The Moral and Eschatological Continuity of the Bible [Commentary on Browne: Article VII]

In saying “the old Testament is not contrary to the new,” Article VII focuses on two kinds of continuity: moral and eschatological. Concerning morality, “No Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called moral.” As for last things, “Both in the old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ.”

I have little to add to Browne’s exposition of these topics. To begin with eschatological continuity, Browne makes an interesting observation:

The opinion that the fathers looked only for transitory promises, has been held, not only by heretics and fanatics, but, more or less, by some, in the main, orthodox Christians. Bishop Warburton, in his famous work, The Divine Legation of Moses, has endeavoured to prove that Moses studiously concealed from the Hebrews all knowledge of a future state; and this forms one of the arguments by which he strives to prove the inspiration and Divine authority of the Books of Moses. Though he allows that the later Jews, during and after the Captivity, had a gradually increasing knowledge of the immortality of the soul, yet as regards the earlier times of the Jewish commonwealth, he appears to have denied any such knowledge, even to the patriarchs and prophets.

I do not know whether this belief is at all common today. In any event, Browne’s overview of Scriptural evidence for the Old Testament witness to not only a future Mediator and Redeemer, but a future state after death culminating in bodily resurrection, should prove helpful in addressing any contemporary doubts on the subject. Further resources can also be found in the notes.[1]

Regarding moral continuity, there has historically been a tendency either to rend asunder the Old and New Testaments so that the Old Testament has nothing to tell us about how to live a Christian life, or to mash them so tightly together that it appears not only Old Testament moral laws, but also Old Testament civil or ceremonial laws are fully in force within the Christian life as well. The classic example of separating the Old and New Testaments is Marcion, the second-century heretic who “appears to have distinctly taught, that the old Testament was contrary to the new, the former being the work of the Demiurge or Creator, the latter of the Supreme and invisible God.” This belief was informed by the gnostic conviction of “the malignity of matter.”

Marcion was vigorously opposed by the church fathers, most notably Tertullian in his Against Marcion. However, this has not prevented Marcion’s belief that the Old and New Testaments are in tension, if not outright incompatible, from persisting in various forms up to the present day.[2] For example, influential nondenominational pastor Andy Stanley recently declared in a sermon that “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.” More specifically, he claimed that the Old Testament should not inform Christian morality, so as to “not make it difficult for those Gentiles who are turning to God.”[3]

Many moral “difficulties” with the Old Testament could be raised,[4] but one in particular that seems to arise with some regularity is the conquering of the Canaanites. Israel’s war on these peoples as described in the book of Joshua strikes some contemporary readers as “genocidal” and unbecoming of the God of love found in the New Testament. Browne’s laconic allusion to this topic—in which he notes that “they were the foes of the King of Israel, and were to be exterminated accordingly”—perhaps indicates just how serious an objection he considers this to be. His attitude is understandable, considering Scripture straightforwardly tells us that Israel’s conquering of the Canaanites was God’s judgment upon them “for the wickedness of these nations” (Deuteronomy 9:4; see also Genesis 15:16). Readers who wish to explore the matter further may consult the sources cited below.[5]

Putting Marcionism aside, the opposing impulse to treat most or all of the Old Testament law as still normative for societies today has been famously manifested in recent times by the school of theonomists known as Christian reconstructionists, chief among them R. J. Rushdoony, Greg L. Bahnsen, and Gary North.[6] Less prominently, some corners of the internet have argued that since Old Testament law explicitly provides for the ownership of slaves, we should not treat slavery as inherently sinful and should even be open to formally reintroducing it into modern society.

I will not attempt to offer a full response here to Christian reconstructionism or any other type of theonomy, but suffice to say that according to Article VII, “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.” Browne defends this point on the grounds that the Jewish commonwealth was uniquely constituted as a “Theocracy” in which “the people had properly no king but God,” meaning that

Certain sins against Him became, not only moral, but civil offences. Idolatry was high treason, and direct rebellion. It was not, therefore, as in general, left to the judgment of the hereafter, but was proceeded against at once, as a state crime of the highest magnitude, and punished immediately with temporal death.

However, no other earthly government has been so constituted before or since:

There cannot be at present any kingdom circumstanced as the kingdom of Israel was. God is no longer an earthly Sovereign, reigning exclusively over the Jewish nation as their temporal King. He is indeed the great King in all the earth, but not the particular Ruler of a single commonwealth. The Lord Jesus sits on His Mediatorial Throne. But His is a spiritual dominion.

It is therefore unfit that any kingdom should be governed by the laws, or regulated by the ceremonial of the Jewish polity. The court of an earthly sovereign must be differently ordered from the court of the King of Heaven; the laws, which relate to all the governments of this world, different from those which had reference to the supremacy of the LORD.[7]

As for attempts to rehabilitate slavery, while it is true that the Old Testament law allows for slavery, and that Scripture portrays as generally commendable a number of biblical figures who owned slaves (not least the patriarchs), the following comment from Browne is germane:

We know from our Lord’s own words [Matthew 19:8], that in some respects the enactments of the Mosaic economy, though coming from God, were yet not perfect, because of the hardness of heart of those for whom they were designed; and therefore, of course, we must take into account, not only the particular circumstances, but also the particular character of the people.

This comment applies just as much to the New Testament as to the Old, and it ought to remind us that we should not confuse divine sufferance with positive approbation.[8]

The position of Article VII is thus a virtuous mean amid the vices of Marcionism on one side and theonomy on the other. A number of contemporary works have also sought to maintain this sort of balanced attitude toward the Old and New Testaments—explaining how not only the “moral” laws but Old Testament law as a whole is still relevant to Christians today, yet without insisting that specific Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws are binding on them—on which see below.[9]

Notes

  1. See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995); Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching the Last Things: Old Testament Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011); Paul R. Williamson, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018); and Andrew T. Abernethy and Gregory Goswell, God’s Messiah in the Old Testament: Expectations of a Coming King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).
  2. On recent treatments sympathetic to Marcion, see Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1990); R. Joseph Hoffmann, Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016); Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Richard Faber, Political Demonology: On Modern Marcionism, ed. and trans. Therese Feiler and Michael Mayo (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018); and M. David Litwa, The Evil Creator: Origins of an Early Christian Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  3. Michael Gryboski, “Christians Must ‘Unhitch’ Old Testament From Their Faith, Says Andy Stanley,” The Christian Post, 9 May 2018, https://www.christianpost.com/news/christians-must-unhitch-old-testament-from-their-faith-says-andy-stanley-223818/. See also Andy Stanley, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).
  4. For a general treatment of moral “difficulties” in reconciling the Old and New Testaments, see Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully? Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022).
  5. See Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 276–88; Bill T. Arnold, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 204; Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014); Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 76‒110; and John Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 267–72.
  6. See Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Co., 1973); Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002); and Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991).
  7. For further critiques of theonomy, see Timon Cline, “What Theonomy Gets Wrong About the Law,” Mere Orthodoxy, 11 May 2021, https://mereorthodoxy.com/theonomy-gets-wrong-law/, as well as the series of articles written for the London Lyceum’s disputation on theonomy at https://www.thelondonlyceum.com/lyceum-disputation-theonomy/.
  8. For thoughtful treatments of slavery and the Bible, see Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 124‒57; Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?, 166‒88; and Matthew E. Cochran, “Is Slavery Sinful?” The 96th Thesis, 22 November 2021, https://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1937.
  9. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 307–316; Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004); and Richard E. Averbeck, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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