Guidelines for Using Old Testament Passages Well

January 15, 2019 · 1240 words · 6 minute read Hermeneutics   Old Testament   Day Laborers   Consequentialism   Authorial Intent Hermeneutic   Plus-Minus 10 Test   James   Deuteronomy   Leviticus  

A brief look at some questions you can ask yourself to make sure you are using the Old Testament correctly.


Before reading the article below, I recommend you take a look at my post on Why I Cite Specific Examples. I address this issue humbly and with the utmost respect and love for all parties involved. None of us are perfect or perfectly consistent; it would not shock me if the whistle were blown on me for the same hermeneutic fouls I penalize below. I stand open to correction and am bold only because I believe that handling the Word of God is like donning a space-suit before going on a space walk; our very lives depend on it and it ought to be done with the greatest care and accuracy possible.

Case Study

Consider a sermon in which a pastor is trying to impress upon his flock the importance of treating day laborers with charity and respect. In the sermon, the pastor condemns the attitude that does not have the compassion and charity to pay day laborers on the day they work. In defending this thesis, let’s pretend the pastor says that to not pay day laborers on the day they work is “sinful” because it is “expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14”. He goes on to say that the “Bible commands” us to pay day laborers the day they work for us (in light of the Old Testament passages he previously mentioned). Before moving on, I must say that I agree with the conclusion that Christians ought to show charity toward day laborers1 for the sake of the Gospel2 and because every human is made in the image of God3. What deeply concerns me about this line of reasoning, however, is the use (I’m arguing it is a misuse) of the Old Testament law to support this argument.

In this blog post, I present two problems with the previously mentioned use of the Old Testament and provide some guidelines we can use to make sure we are using the Old Testament (or any passage in the Bible) well. I hope to produce some more technical material on the subject of hermeneutics soon, but for now, this will have to do.

Two Problems

There two, major problems with the line of reasoning described in the case study that I’d like to highlight:

  1. It ignores the authorial intent clearly communicated in each context (Leviticus and Deuteronomy)
  2. If the same hermeneutic principle used by the pastor were applied to other verses in the same context as the ones cited, it would produce some shocking (and unbiblical) conclusions

I’ll begin with the first point. One of the difficulties with the pastor’s arguments from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is that neither Leviticus nor Deuteronomy were written to us (Christians living in America in the 21st Century). Leviticus 19 begins with:

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them…'”

Leviticus was written to Israel (and sometimes specifically to Aaron’s sons who were the priests). Deuteronomy is Moses’ exposition on the law (Deuteronomy 1:5) for Israel.

If you are going to use Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24 as if they mean the same thing for Christians in modern America as they did to Israel, you would have to establish why they mean the same thing. Most conservative evangelicals believe that the author’s intention is the primary guiding factor in determining meaning. When reading a passage of scripture, we should be trying to understand what the author intended to say because this is what the passage means. The pastor’s use of the Old Testament, especially when he uses phrases like “expressly forbidden” to describe the Old Testament passages, make it seem as though the Old Testament passages mean the same thing for us as they did for Israel and this is outside the scope of authorial intent. In other words, I posit that Moses never intended Leviticus and Deuteronomy to be used as explicit laws for Christian life. Certainly, they are still important for believers4, but Christians are not under the direct authority of the Old Testament commands in the same way that Israel was but pastor’s use of the passage seems to imply that we have the same relationship to the law as Israel.

The second problem with use of the Old Testament described above can be imagined if the same hermeneutic being used on Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14 is applied to other verses in the same contexts. For example, if Leviticus 19:13 is a direct and explicit command to Christians today, what about Leviticus 19:19 which prohibits the wearing of garments made from multiple materials? Or Leviticus 19:27 which prohibits shaving and getting a hair cut? Are we supposed to practice the same marriage procedure laid out in Deuteronomy 25:5-10? Based on an authorial intent hermeneutic, the answer is no because Moses intended Leviticus and Deuteronomy to be rules for Israel, not laws for Christians. But if we use the logic described in the case study, it is hard to see why Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14 are binding for Christians while other verses in the same context are not.

So how can we understand the Old Testament better? In the last section, I provide some guidelines which will help us understand the Old Testament better and make sure we are not misusing or inconsistently using the Old Testament.

Helpful Guidelines

Here are a couple of helpful guidelines derived from the previously mentioned case-study:

  1. Consider authorial intent. I like to think of authorial intent in this way: Pretend the author of the passage were sitting the audience when you are teaching the passage he wrote. So you’re preaching through the book of James and James, the half-brother of Jesus, is in the audience! You’re teaching through the Gospel of Luke and Luke walks through the door and takes a seat in the second row! Would the author affirm your understanding of the text?
  2. Don’t think that, because you arrived at a true, ‘Christian’ conclusion, your hermeneutic is necessarily correct. It is dangerous to practice a consequentialist hermeneutic (a principle where hermeneutics are judged based on the conclusions they produce). This means that you must think about your hermeneutic itself, apart from any of the conclusions it will produce.
  3. A topical connection between two passages does not imply we should use the same hermeneutic in both passages. It is easy to make topical connections throughout the Bible without considering the differences in the underlying contexts of the connected texts. For example, it is perfectly valid and helpful to connect James 5:4 with the Old Testament law’s protection of day laborers, but the topical, theological connection does not mean that both of those passages should be understood using the same hermeneutic. The context surrounding each passage should be carefully considered.
  4. Test your hermeneutic by taking the ±10 (plus-minus ten) test. If you think you understand a passage of scripture, does the hermeneutic you are using make sense if you applied it to the text ten verses earlier and ten verses later? I call this the ±10 test (plus-minus ten test). The hermeneutic you use should be consistent throughout an entire passage/book (unless there is a compelling reason for it not to be). If your hermeneutic makes perfect sense for one verse, but doesn’t work for the passage and book in which that one verse is found, you are probably have a bad hermeneutic.

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