I’m all about getting the Bible into the hands of new Christians. When I lead a person to Christ I want them to begin reading the Bible as soon as possible. At Southern Hills we have stacks of Bibles for the sole purpose of giving away to the new comer. However, those who are given a Bible will often begin reading the Bible…at the beginning. Surprising, huh? So, what do we do when we arrive at Old Testament laws like “don’t wear clothing woven out of two materials” – Lev. 19:19 or “don’t cook a baby goat in it’s mother’s milk” – Exod. 34:26?
These new Christians may wonder why modern Christians ignore the laws about standing in the presence of the elderly (Lev. 19:32), wearing gender specific clothing (Deut. 22:5), or eating pork (Duet. 14:8). However, they will see our strict adherence to the laws about not committing adultery (Deut. 5:18), not bowing before idols (Exod. 20:4-5), and loving your neighbor (Lev. 19:18). So then, how is the Christian supposed to determine which laws are valid for them and which can be ignored? Professor J. Daniel Hayes of Ouachita Baptist University shared his thoughts in his article Applying Old Testament Law Today published in BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (Jan-Mar 2001). I’d like to share some of his conclusions along with some of my own thoughts.
A Professor’s Approach
Hayes compares and contrasts the traditional protestant approach with his suggested approach. The traditional approach being to identify and separate the different laws into three categories: Moral Laws, Civil Laws, and Ceremonial Laws. For example, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is a moral law because it is believed to be “moral” to love your neighbor. “At the end of seven years you must forgive all debts” (Deut. 15:1) is a civil law because it relates to specific legal system of ancient Israel. Finally, “Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear” (Deut. 22:12) is a ceremonial law because it has to do with the specific religious activities of the ancient Jewish society.
The traditional approach allows the modern Christian the ability to ignore the Ceremonial Laws and Civil Laws but requires adherence to the moral laws. The question is, who determines which laws are considered moral? “Love your neighbor” is located one verse before “don’t wear clothing woven out of two materials.” (Lev. 19:18-19)
Are we required to love our neighbor but flagrantly flaunt our polycotton blends? Who decides that verse eighteen is for today but verse nineteen is not? There seems to be no indication in the text that one law is moral and the other is ceremonial. Some may say that the answer to this dilemma is common sense, but is this correct hermeneutical technic?
A Seeming Contradiction
The New Testament simultaneously teaches that the Law is eternal and ought be taught (Matthew 5:17-20) while also teaching that we are delivered from the law and no longer in need of it (Romans 7:6, Galatians 3:24-25). So which is it? Let’s take a moment to understand these passages.
Some believe Jesus was claiming to abolish the Old Testament (law and prophets) when He spoke in Matthew 5:17. But He did not say that He would destroy the Old Testament but that He was the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Everything in the writings of Moses and the prophets were pointing to the Messiah, and Jesus was claiming to be that very Messiah. He did not come to destroy the law, neither did He come to observe the law rather He came to fulfill the law. He brought the law to its intended conclusion. Jesus is not the sequel to the Old Testament, He is the finale, the glorious last chapter of the Old Testament. The Old Testament had many righteous demands and Jesus did not come to eradicate those demands, He came to fulfill those righteous demands.
We believe that Jesus is God and therefore the author of the Law. Therefore, Jesus is the ultimate interpreter of the Law. And when He was on earth, He did a lot of interpreting. Jesus reinstated some laws (Matthew 19:18-19), expanded some laws (Matthew 5:21-28), revised some laws (Matthew 5:31-32), completely altered some laws (Matthew 5:33-47), and some laws He completely repealed (Mark 7:15-19). You see, Jesus was not attempting to destroy the law, nor was He encouraging us to adhere to it in the traditional Jewish way. Hayes nails it when he states, “He was proclaiming that the meaning of the Law must be interpreted in light of His coming and in the light of the profound changes introduced b the New Covenant.”
The New Covenant (introduced in Jeremiah 31, mentioned by Jesus in Mark 14:23-24, and fully explained in Hebrews 8) has replaced the Old Mosaic Covenant and with its categories of moral, civil and ceremonial. Then how should a New Testament Christian interpret and apply the Old Testament law?
This method of interpretation allows the student to see the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God, doesn’t rely upon arbitrary categories, explores the context of the Law within the narrative of the Pentateuch, and views these truths in light of the New Testament. There are five easy steps to principlism:
· Identify what the specific law meant to the initial audience
· Identify the differences between the initial audience and the modern audience
· Identify the universal principle
· Filter the principle through New Testament teaching
· Apply the principle to modern life
Let’s look at an example of these five steps in action as we look at Leviticus 19:9-10.
Leviticus 19:9-10 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. 10And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.
What did the specific law mean to the initial audience? Under the Mosaic Covenant the people were promised a Land that would be their inheritance. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai God made it very clear through the Law of Moses that they were not to be a stingy people. When they began to work their fields and vineyards God would bless their efforts tremendously. However, there would be those who did not have the wealth or opportunities they had been given and God wanted them to leave the corners of the field and clusters on the vine, left for those who were needy to come and take what they need.
What is the difference between the initial audience and the modern audience? The modern Christian is no longer under the Mosaic Covenant that declared that God would cast them out of the Promised Land if they neglected to obey these laws. The modern Christian farmer can legally reap his entire field without feeling like he will be punished by God.
What is the universal principle? Evidently God cares for the poor. Therefore, we his children ought care for the poor as well. Every follower of God in every cultural setting in every time period throughout the ages ought care for those who have little to nothing. If we can sacrifice so that others in need can be helped, we have an obligation to do so.
What does the New Testament teach about this universal principle? Jesus reached out to the poor. James, the brother of our Lord, wrote much about the Christian’s responsibility to the poor. Even Paul in the midst of his diatribe against legalism and strict adherence to the law spoke of the importance of remembering the poor in Galatians 2:10.
How can we apply this principle to modern life? The modern Christian should seek to find room in his budget to give to the poor. Whether that be through helping a friend or acquaintance that you know is struggling financially, giving to a benevolence fund that is set up for helping the poor, or giving to Missions for the purpose of helping those most in need. We ought be a generous people.
If we are careful to use principlism in our interpretation of the Old Testament Law we will remain true to the meaning of the text as well as practically apply the Word to the modern hearer. This method seems to work across the board and I encourage you to find your own Old Testament Law and follow the five steps as designated by J. Daniel Hayes.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comment section below: