One of the major doctrines of the various ideologies that would go under the umbrella of progressive Christianity is that the Bible is not inerrant, and what Jesus says in the Gospels (which, unlike the rest of the Bible, are assumed to be true and accurate) overrules what is said elsewhere in the Bible.
This principle plays out in many ways. Some in the general progressive camp are much more upfront about this (e.g. author Benjamin Corey of the former Formerly Fundie blog) than others (like Peter Enns). But the general principle employed is that Jesus (i.e. what He says in the Gospels) is the only true revelation of God.
For this reason, none of the rest of the Bible is regarded as the word of God in any meaningful sense. The rest of the Bible is usually believed to be completely human in origin. The Israelites, in attempting to understand God as they imagined Him, wrote the Old Testament over the course of many centuries and attributed words and deeds to Him. It is not actually revelation from God, and therefore, there is no reason to try to harmonize it to the words of Jesus.
Some may say it is inspired in a sense, but not nearly to the extent that Christianity has traditionally believed, nor to the extent that the words of Jesus in the Gospels are truly God's inspired revelation. The rest of the Bible - especially the Old Testament - is ultimately the word of man and, therefore, any part can be rejected, without much concern, if there is apparent reason to do so.
But What If Jesus Affirmed the Old Testament?
With all of this in mind, you might notice some major differences between a progressive view of the Bible and a more traditional Christian view. Traditionally, the books of the Bible, if not inerrant, are at least believed to be generally infallible in that they are all inspired by God, they are not merely the works of men, they are true and accurate when they teach about God and morality, etc. They contain actual divine revelation.
Therefore, traditionally, and especially among those who hold to inerrancy or an equivalent ancient view, it is believed that Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels and the Old Testament can be harmonized once everything is properly understood. In fact, under the traditional view, Jesus even affirms the Old Testament.
This last point is especially important because, if it is the case that Jesus affirms the Old Testament, then this entire progressive paradigm falls apart because we could no longer say that the Old Testament is some inferior, non-divine (or practically non-divine) work of men that is flawed and that is overruled by Jesus.
If Jesus affirms the Old Testament, then that is in line with a more conservative, traditional view of the Bible, where the Old Testament is God’s word, and therefore must be taken into account when deciding what is true and right.
To make a full case that Jesus definitively viewed the Old Testament as being the truly inspired word of God that preceded His first earthly coming would be a task well beyond a blog post. It would take a book or more. But here, I will give some reasons, primarily from Jesus’s own words in the Gospels, why it sure seems like He did, and why any view that denies this has a high hurdle to make its way over.
Why This Matters
In the current social and political environment in the west, many believers from more conservative, evangelical backgrounds tend to start internalizing some of the ideas of progressive Christianity without much pushback. They quote scholars like Peter Enns approvingly, despite holding to more conservative views - at least for the time being. They start showing cognitive dissonance, dismissing some teachings because they are not "loving" and because "Jesus never said" without being willing to actually say that they reject the Old Testament's teaching on the matter (and without an explanation for why the rule might have changed now as part of the new covenant).
This cognitive dissonance can only last for so long until someone has to decide one way or another. Some become more conservative, while others fall to the other side of the fence and adopt progressive Christianity fully. Aside from the theological issues that come with such a view, this often leads to negative practical consequences. It leads to professing believers supporting anti-Christian causes in the name of being loving like Jesus. It leads to them supporting the killing of the unborn (including many girls) in the name of women's rights. It leads to condemning believers who hold to biblical teachings as being toxic. It leads to encouraging people to engage in sin and self-mutilation in the name of LGBT equality, and it even leads to supporting laws that punish believers who do not agree with such stances and then in any way act on their disagreement.
And then, many who embrace progressive Christianity eventually go the way of Bart Campolo and abandon the faith altogether (for more on this, see Hailes).
People get attracted to progressive theology and its disdain for the holy scriptures for any number of reasons, but for many, it starts out with just some interesting ideas that seem to make sense and resolve some problems that arise from affirming the Old Testament as being God's word. The following is my attempt to wade into the waters a little bit and say “let me stop you right there.” It isn’t the be-all, end-all of the conversation, but I hope to perhaps get some people to rethink their rethinking of the Bible.
Jesus Cited And Affirmed Many Specific Commandments of Moses
Jesus Called Two Commands of Moses "The Word of God” in Matthew 15:6
Moses gave many commandments, claiming to have been from God. And many of those commandments are the ones most often appealed to as being false, violent and wicked commands that Jesus supposedly taught were wrong and not from God. And yet, Jesus calls some of the commands that Moses gave “the word of God.”
If Moses really did give many false commands, all the while saying that he was hearing them directly from God, then would we really expect Jesus to assert that some of his other commands were still, in fact, directly from God? Do liars, which Moses must be if progressive Christianity is true, sometimes pass along actual messages from God - not just guessing correctly, but actually preaching what Jesus called "the word of God"?
An aside, the books of the Torah attribute commands of Moses directly to God all the time. This is explicit and not an assumption. This occurs, for example, during the first verses of most chapters of Leviticus (all chapters except 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 26). And Jesus did affirm that Moses was a real individual, as the Torah spoke of (e.g. John 5:46).
It is worth noting that there is a false cliche that sometimes comes up in progressive circles, the cliche that Jesus is the word of God, not the Bible. But as we see here, Jesus Himself referred to at least part of the Bible that way. This is not the only time at all that the Bible, including in the Gospels, calls something “the word of God” that is not Jesus For more on this, see “Jesus is the Word of God, but He Is Not the Only Word of God.”
Not only are two of Moses's commands considered “the word of God” by Jesus Himself, despite being given on multiple occasions in three different books of the Torah, but one of them is a command to carry out the death penalty!
While it may very well be possible that such a command wasn’t meant to be taken literally – that is a whole different can of worms in Old Testament interpretation – at the very least this command cannot be rejected simply because it would seem to violate Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” or something like that. After all, Jesus Himself affirmed the command and rebuked the Pharisees by using it. And if this command about the death penalty is “the word of God” according to Jesus Himself, on what grounds can we reject other such commands simply on the grounds that they violate what Jesus said?
Jesus Was Quoting the Law When he Said "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself"
Many people, including evangelicals, act as though Jesus, on earth, in the Gospels, is the one who first taught “love your neighbor as yourself.” But in that context, Jesus is just quoting the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). In Matthew 22:36, He was asked what the greatest commandment in the Law was. This was not Jesus giving moral teachings in a vacuum. He is being asked to pick from the commands given to Moses in the Torah. And so He does.
After quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and stating that the first and greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (verse 37), Jesus then cites Leviticus 19:18 and tells us that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (verse 39).
This second commandment, often used to say that Jesus overruled some of the more severe commandments (and allowances) in the Old Testament, is itself directly from the Old Testament.
And for good measure, it is worth pointing out that this Leviticus passage precedes a whole chapter (Leviticus 20) that literally calls for capital punishment for various sins, including homosexuality (verse 13). It seems hard to justify using "love your neighbor as yourself" to nullify passages of the Old Testament when you realize it's place in the story - and yet Jesus approvingly cites it anyway.
Jesus Quotes The Old Testament To Make Various Points
Like the various New Testament epistles, Jesus also cites the Old Testament on a regular basis.
One major example is Matthew 22:32. To prove the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus quoted Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” That point, the claim that God really said that to Moses, was essential to Jesus’s point. If that event in Exodus did not actually happen, then Jesus’s whole argument would have fallen apart.
We know also that Jesus affirmed a resurrection (e.g. John 5:28-29). It is not as though Jesus maybe just meant “if you followed the Old Testament, you’d have to believe in a resurrection” as part of a hypothetical statement. Jesus really was arguing for the resurrection, and using the Old Testament as proof.
Other examples include Jesus citing Psalm 8:2 in Matthew 21:16 to justify children in the temple praising Him, citing Isaiah 29:13 about the false, insincere honor given to God being likewise given to Jesus, and citing Hosea 9:6 in Matthew 9:13 about how God ultimately desires mercy not sacrifice.
Jesus Appealed To The Old Testament Scriptures Broadly
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and “Moses and the Prophets”
In this famous parable (I do believe it is a parable, as do probably the majority of believers), Jesus shows a rich man and a beggar in an intermediate state between bodily death and the resurrection. The rich man was in torment, and the beggar, named Lazarus, was with Abraham in a place of joy.
I’m sure most of you are already familiar with this parable, so the one element I want to draw attention to is the end. The rich man wanted Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers to repent and not end up where the rich man was in Hades. Abraham says that his brothers have Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Old Testament). When the rich man says that they need more to lead them to repentance, Abraham delivers the punchline of the parable:
But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'
This point, the takeway of the whole story, is that if Moses and the Prophets were not to lead a Jew to repentance and salvation, nothing would. They wouldn’t even be convinced by someone rising from the dead (and we all know why Jesus would mention that).
If Moses and the Prophets were not actually speaking on behalf of God, if these writings were just the product of men trying to figure God out, and if they often got it wrong and even taught wicked things in the name of God that Jesus would refute with His teachings, then why would Moses and the Prophets lead anyone to repentance and salvation?
Jesus Appealed To Himself in the Old Testament
If Jesus thought that the Old Testament was at best a nice try by religious but violent men trying to figure out God, why did He speak of Himself being in it? Why would He speak of what it said as things that needed to be fulfilled, if these things weren’t of God? Why would teachings of men have to come to pass?
Perhaps most notable is Matthew 26:54, when Jesus is being arrested:
How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?
But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets (Matthew 26:56a).
Again, why would the scriptures need to be fulfilled if they were the works solely of men and not God? If they were the works of men, then it would make sense that some things would prove to be false.
The fact that Jesus appealed to Old Testament scripture this way is, at the very least, a challenge to the idea that the scriptures were not divine in origin.
It is also worth remembering that Jesus came to earth before any of the New Testament would have been written. The scriptures He would reference would be the Old Testament.
Jesus also appealed to the scriptures in John 5:37 when preaching to the Pharisees:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.
It isn’t controversial that the “scriptures” that the Pharisees would consult were the books of the Old Testament. While controversies exist over a few books, these controversies pertain to books like 1 Enoch or the Roman Catholic Apocrypha, not the books of Moses or the Prophets.
In fact, we see similar sentiments, and further explanation, in Luke 24:44, after Jesus is resurrected:
Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."
Other References To the Scriptures
In Matthew 22, not only did Jesus cite Exodus 3:6 to prove the resurrection, he also rebuked the Sadducees with the following:
You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29).
Why would it matter that the Sadducees did not understand “the scriptures” if they were not God’s revelation?
Although this following reference to the scriptures was not spoken by Jesus directly, it is noteworthy that John - who wrote one of the Gospels that are considered to be accurate and true (since otherwise progressive Christians couldn't authoritatively quote Jesus from them) - spoke of the the disciples believing both Jesus's word of His own resurrection and also the scriptures.
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:19-22; emphasis mine).
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.