Last night, I was talking to a good friend of mine in the PhD program here at SBTS. We are both studying church history, both with an emphasis on Baptists. However, he is a Dispensationalist, and I am a Covenantalist. We spent a good while talking about the differences between our respective systems. I was interested to note that he didn’t really have a problem with the eternal covenant of redemption or the covenant of works. He identifies himself as a “federalist,” which means that he believes that everyone since the fall is either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” There is a lot of common ground between us in these areas.
The central difference between us has to do with how we interpret the Old Testament. He believes that the Old Testament was given only to ethnic Israel and that its commands and promises are not binding on NT believers in Christ. His hermeneutic is: “If an OT command or promise is not repeated in the NT, then it is abrogated."
By way of contrast, my hermeneutic is: “If an OT command or promise is not repealed by the NT, then it continues, though it is brought to redemptive historical maturity in Christ.” Another way of stating this principle is to say that the commands and promises of the OT are all abrogated in their specific “before Christ” form, but the principles of the law and the gospel that stand behind them all continue into the NT.
Arguments for Each
My friend argues for his hermeneutic of the OT by saying that the commands and promises to Israel were given only to ethnic Israel in the OT. Thus, he obtains his hermeneutic of the OT from his reading of the OT.
I argue for my hermeneutic by pointing out how the NT authors interpret OT passages. They cite the OT as authoritative in the life of NT believers, but they interpret the OT and apply it in light of the fact that Christ has already come. Thus, I obtain my hermeneutic of the OT from the NT's own hermeneutic of the OT.
Counter-Argument and Reply
He responds to my argument by saying that the authors of the NT had divine authority to interpret the OT the way that they did, while we do not.
However, there are at least two problems with that response. First, it implies that the NT authors had divine authority to mishandle the OT, since he would say it is wrong for us to handle OT texts the way the NT authors handled them. Why would God so consistently authorize sloppy hermeneutics at the hands of the NT authors? Does God have a right to mishandle Scripture?
Second, the NT explicitly teaches that the commands and promises of the OT are for us. Romans 15:4 says “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Thus, the OT “instructs,” or commands, NT believers and gives us “hope” through its promises. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Thus, without the OT instructions, the NT believer would not be equipped for “every good work.” We need the OT to teach us how to live as NT Christians.