Christians and Old Testament (as) Law (in Deuteronomy)

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In one of his disputes with the Pharisees, Jesus says, "The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed" (Luke 16:16). With this verse in mind, many Christians consider the Old Testament to be a book of law superseded by the gospel preached and personified by Jesus Christ and the New Testament. The use of the term law as a kind of shorthand for the Old Testament, sometimes in conjunction with the term prophets, only supports this perception (e.g., Matt 5:18; 7:12; 22:40; Luke 5:17; John 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; Rom 3:19; 1 Cor 14:21).

Although perhaps not stating it explicitly, for many this designation connotes not only that the Old Testament contains many laws or regulations, but also that the God of the Old Testament responds to people legalistically, on the basis of their obedience to law. Jesus, in contrast, delivers a message of grace and forgiveness. Stories like Jesus rescuing the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), or Jesus forgiving the sinful woman who washed his feet with her hair (Luke 7:37-50), in this line of thinking, exemplify the New Testament gospel; in contrast, the story of God sending a plague upon Israel for worshiping the golden calf (Exod 32:1-35) is considered more typical of the Old Testament. The Old and New Testaments then are easily contrasted as law and grace.

This misrepresents both testaments. Like the New Testament, the Old Testament consistently gives God's grace preeminence over law. It does this with regard to the order of salvation; God's act of salvation, election, and exodus, based entirely on unmerited love, precedes any call for response or law. And it does this in its vision for the future; in the end, God's grace will overcome the law/punishment dynamic as God circumcises Israel's heart and causes it to return to God (see comments on Deut 4:23-31; 30:1-10). On the other side, punishment also is very much part of the New Testament, as Jesus' parable of sheep and goats makes abundantly clear (Matt 25:31-46). In both testaments, grace is the prior and ultimately more powerful force, even as the consequences of disobediences are not disregarded.

Despite this image, however, Christians continue to use the Old Testament as a resource for ethical discernment. The most common way of doing this, by scholars and laypeople alike, is to focus on Old Testament commandments or lawlike materials. The practice of early rabbinic Judaism to identify ethics with obedience to the commands of the Old Testament has been influential for this approach. Jesus' disputes with the Pharisees, as found in the Gospels, seem to reflect it as well. Consistent with this, a recent book on Old Testament ethics states, "The heart of Old Testament ethics is to be placed squarely on the explicit commands found mainly in the Pentateuch" (Kaiser: 42).

Of course, not all Old Testament "laws" are considered equally applicable. One way of distinguishing among laws is to categorize them as cultic/ritual, moral, or civil regulations (e.g., Kaiser; cf. Block: 128). Since the church is not a state, Old Testament civil regulations fall by the way, at least for the church. Cultic or ritual regulations are dismissed as obsolete because of Christ's teaching and death on the cross (e.g., directions for sacrifice; Block: 134), or as inconsistent with the freedom of the gospel (e.g., OT dietary regulations). This limits ethical direction largely to selected sets of commandments (e.g., the Decalogue) and other regulations categorized as moral.

But this approach is unsound and unworkable. There is no evidence for such categorization within the Old Testament itself. The categories represent an external imposition on Old Testament material that forces it into a mold quite foreign to it, a mold that distorts rather than enlightens (Martens). Such an approach also continues to treat Old Testament torah as contemporary law, intended to be followed and implemented in a manner similar to laws drafted by legislation.

More helpful, although still incomplete, is the effort to find timeless principles reflected by the material, both the legal-like material and the narratives. Block thus encourages Christians to "seize the underlying principles of those that are culturally and contextually specific and apply these principles to the contexts in which we live" (Block: 136-37). It is true that one can deduce principles like loving God and neighbor from various passages, but these general principles often are quite lifeless and so non-particular that meaning tends to be fairly shallow. Such a "search for principles ignores the storied setting and is in danger of ending up with abstractions detached from the person of God" (Martens: 203).

Remembering that the Old Testament is rooted within a larger narrative context points in a more helpful direction. The Bible is the story of a people of God experiencing God, entering into a covenant with God, with torah providing a vision for what it means to be a holy community faithful to that God. Within that larger account, the Old Testament plays a direction-setting role. For Christians, the New Testament affixes to it the story of Jesus fulfilling that direction, establishing the new covenant. This story as a whole, with Jesus at the center, then becomes the vision for what faithful community life entails, with practices that are life-giving to those in the community while also bringing blessing to those surrounding it. Old Testament legal-like material contributes to the fullness of this vision, but also important are the stories, the prophetic announcements, and the proverbs. All take part in that narrative, painting a picture of faithfulness (see Janzen, with his "paradigmatic approach").

Such an approach is not as tidy or simple as applying some laws and ignoring others, or perhaps even as workable as ethical guidance based on principles. Yet it is an approach more faithful to the nature and style of the Old Testament material. In this way the Old Testament, with both its narrative and its legal-like material, contributes to revealing a paradigm of faithfulness to God for the twenty-first-century church.


  • Block, Daniel I. The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012.
  • Janzen, Waldemar. Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
  • Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
  • Martens, Elmer. "How Is the Christian to Construe Old Testament Law." Bulletin for Biblical Research 12/2:199–216.

Gerald Gerbrandt