This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 7 states:
VII. Of the Old Testament
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 they 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.
What to make of the Old Testament has been a challenge for many Christians throughout history, and remains so today. There are many issues that come up – how does the Law apply to us? What does Israel have to do with the Church? Aren’t Christians free from the Law? Is it still the Word of God?
One of the earliest mistakes in dealing with the Old Testament is exemplified by the 2nd century heretic Marcion. He came to the conclusion that “the god of the Old Testament” was a different and inferior god to the one revealed in Jesus Christ and his Father. To him, the Old Testament was an account of the history of God’s people longing for salvation but not finding it in their jealous and angry god, Yahweh. As Scripture, therefore, it was useless to Christians, who know the true God through Jesus in the New Testament alone. The heresy of completely rejecting the Old Testament is named after him, Marcionism, and it pops up even today when people make the retort “you can’t teach doctrine from the Old Testament, that’s obsolete!”
Another mistake often made is called antinomianism. It’s a Greek term meaning “against the Law.” Like Marcionism, it rejects the authority of the Old Testament Law, but without tossing the Old Testament completely into the rubbish heap. Antinomians over-emphasize the writings of Saint Paul that describe the Christian freedom from the Law (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 2:4-5, 5:1-15, and Ephesians 2:14-16), and under-emphasize the continuing value of the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:27). As such, an Antinomian will argue that all Christian moral teachings have to come from the New Testament, such as (and especially) the Sermon on the Mount. Even the Ten Commandments are not to be taught as Christian teaching, claims the Antinomian, unless their New Testament references can be supplied. Like Marcionism, though, this view still ultimately denies the Scriptural authority of much of the content of the Old Testament.
The correct way to deal with the Old Testament, and particularly its central attention to the Law of Moses, is to take the Law on its own terms rather than according to our own agenda (be it Marcion’s view of an Old Testament versus New Testament god, or the Antinomian’s view of the Old Testament Law having finished its purpose). This is where Article VII comes into the picture.
It begins by pointing out that the whole Bible attests to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus the Old and New Testaments work together in harmony; they don’t fight each other. Next it points out that the “old Fathers,” that is, the holy men and women who lived in the Old Testament times, were not looking “only for transitory promises” – their concern was for salvation from sin just as ours is. And thus their Bible, our Old Testament, speaks to spiritual issues just as the New Testament does. It’s not as if Israel is just about territory and the Church is about heavenly citizenship; both are about heavenly citizenship. The Old Testament Scriptures were and are God’s Word, and their meaning is made clearest in light of the New Testament. In other words, a Christian can understand the Old Testament better than a Jew.
This still leaves the question of what to do with the Law. There have been different ways of conceptualizing this, but Article VII here takes the classic Reformers’ approach. The commands of the Law of Moses fall into three categories: religious law, civil law, and moral law.
The “ceremonies and rites” of the Old Testament religious law are abolished: the priesthood of Aaron has given way to the Priesthood of Christ; the sacrifices in the Temple have given way to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross; all the commandments pertaining to the Old Covenant system of worship no longer bind us. We can learn about worship and holiness from them, but their function is completed.
Similarly, the “civil precepts” for how the ancient kingdom of Israel was to be run are not required to become civil laws anywhere else. The list of transgressions and punishments, certainly, give us insight into the justice of God, and can help Christians formulate “godly laws” in the present day, but there is no command or need to imitate the laws of ancient Israel to the letter.
However, Christians are not “free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” Where the Old Testament Law speaks of right and wrong in God’s eyes, we see eternal teachings that are eternally unchangeable. How a country is run is changeable because countries come and go; how God’s people worship in the Old Covenant is changeable because the Old Covenant came to its completion; but sin is still sin. Now, it is convenient (especially for the Antinomians) that much of the Old Testament moral law is repeated in the New Testament, but the Christian does not need the New Testament to “verify” Old Testament moral teaching. Both are of the Word of God, and both are binding authorities over us and the whole the Church.