Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Reading the Old Testament

Tackling the difference between the Old and News Testaments can be tricky. For example, Jonathan Edwards says: “There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ.” (Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion) In other words, everyone has their own opinion about the best way to approach the Old Testament. Here is my outline.

The key question to ask any Old Testament passage is this: how are the ideas in this section continuous or discontinuous with the New Testament?

  • This is the question setup by Jeremiah and then echoed by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.
  • “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people ofIsrael and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors.” (Jeremiah 31:31-32)
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. ” (Matthew 5:17-18)


  • We have more information than the Old Testament authors and characters themselves. For example, we can see this in the way New Testament authors sometimes draw extra meaning from their Old Testament quotations. 
  • We now have direct access to God. Prior to the ministry of Jesus, access was mediated through the Mosaic Law. But now gentiles are incorporated into the body of God's people. Jesus has fulfilled the need for mediated access. 
  • Prior to the Incarnation, God's transcendence was our dominant experience of him, although he interacted frequently with the Jewish people, he was 'at a distance' so to speak. Now he has experienced and expressed himself in human nature. 


  • God's nature is self-revelatory, this a theme in both Testaments. This is partly why the Mosaic Law is still useful today. Because it reveals God's holiness and our own sinfulness. Additionally, the structure of Scripture forms one big pattern, a pattern of continual clues and foreshadowing of the future. Revelation is also linked to application. God's revelation is not static, but requires a response, then and now.
  • Both Testaments reveal a God who is powerful enough to intervene in history to organise our rescue and kind enough to be willing to save us from sin. Grace is also a gift and this is revealed both in the Old Testament sacrificial system and in Jesus' ministry. 
  • The trajectory of redemptive history is an arc that stretches across both Testaments. We see this both in the Biblical plot line but also in the pattern of promises and fulfilment across both testaments. Additionally, the direction of God's activity, his judgement of sin and his promise of deliverance are common to both the Old and New Testaments. Lastly and importantly, faith is directional, it's an active conviction, both in the promise of a saviour and in the saviour himself. 

[Luca Signorelli (and Bartolomeo della Gatta), 'Testament and Death of Moses' 1482, oil on panel, Vatican City, Sistine Chapel, Rome.]