I wrote a review of a book and published a form of the review as a blog post. That led to this excellent question:
I enjoyed reading today’s blog post, Irresistible, by Pastor Andy Stanley. You made several astute points.
However, in response to one of the main points you identified in Stanley’s book, you wrote, “Item three: I don’t see how anyone can understand the NT without having an excellent grasp of the OT.”
Although I don’t necessarily disagree with a general premise that an understanding of certain OT writings may inform one’s understanding of certain NT writings, your statement seems to be a broad and sweeping conclusion about understanding the OT and NT as a whole.
How much or which writings of the OT must one grasp excellently in order to understand the NT? How is an excellent grasp of the OT determined? And which NT writings can be understood only by such a grasp of the OT?
In the past couple of years of being familiar with your writings, I have never heard you express or intimate that one must have an excellent grasp of the OT in order to understand, for example, the Gospel of John or the promise of everlasting life contained therein. I am convinced that you do not hold such a view. Nor do I.
I am just unclear concerning the import of your statement. It would be helpful to me and perhaps to others who read the blog post, if you clarified the intent of your statement.
Thanks for all you do to teach God’s Word clearly.
What I’m Not Saying
First, I’m not suggesting that we need to understand the OT to understand John 3:16 and the promise of everlasting life. Or to understand the basic message of John’s Gospel. Even a child can understand and believe the promise of life as found in John 3:16.
Of course, a person with a good knowledge of the OT should understand and believe John 3:16 and the message of life. This is implied by what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10). But his understanding of the OT was flawed, and thus he did not understand what Jesus was saying about the new birth.
Second, I’m not suggesting that we can’t understand the basics of the NT without understanding the OT. A person can have a decent understanding of the NT without understanding the OT.
What I Am Saying
Third, I am saying that a person cannot grasp all that the NT is saying, especially many of the difficult passages in the NT, without having a good grasp of the OT.
It must be remembered that the OT is quoted or alluded to often in the NT. When anyone is taught a book in the NT in seminary, he must learn the OT texts which are quoted or alluded to. In the back of one of my Greek NTs (UBS 3), it lists about 343 quotations and another 2,309 or so allusions and verbal parallels to OT verses in the NT (see here).
But in addition, the background to all the NT teaching is the OT. So even if a given section of the OT is not quoted or alluded to in the NT, it still has importance in understanding the NT (cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17; Heb 5:12-14).
Fourth, I’m talking about the difference between what Paul and the author of Hebrews calls “the milk of the Word” versus what they call “solid food” (1 Cor 3:2; Heb 5:13). The former can be understood with no understanding of the OT. The latter in many if not most cases can only be understood with an understanding of the OT. “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:14).
Fifth, there are many incorrect theological positions which arise in great part because of a failure to understand the OT. These include works salvation, Lordship Salvation, Replacement Theology, Covenant Theology, Modalism, Sabbatarianism, and Theonomy.
Sixth, Dispensationalism, which in my opinion is vital to interpret the NT correctly, is based upon a very rigorous study of the OT.
Finally, I’ll end with an illustration. Let’s say that you’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. But you’ve never read The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, or The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Well, you might have a good grasp of the point being made in the one book you read. You’d have learned about his views of death and politics and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). But you would by no means understand all that Hemingway wrote and believed. To do that, you would need to read and understand all his books. The same is true with the Bible. If you only read and understand John’s Gospel, then you are quite limited in what you understand and believe. Yes, you can and would be born again if you understood and believed what you read. But your knowledge of eternal rewards will be minuscule since that is barely touched on in the Fourth Gospel (John 4:36-38). You would only have a hint of the Rapture (John 14:3). You’d have zero knowledge of the Tribulation or the Millennium or the New Earth. You’d have little or no understanding of the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15) or the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:9-10).
The same is true to a lesser degree if you’ve read the twenty-seven books of the NT, but none of the thirty-nine books of the OT. It is hard to have a good grasp of the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, creationism, and OT prophecies without at least some study of the OT itself. If you simply read what the NT says about the OT, then you’ll be limited, especially if you misunderstand what the NT says about the OT.
Regarding his two years of teaching them, Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). What he was teaching was the OT and maybe one or two early NT books (e.g., John’s Gospel and James might have been written in the 30s or early 40s). And he taught “the whole counsel of God.”
D. A. Carson comments (see here),
In other words, whatever else Paul did, he certainly did not manage to go through every verse of the Old Testament, line by line, with full-bore explanation. He simply did not have time.
What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God’s revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively.
At our church we read the entire Bible from cover to cover every eighteen months. While reading the whole Bible is not the same as studying the whole Bible, it is wonderfully instructive. And at our church the various preachers (we have four a month) cover both the OT and the NT in verse-by-verse exposition.
I absolutely start unbelievers or new believers in the Gospel of John. But over time I want them to read and study every book of the Bible.