Throughout the history of Christian missions in India, there has been a debate as to what to do with the Old Testament. It is an old history that has nothing to do with India. It contains events and words that are violent and perhaps sub-Christian. It conveys an impression of an angry and demanding God, unattractive to the Indian populace. When the person of Jesus is so powerful and inspiring, why distract and confuse with these other scriptures?
The solutions have been many:
- Just ignore the Old testament in our teaching and preaching.
- Encourage new Bhaktas to read only the New Testament, giving the impression that the Old Testament is useless, confusing, and distracting.
- Interpret that the New Testament supersedes the Old or that the Old must be interpreted in the light of the New.
- Just hand out New Testaments, or even just a copy of the gospels.
- Use the Hindu scriptures as the “Old Testament for India,” mining truths and even prophecies that point to Jesus.
Good missiologists and theologians have always been uncomfortable with these approaches. They can be dishonest and manipulative and shallow and even heretical. The fact is that the Old Testament has always been accepted by orthodox Christianity as divinely inspired scripture, no different in status than the New Testament.
It’s helpful to consider what the Hebrew scriptures meant to the early Christians. They knew the events of Jesus’ life. By divine inspiration, the gospel writers recorded these events, basically without explanation. Then, what did the events mean? Where could they go for authoritative interpretation? The Gnostics were integrating Jesus and His life into their mystical beliefs and practices and convincing many followers.
They knew they had to turn to previous authoritative revelation for criteria of interpretation. For them, that meant the Hebrew scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament. Jews today call those scriptures “the Bible,” and that is what the first Christians also considered the Bible. When St. Paul wrote that “All scripture is inspired by God” (II Tim 3:16), he was talking about the Hebrew Bible.
By divine inspiration, then, the New Testament writers went to the psalms and the prophets and the books of Moses and temple rituals to ferret out the truths and prophecies and precedents that Jesus fulfilled. They garnered these materials and conveyed them to the Christians of their day in their missives. At the Council of Nicea in the 4th century, they wrote a creed which stated “The third day He rose again according to the scriptures.” And those interpretive/predictive scriptures were the Bible of their day, the Old Testament. The New Testament did not interpret the Old, but the Old interpreted the New.
Where does that leave us? Do we have to educate Jesu Bhaktas today into first century Christians in order for them to understand the New Testament? Do they have to become scholars of Old Testament writings and Jewish culture and history? Obviously, we don’t do that even in long-established church congregations.
My thought is that we need to be both practical and orthodox. On the negative side, we don’t denigrate the Old Testament scriptures. They are divinely inspired. They are the divinely guided source of interpreting Jesus’ Nature, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and reign. These interpretations are the criteria by which all teaching must be judged. In addition, we certainly don’t manipulate and disrespect the Hindu scriptures by trying to turn them into something they are not.
On the positive side, we are practical. We use the gospels as the introduction to the faith, beginning with the inspiring life and words of Jesus. Those New Testament writings that are steeply rooted in Jewish imagery and history, such as Hebrews and Revelation, may be judiciously avoided. When it comes to the writings of St. Paul, as I have written elsewhere, we receive him as the mystical theologian that he was, in our bhakti tradition.
Finally, the nature of our faith is not an intellectual and scholarly understanding of the Bible. It is a personal and transformative relationship with the living Lord. To continue the passage I quoted earlier, God tells us through St. Paul that “all scripture” is to be used “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (II Tim 3:16-17) Whatever use of the scriptures accomplishes that purpose, is the proper use.
In response to this article, Swami Dayanand Bharati added these thoughts:
For me personally, without having some basic understanding of the OT, one cannot even understand some of the technical terms in the NT. More than this, if the Lord came to fulfill the Law and prophets, then we should know what those Law and prophets were. Next to understand the historical background of so many events related to the Lord and the early mandali, we should know the continuation of that history recorded in the OT. In fact, I even encourage some bhaktas to try to read and understand the Inter Testament history to understand some events related to the Lord and early mandali. Of course, as you well said, we need not begin from here and all need not spend time to read all of them. But at least few must spend time to read and understand both OT and Inter Testament history to help the new bhakts to understand the Life and teaching of the Lord meaningfully.