It’s seems like a strange question to ask when the New Testament seems so clear about it. But John Goldingay offers an important qualification on the issue in his new release Do We Need the New Testament? (IVP Academic).
“My point involves recognizing a paradox within Hebrews itself. It declares that the new covenant of which Jeremiah spoke has been established, through Jesus (Heb 8:7-13; 10:15-18). Yet a moment’s reflection confirms that this statement involves some oversimplification. The new covenant was to effect the writing of God’s revelation into people’s minds, with the result that they no longer needed to teach each other. Thus another of the contrasts between the Testaments that I listed in the introduction to this volume is that God’s teaching is now written into our minds rather than written only on stone. Yet the very existence and contents of Hebrews shows that God’s revelation is not written into people’s minds. Hebrews addresses an audience that needs basic instructions on matters such as love, hospitality, faithfulness in marriage, contentment and the role of their leaders in teaching them (Heb 13:1-25). Those instructions are not far from being a restatement of the Ten Commandments. The instruction that the audience needs is basic indeed. People who have experienced that of which Jeremiah 31 speaks would not be vulnerable to the comment about needing their faculties to be trained to distinguish good and evil (Heb 5:14). Whatever new potential there is in Jeremiah’s new covenant, it is not realized in the congregation that Hebrews addresses, nor in other New Testament congregations such as that at Corinth. Nor does the church today look like an embodiment of the new covenant. In this sense, the new covenant has surely not been established.”
“There is a converse point. Jeremiah 31:31-34 was a promise made to Israel on the verge of the fall of Jerusalem into exile. It would not be particularly good news to its hearers if it was destined for fulfillment only six centuries later. Indeed, it did not wait six centuries. Within a few decades, there was again a worshipping community in Jerusalem living as Yahweh’s people with Yahweh as their God, one that in due course showed itself to be a community with quite a lot of Torah written into its minds–people no longer worshiped other gods, made images, neglected the Sabbath and so on. I don’t know that they avoided adultery or other covetousness, but then, neither does the church in the New Testament, or today.”
“The fact that the new covenant has not been effectively implemented in the church means that we are not in so different a situation from that of Israel. Our lives do not look to be morally superior to Israel’s, nor do we seem to have a closer relationship with God than the one the First Testament speaks of. Hebrews itself speaks in this way in its telling exposition of Psalm 95. When it refers to the way the wilderness generation failed to enter God’s rest, and goes on to take ‘rest’ as an image for salvation in Christ, one might have expected it to be implying that the church has entered this rest, but in fact it urges people to make sure that they don’t follow the wilderness generation’s example. They could fail to enter this rest as that generation did, and as in effect later generations of Israel could, notwithstanding their being physically in the land. Believers in Jesus are not in a less vulnerable position that Israel’s. They are in the same position. . . . It is worth noting that Paul also quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34, in Romans 11:27, and does so in connection with what God will do at the End, not what God has already done.” (pp. 97-99)
Do We Need the New Testament? is a paperback with 184 pages and sells for $22.00.
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.