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Part 2d: What Are the Terms? Continuity/Discontinuity

Glossary 21 Continuity/Discontinuity (of the Law)

Continuity/Discontinuity.  This is an important theological discussion point—indeed, a Gordian knot—that addresses the relationship between the old and new testaments. “The first question in the interpretation of Scriptures after acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ is how to relate the Hebrew Scriptures to the ‘New’ Testament.”[i] “Any true biblical theology must recognize the centrality of the relationship between the testaments.”[ii] The answer to this question will ultimately affect your understanding of an array of key biblical concepts and topics, such as soteriology, the law and the gospel, Israel and the church, and eschatology.

There are several contemporary systems of thought that attempt to define the relationship between the testaments, the prevailing views being covenant theology and dispensationalism.[iii] These systems have developed over time and as a result of continuing biblical studies and dialogue a considerable variety of thought exists within each hermeneutical structure.[iv],[v] Both camps agree that certain aspects of the OT are discontinued and other aspects do continue; however, they may have different rationales behind any agreement. And, of course, the differences are preserved because the adopted systems 1) color the interpretation of key verses, 2) affect how biblical terms are conceived (i.e., “commandment,” “new,” “law,”), and 3) introduce constructs that delimit more freedom of thought (i.e., “covenant of grace,” “church as a parenthesis”). Covenant theology claims a position that favors “continuity” and dispensationalism adopts a position tending toward “discontinuity,” but these terms are rarely defined. What does continuity or discontinuity look like?

  • Continuity describes something that changes little or not at all over time. There is a connection or succession in its state over time. Its state is uninterrupted, while at the same time, there may be progression and improvement, even arriving at a state of completeness or wholeness. Unbroken, consistent. The office of the President of the United States demonstrates continuity, though different individuals have held that office with differing political goals.
  • Discontinuity embraces the idea that breaks or gaps occur, that a loss of cohesion takes place. Something comes to an end or arrives at its termination, often to be replaced by something new and different. There are jumps, intervals, separation, or breaches that upset the status quo. Things change in significant or radical ways, or something revolutionary appears for the first time. The Declaration of Independence marked the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the autonomous rule of the United States.

From these definitions, it is apparent that God is best described under the rubric of continuity, for He does not change or vary (Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). Yet He introduced discontinuity into His eternal state with a six-day creation-fest. He didn’t change, but there was something strikingly other. Next, the fall of Adam marked an early and significant discontinuity in the perfection of God’s creation, yet God remained true to His holy character. The fact that we recognize the covenant with Noah and the covenant with Abraham as significant events is because of the discontinuities with what went before them. Heating water demonstrates a continuity that can be measured in degrees, but upon reaching its boiling point, a discontinuity occurs even though it is still dihydrogen oxide (water).[vi] When something significant happens in history, it often marks a discontinuity because of the radical changes that follow. The promulgation of the Law of Moses was a discontinuity for the life of the Israelites who previously were subject to Egyptian rule (Deut 4:34). The enthronement of King David was a discontinuity in the regime of Israel, replacing the period of judges. Jeremiah prophesied a new covenant, “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers” (Jer 31-31-32), that conveys the sense of a radical change. While there is a premise of continuity as it pertains to God’s gracious character and the progression of biblical history, there is at the same time marked discontinuities evident in the outworking of His will for His people and mankind.

The ideas of continuity and discontinuity are also discussed in psychological theories dealing with the maturation of a person from birth to adulthood. The viewpoint of continuity is likened to a positive incline—a wheelchair ramp—whereas discontinuity is likened to steps. As an outsider to the theories of developmental psychology, it would appear that the maturation of the individual contains elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Many biblical scholars would admit the same seemingly bipolar relationship of the OT and NT. Interestingly, the NT describes Israel’s relationship to the law as a temporary tutelage or guardianship that would be changed at the point of maturity (Gal 3:23-25). And now that Christ has come as the mediator of a new covenant, the language of Scripture employs the metaphors of human growth, health, status, and maturation to describe the redemption of souls effected by the work of Jesus Christ. Salvation is likened to a new birth (Jn 3:3), a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), or the adoption into a new family (Gal 4:5); vision being restored to the blind (2 Cor 4:4) or a debilitating defect being healed (1 Pet 2:24); freedom being granted to the enslaved (Gal 4:7, 31), the release from the oversight of a pedagogue (Gal 3:25); the attainment of great spiritual riches (2 Cor 8:9) and indeed, coming to spiritual life (Col 2:13). None of these metaphors can be compared to an adjustment of but a few degrees or a simple change of administration. These describe sweeping, monumental changes, and markers of discontinuity with what went before. Clearly, it would be a distinct step, or discontinuity, for a Jew to adopt the phrase “the law of Christ” in favor of “the law of Moses,” or to subscribe to the conditions of the new covenant while relinquishing the demands of the Sinaitic covenant. It is doubtful anyone can be a member of both covenants simultaneously (Gal 4:8-14; Heb 2:1-4; 10:29). If Peter stumbled at this, then we can be assured that this was not a smooth transition for the Jews.[vii] Hendrickson, commenting on this passage noted, “The clear revelation of God’s love revealed in the birth, teaching, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coronation of Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to bring about a mighty change on earth… Compared to the rivulet of grace during the old dispensation there was a mighty stream now.”[viii] Whenever something “new” happens there is some discontinuity with whatever came before. “We do not have a situation in which a variety of new perspectives are added to the staple of old things that constitute Judaism, causing only minor readjustment. On the contrary, the new that comes is an eschatological turning point in the ages, of such great consequence that we must be prepared for dramatic shifts.”[ix] Calvin is even more direct in delineating the discontinuity of the law: “Paul compares this law first to a prison, and next to a schoolmaster. Such was the nature of the law, as both comparisons plainly show, that it could not have been in force beyond a certain time.”[x]

Baxter wisely begins his commentary affirming the unity of Scriptures—“one in the progressiveness of the revelation which they collectively unfold, one in the harmony of the structure which they collectively constitute, one in the spiritual unity of the message which they collectively declare.”[xi] But the unity of Scripture does not necessarily mean the operational continuity of every legal aspect of the Mosaic covenant with the new covenant. “The new covenant has some similarities to the old, but it is a new covenant.”[xii] Nor does it mean that the promises of God in the OT will be fulfilled precisely as they were understood in their given context.[xiii] Because scholars maintain different concepts about the OT/NT relationship, they vary in their approach to identify the basis for Christian morality, ethical norms, church life, and holy living. The following chart displays four models regarding the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant in terms of God’s commands (Mosaic law). Each model takes on a different hue when answering the question: “How should we then live?” The focus of this discussion is how the [Mosaic] law/covenant is affected by the introduction of the new covenant.

A.      The Mosaic covenant continues concurrently with the new covenant, either in full force or to a modified extent. For example, the promises to national Israel are still in effect literally, which will impact the future of the church. Jews are still bound by the Mosaic covenant if they are not in the new covenant.

B.      The Mosaic covenant comes to an end; however, aspects of it continue in force as part of the new covenant (or alongside the new covenant), such as the Ten Commandments, civil laws, all moral laws, or the promises to Israel.

C.      The Mosaic Covenant, all preceding covenants, and the new covenant are all parts of the construct called the Covenant of Grace and are therefore continuous with one another and essentially the same, except for their “administration.”

D.      The Mosaic covenant comes to an end when the new covenant is established; however, there are features of commonality between the covenants because they are consistent with God’s holiness and His eternal and gracious plan of redemption. The new covenant will draw upon the OT as it conforms to the law of Christ.

Besides the above concepts, there are two other factors that impact our understanding of the relationship between these two covenants: typology/fulfillment and the categorization of the laws and precepts. Various laws foreshadowing Christ, His work, and His people were fulfilled with His advent, and therefore are no longer required because they possess no spiritual value (i.e., circumcision). See Ceremonial Laws. Fulfillment, then, must be examined to determine its effect on Mosaic law(s), not only cultic, ceremonial, or external laws, but moral injunctions and the covenant as a whole. See Fulfillment.

The other important factor is how the laws of the Mosaic covenant are classified—if they are to be classified at all. Brogden does not find the terms of the tripartite division helpful because they imply the non-morality of so-called ceremonial and civil laws[xiv]: “A Jew obeyed the law of God in its entirety. He did not make sure to keep certain laws because they were on the moral list, while not worrying too much about observance of other laws because they were on the ‘ceremonial’ list.”[xv] While acknowledging that the [Mosaic] law should be recognized as a unity and infused with the righteousness of God (Rom 7:12), it is apparent that certain laws are of a different character than others; i.e., not eating shellfish (Lev 11:10) compared with not having sex with your granddaughter (Lev 18:10).[xvi] “Assigning priority to the moral aspect of the law over both its civil and ceremonial aspects can be observed in a plethora of passages found in the prophets.”[xvii]

Some would also distinguish civil laws and induce from them societal norms and values incumbent on every culture.[xviii],[xix] For example, the law of the parapet (Deut 22:8), literally understood, positively commands the building of a parapet, or fence, on the habitable roof of one’s dwelling in order to prevent accidental injury or death. Maimonides inferred from this law that homeowners are responsible to ensure the safety of their guests by removing any object that could potentially cause injury.[xx] Some Christians advocate “continuity” of this law, albeit as a principle. Others would argue that this particular law is discontinued because the whole law has been upstaged, but that the royal law of love requires the same thing, and this particular law is merely an example of the love for neighbor contained in the [Mosaic] law. As this example shows, the terms continuity and discontinuity are meaningless if both groups end up agreeing on the practical application for the church. “Christians have long debated about what parts of the OT law, if any, carry over into the NT. Many in the past have categorized the law into three parts: ceremonial, civil, and moral. Although this has no exegetical basis, it is a broadly helpful way to conceive of the law. Many scholars disagree with such a tripartite classification of the law and see it as being overly simplistic. The attempt to fit the law into these three categories is indeed a complex issue, and it needs more nuanced argumentation…”[xxi]

Lastly, the primary reason for studying this topic is practical—How should the NT shape and define the normal Christian life and what laws from the Mosaic covenant appear to apply and if so, in what way and to what extent? The New Testament validates the practical necessity to engage the narratives of the Old Testament (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 4:11), therefore, a “New Testament Christian” should be well-grounded in Old Testament history. Indeed, the Christocentric motif of the OT is able to effect spiritual renewal (Matt 4:4; Jn 5:39-47; cf. 2 Ki 23:2-3). In addition, Jesus repeated two Mosaic laws (Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18) that epitomize our spiritual duties to God and fellow man. These laws were for the nation Israel while they were in the land, and obedience to them would bring personal and national blessings, but they are authoritative even for [believing] Gentiles. James claimed that believers would also reap blessings contingent on their obedience to this “royal law” (Jas 2:8). But equally significant is that the apostles did not urge obedience to laws such as: the prohibition against mixing materials in clothing, scourging a man for having sex with someone else’s concubine, the prohibition against eating the fruit of a new tree for three years, the prohibition against shaving or making tattoos, keeping the Sabbath and reverencing the sanctuary, standing in the presence of an old man, and the like. Certainly, for the follower of Christ, the relationship to Mosaic law is profoundly different. There is a picking and choosing of OT material as it suits the mission and goals of the new covenant, and there is a right way and a wrong way to relate to the law. Paul reminded Timothy that the purpose of the commandment is to “love from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith,” and that some supposed teachers of the law fail to understand it and focus their attention on unedifying topics. Furthermore, the law (as a moral mirror) still identifies sin so that the gospel may save sinners (1 Tim 1:3-16), yet Gentiles may still be saved without its use (Rom 2:12-16). “Nevertheless, the Gospel is a glorious superseding of and advancement over the Mosaic administration with its ceremonial ordinances.”[xxii]

Most outward Christian activities are affected by the answer to the earlier question, either consciously or subconsciously. Should a Christian vote, join the military service, or promote Israel? Should the church baptize infants, organize denominations, make religious art, or build elaborate structures for worship? May a Christian own a slave? Are Christians required to pay a tithe to the church? Are there roles for men and women both in church and in their community? Should children be present during the sermon? May our children marry at age 14? And, of course, are Christians required to abstain from all manner of work on the seventh day of the week? “As sure as it was His (Jesus’) to win and ascend the throne, it is His to prove His dominion in the individual soul. It is He, the Living One, who has divine power to work and maintain the life of communion and victory within us. He is the Mediator and Surety of the Covenant—He, the God-man, who has undertaken not only for all that God requires, but for all that we need too.”[xxiii]

In the context of continuity/discontinuity discussions, covenant theology (Reformed) generally favors the continuation of the Sabbath while dispensational theology (Evangelicals) does not. However, there are exceptions in both camps. The point is that neither system logically compels its supporters to adopt a particular view about the Sabbath. However, once someone identifies with a system, they are generally obliged to embrace the consensus or doctrinal position of that system. In other words, people accept the historic position of their denomination as a settled matter, assuming that its position is consistent within that theological framework and with the teaching of the Bible.

One argument for the continuity of the Sabbath comes from the maxim that OT laws continue into NT times unless they are specifically abrogated. For example, Bahnsen contends, “Indeed, the Bible teaches that we should assume continuity between the ethical standards of the New Testament and those of the old, rather than abbreviating the validity of God’s law according to some preconceived and artificial limit.”[xxiv] Of course, the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach us to assume this rule. It is merely a man-made rule to bolster the position of covenantal theology. If anything, one could reason that because God is a moral being who does not change, we should not expect His definition of morality to change from one covenant to another. Additionally, one could reason that if God commands anything, it would always be a moral command. Therefore, none of the laws of the OT should change with the institution of the NT. However, the Bible does teach us that the NT introduces phenomenal changes respecting laws of the OT, leading others to advise, “When we read a command given to the Jews, we do not assume that we must do it, too.”[xxv]

Bahnsen restates his position, “Our attitude must be that all Old Testament laws are presently our obligation unless further revelation from the Lawgiver shows that some change has been made.”[xxvi] Of course, were it not for the explicit NT teaching that the OT law of circumcision is now nothing, we would not be faced with the idea that any OT [formally considered moral] laws could change. In fact, it became immoral to require circumcision of Gentiles. This paradigm shift requires believers in Jesus Christ to redefine “morality,” so that even Jews could be free from laws that were previously considered moral obligations for a holy people. To explain this change, the earliest Christian apologists recognized that a parcel of OT laws were prophetical or eschatological in nature and were fulfilled/abrogated with the coming of Christ. So, our attitude must be to recognize at least two classes of Mosaic law: those that reflect God’s holy will from the beginning (i.e., moral, universal, or natural) and those that were introduced on a temporary basis to foreshadow Christ (ceremonial, cultic, or Jewish). The apostles distinguished between “royal” (Jas 2:8), “righteous” (Rom 8:4; Php 3:6), and “spiritual” laws (Gal 5:22-23), and another breed of ”fleshly” (Heb 7:16), “partitioning” (Eph 2:14-15), “weak and beggarly” (Gal 4:9), and “shadowy” (Heb 10:1) laws. For a first century Hebrew-Christian this realization must have been a jaw-dropping experience.

McKay reiterates, “The laws of the Old Testament are to be assumed to be fully in force unless there is a specific indication in the New Testament to the contrary.”[xxvii] In other words, would it not be wise and pious to err on the side of observing all OT laws that are not specifically annulled by a doctrinal argument in the NT? But those who state this rule cannot live with its application because great specificity is required to remove the force of a Mosaic law. None of the theologians who regurgitate this rule wear tassels with a blue cord even though great spirituality is associated with this law (Num 15:38-39). They don’t let the land lay fallow one in seven years even though the Lord punished Israel severely for ignoring this law (Ex 23:10-11). And they have no qualms about lighting a fire or driving for miles on their “Christian Sabbath,” let alone finding a NT teaching specifically moving the Sabbath to Sunday.

“Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law” (Heb 7:11-12). The people received the Mosaic law under the authority of the Levitical priesthood, and the church received a “changed” or new law under the priesthood of Jesus Christ. “This text may suggest that in the mind of the author the law as a whole is bound up with the priesthood.”[xxviii] “The priority of priesthood over law is thus clearly affirmed.”[xxix] Indeed, Christ was not eligible under the [Mosaic] law to act as a priest for Israel. God the father appointed Jesus Himself, as High Priest for the new covenant (Ps 109:4). Whether the Levitical priesthood was the condition necessary for the giving of the law, or the law itself was the source of authority for the Levitical priesthood, the relationship is inseparable, such that the imperfection of the priesthood implies the imperfection of the law,[xxx],[xxxi] which in turn necessitates a change of law. “The best that the old covenant could offer was not good enough.”[xxxii] The end point or goal of the [Mosaic] law was the perfection of the people, but being unable to achieve that, a new priesthood and law were necessary. “With the appointment of the new order, the old is abrogated.”[xxxiii]

[i] Peterson, Rodney. “Continuity and Discontinuity: The Debate Throughout Church History” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg; p. 17. The ‘New’ Testament is also “Hebrew Scriptures.”
[ii] Osborne, G. R. “New Testament Theology” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. ed. Walter A. Elwell, p. 835.
[iii] To these very broad categories could be added the distinctives of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Messianic Theology, New Covenant Theology, Federal Vision Theology, Reconstructionism, Covenanters, Hyper- and Ultra-dispensationalism, and who knows what else.
[iv] Blaising, C. “Dispensationalism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. ed. Walter A. Elwell, p. 344.
[v] Karlberg, Mark W. Covenantal Theology in Reformed Perspective, p. 341-352.
[vi] And yes, science nerds, I know about super-heating. This illustration relates to the ordinary physical properties  that people can observe and measure when boiling water.
[vii] Kruze, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology; T. Desmond Alexander, et. al., eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 635.
[viii] Hendrickson, William. Commentary on the New Testament, Vol 9, p. 147. (Gal 3:24)
[ix] Hagner, Donald A. “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, p. 118.
[x] Calvin’s Commentaries (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), Vol 21, p. 106-107 (Gal 3:23).
[xi] Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book, p. 12.
[xii] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002) p. 40.
[xiii]Berding, Kenneth and Jonathan Lund, eds., Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
[xiv] A moral law is not ceremonial or civil; a ceremonial law is not moral or civil; a civil law is not moral or ceremonial.
[xv] Brogden, Stuart L. Captive to the Word of God, (United States: Parables, 2016), p. 105.
[xvi] I was going to say “sex with your daughter” only to discover that Mosaic law does not explicitly condemn it. It may be inferred, with good reason, but at the same time, it is not specifically proscribed.
[xvii] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. “God’s Law as the Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 189.
[xviii] Bahnsen, Greg L. “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, pp. 93-143.
[xix] Rushdooney, Rousas J. Law and Society (vol. 2 in Institutes of Biblical Law; Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982)
[xx] Sandberg, Ruth N. Development and Discontinuity in Jewish Law, Lanham, MD: University Press of America 2001, p. 144-145.
[xxi] Beale, G. K. A New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 871.
[xxii] Bahnsen, Greg L. “Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 99.
[xxiii] Murray, Andrew. The Two Covenants and the Second Blessing, London: James Nesbit & Co., 1899, p. 91.
[xxiv] Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard, p. 2. (emphasis in the original).
[xxv] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 9.
[xxvi] Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard, p. 3. (emphasis in the original).
[xxvii] McKay, David. The Bond of Love: God’s Covenantal Relationship with His Church, p. 192.
[xxviii] Moo, Douglas. “The law of Christ as the fulfillment of the law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, Wayne G. Strickland, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 374.
[xxix] Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews, NIGTC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 373.
[xxx] Ebrard, John H. A. Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, John Fulton, trans., 1853 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), p. 227.
[xxxi] Johnson, Luke Timothy, Hebrews (New Testament Library) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) p. 185.
[xxxii] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 52.
[xxxiii] Macaulay, J. C. Expository Commentary on Hebrews (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978) p. 105.

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