Book Review: John Goldingay, Do We Need the New Testament? (Part 1)

Goldingay, John. Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 184 pp. Pb; $22.00.   Link to IVP

John Goldingay is one of the foremost Old Testament scholars. His ICC commentaries on Isaiah 40-55, 56-66 in the International Critical Commentary series have established him as an excellent exegete and his “For Everyone” series (WJK) demonstrates his heart for communicating the Old Testament to lay-people reading the Bible. His massive three-volume Theology of the Old Testament (IVP) and The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (IVP) established Goldingay as a scholar interested in doing serious biblical theology. Yet Goldingay is not an ivory-tower scholar, he serves as an associate pastor at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Pasadena. What is more impressive to me, he lists on his vita that he took his wife Ann to see Bob Dylan in 2002.

GoldingayDo We Need the New Testament? is a scholarly, yet personally challenging look at the difficult problem of how the New Testament Christian approaches the Old Testament from a man more than qualified to write a book subtitled “letting the Old Testament speak for itself.”  Since this is a lengthy review, I will break it up over two days.

In his introductory chapter, Goldingay explains his provocative title, “Do We Need the New Testament?” The title is of course intended to attract attention to the fact many Christians ignore the Old Testament, or the First Testament as Goldingay consistently calls it in the book. While few would actually question the need for the First Testament, Christians tend to be ignorant of the contents beyond the basic “Sunday School” stories. But as Goldingay rightly observes, “in a sense, God did nothing new in Jesus” (12).

In chapter 2 (Why is Jesus Important?), Goldingay wants to dispel any black/white contrast between the “Old Testament” and the teaching of Jesus. Popular Christian has created a loving and kind Jesus who stands in stark contrast to the wrathful God of the Old Testament. Part of the reason for this contrast is a lack clarity on what the Torah actually teaches as well as mis-characterizations of Judaism as a dour, works-oriented religion. While Jesus does have some distinctive teachings in the Gospels, he is usually consistent with the First Testament. His focus is on Israel and his ministry is consistent with Moses or Elijah and Elisha. Jesus fulfills the purpose of God in his death and resurrection, a purpose revealed in the First Testament.

Even though Jesus declared God’s kingdom has begun, Goldingay points out “in none of the Gospels does Jesus tell his disciples to extend the kingdom, work for the kingdom, build up the kingdom, or further the kingdom” (34). This is absolutely true, although popular preaching and worship media seems to think “bringing in the kingdom” was part of the Great Commission!

After connecting Jesus with the First Testament, Goldingay describes how the Holy Spirit was Present in the First Testament. As with the previous two chapters, this is a response to a commonly held belief that the Holy Spirit was inactive or rarely active in the First Testament. Part of the reason for this is the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul. Goldingay shows several texts in the First Testament which demonstrate the activity of a holy spirit (Ps 51, Isa 63:7-14, Joel 2). For Goldingay, God’s giving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a fulfillment of his promise to Abraham to bless all the nations. He concludes this chapter with a short discussion of the need for the First Testament after the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. As he points out, while the New Covenant is initiated, the Holy Spirit has not yet fully written the Torah on the minds of believers.

In chapter 4 Goldingay from theology to a narrative reading of the whole Bible. He refers to the “Grand Narrative” of Scripture, but his interest in this chapter are the “Middle Narratives.” A middle narrative “articulates a memory of the past on a smaller scale” something like a “middle axiom” in philosophy. These are the supporting narratives for the Grand Narrative and are therefore important for the structure of the overall story of the Bible. But as Goldingay points out, Christians omit the contributions of the First Testament in their retelling of the Grand Narrative about Jesus. As he points out, “The Bible is not a live letter to us from God;” it does not describe a personal relationship between God and individual believers. It is the story of God’s faithfulness in redeeming humanity.

This emphasis is seen more clearly in several middle narrative in the First Testament. He outlines Genesis-Kings, Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, Daniel; and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel as there important “middle narratives” which have increasingly specific ways God will redeem the world from sin. In the New Testament, he considers the Gospels and Acts, Romans, and Ephesians as examples of middle Narratives. It is remarkable Ephesians is included since the book is often overlooked as deutero-Pauline, but Goldingay rightly points out Ephesians describes God’s will in the present age as a mystery: “What God has been doing in history as a whole is a secret now revealed” (85).

[Part Two of this review appears here]

14 thoughts on “Book Review: John Goldingay, Do We Need the New Testament? (Part 1)

  1. Sounds like my kind of book. As Harold Bloom points out in his extremely readable and provocative book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, if Jesus is God incarnate, then are not these two beings One being? If so, how does the scripture of one inform us about the character of the other? Is not the God of the Tanahk (this so-called First Testament) the same as the God of the Christian New Testament? Why embrace one and recoil at the other? Is not the baby Jesus, the baby Yahweh? Are they not in fact one and the same God? I confess my prejudice for the Tanahk and, as a former M. Div, my ongoing bafflement at the Church’s incompetent handling and general misunderstanding of the scriptures that Jesus himself read. They certainly meant something to him. Why not us? In the meantime, the brave-hearted can check out Bloom’s book. It sounds like a complimentary read to Goldingay’s, although from a completely different angle.

    • Jesus frequently referred to “The Law” (Torah) and “The Prophets” (Nabi’im) and occasionally mentioned the Psalms and other parts of the third and least important category of the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Writings” (Kethuvim.) Jesus never referred to all “the Scriptures” as being equal, or all equally “The Word of God” or as being “one book”. The acronym TaNaKh was not used by Jesus.

      The First and Greatest Commandment of Jesus, and the Second, hang together on the Law and the Prophets – not “the Tanakh”, not “All Scripture’, not “The Bible”, not “The New Testament.” Likewise, the Orthodox view that the 4 Gospels should be elevated above all other books of the New Testament in priority, authority, and importance, makes sense – if we are really following Jesus, not following the teaching of the Pharisee. No one in the pages of the Bible ever said that all Scripture is equal.

      • “No one in the pages of the Bible ever said that all Scripture is equal.” Spoken like a true dispensationalist. I have often said you really do not “get” the New Testament until you have a clear grasp of the Old.

      • My professors at Dallas Seminary would be happy to see me referred to as a “true dispensationalist” (although I’m not completely sure I could respond like Bugs Bunny and say “I resemble that remark.”) 🙂

        The Dallas school song is:
        All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
        Let angels prostrate fall X 2
        Bring forth the royal diadem
        And crown HIM Lord of all…..

        In practice, I would have to say they have actually crowned PAUL Lord of All, not Jesus…. I hope they will open their eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to the Jesus of the Gospels, rather than spending the majority of their time focused on Paul’s feelings and experience, thinking about and talking about what must have been in the mind of Paul, how great Paul was, etc. etc.

        Jesus never quoted Paul’s letters, and neither did the early “New Testament Church” like in Acts 2:42, where “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”, fellowship, eating meals together, and prayer. That was the teaching of the 12 faithful witnesses, the 12 true Apostles who had been appointed and recognized, and who had been with Jesus personally for His entire 3 1/2 year ministry

        The church was just fine without Paul and his self-serving autobiographical letters filled with false teachings that contradict the teachings of Jesus. God sent Apostle Peter (and Philip and the men who started the Church in Antioch) to the Gentiles before Paul. There is no special ‘Apostle to the Gentiles” despite Paul’s boastful self-promoting title.

  2. I merely use “Tanahk” as a sign of respect for the scriptures of Judaism. The use of “Old” or “First” testament seems like a bit of a slight to me (though an inescapable one for Christians). Judaism is less concerned with theology than it is with a good argument. In that generalization, I am more Jewish in my reading of the bible. For an excellent general attempt at a theology of the Tanahk, see Marvin Sweeney’s “Tanak”, FP 2011. I also welcome any attempt to get a clearer grasp of the Old, as Phillip puts it. It is also prudent to remember that all scripture is ultimately unnecessary to the person who has seen the truth. Just my two cents.

    • Most of us never learned where the term “New Testament” came from, and what was actually in it.
      The term was coined by the Second Century Heretic Marcion. It contained nothing except an abbreviated Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters. (Our current New Testaments contain 13 of Paul’s letters, but Marcion did not include 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.) It was Marcion’s idea that the Hebrew Scriptures were “Old” and irrelevant and basically concerned with a different god, and disconnected his “New Testament, where Paul “brought the truth about the god of love…” There is plenty of info online for anyone who has ears to listen – like on jesuswordsonly by Doug Del Tondo.

      Yes, most Jews look at “The TaNaKh” as “one book” just as most “Christians” look at “The Bible” as “one book”, but neither viewpoint is truly “Biblical” ironically. TaNaKh is in 3 sections, listed in order of priority, authority, and importance, but this is often forgotten.

      • Yours is a reasonable and polite reply. Thanks, Matthew, for taking the time to respond to my comment. At least your point in the final paragraph has not been forgotten by my Jewish friends (although “priority, authority, and importance” remains in the mind and interpretation of the reader–the book of Esther has taken on greater and greater importance in light of 20th century history). All the best in your sojourn!

      • robwaltoon,,
        I think you are right- or as I saw another poster phrase it, “We all have our own ‘canon within the canon'” practically speaking…… even those who claim to believe that every word in the 66 Books of the Bible stands alone above all others as “the inerrant word of God.”

        Without trying to be judgmental, I have noticed that there is a tendency among some people who have little knowledge of God to elevate certain books from the Kethuvim, (The Writings) that are the third part of “The TaNaKh, just as some nominal “Christian Evangelicals” emphasize the letters of Paul the Pharisee.

        These people tend to deemphasize The Torah, The Prophets, and The Gospels. In other words, in my opinion, and in the opinion of Jesus that I believe I can substantiate from the Bible text itself, their priorities tend to be upside down. They tend to elevate and emphasize what is relatively unimportant and may actually be wrong, while they tend to downplay and deemphasize what is very important and clearly true.

        I have seen some in Jewish communities elevate Ecclesiastes as being the most important book. As you said, some put great weight on Esther (which makes no mention at all of God.) Some radical feminists take a couple of chapters of Solomon’s proverbs about “Lady Wisdom” and create a goddess to worship.

        Some evangelicals claim “Song of Solomon” is the key to understanding the whole Bible. Talk about reading things into the text that are not there !!! This is tasteful but erotic love poetry. It’s Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” set to harp music. Lets get real. Let’s not call it ‘The Word of God” and say it’s equal to the Torah, the Prophets or the Gospels.

        The LORD bless you and keep you.

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