Hermeneutics: The Basis for Appeals to the OT

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Puritan Board Freshman
Recently I have been learning about covenant theology and have come to see that the gospel realities in the NT are present also in the OT. This definitely changes how I read the OT. It makes sense of appeals in the NT to the OT like in 1 Corinthians 10:1-10. However, as I've been reading other writers I've been confused by their appeal to the OT; the things they mention don't seem to be about the substance of the covenant of grace and I'm not sure how I'd convince my friends that they relate to the character of God. I'm trying to understand why they can appeal to the OT in the below examples? Perhaps the issue is knowing how to distinguish between things that are peculiar to the administration of the covenant of grace and those which are "universal truths".

Example 1 (Worship): To justify the regulative principle most people will go to Leviticus 10 and refer to the story of Nadab and Abihu where they offered strange fire which God had not commanded and God struck them. From this they argue that we see that worship not commanded by God is forbidden.

Example 2 (Ecclesiology): it is argued here that lay persons should not usurp and interfere with ministers. The argument is made from an appeal to the story of Korah in Numbers 16 and Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 and Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26 where all of these people are punished because they usurped the offices that God had ordained.

Why do the above arguments from the OT apply to us now in the new covenant? It could be argued that they do not relate to God Himself or the gospel, but how God related to His people in the old covenant administration. I am aware that arguments can be made for the RPW from the NT or even the 10 commandments which are still binding, but this then forms the basis for why we use the RPW, not the OT and so appeals to the OT are unnecessary. Perhaps the above arguments are sound because unless something is revoked in the NT we should not think that God has revoked it. But the above could be, perhaps poorly, argued to be strictly related to something that has been revoked; namely the ceremonies or the Levitical priesthood.

Question: On what basis can we appeal to the OT to justify doctrine and practice that does not directly relate to God's character or the gospel? E.g. in the realm of worship and ecclessiology.
Your first example, the death of Nadab and Abihu, is not the passage grounding the reason why divine worship is not to go beyond divine command, but is a demonstration (a quite useful one) of the reality and severity by which God is free to prove his authority. If you wish a comparable NT demonstration (if on a slightly different subject) take a look at the death of Ananias and Saphira.

The text that grounds the reason why God might defend the purity of his own worship to the nth degree is Exodus 20, specifically the second commandment. Is God less strict about his moral law or the purity of his worship in the NT age? Does the Sermon on the Mount give us that impression, or the opposite? How about the fact that Paul says to the Corinthians that some members guilty of abusing the Lord's Supper have died, "...for this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep." 11:30.

In studying the case of Nadab and Abihu (without excusing every treatment you could encounter) we don't ignore the historical context, or abstract their situation from the Mosaic covenant rubrics while making a blanket application to the New covenant age. We observe the obligations on them in their own time, see how they violated the standard, and then consider what lesson from their example is reasonably applicable to us "upon whom the end of the ages has come," 1Cor.10:11. If the moral law has not changed, then doing for worship what God has not commanded us (worshipping God in any way not ordained in his word) remains an offense. N&A's offense and its answer, therefore, remains full of wisdom for us.

As to your second example, in my judgment it is faulty to argue from a strict correlation of Old covenant conditions to New covenant ones. It is critical for us--importantly, either explicitly or implicitly--to establish the essentials of NT ministry on the basis of a NT texts. Consequently, on that basis one may helpfully turn to the history of God's dealing with his people back in the OT, in order to increase the depth of our understanding though an understanding of such correlations as prove divine consistency.

What I'm describing is the Christian hermeneutical task, considering both the biblical-theological and the systematic-theological duties. Now, consider for a moment that task as it was encountered by the leaders of the 1C church: the apostles and the earliest church ministry. These men were actually transitioning from the typological rubrics of the Old covenant to the realities and rules of the New. They were living embodiments of elements of continuity as well as discontinuity. So it is vital for us to observe what their patterns were as they and their penmen recorded various appeals to OT examples (e.g. Elijah in Jas.5:17-18; or Korah's rebellion in Jud.1:11).

I notice in the article you link, the author (while not hesitant to appeal to the OT text), does not fail to situate his audience in a NT frame which has for its authority the language of the NT, see the first argument and the second part of the reply. In fact, the first part of the reply begins by an appeal to pre-Levitical facts, some which may be gathered from Scripture itself and supplemented by extrabiblical history. But ultimately he appeals to NT texts for proof that our present pattern has its authority from Christ, as well as correlating to ancient pattern. The author makes considerably more use of the NT than the OT in his overall presentation.

When in his second argument the author offers up those three Old covenant examples you set forth, he replies to the Anabaptist rebuttal with the moral emphasis found in the text itself. The argument makes an appeal to the Law, but I judge it does this primarily in its moral (as opposed to ceremonial) aspect. The point being made is that external forms may change, Old transitioned into New; but the external violation for which punishment was levied serves as an index of one's submission to the will of God irrespective of the age in which he lives.

We shouldn't be so afraid of misusing OT examples that we avoid appealing to them and using their intrinsic and timeless authority. It might be formally true that appealing to the OT is "unnecessary," in the sense that we presently stand upon the ways and means Christ has instituted for this cumulative age. But if we so confine ourselves to the NT text that it is severed from its root in the OT, I submit that the NT text is bound to be be unnecessarily misunderstood, and therefore frequently misapplied. It was not meant to be unnaturally disconnected from the patterns that preceded it.

Appealing, then, to the OT is necessary, precisely because the "new thing" God has instituted in Christ is organically connected to the past and its prior expectations that were expressed through the institutions of Israelite covenant-life, and the recorded examples of the faithful and faithless among the people of God. The truth is that ours is not a different religion from that which is found in the OT, but the same religion with a distinct form suitable for the era of fulfillment. One important way to prove that fulfillment is by recognizing the tremendous continuity between the Testaments.

I hope this is helpful.
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