Reviewed by William C. Pohl IV
John Goldingay, David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, adds to his considerable contributions to Old Testament theology with this new volume, provocatively entitled Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. Author of a three-volume work on Old Testament theology as well as commentaries on Psalms (BCOT), Isaiah (ICC), and Daniel (Word), Goldingay draws upon his “passionate enthusiasm” for the OT to convince the church to approach the OT with greater appreciation—to let the OT speak for itself as the subtitle articulates (9). Turning an old question on its head, he asks if we need the NT. He wastes no time answering the title’s question, writing in the first sentence of the introduction, “Yes, of course, we … need the New Testament” (7). In this book he explores why the “First Testament” is necessary for the NT (7–10).
Do We Need the New Testament? is a collection of essays which Goldingay has presented at various scholarly conferences (with the first chapter published in a revised form in the Stone-Campbell Journal).
After a brief introduction, Goldingay lays the foundation for his book in the first chapter. He treats eight topics relating to the two Testaments (Salvation/Jesus, Narrative, Mission, Theology, Resurrection Hope, Promise and Fulfillment, Spirituality, and Ethics). Some of these topics receive expanded treatment in subsequent chapters, while other chapters treat new questions. While the theses of each chapter will be outlined below, it may be helpful to summarize Goldingay’s treatment of some of these topics to give a sense of his argument.
Regarding salvation, Goldingay puts it simply: “We need the New Testament because it tells us about Jesus” (11). He writes, however, that there is “nothing new in Jesus,” that “God was simply taking to its logical and ultimate extreme the activity in which he had been involved throughout the First Testament story” (12). Regarding mission, Goldingay points out that God’s concern for Gentiles is abundantly evident in the OT (19). Regarding theology, Goldingay rightly notes Jesus embodies grace and truth (John 1:14–18), but this “hardly means that Moses didn’t know about God being grace and truth. … Grace and truth came through Moses in the sense that he treated these realities as the foundation of God’s relationship with Israel” (21; cf. Exod 34:6–7). He argues the spirituality and ethics of the NT are firmly grounded in the spirituality and ethics of the OT (27–32).
Overall, he concludes: “Yes, of course, we need the New Testament Scriptures, but they don’t supersede the earlier Scriptures. We need the First Testament for an understanding of the story of God’s working out his purpose, for its theology, for its spirituality, for its hope, for its understanding of mission, for its understanding of salvation and for its ethics” (32). This quote sums up well the intention of the book.
The subsequent chapters develop these points. Chapter two develops how Jesus (in his life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection) is the logical culmination of the trajectory of the OT, with God establishing his reign.
In the third chapter Goldingay examines the Holy Spirit in the OT to reverse the common misconception that the Holy Spirit came “in a once-for-all and permanent way at Pentecost” (53). He argues that OT saints reflect the fruit of the Spirit, and teases out the implications of the Holy Spirit’s blessing as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham (57–61). The OT does not reflect a different understanding of the Holy Spirit than the NT, but the NT “cuts the corner for us” (61).
Chapter four treats the narratives of the Testaments. He argues that there is a grand narrative made up of what he calls “middle narratives” (drawing from “middle axioms” in ethics) (71–87). The middle narratives of the OT are foundational for the middle narratives of the NT, each contributing to the grand narrative of Jesus (89–90).
Goldingay then treats misconceptions he perceives because of the (mis)reading of the book of Hebrews in chapter five. Noting two negative side effects of this misreading (the issue of sacrifice/sin and the issue of the heroes of faith as paradigms), he suggests that one main contribution of the book of Hebrews that is commonly missed is the significance of the OT for life and faith (101–102).
Chapter six deals with OT spirituality. Noting the similarity between NT and OT spirituality, he outlines the implications of the Psalter for the church. He pays close attention to the importance of testimony (psalms of thanksgiving), protest and confession (psalms of lament and penitence), intercession (praying psalms of lament for others), and praying against injustice (imprecatory psalms) (107–115).
In chapter seven Goldingay deals with the cutting-edge topic of memory. He examines the use of memory in OT narratives, concluding the memories of Israel “shape its faith, its hope, and its life—or at least, they are meant to do so. We are unwise not to join in the remembering that it has passed on to us” (137).
In chapter eight Goldingay tackles the common misperception that the NT teaches a higher ethical ideal than the OT, showing NT ethics are rooted in OT ethics.
Chapter nine addresses the topic of theological interpretation. He thinks all exegesis is theological: “Historical exegesis will itself be theological, in the sense of reflecting on the theological questions that are inherent in the text. … Theological interpretation is proper exegesis” (160). But he moves on from this point to dispute OT interpretation that is Christocentric, Trinitarian, and or guided by the Rule of Faith (160–174).
He concludes with a reiteration of his objective: “My thesis in this volume has been that the chief significance of Jesus does not lie in any new revelation that he brought. It lies in who he was, what he did and what happened to him, and what he will do. He did not reveal new truths about what it means to be God except the fact that God is more complicated than people would previously have thought (‘three persons and one God’). He did not reveal new truths about what it means to be human but (like a prophet) brought into sharper focus some of the truths that people ought to have known” (177).
Overall, this volume makes a number of important contributions. The book raises a number of excellent questions, and addresses them in provocative and engaging ways (e.g., his articulation of the gospel in the OT culminating with Jesus on pp. 38–40 is excellent). His overall objective is not only worthwhile but also significant. His intention in this book is to call pastors and teachers in today’s church to engage the OT in their preaching and teaching. This is a noble task, a needed task. He is provocative, but he is worth consulting as a dialogue partner. He makes a strong case for the foundational role the OT plays for NT narrative, theology, spirituality, and ethics.
His best chapter is his treatment of OT spirituality. His discussion of different kinds of psalms regarding how they can play a role in the life of a believer today is exceptional, providing great ideas for pastor and lay-person alike. The contribution of the OT is significant on this point. As he says, “Costly indeed is the loss of First Testament spirituality” (118).
While the overall thesis and aim of the book is significant, there are some issues that both distract and detract from its overall contribution. A few minor issues relate to various examples he uses to document the same ethical standard in both Testaments and the lack of coherence between chapters (which makes the reader sometimes work hard to see how the argument of the book is unfolding).
This lack of coherence emerges most significantly in Goldingay’s least successful chapter, “Memory and Israel’s Faith, Hope and Life.” This chapter has little to do with the thesis of the book until the final paragraph of the chapter. Moreover, this chapter is the most technical of all the chapters (and rather peculiarly so given the lay-reader tone and misconceptions he sets up throughout the book). Seeking to skirt issues of history, he employs the concept of memory to discuss how the OT captures what Israel remembers and how this influences her faith, hope, and life.
The biggest issue with this chapter is his understanding of history in the OT (131–134). He suggests, for example, that Chronicles is mostly an imaginary account of the life of David (131, see also p. 133 on the issue of false history). While there is certainly a literary and theological (ideological) aspect to the biblical narratives, there is also an historical dimension (see, e.g., Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading or, the less technical, V. Philips Long’s The Art of Biblical History). Goldingay seems to have a more suitable view of history as he discusses narrative, citing Brevard Childs’ conception of the historical narratives as “testimony” of God’s acts in history (72). Nevertheless, his discussion of memory and history distracts from his important conclusion that the history of Israel is important for the church.
His discussion of middle narratives also has some issues. Overall, Goldingay’s tracing of the narrative developments is an important contribution (especially as he traces out “middle narratives” from epistles in the NT), and his conclusion is spot-on. He rightly notes the OT is needed for understanding the context of NT narratives. Yet there is a puzzling paradox in part of Goldingay’s discussion. After tracing the middle narratives, he writes, “Different parts of the Scriptures thus hint at a grand narrative or suggest that there is one, but they no more expound a grand narrative than they expound a theology. They present us with a series of explicit or implicit narratives, on small and larger scales. The Bible is not directly a grand narrative, but both Testaments incorporate a number of grandish narratives, extensive expositions of part of God’s story” (88).
However, Goldingay affirms in other places that there is a grand narrative (72, 89). It is not clear if Goldingay sees a grand narrative, nor is it clear what he means by “grandish” or “pretty grand” (88–89). These statements also detract and distract from his thesis. There are three other issues with this discussion: (1) he is notably missing a discussion of the middle narrative of Revelation (though he mentions the book on pp. 76, 82, and 89), especially given his emphasis on both Testaments being incomplete (16), (2) he implies John has not captured some of Jesus’ sayings in his Gospel accurately (is the concept of ipsissima vox vs. ipsissima verba in play here?) (82), and (3) his treatment of mystērion, while notable, lacks development (on which see below).
His discussion of the book of Hebrews is also one that detracts from his argument. While his argument that the church can learn from the author’s appropriation of the OT is excellent (97–102), his discussion of the misconceptions that have arisen from misinterpreting Hebrews is somewhat confusing and lacks nuance (90–97). He claims the NT writers were not “doing exegesis” when they worked with the OT (97). For an alternative view, see, e.g., G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament (cf. Beale’s introduction, Handbook on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation, esp. pp. 1–13).
The final issue with this volume deals with the concept of mystērion. He is seeking to show that there is not really much in the NT that is new, that Jesus’s teaching and death/resurrection, that the spirituality and ethics of the NT are not new (12, 103, 139–142, 177). But the concept of mystērion holds in tension that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments. There is continuity in the promise/fulfillment aspect (along with the narrative/historical aspect), but there is also something that is now revealed (which implies discontinuity).
The death and resurrection of Jesus changed how the NT authors read and understood the OT, even if they also saw tremendous continuity. Resolving this paradox of continuity and discontinuity is that what was hidden and now revealed (mystērion) was “hidden in plain view,” as Carson puts it. For more, see D. A. Carson’s “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New” (in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul).
The point is: there is tremendous continuity between the NT and the OT, as Goldingay documents well. But there is an element of discontinuity as well. Carson understands Paul to see the death and resurrection of Christ as something that is new even if it is also there in the text. This perspective provides balance: we need both Testaments, and we need to read the OT on its own terms (looking toward the NT) and read the OT in light of the NT (looking backwards). Likewise, we need to read the NT in light of the OT (it cannot be understood without it).
The two Testaments are crucial for the life of the church, being “interrelated and interdependent” (David Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible: The Theological Relationship Between the Testaments, 217). While Goldingay argues we need both Testaments (and especially that the NT cannot be understood without the OT), Goldingay’s argument, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps for rhetorical purposes, seems to relegate the NT to a lower status as he seeks to bring the pendulum back to the middle.
Overall, Goldingay’s goal is an important one, an exhortation that the church needs to hear. The OT is Christian Scripture yet it seems that most pastors and teachers do not preach and teach the OT often, communicating an implicit theology that the NT supersedes the OT. As David Baker rightly notes, “The Old Testament without the New Testament would be a disappointment,” while “the New Testament without the Old Testament would be a tree with no roots” (Two Testaments, One Bible, 217). Both are needed, and if Goldingay’s volume can contribute to more engagement with the OT in churches today it has done a great service, despite any shortcomings it may have.
William C. Pohl IV is a PhD student with a concentration in Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself