>That’s just nuts!
I started outlining core issues related to interpreting & applying scripture and found myself returning to the question of continuity vs. discontinuity. I kept going back to the issue of which scriptures were directly applicable to the Church, and which were only directly applicable to the ancient nation of Israel. That’s because I have Dispensational roots, but am at the core bent toward Reformed soteriology.
For those unfamiliar with the conflict, these two camps have a long history of throwing stones at each other, stemming largely from their definition of “church”. On the one hand there’s reference to “the church in the Old Testament”, drawing generally direct application of OT passages to the church (this would be from a perspective emphasizing the continuity of the people of God). On the other hand, some have discounted even the Gospels from being directly applicable to the Church because they were written about events which transpired before Pentecost (which stems from a view emphasizing the discontinuity of the people of God between the OT and the NT). Both camps seemed to make some good points, but neither presented a view of scripture which satisfied.
If one goes back far enough we find paradigms which would conjure up totally allegorical interpretations from every part of the Bible, apparently choosing blindness to the thoughts on the page as a means of finding “higher truths”. Jump to modern times and many consider only the Gospels as valid in finding truth for the believer. These often take exception to the teachings of Peter & Paul, considering them to be erroneous and in contrast to the message of the Gospels. Still others even reject John’s gospel because he’s “too theological”, or just consider the “words in red” as being important and ignore words not attributed directly to Jesus.
It becomes more than a little contrived, convenient, and to be blunt, absurd. How does one choose which words of God have a bearing on your life, and still claim to be a disciple instead of a sampler?
Continuous Discontinuity – a path toward sanity.
How did the Kings of Israel apply the Penteteuch when it was written long before any king’s reign? How could the OT prophets find it to be relevant to their critique of the times after some 800 years? Jesus even relied on it in teaching about himself – which begs the question of why the pre- and post-resurrection person of Christ wasn’t sufficient revelation! I remember a prominent pastor in Chicago reading from an Epistle where Paul quoted from the OT – to which he quipped, “Sometimes the way Paul used scripture makes my blood run cold.” But he continued on by showing both the OT passage as well as Paul’s commentary to be relevant and truthful to the believer who desired to follow the Christ of the Gospels. These are just a drop from the ocean of examples of God-followers applying ancient scripture to their times, and they have at least two things in common.
First, they all accept difficult and culturally distant scripture as binding on the believers of their day. No hermeneutical or ideological gymnastics to get around inconvenient or embarrassing passages. I’d like to see if anyone can provide compelling examples from the scriptures (or from history) where one receives God’s approval for rejecting parts of the scripture available to them. There is significant continuity in the people of God, but more essential is the recognition of continuity in the revelation from God through the scriptures. With near 700 quotations and 4000 references to the OT, the New Testament record suggests that this didn’t change with Jesus or His early followers.
Second, it appears that they applied according to how close their context was to the original. The fact that they found application in ancient texts reflects continuity, as much as the diversity of their application shows discontinuity. The Prophets call the people back to following the Covenant, which reflects their context in addressing the straying nation of Israel, emphasizing the need to correct social injustices and to reject pagan practices. Jesus elevates the entire Old Testament by showing his followers how it all pointed back to Himself as Messiah. While Paul never suggested the establishment of a socio-political system modeled after the Penteteuch, he relied on the OT to derive theological lessons about faith, salvation, the nature of Israel & the Church, etc.
As followers of Christ we also have a degree of “continuous discontinuity” with the scriptures – from the Law of Moses right through to the “words of Jesus”. None of it was written directly to us, yet we consider all of it as “the inspired word of God” to us. Parts of it seem to apply with little difficulty, while some passages require a more sophisticated hermeneutic (which to some, can/will appear contrived in order to support one’s theology – or more charitably, let’s admit that honest disagreement will always exist).
But more to the point, Jesus came into a religious culture where the OT scriptures, especially the Law of Moses, stood as the core pillar by which faith & obedience were judged. While He wasn’t captive to the views popular among the religious elite, He made his appeal based on the same scriptures they used, and in doing so affirmed all the major sections of the OT (Law, Prophets, & psalms). How can a professed follower of Christ dismiss the very scriptures that Jesus touted as authoritative? How can one who professes to follow Christ dismiss the writings of those who heard His voice and gave their lives to serving the church He established?
It’s not that the church always follows all that is the inspired word of God, for we seldom do. But to choose to dismiss words given by God to help believers in another age is to choose to follow neither the example of Christ, nor the words of God.
“I feel mu-u-u-u-u-chh better now” – Application Guidelines
Here’s where I’m just going to spit out some simple guidelines that I find helpful for figuring out how to apply scriptures from different Covenants (or Dispensations – if you wish -) to the church today. This should be viewed mostly as a suggested starting point, hopefully prompting others to present complementary or contrary positions.
For the purpose of application, application can be made in terms of truths, principles, and laws. Anything which is an unchanging fact would be “a truth”. This can be a fact about God, humanity, history, etc.. A subset would be “unchanging truths”, which would include facts about the unchanging nature of God (among others). “Principles” are more like guidelines that capture some useful insight into how things act, or how to act. This could include insights into God’s nature, human nature, spirituality, etc.. Some would hesitate, as a Christian, to promote the concept of law as a good thing. When referring to “the Law of Moses”, or “obedience to the Law as a means of justification”, I’ll capitalize “L”. For purposes here “law” refers to instructions from God concerning how people should act. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor” he wasn’t giving advice – He was giving a command, a law to be followed.
The following outline offers starting suggestions for approaching the various literary genres:
The Law of Moses: Written for the ancient covenant people of Israel. Contains some narrative as well as societal & religious laws. Steeped in foundational truths about God, mankind, and redemption. Steeped with principles for living. Application of law must be done with caution as the covenant has changed, but provides background & context for NT law. See God’s gracious calling of His people.
OT Narrative: Tells the story of the covenant people of Israel living under theocracy, monarchy, exile, and restoration. Look for principles of insight into God’s faithfulness to His people as well as examples of faith lived out by peasant & king. Look for God as the hero of the stories, including the over-riding story of His work over Israel.
Wisdom Literature: Highly poetic & sometimes more metaphorical literature providing wisdom in a variety of genre’s. Job addresses the problem of evil coming into the life of a godly person. Psalms provide examples of prayer & praise – often directly applicable. Proverbs is tidbits of wisdom from God’s perspective. Ecclesiastes is (debatably) about the nature of life without God with interjections of Godly perspective. Song of Solomon is about intimacy, often seen as a picture of God’s love for His people.
Prophets: God’s messengers calling His people back to faithfully follow the Law, including the religious and social justice aspects. Look for insight into God’s heart & priorities for His people. I’m amazed by the patience of God toward His stubborn & rebellious people.
Gospels: Portraits of Christ continuing the prophetic office in calling Israel to faithfulness regarding the original intent of the Law, and to faith in Him as the Messiah of the New Covenant. Find truth about Jesus as God, man, servant, king, & redeemer; and for law straight from the lips of the King.
Epistles: Application of the New Covenant to the primitive churches. Look for propositional truths, principles for faith & Godliness, and “law” for the church and the believer. Pay attention to the situation being addressed to find correlation to today’s church.
Apocalyptic: Don’t bother trying to figure out the future (at least not the details)… the book of Revelation was written for believers who were suffering with the goal of giving them hope. If you’ve got time & resources to dig deep into “the who” and “the when”, then you’re probably missing the point.
In case you missed it – I find it all to be applicable to the believer today.