BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (January-March 2001): 21-35

[Copyright © 2001 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon College] 






J. Daniel Hays



Obviously commands in the Mosaic Law are important, for

they make up a substantial portion of God's written revela-

tion. Yet the Old Testament contains many laws that seem strange

to modern readers (e.g., "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's

milk," Exod. 34:26; "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of

material," Lev. 19:19; "Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak

you wear," Deut. 22:12).1

Christians violate a number of Old Testament laws with some

regularity (e.g., "A woman must not wear men's clothing, nor a

man wear women's clothing," Deut. 22:5; "Rise in the presence of

the aged," Lev. 19:32; "The pig is also unclean; although it has a

split hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or

touch their carcasses," Deut. 14:8).

Furthermore, while believers tend to ignore many Old Testa-

ment laws, they embrace others, especially the Ten Command-

ments, as the moral underpinnings of Christian behavior (e.g.,

"Love your neighbor as yourself," Lev. 19:18; "You shall not commit

murder," Exod. 20:13; "You shall not commit adultery," Deut. 5:18).

Why do Christians adhere to some laws and ignore others?

Which ones are valid and which are not? Many Christians today

make this decision based merely on whether a law seems to be

relevant. Surely this haphazard and existential approach to inter-

preting the Old Testament Law is inadequate. How then should

Christians interpret the Law?


J. Daniel Hays is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology, Ouachita

Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

1 Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from the New

International Version.

22                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001




Many evangelical scholars interpret the Mosaic Law by emphasiz-

ing the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. They

define moral laws as those that deal with timeless truths regarding

God's intention for human ethical behavior. "Love your neighbor as

yourself” is a good example of a moral law. Civil laws are those

that deal with Israel's legal system, including the issues of land,

economics, and criminal justice. An example of a civil law is Deu-

teronomy 15:1, "At the end of every seven years you must cancel

debts." Ceremonial laws deal with sacrifices, festivals, and priestly

activities. An example is in Deuteronomy 16:13, which instructed

the Israelites to "celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days

after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and

your winepress."2

In this traditional approach the distinctions between moral,

civil, and ceremonial laws are critically important because this

identification allows believers to know whether a particular law

applies to them. Moral laws, according to this system of interpreta-

tion, are universal and timeless. They still apply as law to Chris-

tian believers today. Civil and ceremonial laws, on the other hand,

applied only to ancient Israel. They do not apply at all to believers


However, the traditional approach has numerous critical

weaknesses, and does not reflect sound hermeneutical methodol-

ogy.4 This approach is inadequate for the following reasons.



The distinctions between the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws are

arbitrary, imposed on the text from outside the text. The Old Tes-


2 Christopher J. H. Wright suggests five categories: criminal, civil, family, cultic,

and charitable (An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today [Down-

ers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983], 152-59). Wright does not consider any of these as

a universal, moral category.

3 Using this distinction as a guide to moral behavior dates back to John Calvin.

He distinguished between moral and ceremonial laws, arguing that while the gospel

has nullified the ceremonial laws, the moral laws, on the other hand, continue as

law for the Christian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge

[reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975], 2.7-8). For a current defense of this ap-

proach see Willem A. VanGemeren, "The Law Is the Perfection of Righteousness in

Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective," in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern

Christian, ed. Wayne C. Strickland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 13-58.

4 Other evangelicals have become uncomfortable with the traditional approach as

well. For example see David Dorsey, "The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Com-

promise," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 321-34.

Applying the Old Testament Law Today                              23


tament itself gives no hint of any such distinctions. For example

"love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is followed in the very

next verse by the law "do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of

material" (19:19).5 Should verse 18 be applied as binding, while

verse 19 is dismissed as nonapplicable altogether? The text gives

no indication that any kind of hermeneutical shift has taken place

between the two verses. On what basis can one decide that one

verse is universal and timeless, even for believers in the Christian

era, while the commandment in the very next verse is rejected?

Many of the so-called moral, civil, and ceremonial laws occur to-

gether like this without any textual indicators that there are dif-

ferences between them.

In addition it is often difficult to determine into which category

a particular law falls.6 Because the Mosaic Law defined the cove-

nant relationship between God and Israel, it was by nature theo-

logical. All of the Law had theological content. Can a law be a

theological law but not a moral law? For example Leviticus 19:19

commands, "Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not

wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." One of the central

themes running throughout Leviticus is the holiness of God. The

discourse by God in Leviticus 19 is prefaced by the commandment

“Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Part of this

theme is the teaching that holy things must be kept separate from

profane things. While the significance of these commands against

mixing seed or mixing cloth material may not be fully understood,

it is clear that they relate back to the holiness of God. In fact all of

the levitical laws regarding separation seem to relate to the over-

arching principle of God's holiness and the separation required be-

cause of that holiness. How then can this law not be moral?7


5 "The arbitrariness of the distinction between moral and civil law is reinforced by

the arrangement of the material in Leviticus. Love of neighbor immediately pre-

cedes a prohibition on mixed breeding; the holiness motto comes just before the law

on executing unruly children (19:18-19; 20:7-9)" (Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of

Leviticus, New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Grand Rapids:

(Eerdmans, 1979], 34).

6 Ibid., 32.

7 Another good example of a law that is difficult to classify with this system is in

Numbers 5:11-31. This passage describes how a woman suspected of adultery is to

be tried by the priest. Surely adultery is a moral issue. Is this law then a timeless

universal law for today? Should suspected adulterers in America be tried by the

method described in this passage? To determine her guilt or innocence, the priest

was to make her drink some bitter water. If she became sick, then she was guilty. If

she did not become sick, then she was innocent. Should this be practiced today?

Obviously not. On the other hand, if it is not practiced, does this mean it is not a

moral law, that adultery is not a moral issue?

24                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


Even the Ten Commandments, the clearest examples of so-

called moral laws, present problems for the moral, civil, and cere-

monial distinctions. For example is the Sabbath law moral or

ceremonial? If content is the criterion, then the Sabbath law, which

was clearly part of Israel's worship system, is a ceremonial law and

not a moral one. But if content is not the criterion for distinctions,

then what is? If location within the Ten Commandments becomes

the litmus test for moral law, then there exists a simple system

with only two categories: (a) the Ten Commandments, which are

universal and timeless and which apply to Christians as moral law,

and (b) all the rest of the Law, which is not applicable today. Of

course this is likewise unacceptable for it does not allow believers

to claim Leviticus 19:18, "love your neighbor as yourself," which

Jesus identified as the second greatest commandment. To pull Le-

viticus 19:18 away from the verses that surround it and to identify

it as a moral law requires that content play the major role in the

distinction. If content becomes the criterion, then the Sabbath law

ought to be classified as ceremonial.

Furthermore, although many Christians claim that the Sab-

bath law is a moral law, practically none of them obey it. Going to

church on Sunday, the first day of the week, can hardly be called

obedience to the Sabbath law. Moses would not have accepted the

first day of the week as a substitute for the seventh day. Also

obeying the Sabbath regulations was much more involved than

mere church attendance. In the Book of Numbers a man was exe-

cuted for gathering wood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36). So the

distinctions between civil, ceremonial, and moral laws appear to be

arbitrary and not textually based. Should Christians use these ar-

bitrary distinctions to determine such a critical applicational issue?




The Old Testament legal material does not appear in isolation. In-

stead, the Mosaic Law is firmly embedded in Israel's theological

history. It is an integral part of the story that runs from Genesis 12

through 2 Kings 25. The Law is not presented by itself, as some

sort of disconnected but timeless universal code of behavior. Rather

it is presented as part of the theological narrative that describes

how God delivered Israel from Egypt and then established them in

the Promised Land as His people.

For example the main legal material in Exodus is recorded in

chapters 20-23. This section also contains the Ten Command-

ments. However, the narrative context of these chapters must be

noted. The first nineteen chapters tell the story of the Israelites'


Applying the Old Testament Law Today                              25


bondage in Egypt and their deliverance by the mighty works of

God. This section describes the call of Moses and his powerful en-

counters with Pharaoh. It presents the story of the plagues on

Egypt, culminating in the death of the Egyptian firstborn. Next

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Sea. The

narrative describes their journey in the desert until, in the third

month after the Exodus, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai,

where God called them into covenant relationship (Exod. 19). The

Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and the laws that follow in Exo-

dus 21-23 are part of this big story.8

The Book of Leviticus is also painted on a narrative canvas

against the backdrop of the encounter with God at Mount Sinai

(Lev. 26:46; 27:34). The Law in Leviticus is presented as part of a

dialogue between God and Moses. Such use of dialogue is a stan-

dard feature of narrative. The book begins, "The LORD called to

Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting." The phrase

"The LORD said to Moses" occurs repeatedly throughout the book.

In addition Leviticus includes numerous time sequence phrases,9

an indication of storyline time movement, another characteristic of


The Book of Numbers picks up the story in the second year

after the Exodus (Num. 1:1) and describes the Israelites' journeys

and wanderings for the next four decades (33:38). Central to the

book is Israel's rejection of the Lord's promise in chapters 13 and

14. This disobedience resulted in the years of wandering recorded

in the book. At various points during the story God presented Is-

rael with additional laws. As in Exodus and Leviticus the laws in

Numbers are firmly tied into the narrative material.

The narrative setting for the Book of Deuteronomy is the elev-

enth month of the fortieth year of the Exodus (Deut. 1:3), just be-

fore Israel entered Canaan. The place is specified--just east of the

Jordan River (1:1, 5). Israel had completed the forty years of wan-


8 For example the Ten Commandments are listed in Exodus 20:1-17, but the text

flows immediately back into narrative in verse 18, which reads, "When the people

saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in

smoke, they trembled with fear." Likewise God presented numerous laws to Israel

in Exodus 21-23, but these too are part of the narrative, for they are part of the

dialogue between God and Israel. The people responded to God's presentation of the

Law by saying, "Everything the LORD has said we will do" (24:3).

9 "Then Moses took" (Lev. 8:10), "He then presented" (8:14), "Moses then said"

(8:31), "On the eighth day Moses summoned" (9:1), "So Aaron came to the altar"

(9:8), "So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them" (10:2),

"The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron" (16:1).

26                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


dering as a punishment for refusing to enter the land. Now a new

generation had grown up and God gave them a restatement of the

covenant that He had made with their parents forty years earlier.

Most of Deuteronomy consists of a series of speeches that Moses

delivered to the Israelites on God's behalf. These speeches are con-

nected to the narrative because they refer to the same time, place,

and main characters as the narrative does. Also the end of the book

contains some nonlegal, narrative material: the appointment of

Joshua as leader (31:1-8), the song of Moses (32:1-47), a blessing

of Moses on the tribes (33:1-29), and the death of Moses (34:1-12).

Furthermore the events of Deuteronomy flow into the Book of

Joshua, where the story continues without interruption.

The Law, therefore, is clearly part of the Pentateuchal narra-

tive and is firmly embedded into the story of Israel's exodus, wan-

dering, and conquest. One's interpretive approach to the Law

should take this into account. Connecting texts to their contexts is

a basic tenet of proper interpretive method. The Law is part of a

story, and this story thus provides a critical context for interpret-

ing the Law. The method for interpreting Old Testament Law

should be similar to the method used in interpreting Old Testa-

ment narrative, for the Law is contextually part of the narrative.

Does this diminish the force and power of the text? Do Chris-

tians have to put themselves under the Law before they feel called

to obey the Scriptures? Is not narrative in the Scripture as authori-

tative as Law? To give the Mosaic Law a greater authority over the

Christian's moral behavior than that of the other parts of the Old

Testament narratives is to create a canon within a canon. Likewise

to say that the legal material should be interpreted in the same

manner as the narrative material certainly does not diminish the

divine imperative of Scripture. When the disciples picked grain on

the Sabbath, the Pharisees accused them of violating the Sabbath

Law (Mark 2:23-28), for reaping on the Sabbath was prohibited in

Exodus 34:21. However, Jesus justified this apparent Sabbath vio-

lation by citing a narrative passage in 1 Samuel 21:1-9. In essence

the Pharisees criticized Him with the details of the Law, but Jesus

answered them with principles drawn from narrative.




God clearly introduced the Law in a covenant context, saying,

"Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all

nations you will be my treasured possession" (Exod. 19:5), The peo-

ple agreed to keep the terms of the covenant (24:3), and Moses

sealed the agreement in blood (24:8).


Applying the Old Testament Law Today                              27


A critical part of this covenant was God's promise to dwell in

Israel's midst. This is stressed several times in the latter half of

Exodus (25:8; 29:45; 33:14-17; 40:34-38). Associated with God's

presence are the instructions for constructing the ark and the tab-

ernacle, the place where God would dwell (Exod. 25-31, 35-40).

Leviticus is thus the natural sequence to the latter half of Exodus,

for it addresses how Israel was to live with God in their midst. How

should they approach Him? How should they deal with personal

and national sin before a holy God who dwelt among them? How

should they worship and fellowship with this holy, awesome God in

their midst? Leviticus provides the answers to these questions,

giving practical guidelines for living with God under the terms of

the Mosaic Covenant.

After Israel refused to enter the Promised Land (Num. 13-14),

God allowed that disobedient generation to die. He then led the

people back toward Canaan. Before they entered, however, He

called them to a covenant renewal. Deuteronomy describes this

renewed call to covenant that God made with Israel just before

they entered the Promised Land. Deuteronomy describes in detail

the terms by which Israel would be able to live in the Promised

Land successfully and be blessed by God.

Obviously, then, the Law is tightly intertwined as part of the

Mosaic Covenant. Several important observations about the Mosaic

Covenant, therefore, merit discussion.

First, the Mosaic Covenant is closely associated with Israel's

conquest and occupation of the Promised Land. The Mosaic Cove-

nant is neither geographically neutral nor universal. It provided

the framework by which Israel was to occupy and live prosperously

with God in the Promised Land. The close connection between the

covenant and the land is stressed repeatedly in the Book of Deu-

teronomy.10 This connection between Law and land cuts across the

distinction between so-called civil, ceremonial, and moral laws.

Furthermore the loss of the land in 587 B.C. has profound implica-

tions for the way the Law is to be viewed, precisely because the

Law defined the terms for blessing in the land. In addition, when

Israel was taken captive to Babylon, the Israelites lost the presence

of the Lord in the temple (Ezek. 10). Possession of the land and the

presence of the Lord in the tabernacle and temple are two critical

aspects of the Mosaic Covenant. When the exiles returned to their


10 The Hebrew word for "land" occurs almost two hundred times in Deuteronomy.

A representative selection of passages that directly connect the terms of the cove-

nant with life in the land include 4:1, 5, 14, 40; 5:16; 6:1, 18, 20-25; 8:1; 11:8; 12:1;

15:4-5; 26:1-2; 27:1-3; 30:5, 17-18; and 31:13.

28                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


land, they did not return to the way things had been. The blessings

described in Deuteronomy 28 were never again realized in any sig-

nificant fashion--political independence, regional economic domi-

nation, regional military domination, and so forth--nor is there

any statement about God's returning to the temple, in contrast to

earlier passages that focused on His presence in the tabernacle

(Exod. 40:34-38) and the temple (1 Kings 8:9-10; 2 Chron. 7:1-2).

Things were certainly not the same as they were before the Exile.

Second, the blessings from the Mosaic Covenant were condi-

tional. In Deuteronomy God informed Israel that obedience to the

covenant would bring blessing, but that disobedience to the Cove-

nant would bring punishment and curses. Deuteronomy 28 is par-

ticularly explicit regarding the conditional nature of the Law.

Verses 1-14 list the blessings for Israel if they obeyed the terms of

the covenant (the Mosaic Law), and verses 15-68 spell out the ter-

rible consequences for them if they did not obey the terms of the

covenant. Also the association of the covenant with the land and

the conditional aspect of the covenant blessings are often linked in

Deuteronomy (30:15-18).

Third, the Mosaic Covenant is no longer a functional covenant.

The New Testament affirms the fact that the Mosaic Covenant has

ceased to function as a valid covenant. Hebrews 8-9 makes it clear

that Jesus came as the Mediator of a covenant that replaced the

old one. "By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one

obsolete" (Heb. 8: 13). Thus the Mosaic Covenant is no longer func-

tional or valid as a covenant. This has important implications for

one's understanding of the Law. The Old Testament Law specified

the terms by which Israel could receive blessings in the land under

the Old (Mosaic) Covenant. If the Old Covenant is no longer valid,

how can the laws that make up that covenant still be valid? If the

Old Covenant is obsolete, should not also the laws in that Old

Covenant be seen as obsolete?

Paul stated repeatedly that Christians are not under the Old

Testament Law. For example in Galatians 2:15-16 he wrote, "A

man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus

Christ." In Romans 7:4 Paul stated, "You also died to the law

through the body of Christ." In Galatians 3:25 he declared, "Now

that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the

law." Paul argued vigorously against Christians returning to the

Old Testament Law. If there was a distinction between civil, cere-

monial, and moral laws, it was unusual that Paul ignored it. Fur-

thermore, if the moral laws were to be understood as universally

applicable, one would expect Paul at least to use them as the basis

for Christian moral behavior. However, as Goldingay points out,

Applying the Old Testament Law Today                              29


Paul "does not generally base his moral teaching on this foundation

but on the nature of the gospel, the guidance of the Spirit, and the

practice of the churches."11

How, then, should Jesus' words in Matthew 5:17 be under-

stood? He said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law

or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill

them." Did Jesus and Paul contradict each other? Not at all. First,

the phrase "the Law and the Prophets" refers to the entire Old Tes-

tament. So in this verse Jesus was not speaking of only the Mosaic

Law. Also the antithesis is not between "abolish" and "observe," but

between "abolish" and "fulfill." Jesus did not claim that He came to

observe the Law or to keep the Law; rather He came to fulfill it.

The word plhro<w ("to fulfill") occurs numerous times in Matthew,

and it normally means, "to bring to its intended meaning." Jesus

was not stating that the Law is eternally binding on New Testa-

ment believers. If that were the case, Christians today would be

required to keep the sacrificial and ceremonial laws as well as the

moral ones, and that would clearly violate other portions of the

New Testament.

Jesus was saying that He did not come to sweep away the

righteous demands of the Law, but that He came to fulfill its right-

eous demands. As the climax of this aspect of salvation history,

Jesus fulfilled all the righteous demands and all the prophetic fore-

shadowing of the Law and of the Prophets. In addition Jesus was

the final Interpreter of and Authority over the Law and its mean-

ing, as other passages in Matthew indicate. Jesus restated some of

the Old Testament laws (19:18-19), but some He modified

(5:31-32). Some He intensified (5:21-22, 21-28), and others He

changed significantly (5:33-37, 38-42, 43-47). Some laws He abro-

gated entirely (Mark 7:15-19). Jesus was not advocating the con-

tinuation of the traditional Jewish approach of adherence to the

Law. Nor was He advocating that the Law be dismissed altogether.

He was proclaiming that the meaning of the Law must be inter-

preted in light of His coming and in light of the profound changes

introduced by the New Covenant.12


11 John Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1995), 103.

12 For similar views on Matthew 5:17-47 see D. A. Carson, "Matthew," in The Ex-

positor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 8:142-44; R. T.

France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989),

194-95; and Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas:

Word, 1993), 104-6.

30                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001



The Law is tied to the Mosaic Covenant, which is integrally con-

nected to Israel's life in the land and the conditional promises of

blessing related to their living obediently in the land. Christians

are not related to that land, nor are they related to the conditions

for being blessed in the land. Also the Mosaic Covenant is obsolete,

having been replaced by the New Covenant. Therefore the Mosaic

Law, a critical component of the Old Covenant, is not valid as law

over believers in the church age.

So the traditional approach to the Mosaic Law, which divides

it into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories, suffers from three

major weaknesses: It is arbitrary and without any textual support,

it ignores the narrative context, and it fails to reflect the signifi-

cant implications of the change from Old Covenant to New Cove-

nant. This approach, therefore, is inadequate as a hermeneutic

method for interpreting and applying the Law.



What approach should believers follow in interpreting the Old Tes-

tament Law? In accord with sound hermeneutical method, it

should be an approach that (a) is consistent, treating all Old Tes-

tament Scripture as God's Word, (b) does not depend on arbitrary

nontextual categories, (c) reflects the literary and historical context

of the Law, placing it firmly into the narrative story of the Penta-

teuch, (d) reflects the theological context of the Law, and (e) corre-

sponds to New Testament teaching.

The approach that best incorporates these criteria is referred

to as principlism. A number of evangelicals have employed this

approach on a regular basis as the method of choice in interpreting

the Old Testament.13 The advantage of this approach is that it en-

ables Bible students to be consistent when interpreting Old Testa-

ment passages. There is no need to classify the laws arbitrarily into

applicable and nonapplicable categories.


13 See Roy B. Zuck, Basic Biblical Interpretation (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1991),

286-89; Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, 92; and Robert Chisholm,

From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew (Grand

Rapids: Baker, 1998), 223-24, 255. Wright uses the term "paradigmatic" instead of

"principlism," but he describes the same basic approach (An Eye for an Eye, 162-63).

William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard Jr. cite Wright and state that

tlte Law serves as "a paradigm of timeless ethical, moral, and theological princi-

ples," and that the interpreter therefore must strive to "discover the timeless truth

beneath its cultural husk" (Introduction to Biblical Interpretation [Dallas: Word,

1993] 279). A similar view is taken by Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 33-35; and

John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1992), lxxiii.

Applying the Old Testament Law Today                  31


This is not a theoretical approach, but rather a practical

method that can be used by scholars, lay people, and students.

alike. Its strength is that it is fairly simple and consistent. As for a

weakness it may tend to oversimplify some complex issues. Is there

room to refine and improve this approach? Absolutely. Nonetheless

it is a step forward from the traditional division of Law into arbi-

trary moral, civil, and ceremonial categories.

Principlism, an alternative approach to applying the Law, in-

volves five steps.




Identify the historical and literary context of the specific law in

question. Were the Israelites on the bank of the Jordan preparing

to enter the land (Deuteronomy) when the law was given, or were

they at Mount Sinai soon after the Exodus (Exodus, Leviticus)?

Was the law given in response to a specific situation that had

arisen, or was the command describing requirements for Israel af-

ter they moved into the Promised Land? What other laws are in the

immediate context? Is there a connection between them? How did

this particular law relate to the Old Covenant? Did it govern how

people were to approach God? Did it govern how they were to relate

to each other? Did it relate to agriculture or commerce? Was it spe-

cifically related to life in the Promised Land? What did this specific

law mean for the Old Testament audience?




Delineate the theological and situational differences between

Christians today and the initial audience. For example believers in

the present church age are under the New Covenant, not the Old

Covenant. Thus they are not under the laws of the Old Covenant.

They are not Israelites preparing to dwell in the Promised Land,

nor do they approach God through the sacrifice of animals. Also

Christians live under secular governments and not under a theoc-

racy, as did ancient Israel. In addition Christians face pressures

not from Canaanite religions but from different non-Christian

worldviews and philosophies.



Behind the Mosaic commands for the original audience lie univer-

sal, timeless principles. Each of the Old Testament laws had a

meaning for its first audience, a meaning that is related to the Old

Covenant. But that meaning is usually based on a broader, univer-

sal truth, a truth that is applicable to all God's people, regardless

32                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


of when they live and under which covenant they live. In this step

one asks, "What universal principle is reflected in this specific law?

What broad principle may be applied today?"

The principle should be developed in accord with several

guidelines: (a) It should be reflected in the text, (b) it should be

timeless, (c) it should correspond to the theology of the rest of

Scripture, (d) it should not be culturally bound, and (e) it should be

relevant to both Old Testament and current New Testament be-

lievers. These universal principles will often be related directly to

the character of God and His holiness, the nature of sin, the issue

of obedience, or concern for other people.



Filter the universal principle through the New Testament teaching

regarding that principle or regarding the specific law being stud-


Some of the Old Testament laws, for example, are restated in

the New Testament as commandments for New Testament believ-

ers. When the Old Covenant was abrogated, the Old Testament

Law ceased to be a Law for Christians. However, when the New

Testament repeats a law it thus becomes a commandment for be-

lievers, to be obeyed as a commandment of Christ. But this validity

and authority as a command comes from the New Testament and

not the Old Testament. In addition occasionally the New Testa-

ment qualifies an Old Testament law, either modifying it or ex-

panding on it. For example for the command in Exodus 20:14, "You

shall not commit adultery," the universal principle relates to the

sanctity of marriage and the need for faithfulness in marriage. As

this principle is filtered through the New Testament, Jesus'

teaching on the subject must be incorporated into the principle.

Jesus said, "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman

with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart"

(Matt. 5:28), thereby expanding the range of this law. He applied it

not only to acts of adultery but also to thoughts of adultery. There-

fore the commandment for Christians today becomes "You shall not

commit adultery in act or in thought." But Christians should seek

to obey this command because it reflects a universal biblical prin-

ciple reinforced by the New Testament, and not simply because it is

an Old Testament law.



In this step the universal principle developed in the previous step

is applied to specific situations in believers' lives today. Evidence of

principlism can be found in the New Testament. As noted earlier,

Applying the Old Testament Law Today                              33


Jesus' citation of 1 Samuel 21 to rebut the Pharisees follows a

similar pattern. In 1 Corinthians 9:9 Paul cited Deuteronomy 25:4

("Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain") in de-

fending his right to receive material support from the Corinthians

(1 Cor. 9:4, 11-12). In the traditional approach this deuteronomic

law would probably not be classified as 8; "moral" command, yet

Paul cited it as applicable. Since Paul clearly emphasized else-

where that Christians are not under the Old Testament Law (Rom.

6:14-15; 7:1-6; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 2:15-16; 5:18; Eph. 2:15), he was

not citing Deuteronomy 25:4 as a law that was binding on the

Corinthian church. Instead he used this law paradigmatically or

analogically.14 The apostle cited a command whose principle can be

applied to situations other than that of the initial, historical inci-


Leviticus 5:2 provides an example of how the method of princi-

plizing can be used by believers today to apply legal passages with-

out being under the Law. The verse reads, "Or if a person touches

anything ceremonially unclean--whether the carcasses of unclean

wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that

move along the ground--even though he is unaware of it, he has

become unclean and is guilty." The action required to correct one's

ceremonially unclean status in this verse is described a few verses

later. So verses 5-6 should also be included: "When anyone is

guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has

sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must

bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin of-

fering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin."

The traditional approach simply classifies these verses as a cere-

monial law that no longer applies to believers today. However, us-

ing the principlizing approach, one can interpret and apply this

text in the same manner as one would narrative.

What did the text mean to the initial audience? The context of

Leviticus discusses how the Israelites were to live with the holy,

awesome God who was dwelling in their midst. How were they to

approach God? How should they deal with sin and unclean things

in light of God's presence among them? These verses are part of the

literary context of 4:1-5:13 that deals with offerings necessary af-

ter unintentional sin. Leviticus 4 deals primarily with the leaders;

Leviticus 5 focuses on regular people. Leviticus 5:2 informed the


14 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Com-

mentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 408. See also the

discussion on this verse by Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 263-65.

34                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


Israelites that if they touched any unclean thing (dead animals or

unclean animals), they were defiled ceremonially. This was true

even if they touched an unclean thing accidentally. Being unclean,

they were unable to approach God and worship Him. To be purified

(made clean), they were to confess their sin and bring the priest a

lamb or a goat for a sacrifice (5:5-6). The priest would sacrifice the

animal on their behalf and they would be clean again, able to ap-

proach and worship God.

What are the differences between the initial audience and be-

lievers today? Christians are not under the Old Covenant, and their

sins are covered by the death of Christ. Also because they have di-

rect access to God through Jesus Christ, they no longer need hu-

man priests as mediators.

What is the universal principle in this text? The central univer-

sal principle in these verses relates to the concept that God is holy.

When He dwells among His people, His holiness demands that they

keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they become unclean,

they must be purified by a blood sacrifice. This principle takes into

account the overall theology of Leviticus and the rest of Scripture.

It is expressed in a form that is universally applicable to God's

people in both the Old Testament and the New Testament eras.

How does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this ,

principle? According to the New Testament, God no longer dwells

among believers by residing in the tabernacle or temple; He now

dwells within believers by the indwelling Holy Spirit. His presence,

however, still calls for holiness on their part. He demands that they

not sin and that they stay separate from unclean things. However,

the New Testament redefines the terms "clean" and "unclean."

"Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him.

Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' . . .

What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from

within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality,

theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy,

slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and

make a man 'unclean'" (Mark 7:15, 20-23). Believers under the

New Covenant are not made unclean by touching dead animals.

They become unclean by impure thoughts or by sinful actions.

The New Covenant also changed the way God's people are to

deal with sin and uncleanness. Rather than bringing a lamb or

goat to atone for sin, a believer's sins are covered at the moment of

salvation by the sacrifice of Christ. The death of Christ washes

away sin and changes the believer's status from unclean to clean.

Confession of sin, however, is still important under the New Cove-

nant (1 John 1:9), as it was under the Old Covenant.


Applying the Old Testament Law Today                              35


So an expression of the universal principle for today's New

Testament audience would be, "Stay away from sinful actions and

impure thoughts because the holy God lives within you. If you do

commit unclean acts or think unclean thoughts, then confess that

sin and experience forgiveness through the death of Christ."

5) How should Christians today apply this modified universal

principle in their lives? There are many possibilities, but one spe-

cific application relates to Internet pornography. Many Christians

now have easy access to pornographic material in the privacy of

their homes or dormitory rooms. This text teaches that the holiness

of God, who dwells within believers, demands that they lead clean

lives. Viewing pornography clearly falls into the category that the

New Testament says is unclean. Such action is a violation of God's

holiness and it hinders one's ability to worship or fellowship with

God. Therefore believers are to stay away from Internet pornogra-

phy, realizing that it makes them spiritually unclean, offends the

holiness of God, and disrupts fellowship with God. However, if one

does fall into this sin, he must confess it, and through the death of

Christ he will be forgiven and fellowship with God will be restored.



The traditional approach of dividing the Mosaic Law into civil,

ceremonial, and moral laws violates proper hermeneutical method,

for it is inconsistent and arbitrary, and the Old Testament gives no

hint of such distinctions. This approach errs in two ways. On the

one hand it dismisses the civil and ceremonial laws as inapplicable.

On the other hand it applies the so-called moral laws as direct law.

In addition the traditional approach tends to ignore the narrative

context and the covenant context of the Old Testament legal mate-


Principlism, an alternative approach, seeks to find universal

principles in the Old Testament legal material and to apply these

principles to believers today. This approach is more consistent than

the traditional one, and it is more reflective of sound hermeneutical

method. It also allows believers to see that all Scripture is "useful

for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2

Tim. 3:16).


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