The Heresy of "New Testament Christianity"
Recently a California minister exhorted his radio audience, "This Sunday you need to attend a local New Testament church which lifts up Christ." The utterance was not a slip of the tongue. Nor was he merely denoting that the New Testament is the infallible culmination of God's inspired revelation. He was not implying merely that the sacrificial system of the old covenant fulfilled in Christ to whom its shadows pointed, as well as the regulations that erected a racial barrier between ethnic Jews and Gentile, are both suspended in the new covenant era. He was not only insinuating, moreover, that the church today is superior to its old covenant predecessor in its a multiracial character and special empowering by the Holy Spirit. All orthodox Christians believe these things. Rather, the minister, an ardent dispensationalist, was implying that the church is an exclusively New Testament phenomenon, and that it somehow stands on a higher ethical plane than the old covenant.
An Early Source of "New Testament Christianity"
This sentiment is not new. One of the earliest heresies afflicting the church was Marcionism, which, like most early heresies, was sharply anti-Jewish.1 Marcion held that the gospel's glory eclipsed the rest of the Bible including the creation and the whole of the Old Testament. Marcion taught that God's plan of the salvation of men was the supreme message of Scripture to which all else must be subordinate. He despised sex and childbirth, since they especially smacked of the material world. Like most other heretics, Marcion was obsessed with idea of the origin of evil and (again, like most other heretics) found it necessary in buttressing his system to posit two deities, "`one judicial, harsh, mighty in war, the other mild, placid, simply good and excellent.' The former was the Creator of the world, the God of the Old Testament; the latter was the Father of Jesus Christ, who had descended to earth for the first time in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar."2 Marcion was, however, one of the first patristic heretics to sever redemption from creation, as all constant dualists eventually must. Naturally, his novel hermeneutical axiom led him to deny that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is in any sense just in dealing with sin. He denied Christ had an actual body, for then the body would necessarily have been "stuffed with excrement."3
In ostensibly exalting the gospel, Marcion stressed it absolute newness. To speak of Old Testament authority was to deny the newness of the gospel, which dispels the law as light does darkness. To Marcion, only Paul the apostle had correctly presented the gospel, allegedly purging it from all Jewish elements. Like many after him (even Luther) he established a rationalistic theological construct to which the rest of revelation must conform; if it does not, it had to be jettisoned. He was one of the early textual critics who deleted portions of Scripture under the guise of restoring the primitive revelation of Jesus and the gospel (whose message, of course, just coincidentally reinforced Marcion's reductionist theological presupposition!).
They all saw the Old Testament as a Christian revelation fulfilled in the Christian church, not a racially Jewish revelation to be fulfilled in a future apocalyptic era: the Bible is a book both for and about Jewish and Gentile Christians.
The Orthodox Response
The church's response was to excommunicate Marcion, condemn his dogma, and tighten up her own theology. She did this by reaffirming the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament (while not always consistently applying its authority), and by spiritualizing its promises: "There was no early Christian who simultaneously acknowledged the doctrinal authority of the Old Testament and interrupted it literally."4 They all saw the Old Testament as a Christian revelation fulfilled in the Christian church, not a racially Jewish revelation to be fulfilled in a future apocalyptic era: the Bible is a book both for and about Jewish and Gentile Christians. Indeed, the early church assumed the Jewish view of the origin and reliability of the Scriptures, as Osterhaven notes: "For the apostles no question is possible about the origin of the Word: it is from God. Human instruments in its writing added nothing to its content. This view corresponds with the general Jewish opinion of Scripture as coming from God. Moses and the prophets were reckoned to have divine authority because God was believed to have spoken through them; their word was the Word of God. Their writings were holy writings, the rule for faith and life, with a superhuman content. Nothing in them was superfluous; everything was there for a purpose."5
The Christian church affirms the eternal authority of the entire canon and will admit no severance within the revelation. While divine truth comes to its crescendo in the New Testament with the revelation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the New Testament is not qualitatively superior to the Old either in doctrine or morality.
The Re-emergent Heresy
Many of today's professed Christians, by contrast, are ensnared in a strange way of thinking that perceives the message of the Old Testament as theologically and ethically abolished by the Christ-revelation. This is a common notion of the modern church, and it, no less than Marcionism, is heresy. It is expressed baldly by evangelical luminary Clark Pinnock:
The Scripture principle proper to Christianity ... is not just identical to the Judaic Scripture principle. Most importantly, the bipartite Bible is structured in such a way as to identify the Old Testament as prefiguring narrative, not the last word on the purposes of God. The messianic age has dawned in Jesus the Christ, and the revelation associated with that age takes precedence over premessianic material. Scripture, thus, is not leveled in the way it is in the Judaic Scripture principle but is searched and interpreted in terms of Christological presupposition. Naive rhetoric about biblical infallibility could easily lead to a tragic Judaizing of the Christian faith.6
This conclusion is quite ironic, for, if anything, many Jews during Christ's earthy sojourn did not hold Scripture in sufficiently high esteem (Jn. 5:45-47). It was not that they were "biblicists"; they were not sufficiently Biblical. Christ, by contrast, upheld the eternal authority of the Old Testament even in its minutia: "From the manner in which Christ quotes Scripture we find that he recognizes and accepts the Old Testament in its entirety as possessing a normative authority, as the true word of God, valid for all time."7 The manner in which Christ and the apostles, not to mention the united orthodox Christian church for eighteen centuries, reverence the Holy Scriptures of both Testaments as the inspired, infallible, and authoritative word of God contrasts starkly not only with the skeptical attitude toward Scripture engendered by Enlightenment rationalism, but also the truncated version of the Bible supported by so much modern evangelicalism, devotees of "New Testament Christianity."
Two prime corollaries flow from the heresy of "New Testament Christianity." Both are deadly to the cause of Biblical Faith. Perhaps the most prominent (and pernicious) is the cancellation of Biblical law. An early evangelical committed to this cancellation, Lewis Sperry Chafer stated flatly, "These actual written commandments, either of Moses or the kingdom, are not the rule of the believer's life under grace, any more than these systems are the basis of his salvation. The complete withdrawal of the authority of these two systems will now be examined."8 Like Marcion, Chafer's scheme sees the religious system of the Old Testament Jews as vastly different from and inferior to the glorious and gracious life of the New Testament:
It is often inferred that Christianity is an outgrowth or product of Judaism. In reality these two systems are as independent of each other as the two opposing principles of law and grace. Being this so widely different in their essential elements, they are, like the principles which they embody, as far removed the one from the other as heaven is higher than the earth. One is of the earth, of the old creation, of the flesh; the other is of heaven, of the new creation, and the Spirit .... [I]t does not ... follow that God's purposes and ways are the same with Israel and the church.9
Not surprisingly, therefore, Chafer, like Marcion, posits a new ethical standard for Christians:10 the leading of the Spirit, and absolute freedom from Biblical law: "Is it not imperative that the children of God should be placed within the bounds of reasonable law? Absolutely No! The Christian's liberty to do precisely as he chooses is as limitless and perfect as any other aspect of grace. . . . God can propose absolute liberty to the one in whom He is so working that the innermost choice is only that which he wills for him."11 In this dispensational scheme, law is unnecessary because man is governed by the Spirit. This is antinomianism with a vengeance: man is no longer subject to divine revelation because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the presence of the Spirit is so powerful that the Bible as an ethical standard is rendered unnecessary. This is, functionally, the deification of man. He, like God, is "above the law."
The second chief corollary of "New Testament Christianity" is retreatism: a reversal from any active engagement in the world's structures and attempt to exert dominion in the earth under Christ's authority using his word as the basis.12 This trait does not flow logically from a denial of the relevance of Old Testament authority, since the New Testament no less than the Old Testament requires the dominion task of Christians.13 In reality, however, "New Testament Christianity" subsists in tandem with a retreatist mode.
"New Testament Christians" are led to this retreatism by the sharp discontinuity thy posit between the old covenant church, comprised principally (though not exclusively) of ethnic Israel, and the new covenant church, which consists of the multiracial Christian community. In fact, the "New Testament Christians" often deny the church existed at all in the Old Testament!14 Kenneth Good, speaking for some (though certainly not all) Baptists, declares:
Baptists ... observe that the church is a radical departure from the previous program of God for Israel rather than a continuation of the same entity under a new title and a revived life. While there was a continuum with respect to the plan of God, there was a drastic change in His program for testimony in the earth. The church was not Israel continued in time, but an entirely new undertaking of God which began in connection with the ministry of Christ, and not before.15
Because "New Testament Christians" see ethnic Israel as an "earthly," kingdom people and the multiracial church of the new covenant as a "heavenly," non-kingdom people (recall the Chafer citation above), they see the tasks and domains of both groups to be almost opposite.16
If, however, we acknowledge the Biblical teaching that the multiracial church of the new covenant assumes the place of ethnic Israel and her promises (Rom. 2:28, 29; 9:6, 7; 11:17-24; Gal. 3:6-29; Eph. 2:11-22; Heb. 8:6-13; 12:18-24)17 who forfeited her exalted position by covenant-breaking (Mt. 21:33-43; 22:1-14), we recognize equally God's plan for his children to serve as vicegerents of the earth and inherit it under his authority (Gen. 1:27-29; Ps. 8:4-6; 37; Mt. 28:18-20; Rom. 4:13; 2 Cor. 5:20,21; Rev. 2:26, 27). Rushdoony summarizes:
St. Paul says [Rom. 9:6-8], first, that there are two Israels, the outward entity, the nation, which claims, despite its rejection of God the Son, to be still Israel. There is, on the other hand, God's true Israel, the ecclesia, the kingdom of God. Second, membership in God's Israel is not nor ever was by birth. It is always and only by God's grace, received by faith. Only those who share in Abraham's faith are members of Christ, the chosen seed. Third, those with a hereditary claim to the covenant by blood or birth, the Jews and church members, are the children of the flesh of unredeemed human nature, not the regenerate children of God. "The children of promise" are alone counted as the true seed of Christ, who is the seed of Abraham. Fourth, in Romans 11 Paul makes clear that, whereas the true Israel of God shall be saved, blessed, and triumphant, the Israel which is Israel by name only shall be cut off until it becomes the regenerate Israel of God. Thus, on the one hand we have judgment, on the other, blessing. The true Israel of God is a ruling people.... They must learn to rule themselves, conquer their sins, obey God's law, resolve their conflicts, and maintain, in every area of life, their struggle to dominion.18
The unity of the covenants, of the people of God, and of God's promises dictates the recognition and execution of the dominion commission.
To "New Testament Christians," no such unity exists. The revelation and plan of God are severely and irreparably fragmented. These individuals are therefore "principled retreatists." They assume they have discharged their obligation with the practices of Bible-reading (mostly the New Testament!), prayer, church attendance, personal evangelism, and (to borrow Rushdoony's parlance), "pious gush." They retreat into their increasingly ineffectual churches, ineffectual families, ineffectual vacation Bible schools, ineffectual seminaries, ineffectual missions programs, ineffectual AWANA clubs, ineffectual lives. Because a large sector of "New Testament Christians" are "pretribulational rapturists," their retreatism is eminently logical: Jesus will be back soon to "rapture out" the "New Testament Church," and we'll leave this filthy, corrupt world to its rightful owner, the Devil. So there.
The most potent and consistent corrective to "New Testament Christianity" is Biblical Christianity: a full-orbed Christian Faith affirming the plenary and eternal authority and applicability of both the Old and New Testaments. The seeds of this full-orbed Faith appeared in the Reformed tradition,19 germinated with the Puritans,20 bloomed with the Dutch School of the Cosmonomic Idea,21 and is flowering in Christian Reconstruction.22
The Christian Reconstructionists' is a world-conquering Faith in the name of the King. Will you join Chalcedon in working for and reaping the full harvest?
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago, 1971), 71-81.
2. ibid., 74.
3. ibid., 75.
4. ibid., 81.
5. M. Eugene Osterhaven, The Faith of the Capital Church (Grand Rapids, 1982), 62.
6. Clark Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (San Francisco, 1984), 62.
7. Pierre C. Marcel, "Our Lord's Use of Scripture," in ed., Carl F. H. Henry, Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids, 1958), 133.
8. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace (Findlay, OH, 1922), 216.
9. ibid., 238, 239.
10. Just as "New Testament Christianity" denies the authority of God's inscripturated revelation in the sphere of individual sanctification, so it denies it in the sphere of civil regulation. See Norman Geisler, "A Premillennial View of Law and Government," Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 142, No. 567 [July-September, 1985], 250-266. Geisler, dispensationalist, supports "natural law" as the basis of civil government. For a critical assessment, see Andrew Sandlin, "A Critique of Christian Non-Theonomic Conceptions of Civil Government," Calvinism Today, Vol. 2, No. 2 [April, 1992], 10-14.
11. Chafer, op. cit., 345, emphasis original.
12. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ, 1973).
13. Kenneth Gentry, The Greatness of the Great Commission (Tyler, TX, 1990).
14. John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question (Grand Rapids, 1979 ed.), 25.
15. Kenneth Good, "The Conflict Between Reformed Theology and Baptist Distinctives," in 1987 National Conference of Calvinistic Baptists: Compilation of Messages (Olmstead, OH, 1987), E-2, emphasis supplied.
16. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids , 1964), 201, 202.
17. For additional Biblical evidence, see Charles Provan, The Church is Israel Now (Vallecito, CA, 1987), and Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia, 1984).
18. R. J. Rushdoony, Law and Society (Vallecito, CA, 1982), 429.
19. John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (London, 1954).
20. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids, 1986).
21. Herman Dooyweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Ontario, Canada, 1983); Cornelius Van Til, A Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, 1967 ed.). Based generally on the work of Abraham Kuyper, e.g., Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, 1931).
22. R. J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA, 1991); Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction:What It Is, What It Isn't (Tyler, TX, 1991); Andrew Sandlin, A Christian Reconstructionist Primer (Vallecito, CA, 1996).
Topics: R. J. Rushdoony, Dispensationalism, Reformed Thought, Puritanism