20 Aug 2013

Paul and the Unquestioned Authority of the "Old Testament"

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Paul, Restoration History
This is a revised and slightly expanded version of a “note” I had placed on my Facebook. May it bless you as we wrestle together with the significance of the canon of Scripture for our faith. We need to remind ourselves that the “Old Testament” makes up more than 76% of the Christian Bible. To functionally take it our of canon for doing Christian reflections is equivalent to the government taking 76 pennies out of every dollar you earn; you having four out of five words of a letter blacked out from your wife; of living 100 years but only being “awake” once every five years.  You get the picture.  Willfully ignoring and minimizing 76% is a huge loss and makes actually understanding very difficult.  To the revised note …


I grew up in a religious tradition with a “love-hate” relationship with the “Old Testament.” In our debates with “the denominations” we would frequently undercut the argument of our opponent by denying the authority of the Old Testament for Christan faith and practice.  Our approach to the Old Testament was therefore mostly reactive to what we perceived as false practices and beliefs in “the denominations” or among the “apostates.” Thus when Christian Church folks would defend the use of instrumental music from numerous Old Testament texts it was easy to dismiss the entire argument by asserting that the Old Covenant was “nailed to the cross and done away with.”  When a person would argue for the authority of tithing/sabbath, etc among Christians we resorted to the same tactic.

Seventy-Six Percent of the Bible Deemed Irrelevant to Faith

The result of denying the authority of the OT in our polemics convinced the “denominational” world that “we” in Churches of Christ “do not believe in the Old Testament.”  This was a frequent characterization of “us” by others in my growing up years in Churches of Christ in North Alabama.  We of course denied that.  We believe in the inspiration of the OT. But our polemics bore poisonous fruit.  We rhetorically said we believe in the OT but practically and dogmatically denied our rhetoric.  Yes, the OT was inspired but we never actually used the OT for anything relating to Christian faith … except for appeals to Noah’s “gopher” wood, Nadab and Abihu getting fried, Uzzah being toasted for touching the ark and Moses for striking the rock.  From time to time there were moral lessons drawn from the stories of Joseph and Hannah.

But the sad fact remains for most in Churches of Christ the Old Testament is simply irrelevant to their faith.  Outside of the sermons I have personally preached or lessons I have taught I know of only a handful of sermons in my life from the first 76% of the Bible. I know of no preacher/elder among Churches of Christ who cites the Old Testament as his scriptural authority for 1) believing something or 2) doing something.  Indeed when such takes place it is shot down with – I have personally witnessed it – these words “that is the Old Testament;” or “we are not under the Old Testament.”  This just does not jive with our rhetoric to believe in the Old Testament.

How Different from the First Century Church

Growing up, I had no idea how absolutely, and completely, contrary to the apostolic example of Paul our contemporary practice was regarding the “Scripture” (Paul never uses the phrase “Old Testament”).  Paul’s entire framework for understanding God, Christ, the Gospel, redemption, faith, and yes even the church/people of God comes from the “Old Testament.”  My initial journey down the road to realizing the NT itself does not see itself as 1) supplementing or 2) outright replacing the “Old Testament” came in 1988 through reading a dry tome called New Testament Interpretation edited by Howard Marshall in a Stephen Broyles class at IBC. The chapter, “How the New Testament Uses the Old Testament” (pp. 199-219), made me put on a new pair of glasses. There are better places, I now realize, to begin thinking on this matter than that essay but at the time it was a real eye opener. Paul is more saturated with the “Old Testament” than a sponge fresh from the sink!

When Paul has a question he naturally turns to the Scriptures (not the Old Testament) for the answer. Rarely does Paul say “I” declare this or that by the authority given to me as an apostle.  Paul simply does not do that.  Paul uses, and argues from, Scripture for everything.  Just a few interesting statistics to tickle your fancy and as an effort to just show how frequently Paul does resort to the ‘Old Testament.”  In many English translations it is hard for the reader to know that Paul is not using his own words but those of the first 76% of the Bible.  It would be helpful if a modern translation put every direct quotation in a different font or italics.

In the epistles with Paul’s name on them, however, there are more than 180 quotations or references to the “Old Testament” by the apostle.  That is a lot but even that does not give the full extent of the story.  The single book of Paul’s that many preachers assume shows that Paul is doing away with the Old Testament, Romans, has the highest number of references with 84.  The second highest is the one that some preachers still believe Paul wrote (but didn’t) is Hebrews which has 83 quotations or references to the “Old Testament.”   Beloved that is a lot of Old Testament.  Certainly way more Old Testament than what I am exposed to in most restoration or evangelical pulpits. When was the last time you heard a sermon with 84 quotations from the “OT?”  First Corinthians (if I am counting right) has 26. Galatians has 14 and Ephesians has no less than 12.  Craig Evans in his Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation lists 31 pages of quotations, references, and allusions to the OT, what Protestants call the Apocrypha and related writings in the NT … that is 31 pages! (see Appendix Two, pp. 190-219).  That is a lot of information Paul and the other writers of the NT are using and expect their readers/hearers to know.  Even if one argued with the validity of this or that reference the sheer cumulative evidence demonstrates that Paul, and the rest of the “NT” writers assumed that their readers/hearers would catch a large number of ideas that simply go unnoticed by us today … its like having only one out of every five words not blacked out to us! We get so used to only seeing every fifth word that we actually begin to think it makes sense.

Authority for Paul

Here are some very specific examples of Paul using the “Old Testament” as his authority for a Christian belief or Christian practice.  Again I point out that I use the word “Christian” for our sake because one of the shocks that comes to us if we actually read the NT is that Paul does not imagine himself as having converted to a new religion.  This is a serious misreading and seriously flawed assumption.  Paul, shockingly for us “Christians,” never once uses the word “Christian” to describe himself or his faith in Christ.

First, Paul roots both the practice and doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in the “Old Testament” in 1 Corinthians 10. A careful study of that text pays rich rewards.  First even though most of the Corinthians converts are likely former pagans Paul places them squarely in the linage of Israel (10.1, “our ancestors”).  They were “baptized EIS Moses!!” they “drank the SAME spiritual drink” (v.4).  Paul applies that history directly to the practice and faith about the communion table. We no more share in a pagan table and the Lord’s table than they.  If this is not clear enough for us the apostle says – in relation to the practice of the Supper – “consider the people of Israel” (v.18).  The sacrifices of Israel are then explicitly appealed to as a model for table etiquette in the Corinthian “church of God.”  We could expand on this point.

Second, Paul roots the doctrine of Christian baptism in the “Old Testament” specifically to show that God has kept rather than repudiated his covenant.  Oh, beloved when we hammer out our doctrine in polemics rather than Story of God it will be seriously distorted.  Since I was a young man one of the proof texts drilled into my noggin to use on Baptists was Galatians 3.27.  I memorized that text. I quoted that text.  And I believe that text.  But I had no clue how that text functioned in its context.  I likewise did not grasp that Paul’s issue and concern is not baptism but God’s faithfulness to Abraham!!!  Baptism serves the “Old Testament” covenant with Abraham.  I did not know that.  It is true that Paul makes is clear that a Gentile does not have to become a Torah observant JEW in order to be God’s heir.   Rather they become an heir in the same manner that Abraham himself became one.  The purpose, the goal of baptism, in Galatians 3.27 is not baptism.  It is not even belonging to Christ!!  The text declares that clearly but that is not the point of the argument.  The point of the argument is Paul’s climatic declaration in v.29 aimed at Gentiles, “if you {plural!} belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring according the promise.” This is the point. This is the goal.  Baptism does not simply put is “in Christ” but baptism makes us children of Abraham and God is still fulfilling the Old Testament covenant with each person who expresses faith in Christ – the offspring of Abraham – and makes them one of Abraham’s own children.

Third, Well we looked at two “biggies.”  Let me look at a rather mundane matter.  Is it “Scriptural” to pay an individual who works in preaching and teaching?  This is a matter of “Christian” practice.  This is a concern for authority for the “church.”  When this question is asked we are surely surprised by how Paul answers the question. The biblical authority for paying ministers in the “Church of Christ” is none other than the book of Deuteronomy!  “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for SCRIPTURE says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The laborer deserves to be paid” (1 Cor 9.9; 1 Tim 5.8).  Paul quotes form Deuteronomy 25.4.  Why did he not simply declare it was ok? He roots the practice of paying those who preach and teach in the Law of Moses.  This is, on the face of it, simply fascinating.

Final Words

I could provide numerous other specific examples of Paul’s apostolic example on using the unquestioned authority of the “Old Testament” to support his Gospel and the practice of his congregations. I have already made this musing longer than I intended so I will bring it to a close.  But we must realize that every time we read Paul we are reading his own interaction with Scripture on a multitude of levels.  His practice shows he believed the words he penned to Timothy regarding what we call the Old Testament but he simply called “Scriptures.”  Our practice and his practice are as far removed from one another as east is from the west …

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3.14-17, NRSV).

P. S. We have not even touched what I have come to believe is even more important that explicit quotations for Paul and the rest of the NT.  That is how the conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible shapes quite literally the faith of the “New Testament.”  Blessings.

5 Responses to “Paul and the Unquestioned Authority of the "Old Testament"”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Boy oh boy bout time…
    Ya THINK…
    Their are a few more consepts l’ed like to throw in for ur
    Study that I think need to be addressed, if u don, t
    And to me they, I think , will fucton as another trip to the eye doctor…as understanding gal 3
    I BET YA. 🙂 bobby
    Rich constant

  2. Lee Freeman Says:

    You should do your next blog on the Hebrew worldview being the contextual framework for the NT.

    Pax vobiscum.


  3. Jenny Says:

    Over the years, I’ve heard preachers and elders speak of the Jesus, His disciples, and other early Christians “validating” the OT. What a terrible, backwards way of thinking about the Scriptures, as if they needed endorsement by a much later generation!

  4. Nathan Knibb Says:

    Thank You for your study on this important matter. Wish to God more Christians knew and understood The Whole Bible.

  5. Tom Harrelson Says:

    The Scriptures, translated, published and distributed by Institute for Scripture Research does bold and state reference of every quote from the Tanach, what we call the “Old Testament”
    Thanks for your encougemrnt to study the entire Scriptures for our instructions in how to walk in such a way that we would be a people Father would want to live with forever. Be blessed. Tom Harrelson


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