The place of God’s law in the New Testament is an area of considerable debate among Christians today. There are three views about the law and its Old-New Testament relationship that exist at present. They are:
1. The law in the New Testament is the same as in the Old which we receive through Biblical revelation. Any changes to Old Testament law will be found in the New Testament canon.
2. The law in the New Testament is the same as the Old which we receive through prayer and other possible forms of revelation. But it is not accepted because it is written in the Old or New Testaments. It is accepted because the Spirit confirms inwardly to us the way we should live.
3. The law in the New Testament is not the same as the Old, which means we do not need the Old Testament to teach us how to live.
Each of these views presents problems for Christians today.
First, the view that the New Testament canon does not eliminate the Old Testament creates a problem because most of the Old Testament law is discarded by today’s Christians. It is just not kosher to accept Old Testament law as valid. Whether it refers to dietary laws, penal sanctions, business laws (just weights and measures), or inheritance regulations, by and large the Old Testament is ignored today. If it is still applicable, the major problem to overcome is the willingness of the people to adopt Old Testament laws and apply them.
There is another underlying issue with this first view. Who determines what is Scripture? Since the Reformation the answer would be along the lines that Scripture determines what is Scripture. Now if Scripture determines what is Scripture, the idea that the New Testament determines what is carried through in the Old becomes a problem. The Old Testament, being the Scriptures at the time, must be used to determine what is NT canon. On this basis the New Testament cannot change the Old, for if it does not agree with the Old it should be rejected.
Second, if the law in the Old and New Testaments is valid, not because it is taught in Scripture, but because the Spirit somehow tells us how we should now live, then the debate over revelation is just beginning to warm up. The first view above confines revelation to the books of the Old and New Testament. But this second view opens up revelation to an ongoing process that is no longer governed by the Scriptures. In this view, the Spirit can speak to the individual and tell him things that are in addition to the Bible, e.g., who to marry, what career to pursue, who to work for. Some even claim to get divine inspiration on polling day and God allegedly tells them who to vote for.
Third, this view virtually eliminates the necessity of the Old Testament in answering moral questions. The Old Testament may carry stories that help us in the Christian life. From Noah or Abraham we can learn a lot about trusting God, but all the laws pertaining to Israel are abandoned under this view unless the laws are repeated in the New Testament. Those laws that are no longer repeated in the New mean that this view has a difficult time in responding to issues in contemporary culture, such as bestiality, condemned in the Old but not explicitly in the New.
It is easy to see why Christianity is in such disarray today. And it is easy to see why our culture is becoming non-Christian in many aspects. Christians expect to change the world and we think we can do this without an agreed agenda. But there is no agreed agenda because there is no agreed method of reading the Bible. Each of the views listed above is prominent today in some circles of Christianity. None of the views is universally agreed upon. But unlike the Trinitarian debate of the fourth century, there is no church council to declare what the Bible teaches. Denominations may have their own view represented in their various confessions, but there is no overall council that declares which view is orthodox and which view is heretical.
Now if we are going to get serious about transforming lives and therefore culture, it seems we must have an agenda that represents man’s best attempts at declaring just what is the Christian view. Arians past and present can quote Scripture to support their views, but the orthodox have accepted a particular method of interpretation that declares Arianism1 to be wrong and Trinitarianism to be correct. While a church council made the declaration, this did not eliminate the early Arians who continued to work against Athanasius.2 It has been argued there were more Christians killed over this debate at the time than were killed by the Romans. This may be true, but it only indicates that while the church may declare what is true doctrine, the battle for the Faith will continue because there are those — inside and outside the church — who do not accept what the church declares to be true. Does this mean the church should stop making declarations? No. It means it should continue to make them so the followers of the Faith know what beliefs are true.
Is the divine revelation confined to the books of the Old and New Testaments, confirmed by the Spirit to the heart of the believer, and declared to be true by the church through the ages? If not, then the doorway to continuing revelations is opened — and we wonder why Islam, Mormonism, and the Watchtower organizations have flourished.
The third view has done nothing but reduce the Christian church to irrelevancy. Unable to get from the New Testament alone a comprehensive social agenda, it leaves the cultural field to the devil and his followers who know nothing about God’s standards of right and wrong.
It’s on the historical record that Alfred the Great wrote Exodus chapters 21-24 into the law of England. There is hardly any support today for the view that Old Testament laws are valid in the New Testament in the way Alfred understood the Old Testament. But it just so happens that his view helped change the culture of the day. And if we really want to understand the origins of Western civilization we cannot do so without an appreciation of the older view that kept intact both Old and New Testaments. No other view has transformed culture. It was Old Testament law that transformed Israel when she was faithful. It was Old Testament law, combined with the New Testament, that transformed nations in the first thousand years of Christianity.
The issue over the New Testament’s view of the Old Testament law, then, is crucial to solving Christianity’s future at the human level. While Christianity’s future is assured at the divine level, there is work to be done by the troops on earth who are serious when they pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
1. Arianism: The teaching of the 4th-century theologian Arius (c. 256-336) that Jesus is the highest created being but does not share the same substance as God the Father.
2. Athanasius (c. 293-373), bishop of Alexandria, who vigorously defended the teachings of the Council of Nicaea 9325) that Jesus Christ was eternally divine and fully God.
- Ian Hodge
Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.