I still remember the day in Church History class several years ago at Princeton Theological Seminary when our professor made the point that the word “Reformation” is not a harmless, neutral term to describe those historic episodes of the Sixteenth century. He went on to point out that some Roman Catholic scholars and historians, in fact, decline to use the word, and refer instead to the “Protestant Revolution,” or the “Protestant Revolt,” when speaking of those historic events. The latter terms, obviously, convey a far different assessment of the meaning and significance of what happened in the Sixteenth Century. The term “Reformation” after all, implies that the Roman Church of the time was indeed deeply corrupt and in need of reformation, and that the movement led by Luther, Calvin, and others was a good thing that had predominantly positive effects. Roman Catholics who do not share those judgments may understandably prefer a different word.
I have no problems with Roman Catholics who may prefer a different word here. However, I would hardly agree that I should not refer to those epic events as the Reformation and celebrate them as important episodes in the history of the Church, even if there are aspects of the Reformation that are regrettable. I would strongly object if my Roman Catholic friends tried to insist that I should not use the word, and should call it something more sympathetic to their views, such as the Protestant Revolt, or even something more “neutral” such as the Protestant Secession.
With Reformation Day just ahead, it is perhaps an appropriate time to express my conviction that many Christians, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, are surrendering some terms that we should not, terms more fundamentally important than “Reformation.” The first of these is the age old classic term, “Old Testament.” This seemingly innocuous term, used by Christians for centuries by everyone from Sunday School children to scholars, has now become controversial. Indeed, in many academic and scholarly circles the term has been largely abandoned in favor of the term “Hebrew Bible.”
I completely understand why my Jewish friends may not want to call the first 39 books of my Bible the Old Testament. After all, the term implies there is a New Testament, a new revelation that is not only God’s final word of salvation, but also a revelation that is definitive for understanding the true meaning of the Old Testament. As Paul put it, we have “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). This has large and dramatic implications for understanding the Old Testament. Paul made the point rather graphically by saying that for Jewish readers who do not believe the gospel, there is a veil over their minds like the one that Moses put over his face after talking with God. “Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there since only in Christ is it set aside” (2 Cor 3:14).
To reject Christ is to be blind to the true meaning of the Old Testament. This is a strong claim, but nothing less than gospel truth if Jesus is the Christ, the Promised Messiah. To deliberately decline to use the term “Old Testament” in favor of “Hebrew Bible” is to undermine the claims of Paul, and to suggest that the “Hebrew Bible” stands on its own as a sufficient revelation, without Christ.
Again, I can understand why my Jewish friends prefer, indeed insist, themselves, on using other terms for their Scriptures instead of “Old Testament.” What I cannot understand is why so many Christians go along and follow suit. To do so is tacitly to accept the claim that the New Testament is not essential to understand the revelation given to Moses and the prophets. It is to back away from the claim that Jesus is the final, definitive revelation of God, without which the Old Testament cannot really be understood.
I would argue for similar reasons that Christians should continue to use the traditional B.C and A.D. designations for dates instead of the currently fashionable alternatives B.C.E and C.E. Those traditional designations underline the Christian conviction that the coming of Jesus was of monumental importance, of such incomparable significance that our very calendar should mark the event as the center point of history.
Again, I can understand why my Jewish and atheistic friends may not want to use the letters A.D, “in the year of our Lord.” After all, they do not believe Jesus is Lord, they do not believe that his life, death and resurrection are the single most important events upon which all of history turns. They do not believe that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that our response to him will define our eternal destiny. But what I do not understand is Christians who claim to believe those things, and yet surrender that designation so easily.
Make no mistake. The term “Old Testament” and the designation “A.D.” are loaded with theological significance and far reaching implications. That is precisely why many decline to use those terms and pressure others to do so as well. It is thoughtless and shortsighted, if not simply feckless accommodation to the contemporary academy and secular culture for Christians to concede those terms on the grounds that they are trivial matters, not worthy of being made an issue.
I am reminded of the old joke about two men arguing over the claim that one of them owed the other a nickel. “Why are you making such a big deal of this” the first demanded, “it’s only a nickel.” To which the other replied, “yeah, the same nickel you are arguing about.”
“Hebrew Bible” and “C.E.” are not neutral terms. Those who consciously prefer them and pressure others to use them as well understand this. Christians need to understand this too. They are taking sides on vitally important issues in the terms they choose. And there is far more at stake than a nickel.