Early in church history a powerful movement called Gnosticism denied that the Old Testament was authoritative or even relevant to Christians. (See the ATQ article, What Was Gnosticism?) This movement taught that the Old Testament was the product of an inferior deity, and refused to accept the Old Testament as part of the canon of Scripture. One of the most influential early second-century Gnostic leaders, Marcion, accepted only the gospel of Luke and the writings of Paul in his canon.
There are remarkable differences between the New Testament and the Old Testament, but these differences don’t imply that the Old Testament is not inspired and authoritative. In fact, the New Testament clearly affirms the inspiration of the Old (Matthew 5:18; 26:56; Mark 12:24; Luke 16:17; Acts 13:14-48; 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 1:25).
Rather than describing the Old Testament as “less inspired” than the New Testament, it would be better to describe the relationship of the two Testaments in terms of progressive revelation. Just as human parents don’t reveal the same things to their toddlers that they reveal to teenagers, God taught basic truths to the ancients, and when the “fullness of time” had come (Galatians 4:4) He taught things that only later generations were prepared to receive. God’s revelation to the human race wasn’t given all at once in its fullest form to the earliest people who received it. Rather, it was revealed gradually through the course of history, with later truths completing and fulfilling earlier revelations without contradicting them (Hebrews 1:1-2; Romans 15:4). Humanity has been given as much truth as it has been able to understand within a timetable determined by the Creator (John 16:12; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The revelation of God in the Old Testament, including the establishment of a theocracy under the law, was necessary to prepare our race to see its need for redemption (Romans 3:19-20) and its inability to achieve it on its own (Hebrews 9-10).
The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament did not have a full understanding of the redemption that the Lord Jesus Christ would provide. They didn’t have a clear understanding of individual survival after death or the manner in which the faith of Abraham would bring blessing to all the peoples of the world (Genesis 12:1-3; 28:14). Truths only implied by the earliest chapters of the Old Testament were defined much more clearly by the prophets (Psalm 110; Isaiah 11:10; 49:6) and brought to clarity in the New Testament (Matthew 8:10-12; 22:42-45; Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8-16; Hebrews 1:13 ).
- Gnosticism was an immense peril for the church. It cut out the historic foundations of Christianity. Its God is not the God of the Old Testament, which is the work of an inferior or even evil being. Its Christ had no real incarnation, death, or resurrection. Its salvation is for the few capable of spiritual enlightenment. The peril was the greater because Gnosticism was represented by some of the keenest minds in the church of the second century. The age was syncretistic, and in some respects Gnosticism was but the fullest accomplishment of that amalgamation of Hellenic and Oriental philosophical speculation with primitive Christian beliefs, which was in greater or less degree in process in all Christian thinking. (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Scribners, p. 53.) Back To Article
The 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament are the only writings Christians consider fully inspired. The books that are in our present Old Testament were universally accepted at the time of Christ and endorsed by Him. In fact, there are nearly 300 quotations from the Old Testament books in the New Testament.
A number of books that are considered valuable but not inspired are found in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Bibles. These books are called the Apocrypha (which means “hidden,” “secret,” or “profound”). The Apocrypha was accepted by the council of Carthage, but was not accepted by many important church leaders, including Melito of Sardis, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Jerome. 1
Although the New Testament Canon was officially confirmed in its present and final form by the third council of Carthage in 397, the 27 documents it contains were accepted as authoritative from the very beginning.
The New Testament is solidly rooted in history. It revolves around the death, burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not even the rationalist critics of the 19th century could find reason to question Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians, and it has been acknowledged as the earliest written testimony of Christ’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declared:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been rasied, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (vv. 16-19).
First-century Christians circulated documents—either written or approved by the apostles—which contained an authoritative explanation of the accounts concerning Jesus’ life and teaching. These documents often quoted from each other and presented the same gospel message from different perspectives and in different styles. Hundreds of other documents were written and circulated, but the church quickly rejected spurious documents and established the authority of those that were genuine.
- “Augustine alone of ancient authors, and the councils of Africa which he dominated, present a different picture. Augustine specifically accepted the apocryphal books and gives the total number as forty-four. He is the only ancient author who gives a number different from the twenty-two or twenty-four book reckoning. The list includes Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras (the book composed of part of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah), Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus. The Local councils of Carthage and Hippo, dominated by Augustine, included the same books. This listing prob. agreed with the ideas of Pope Damasus who dominated the local council of Rome at 382. It will be remembered that it was Damasus who urged Jerome to translate also the apocryphal books for his Vulgate. Jerome did so with the explicit declaration that they were not canonical.
“Green (op. cit. 168-174) discusses the witness of Augustine and points out that Augustine seems to vacillate. Green quotes Augustine; ‘What is written in the book of Judith the Jews are truly said not to have received into the canon of Scripture’ (Augustine, City of God xviii, 260). ‘After Malachi, Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra, they had no prophets until the advent of the Savior’ (id. xvii, last ch.). He was well aware that Maccabees were after the cessation of prophecy. Green concludes that Augustine was using ‘canonical’ in the sense of books which may be read in the churches without putting them all on an equal plane.” Excerpted from an article by R.L. Harris (“Canon of the Old Testament”) in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Back To Article
The Mosaic law was not given to the Gentiles (Romans 2:1-16) but to the people of Israel (Exodus 20:1-17). It was intended to reveal the goodness and wisdom of God, bring awareness of sin and guilt, and show the need for divine redemption (Leviticus 17:11; Romans 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 1 Timothy 1:7-11). The law, however, was not given as a performance-based means of salvation. Abraham was saved by faith long before the law was given through Moses (Hebrews 11 ).
Because Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law (Romans 5:5-8; 8:1-4), we are no longer under the external law of Moses. When we are obedient to the Holy Spirit, we manifest God’s love and exhibit righteousness, which fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). The New Testament contains numerous passages that clarify the Christian believer’s distinctly altered relationship to the Mosaic law (Galatians 3-5; Philippians 3; Colossians 2).
The Lord’s declaration in Matthew 5:17 that He had come not “to abolish the law but to fulfill it” should be understood in its context. He said this just before explaining the spiritual meaning of the system of laws given to Israel by Moses. By contrast, the Pharisees of His day missed the spirit and intent of the law while overemphasizing conformity to external legal and ritual elements. Jesus emphasized the thoughts, motives, and attitudes behind the deeds. The contrast He set forth in verses Matthew 21-47 is not between the law and His own teaching but between the ideas of the Pharisees and the real meaning of the law. Christ had so much respect for the law that He would not cancel even one small demand until after He had fulfilled it.
However, Jesus Christ did fulfill the law both in His life and in His death. He obeyed it perfectly. He never broke even one of its commands. Of the entire human race, only He never sinned (see 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22). He also laid down His life to pay the penalty for sin demanded by the law (see John 3:16; 10:11-l8; 11:50-52; Romans 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). In all of this He became the reality of whom all the Old Testament sacrifices and rituals were only symbols.
When the life of God’s perfect Lamb was given as the ultimate sacrifice for sinners, the Mosaic law, as a national, legally binding system came to an end. Second Corinthians 3:2-18 makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments were part of a “dispensation/ministry” that has passed away. If we read the law with the mindset of the old covenant between God and Israel, a veil covers our hearts (v. 18).
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).
The part of the Bible that contains all these rules and regulations still instructs us. But it is no longer binding on us because Jesus Christ fulfilled it.
While Christians are not bound to follow the ceremonial laws and regulations of the old covenant with Israel, they are obligated to live by the great moral principles it contains. The Old Testament law was itself based on unwritten moral principles that God had revealed to the human race throughout the ages (Romans 2:14-15). The works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit listed by the apostle Paul (Galatians 5:13-26) illustrate the impossibility of living a Spirit-filled life while violating the moral principles contained in the law given at Sinai. Rather than being governed by a law whose letter brought rebellion, awareness of sin, and death, those in Christ are governed by the living Spirit of God who instructs them in how to live in freedom and gratitude.