Monday, March 16, 2009

The New Testament's Use of the Old

There has been controversy for generations surrounding the various ways that the New Testament makes use of the Old. For biblical errantists the solution is clear: the New Testament simply gets it wrong. Paul gets it wrong. The writer of Hebrews gets it wrong. Jesus gets it wrong. Of course this line of reasoning sounds boundlessly arrogant.

Evangelical scholars who uphold the inerrancy of God's Word believe that there is a depth to the ways that the New Testament uses the Old that cannot merely be dismissed as error.

Andy Nasselli recently posted this wonderful observation from New Testament scholar Doug Moo:

We have encountered several places in Romans where Paul does not seem to apply the Old Testament in quite the way the original Old Testament context would seem to validate. This creates a theological problem. How can a New Testament writer use the Old Testament to claim that something is true when the Old Testament does not even teach what he claims it does? Such a procedure wouldbe like our trying to prove a doctrine from a text that we have misunderstood. Understandably, we would convince few people. Answers to this problem, which theologians have discussed for years, are not simple. In fact, each of the texts has to be taken on its own, because they present different kinds of problems. But one part of the solution is to recognize that New Testament writers sometimes use the Old Testament not to prove a point but to borrow its language and ethos. An illustration will make the point.

When I was young, and my sons were even younger, we often played basketball out on the driveway together. Then I, and they, grew. I became weaker and slower; they became bigger, stronger, and faster. Foolishly, I kept trying to compete. One day, I was playing one-on-one with my third son, Lukas. He had grown to about six feet six inches and 240 pounds, and was a very strong, highly skilled basketball player. I warned him, “Watch out, Luke, I’m going to take the ball to the basket on you!” He shot back, “Go ahead, Dad, make my day.” He was “quoting” the lines of the character Dirty Harry from the movie starring Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, portraying a cop, uses these words to dare a criminal to draw his gun on him. Luke did not have a gun; he was not threatening to shoot me. He did not intend to quote the author’s “original intention,” nor did I think that he was doing so. The language was a striking way of making a point: if I was foolish enough to try to take the ball to the basket on Luke, I could very well suffer the violence that Dirty Harry’s bad guy suffered in the movie. The quotation worked because we both knew the movie; it therefore communicated the point very well. So Paul and other New Testament writers often use Old Testament language. They know that their readers will understand it, and the application of the language often helps them to perceive a situation in a new light. Thus, in Romans 10:18, for instance, Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 not because he thinks that this text speaks directly about the preaching of the gospel to Israel; rather, he quotes it because the words would awaken echoes in his
readers’ minds that would lend force to his assertion.
You can find this quote in Dr. Moo's outstanding and accessable Encountering the Book of Romans: A Theological Survey. I highly recommend this resource for individual or small group study. If you are endevouring to study Romans then this is an excellent place to start. Also, if you would like to dig deeper then Dr. Moo's The Epistle to the Romans in the NICNT series is THE standard.

Another very resource that you may want to add to your reference library is the excellent Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

1 comment:

Ryan H. said...

Thanks for sharing that; it's quite a good thought.