What is the “Old Covenant?” it’s Not the “Old Testament?”: Thinking about the Structure of the BibleAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Alexander Campbell, Apocrypha, Bible, Chronicles, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics
Some Manic Monday questions for you. Sometimes a cup of java provides stimulus for thinking. These have actually been percolating for a long time.
I was raised in my local congregation and trained on an undergraduate level to automatically distinguish between the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant.” This was in fact a foundational hermeneutical and theological principle within the Churches of Christ. Sometimes these were called the “Old Dispensation” and the “New Dispensation.” The hermeneutical orientation is in fact called “Dispensationalism” (not to be confused with Dispensational Pre-Millennialism).
This strand of thought has its genesis among us through the “Sermon on the Law” by Alexander Campbell and his frequent labors afterwards. This was, in fact, the primary hermeneutical labor of restorationist thinkers for years rather than “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference.” David Dungan’s textbook Hermeneutics expends considerable energy on the distinction between the covenants but never mentions CENI.
What is interesting about Campbell and other leading restoration theologians of the day is they seemed to realize that dispensationalism can easily distort Scripture as a whole. Thus they developed a redemptive-historical framework for biblical theology seemingly at odds with dispensationalism. Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott and even Robert Milligan knew that New Testament doctrine/theology is impossible without the “Old Testament.” It seems that Campbell resorted to dispensationalism primarily when the question had to do with specific church structure or specific church practices a rather limited category indeed.
Today several generations later dispensationalism is ingrained within the identity of Churches of Christ. So ingrained is it that the first 76% of Scripture is simply marginalized for any actual theological use in our churches. As such our fellowship has fallen victim to many doctrinal extremes and distortions. Today there is one extreme distortion called “MMLJBC” that throws even the Gospels, the teaching of Jesus himself, into the “Old Covenant” and therefore not binding on Christians. The most important page in the Bible for the mainstream dispensationalists is the title page between Malachi and Matthew, while the most important page for the MMLJBC extremists is Acts 2.
In graduate school we learned that the relationship between the “New Testament” and “Old Testament” was far more complex than most imagine. Even those who are today seen as conservative lights have for years taught in Harding Graduate School, ACU or other institutions that it is not as simple as a title page (that of course the apostles never heard of). I think of Jack Lewis, Everett Ferguson, John Willis and others who trained hundreds of teachers in smaller institutions like Stephen Broyles at IBC who first taught me in a class called “Religious Teachings of the New Testament” (cannot call it NT Theology!) on ways the NT and OT relate and how the NT presupposes continuity and the authority of the OT. (By mentioning these great men I do not imply they would agree with me but rather than the process for thinking about these things did indeed begin with them and their critique of false exegesis).
Slowly but surely the old House of Cards began to crumble under the weight of the exegesis of these old masters … even when they often ignored the practical implications of their own exegesis. Thus the Old Testament was not nailed to the cross in Colossians 2.14 (as I had been taught and taught! See What was Nailed to the Cross? Colossians 2.14). Thus Jesus did not teach that he came to do away with the Law (Mt 5.17ff, See “Of Dating, Engagements, and Fulfilling the Law, Mt 5.17“). Thus the early New Testament writers themselves “establish biblical authority” by quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus 2 Timothy 3.15-16 speaks of the authority of the Hebrew Bible and only by “implication” of the New Testament! Thus the Hebrew Bible was every bit a covenant of grace and love as the “New Testament.”
Ironically, Alexander Campbell understood far better than modern dispensationalists that even with dispensationalism we simply cannot have the faith once delivered to the saints without the 76% of the Bible. The problem with dispensationalism, where we simply chunck over three-quarters of the Bible by saying it was nailed to the cross is that it is absolutely wrong! It cannot be sustained exegetically from the New Testament itself … even from the book of Hebrews!! Paul simply assumes the absolute authority of the “Old Testament.” (See Paul and the Unquestioned Authority of the ‘Old Testament’)
The phrase “Old Covenant” in the New Testament is not, beloved, identical with what is commonly called the “Old Testament.” The phrase “Old Testament” where it means a collection of documents/books is never occurs in the Bible anywhere and was coined over a hundred years after the death Peter, Paul and James by Melito of Sardis in a sermon on the Passover/Easter (which early Christians in fact observed).
CovenantS and Old Covenant
So the old false division of the Bible between “Old” and “New” Covenant is simply unbiblical. It is clear the biblical writers never equate “old covenant’ with the section of Scripture known as the Old Testament as a whole. This is true even of Hebrews which makes a clear distinction between the “OC” and “the law” itself. Most ignore this however.
Notice what Paul states boldly about Gentiles, because of the Jewish Messiah, have been now brought into the commonwealth of Israel and are now heirs to the “covenantS of promise” (they once were excluded from both).
“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth … were at that time without Messiah, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenantS [plural] of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. BUT NOW in Messiah Jesus you have been brought near [near to what!? the answer is v.12] by the blood of Messiah …
You Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise …” (Ephesians 2.11-13; 3.6).
What are these “covenantS” that Paul refers to? Most Church of Christ folk, again, simply chunk the Hebrew Bible collectively as the “old covenant.” What ever the law is that was taken away in verse 14 it is clearly not synonymous with the covenants of promise that Gentiles once had no part in but do so now. So here Paul makes a clear distinction between the “covenants” and “the law” itself. The covenants have not been done away with or nailed to the cross rather now Gentiles are citizens of Israel along with the saints and heir to these very covenants in the Hebrew Bible.
This is what Paul does in Romans too. Romans 9-11 affirm the very theology of Ephesians. Paul says Gentiles are now grafted into Israel (which is the same thing as Eph 2.11-13; 3.6). Paul uses similar language as Ephesians 2.11-13 at the beginning of his section on Israel in Romans 9.
“They are Israelites, and to them belong … the covenantS [plural], the giving of the law [covenants and law are NOT equated by Paul], the WORSHIP …” (Romans 9.4-5)
Paul clearly is not simply tossing out 76% of the Bible.
The Preacher in Hebrews is true to his text in Jeremiah 31 too. Contrary to the what I was lead to believe the Hebrew’s Preacher does not think 1) that their was a problem with the covenant 2) the “new” or “renewed” covenant is made with the identical people as the “old” one and the law (not the same as the covenant) is the same. The difference is where the “law” is written.
“God finds fault with them [not the covenant nor law] when he says:
the days are surely coming says the Lord,
when I will establish a new/renewed covenant,
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah;
not like the covenant I made with their ancestors,
on the day I took them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I had no concern for them,
says the Lord.
This is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people …
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities
and I will remember their sins no more.
In speaking of a new/renewed covenant he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (Hebrew 8.8-13)
This text, like its setting in Jeremiah, is speaking specifically about the Mosaic covenant. “Old Covenant” in this text cannot be made to mean by any law of context to mean 76% of the Bible. The text does not equate law with covenant either old or new either. This is a fascinating text and is a traditional Jewish one at that. But to say more would take me away from what I want to do in this blog. For more though see Hebrews: Common Assumptions, Uncommon Surprises. But the “old covenant” is specifically the broken and defiled marriage between Yahweh and Israel at Mt Sinai that Israel broke … it is not the law, it is not the same as the “Old Testament” (meaning 39 books).
The Covenants Israel Knew
So again what are these “covenants” that Paul says that Gentiles are now joint heirs? If we turn to the Deuterocanonical book Sirach and look at chapters 44 to 50 we find a “Hall of Fame” of faith that Hebrews 11 is a practical cliff notes version of. Ben Sira two hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth reviews the covenants that Jews in the Second Temple celebrated and praised God who stands “by the covenantS” (44.12) Beginning with Noah whom God gave an “everlasting covenant” (44.18) to Abraham (44.20, 22), to Moses (45.5), to Aaron (45.7, 15), to Phinehas Yahweh made a “covenant of friendship” (45.24). To David the Lord made a covenant of kingship (45.25; 47.11).
It is not without significance that baptism makes Gentiles also the children of Abraham “in Christ” (Gal 3.26-29). Thus baptism upholds the covenant. It is not without significance that Jesus is the Son of David and we “in Christ” are part of Israel of which the son of David is King (many texts, God is upholding the covenant with David). As James said in Acts with the coming of the Gentiles into Israel God has “rebuilt the house of David” (Acts 15.13-21)
Some Thoughts on the Covenants and Us
The “new covenant” is the REnewAL of the promises to Abraham and David by expanding the Mosaic covenant to include Gentiles in the definition of Israel. Is this not exactly what Paul says in Ephesians when he declares the “mystery?”
“for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you [i.e. Gentiles], and how the MYSTERY was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words (i.e. 2.1-22), a reading of which will enable y’all to perceive my understanding of the MYSTERY of Messiah. In former generations this mystery was not known to humanity, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Messiah Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3.2-6)
The “new covenant” is not the repudiation of the “Old Testament” (a phrase the apostles never once used much less heard of). Rather the “new covenant” is the affirmation of the never ending promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel and David. I would go so far as to say the new covenant includes God’s covenant with creation itself. (For more on the meaning of “new’ and “renewed” in the Bible see Jeremiah 31.31-34: Explorations on New and Renewed in the Bible).
Psalms and the Rest of the Hebrew Bible
So if the new covenant includes the covenant with David rather than its repudiation is the Book of Psalms part of the Davidic covenant?
There are some that desperately want the Psalms to be nailed to the cross (a grosser misinterpretation of Colossians 2.14 could not be made, See What Was Nailed to the Cross? Col 2.14) because it mentions instruments. I had a preaching brother tell me last week in a private discussion that “if the Old Testament is not nailed to the cross then instrumental music is not wrong.” Therefore he refused to even entertain the idea that the “Old Testament” was not nailed to the cross. So much for actual biblical authority! But basing theology on sectarian agendas is poor exegesis.
In the Hebrew Bible, David is not just a King but assumes the role of worship leader (priest). A number of texts in the Hebrew Bible does this though they are unfamiliar to many. When the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem, David was clearly in charge of the ceremony. The Lord was clearly present for the event as “God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 15.26). The text goes on to say,
“David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers; and David wore a linen ephod …” (15.27)
Then the text further describes the priestly leadership of David in remarkable ways.
“They brought in the ark of God [David and company], and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and they offered burnt offerings and shalom-offerings before God. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the shalom offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 16.1-3).
David is unabashedly described as a priest by the Chronicler. He is not only dressed like a priest but a high priest (the linen ephod) but he offers sacrifice and blesses the people … a clear allusion to the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6.22-24. David is a Priest-King. This is not unusual at all in the ancient world as kings from Egypt to Assyria to Babylon to Rome were viewed as having priestly functions.
By ascribing the Psalms to David, the Bible continues to have David as the Priest-King who leads God’s people in worship. This is not just an Aaronic function … and this is what Jesus does. Jesus is the King-Priest, the “son of David” leading God’s people in the worship of the one true God. In Hebrews it is JESUS that is speaking and singing with the congregation in the Psalms (Heb 2.11-13).
“For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
I will proclaim your name [Yahweh’s] to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you”
The Hebrews’s Preacher says that JESUS is the worship leader in the middle of the Gathered people of God and he 1) proclaims the holy name of Yahweh and 2) he leads in praise. But this is Psalm 22.22 the Preacher quotes. The Preacher quotes Psalm 95 throughout chapters 3 and 4 saying that it speaks to his congregation authoritatively “Today” (Heb 3.7, 13; 4.7).
So if the Son of David is singing the Psalms with us, then why is it that the Psalms do not teach us the way of worship to the One True God? Are we not “heirs” of the Psalms? Clearly the Hebrews Preacher did not think the Psalter was old, obsolete and passing away. In fact, as we saw, it is non-other than the voice of Jesus in the Psalter.
I am convinced that, from a “New Testament” perspective, that we worship exactly as they did in the Hebrew Bible. The Son of David heir of the promises to David, as the Priest-King, continues to lead the People of God which now includes Gentiles in the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel. This is one reason why, when we turn to the book that uses the word “worship” more than the rest of the NT combined, it looks, smells and sounds so much like the Psalms and the Hebrew Bible … that book is of course Revelation. See Revelation: The NT’s Most Ignored Book & It’s Ignored Message or ‘What Jesus Wished New Testament Christians Understood about Revelation.’
The Old Covenant is not and never was simply thirty-nine books of the “Old Testament.” Even the “law” is not simplistically equated with the “old covenant” in the New Testament writings. There are aspects of the Hebrew Bible that are not prescriptive on Gentiles as Galatians makes quite clear. However, Paul does not cast aside the Old Testament even in Hebrews but affirms that Gentiles are now heirs of the covenant on the same basis that Abraham himself was.
Thinking out loud btw …