The New Testament's Use of the Old Testament: The Foundation
One of the most important interpretive questions with which we have to wrestle as we seek to understand the Bible is: How are the Old and New Testament (OT & NT) related? It is, to say the least, a monumentally important question requiring the navigation of a minefield of interpretive difficulties. This post will hardly serve to thoroughly answer the question, but will hopefully set forth some of the more important presuppositions that ought to direct our pursuit of the answer.
First, we should recognize that everyone’s answer to the question will be informed by their belief as to whether the OT and NT are, or are not, the only written word of the one, true and living Triune God. Now, it is true that in some measure our arriving at a decision on this question regarding God will be informed in significant ways by our understanding of the relationship between the OT and NT. So it may appear that we have reversed the order of how we should proceed. But the more accurate way to understand the relationship between 1) our belief about God and the OT and NT and 2) the relationship of the OT to the NT is to recognize that one operates with beliefs or assumptions about both matters, while one proceeds in understanding them. Even as our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture mutually inform each other, we can and should remain open to adjusting our beliefs about both as we study them. Certainly we should notice that a person who does not believe that there is one, true, living Triune God will analyze and assess the OT and NT, and their relationship quite differently than the person who is convinced that there is one, true, living Triune God, and that he has in fact revealed himself in and through the OT and NT.
Second, if indeed there is only one, true, living and Triune God, and the OT and NT are his only written word about himself then it seems that this mandates that the continuity between the two testaments is more defining of the relationship between the two than is the discontinuity that exists between them. We could think of the relationship between the testaments along at least one of the lines that we are required to think regarding the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. While there is a profound unity among the three persons of the Trinity there is, nonetheless, distinctions between the three without their being separation of them from each other. While the Father, Son and Holy are truly three persons, yet there is a profound unity that marks them so that there is only one God. Faithful students of the OT and NT will learn after careful reading that even as there are important distinctions between the two testaments, nevertheless one thinks wrongly about them if one operates with a fundamental disconnect between them. Jesus stated rather clearly that he came to fulfill the OT, and he established the authoritative interpretation of himself in and with the NT. Among other reasons, and at the risk of some oversimplification, this is why some state that the NT is in the OT concealed and that the OT is in the NT revealed.
Third, the NT writers are obsessed with showing in what sense and why Jesus fulfilled the OT, even as they show the differences between the old and new covenant eras. This means, among other things, that much of what has been perpetrated through the interpretive approach known as Classic Dispensationalism is patently false. While one might appreciate the sincere devotion to the OT and NT by Classic Dispensationalists we must learn to recognize that sincerity, while necessary for a right understanding of Scripture, is nonetheless not sufficient for that right understanding. We might also add that to the degree that Progressive Dispensationalists (PD’s)—those who have to some degree succeeded in correcting some of the errors in Classic Dispensationalism—hold on to the defining features of Classic Dispensationalism then to that degree the Progressive Dispensationalists go astray in their interpretation and application of Scripture.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when we recognize the controlling importance of our doctrine of God and Christ for understanding the relationship between the OT and NT we are better able to understand that our moral disposition and willingness to repent of sin hold the key to opening the door to rightly understanding God’s written word.
David P. Smith, M.Div. (Covenant Seminary), Ph.D. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.