One of the perennial difficulties in Christian theology is the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Perhaps the strongest proponent for discontinuity between the Testaments, Marcion the second century Gnostic, famously rejected the Old Testament revelation as canon and removed Old Testament references from the New Testament writings to create a fiercely anti-Hebrew canon. This would have been difficult work indeed, since G.K. Beale, referencing a personal study by Roger Nicole, noted, “295 separate quotations of the OT in the NT (including quotations with and without formulas). These make up about 4.5 percent of the entire NT, about 352 verses. Thus 1 out of 22.5 verses in the NT incorporates a quotation.” It is no surprise then that C.H. Dodd claimed that the Old Testament formed the essential substructure of the New. If the New Testament authors were so eager to quote the Old Testament, this raises the question of how they viewed it and used it in their writings. Did they seek to argue that the revelation of Jesus Christ was in major continuity or discontinuity with the Old Testament? Were their citations of the Old Testament to support New Testament ideas exegetically warranted, or were their concepts being read into writings which were fundamentally against the message they were seeking to disseminate? In this essay, I hope to show that the key to understanding how these two bodies of writing relate can be discerned by how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament.
To begin with, there are numerous Old Testament passages referenced in the New Testament as direct prophecies of Christ. For instance, Acts 8:32-33 quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 and claims that Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy was really of Jesus. More interesting for our purposes are those passages which seem to claim that Christ is recapitulating Old Testament figures. Paul, for instance, claims that Jesus fully reversed the curse that Adam brought upon humanity (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). Jesus is also, at numerous times and by numerous authors, compared to David and related to Old Testament texts about David with the indication that he has fulfilled the Davidic covenant (Mark 11:10, Luke 1:32, John 7:42, Acts 2:30-36, Acts 13:45, Acts 15:16, Romans 1:1-4, Revelation 3:7). These examples show that the apostolic writings didn’t always simply exegete what the Old Testament said, but that they saw the Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ even when Christ wouldn’t necessarily have been seen as having been in view by the pre-Christ reader.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this hermeneutic is Matthew 2:15. Matthew claims that Hosea 11:1, wherein God reminds Israel that He called them out of Egypt, was fulfilled when Christ was called out of Egypt. Regarding the plain sense of Hosea will by no means lead a reader to see any future fulfillment of Hosea’s passage—it was after all a reference to a past event. However, Jesus, the unique Son of God and the perfect representative of Israel, could be compared by Matthew to Israel to emphasize the typological fulfillment of Israel in its head, the King Messiah. Notes Jonathan Lunde:
“Consequently, ‘what is said of one figure can then be applied to another who fits within the identity of the group or who serves as its representative.’ This assumption allows NT writers to craft arguments that pivot on relationships between Jesus and the nation or its corporate representatives. It also reverberates under the surface of the titles that are applied to Jesus, such as the Son of God, the Servant, and the Son of Man. Snodgrass notes: [These] were all representative titles that were applied to Israel first. Jesus took on these titles because he had taken Israel’s task. He was representative of Israel and in solidarity with her. God’s purposes for Israel were now taken up in his ministry. If this were true, what had been used to describe Israel could legitimately be used of him.”
Matthew was not unique in seeing Messiah as the perfect Israelite and as Israel’s representative. Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52:13-53:12) seem to go back and forth between describing Israel and describing their unique Messianic representative who brings peace and healing to the nations where they have failed to do so. These songs culminate in Isaiah 53, where the Servant Messiah is said to be crushed for the iniquities of Israel despite their having gone astray. Clearly God has two “servants” in mind, or else one could not redeem the other:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NIV).
This New Testament view of recapitulation finds fulfillment not only of persons and nations, but even if holy objects. The temple of God in the Old Covenant was the place in which deity resided, where He dwelt among His people, and where propitiatory sacrifices were offered to atone for the sins of the people of God. And yet John tells us that Jesus, speaking of His own body, said to the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, ESV).
What we see in these typological fulfillments is both continuity and discontinuity. There is continuity in that the entirety of the Old Testament looked forward to its fulfillment in Christ, and yet the fact that there is fulfillment suggests something new and different which was in some senses unlike what had come before. Though Christ’s sacrifice made the temple and the priests obsolete, for instance, He also affirmed their underlying meaning. The acceptance of such a continuity only requires the acceptance of one presupposition: that, as G.K. Beale wrote, “history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the later parts.” Therefore, there is no more significant discontinuity in the temple sacrifices pointing forward to Christ then there was in God’s giving animal skins to Adam to point forward to the temple sacrifices.
Focusing on recapitulation provides us with a broad overview of the Old and New Testament continuity/discontinuity, but how does it look when dealing with specific biblical issues? At this point, we will turn to two such difficulties in particular.
One particularly thorny problem for resolving continuity/discontinuity between the Testaments is the relationship between law and grace. Since the Old Testament is founded on the revelation of God’s Torah to the wandering Israelites, and since the apostle Paul seems to denigrate the law as being counter to grace, a surface reading of scripture might cause one to presume a large degree of discontinuity on this issue.
Paul tells the Galatian church, of which many members had been keeping strict observance of the Torah, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13, ESV) and “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, ESV). But is Paul saying that Christians should reject the idea of moral duties and ignore the Old Testament witness of God’s holiness as an example for us? May it never be! Paul himself quite explicitly explains the issue he was addressing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, ESV). The problem was not that these Christians revered the Torah—it was that they thought strict observance of it could save them.
Moreover, Paul did not think of the Old Testament saints as having been saved by law in contrast to the church which is saved by grace. Paul speaks of two Old Testament figures in particular and concludes, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’ just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin'” (Romans 4:3-8, ESV). Indeed, Paul claims the Old Testament was written “for our instruction” (Romans 15:4, ESV) and that we ought to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31, ESV).
According to Paul, the Old Testament people of God were not saved by keeping the law, but in fact, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). Salvation by grace is not new, but is testified to in the Old Testament writings: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (Romans 3:21, ESV).
Finally, Paul makes it quite clear that the Old Testament saints were not justified by their good works, but the blood of Christ covered them:
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:23-26, ESV).
There is therefore not fundamental discontinuity between the Testaments on this point. However, this directs us to our second difficulty. If the Torah still has value for Christians, what of its civil laws? Are Christians obligated to establish a neo-Mosaic state (theonomy) with the same legal requirements that God expected from the Israelites?
To begin with, Jesus Himself claimed that there was a distinction between church and state when He was tested by the Pharisees on whether religious Jews should pay taxes to a pagan state. His famous answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, ESV).
This distinction was also supported by Paul, who told Christians, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19, ESV), but said of the pagan state, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV). It is of note that Paul was speaking of a pagan state which would shortly be in the business of oppressing Christians. Paul was not claiming that the government always acts in accordance with God’s moral values, but that God is sovereign enough to ensure that His will be done even by pagan dictators. This is the same point made by Old Testament prophets such as Habakkuk and Jeremiah who spoke of pagan Babylon’s coming subjugation of Judah.
But what makes this church/state distinction characteristic of the New Covenant when it wasn’t characteristic of the Israelite state? One might make an analogy to Jeremiah’s contrast (in Jeremiah 31:31-34) of the Old Covenant laws written on stone (emphasizing that covenant’s physicality and spatiality) to the New Covenant laws written on the hearts of God’s elect (emphasizing this covenant’s spiritual nature). Jesus, when asked by Pilate why His followers wouldn’t fight to release Him since He is a king, responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36, ESV). This is not to say that there is no future kingdom of God which is political in nature, only that it is not now that kind of kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:24).
However, even with these important distinctions which argue for discontinuity between the Testaments, one might argue that these is in fact more continuity on the issue of civil laws than not. For one thing, even the civil laws of the Torah are supported by eternal moral values, and both are written for our edification. The penalties might change (as God Himself made exceptions for the death penalty in the cases of David, Moses, Paul, etc., suggesting the mutability of the civil laws’ legal requirements), but the values supporting these laws remains. More than that, however, the Old Testament itself suggests that the elect are held to a higher standard than the non-elect. For example, in Amos we find God judging the pagan nations based on broad moral categories that are accessible to all men while He judges Judah specifically for its covenant unfaithfulness. Dennis Kinlaw concludes of Amos’ words of judgment, “we might say that Yahweh judges the other nations by natural law.” If God requires something different from the elect than the non-elect, and since the elect in the New Covenant are an ecclesial and not a political grouping it would not be appropriate to establish a theonomic state. In other words, while God’s moral law (which is expressed in Israel’s civil laws) is eternal and therefore retains continuity with the New Testament, Jesus’ coming changes the way these laws are to be expressed by God’s covenant people.
Recall how C.H. Dodd characterized the Old Testament—as the substructure of the New. The earliest Christians had no New Testament, so the Old Testament was their Bible. That this valuation of the Old Testament remains for Christians today is established by the fact that the apostolic writings utilized the Old Testament as the fertile ground of New Testament revelation. The key to the Old Testament’s use is to read it as the apostles did—christocentrically. Which is to say as the revelation of God and the ground for all of God’s promises which are fulfilled in Christ.