It is sometimes hard to read and understand the Old Testament as Christians. Which means it is also hard to preach and teach the Old Testament, and difficult to answer questions from sceptics about the Old Testament.
The overall idea of biblical theology is very help in this: seeing how the Bible is one book, with one great theme; one big story, with a climax in Christ, his work and its fulfillment. Books like According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, and teaching content like Strand 2 at National Training Event is so brilliant.
But the details of working from particular passages from the Old Testament remains obscure even to those who have mastered the basics of biblical theology. And so we can fall into two errors:
Every passage gets forced into a simplistic mold, sapped of any unique insight, flattened out. Preaching on the Old Testament becomes an odd exercise in expounding the text and then ignoring it in a clumsy jump to the gospel.
The overall framework is used to justify the move to the New Testament, without taking the time to see how this movement is implicit in the Old Testament texts themselves. As a result to sceptical hearers this move appears strained or even irresponsible.
This little series is my attempt to give more detail to this move, in a way that can be concretely applied to particular texts.
Part 2: Resolving Contradictions
Some apparent contradictions in the Old Testament text are not bound up with biblical theology, and so are not relevant here:
- Mysterious aspects of God's nature and his interaction with space and time
- Apprent factual discrepancies
But a bunch of others are created by the fact that the Old Testament is preparatory and incomplete: it is slowly revealing the full nature of God's saving plans. In fact God sets up 'imperfect shadows' of the things to come, and so there is a kind of 'contradiction' between commands related to these shadows and the ultimate reality.
So another unfortunate acronym: PRIORITIES
Is the Paradox Resolvable?
This first step is to check whether the kind of apparent contradiction we are dealing with is actually a 'contradiction' cause by biblical theology. That is, it an unresolveable mystery of God's nature? Or simply a matter for harmonisation? Then that's different. But if it's not those, then we might be dealing with a biblical theology matter.
Is something Ineffective because of sin?
Some things put forward in the Old Testament fade away due to their inadequacy, because of sin: the specialness of Israel, the kingship of Israel, righteousness by the law. This suggests to us that they are not the 'full story'.
Is something merely Outward?
Another kind of ineffectiveness is beacuse of weakness. So the law is external: it doesn't change the heart. The temple is too small: not even the highest heavens can contain God. Geneological Israel is just about human descent, not genuine faith.
What thing is more Recent (and so clarifying) or more Intial (and so fundamental)?
There are two ways the New Testament shows us that something passes away: sometimes a former thing is superceded by something that comes later. And sometimes an earlier thing 'trumps' later, lesser additions. And sometimes it's both. So in Hebews 7 we are told both:
- The Melchizedek priesthood is announced in Psalm 110 in a way that supercedes the Levitical priesthood AND
- The Melchizedek priesthood comes before the Levitical priesthood and is paid tribute by the Levitical priesthood
A similar argument is found in Galatians 3, about how the promise is an initial priority, being given 430 years before the law.
Is the Termination announced?
The flow of biblical theology is seen especially clearly when the God prophetically announces the termination of Old Testament shadows and types. The prophets are full of declarations that the 'time is coming' when things will 'no longer' be the same. These texts make it especially clear how 'apparent contradictions' will be resolved in the gospel.
Is an Improvement announced?
Sometimes the way in which a 'contradiction' is resolved is by God promising to 'improve' the Old Testament shadow: offering a divine king, for example; or writing the law on our hearts.
Is something Established?
So then, we need to ask how it is that God decisively establishes one aspect of his Old Testament revelation in a way that abolishes/improves/fulfills the partial Old Testament revelation. So in establishing the promise to Abraham which is received by faith, the law of Moses — as a distinct covenant — is abolished. Or by declaring all foods clean, the reality that all of the Creator's world is to be received with thanksgiving is established.
What Solution is offered?
And finally, where the 'contradiction' in the Old Testament presents us with a problem of sin, then the gospel provides a 'solution' in pardoning sin and transforming human beings.