How to apply the Old Testament

Biblical Theology is all the rage in U.S. Reformed evangelical circles at the moment. This seems odd to Australians because biblical theology feels slightly passé. We’ve benefitted greatly from a number of biblical scholars (Donald Robinson, William Dumbrell, Graeme Goldsworthy) who made major contributions toward developing a distinctly evangelical biblical theology. What was fresh and exciting to them (and their students) became standard fare as the impact of evangelical biblical theology was disseminated across university campuses by the AFES movement. Since 1997, the AFES National Training Event has incorporated training in Biblical theology as the major element of its first two training ‘strands’. This is certainly where it first made its impact on me (in 1997 co-incidentally). The experience of suddenly realising, ‘Oh, that’s how the whole bible fits together!’ occurs less often as students are trained earlier and earlier in reading the whole Bible as one canonical testimony to Christ.

It needs to be said however, that it’s to our shame if younger theologians neglect biblical theology in a rush to move on somewhere fresh (preaching to myself at this point). One of the benefits of having lived with biblical theology for a while, being past the first blush of enthusiasm, is that we can begin to see more of the strengths and weaknesses of the model we’ve adopted (I’m hoping to write something about this down the track). One of the most significant and recurring of these questions focusses on the effect of biblical theology upon our application of Old Testament scripture.

Biblical theology rests on two significant methodological assumptions: firstly, that the Bible is a progressive revelation, each part building on the next. Secondly, that the fulfilment of the all the scriptures is found in Jesus: he is the gravitational centre of the canon. The Old Testament points towards Jesus and the New Testament is about Jesus. This has led biblical theologians to claim strongly that we can’t just take an Old Testament passage and apply it directly to us. The coming of Jesus is such a significant event that it changes the way we view and understand the Old Testament. We read the Old Testament with ‘Christ’ eyes.

But does this mean that the application of every Old Testament passage is: “it’s about Jesus”? Sure, biblical theology helpfully reminds us that we don’t need a sheepskin (like Gideon) in order to decide who to marry. But how to we avoid going too far the other way and reducing all our Old Testament preaching to a series of exegetical notes with a bland gesture toward the New Testament at the end?

Here are two thoughts:

1. In applying a passage, we need to keep in mind the distinctive nature of the passage we are looking at and how it in particular relates to Jesus: his life, death, resurrection/ ascension, the last days, and the new creation. Our application will then flow out of the distinctive way in which Jesus brings it to fulfilment.

2. There’s another step in great application. Not only do we need deep knowledge of the passage and it’s biblical context, we need deep knowledge of ourselves and the people around us. As we engage in biblically informed observation we see the ways in which God’s word challenges and confronts our own lives and those of our different communities. We read our world with ‘Christ’ eyes.

Of got a bunch of thoughts about how to do this which I hope to share over the next little while…


15 thoughts on “How to apply the Old Testament

  1. I reckon what is missing is a doctrine of ‘union with Christ’. Our particular brand of BT can come across as ‘it’s all about Jesus, therefore it isn’t about you’, when the reality is ‘it’s all about Christ, you are in Christ, therefore it is about you as you are in Christ’. Perhaps the American reformed guys will balance this out.


    1. Hey Mike,
      that’s helpful. I think it needs to be spelled out how this helps us with OT hermeneutics though. Any thoughts?


  2. It’s always struck me as strange that Reformed Evangelicals interpret the Old Testament as being about Jesus. Since no Old Testament author knew who Jesus was, and therefore can’t possibly have Jesus in mind when writing, it seems to me a sure-fire way of guaranteeing that you misinterpret the intention of every single text. I don’t believe that is an ethical way of reading any text.


    1. Hey Karl,
      I think you’ve hit upon a significant problem: that the OT writers can’t personally be intending to write about Jesus and thus to read their texts that way is to ignore their expressed intention, i.e., to be unethical.
      To be fair, Reformed evangelicals (and I count myself among them) are not unaware that this is a problem, some of what I plan to write about in the following posts will interact in more detail
      A couple of quick responses:
      1. It’s not entirely fair to conclude that since no OT author know who Jesus was, it is not possible for them to have intended to write about him. For example, I could easily write about ‘the challenges facing the next President of the United States’ without personally having any idea who that person will be, and without necessarily having complete certainty that there will be one. A significant portion of the prophetic ‘messianic’ tradition could be understood this way, i.e., that the prophets intended to write about the person who Jesus in fact turned out to be. Thus, reading their texts as ‘being about Jesus’ isn’t dishonouring their intentions in the slightest.

      2. The more significant evangelical claim is that the OT writers wrote about Jesus even when they did not consciously intend to. I’ll admit that this seems fertile ground for unethical hermeneutics, but it’s a claim founded upon the more central claim that scripture is a divine communicative act, and thus the human intention of the author (which is real and cannot be neglected in interpretation) serves a divine communicative intention which also cannot be neglected. Ultimately, it’s the claim that God speaks in scripture, and through scripture testifies to the Son. Reformed evangelical hermeneutics begins here.

      I’m not going to pretend that this is necessarily a satisfying answer if you don’t buy the more foundational premises. (I’m also writing some articles on ‘Who speaks in scripture?’ at the moment which will touch on this stuff as well.)


    2. Hey Karl (again).
      I just checked out your blog. You’ve been writing on Bahktin’s theory of polyphony in texts: why can’t the polyphony of scripture include the voice of a divine author who speaks in the words of others while intending both what they say and something more?

      BTW, have we ever met? You seem like someone I’d like to have a conversation with…


      1. If God’s voice is only one voice among many, then you can’t say the human voices are ‘inspired’ – instead, discerning the voice of God in the Bible becomes a process of shutting out the voices of human authors to hear the divine voice. That’s not how God works in scripture, consistently, the human voice of the prophet IS the very voice of God.

        Hey I would LOVE to catch up 🙂 Call me for a coffee any time, my number is 0425 220 635. I’ve long been a fan of your blog, and am actually quite flattered. (p.s. i notice your wife is studying at my Alma Mater, SMBC)


      2. Sweet, that would be fun… I’ll send you a txt and work out a time.

        I don’t think the polyphony idea works if we were to regard God’s voice as ‘one voice among many’. Then you’d be right, we’d have to screen out the merely human voices. But it might well work for a description of ‘one voice through many voices’ (I know that’s moving away from Bakhtin). It could be similar to what happens in singing: a whole crew of individuals freely and willingly surrender their voices to a single (intended) melody. When this melody overarches generations of voices (or multiple parts), it becomes more than any single voice could intend, even while they intend their part in it. The final intention belongs to the composer and can only be understood with reference to him.


      3. Yeah, I think we’re on the same page with polyphony now 😉

        Saying inspiration is “one voice among many” is like saying God is “one being among many”, or saying that scripture “contains” the word of God, as Liberals used to say (and still do). Well that can’t be right!!

        (Looking forward to ur text, friend!)


  3. Chris Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God is a pretty spectacular approach to applying from the OT. And Gordon Wenham also makes for interesting reading from an ethics angle. I think they’re pretty representative of the next step in terms of moving from a solid Biblical theology to a cohesive understanding of how the Bible shapes the Christian life. There’s another British bloke who has been lecturing on ethics at the Queensland Theological College by the name of Jonathan Burnside who is also worth checking out…

    I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes. Thanks Dan.


    1. Thanks Nathan,
      I’ve been working from Chris Wright’s The Mission of God for a series of seminars on Theology of Mission that I’m giving at the moment. The scope and argument of that book is exhilarating. I’ll be sure to look out for Jonathan Burnside.


  4. Sorry it took a while to get back. My thoughts for how it works out for hermeneutics is similar to Karls concern. For gentiles like me, the OT is not my text to read, or interpret. The reason I don’t get ethical dillemas is that Jesus actually fulfills Israel, not just Israels scriptures, and opens those scriptures to me by grafting me into the people of YHWH. The reason why Karls ethical concern is so important, however, is that often christians split Jesus off from his jewishness, and think they are entitled to read the OT without a Jewish Jesus.
    Now, what does that do for interpretation?

    trusting that Jesus fulfills Israel means I don’t have to go ripping the OT out of Israels hands and frantically trying to see how this passage fits with my conception of Jesus. instead, it frees me to listen to what the passage has to say to Israel, expand my understanding of the Christ, and so expand my understanding of myself as one grafted into Israel through Christ.


    1. Hey Mike,
      great thoughts. I hope I’ve addressed some of these concerns in a couple of the later posts on canonical criticism. If I haven’t I probably should…


  5. hi dan. nice to see you (briefly) the other day

    at the MTC review bolty was in a clip talking about BT. he said ‘we start with Creation, move to the climax of the Biblical Story with Jesus, and finish with predictable preaching.’

    he’s a funny guy!

    when i’ve started writing some words on my project i’ll give you a yell – it’s on seeing how Ricoeur’s emphasis on the parts of scripture critiques the way we do BT.

    until then.


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