Tuesday, May 01, 2012


As I have answered questions from my students, I have come to believe that consistency is a crucial element  in a belief system.

For example, I was recently asked why the Church of Christ doesn't use musical instruments, but we (I was teaching in a Baptist church) do?  The answer highlights the issue of consistency in Biblical interpretation among different Christian churches and denominations.

The crux of the problem is that the Christian Bible consists of two different sets of historical documents, the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew (and shared with many faith-families, e.g., Jews, Muslims, and Christians), and the New Testament, originally written in Greek, accepted by all Christian denominations as sacred.  [We will ignore the books of uncertain authorship, commonly called the Apocrypha, at this time.]

The problem is that the Old and New Testaments have points of ambiguity, if not outright contradiction, between them.  So the issue of understanding comes down to the question of what is the proper principle of interpretation to relate the two testaments to the church in the current age?

The musical instrument question will help explain the issue.  The Churches of Christ (and other similar New Testament churches) use a rule of interpretation that the Old Testament is illustrative to the Church, but the New Testament is normative.  The Old Testament books give us examples of God's dealings with people in history, but the New Testament is the only rule of faith and practice for the people of God, since the first century.

This rule of interpretation eliminates some problems that divide other Christian denominations, because it is simple and straightforward.  If the New Testament, alone, is the rule book for the church, then we eliminate the problems associated with Christians' use of the Old Testament, e.g., what do we do with the passages about the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the position of Israel, etc.?

If the New Testament, alone, regulates the church, then we do what it says; we don't do what it says not to do; and when it is silent about an issue, we err on the side of caution.  For example, the New Testament does not speak to the issue of instruments in worship, but it does relate to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  So don't be alarmed when visiting a Church of Christ that you find no piano, organ, or any other musical instrument you might be familiar with in the church where you grew up.  They are trying to be consistent to the principle of interpretation they believe is designed for a New Testament church. They sing a capella.

The mainline churches, including Roman Catholic and Protestant, use a different rule of interpretation for the Old Testament/New Testament dilemma.  The main difference between Catholic and Protestant denominations is that the Roman Catholics believe the Church (via Creeds, Councils and Papal edicts) can still write dogma equivalent to the Old and New Testament Scripture, while Protestants believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures (completed near the end of the first century), alone, are the only rule of faith and practice for the church.

With that (major) distinction, then, these denominations follow a similar rule of interpretation for the Old to New Testament relationship.  This rule says that the Old and New Testaments together are regulative for the church.  The Old Testament is still normative for the people of God, unless the New Testament makes a clear, definitive change.  For example, the Old Testament includes dietary restrictions intended to differentiate the people of God (Israel) from the peoples around them.  Jews could not eat pork, or shrimp, for example.  The New Testament indicated that the wall separating Jew from Gentile was broken down and the laws intended to differentiate the people of God have been done away, i.e., their purpose has been fulfilled, so they no longer apply.

Certain issues are easy to handle with this rule of interpretation.  If the New Testament does not make a change, then the Old Testament principles are still regulative.  For example, the Old Testament prohibits murder and the New Testament makes no change, so it is still wrong to murder someone.

We have looked at three basic rules of interpretation of Scripture:

The Old Testament is normative (Jews, Muslims--with additional books, e.g., Talmud, Koran, etc., overriding)
The New Testament is normative (Church of Christ, other New Testament Churches)
The Old and New Testament are normative (mainline Christian Denominations--with New Testament overriding Old Testament, and Roman Catholics with Church overriding the Testaments)

This posting is a gross oversimplification of Biblical interpretation principles, but it will be instructive for those people who wonder why there are differences in the practices of different churches.

They are all trying to be consistent to the fundamental things they believe about the Scriptures, the revelation from God to his called-out people.

You may wonder which principle of interpretation is right, in the absolute sense.  That is a different topic.  This post is designed to help you examine faith claims, not to demonstrate which ones are right.  This post is designed to help you recognize an argument's presuppositions and whether or not an argument is consistent with its presuppositions, not to decide which presuppositions are right.

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