Two Testaments but One Bible
When was the last time you heard a sermon preached on the Old Testament? In fact, how often have you been in a church meeting where the Old Testament has been studied in anything more than a cursory and superficial way? A hundred years ago it was common for preachers to take Old Testament characters like Abraham or David, and illustrate the Christian life by going through their experiences, but this seldom happens now. Sermons tend to come from Paul’s epistles or from one of the Gospels, with only occasional forays into other parts of the Bible.
The reasons for this are complex and we cannot go into them all in detail today, but basically the problem seems to be that the essentially analytical nature of historical criticism has given the church a deeper awareness of what we might call the evolution of God’s revelation. Nowadays, most people accept that in the Old Testament God spoke less clearly to his people than he does in the New, and that in general terms, the Jewish revelation is no longer fully applicable to us today. There are exceptions to this of course - the Ten Commandments, Psalm 23 and Isaiah 53 have survived reasonably well - but exceptions is what they are. Very few people would know what to say about Hosea, Judges or Ecclesiastes, to name but three books taken from different parts of the Old Testament, and something like Leviticus or Proverbs is an unfathomable mystery to most people now.
Yet the fact remains that all these books are part of Holy Scripture, and that taken together, the Old Testament accounts for three-quarters of the Biblical text. It was the only Scripture known to Jesus, and was the text used by the apostles when they preached the message of Christ. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that the history of Christianity in New Testament times is best understood as a conflict over Old Testament interpretation. Everyone in Israel took it for granted that it was the Word of God and nobody tried to reject or even diminish it, but the Christians read it differently, and it was this, more than anything else, which separated them out from Judaism. Jesus himself took the lead when he told the scribes and the Pharisees that the Scriptures spoke of him - he made himself the key to understanding them. To the Jews this was either incomprehensible or blasphemous - or both. It was one thing for a rabbi to claim that he had a new take on the Biblical message - reform movements based on a recovery of some lost Biblical insight were not uncommon in classical Judaism, and Jesus might well have got away with something like that. Nor would it have been altogether surprising for him to have claimed that his interpretation was better than that of others - the various Jewish factions had little love for one another, and claiming this kind of superiority came naturally to them.
What made Jesus different is that he claimed not merely to HAVE the true interpretation of the Bible, but to BE it. Everything in what we call the Old Testament somehow pointed to him, and those who could not see this were guilty of misinterpreting - and therefore also of misapplying - the text. This was the trouble with Judaism as Jesus and his followers saw it, and it has coloured Christian understanding of the Old Testament ever since.
Today we once more face the question of whether it is possible to have an understanding of the Bible which can incorporate both testaments in a single, coherent whole. We hear a great deal about ‘hermeneutics’ - the science of interpretation - but it is not always clear that this is the fundamental issue with which hermeneutics has to grapple. There are doubtless many different ways of reading the New Testament, but however we do it, the question always comes back - what place does the Old Testament have in our understanding? How far should its principles and genres be allowed to control our understanding of the New?
The problem is perhaps most acutely seen on the mission field, where Bible translation is a basic missionary activity. It is the usual practice to begin with the New Testament and then move on to the Old, with the result that when a language has only a portion of the Scriptures translated into it, it will almost invariably be a part or the whole of the New Testament. The difficulty comes when the translator discovers that in translating the New Testament, there is a great deal of the Old Testament which has to be considered as well. Direct quotations from it abound, of course, but the New Testament writers invariably assumed a deep familiarity with the Old Testament which makes large portions of their work incomprehensible without constant reference to it.
The epistle to the Hebrews is an obvious case in point, and so is the book of Revelation. The last book of the Bible is a particularly interesting case, because although it does not contain a single direct quotation from the Old Testament, it is so deeply saturated with Old Testament imagery, and so completely dependent on its world-view, that a very thorough knowledge of that text is essential if anything of its meaning is to be grasped. It is all very well to be told in Romans that Abraham is the father of our faith, but how can the reader follow Paul’s argument if he has never read Genesis? Missionaries are therefore more aware than others of just how much background information is required if any sense at all is to be made of the New Testament, and we must be very concerned indeed when we are faced with a church which has forgotten or downplayed that close relationship between the two parts of our Bible.
Let me state briefly what some of the major issues involved here are:
1. Jesus came to fulfil the Old Testament prophecies made to the people of Israel. It is therefore necessary for the Christian to understand what those prophecies were and why they were made, if we are to have any real understanding of what Jesus did.
2. The Old Testament world-view is taken for granted by the New Testament writers, and so a great deal of their theology is simply assumed. The doctrine of creation is an obvious case in point, as is monotheism. The belief that there is an intimate correlation between doctrine and ethics is another Old Testament principle which the New Testament writers took for granted, although it has been seriously questioned in our own time. I need hardly tell you that there are people in our own church who seem to think that it is possible to hold orthodox views about God and Christ without being equally committed to lifelong heterosexual monogamy. They point out that the New Testament says a great deal about love and very little about homosexuality, as if that were somehow proof that a loving same-sex physical relationship is compatible with Christian faith. Such a view is possible only if the Old Testament is discounted - which of course it is, along the lines I have sketched out above. Can this technique be justified?
3. The message of redemption cannot be separated from the doctrine of creation. The New Testament teaches us that all things were made in and through Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. We are therefore not being saved FROM the created order, as if that were somehow ungodly, but FOR it - the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the whole creation is groaning, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God. The climax of the present age will not be a disembodied spiritual existence in some kind of airy-fairy heaven. On the contrary, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we (who are a new creation in Christ) will then take up our rightful place in it. A gospel which does not affect the material order is no gospel at all, and Evangelical Christians have historically been in the forefront of those who insist that God changes things - not just in the sky when we die, but here and now, on this earth.
4. The church is a pilgrim body living in time but waiting for its end. The New Testament is a first-generation testimony; it was completed before the last human witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus had passed from the scene. But the Old Testament is a historical record stretching over many centuries, a constant reminder to us that with God, a day is as a thousand years and that there may yet be many generations before we finally see the outworking of God’s promises to his people. In a world which wants instant gratification, this is an important perspective to bear in mind - and it comes mainly from the Old, not from the New Testament.
For all these reasons and more, the Old Testament is a vital part of our faith which has to be understood and appropriated by believers if the church is to have a healthy theological outlook. It would not be too much to add that many of our current problems stem ultimately from our failure to appreciate this principle or to apply it in practice. How can we put this right?
Our time today is limited, so I shall not mention the many different solutions to this problem which have been proposed over the centuries, but which have been found wanting in one way or another. Instead, I shall set out what I believe is the best way forward for Evangelicals who want to take the Bible - the whole Bible - seriously as the supreme authority for our faith and doctrine. Those with a historical sense will detect that what I am proposing is a version of what is generally known as ‘covenant theology’, because it ties the Bible together under the common theme of ‘covenant’.
The Biblical covenant (or ‘testament’) is basically a relationship established by God with the human creatures whom he made in his image. It is a divine gift, and as such can neither be accepted nor rejected by us. As human beings, we have not chosen to be made in God’s image, nor can we abdicate this status. We can rebel against God’s covenant, of course, but if we do so we will be punished for trying to escape from our God-given responsibilities. In this sense, the covenant is rather like citizenship. As long as we live in our native land, we are expected to assume the duties (as well as to enjoy the privileges) of citizenship, and opting out is not acceptable. The only difference is that God’s covenant applies to the whole world, and not merely to one part of it.
Within this divine covenant established at creation there are different categories, or dispensations. The first applies to the entire human race, and may be called the dispensation of preservation. This was given to Noah after the flood, when God promised that he would not exterminate the human race because of sin. Every human being in the world today is alive because of this covenant, whether they realize it or not. It does not remove sin, but merely mitigates its effects, so that life on earth is possible for believers and unbelievers alike. Within the dispensation of Noah can be found most of the institutions of civil society, and Christians are called to participate in them on the same basis as the rest of the community.
The second dispensation is more restricted in its scope, having been given only to Abraham and his descendants. This is the dispensation of salvation, according to which God has provided a way of escape from the human predicament. The basis of this dispensation is personal trust in God, which he then honours in different ways according to circumstances. In Abraham’s case, God gave him the rite of circumcision, which he was to administer to all his male descendants as the sign of belonging to this dispensation of the covenant. Later on, a whole series of rituals was added whose fundamental purpose was to establish a clear line between those who belonged to the Abrahamic dispensation and those who did not. The lines of demarcation were embodied in the law given to Moses, which remains a remarkable testimony to the nature of God’s covenant.
The covenant made with Abraham was and remains primarily spiritual. If there is no active, personal fellowship between the believer and God, the outward rituals mean nothing. Instead of providing a guide to right living, they become a snare, enabling and even encouraging those who keep them to think they are saved when in fact they are living a lie. This was the problem which Jesus confronted and which his teaching was designed to overcome.
The ultimate aim of the law was to teach Abraham’s descendants that there was a divine standard of behaviour which was expected of them. Behind every legal precept recorded in the Old Testament there is a spiritual principle which must be grasped if that precept is to be understood properly. This spiritual principle can be summed up under the heading ‘love’ - love for God first of all, and love for others next. If the law is applied in a way which contradicts the principle of love, then it is falsified and abused. At the same time, God also made it clear that the law was a temporary expedient, designed to instill in Abraham’s people a longing to be more like God himself. Why God chose this way of teaching his people we cannot say; all we can do is recognize that when Moses gave the law at Mt Sinai a pattern was set which received divine sanction until the coming of Jesus.
Jesus brought the system of the law to an end, not because he objected to it or disagreed with its aims, but because he fulfilled the law’s purpose. In the Mosaic dispensation there were three great functions which co-existed - that of the prophet, that of the priest and that of the king. Each of these functions was complementary to the other two, and no one person ever exercised all three. Those who were called to these functions were expected to understand that everything they said and did pointed to a future fulfilment which would validate their own ministry and make it no longer necessary at the same time. When Jesus came along he was prophet, priest and king all rolled into one, but he was something more as well. He was a prophet, but he was also the Word which the prophets were called to proclaim. He was a priest, but he was also the sacrifice which the priests offered to pay for the sins of the people. And he was both the king and the kingdom, because his subjects are united to him in his body.
Jesus was able to claim these three offices and fulfil their different functions because unlike Abraham’s other descendants, he was more than just a human being. Born of a virgin mother, his father was God himself, making him both God and man. Jesus’ life and work were qualitatively superior to those of his predecessors because Jesus himself was qualitatively superior to them, just as he is qualitatively superior to us. In him, the covenant and its different dispensations find their true fulfilment, making us who are united to him participants in his rule over both creation and redemption.
It is in this context that we read the Bible and interpret what the different dispensations have to say to us today. We do not have the freedom to disregard its teaching on the ground that it is now outdated, because the underlying principles remain the same even when the outward application of them may have changed. Forgive me for bring the subject up again, but at the current time we have to face the issue of homosexuality, which is a test case of our hermeneutic. We all agree that the Levitical prescription of stoning is no longer applicable, but we should not conclude from that that the prohibition of homosexual behaviour has been lifted as well. After all, we no longer stone adulterers either, yet adultery is as wrong as it ever was!
The main reason we have given up stoning is that stoning is a physical punishment for something which is a spiritual sin. As such it fails to do justice to the nature of the crime, however dramatic its effects may be. Our rejection of the practice is of a piece with our rejection of any number of other external acts and signs by which the Mosaic dispensation was administered. It must be understood however, that this rejection is based on a spiritual principle which we may term ‘internalization’. Spiritual sins can only be dealt with in a spiritual way, just as spiritual rebirth can only be effected by the Holy Spirit of God at work in human hearts.
When we read the Bible, we are called to read it spiritually - looking for the underlying principle(s) and then trying to work out how those principles should be applied in practice. There is seldom (if ever) a clear-cut answer to the question of application, which usually has to be decided in the context of any number of other considerations which do not often lend themselves to legal codification. But if the principles are kept in view, the range of possible applications will be coherent. In the example I have mentioned, it will not lead to an endorsement of homosexual practice on the ground that times have changed and we now read the Scriptures differently, because the principle that homosexual relations are wrong remains unchanged. What has altered, and may differ from case to case, is the way in which we deal with the people involved. This is fundamentally a matter of deciding what love means in any given context, but it cannot be stressed too strongly that the basic parameters are already fixed. Deciding how to love a sinner is not at all the same as condoning, overlooking or dismissing the sin, a distinction which is as valid today as it ever was.
To interpret the Bible correctly therefore is to learn how to discern its spiritual principles and then seek ways in which those principles can and should be applied in a given context. It is the job of the Biblical scholar to show us what those principles are, the task of the theologian to put them together in a coherent whole and the duty of the ethicist to explain how they might be applied in the complex circumstances which confront us at every turn. Armed with such resources, it is then the privilege of the pastor and preacher to bring God’s Word to his people and show them that it is indeed a living power, just as vital and effective today as it was when it was first written and proclaimed.