Joseph Prince (Among Others) Has Wrongly Divided The Word – By Dr Roland Chia (Dated 14 Jan 2021)
One of the most interesting figures in the history of the early church is Marcion, the son of the bishop of Sinope and respected member of the Christian community. In July, AD 144, Marcion was excommunicated after a public hearing before the clergies of the churches in Rome.
At that hearing, Marcion was asked to expound his peculiar ideas about Christianity, especially his view of the Old Testament and its relationship to the New. Marcion declared that the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different from each other that it is impossible to reconcile them.
He judged the God of the Old Testament to be a somewhat inferior deity, a God of wrath who is preoccupied only with justice. The Old Testament God, he opined, is the God of the Jews.
The God of the New Testament, however, is radically different. He is the God whose very nature is love, the supreme God, whose messenger is Jesus Christ. To Marcion, the God revealed in the pages of the New Testament is a God of goodness and grace, and nothing else.
Consequently, Marcion categorically rejected the entire Old Testament and embraced only the New Testament as authoritative Scripture.
Although Marcionism – as this heresy is later named – appeared in the early period of church history, it has from time to time reared its ugly head in contemporary Christianity, albeit dressed in a different garb.
The most recent instantiation of a version of this ancient heresy is the so-called hyper-grace movement. The way in which hyper-grace preachers view the Old Testament and bits of the New bears remarkable family resemblances to Marcionism.
Marcion would gladly endorse what Andre van der Merwe asserts about the relationship between the New and Old Testaments in his book, Grace: The Forbidden Gospel:
At the risk of sounding critical, it remains a sad reality that the Bible Society chose to combine the Old and New Testaments into a single book. This single decision has caused widespread confusion within the ranks of believers throughout the world. Many of the writings of the Bible before the cross portrays God to be a harsh, cruel being, set on destroying and punishing people if they dared to disobey the set of moral standards represented by the 10 commandments and the other laws (p. 28).
Like the ancient Marcionites, hyper-grace preachers like van der Merwe maintain that the Old Testament should not be regarded as being at par with the New Testament.
But there is an important difference between them.
Unlike Marcion and his followers, the hyper-grace preachers did not outrightly reject the OT as the Word of God, but insist that it addresses only the people of God in the old covenant. Therefore, the OT has nothing significant to say to Christians who belong to the new covenant, the covenant of grace.
There is another difference between the Marcionites and the hyper-grace preachers that should be pointed out.
Although Marcion and his followers rejected the OT, they regarded all of the NT as authoritative and therefore as directly relevant for Christians. The hyper-grace preachers, however, maintain that many of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are not directly relevant to Christians because they were delivered before the cross and therefore still belonged to the old covenant.
For the hyper-grace preachers, then, any teaching or command that is recorded before the death of Christ on the cross (which, for them, marks the beginning of the new covenant) belongs to the old covenant. They are not relevant to believers who belong to the new covenant, the covenant of grace.
In a section entitled ‘Rightly Dividing the Word’ in the eighth chapter of Destined to Reign, Joseph Prince clearly articulates this point when he writes:
There is a lot of confusion and wrong believing in the church today because many Christians read their Bibles without rightly dividing the old and new covenants. They don’t realise that even some of the words which Jesus spoke in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are part of the old covenant. They were spoken before the cross as He had not yet died. The new covenant only begins after the cross, when the Holy Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost (p. 92, emphasis in original).
For Joseph Prince, not everything recorded in the New Testament pertains to the new covenant, including most of the teachings of Jesus. According to this way of ‘dividing the Word’, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the commands to love God and neighbour, and the entire Sermon on the Mount are not relevant for Christians! They belong to the old covenant.
Needless to say, this way of ‘dividing the Word’ is antithetical to how the Church has always understood the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Although the Church maintains that the Old Testament must be understood in light of the New, it has always taught that both testaments belong to the one canon of Scripture, which is the authoritative Word of God for Christians.
In his Small Catechism, the great Protestant Reformer of the 16th century, Martin Luther, describes the Bible in this way:
The Bible gathers together the writings of God’s chosen prophets and apostles over a period of more than a thousand years. Through the Holy Spirit, God Himself gave these writers the thoughts and words they recorded (verbal inspiration), such that the Bible is God’s Word.
Here, Luther stresses that the Bible in its entirety (that is, both the Old and New Testaments) is inspired by God and therefore must be regarded as the Word of God. It is this biblical canon, Luther adds, that ‘gives us everything we need to know and believe for the Christian faith and life.’
This same emphasis on the canon of Scripture is made in the doctrinal standard of the Reformed or Presbyterian Churches: The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647.
In its treatment of Holy Scripture (Chapter 1), the Confession states that ‘under the name Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament.’ After listing the books of the entire Bible, the Confession concludes by stressing that they are ‘given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.’
Thus, all the books in the biblical canon are to be regarded as Holy Scripture, the Word of God written. All these books are ‘given by the inspiration of God’. Most importantly, both the OT and NT are to be regarded by Christians as ‘the rule of faith and life.’
And, if this is not clear enough, the Confession further stresses that ‘The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deducted from Scripture …’ Notice that it is in the entire Scripture (not just New Testament) that the whole counsel of God concerning salvation and the Christian life is presented.
In suggesting that the OT and some parts of the Gospel are meant for only the old covenant people of God and therefore not directly relevant for Christians, hyper-grace preachers like van der Merwe and Joseph Prince have radically departed from the Church’s understanding of the canon of Scripture. They have followed in the footsteps of Marcion instead of Luther and Calvin.
Most significantly, they have departed from the Apostle Paul, who in his second letter of his young protégé Timothy stresses that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Dr Roland Chia
Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine
Trinity Theological College
Theological and Research Advisor
Ethos Institute for Public Christianity