A member of our Bible study group insists we don’t need to bother much with the Old Testament, because “we are New Testament people.” Do you think we should uphold ethical values and virtues from the Old Testament? If so, how do they relate to the New Testament?
Your friend is correct in saying we Christians are a New Testament people. However, that doesn’t mean the Old Testament is unimportant to our process of deciding right and wrong. Think of the Bible as a library. In truth, that’s what it is. It’s our library of sacred, authoritative books. We call it our canon, which means we believe these books are God-inspired Scripture. Think of the books of the Old Testament as Part One, and the books of the New Testament as Part Two. They’re separate but connected to each other. If you use only one, your perspective will be incomplete, and you’ll be missing part of God’s revelation. The New Testament flows from the Old Testament and completes it.
Understanding the interdependency of the testaments helps us make ethical decisions in at least three ways.
First, it helps us understand the background of commands we find in the New Testament. For example, when we read in Matthew 5:21 that Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’ and anyone who murders is subject to judgment,” it helps to know he was quoting Old Testament passages like Exodus 20:13 and Genesis 9:6. An examination of such passages helps us understand what Jesus meant when he referred to them.
Second, being aware of the interdependency of the testaments helps us see that Jesus and the New Testament writers assumed the authority and inspiration of Old Testament commands. They operated from the matrix of the Old Testament. Matthew 5:17 records that Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The phrase “Law or the Prophets” referred to what we call the Old Testament. Jesus never set aside Old Testament commands. He extended and fulfilled them.
Third, the interdependency of the testaments helps us explore issues the New Testament doesn’t discuss at length. For example, the New Testament doesn’t speak at length about issues like social justice. This isn’t because early Christians considered social justice unimportant. It’s because they assumed the authority of Old Testament statements on the subject.
As we formulate our ethical decisions guided by the Holy Spirit, we should draw on the entire library of God’s sacred books. Because we are a New Testament people, we believe that the commands of the New Testament must have the final word when we make ethical decisions. However, the Old Testament witness should be an important source for our ethical decisions as well.
Robert Prince, pastor
First Baptist Church, Waynesville, N.C.
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Right or Wrong? is sponsored by the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to email@example.com.