This is part 1 of a short series on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament with Credo blogger (!) and New Testament scholar Ardel Caneday, Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Why is the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament one of the most crucial areas of theological reflection that all Christians must grapple with?
The primary reason why all Christians must engage the questions concerning how the New Testament (NT) uses the Old Testament (OT) is that the NT itself compels believers to do so. This constraint is ours because the OT informs the NT writers in such a manner that as they speak of Christ, whether in the Gospels or in the Book of Acts or in their letters, their words routinely echo the OT with allusions, sometimes strong, at other times faint, and explicit quotations, sometimes strung together, frequently fill their pages. It is manifestly evident that the NT writers believe and proclaim that the OT Scriptures, with all their diverse portions and voices come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This is why all Christians must grapple with the NT’s uses of the OT.
Today, Christians have access to Bibles that flag OT quotations within the New for readers. Readers may readily find the sources of OT quotations by using a Bible’s reference column, regardless how brief the quotations may be. Even allusions to the OT may be identified within these reference columns, especially in study Bibles. Even though the average Christian today has significant advantages over believers in past generations, especially believers in ancient times, perhaps none excel first-century believers in Berea. Luke commends them: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11).
It is important to state what should be obvious about preaching the gospel in the first-century. When Paul preached that the promised Seed of Abraham, the Messiah, the Christ, is Jesus of Nazareth, the only Scripture he had from which to preach was the OT. So, when Jews of Berea heard Paul’s message they had no NT. They had the OT, perhaps with much of it committed to memory. Thus, they examined the OT Scriptures with care to determine whether the things Paul was proclaiming were true. They were not about to permit the apostle Paul to engage in any hermeneutical trickery. They were not about to believe what Paul proclaimed just because he, as an apostle, preached that the Messiah, whom they anticipated, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, and whose countrymen subjected him to death by handing him over to the Romans who crucified him though he rose from the dead on the third day.
We have the whole Bible readily at hand, accessible with a keystroke on a computer. We have volumes of commentaries on the Scriptures plus numerous specialized books on the NT’s uses of the OT for modern Christians. Nevertheless, Christians do not seem to grasp how the whole of Scripture holds together, culminating in Christ Jesus. This is so, in large measure, because so many read the climax of the storyline and thus think they know the whole of the biblical story. Many Christians read the Bible like college students read classic pieces of literature. Many either turn to CliffsNotes as a substitute while others think that they can read the last few chapters of a piece of literature and still grasp the core and essence of the storyline, which they may be able to do, but they fail to apprehend many things that require knowledge of the whole. It is similar with many Christians. Generally, if Christians turn to the OT, they tend to read portions of the OT, such as the Psalms or Proverbs, but because they have familiarity with the NT, they suppose that they understand the core and essence of the biblical storyline, which may be true, but their grasp is significantly truncated. Many preachers reinforce this mentality by rarely preaching from the OT. Yet, in order to proclaim the good news concerning Christ Jesus from the OT, both Christian readers and preachers must acquire a more profound understanding of the biblical storyline than a surface level knowledge that permeates the church today, for the categories of the NT’s message concerning Christ Jesus and what he has accomplished are grounded in and prepared for by the OT.
Could you provide a brief survey of the differing views one might hold on the “NT use of the OT” and to which of these you subscribe?
This initial accounting for differing views concerning the NT’s use of the OT is not at all as full as I offer in a course I teach on the subject. For the sake of simplicity, there is a range of views that cluster around two distinct beliefs.
On the one hand, some scholars contend that the NT writers became convinced that the promised Christ is Jesus of Nazareth. Convinced of this, they ransacked the OT Scriptures, even pulling passages out of their contexts, as proof of their new found belief. Those who hold this view are not concerned to show how the meaning of OT passages cited in the NT as fulfilled in Christ correlate and hold together. For them, uses the NT writers make of OT passages, nurtured by their imaginative and creative skills, is sufficient. As one might infer, those who affirm this view tend to hold a somewhat low view concerning Scripture’s authority and reliability. Thus, for example, some who hold this view are not embarrassed when they insist that Matthew 2:15 does violence to Hosea 11:1—“Out of Egypt I called my son”—by announcing that this passage is fulfilled in Joseph’s taking the infant Jesus with his mother to Egypt to escape jealous King Herod’s dragnet of murder in his effort to eliminate the birth of a child whom he thought would rival his family dynasty. Similarly, they have no qualms when they claim that the apostle Paul’s imaginative powers created the allegory to which he appeals in his argument that the Galatians cannot submit to the law covenant and at the same time reckon themselves Abraham’s descendants (Gal. 4:21-5:1).
While other scholars agree that the NT writers became convinced that the promised Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth, they affirm much more. These scholars affirm that Jesus (1) explained to his followers that all the Scriptures speak of him, (2) corrected their misreading and misunderstanding of the OT Scriptures, and (3) opened their eyes and minds to recognize him as the fulfillment of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Luke 24:31, 45). Those who hold this second view also tend to embrace a high view of Scripture’s authority and reliability as the NT writers do. Therefore, they are persuaded that it is crucial, as much as possible, to demonstrate how both the OT passages cited and the NT uses of the OT passages justify or warrant their various uses as fulfilled in Jesus.
Consequently, Christian scholars who hold to this view are convinced that Matthew 2:15 does not rip Hosea 11:1 out of context but honors the fact that the prophet’s statement is not grammatically a future predictive statement but a retrospective and historical declaration of what God had done for Israel. Nevertheless, even though the passage is not grammatically future predictive, those who take this second view are also convinced that the passage is forward looking because of Israel’s role as foreshadowing the coming Messiah. Similarly, those who hold this second view are quite uneasy accepting the notion that the apostle’s imaginative powers created the allegory of Galatians 4:21-5:1. Some accept this concept but rescue it by appealing to Paul’s apostolic authority as the recipient of divine revelation in his encounter with the Christ (cf. Gal. 1:12-15).
These two examples serve to feature significant differences between the two schools of thought with regard to the axis of promise and fulfillment that spans the biblical storyline from OT to NT, with the old frequently being cited as fulfilled in the new. Other biblical categories promptly come into purview with any serious consideration of this promise-fulfillment axis. These categories include but are not limited to the nature and function of prophecy, of types or foreshadows, and of mystery. When these categories enter into scholarly consideration, the two schools of thought described above begin to multiply into a range of positions with varying ways to account for prophecy, types or foreshadows, and mystery along the promise-fulfillment axis. Consideration of these categories must await further discussion. As for me, I believe that Saint Augustine expresses the relationship between the two testaments quite well we he states, “The New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed” (Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, et Vetus in Novo patet.[Quaestionum in Heptateuchum, 2, 73]).
Ardel Caneday (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has served churches in various pastoral roles, including senior pastor. He has authored numerous journal articles, many essays in books, and has co-authored with Thomas Schreiner the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Inter-Varsity, 2001).
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has two children, Alec and Nora.