Continuing this series on Bible oriented clichés that must die, I want to insert a comment. You’ll find a lot of blogs that attack evangelical clichés, and a common denominator in a great many of them will be cynicism and bitterness. Often, the blogger is a “post-evangelical” who has experienced a particularly shallow form of evangelical faith, maybe grown up with it, surrounded by the insular world of an evangelical church and kept “safe” from the “world” outside. Then one day they experience the shattering of the little egg-shell thin world that they occupied, and now all the things they said about God, the Bible, faith and the church in their evangelical church seem hollow, hypocritical or downright false. When these folks are scholars, it’s especially sad. They then easily fall prey to the worst, most extreme forms of biblical criticism, which are about as hollow, groundless and dishonest as the extremes with which they grew up. If they are theologians, the recoil from orthodoxy as if it were a live snake. This bitterness is expressed as a kind of patronizing talking-down to others who don’t share their opinions, and perhaps who haven’t experienced their disillusionment.
I am not a post-evangelical. I’m not mad at anybody, and despite its genuinely odd moments I’m not even mad at American Christianity. You know what I”m talking about–certain kinds of Christians who hide their hatred of their homeland or home culture behind a “prophetic” version of Christianity? They cloak their bitterness in Christian ideas. I have not had any shattering of my former faith, which I did not grow up with in the first place. I have had a lot of my opinions change over the years, and some have died rather sensational deaths, but I imagine my theological convictions are more orthodox, more firm than ever. I grew up in a mid-stream kinda liberal United Methodist environment, but dropped out when my parents broke up and the physical and emotional brutality at home made it hard to feel comfortable around others. I met Christ personally at age 16 and brought to my newfound faith the certainty that people fail and do horrible things, especially in groups or movements, that much of what we promise and affirm will be hard to deliver, and I learned that bitterness and sarcasm create an environment in which nothing can thrive. I found that smug, patronizing attitudes are just pride, which is damnable even in a scholar or clergy person. I also found intellectual arrogance got in the way of learning anything fresh, and actually makes us subservient to the fads and fashions of the church or academy since we become desperate to maintain our arrogant pose by retaining the approval of the “cool people.” Humility, oddly enough, can hang tough with one’s convictions and not take itself too seriously and even be downright confrontational when it has to. I’ve learned something my dad used to say: we should not take ourselves seriously, we should take our work seriously.
So I feel like a fool on a king’s errand. It feels good.
So my cliché posts are a mix both of “teacherly” critique of clichés that turn great truths into shallow slogans, but with affection for the truths contained in them. I hope that in some ways, we can rediscover the truths that originally birthed the clichés and use them afresh, with serious intent, with the same stunning clarity that they first afforded.
So today’s cliché is easy: friends, there just isn’t any such thing as a “New Testament Church.” Of course, most people, when they speak of “New Testament Christianity” or the “New Testament Church” simply mean, “We want to be the kinds of Christians we read about in the book of Acts! The real deal!” And that’s a good thing.
But too soon, it becomes “A Christianity and Church that Pretty Much Thinks the New Testament is the Whole Bible.” Which it isn’t. You want to be like the early Christians, well, consider:
- The church in the book of Acts did not have a New Testament. Whenever Jesus or the Apostles spoke of “the scriptures” they meant the Old Testament. The first NT book was not written until about the 40’s AD, if that soon, and most of the NT books were written in the 50’s-80’s AD.
- The apostles and earliest Christian preachers didn’t try to defend the OT, but used the OT to legitimize their preaching of Jesus as the Messiah! The NT Church was actually… an Old Testament church! When the apostles preached the Gospel in the book of Acts, they praised communities as “more noble-minded” that tested the preaching of the Apostles against the Old Testament “to see if these things are so.” That’s in Acts 17. If you look at the index in the back of a standard edition of the Greek NT, you’ll find pages and pages of citations and allusions to the OT.
- The earliest post-biblical writers from formative Christianity used mainly the Old Testament. Even after the letters of Paul and some of the gospels were written, it’s interesting to check the indices of the Apostolic Fathers (2nd century Christian writers) and the “Apologists” (2nd century defenders of the faith). They are surprisingly thin in their use of “New Testament” books. For example, in the Apostolic Fathers, a collection that runs about 500 pages in Greek, there are only seven citations of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Can you believe that? The vibrantly growing, wildly evangelistic, faithful followers in the footsteps of Jesus and the Apostles… cite Romans 7 times. The same collection of ancient christian writing has only 4 citations of Galatians. To hear people talk today, you’d think Romans was half the New Testament, and maybe Galatians the other half. Apparently the earliest Christian writers after the apostolic period did not find it so imperative to base their theology on Romans, and from all appearances, their ministry was not impeded by this.
- The earliest widespread heresy in the early church was… “New Testament Christianity.” Yes, it’s true. In his massive survey of all the deviant cults, sects and religions of the ancient world, the early writer Irenaeus, in about AD 180, zeroed in repeatedly on a guy named Marcion, who, among other things, felt that if Christianity was to be relevant to the modern Greco-Roman world, it needed to shed its Jewish origins. So he dropped the OT, and even proposed a set of Christian writings conspicuously lacking the NT books that show a strong inclination toward the OT, like Matthew or Hebrews. From Marcion, we learn that if all we have is the NT, we won’t for long even have that! Something about the OT seems to keep the NT witness vital, deep and rich. The church instinctively rejected Marcion the way you would react if you suddenly realized you had put a live cockroach in your mouth.
So, if we really want to be a “New Testament Church” and practice “New Testament Christianity,” then it looks like we’re going to need to hunker down long and deep… with the Old Testament!