical elements of the old dispensation were dropped from the great house of salvation as scaffolding from the finished edifice. It is our contention that the Paedobaptists, in framing their argument from circumcision, have failed to keep this significant historical development in clear focus. Proceeding from the basically correct postulate that baptism stands in the place of circumcision, they have urged this analogy to a distortion. They have so far pressed the unity of the covenant as to suppress the diversity of its administration. They have, to be specific, Christianized the Old Testament and Judaized the New” (Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, [Philipsburg: Eerdmans, 1980], 91.).[5] This analogy is used by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel in New Covenant Theology (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002).

[6] Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society In Crisis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 54.

 

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