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…


Show Comments