The Relationship of the Testaments: The Priority of the Old Testament

I appreciate all that has been said in this series. I have been encouraged and challenged by post and comment alike. On behalf of the other contributors, thank you for the interaction, which I pray the Lord will use to sharpen each of us.

To a certain extent, I will not carry the conversation much further than Paul and Matt have. Instead, I would like to attack this issue from a different direction or perspective, namely from the view of 1 Corinthians 15.

According to the Scriptures: Precedence and Accordance

In my opinion, the whole discussion comes down to this question: Are we supposed (1) to read Christ “according to the Scriptures” or (2) to read the Scriptures “according to Christ”? Although I hold to (1) for many of the same reasons already expressed by my fellow writers, I have to admit that (2) is attractive, in that it would really make my teaching and preaching a lot easier. That is, first coming to a complete understanding of an OT text and then preaching Christ in light of that, is difficult (a life-long process). Moreover, sometimes it is difficult to preach/teach a text that may not apply well to the church without bending to the pressure of becoming sloppy in my own hermeneutic and forcing some interpretation that is foreign to the text before me.

With that said, in my opinion, the priority of the OT has to do with precedence. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is reading Christ in accordance with the OT. However, he is not changing the plain reading of the OT. Rather, he is properly understanding Christ according to the precedent laid down by a completed document.

Relating to this, I appreciate the following comment by Christopher Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness, 60:

Far from being a problematic, outdated, or downright misguided witness to God … the Old Testament is God’s shared gift to the church, meant to guide its present life in Christ. Paul and the church understood this when they declared Jesus’ death and resurrection to be ‘in accordance with the scriptures,’ the Old Testament. Jesus understood this when he declared that he would give his life as a ransom for many. Such a death is only comprehensible against a background of Old Testament accordance.

As Seitz goes on to express, Paul was interpreting Christ according to the plans of God set out in the OT. His point is well taken. Paul was not so much concerned with pointing to a set of “proof texts” in the OT that show that the Messiah was to die, be buried, and be raised from the dead (although he believes that those texts exist); rather, Paul was expressing how Christ fit in to the purposes of God as expressed in the OT. Thus, the focus is the completed theological perspective of the OT.

Among other things, 1 Corinthians 15 establishes the principle that the NT is firmly planted upon the foundation of the Old. Few would disagree with that statement. However, I would take it one significant step forward: the NT is not only firmly planted upon the foundation of the OT, it demonstrates the correct interpretation thereof not because it reinterprets or provides a further meaning but because it presents Christ in accordance with the meaning already inherent in the First Testament.

Thus, the NT cannot be understood apart from the OT. That may seem to turn the table, per se, but again, few would disagree with that. Without the OT picture of the Messiah, for instance, the Gospels would take on a less significant role, for we would not understand why they are telling us the things they are claiming about Jesus.

According to the intricately-composed, multi-faceted Scriptures

Unfortunately, the whole issue that we are addressing here is not as clear-cut as we would all like it to be. For example, not only do we have to deal with the ways the NT writers are reading the OT, but we are forced also to deal with how OT writers are reading and interpreting other OT texts. In this sense, the NT becomes the final step in a complicated, long process of exegesis and interpretation.

With that said, therefore, my point here is that we often fail to persevere with the OT until we come to a full appreciation of its teaching. The OT is an intricately-composed, multi-faceted document, so coming to terms with its theological perspectives is difficult. As such, I suggest that the element that is often left out of this is the nature of the composition of the OT. I believe that if we give the First Testament its due process, we will discover that its message is none other than that preached and written down in the NT. Let me give you an example, which might just make our amill readers salivate but makes my point about the precedence of the OT.

In a recent German article, Martin Beck shows how the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1–10 is used by its author with theological purposes way beyond a response of thanksgiving by Hannah herself. On the compositional level of the book of Samuel, this prayer along with 2 Samuel 22 frame the book. According to Beck, the effect of these two poems to the whole provides the proper context in which to read the whole, i.e., within the context of the messianic hope expressed in these two psalms. David appears within the composition of the book as a picture of such a messianic figure. Thus, it is unnecessary, for example, to impose a Christological hermeneutic on the text of Samuel, because it already exists. Moreover, throughout the OT, such messianic compositions are clearly evident (particularly in the Psalter, e.g. Psalms 2–89, but even the Pentateuch itself). The point of this correlates well with what Paul said in his last post.

In brief, here’s my point: The relationship of the testaments is best described with a precedent/accordance understanding, but it is compounded because of the difficulties inherent in interpreting the First Testament. Recognizing theological composition within the Old may at times assist us in understanding those difficult quotations of the Old in the New that keep us baffled. I hope to offer some examples of this in a future post.

[In case your interested, here’s the information on the article. Beck, Martin. “Messiaserwartung in den Geschichtsbüchern? Bemerkungen zur Funktion des Hannaliedes (1 Sam 2:1–10) in seinen diversen literarischen Kontexten (cf. Ex 15; Dtn 32; 2 Sam 22). Auf dem Weg zur Endgestalt von Genesis bis II Regum. Festschrift Hans-Christoph Schmitt zum 65. Geburtstag, 230–51. Martin Beck and Ulrike Schorn, eds. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006.]

9 responses to this post.

  1. I am really enjoying this series of posts. This not only has theological ramifications as pointed out in different ways by comments to other posts but also practically, for example, divorce and remarriage. I am currently trying to really wrestle with all the pertinent passages Old and New without letting my former emphasis on Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 bias my understanding of the Old Testament passages. In turn, I am seeing Matthew 19 in a much fuller light knowing that Jesus, the Pharisees, Matthew, and those to whom he was writing had an Old Testament view of the subject (not necessarily unified amongst themselves) and that plays a huge role into why Matthew included the passage in his gospel. Still got a lot of work to do on the subject but am learning a lot. Some days though I wish I had that lifetime of Old Testament learning behind my belt that Randy refers to :)

  2. Posted by bobby grow on March 23, 2007 at 1:08 am


    good post. You’re point on Samuel is a good one. I had a prof in Bible College, Dr. Ray Lubeck (a follower and friend of Sailhammer–from his Western Sem. days), who labeled the poetic sections of the OT, i.e. in the Pentateuch as the Heavy Duty Theology (HDT) of that book, since the poetry embedded with the narrative serves inclusiastically as the frame that should point the reader to the, in this case, Messianic emphasis of the book. Randy, are you a follower of the Canonical approach to interpretation? And what do you think of Childs?

  3. Bobby,

    I appreciate the corrective that the canonical approach has brought to some of the other critical views of the OT. Am I follower? I would have to give a nuanced, somewhat. It is a great reminder that we evangelicals should embrace that the books of the OT are set within a canonical context and that they inform one another. At the same time, I would not be an advocate of Childs’ canonical approach, because his has more to do with the reinterpretation of the text by later communities. I see this on some levels, but working through his commentary on Isaiah, I think I would be on a different page. Yet, I appreciate a lot of what Childs said in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Although there are aspects of the canonical approach that help me in reading the OT, I find a compositional approach more helpful (as in the example in Samuel) because it is more “text-imminent.”


  4. Posted by bobby grow on March 23, 2007 at 3:06 am


    thanks, I agree, I appreciate the “compositional approach” myself–and find Childs too “higher critical” for my tastes.

    In Christ,


  5. Randy and Bobby,

    Thanks for the interchange. It is fun to sit in the bleachers and watch sometimes. I found the following quote from B. Childs interesting in light of what we’ve been discussing in this series. Notice especially his last sentence which speaks of the “reinterpretation” of the OT from a NT perspective (see full article here:

    “Finally, regarding the place of the New Testament in an Old Testament commentary on Isaiah, the primary task of the latter is to hear the Old Testament’s own discrete voice and to honor its own theological integrity. Yet as a Christian interpreter, I confess with the church that the Old and New Testaments, in their distinct canonical shape, together form a theological whole. By probing deeply into the Old Testament’s prophetic text, I hope to illuminate the extent to which the selfsame theological reality that Israel confessed was confirmed, adapted, and reinterpreted by the Christian church to bear witness to Jesus Christ.”

  6. Posted by bobby grow on March 23, 2007 at 2:47 pm


    thanks for the quote. I think the intertexuality that Childs’ view forwards is an exegetical plus–but he does have his weak points–such as his “higher critical” slant.

    In Christ

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