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How Does the New Testament Use the Old?

Even in a day when dictionaries proliferate, the publication of the Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation (ed. Stanley E. Porter; London/New York: Routledge) is a welcome development. The reference work features entries on major figures in biblical interpretation (e.g. J. Barr, K. Barth, F. C. Baur, R. E. Brown, R. Bultmann, O. Cullmann, J. Derrida, C. H. Dodd, J. D. G. Dunn, M. Hengel, G. E. Ladd, etc.) as well as on major topics including Biblical Theology (D. A. Carson), Early Church Interpretation (R. N. Longenecker), Greek Grammar and Lexicography (S. Porter), and Testament Relationships (A. Köstenberger). The dictionary joins the ranks of the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005); the 2-volume Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (ed. John H. Hayes; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999); and the older Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (ed. R. J. Coggins and J. L. Holden; Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1990). Below is an excerpt from my entry on Testament Relationships.


  1. General patterns construing the Old Testament-New Testament relationship
  2. The use of the Old Testament in the New Testament

The study of the Old Testament-New Testament relationship entails an investigation of general approaches to the question as well as a survey of the distinctive approaches to the Old Testament by various New Testament authors.

1. General patterns of construing the Old Testament-New Testament relationship

The relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament has been variously described as following a pattern of disunity/discontinuity or unity-continuity (Hasel 1978; Baker 1991). Various mediating approaches attempting to balance elements of continuity and discontinuity have been proposed as well. Disunity/discontinuity is advocated in an extreme form by the second-century heretic Marcion, who completely dissociated the two Testaments and rejected the Old Testament in its entirety (as well as parts of the New Testament) owing to what he perceived as its inferior presentation of God. Others, more recently, while less radical, have nonetheless asserted the superiority of the New Testament while minimizing the Old Testament’s importance. According to Bultmann (cited in Hasel 1978: 175), the Old Testament depicts the ‘failure of history’; ‘the history of Israel is not history of revelation’; and the Old Testament is nothing but ‘the presupposition of the New.’ On the opposite side of the spectrum, some have underemphasized the New Testament while overstating the importance of the Old Testament. The Reformed scholar Vischer, for example, claims that the Old Testament is Christological to such an extent that Jesus’ biography can be reconstructed from its data. However, either extreme is of doubtful value.

Those identifying a pattern of unity/continuity find that ‘the Old Testament continually looks forward to something beyond itself’ while ‘the New Testament continually looks back to the Old’ (Rowley 1953: 95). Scholars favoring this approach view the Old Testament-New Testament relationship as reciprocal. While the Old Testament cannot be fully understood without the New Testament, the New Testament, without the Old Testament, would lack its proper foundation. The continuity can be traced along the following lines (Hasel 1978: 186–96): (a) salvation history: the history of God’s people encompasses both the history of Israel and the history of the New Testament church; (b) scripture: the New Testament writers frequently cite, allude to, or echo Old Testament passages, utilizing distinctive hermeneutical axioms and appropriation techniques (Moo 1983: 384–87); Longenecker 1999); (c) terminology: Jesus and the New Testament writers frequently draw on Old Testament language; the study of significance New Testament theological terms requires an investigation of their Old Testament background; (d) themes: beyond the verbal level, the Old Testament and the New Testament are united by important themes such as creation, sin, promise, covenant, salvation, or Messiah; (e) typology (Goppelt 1982 [1939]): the New Testament features antitypes (escalated patterns) of Old Testament types, be it events (the Exodus), characters (Elijah), or institutions (the sacrificial system); (f) promise fulfillment: the New Testament records the fulfillment of countless Old Testament promises in and through the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., the Matthean and Johannine ‘fulfilment quotations’; see below); and (g) perspective: both the Old Testament and the New Testament look forward to an eschatological consummation of the redemptive purposes of God.

While these patterns of unity/continuity are undeniable, however, unity ought not to be misconstrued as uniformity and the biblical witness ought to be viewed within a framework that allows for development and diversity (Köstenberger 2002a: 144–58) and even discontinuity (though not disunity), properly understood. An element of discontinuity is introduced into the biblical record through the presence of initially undisclosed but subsequently revealed salvation truths, such as Paul’s formulation of the mystērion of the body of Christ encompassing both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 16:25–27; Eph. 3:1–6; Col. 1:25–27; Bockmühl 1990). Progressive dispensationalists and others also point to the distinct identities of Israel and the church, contending that the church does not replace Israel in God’s plan and that there remains a future for ethnic Israel (Rom. 11:25–32; Blaising and Bock 1992).

For Further Study

See Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament (ed. Stanley Porter; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

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