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The Authority of the Old Testament

​It was Melito, Bishop of Sardis, who some time before A. D. 180 first designated the Hebrew canon the "Old Testament," just as the heretical Alexandrian father Origen first labeled the Greek canon the "New Testament." Each of these designations reflected a particular theological motivation not expressed or even implied in the Scriptures themselves.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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It was Melito, Bishop of Sardis, who some time before A. D. 180 first designated the Hebrew canon the "Old Testament,"1 just as the heretical Alexandrian father Origen first labeled the Greek canon the "New Testament."2 Each of these designations reflected a particular theological motivation not expressed or even implied in the Scriptures themselves. To mention this is not to suggest the church overturn approximately seventeen centuries of Christian usage by dismissing the time-honored canonical designations and adopting new ones, or to imply that these designations are mistaken. Rather, we may wish to consider how they may lead us to approach and interpret the Holy Scripture incorrectly.

For one thing, since in the vast majority of cases the expression translated "testament" in the New Testament simply means "covenant,"3 the designation "Old Testament" or "New Testament" actually denotes old covenant and new covenant. But why would we want to refer to the Hebrew canon as the old covenant? No doubt because of a certain interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 3-4 and the book of Hebrews: that the Old Testament era represents the old, and therefore inferior and perhaps even sinful, covenant, while the New Testament era constitutes an intensified operation of the Holy Spirit, a more liberated or liberating gospel, and a relatively higher standard of religious life and experience. This interpretation, though widely held, is incorrect. The old covenant is not a particular historical epoch any more than the new covenant is. Each of these covenants represents particular subjective states of religious individuals enrolled among the visible people of God. The old covenant, then, does not refer to the Old Testament era, but to particular individuals in either the Old Testament or New Testament era — or, for that matter, our own.4 The same is true of the new covenant. It refers to God's gracious, intimate relation with his elect whom he has regenerated by his Spirit, whose sins he has forgiven, and whom he has caused to walk in his law (Heb. 8:8-13). Of course, this new covenant was no less operative in the Old Testament era. For this reason, we observe in Hebrews that the faithful new covenant saints in the Old Testament are held up as examples for the members of the visible New Testament church in jeopardy of falling into the old covenant — unbelief, formalism, works-righteousness, and so forth, like the majority of Old Testament Israel's wilderness church (Heb. 11; cf. 3-4). The visible church is ever in danger of falling into the trap of sinful, and eventually, old covenant, religion.

The Biblical alternative is the new covenant religion revealed in the Bible in both Old and New Testaments, which set forth particular examples of both forms of religion. When we resist the temptation to approach what we have come to call the Old Testament as either theologically, ethically, or experientially inferior revelation, or worse yet, as describing a relatively inferior form of religion, we clear the path to an appreciation for and a joyous recognition of the unity of the Bible and, more importantly, the authority of the Old Testament itself.5

No "New Testament Christianity"

Aside from potentially misleading designations "Old" and "New" Testaments, however, the modern church is readily lured into maintaining erroneous views of the Old Testament because it does not think clearly about the historical context of Biblical authority. A prime example: Christians today frequently refer to "New Testament Christianity" or "New Testament Christians" or starting a "New Testament church" ; yet no Christian actually living in the era covered by the writings of the New Testament would have thought in such categories. The Christians living in Christ's lifetime and the apostolic era simply perceived the coming of the Messiah and the religion and teachings he espoused as the evident fulfillment and natural culmination of what the saints in the pre-incarnational era had anticipated and what, in fact, the Hebrew Scriptures had taught all along (e. g., Mt. 2:23; Lk. 2:25-32; 24:13-35; Ac. 7:2-53; 13:16-43; 24:14; Rom. 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Gal. 4:21-31; Eph. 2:20; cf. Lk. 4:21; Jn. 5:39-47).

Another angle from which to approach this issue is to recognize that the Old Testament is the charter book of the New Testament church. The only objective, propositional revelation which the church of that era could consult was the Old Testament. Of course, that church also had Christ's words in memory (Ac. 20:35), and the apostles and prophets were granted supernatural insight (Jn. 16:13). But these sources of information were not understood to be anything other than the natural culmination of what the Old Testament had taught and predicted. The inspired words and writings of the apostolic era which eventually comprised the New Testament canon were rightly considered the capstone of the revelational structure of the Hebrew Scriptures. For instance, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is often rightly suggested as the Bible's leading defense of its own divine inspiration; but it discloses another vital point as well: the inspired Scriptures that Timothy knew from a child were frankly the Hebrew Scriptures; none (or few) of the apostolic writings were yet available. Thus, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reveals not only the fact of the divine inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures, but also the fundamental authority of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament era.

When the New Testament states that the law and the prophets were until John, but that since then the kingdom of God has been preached (Lk. 16:16), it means that Christ's coming and its herald by John the Baptist signaled the culmination and fulfillment of all that the Hebrew Scriptures had pledged (Jn. 1:45). John's ministry or Christ's incarnation did not signal a heightened theological understanding or religious experience or "new dispensation" or new historical epoch. The pre-incarnational saints like Simeon and Anna, or for that matter, Abraham, Noah, Enoch, Moses, David, Isaiah, and so forth, were not one whit religiously inferior to the early apostles and prophets, or to certain Christians today. Abraham saw Jesus Christ's day and was glad (Jn. 8:56); Moses spoke with God face to face (Dt. 34:10); Enoch's fellowship with God was so intimate that he was translated to Heaven before death (Gen. 5:24); the gospel was preached to the Old Testament individuals no less than to the New Testament individuals (Heb. 4:2); and godly Old Testament saints are held up as examples to wavering New Testament saints (Heb. 11). These sound suspiciously unlike descriptions of saints experiencing a relatively inferior religion. We post-incarnational saints rejoice in the historically completed atonement of Christ and his present session at the right hand of the Father; but, as Dabney observes, it is a mistake to limit the efficacy of Christ's atonement to post-incarnational Christians:

With reference to the state of the Old Testament saints in the other world we discard to whole fable ... [of] the postponement of the application of redemption to them till Christ's death. Christ's suretyship is such that His undertaking the believer's work, releases the believer as soon as the condition is fulfilled.... Christ being an immutable, almighty and faithful surety, when He undertook to make satisfaction to the law [from eternity], it was, in the eye of that God to whom a thousand years are but as one day, as good as done.6

Dabney insightfully observes that the religion of the Old Testament era is not substantively different from the religion of the New Testament era;7 the godly religion of the Old Testament era is in substance just what it is in the New Testament era and since.

The Old Testament as a Concrete Jewish-Christian Book

A final misunderstanding of the nature of the Old Testament which threatens Biblical authority emerged quite early in the church. It is not so simple as the ones just described, nor as easily understood. It pertains to a method of interpreting the Old Testament that began early in the history of the patristic church. The heretic Marcion had lopped off the entire Old Testament and significant portions of the New Testament under the guise of purging alien elements from the Holy Scriptures;8 he was what we today might call a consistent dispensationalist. He was convinced that the Old Testament was a Jewish and not a Christian book, and that it revealed a god different from the God of the New Testament. The church recognized and excoriated this obvious heresy, and in fact, hammered out the orthodox canon as a result of it.9To a certain degree, however, the early Fathers, despite their deep perceptiveness on a number of issues, were confident that the only way to posit the Old Testament as a Christian rather than a Jewish book was to interpret it highly symbolically10 (either allegorically or typologically) and adopted, in some cases, a ringing anti-Semitic polemic.11

For the patristic church, the key was to retain the authority of the Old Testament as a Christian book in the face of unbelieving Jews who held that it supported their own traditionary religion rather than that preached by Jesus and the apostles (e. g., Ac. 18:13; 21:28). The post-New Testament Christians maintained continuity with the Old Testament by interpreting it Christologically. In this they were only following the example of Christ and the apostles and New Testament writers themselves (e. g., Lk. 24:27; 5:39; Ac. 2:22-36; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). They posited discontinuity with the Old Testament by asserting that the church of Jesus Christ had superseded Old Testament Israel as the covenant people of God.12This too was just what the New Testament had taught (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:25; Gal. 3:7, 29; Gal. 6:15-16). One unwarranted effect of both of these assumptions, however, was that it was often thought necessary to find some deeper meaning in the Old Testament than what it straightforwardly expressed, because on the surface it is an incontestably Jewish book, and the majority of the Jews in Jesus' earthly ministry had turned their back on the Messiah to whom the Old Testament abundantly testified. This lead to the wholly erroneous assumption that to interpret the Old Testament Christologically one must interpret it symbolically.13 The Fathers did not seem to realize that a Christological interpretation is, in large measure, entirely compatible with a concrete, non-symbolic interpretation.14 Christ himself declared that the Old Testament Scriptures testified of him (Jn. 5:39); and the New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament as extensively prophesying of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Yet the New Testament equally upholds the concrete, abiding authority of the Old Testament without dissolving it into a maze of unintelligible Christological symbols (1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18).15 Christ upheld every stroke of Old Testament law (Mt. 5:17-19); John defines sin as law-breaking (1 Jn. 3:4); St. Paul asserts the authority of Old Testament case law (1 Tim. 5:18); and St. James reminds his readers that they are required to uphold every aspect of God's (Old Testament) commandments (Jas. 2:9-10). The Old Testament, like the New Testament, is intensely Christological revelation and therefore manifests the abiding authoritative word of Jesus Christ. In short, the Old Testament is not a revelation merely of Christ's ministry; it is equally a revelation of his will. To do away with the binding ethical authority of the concrete Old Testament law by interpreting it in a symbolically Christological way is to dishonor Christ.

The Old Testament (like the New) is a Jewish-Christian (in other words, a Christian) revelation. It presents a concrete historical message, sometimes couched in tropes. When it reveals the facts of the creation of the universe (Gen. 1-2), or the laws of human life (e. g., Ex. 20-23), or the prophecies of the coming Messiah (Ps. 22:1-2; 110; Is. 53; 61:1-3; 65:8-9), it presents the authoritative word of God couched in the words of men. It — like Christ himself — is both eternal and historical. It communicates not in "elite-speak" but, for the most part, in common, historical language and occasional tropes. It is not somehow less ethical because it is Christological nor less Christian because it is Semitic nor less authoritative because it is historical.

The Basis of Old Testament Authority

The authority of the Old Testament rests fundamentally on its inclusion in the canon of Holy Scripture itself.16 In short, the Old Testament is authoritative because it is Holy Scripture; it is not authoritative fundamentally because of its content, but because of its source (God himself). Surely, its source is inextricably woven into its content; it is known to be authoritative, however, because it is the word of God; it is not the word of God because of its content.17 This is Paul's plain statement in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 where he describes all Scripture as God-breathed and therefore profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. The Holy Scriptures, including the Old Testament, confront us as a divinely authoritative command-word; they are authoritative not primarily because of their content, but because of their Author.

No Christian in the "New Testament church" would ever have dreamed of arguing that Jesus Christ, or Paul, or the other apostles, or their teachings had superseded the teaching of the Old Testament. To the contrary, the New Testament preachers and writers were intent to assure their listeners of the harmony of their teaching with that of the Old Testament. New Testament revelation, as noted above, was considered the culmination of Old Testament revelation, the capstone of God's revelational superstructure.

Furthermore, the Bible itself confirms the authority of the Old Testament.18 The Old Testament prophets in prosecuting covenant lawsuits against an apostate Israel (as well as heathen Gentiles) verify the authority of Mosaic revelation (e. g., Is. 24:1-6; Jer. 11:1-17; Ez. 16:6-43). Jesus asserts that heaven and earth will pass away before all of the Old Testament is fulfilled, and that his intention is not to deviate one stroke from Old Testament law (Mt. 5:17-19). St. Paul describes the Old Testament law as "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12) and declares that his ministry is designed to "establish the law" (Rom. 3:31). The same is true of other New Testament writers (Jas. 2:9-10; Jn. 3:4).

The unquestioned authority of the Old Testament is likewise attested by the very manner in which the New Testament speakers and writers quote the Old Testament. Roger Nicole draws attention to a fact whose significance is not often sufficiently recognized:

In their formulas of quotation the New Testament writers give expression to their conviction as to the eternal contemporaneity of Scripture. This is manifest in particular in the many (41) instances where the introductory verb is in the present: "He says," and not "he said." This is reinforced by the use of the pronouns "we," "you," in connection with ancient sayings: "That which was spoken unto you by God" (Matt. 22:31); "The Holy Spirit also beareth witness to us" (Heb. 2:5; cf. also Matt. 15:7; Mark 7:6; 12:19; Acts 4:11; 13:47; Heb. 12:5). 19

The fact that the New Testament sees the Old Testament chiefly as a contemporaneous word for New Testament (and, by clear implication, modern) times diminishes the force of argument for an unbridled use of the so-called grammatical-historical method of interpretation, crystallized in the popular evangelical maxim, "A text cannot mean what it never meant." This is amplified as, "[T]he true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken."20 While it is quite true that "the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean," its meaning is often not tied — and certainly not tied preeminently — to its meaning "when it was first spoken." Above it was asserted forcefully that the word of God is a concrete, historic word, but to recognize this fundamental fact is not to assume that the meaning is limited to a particular historical context. To argue that the meaning of the Old Testament derives wholly from "when it was first spoken" is to contradict a great deal of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament. Psalm 110 in its immediate historical context, for example, does not convey the meaning given it in Ac. 2, or. 15, and Heb. 1.21 The point is not that the historical denotation is fictitious or misleading — it certainly is not — but that in many cases the meaning of the verse must be supplied by the Bible itself, not by certain assumptions about its historicity. When we operate with this interpretive approach, we learn that the New Testament sees the Old Testament principally as a contemporaneous word designed by its very inclusion in the canon (and not simply by "application"22) to transcend its initial historical context. This is "canonical interpretation,"23 and it powerfully underscores the authority of the Old Testament. It implies the authority of the New Testament too, for if the latter interprets the Old Testament as a contemporaneous word, we may presume that this is how the New Testament itself should be interpreted. The Bible is a "command word"24 originating in eternity (Ps. 119:89), mediated in history (2 Pet. 1:20-21), and calculated to confront man directly in his own historical situation in every age. Its meaning is not circumscribed by its original historical appearance, the unbelieving presuppositions of the last 200 years notwithstanding.25

Conclusion The Bible conceives of itself as a unified revelation and therefore we would do well to excise the blank page between Malachi 4:6 and Matthew 1:1 as indicative of our recognition that the Bible is a single revelational unit.26 It is not, as "evangelical liberal" Clark Pinnock describes it, a "bipartite" book.27 It is a single revelational unit designed to be read###/eminterpreted  as a single revelational unit. The Old Testament was the charter revelation of the New Testament church; and that revelation, along with the divinely inspired capstone of New Testament Scripture, constitutes the revelational authority of the church — and of mankind in its totality — today.


1. Daniel P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids, 1992), 29, 65-66.

2. Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, 1978), 231-232.

3. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, in Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words(Nashville, 1985), 2:135.

4. Robert S. Rayburn, "The Old and New Covenants in the New Testament," unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1978.

5. If, however, "Old Testament" as the designation of the Hebrew Scriptures is meant to denote that, during the historical epoch which it comprehends, the form of religion practiced was predominantly "old" (i.e., sinful and unbelieving), while "New Testament" is meant to denote that during the historical era of the incarnational and apostolic era the form of religion practiced was more consistently "new" (faith- and obedience-based), these designations are entirely accurate and, indeed, coincide quite well with the postmillennial vision.

6. Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids [1878], 1972), 462.

7. Ibid., 458-460.

8. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago, 1971), 71-81.

9. Ibid., 79-81.

10. Ibid., 81.

11. Jeffrey S. Siker, Disinheriting the Jews (Louisville, KY, 1991). It is true that a great number of Jews were among the most vicious enemies of early Christianity (Rom. 11:28), but this fact was the result of their serious misinterpretation of the Old Testament and abounding unbelief, not their Jewishness as such (Rom. 9:30-10: 3). The teaching of the New Testament, and particularly of one of the greatest Jews of history, the Apostle Paul, was that God had temporarily suspended his covenant dealings with ethnic Israel but would one day resume those dealings in a glorious revival (Rom. 11) and that, in the meantime, he would add to the faithful Jewish remnant a great number of believing Gentiles who, with believing Jews, would constitute the true Israel (Rom. 2:24-29; 9:7-8, 24-29; Gal. 6:15-16). Please note: this was not a reduction of national Israel, but an expansion of covenant Israel to include all believers of whatever race. The Old Testament is frankly a predominantly Jewish book, and it is not less Christian just because it is Jewish. See John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1959, 1965), 2:91-96.

12. Charles D. Provan, The Church is Israel Now (Vallecito, CA, 1987).

13. Rowan A. Greer, "The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation," in James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia, 1986), 126-145.

14. R. P. C. Hanson, "Biblical Exegesis in the Early Church," in eds., P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge, 1970), 1:422-426.

15. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1984 edition).

16. Eugene Osterhaven, The Spirit of the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, 1971), 86. This differentiates the Reformed from the Lutheran view. The latter sees the entire Bible as validated primarily on the grounds that it testifies to Christ, not that it is in fact the word of God, a fact which derives from its Christocentricity. See Herman Sasse, Scripture and the Church (St. Louis, 1995), 162-165.

17. Contrary to the view of evangelicals like Bernard Ramm, "Is 'Scripture Alone' the Essence of Christianity?" in ed., Jack Rogers, Biblical Authority (Waco, TX, 1977), 113-114.

18. John M. Frame, "Scripture Speaks for Itself," in ed., John Warwick Montgomery, God's Inerrant Word (Minneapolis, 1974), 178-200.

19. Roger Nicole, "The New Testament Use of the Old Testament," in ed., Carl F. H. Henry, Revelation and the Bible(Grand Rapids, 1958), 140.

20. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, 1982), 26-27.

21. Crawford Howell Toy, Quotations in the New Testament (New York, 1884), 61-64. Cf. Heinrici's comment: "[T]he use of the Old Testament in the New can not [sic] be regarded as exact exegesis, it is rather instruction in regard to the inner relation of the words of Scripture to the facts which establish the Christian faith (cf. Luke xxiv. 25-27; I Cor. x. 11)," G. Heinrici, "Exegesis or Hermeneutics," in ed., Samuel Macauley Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (New York and London, 1909), 4:244.

22. John Frame observes that there can be no strict separation of meaning from application, in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, 1987), 97-98 and passim. To uncover the meaning of Scripture is to discover how it should be applied. If the source of the knowledge of the application of Scripture is something besides Scripture we have abandoned sola scriptura.

23. Joseph Braswell, "###a target="_blank" href="Interpreting" class="redactor-linkify-object"> Prophecy: The Canonical Principle," Chalcedon Report, July, 1997, 26-28.

24. Rousas John Rushdoony, Systematic Theology (Vallecito, CA, 1994), 1:23-26.

25. Alan Richardson, "The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship and Recent Discussion of the Authority of the Bible," in Ackroyd and Evans, 3:295-305.

26. Steve Schlissel, Reformed pastor and Chalcedon columnist, has actually done this in public preaching.

27. Clark Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (San Francisco, 1984), 62; see also 67.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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