A Review of Goldingay’s “Do We Need the New Testament?

When I saw this volume advertised in the latest volume of BBR I knew I wanted to get my hands on it for a review. John Goldingay is professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, and is well-known for his recent three-volume Old Testament theology (1, 2, 3). His latest work is entitled Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself (2015). You can watch a 30-minute video here where Goldingay discusses the book at St. John’s College Nottingham.

Before getting to my review, the book is laid out as follows:

Introduction
1. Do We Need the New Testament?
2. Why is Jesus Important?
3. Was the Holy Spirit Present in First Testament Times?
4. The Grand Narrative and the Middle Narratives in the First Testament and the New Testament
5. How People Have Mis(?)read Hebrews
6. The Costly Loss of First Testament Spirituality
7. Memory and Israel’s Faith, Hope, and Life
8. Moses (and Jesus and Paul) for Your Hardness of Hearts
9. Theological Interpretation: Don’t Be Christ-Centered, Don’t Be Trinitarian, Don’t Be Constrained by the Rule of Faith
Conclusion

The Long and Short of It

The first sentence of this book says “Yes, of course, we do need the New Testament, but why?” (7). In a nutshell, Goldingay is concerned for a proper (Christian) understanding of the Old Testament (which he calls the “First Testament”), one which avoids common pitfalls such as thinking the OT portrays an angry God while the NT presents Jesus strictly as a peacemaker. In this sense, Goldingay addresses the “‘problem’ of the relationship of the Testaments,” which he does mostly in chapters 1 and 9, with the in-between content extrapolating some of his claims (9).

Chapter 1 is the place to go for the short answer to the book’s title-question. There, Goldingay reviews his reasoning for why we do need the NT, which he does largely to contrast common assumptions about the lesser “importance” of the OT. I am going to focus on this content for the most part.

Why We Need the New Testament

1) Salvation – The NT tells us (four times) about Jesus’s life, and then dwells on its implications. Jesus took God’s activity in the OT to its “logical and ultimate extreme … [since in the OT] God had been paying the price for his people’s attitude to him, sacrificing himself for his people, bearing its sin,” etc. (12). Goldingay boldly states that “the gospel did not open up any new possibilities to people; those possibilities were always there” (14). Yet Jesus was a “necessary” part of God’s plan for his people, which has been the same from the start, now acted out in a “public” manner (13-14).

2) Narrative – Goldingay understands the Old and New Testaments to be a unified story, but also affirms that they do not have to be read that way. In other words, the OT can stand alone and yet would still give us much of the theology that is often construed as specific to the NT. Goldingay acknowledges Richard Hayes’ idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection were “completely unpredictable” based on the OT alone, but goes on to observe (quite rightly) that Jesus himself seemed well aware of what was coming even if it was “largely unpredicted” on the basis of the OT narrative (15). Still, the NT continues the narrative in a valid and coherent way.

3) Mission – Again Goldingay emphasises continuity: God’s desire for mission was there from the beginning. God’s choice of Israel as his own people did not exclude Israel’s role in blessing the nations. We do not need the NT “becasue otherwise we would not realize that God cared about the whole world,” but the NT does dislodge God’s mission from a singular geographical people group and spread it to congregations throughout the world (19).

4) Theology – Goldingay is keen to point out that the OT does not portray God only as a God of wrath (certainly Jews don’t think so), but that it also emphasizes his compassion and mercy, the very mechanism for his sustained relationship with Israel. Goldingay puts it plainly: Jesus “does not offer a new revelation of God in the sense of a different revelation, but he does give people a fresh one, providing them with an unprecedentedly vivid embodiment of the revelation they had [already in the OT]” (21, emphasis added).

5) Resurrection Hope – In Goldingay’s view, the hope of God’s people for “a bigger end to come after our death, an end that will mean our rising to a new life, with new bodies – or our going to hell” is “confined to the New Testament” (23). Although there are slight hints of resurrection (the Tree of Life in Eden, and Daniel 12), the OT gives the impression that “this life is all we have,” followed by the murky and quasi-neutral realm of Sheol (ibid.). Jesus, no the other hand, speaks more about the afterlife (specifically Hell) than anyone.

6) Promise and Fulfillment – The OT understands some of God’s promises to have been fulfilled in its own timeframe, as does the NT (such as Jesus’ resurrection). Reading 2 Cor 1:20, Goldingay distinguishes between the promises of God that are fulfilled by Christ and those that are confirmed. Jesus, he says, did not fulfill every one of God’s promises, but did “back them up” to highlight that God was at work in Jesus (26).

7) Spirituality –  Goldingay again emphasizes the continuity of the NT with the OT, saying that the NT acknowledges and affirms the ways of worshipping and praying that appear in the OT and “draws our attention to them” (28). It does so by indicating how “memory is key to praise and prayer” (29; expanded in chs. 6-7).

8) Ethics – What Goldingay calls “memory” he says relates to ethics as well as spirituality, as it places obligations upon us. This idea is explored in chapter 8, but Goldingay wishes to highlight how in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Torah and Prophets he also fills them out or up, in some sense “working out their implications” (31). What he said did not scandalize his hearers because it was “new,” but because they did not wish to hear what they already knew (or should/could have known).

Positives and Negatives

In terms of negative aspects of the book, to me it read a bit disjointedly. Many chapters begin with a footnote stating that it was drawn from an earlier conference paper or going into another edited volume. This is normal, of course, but I think to some extent the book suffers from a lack of focus on its rather glaring title. For instance, chapter 7, while interesting, did not clearly contribute to the overall aim of the book, at least as I understood it. I expect that Goldingay’s comment on p. 9 may provide some insight on this: “I’m working on a book on biblical theology, and you could also see this book as a statement of the assumptions that lie behind that book.” For better or worse, then, Do We Need the New Testament? is apparently a kind of “workbench” for another book. That doesn’t detract from its value per se, but it does have a few rough edges from a coherence point of view.

There are several substantive issues that some will find problematic (myself included). Goldingay has some puzzling views on God’s role in the application of salvation. On the one hand, he seems to affirm free will when he states that God’s people become such by choosing to “commit themselves” to God (42), yet he also states that we “cannot control” the Spirit (60), and that Jesus chose Paul, not vice versa (42). More problematically, however, in election Goldingay says that God “does not have in mind individuals,” but rather a “body,” so that those who do not respond to the Gospel do not do so “because they were not selected” (86-87). Precisely who constitutes the body of God’s elect is “utterly negotiable” to Goldingay, and wherever people reject the Gospel, God will go on to “dangle the truth more attractively or more forcefully” in front of others (87). How God could “dangle truth forcefully” is unclear at best, and in general these statements muddy the waters in Goldingay’s chapter on the Spirit.

On the other hand, ironically Goldingay has some helpful points precisely regarding the Holy Spirit’s presence in the OT (ch. 3). He notes the word/concept distinction, and points out that Israel was certainly acquainted with the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of “ordinary men and women, not just people such as kings and prophets” (57).

Of course, Goldingay’s overall goal of inspiring laypeople and biblical scholars to read the OT with care and awareness is commendable.  Goldingay also raises intriguing concerns about the so-called Christological/Christocentric hermeneutical model(s), claiming that they can detract from the way in which the OT speaks to the knowledge of God (not just Jesus). His final chapter is worth a close read in this regard, and it will hopefully spur continued reflection on the important issues at hand. Nevertheless, I found myself much in agreement with Goldingay insofar as he emphasizes the revelational continuity of the Testaments, and the redemptive-historical inevitability of the person of Christ, an emphasis that I think is somewhat less clear in his Old Testament Theology trilogy.

_________________________

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy, which has not influenced my evaluation of the book.

2 comments

  1. Thanks, Will.

    It sounds like the first and final chapters are the most worthwhile. I am especially interested in his questionings of the Christo-centric/telic readings of the OT.

    Thanks again!

    fred

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