The Curse of New-Testamentitis

There’s a plague across the land.

It leads to much evil and pain.

It deceives with its attractive twisting of the real truth.

Dare you whisper its name?

…new testamentitis…

“NTitis” has been with us in various forms for a long time, but I feel it’s having a real resurgence at the moment in some churches.

What is it?

NTitis, n. a basic failure to understand that the New Testament is fundamentally connected with, and built upon, the Old Testament, and the two cannot be divorced. This may often be connected with e.g. naivety, unfounded idealism, guilt, literalism, harsh judgement.

Let’s take an example:

In Phillipians 1 Paul spends some time talking about how happy he is to be imprisoned for God, and about how he is torn between wanting to die to be with God and wanting to stay in order to do all kinds of horrible things to advance the gospel.

This could lead us to think that whenever we feel discouraged or beaten down by problems that we are sinning by not following Paul’s example. It could also make us feel guilty about not really believing in heaven enough that we are still scared of dieing.

Of course, if we meditate on things a bit further we’ll probably realise that what Paul is saying here is a sort of public face he’s portraying – he’s trying to encourage others that their own suffering is worthwhile, and that heaven really does exist. I assume it wasn’t meant to make us feel guilty for being down about our problems, and I also assume Paul didn’t always feel quite as upbeat as this about his imprisonment and torture.

However, if we read and absorb a good bit of the Old Testament, we won’t have any problem realising it’s ok to feel down sometimes. There are the obvious choices like Job (who I’m always going on about) who complained and complained not just that his life was hard but that it was God’s fault, and God said he had spoken what was right, and Lamentations which is all about how bad things are, and begging God to make them better. There are also loads more examples: just how cheerful was Moses when God called him? (Exodus 3) Or Jeremiah? (Jeremiah 1) In fact a lot of the prophets seemed to spend their whole lives complaining to God privately and at Israel in public. There is a great tradition of complaining for God throughout the ages (that’s why I think this site is quite Biblical…)

And to go back to Paul, notice that I said if we meditate on it a bit we can understand better. That word meditate was delierate: another problem with taking the New Testament on its own is that it often feels like its meaning is pretty obvious; almost like we should just read it through once and then put it into practice. The Old Testament teaches us about the need to meditate on our “scriptures”. Not just by telling us to do it (e.g. Psalms 1, 18, 19, …,) but mainly by just being more indirect. You have to absorb the history and the poetry before it can teach you about God. It doesn’t just tell you the answers and ask you to try and believe them.

Another example: 1 Peter 1 tells us to “be holy”. It says it in a way that suggests that this is pretty easy. It tells us that we can do it – it’s possible. This could lead us to feel that we’re not good enough to be a Christian because we fail. Now, again, if we meditate on this we realise that Peter is encouraging us, not discouraging, and we also see some pretty raw expression of the kind of struggle we (I at least) face in Romans 7:15, but this lone passage doesn’t compare with the entire history of Israel, and most of the individual lives described in the OT, that are full of failure and disappointment as well as trust and obedience (Numbers 20, Amos, …).

So by absorbing and meditating on the way God treats his servants, both rebellious ones and just plain failing ones, and seeing the love and forgiveness flowing from him over and over, we can get some perspective on the fact that God does want us to do right, but that he is perfectly capable of forgiving us over and over and over and over more times than we can bear.

It might sound like I’m against the New Testament completely from the way I’m putting this. That’s not it at all (although I do admit I prefer to read the OT) – all I’m saying is that the writers of the NT in almost every case took it for granted that their readers would be familiar with the OT. Jesus referred to it all the time. Often what Paul is doing in his letters is trying to change a wrong interpretation of the OT, or to argue that Jesus has fulfilled a certain bit of it. If we read the NT without having it in the perspective of the OT we risk completely misunderstanding it.

1 and 2 Peter are among my favourite books in the Bible because for me they capture what I’m trying to say here – they build on what we (the human race) learnt about God during the entire OT history, and talk about the incredibly exciting new truth we now know, that suddenly makes the OT make a bit more sense.

All I’m saying is, most of your Bible is OT – I personally have learnt a lot more about God from the OT than the NT in my personal reading time, and it’s good stuff!

So read it, meditate on it, and write an article about what you discover 😉

2 Replies to “The Curse of New-Testamentitis”

  1. Great article, Andy. I love the OT! I think lots of people are put off reading it because:

    a) They think it’s not so important as the NT. What you’ve said above argues against that very convincingly.

    b) They think it’s boring. Well yes, there are lots of genealogies and such, but there’s so much interesting stuff too; I’d recommend that people read it like a magazine. ie If you come to a list of credits, skim them and get to an article that’s more engrossing.

    c) They think it’s got an ugly, primitive view of God. But I don’t think that’s fair – some of the most beautiful descriptions of God and his love are in the OT. Some of the grimmest descriptions of God’s anger and judgment are in the NT. I think we have to deal with the fact that both the OT and the NT write about a God who is very attractive in some ways, and disturbing in others.

    I particularly like Proverbs, Deuteronomy, Daniel, Haggai, Ecclesiastes and Job, for starters! I want to write an article about Song of Songs soon, ’cause that’s amazing and I think it’s a scandal that Christians don’t know it very well in this sex-obsessed society…

  2. I almost want to a a voting section to the site just so I can make a vote for favourite book of the Bible and then rig it to be Job.

    But actually, voting for your favourite book of the Bible seems a bit, well, sad, so I won’t.

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