The Relation of the Old to the New Dispensation

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The Creation Concept

by Joseph Addison Alexander

The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review Vol. 23 No. 4 (1851)

(Page 649)

Isaiah Commentary by J. A. Alexander

J. A. AlexanderOne of the most striking facts in the history of the Church, or of the true religion, is its appearance under two successive forms or aspects, so unlike and even contradictory as those which we are wont to call the old and new economy or dispensation, equally genuine and equally authoritative; both intended for man's benefit, and ultimately for the benefit of men in general; both intended to promote an end moral and spiritual, not material or temporal; but the one provisional, the other permanent; the one preparatory to the other, and by necessary consequence inferior in dignity; the one typical and ceremonial, the other spiritual and substantial; the one designed and adapted to teach the need and excite the desire of what could be fully supplied only by the other.

Corresponding to these two dispensations or economies, are two successive revelations or distinguishable parts of the same revelation. Each has its own collection of inspired books, originating in it and intended for it. The Hebrew Scriptures are as clearly the offspring and the property of one dispensation as the Greek Scriptures are of the other. The very difference of language is significant--the first revelation being given in a local dialect, the language of a single race, the vernacular use of which has never spread beyond its ancient limits; the second revelation in the most perfect and most cultivated language of the earth, and at that time the medium of polite and learned intercourse throughout the Roman Empire. The names too by which we are accustomed to distinguish the two parts of Scripture are equally applicable to the two economies, as the Greek word (...) may be used to denote, not only a testament and a covenant but a dispensation.

The correspondence or analogy between the two economies and the two revelations, is obvious and striking. But this analogy, if pushed too far, involves us in inextricable difficulties. For, as the new dispensation was designed not only to succeed but to supersede the old, not merely to follow it in time, or to complete it, but to take its place, to do away with it, and render it unnecessary, so that it could never be revived, or re-instated, without abrogating that which it was abrogated to make room for; the analogous fact would seem to be, that the Old Testament having prepared the way for the reception of the New, is now without authority, and only interesting as a part of ancient history, by which we are as little bound, in faith or practice, as by the sacrificial ritual of Moses; whereas the contrary is true, and may be readily established.

The perpetual authority and use of the Old Testament does not arise merely from its being necessary to the correct understanding of the New. For this is, in a measure, true of ancient history, chronology, and archaeology, as well as of philosophy and rhetoric, no one of which auxiliary sciences has any claim to stand upon a level with the sacred hooks which it assists us in expounding. However indispensable the use of the Old Testament may be then, as a source of illustration to the New, this exegetical necessity would not be a sufficient basis upon which to rest its claim to a perpetual authority and use. And yet this claim has really a firm foundation. It rests upon its recognition in the New Testament itself, not only as inspired and once binding, but as possessing a prospective claim to the respect and confidence of all believers. The "Holy Scriptures" there declared to be inspired of God, and able to make wise unto salvation, (2 Tim. iii. 15, 16,) are identical with these which our Lord exhorts the Jews to search, (John v. 39,) and in which he repeatedly declares his advent and atoning work to be foretold, and which one of the latest books of the New Testament describes (2 Pet. i. 19,) as "a sure word of prophecy," to which Christians as such, would do well to take heed, as to a light shining in a dark place, i.e. as a revelation of the truth and will of God, with which they could not safely or lawfully dispense.

In strict accordance with this view of the New Testament doctrine, has been the external practice of the universal church. It may be asserted as general fact, that all churches founded on the New Testament, have acknowledged the perpetual authority of the Old as an integral part of revelation. The erratic views of heretical sects or individual errorists, have never, even in the darkest periods, obtained general currency, and only serve as foils to set forth in more prominent relief the signal unanimity with which Papists and Protestants, the Eastern and the Western Church, have clung to the Old Testament as an essential part of Holy Scripture. The same may be said of the experience of Christians in all ages, as bearing testimony to the same important doctrine. The moral and spiritual influences exerted by the Bible on the characters and lives of men has been exerted by it as a whole, and not by the New Testament alone. Perhaps it may be said with truth, that in proportion to the depth and power of experimental piety, in any age or any individual, has been the disposition to avoid casting lots upon the parts of revelation, and to preserve it like the Master's tunic, "without seam, from the top throughout." (John xix. 23.)

To all this it may be added that the New Testament itself is framed upon the principle of completing the revelation begun in the Old; not upon that of reconstructing a new system of divine truth from the foundation. It does not even recapitulate or sum up the contents of the Old Testament, or formally exhibit the result of its authoritative lessons, as the starting point or basis of its own; but uniformly presupposes a direct acquaintance with it, gathering up its many complicated threads of history, prophecy, and doctrine, not to tangle or to break them, but to weave them in a more capacious loom, into a still finer texture, and a pattern still more beautiful and splendid than the Old.

The result of these considerations is, that the Old Testament is still a necessary and authoritative part of divine revelation. Although wholly incomplete without the New, it is essential to the completeness of the whole, and cannot be separated from the Christian revelation, without violently putting asunder that which God has joined together. There is, therefore, an important distinction to be made between the relation of the new economy to the old economy, and that of the New Testament to the Old Testament. Though exactly corresponding to each other with respect to chronological succession, and peculiar adaptation to distinct plans, or rather to successive stages of the same great providential plan or purpose, the cases differ as to one essential point. The old economy was abrogated by the new; the old revelation (so to speak) was only followed and completed by the new. The old and new economy could not exist together; the Old and New Testaments not only may but must exist together. The neglect of this distinction may lead to serious errors, both of theory and practice. As the old dispensation is annulled for ever, while the body of revealed truth which originated in it and was primarily intended for it, still maintains its place as a necessary part of revelation; there is obvious danger of confounding the record with the thing recorded, and of transferring the perpetual authority with which the revelation is invested, to the merely temporary institutions with which it was connected in its origin, and from which it has borrowed its peculiar form. What is thus shown to be possible is verified by history. Such errors not only may be, but have been entertained, and their effect is still perceptible throughout the Christian Church, in quarters the most opposite, and under systems of opinion the most contradictory. While one man insists upon adherence to the form of the Levitical priesthood, as essential to the right organization, if not to the very being of the Christian Church--another, while he tramples on this form of Judaism, falls into another, by denying that the Christian may praise God in any other words than those of David. And to make the incongruity still more apparent, this exclusive adherence to the words of the Old Testament is often attended by a no less rigorous proscription of the very form in which those words were uttered or their utterance accompanied in the ancient worship. Those results can be avoided only by a just view of the true relation which subsists between the two economies or dispensations, as exhibited in these two parts of revelation. This view is not to be obtained by a mere study of the older Scriptures; still less by exclusive and one-sided speculation on them. Such speculation and such study are themselves the prolific parents of these very errors. It is in the false belief that one part of God's word may be honoured by being thrust into the place belonging to another, or by being made to answer for the whole, that most aberrations of the kind in question have their origin; and mere increase of diligence in this mistaken course, or of intensity in zeal respecting it, can only aggravate the evil. A just view of the genuine design of the Old Testament is not to be obtained by exclusive study of it, without regard to its relation to the New. We can reach it only by the aid of the New Testament itself. Believing as we do that the Old Testament derives its value from the New, and that the use of it to us must be determined by its bearing on the Christian revelation, to which it was designed to be preparatory, how can we obtain a clearer view of this than by taking our position on the heights of the New Testament and looking back in search of the old landmarks, with the double advantage of higher ground and clearer light than if we transported ourselves back to the position of the ancient saints, and then looked forward through the intervening clouds and darkness? What then does the New Testament teach as to the relative condition of the church of the Old Testament? In order to resolve this question, we are not required to descend into minute details. The answer lies upon the surface of the Christian Scriptures. It might indeed be traced, with exegetical precision, through the whole New Testament. But happily, the scattered intimations of the truth which we are seeking are occasionally found condensed into brief but pregnant maxims or descriptions, any one of which would be sufficient for our purpose, as an utterance of the voice of the New Testament. Its teachings as to this point are summed up, for example, incidentally but strongly in the first clause of Heb. x. 1. "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things." That the words do not constitute a formal proposition, but are merely the premises from which the inspired writer draws his conclusion as to the inefficacy of the ancient sacrifices in themselves considered, far from weakening their force or rendering them less fit for the use to which we here apply them, has rather a contrary effect, by showing that the doctrine propounded in the first clause is so clear, that the sacred writer takes it for granted, or assumes it as already proved, and so certain, that he founds upon it a conclusion the most startling to the Jewish Christians whom he is addressing. So too, the figurative form, in which the truth is clothed, far from obscuring, makes it clearer and more striking. In relation to the use of metaphorical and literal or abstract terms, as well as in reference to everything else connected with the statement and communication of religious truth, "the foolishness of God is wiser than men." The Holy Spirit uses neither mode exclusively, and both, we may rest assured, exactly in the right place, In the present case the figures used are such as not only to convey the general truth with force and clearness, but also to suggest particular ideas which might otherwise escape us.

The truth thus taught is intermediate between two extremes of error. This is not unfrequently, we might perhaps say invariably, the case. There are few important doctrines which are not in conflict with a plurality of errors, or of forms of error, not collateral or incidental merely, but directly adverse to the truth in question. And as this most frequently arises from our proneness to extremes, and from the tendency of these to generate each other, the defender or discoverer of truth must frequently be occupied in seeking a safe standing place between two fatal, or at least untenable extremes. In the case before us, these extremes may be presented in a form analogous to that adopted in the verse just cited. The essence of the figure there employed consists in the antithesis between a shadow and the image or defined form by which it is cast. As the latter can, in this connection, only mean the full view of divine truth presented in the Christian revelation, and the shadow the comparative condition of the ancient church or dispensation with respect to this same truth, so the characteristic or specific difference of the two extremes to be avoided may be stated under the same figures of an "image" and its "shadow," and of their mutual relation to each other. The first is the error of denying that the church of the Old Testament had either the "image" or the "shadow" of New Testament doctrine in possession. According to this view of the matter, the Jewish religion is a system by itself having no connection, beyond that of local origin and chronological succession with the Christian system, so that all attempts to trace the latter in the former are mere fanciful refinements and ingenious combinations of things really distinct and independent of each other, not unlike but heterogeneous and incongruous. This is a natural belief in those who deny the inspiration of both Testaments. The infidel caviller or sceptical interpreter, who really believes the Bible to be just as much a product of the human mind, and just as little a divine revelation, as any other work of genius, cannot of course be expected to acknowledge a prospective reference, of any kind whatever, in the Hebrew Scriptures to the books of the New Testament, or in the opinions of the ancient Jews to the subsequent developments of Christian doctrine. The same thing is true, in a less degree, of those who consider Christianity a new religion, and deny its connection with Judaism altogether. Such there are even among these who acknowledge the divine authority, if not the divinity, of Jesus Christ, and profess to receive the religion of which he is the founder and to which he gives his name, as a heaven--descended doctrine, and a means of regeneration to the human race. This form of opinion may be rare among ourselves, but it exists, and where it does exist, the denial of all kindred between Christianity and Judaism may he reasonably looked for. It is more surprising and more dangerous in those who acknowledge the divine authority of both. It might seem impossible that such should entertain the views in question: but the fact is certain, that a whole school of critics and interpreters, distinguished for their learning and ability, and professing themselves champions for the equal inspiration of all Scripture, have expended an immense amount of time and toil and misplaced ingenuity in trying to demonstrate that the greet end of the old dispensation was to keep the Jews as ignorant as possible, and therefore of course without even a "shadow" of the truths to he disclosed when "the fulness of time" was come. This hypothesis may be refuted by the prospective and preparatory character ascribed tn the old economy in the New Testament. The patriarchs and prophets are there often represented as continually looking forward. The habitual attitude of the ancient church or chosen people is described as one of expectation. There is scarcely an allusion to the Hebrew Scriptures, by our Lord or his Apostles, which is not made for the very purpose of connecting something in the old state of things with something in the new, as really related to each other, both in purpose and in fact, thereby fully verifying Paul's description of the law as "our schoolmaster (...) to bring us unto Christ," (Gal. iii. 24). This description is confirmed by the peculiar features of the old economy itself. Everything there is in itself unfinished and almost unmeaning. History, prophecy, and legislation all require a key to unlock their enigmas. The theocracy, the ceremonial law, the social state, the very worship of the ancient Hebrews, all these are inchoate, and unless prospective in their bearing, worthless. How large a part of what they mean to us is furnished from our actual possession of what they expected, or of what their temporary institutions were intended to prepare them for. It is also refuted by the large, clear, and elevated views of certain fundamental truths, disclosed in the Old Testament, not merely as compared with heathenism, but with the Christian revelation. The being and unity of God, his power and his sovereignty, his wisdom and his goodness in the general, the responsibility and guilt of man were as clear to the ancient Jews as to the most enlightened Christian, except so far as they derive an incidental illustration from the person and the work of Christ. Are these the views which would of course be entertained by those whom God designed to keep in a state of infantile ignorance until the very time of Christ's appearing? It is disproved by the moral effects of the Old Testament revelation on all who understandingly and heartily received it. Not only was Israel, as a nation, vastly superior in moral elevation to the world around, but the personal character of those who stand forth in the history as types and representatives of Israel, is marked by the same essential qualities which naturally spring from the reception of the Christian faith, not merely as a system of belief, but as a rule of life and standard of perfection. Can this elevation be the fruit of ignorance, or merely negative exemption from the grossness of contemporary heathenism? Is it not rather an internal proof that the two religions, and the only two which concur in their moral effects, were designed from the first to be harmonious parts of the same great remedial and regenerative system? It is disproved by the perfect harmony of its spirit and essential doctrines with tho highest and purest Christian experience. This is really the same fact viewed from a different point of observation. As the moral effects of the old revelation on its genuine recipients, so far as they went, were a kind of inward and experimental prophecy of what was afterwards to be accomplished in the hearts and lives of men by Christianity itself; so the actual experience of Christians now enables them to sympathize completely with that of old believers, as differing only in enlargement and in definiteness from their own, and as furnishing expressions of devout affection, which neither the New Testament nor the aggregate experience of the Christian world has yet surpassed or superseded. This experimental evidence of oneness, however vague and intangible it may appear to many, would to others, even in the absence of external proofs, serve as a refutation of the first extreme of error which we are considering.

The other extreme is that of alleging that the Church of the Old Testament possessed the entire body of truth revealed in the New Testament, merely covered with a thin external veil, which they could easily remove at pleasure. Their views of the divine mercy, and of the way in which it could and would be exercised, of Christ's person and twofold nature and atoning work, of the Spirit's influence, and even of the new organization of the Church, were all fully imparted to them under emblematical forms, which they were not only able, but bound to understand correctly. The source and spirit of this error are totally unlike, or rather diametrically opposite to those of the one already mentioned. That may be ultimately traced to doubt, if not to unbelief of the divine authority, either of Scripture generally, or at least of the Old Testament. This has its rise in zeal for the honour of that very part of revelation, and an anxious wish to wipe off the aspersions of sceptical impiety or latitudinarian indifference. It is often found connected therefore with a high degree of reverence and faith, and is in this respect as unlike the opposite extreme as possible. Yet they generate each other by a mutual reaction. It is matter of history, not only that this zeal for the honour of divine revelation has been frequently excited by the doubts or the indifference of less scrupulous interpreters, but also that these doubts and this indifference have sometimes been produced or aggravated by the revulsion both of taste and judgment from the exaggerated form and ill-advised defence of doctrines in themselves unquestionably true, and susceptible of an unanswerable vindication. By avoiding each of these extremes, therefore, we diminish the danger of the other. This is indeed a general reason for eschewing all exaggeration and extravagance, even in defending what is true, or in opposing what is false, to wit, that by transcending the just limits of a wise and conscientious moderation, we expose ourselves and others to the twofold risk of the immediate errors towards which our exaggeration verges, and of the opposite extreme, to which it naturally tends by subsequent reaction. Thus, all erratic and disorderly efforts to promote religion, however good the motive, tend not only to fanatical excitement as the proximate result, but to the ulterior result of apathy and spiritual deadness, which is almost sure to follow it. So too, a sceptical neglect of the Old Testament may spring at least remotely from an overstrained attempt to do it honour.

This second error, although infinitely better than the other, is still an error, and as such, admits of refutation. Such refutation it may be said to have received experimentally, or practically, in the endless diversity and contradiction which results from the attempt to carry out this theory in its details. Beyond a few indisputable types and symbols, which are so clear that they explain themselves, no application of the principle has ever met with general, much less with universal, acquiescence. But surely that which wise and learned Christians, with the full blare of gospel light to aid them, cannot now decypher to their common satisfaction, could hardly have been read aright by ancient saints with no such advantages. It renders wholly unaccountable the long delay of Christ's appearance. However difficult it may be fully to account for this delay on any supposition, the difficulty is undoubtedly increased by the hypothesis in question. If the world was ready for a full exhibition of the doctrine of salvation under enigmatical but easily intelligible forms, it must have been still more ready for the clear annunciation of the same truth. If the truth imparted was the same in either case, and the difference only in the mode of presentation, then the old revelation required or presupposed a higher intellectual condition than the new; for it is certainly a higher exercise of mind to solve a riddle than to understand its meaning when propounded explicitly. But, as we have already seen, the Scriptures represent the old dispensation as the state of infancy or pupilage, and the new as that of maturity or manhood. If any truth is clearly taught in the New Testament, both indirectly and directly, it is, that the law in the wide sense, was preparatory to the gospel. We may not be able to perceive the necessity of any preparation, or to explain how it was effected, but admitting the fact, it is impossible to doubt that the preparatory process was intended to conduct the Church and the world, not from a higher to a lower, but from a lower to it higher state of intellectual and doctrinal illumination. But this relation is inverted by the theory in question, which moreover, leads to a confusion of the temporary with the permanent part of the old dispensation. The possibility and danger of this issue, are apparent from the history of the Jews themselves. Not only the ungodly, carnal members of the ancient church fell into this error, but even the most spiritual and enlightened seem to have betrayed at least a tendency to cling to what was temporary in the system under which they lived, as permanently binding and intrinsically efficacious, even after it had done its work and fully carried out the design of its existence. This was in fact the very delusion which occasioned the rejection of Messiah, not merely by the populace, but by their spiritual guides and rulers. Such a mistake is now impossible, unless occasioned by the theory in question. It consequently tends to a Judaizing form of Christianity. Under the influence of this belief, no wonder that whole bodies of sincere and devout Christians have imagined themselves bound to reinstate the law of Moses as a code of civil polity, or to re-enact the extirpation of the Canaanites on modern enemies of God, and of themselves. We wonder that industrious and acute interpreters of prophecy should, even in our own day, give a local and material sense to some of the most spiritual promises of Scripture, and in some cases cherish the revolting expectation not only of ceremonial forms, but of bloody offerings in the Church hereafter. To complete the argument against this doctrine, it may be separately stated, although really involved in what has been already said, that it robs the Christian revelation of its glory, by virtually making it superfluous. If all that is openly revealed in the New Testament was covertly communicated in the Old, nothing more would seem to have been necessary than to lift or take away the veil that covered it. But how does such a change as this resemble that described in Scripture as a total revolution in the outward condition of the Church, to be wrought, and actually wrought by the advent of Messiah? Is this the new heaven and the new earth, the making of all things new, which, both in prophecy and gospel, is presented as essential to the change of dispensations?

The only safe and satisfactory position is the intermediate one, that the ancient Church had "a shadow of good things to come, but not the very image of the things." Let us use the clew afforded by these natural and striking figures to thread the mazes of the labyrinth in which we are involved by human speculation. That such comparisons do not hold good beyond a certain point, implies that up to that point they do, and is a reason for employing them, when they are not mere suggestions of fancy, but dictates of inspiration. The general relation of the old dispensation to the new, is that of a "shadow" to the "image" which produces it. The difference intended is only in the fulness and distinctness of the view. If the apostle had intended to contrast the unsubstantial with the real, he would have placed the shadow in opposition to the solid body, and not merely to the image, or distinctly defined form, considered as an object not of touch but of vision. The truth suggested by this figure therefore is not that the ancients were excluded from salvation, or that when saved they were saved in any other way than we are--either without faith or by faith in any other object, but that their perception of this object, although equally genuine, was less distinct, and bore the same relation to the view now afforded of the same great object, that the contemplation of a shadow bears to that of the distinct form which it represents. Now, a shadow presupposes light; there can be no shadow in total darkness. The word may be used as a poetical expression for darkness itself; but its sense here is determined by its antithetical relation to the image or defined form which produces it. That this may cast a shadow, it must be exposed to light. It is implied therefore in the use of this figure that the old economy was not a state of total darkness upon moral and religious subjects, but that much of the same light now enjoyed by us was even then diffused among the chosen people. A shadow also presupposes the existence of a solid body, which produces and determines it. By so describing the condition of the Jews under the law, the sacred writer teaches us that the ancient ceremonies, though prescribed by divine authority, were not meant to terminate in themselves, or to be valued for their own sake, but on account of their prospective bearing upon something to be afterwards revealed. A shadow furthermore implies a particular relative position of the body, and the interception of the light by means of it. It is not merely the existence of the substance that is necessarily implied in this description, but such a distance and position of it, with respect both to the light and the spectator, as would east a shadow visible to him. However real and substantial the "very image" of the gospel might be, it could cost no shadow to the eye of old believers, unless within their general field of vision, and unless so situated as to intercept the light which we enjoy without obstruction. The very nature of a shadow precludes the representation of colour and of all details but those of outline. The notion therefore that the law revealed to the saints of the Old Testament the whole congeries of Christian doctrines, with their nice distinctions and their mutual relations, is at variance with the very nature of the figure here employed to represent it. The idea meant to be conveyed is not that what is now seen clearly was then covered by a veil; for this is not true of a shadow. No increase of light or removal of integuments can change a shadow to a substance, or even to an image in the sense before explained. Shadows differ in their depth, i.e. in the degree to which the general circumambient light is intercepted. This depends upon the nature and formation of the body which is shadowed forth. It may also depend on the degree of light allowed to shine upon it. Two trees planted side by side, and of the same dimensions, may cast shadows altogether different in density, according to the thickness of their foliage. So the light of revelation may he said to have left some parts of the Christian system less concealed than others from the view of the Old Testament believer.

A shadow may convey more of the substance to one person than to another, recording to difference of position, eye-sight, attention and imagination. A blind man can see nothing. A man half blind, whether by nature, or disease, or accident, may see but half as much even of a shadow as a man of sound and piercing vision. The same is true of one whose back is partially or wholly turned upon the object; or whose thoughts are occupied with something else, compared with one whose mind is exclusively engrossed by that which is before him, and his eye fixed directly and intently on it. These obvious analogies allow for an indefinite diversity of clearness and distinctness in the views of those who lived under the same twilight dispensation, and who looked upon the self-same "shadow of good things to come." In comparing our own retrospective views of these same shadows with the aspect they presented to the ancient saints, we must not forget that the shadow of a familiar object must convey more than the shadow of one totally unknown; that as the faintest sketch of a familiar face, or the shadow cast by a familiar form is often clothed by memory and imagination with all the attributes of shape, size, countenance, air, walk and even dress belonging to the real object, so the Christian's long familiarity with all the precious doctrines of salvation may throw back such a flood of light upon the partial disclosures of the darker dispensation, as to make it for a moment seem superior to his own, because it adds to the simple substance of the latter, the dramatic pomp of ceremonial rites and symbols. But let such remember that the most expressive shadow must be less satisfactory than a clear view of the body which produces it, and cannot rationally be preferred to it. Instead of sighing for the return of what is past for ever, or attempting to amalgamate discordant elements intended always to exist apart, let us thank God that in this sense also, we are not "of the night" but of the day; that to us "the darkness is past and the true light now shineth"; that to us the Son and Spirit, the cross, the throne of grace, the gate of heaven, are no longer "shadows," but defined forms and substantial realities. And while we tremble at the new responsibility attending this increase of light, and, at the "deep damnation" which awaits the obstinate rejection or abuse of it, let the happy change which has already been experienced by the church excite and cherish an avowed hope of good things yet to come, of which the present is in some sense but a shadow, a still more glorious change that yet awaits her and the humblest of her faithful children, when "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, nor any more pain, because the former things are passed away, and he that sits upon the throne hath said, Behold, I make all things new!"


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