The Unity of the Scriptures
by Don Schwager
Unity of the Old and New Testaments
Christians recognize the Old Testament (Jewish Scriptures) and the New Testament as one book, commonly called the Bible or Holy Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments are divinely inspired by one and the same Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16).Kallistos Ware, a biblical scholar and Orthodox bishop, states succinctly,
We believe that the Scriptures constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative Witness to God’s revelation of Himself – in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they express the word of God in human language.While divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does nothing in isolation, divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not abolish our individuality but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of inspired Scripture. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture. We are to value both.
Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the eternal, uncreated Word of God Himself, the divine Word of salvation. (excerpt from The Orthodox Study Bible, 2008)
The New and Old Testaments are intimately linked together. Over one third of the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament. Jesus stated unequivocally, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). The New Testament does not replace the Old – rather it unveils and brings into full light the hidden meaning and signs which foreshadow and point to God’s plan of redemption which he would accomplish through his Son, Jesus Christ.
New hidden in the Old – Old unveiled in the New
A very common expression, dating back to the early beginnings of the Christian church, states that the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New – the two shed light on each other.The Old Testament prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ who came not only to redeem the people of Israel but the whole world as well.
All Scripture describes the coming of the Lord. The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old Testament is brought to light in the New. Those who are unspiritual have always failed to see this hidden meaning. Yet even before Christ those who were spiritual could find the Words of God hidden in the words of the prophets, and so through this understanding could be set free. (Augustine, bishop of Hippo, 354-430 AD)
There are a number of symbols and events in the Old Testament that foreshadow and point to the coming of Christ and his saving mission. When interpreted correctly they can also shed light on the significance of what Christ has done for us. For example, when the people of Israel were saved from death by passing through the waters of the parted Red Sea, the early Christians saw in this Exodus event a symbol of the “new birth” and “regeneration” through the waters of baptism that cleansed us from sin, and delivered us from death to new life in Christ, thus making us a new creation in Christ and co-heirs with Christ in the promises of a restored Paradise and New Jerusalem – the city of heavenly glory where we will dwell with God in his everlasting kingdom of peace and righteousness.
Jesus, in a number of places recorded in the Gospels, refers to the Old Testament figures and signs, such as Jonah (Matthew 12:39), Solomon (Matthew 12:42), the Temple (John 2:19), the brazen serpent of Moses in the wilderness (John 3:14) that pointed to himself and to his work of redemption.
How to read the Scriptures
From these examples, we can hopefully see two important truths for how Christians ought to read the Scriptures. The New Testament must be read in the light of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament must be read in the light of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.
In the beginning
Another example of how the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and how the Old is unveiled in the New Testament can be seen by reading both the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Genesis 1 describes the work of creation involving the Spirit ofGod, the Word of God which was spoken, and the eternal Father who breathed the “breath of life” into Adam, making him a “living soul” and son after God’s likeness and image.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1,3).
Then God said [the word of God], “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Genesis 1:26)…Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
Why did God speak in the plural (let us make man in our image) when he created humankind in his image? The Gospels reveal a Trinity of Persons perfectly united in the one Godhead – the eternal Father, the only-begotten Son (who is the eternal Word of God), and the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel, chapter one, brings out the hidden meaning in the Genesis account of creation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made (John 1:1-3).
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father (John 1:14).
And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and remain on him [Christ]”(John 1:32).
The New Testament revelation sheds light on God’s work of creation and on how God determined to restore and fulfil his plan after Adam’s disobedience and the downfall of the human race. God sent his only-begotten Son who takes on human flesh for our salvation. The Lord Jesus is both fully God – the eternal Word of God, and fully man – conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary who bore him (Luke 1:26-35), and anointed by the same Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22) to carry out the eternal ‘plan of redemption and restoration through his death and resurrection.
Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ
From the beginning of the early church to the present, Christians have understand the importance of personally encountering the Risen Lord Jesus in and through the living and active Word of God in the Scriptures.
Jerome (347-420 AD), an early church Bible scholar who translated the entire Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts into the common language of his day (Latin), said that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
You are reading [the Scriptures]? No.Your betrothed is talking to you. It is your betrothed, that is, Christ, who is united with you. He tears you away from the solitude of the desert and brings you into his home, saying to you, “Enter into the joy of your Master.”
In the Bible it is God who speaks to us
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who wrote extensively and preached widely from the Scriptures on the centrality of the cross of Christ and on ethical demands of the Gospel message, paid the ultimate price with his life when he was imprisoned and excuted by the Nazi regime in 1945. His writings and the witness of his life and martyrdom continue to have significant influence on generations of Christians – Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox – throughout the Christian world. In a letter he wrote in 1936 to Dr. Rudiger Schleicher, his brother-in-law and close friend, he explains his approach to the reading of the Bible:
One cannot simply read the Bible the way one reads other books… That is because in the Bible it is God who speaks to us…If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place that at first is not agreeable to me at all, that does not fit so well with me. That place is the cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the cross in the manner that the Sermon on the Mount requires. That does not correspond to our nature at all; it is, in fact, completely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only the New Testament but also the Old (Isaiah 53!). In any case, Jesus and Paul understand it in this way – that the cross of Jesus fulfils the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The entire Bible, then, is the Word in which God allows himself to be found by us. Not a place that is agreeable to us or makes sense to us a priori, but instead a place that is strange to us and contrary to our nature. Yet, the very place in which God has decided to meet us. (translation from the German by David McI. Gracie, Meditating On the Word)
Encountering the face of Christ
In our own present day many Christians are witnessing a renewed interest and rediscovery of the great treasure and power of God’s Word in the Scriptures. Benedict XVI [Joseph Ratzinger], who has devoted his life to the study of the Scriptures and to the biblical teaching of the early church fathers, has written extensively on the importance of encountering the ‘face of Christ’ in the profound and intimate unity of the Scriptures:
Christian tradition has often placed the Divine Word made flesh on a parallel with the same word made book. This is what emerges already in the creed when one professes that the Son of God “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”, but also a profession of faith in the same “Holy Spirit, who spoke through the Prophets”…. as Saint Ambrose affirms (In Lucam VI, 33) – and clearly declares: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took to himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (Dei Verbum 13)…
In this rediscovered harmony, the face of Christ will shine in its fullness and will help us to discover another unity, that profound and intimate unity of Sacred Scriptures… “At many moments in the past and by many means, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our time, the final days, he has spoken to us in the person of his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Christ thus retrospectively sheds his light on the entire development of salvation history and reveals its coherence, meaning, and direction. (Benedict XVI, Address on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” October 2008)