Hitching up to the Old Testament, part 1

I know I’m late to the game here, but I was recently made aware of Andy Stanley’s recommendation that we unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament. I haven’t listened to his sermon, but according to this article, Stanley taught from Acts 15 and claimed,

“Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.”

This bothered me, but something which bothered me just as much was a panel discussion from a few months ago, featuring Dr. William Lane Craig. I respect both men, but I really do think they both got it wrong.

Specifically, I think both men are misunderstanding what is going on in the Jerusalem Council. Here is how I see their arguments.

Stanley says that the apostles chose to leave behind the “Jewish scriptures” and move on to something new, which is the faith defined by the resurrection of Jesus. The Old Testament is holding us back, it’s tying us to the past and to things which Gentiles may not understand or want to accept. It’s better to leave those truths (as truthful and inspired as they are) and move on. That’s Stanley’s position.

In the panel discussion, Dr. Craig is responding to the question, “The old law – who decided that was no more?” The questioner went on to ask, “What gave them [the apostles] the authority to say no longer do you have to live by those laws?” Dr. Craig’s response was to look at the teachings of Jesus:

“I suspect, and I’m sure you’d agree, that the action of the early church is reflecting the historical Jesus on this because he is the only one who had the authority to revise the Old Testament law.”

Dr. Craig’s position is clear enough: the early church followed the teachings of Jesus in “revising” the OT law.

What I find wrong in the responses of both men is that neither one of them reflects what the apostles were actually doing when they reached the conclusion that Gentile followers of Jesus did not have to follow the law. Breaking down the council meeting, here are the steps:

  1. Much debate. 🙂
  2. Peter related the story of the conversion of the household of Cornelius.
  3. Paul and Barnabas told stories of their missionary travels and success among the Gentiles.

What happens next? According to Stanley, the apostles at this point decide to “unhitch” from the Old Testament and go in a new direction. And according to Dr. Craig, they chose to revise the OT law and not require the Gentiles to observe the law. But actually, neither one of these scenarios takes place. Instead, James quotes the Old Testament itself to defend the view that:

  1. God has always intended to take from the Gentiles a people for his name, and
  2. God never intended the Gentiles to follow the law to do so.

So, contra Stanley and Dr. Craig, the apostles neither unhitched from the OT, nor viewed the teachings of Jesus as trumping the OT. Think about it: if Stanley were correct, then we would expect to read something like, “The Law was good for a time, but now that Jesus has been raised from the dead we no longer need it.” But instead we see nothing at all like this. No mention of the resurrection, as important as it is. No mention of a shift in focus, of the hindrance the Law would be to the gospel message. Nothing at all to suggest that the OT was no longer relevant. (More on this later.)

Now if Dr. Craig were correct, then we should expect to read Peter saying something like, “You all remember how Jesus declared all foods clean? How he said that loving God and our neighbor was the fulfillment of the law? From this it’s clear that the Gentiles do not need the law.” It’s interesting (amazing, really) that no apostle quoted Jesus on this point, or even referenced his teaching, and yet that’s exactly what Dr. Craig did. Of course, it’s not wrong to quote Jesus, but that’s not the approach the apostles took.

So what did the apostles do? It seems to me that they were confronted with an unexpected reality – the conversion of Gentiles – and went straight to their scriptures to understand it. James looked to Amos and Isaiah to provide a framework to explain this phenomenon, and did it very well. Look at how James quotes Amos in Acts 15.17-18:

…that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.

Amos states it very plainly: God expects to have Gentiles who are called by his name. Not Israelites, not Gentiles who converted to the Israelite religion, but Gentiles who follow Yahweh but remain Gentiles.

The last phrase in James’ quote (“known from of old”) is an allusion to Isaiah 45.21. Look at the context of that oracle; Yahweh is speaking to the nations. And in verse 22, Yahweh says:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.

Isaiah states it just as plainly as Amos: the invitation of salvation is for everyone, not just Israel.

It’s clear from the Old Testament — the very Old Testament which Stanley says is holding us back — that God all along intended for Gentiles to be included in his family. And it’s also clear that the Old Testament stands on its own in this regard, without even needing an affirmation from Jesus.

Ok, so is the OT relevant or isn’t it? Should Gentiles be following the Mosaic law? That’s coming in part two.

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