Valuing “old” and “new” in the Christian faith
Old and new are common adjectives. Often, they are value-free. Last January, SPU started a new, but not necessarily better, academic quarter. My wife and I may build a new house in Boise upon retirement, but it will not be as lavish as our old Kirkland house.
In some contexts, though, the words have value. Occasionally, old may be preferable. An old friend is a cherished friend. Some old cars are classics. Lovely antiques are, by definition, old.
More typically, new trumps old. We replace clunkers with newer cars. We remodel — renew — our homes. Newness suggests being modern, state-of-the-art, or cutting-edge. Few people regard being considered old-fashioned as a compliment. We lament growing older. In politics, we welcome new faces since older politicians are more averse to change.
Old and new are especially important adjectives relative to Christian Scripture, which consists of an Old Testament and a New Testament. Unfortunately, Christians tend to view the Old Testament as ultimately inferior to the New because they misconstrue Jesus’ statement about his fulfilling the law. Jesus did fulfill the law, which in this instance refers not primarily to legal material but to the Torah, the first five books of Scripture, which is a story accenting God’s grace and the law as an appropriate response to that grace.
The Old and New Testaments are tandem witnesses to what God did through Israel, God’s chosen people, and through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.
Failure to realize this leads to denigration of the Old Testament. Remember that before it was so designated, the Old Testament referred to the Jewish scriptures. This was Jesus’ Bible — the Bible he cited as authoritative and insisted was a testimony to what God was doing through him. Every New Testament author argued that these scriptures were about Jesus, front to back. Indeed, for more than two centuries after Jesus walked this earth, Christian interpreters pored over the Jewish scriptures to learn about their Lord.
The Old Testament is, ultimately, vital for Christians because Israel is a figure for the Church, the Body of Christ. The Old Testament addresses every aspect of Christian faith and life. For example, the Church impoverishes herself when she neglects radical outsider stories like those featuring Tamar (Genesis 38) or Rahab (Joshua 2) as well as narratives such as 1 Samuel 4–7, which emphasize how absurd it is to attempt to manage God.
The Old and New Testaments are tandem witnesses to what God did through Israel, God’s chosen people, and through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, to redeem, restore, and reconcile the created order. These two texts work together. Of course, the New Testament is a wonderful and indispensable testimony for the Church’s faith and life. But the Old Testament is equally wonderful and indispensable.
At least, Jesus thought so.
Frank Anthony Spina is professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University. He retires this spring after 46 years on the faculty.