The Old Testament Wasn’t a ‘Works Religion’

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Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich

The idea, ever popular, that the Old Testament was a ‘works religion’ but the New Testament is all about ‘your personal walk with God’ didn’t come from Luther or Calvin or Melanchton, or the old Baptists (or the Apostles). It does, however, show up in Adolf Harnack, a theologian that the churches teaching this nonsense probably have no love for. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with him. But he certainly helped popularize it, and it was a long time coming. The century leading up to his meteoric rise to prominence in the field of academic theology was a kind of seedbed for the growing hyper-individualism that overtook much of Western Christianity and produced the parched landscape in which we find ourselves.

Against their usual caricatures, it turns out that Luther’s a lot more nuanced about Law and Grace than is typically represented, and the Anabaptists/early Baptists found far more in the Old Testament than Law to be liberated from. Calvin, too, scoffed at the notion that the New Testament Religion was primarily about your ‘soul.’ The Patristic authors wrote often against an idea not unsimilar called ‘gnosticism’ (Google it for a fun afternoon). And the Apostles wrote the New Testament, which has an awful lot more on its mind than our ‘personal salvation.’

You do, however, see that idea fermenting in liberal academic circles throughout the 19th/20th century, and came to a head in pre-war Germany. At that point in time, mainstream theology trickled down from Berlin, alongside a few other elite academies. As goes the scholarship, so goes popular preaching, and both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestant churches were penetrated by the novel ideal that the Old Testament had brought about a ‘public’ religion, where people in a community work for their salvation in a shared domain of people separated from the rest of the world by God, but the New Testament had brought a ‘personal’ religion, where people were saved, either by assent to certain doctrines (as some ‘conservatives’ might have said) or by some sublime emotional experience of God (as some of the ‘liberals’ might have said).

Naturally, these are both wrong notions, because the ideology behind them is wrong. There is not a hard separation between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ testaments. Some early Church Fathers were concerned that separating them as such in the canon would create an unbiblical disjunction between them in the minds of future congregations. It turns out their concern was prophetic, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

Over the following century, the line between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestantism blurred. New denominations emerged, old branches withered away, Fundamentalism was born, and proved to be a powerful evangelistic force. But it soon splintered off and became so varied and diverse that it’s hard to identify any ‘one’ thing that ‘Fundamentalism’ might mean today. But amidst the diversity of contemporary Protestantism, there is at least one common feature that we share.

Namely, that ‘conversion’ is framed chiefly as an individual’s personal experience with God, which is inaugurated by an emotional rush and then cemented by an intellectual assent to a (varying) set of doctrinal standards. Modern Protestants didn’t invent conversion – the Holy Spirit did that – but we did invent the ‘conversion experience.’

Formerly, a convert was someone ‘grafted into the existent community of the risen Jesus.’ There was an extent to which the convert ceased to be simply themself and became instead a ‘member’ (read: appendage) of Christ’s ‘Body.’ This was true across denominational lines. The ‘Great Awakening’ and other primordial revivals were not, chiefly, about saving souls, but about grafting wild olive branches into the Tree of Life, so to speak. Of course it dealt with individuals. Of course, every woman or man was responsible to respond to the Holy Spirit with submission rather than rebellion, but it was unthinkable that this was all somehow part of a puerile scheme by which God was turning people from damned to not-damned by charging people to talk them into belief and inspire them into spiritual euphoria.

Revival, back then, was more like enlistment. Jonathan Edwards, who championed the Second Great Awakening, preached ‘Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God‘ not to people he hoped merely to turn into private believers, but to crowds of God’s enemies, whom, by grace alone, through faith alone, he hoped would be transformed through hearing the gospel word, into contagious gospel communities.

And they would, by carrying out the same mission that God’s people have always had, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to Nehemiah to Jesus’s disciples and their disciples and so on, multiply and fill the earth, as members of the ‘Redeemed’ community, so that over time, their neighbors would seek out the same Jesus in whose Resurrection they now found their life, and one day the whole world would look like love.

This fell by the wayside, however, because future ‘revivals’ were carried out under presuppositions unfortunately bestowed on us by liberal protestants from Berlin and Tübingen, and so on. Books like The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman have done some great work toward recasting the original vision, but as it stands, revival in the West would first mean changing the consciousness of an entire generation.

There was, it seems, a rather direct line from the hard separation of ‘Law’ and ‘Grace’ to the artificial distinction of the ‘public, works-based‘ religion of the Old Testament from the ‘personal, spiritual’ religion of the New Testament, to the strange and inorganic framing of conversion as ‘saving your soul‘ rather than ‘being grafted into the earthly body of Jesus, as exclusive subjects of His kingship, who (incidentally?) share in His inheritance.’

This article is filled with generalizations. It’s hard to cover large swaths of history and interact with broad concepts without doing so. History is always more nuanced than is apparent in the books, articles, and dumb blog posts. Generalizations have to be read as such, and that is what these are. But generalizations are only untrue if they’re untrue, and these are not. And to summarize the sweeping statements thus far: We have inherited the notion that there is a distinction to be made between our spiritual lives and the rest of our lives. It was not the old Baptists, nor Luther nor Augustine nor the Apostles who told us that Jesus came round to save our souls so we could carry on with business as usual in the knowledge that we’ll go to heaven when we die. That was some German liberals from back in the day. Adolf Harnack and friends didn’t mean to derail the Protestant church in the process, but they largely did. Today in the West, even if you fancy yourself a ‘fundamentalist’ or an ‘evangelical,’ liberals probably wrote your theology.

Most of Harnack’s colleagues didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Mercifully, they never did get religious conservatives to abandon that central doctrine of the ancient faith. But their theology did trickle down, not only to the towering Episcopal church on the corner of 4th and Dunmeier, but also to the Independent Baptist Church across the street. The result is that an awful lot of our churches carry on like the Resurrection didn’t happen, and Jesus isn’t King.

Because if the Resurrection did happen, and Jesus wasn’t just a spiritual guru, as Harnack taught, who died for our sins but left His throne unoccupied until the end-times, as too many to count have taught, then everything – literally everything – is different. If the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to His throne, then He rules the Church in a particular sense, even as He rules the world in a general sense. He said to Pilate, ‘You could have no authority over me that is not given to you’ (John 19:11), and Paul affirms as much when he exhorts the Christians in Rome to honor the Emperor (Rom 13:1-7). The rule of Christ over the whole earth is not expressed through political dominion. There can be no ‘Christian Nation,’ no legislated Christendom. He rightfully rules the whole world, but its thrones and dominions are occupied by usurpers. ‘David is anointed but Saul remains.‘ (1 Sam. 15 – 2 Sam 5).

And yet, Jesus is taking claim over the world that belongs to Him. Not from the throne, but from the trenches. He reclaims His world as He colonizes the countries of the usurpers – the gospel is taken from city to city, house to house, and people are grafted into His own ‘resurrection Community.’ They live on the terms of the Kingdom of God, together, in the midst of cities that cannot understand them. They don’t blend in to their surroundings, because their lives are strangely Jesus-shaped. The gospel has permeated every corner of them. Their politics are weird, because they serve a King who crucified Himself for His enemies. Their marriages are weird, because each member is married to a ‘Husband‘ who crucified Himself rather than retaliate against them. 

Their finances are weird, and their sex lives are different, because they worship a man who died a broke 33-year-old virgin (to paraphrase Derek Webb). They run their businesses strangely because they see the face of Jesus in every employee. And they make remarkable employees, because they work as though they work for Jesus Himself, rather than the CEO of Highland Ventures Inc. They haven’t simply had their ‘souls’ saved. They have, literally, become members of a ‘Body‘ other than their own, and the subjects of another Kingdom, who live out its principles in the midst of this one. And this one is passing away – not into nothingness, as though God were going to destroy the world. No, this world is passing away and becoming – slowly, painfully, and certainly – the kingdom on whose terms they already live. Half the work of an ‘evangelist’ is to live Christianly.

* * *

And so, to understate the point, Harnack and his colleagues were wrong. Long dead, he knows that now, and I like to think he’s happier for it. There has only ever been one mission of God, and Noah was a missionary, as was Abraham, and Moses. The ancient Law was not a pathway to salvation. The whole of scripture knows nothing of ‘works-based salvation’ – with the notable exception, perhaps, of some heretics in Galatia who didn’t understand their own Torah. The Law of Moses, perhaps counterintuitively, was a missionary endeavor. It carried forward the missionary work of Yahweh by shaping the already-saved‘ community of Israel around a ‘moral government‘ that reflected the unnatural compassion of the Triune God. Had they carried out their mission to the nations, they would have introduced world to the God who had chosen them, and waited together for the redemption that was to come.

The mission is not fundamentally different in the shadow of the cross. Abraham was saved through faith, if Paul is to be believed, and the ‘righteousness’ of Christ was ‘credited to him’ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:2-5) – and he was given a mission for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). We are saved through the same faith – our faith is Abraham’s faith, and vice versa – by the same grace, too. It was the Cross that saved the Israelites – time is linear, but grace is not.

What is different is that because all of us are included in the resurrection of Jesus, now we really are a royal priesthood. The Kingdom of God really is a kingdom of priests. That is to say, Jesus exercises both His royal and priestly functions on earth, today, through the Church. Scripture is the eyes through which we see the world – past and present – and we, the Church, are the hands by which Jesus writes the future.

There was no place for this in Harnack’s theology. He had faith in the world to work itself out. Religion, of course, was a good emotional crutch, so his Jesus needn’t do much more than abolish the old religion and instead create a new, ‘private’ religion, suitable for the modern man. Again, generalizations. Harnack and others were considerably more nuanced than I can do justice to here, but the point stands that we’ve absorbed more of him than is good for us, and it’s only stifled our usefulness as appendages in Christ’s body.

We would, conversely, benefit from relearning scripture. For too long, the lingering ghosts of German liberal Protestantism have haunted our preaching, writing, and discipleship. We will continue to self-marginalize if the modernist conception of New Testament faith is allowed to remain a very real fox in our imaginary hen-house. Conversion, irreducibly, is a transfer of citizenship. The Church is a kingdom of priests, overcoming the world as is by contagiously living on heaven’s terms in a world that foreshadows hell. The gospel doesn’t begin in Matthew, but in Moses. We share the mission of ancient Israel, because we’re the same Community.

There is help to be had here. The problematic trends  have described above are not true of all Christians everywhere. They are not even true of all Western Christians. Or even the American Church at large. These trends are prevalent in predominately white churches in the United States more than others. It has been less common, for example, in the black church. For whatever reason, they were less inclined to absorb the novel theological musings of the elite anglo-theologians working out of the European academy. (It’s almost like the heavy liberalization of the Ancient faith is a form of colonialism, or something.)

Of course, there’s no use romanticizing the black church. From what I’m told, they have problems of their own. But privatizing faith is not one of them, and a cursory study into the historic black church in America reveals, for one, a vibrant faith community that seeks to reconcile ever corner of itself to the gospel. Unlike the predominately white masses of mainstream American Christendom, they have not hammered a wedge between the private faith of the individual and the potent social force of the subversive gospel community. To put it another way, the black church is more ‘conservative,’ theologically speaking, even if their politics are more liberal.

Naturally, there’s nothing special about predominantly ‘white’ churches. We could disappear for centuries and the mission of God would not be threatened. But, you know, hopefully we won’t, and we would do well to learn from their example as a community of ‘gathered social engagement,’ ‘tightly-knit communal identity,’ and ‘deep scriptural engagement.’

Again, there’s no reason to paper over their own persistent ills. But they can remind us, for example, that Moses preaches the gospel. And part of Moses’s gospel is the transformation of society by the gathered community of Yahweh in the power of the Spirit. It’s part of Moses’s gospel because it’s part of Jesus’s gospel. Thanks largely to the corrosive influence of 19th/20th century liberalism on the white church, you won’t find much of that in the predominately Caucasian churches in the United States. We’ve been the ‘ruling class’ for so long that it’s ingrained in our psychology that this world doesn’t need to be turned upside down. Coupled with the trickle-down liberalism from Harnack and friends, this has rendered us a largely impotent force for the kingdom here. Again, generalizations have to be read as such. But these are not untrue generalizations. So we can learn from the black church what our own history has engineered us to forget: that the gospel turns the whole world upside down, and – as we ought to recall, but lately have not – that we are the ones to upend it (Acts 17:6).

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