Jesus Invented Love Your Neighbor? Part Two of a Review of Andy Stanley’s “Irresistible”

Irresistible

In Pastor Andy Stanley’s attempt to prove that the Christian can ignore the Old Testament in his book Irresistible, he claims that “Love your neighbor” is a new command by Jesus that sets New Testament ethics apart from Old Testament ethics.  He then qualifies this, but the qualifications still don’t fully acknowledge the Old Testament basis for the teaching.

Here is Jesus’ well-known statement on the two greatest commandments in Matthew 22:

35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Pastor Stanley comments about the two Greatest Commandments:  “The first statement makes its debut in Deuteronomy. The other appears first in Leviticus.  But this unique formula is original with Jesus.” (182)  I don’t know if there was anyone who labeled those commands the “Greatest Commandment” and the “Second Greatest Commandment” before Jesus did, but that the lawyer asked the question at least shows that the issue of the greatest commandment was being discussed before Jesus made this statement.  And we have evidence that Jews prior to Jesus got the gist of it – they realized that loving your neighbor summarizes the whole Law of God.  A generation before Christ, the famous rabbi Hillel expressed Leviticus 19:18 as the Golden Rule which summarizes the whole Law of God:  “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor:  that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”[1]

But after admitting that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus, Pastor Stanley says:  “If you had asked first-century Jews what it looked like to love God, they would say, ‘Obey his commands.’  Jesus suggested a new answer.  ‘Love your neighbor.’” (183)  Pastor Stanley wants this to be a new answer, even though he knows that Jesus was repeating an Old Testament command from Leviticus 19:18.  He also wants to create a false distinction between obeying a command of God and loving your neighbor, even though loving your neighbor is a command in the Bible.

This confused idea that in the Old Testament God’s people were supposed to obey commands but in the New Testament we follow the example of Jesus rather than obey commands runs throughout Pastor Stanley’s book.  He’s saying that all the commands in the Old Testament are thrown out and replaced by following the historical example of Jesus’ love for others:

New covenant people don’t begin or end with the question: What does the Bible say about . . .? That’s so old covenant. New covenant people begin with a better question: What does God’s love for me require of me? Remember, for the first two hundred-plus years, the church had no The Bible.  Sacred documents?  Yes.  Officially sanctioned Christian Scripture?  Not yet.  In the beginning, new covenant folks took their cues from Jesus’ new command. (233-34)

The behavioral standard for new covenanters is straightforward: If it’s not good for them, it’s sin. We don’t need chapter and verse. We have something better. Namely, Jesus’ new, all-encompassing, inescapably simple command. We are to do unto others as our heavenly Father through Christ has done unto us. (242)

Basically, Pastor Stanley is pushing a Utilitarian view of ethics to replace the Divine Command type of ethics of the Bible.  The problem, beyond ignoring God’s word, is that “love” can mean a lot of different things, not all of which are logically compatible.  In 2019 America, “love” means homosexual marriage.  That is rebellion against the God who created Adam and Eve as the paradigm of marriage.  Pastor Stanley’s church does not allow homosexual weddings, but it’s hard to see how that church will be able to hold that standard in, say, twenty years.  The more the memory of biblical law and the ethical standards entailed by the creation and fall of Adam and Eve, so often cited in the New Testament, fades in the memory of Christians because they more consistently embrace Pastor Stanley’s vision of a “textless” Christianity that makes the issue of creation irrelevant, the more elastic the definition of “love” will become so as to accommodate the views of secular culture – and exclude God’s word (as “inclusion” in our day always does).

Good consequences are a part of biblical ethics, and showing someone without faith or with weak faith the empirical evidence that violating God’s commands is harmful can help persuade that person to honor God’s commands.  But neither is there a logical or moral necessity to provide an empirical demonstration of how violating God’s commands will have bad consequences.   Since God rules history, obeying God’s commands will always have the best consequences, at least in the long run if not more immediately.  The mere fact that God commands something should be enough to convince a Christian that he shouldn’t violate God’s command.  In some cases, there may not be an empirical way to show how violating God’s commands will lead to bad consequences.   The bad consequence could simply arise from the fact that God will burn with anger and will eventually burn your tail if you disobey Him.  However, Pastor Stanley says that he doesn’t like the idea that the New Testament God brings judgment on people prior to the Last Judgment.  I’ll address that issue in a subsequent post.

After making the other distinctions between the Old Testament and loving your neighbor, Pastor Stanley claims this distinction:  The Old Testament command to love your neighbor only applied to other Jews:  “Loving neighbors was code for loving other Jews . . . .   The era of defining neighbor ethnically was coming to an end.  To prepare his followers for what was coming, Jesus once again veered outside the boundaries of the Levitical law and redefined neighbor. ” (185)  Where did Pastor Stanley get this idea?  Maybe he thought of it on his own, but he is taking the position of militant atheist Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion.  Dawkins (following some other liberal scholars) claims that the Old Testament command of loving your neighbor was an expression of ethnic superiority.[2]  Pastor Stanley doesn’t cite Dawkins’ book, but he seems to be familiar with it, given his frequent references in his book to arguments of the New Atheists against Christianity.

But are Pastor Stanley and the New Atheists correct that “neighbor” is defined in exclusively ethnic terms in the Old Testament?  No.  Leviticus 19:18 does reference “the sons of your own people” in the previous part of this verse, but just a few verses later is a command to love the stranger as yourself:  “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).  Old Testament scholar Richard E. Friedman has compiled a list of 52 references in the Torah about treating aliens with justice and compassion just as a native Israelite should be treated:[3]  Exodus 12:19, 47, 49; 20:10; 22:20; 23:9, 12; Leviticus 16:29; 17:8, 10, 12, 13, 15; 18:26; 19:10, 33, 34; 20:2; 22:18; 23:22; 24:15, 22; 25:35; Numbers 9:14; 15:14, 15, 16, 26, 29, 30; 19:10; 35:15; Deuteronomy 1:16; 5:14; 10:18, 19; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:14, 17, 19, 20, 21; 26:11, 12, 13; 27:19; 29:10; 31:12.  In the Old Testament, “neighbor” (re’a in Hebrew) refers to everyone in the world (Gen. 11:3), a Canaanite (Gen. 38:12, 20), and Egyptians (Exo. 11:2), as well as fellow Israelites (Exo. 2:13).  Pastor Stanley is way off on this attack on the Old Testament.

Another division that Pastor Stanley then tries is this (quoting John 13:34):  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  That was new.” (194)  He is right that Jesus provided a new example of sacrificial love, the best example ever given.  The commandment also could have been new in the sense of what was being practiced in Israel at the time Jesus said this.  Jesus wanted his disciples to act differently from the example set by hypocritical Pharisees for sure.  But this newness doesn’t have the significance that Pastor Stanley gives it because the example that Jesus provides is in obedience to Old Testament law.  Of course, no human in the Old Testament provided an example of substitutionary sacrifice to pay for someone else’s sins, but neither can anyone under the New Testament.  That aspect of Jesus’ death was unique to Him.  So the extent that Jesus’ sacrifice is an example for Christians to follow, it is an example of following the Old Testament law of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Beyond the numerous commands in the five books of Moses to love others as yourself, including strangers, there are numerous examples of the principle being taught in other sections of the Old Testament.  Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  There is an example of this in Jonathan’s love for David:  “And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul” (1 Sam. 20:17).  Jonathan risked his life at the hands of his father, King Saul, to protect David’s life.   All of the Old Testament passages that command compassion for the poor, oppressed, widows, orphans, and foreigners are too many to mention.  Here are a couple examples:  “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Prov. 14:31); “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech. 7:9-10).

D.A. Carson issued this condemnation of creating false divisions in the Scriptures:

Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.[4]

The claim that Jesus overthrew the Old Testament law by originating the idea of loving your neighbor is one of those false antitheses.

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[1]  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

[2]  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 253:  “‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.’”

[3]  Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus (Harper Collins, 2017), p. 82.  There are 50 verses, with two of the verses containing double references.  Also see Friedman’s essay, “Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?,” https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/love-your-neighbor-only-israelites-or-everyone/.

[4]  D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 234.

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