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Article 7 — Of the Old Testament

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Posted by Andrew Atherstone, 7 Mar 2017

Andrew Atherstone has a look at what the 39 Articles teach about the continuity of the testaments.

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore there are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Article 6 has told us that the Bible is our sole authority for understanding the gospel of salvation, and listed the books of the Old and New Testaments. But then two questions immediately follow: (i) how does the Old Testament relate to the New? (ii) which Old Testament laws are binding on the New Testament believer? Article 7 answers both these questions, bringing together two separate articles written by Thomas Cranmer in the 1550s.

In the early Christian centuries, heretics like Marcion and the Gnostics threw away the Old Testament as redundant and unspiritual, and focused only on their favourite passages in the New. Many churches do the same today, often implicitly, by driving a wedge between the testaments and neglecting the Old. But Article 7 makes clear that they belong together and there is no contradiction between them. The Bible is one book, written by one God, and it teaches one overall message about salvation through faith in Jesus our Messiah and only Mediator. The Jewish Scriptures ‘bear witness about me’, says Jesus (John 5:39). Beginning with Moses and the prophets, he showed the disciples how the whole Old Testament points to himself (Luke 24:27).

Griffith Thomas puts it memorably in The Principles of Theology: the Old Testament is crowded with ‘unfulfilled prophecies’, ‘unexplained ceremonies’, and ‘unsatisfied longings’, all of which are met in Jesus Christ. From beginning to end – from Genesis 3:15 to Malachi 4:1 – the Old Testament looks forward with anticipation to the arrival of the Messiah. Therefore, don’t listen to those who claim that the patriarchs ‘did look only for transitory promises’. On the contrary, God’s people in the Old Testament recognized that the temporal blessings they enjoyed – like the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – were only a foretaste of much better things to come. Abraham was a model believer, trusting the promises of God for eternal life. He lived as a nomad in a tent, but was ‘looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:10). So keep preaching the Old Testament, because it is full of the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The old and new covenants are not contradictory, but nor are they identical. There are continuities and discontinuities between them, especially in the application of Old Testament law. Article 7 divides the law into three types – ceremonial, civil, and moral. This explanation was popular among the Reformers, borrowed from medieval scholars like Thomas Aquinas, though it has been challenged by some recent Reformed theologians for imposing an external grid which would have surprised both Moses and Paul. Nevertheless, the threefold division remains a helpful shorthand and aide memoire.

The ceremonial law concerning priesthood and purity, sacrifice and sabbath, has all been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. These rituals were ‘a shadow of the good things to come’ (Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 10:1). Jesus is our great high priest and the ultimate sacrifice, so it is foolish to return to these old ceremonies which were merely signposts to the Saviour. There is no place in the Christian church for a special order of ordained priests, with their altars and ritual ablutions and eucharistic sacrifices. Such practices denigrate the glory and finality of the ministry of Jesus. Why return to the shadows when the reality is here?

The civil law concerning church-state relations and judicial punishments is also no longer binding on the Christian. The city of Münster, in northern Germany, stands as a famous warning to those who handle the Old Testament wrongly. In the 1530s, under the leadership of radical prophets, the city tried to reestablish a theocratic monarchy, modelled on the reigns of King David and King Solomon, including the reintroduction of polygamy. Many crimes were punishable by death (as laid down in the Mosaic law), such as blasphemy, adultery, and disrespect of parents. The Münster experiment ended in a bloodbath. Article 7 reminds us that those laws were intended only for the Old Testament nation of Israel, which had a specific purpose in God’s salvation plan. Under the new covenant, Christian nations are free to develop their own constitutions and legal frameworks.

So what about the moral law, like the Ten Commandments? Opponents of the Reformers accused them of being Antinomians, because if we preach justification by faith alone not by works of the law (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16), won’t that lead to lawlessness and immorality? If simply believing in Jesus is enough for salvation, why worry about moral behaviour? But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tightens the moral law; he does not abolish it (Matthew 5:17-20). Both Old and New Testaments expound God’s command, ‘Be holy, as I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16). So don’t listen to those who pretend that provided we profess faith in Christ, it doesn’t matter how we live. True Christian faith will always produce the fruit of holiness (see Article 12 for more on this).

Cranmer’s original article on the Old Testament law ended with an extra warning (deleted by the Elizabethans): ‘wherefore they are not to be hearkened unto, who affirm that Holy Scripture is given only to the weak, and do boast themselves continually of the Spirit, of whom (they say) they have learned such things as they teach, although the same be most evidently repugnant to the Holy Scripture.’ False teachers in every generation claim a special hot-line to the Holy Spirit as their reason for departing from the Bible. For example, the notorious German radical, Thomas Müntzer, asserted in his Prague Manifesto (1521) that we must listen to the direct voice of the Spirit, not to ‘the dead letter of Scripture’. But God’s Spirit never speaks in such a way as to contradict the Scriptures, because all Scripture is itself breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Sam Allberry tweeted, in the midst of recent controversy about God’s will for the Church: ‘“Waiting for the Spirit to speak” about something sounds godly and humble. But if the Spirit has already spoken it’s ungodly and arrogant’ (@SamAllberry, 13 February 2017). That’s classic Cranmerian theology compressed into 140 characters.

The Spirit and the Scriptures are always in harmony. The Old Testament and the New Testament always concur. So keep preaching the whole of the Bible – every part of it, from cover to cover – ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). Treasure, study, and obey the whole of God’s written Word, because it is the excellent and urgent message of salvation to a needy world.

Andrew Atherstone is Tutor in History and Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and author of The Reformation: Faith and Flames.

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