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 The Principles of Theology - Article 7

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< Part 3. The Temporary Elements of the Old Testament

Part 4. The Permanent Elements of the Old Testament

The Article in stating the obligation of the Christian man to the moral law suggests a topic which is much larger than this precise reference, because there are elements in the Old Testament equally permanent, and therefore equally binding. It will be worth while to consider these.

1. The Doctrine of God. This is of permanent value, because it is not superseded by that of the New Testament. We are not to understand the revelation of Scripture concerning God as somewhat like the early and later stages of a science, the latter perhaps contradicting and superseding the former. But rather should it be considered as the progressive record of one continuous and increasing revelation. Our Lord and His Apostles do not in any way represent the Old Testament view of God as set aside; on the contrary, that doctrine is taken for granted, while it is naturally revised and completed. Even the manner of communication from God in its twofold characteristic of solemnity and sublimity cannot be said to be superseded by the New Testament. It has been rightly said that the characteristic feature of the Godhead in the Old Testament is Holiness, and that in the New, Love, so that the complete revelation of the character of God is Holy Love [1]. The following special features of the Old Testament doctrine of God should be noted.

(a) The Existence of God. The Semitic idea of God as transcendent, which is found in the Old Testament, is a great safeguard against Pantheism.

(b) The Personality of God. As already noted, there is no need to be afraid of Anthropomorphism, which is the highest conception of Deity possible to us.

(c) The Uniqueness of God. The prophets never tire of emphasising the truth that Jehovah alone is the one true God (Isa. 44:8).

(d) The Relation of God to man. In various forms the Old Testament teaches from the beginning to the end that God and man are capable of fellowship, and that as it was originally, so it is the Divine intention consequent upon sin, that man should be restored to this true relation.

(e) The Revelation of God to man. This is a fact in the Old Testament which is at the foundation of everything in the New Testament. Christ takes for granted this prior revelation and builds upon it (Matt. 5:21; Heb. 1:1, 2).

(f) The Character of God. The Old Testament revelation is of God as essentially righteous both in regard to present and future. There will be a judgment based upon this eternal righteousness.

2. The Experience of Holy Men. It is significant that there is no Psalter in the New Testament, that being almost the only part of the Old Testament writings without a counterpart in the New. Perhaps the reason for this is that the experience of believing people is essentially the same in all ages, implying and involving personal union with God. There is nothing more striking than the Christian use of such Psalms as the 16th, the 23rd, and the 103rd, as expressive of the highest Christian feelings today.

3. The Symbolical Teaching. Although, as we have seen, all the offerings and types found their complete fulfilment in our Lord Jesus Christ, yet their principles abide, and the various characters, institutions, and events have a permanent value for instruction. They are written “for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11).

4. The Moral Lessons of History. The Old Testament stories are not merely beautiful, but true. God is behind them, and the people of Israel were only instruments in carrying out His purpose. It is for this reason that St. Paul emphasises the importance of the Old Testament, as “written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4).

5. The Moral Law. This is the specific feature mentioned in the Article. “No Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” It is sometime believed that the Reformation led to Antinomianism, but this was emphatically not the case in regard to those who were truly representative of that great movement. The moral law was clearly understood to convince of sin (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:20; 7:7-13). But with equal clearness it was taught that the law could not give judicial standing. It was, to use St. Paul’s words, “the schoolmaster” to lead to Christ (Gal. 3:24). But when the penitent and believing sinner became united to Christ he realised that he was “under law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21), and the Ten Commandments were soon seen to embody and emphasise permanent principles long anterior to Judaism. While, therefore, the law could not justify, the believer fully recognised and accepted the place of the law as part of his attitude of loyal response to Christ (Eph. 6:1 f.). In this connection the ethics of the Old Testament call for notice, because they are not really utilitarian. They emphasise the absolute majesty of the moral law, and while the Old Testament does not hesitate to indicate the present value of obedience to God, yet it is impossible to say that morality and utility are synonymous and identical terms. Then, too, the Old Testament doctrine of sin contains a principle of permanent validity because it teaches that sin is an offence against God, and not a mere infirmity of nature, or a misfortune, but a positive vice and crime. Consequently the prohibition of sin in plain terms means a great deal, especially as it is always rooted in the eternal principles of righteousness and law.

6. The Element of Prophecy. Whether we think of that part of the Old Testament which is fulfilled, or of the much larger section dealing with the Messiah, the prophetic parts are of vital value and are as capable of inspiring with hope today as they ever were.

All this teaches that we must avoid the two extremes: the one of ignoring the Old Testament altogether, the other of regarding it as of equal value with the New Testament. The former was the error of Marcion, who thought he was able to save the New Testament by throwing away the Old, thinking that the Old Testament was morally defective by reason of its severity. But it should always be borne in mind that if God is to be thought of at all as directing history and being the Judge of mankind, righteousness must be predicated of Him, whether in the Old Testament or out of it. The key to the solution of the problem is in the principle of progressive revelation, and every element of moral inferiority in the Old Testament is to be judged by it. While we are not to be guided today by many of the examples of the Old Testament, it is equally true that in so far as what was said and done at the time was due to the revelation of God, that revelation was perfect at that time, whatever additional truth came afterwards for newer needs. We have thus to distinguish carefully between the dispensational truth and the permanent truth in the Old Testament; that is, between those elements intended solely for immediate needs and those which are of eternal validity. To put it in another way, it is essential to remember the difference between what is written to us and for us. All Scripture was written “for our learning,” but not all was written to us directly, much of it being addressed to the Jews primarily and often exclusively, and therefore only intended for us today by way of application. Thus, the first Commandment is of permanent value and force, but the introductory words, giving the motive for it (Exod. 20:2) are no longer applicable, except by means of a process of spiritualising. This principle of the progress of doctrine is vital to all true understanding of the Old Testament, for thereby it is at once seen that development does not mean contrariety. [2]

The other error of regarding the Old Testament as equal to the New will be safeguarded by considering the one as supplementary to the other. It is simple truth that the New Testament could not stand alone, and the various doctrines found therein are seen to be the supplement and complement of what is recorded in the Old Testament. In the Old, God is revealed in history; in the New, in connection with individual redemption. In the Old, God’s unity is emphasised; in the New, the Divine Trinity. So that there is profound truth in Beaconsfield’s striking paradox that Christianity is incomprehensible without Judaism, and the authenticity of the Second Testament depends on its congruity with the First. [3]


>> Part 5. The Problem of The Old Testament Today




[1] Hegel, quoted by Edward Caird, Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 1, p. 185, speaks of Judaism as the religion of sublimity as contrasted with the Greek religion of beauty. Cf. Butcher, Harvard Lectures, 1.

[2] A valuable pamphlet on this subject is Progressive Revelation: Its Power on Old Testament Morality (The Bible League, London).

[3] “It stands to reason, that to describe the ceremonial of Judaism, for example, apart from the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, is like writing a history of the acorn and saying nothing of the oak to which it grows; it stands to reason that the theologian who defines the Christian doctrine of the Atonement without reference to the expiatory features of Mosaism, might as wisely undertake a philosophical biography and ignore the entire story of childhood, and the early display of hereditary tendencies” (Cave, The Scriptural Doctrine of Sacrifice, Preface, p. 7).




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The Principles of Theology

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Article 7

>> Introduction

>> Unity of Old & New Testaments

>> Spirituality of the Old Testament

>> Temporary elements of the O.T.

>> Permanent elements of the O.T.

>> Problem of the O.T. Today

Content of The Principles

>> Index

>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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