I recently participated in a group conversation wherein one member of the group, a friend of mine, declared that he felt more Jewish than Christian much of the time despite being a Gentile. Among other things, he mainly reads the Old Testament and does not even much read the New Testament outside of church services anymore. After all, the New Testament is mainly just an interpretation of the Old Testament and he can do his own interpretation, thank you very much.
It was a brief monologue, delivered tongue-in-cheek, but when asked to elaborate, he thought about it and suggested that the New Testament seems mainly there to help one identify Jesus with the revelation of God in the Old Testament. He has identified Jesus as God and so now goes mainly to the Old Testament for his personal and spiritual growth. After all, did not even Paul, John, and the other writers of the New Testament do much the same?
I believe that my friend could find much to like in John Goldingay’s book Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. For one, at 178 pages, it is a slim volume and he likes shorter books. More importantly, Goldingay has obviously given the question of the relevance of the New Testament to the Christian faith much more thought than my friend and provides many provocative reasons for downplaying the role of the New Testament in favor of the “First Testament” (“First Testament” being Goldingay’s preferred moniker for the first 70% of the Christian Bible).
It is not a major spoiler to note that Goldingay would not agree entirely with my friend. Goldingay, in fact, leads his book off by declaring, “Yes, of course, we do need the New Testament, but why?” So, in some ways, the book explains how a skeptic like my friend might find value in the New Testament, after all, while still maintaining his appreciation for the First Testament.
At first, the title of the book might seem unnecessarily (and some might say deceptively) provocative since the first line reverses the meaning of the title. However, there are several chapters (many of which are published elsewhere) in the book that do deliver on the promise of the title. In conjunction, my friend would rediscover the necessity of the New Testament while not leaning too heavily on it for things the New Testament cannot provide, such as the worship model provided in the Psalms.
In the end, Do We Need the New Testament? provides a detailed reason for why we do need the New Testament and hints at a method of its subtitle—Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. One would assume letting the Old Testament speak for itself would satisfy my friend. Michael C Legaspi, however, might suggest otherwise. Legaspi tackles the overall thrust of Goldingay’s book, questioning whether a book can, indeed, speak for itself. The New Testament and other related christological or trinitarian interpreters enlarge the possibilities of meaning, according to Legaspi, which is preferable to reading the First Testament alone. Furthermore, Legaspi questions the very possibility of letting any text speak on its own without some sort of dialogue between it and its interpreters. Perhaps my friend, in preferring to do his own interpretation of the First Testament, is fooling himself. Or at least limiting himself.
In fact, my friend may only think he identifies as more Jewish by reading the First Testament on its own, neglecting the fact that Jews do not read the First Testament (or Tanak) by letting it speak for itself, either. Marvin Sweeney, who actually is Jewish (and curious as to why he was invited to participate), answers the title of the book with an unqualified “No” since Judaism has no need for the New Testament. However, though the New Testament is not necessary for (Jewish) faith, the Tanak is not sufficient for faith, even Judaism, for the Tanak “is part of a larger interpretative tradition that includes” a host of other interpretations of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. So, if even Judaism does not “let the [Tanak] speak for itself,” it should come as no surprise that Sweeney believes that the New Testament is critical for practitioners of the Christian faith, if not his own.
It is perhaps worth noting that Goldingay, himself, did not devise the subtitle of the book, which should come as a bit of a relief to Judy Stack-Nelson, who argues that the New Testament “still seems to play an overly determinative role in setting the agenda for the issues” raised in the book. Stack-Nelson, though critical of much of the volume, finds that it ends strongly with Goldingay’s manifesto on “Theological Interpretation: Don’t Be Christ-Centered, Don’t Be Trinitarian, Don’t Be Constrained by the Rule of Faith.” These interpretive lenses (pace Legaspi?) actually limit the First Testament’s ability to confront and surprise.
Similar to Stack-Nelson, Amy Peeler engages primarily with one chapter of Do We Need the New Testament? As a scholar of the letter to the Hebrews, she naturally takes on chapter 5: “How People have Mis(?)read Hebrews.” In contrast to Stack-Nelson, however, Peeler expresses some frustration with Goldingay’s command not to be Trinitarian, as many other evangelicals might as well.
Goldingay, himself, has responded to each of our panelists, noting similarities and differences among each of their points. The importance of dialogue in Judaism, Christianity, and interpretation arises throughout this symposium. Consider this, then, an invitation to participate. I know at least one person who will be listening.
John Goldingay (PhD, University of Nottingham; DD, Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth) is David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was previously principal and a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at St John’s Theological College in Nottingham, England. His books include The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, Key Questions about Interpretation, Models for Scripture, Do We Need the New Testament? and commentaries on Psalms, Isaiah and Daniel. He has also authored the three-volume Old Testament Theology and the seventeen-volume Old Testament For Everyone series. Goldingay also serves in pastoral ministry as an associate pastor at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Pasadena. He holds membership in the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for Old Testament Study, and serves on the Task Force on Biblical Interpretation in the Anglican Communion and the editorial board for the Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies.