Of course evangelicals believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. That’s our shtick, right? That constitutes a necessary item in our doctrinal statements, required to demonstrate our evangelical orthodoxy.
But believing Scripture encompasses more than mental assent. It also requires taking it seriously and responding to its pronouncements.
So don’t evangelicals do that?
Inspired Scripture consists of 66 books: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament—23,145 verses in the Old Testament and 7,957 verses in the New Testament. Therefore, the Old Testament comprises almost exactly 75% of the content of the Bible leaving the New Testament to constitute the other 25%.
Contemporary evangelicals largely ignore the Old Testament. Seldom do they preach on it, and if they do they tend to cherry pick verses, largely ignoring its general themes.
This neglect seems to result from various attitudes toward the Old Testament that discourage giving it consideration.
One such perspective is that the New Testament essentially replaces the Old Testament, making it irrelevant for us. We now live in the age of grace. The Old Testament era was governed by law. Therefore, to a great extent it only provides us with bad news, the way God used to deal with people before the cross. At best it is a good reminder to us of how blessed we are, not having to wash our clothes and be unclean until evening if we touch a dead animal. Evangelical Veterinarians are especially glad.
This view that the New Testament has in effect replaced the Old Testament leads us to a second reason for ignoring it. Preaching and teaching on it may provide us with an erroneous perspective on the Christian life—may draw believers back into legalism. It may rob them of their freedom to serve the Lord in spirit and in truth.
Evangelicals also tend to shy away from the Old Testament because it can be embarrassing, i.e. it is so grating to contemporary ears that it could ruin our good name. Take, for example, God’s commandment to kill off the Canaanites. Did God actually require genocide? What kind of religion is this, anyway? Do you really worship that kind of a God? No, no…. Let me explain. Rather than explaining, a better option may be to just ignore that 75% of Scripture, and maybe nobody will find out.
Several problems result from evangelical neglect of the Old Testament.
First, it constitutes a violation of the truth found in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable….” At the time Paul wrote those words the New Testament was not fully written, and it would be a while until it congealed into its current form. Therefore, for the most part Paul’s assertion is referring to the Old Testament. If all Scripture is profitable, and we are ignoring 75% of it, we are missing 75% of the profit. Any company abandoning 75% of its potential profit will not succeed.
The second problem with ignoring the Old Testament is found in its use by New Testament writers. Frequently they made reference to the Old Testament as providing examples and warnings for us. After Paul rehearsed to the Corinthians the sinful behavior of the children of Israel in the wilderness and God’s resulting judgment on them, he wrote this,
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV)
Since New Testament writers asserted that the Old Testament provided us with examples and instruction, certainly it behooves us to learn and learn from that part of Scripture.
A third problem with failing to ingest the Old Testament flows out of the two reasons just described. The New Testament does not replace the Old Testament but is built upon it and the fulfillment of it. Jesus said that explicitly.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV)
Therefore, the Old Testament continues to be relevant, containing valuable lessons for us. Yes, we must distinguish between its ordinances, which do not pertain to us, and its principles, which do. That concern, however, must not prevent us from the benefit offered by the first three fourths of Scripture.
This leads to a final factor compelling us to study the Old Testament. Since the New Testament is built on the Old Testament, that portion of Scripture contains unique, foundational content essential for understanding the New Testament in general and the nature of God in particular. Contemporary evangelicals have developed a warped view of the nature of God because they have excluded the Old Testament in the shaping of their perspective on Him. The New Testament informs us that “God is love.” The Old Testament informs us that this God of love drowned the entire population of Earth with the exception of eight people. Both aspects of our understanding of God are true. To allow our perspective of God to be shaped almost entirely by the New Testament assertion that God is love while ignoring His judgment on almost the entire human race will assuredly warp our perspective on who He is.
Do evangelicals believe the Bible? Their attitudes and actions convey that they do not believe the Old Testament to be viable scriptures for contemporary Christians. So from a practical perspective, they do not.
But that is not the only aspect of Scripture that evangelicals ignore. We will consider another one in Part II of this series.