I remember with amusement my weekday morning routine as a child. Since the school bus arrived at 7:40 am, I would have to be dressed and at the kitchen table by 7:25 am for breakfast. Ugh. It was like going to the dentist . . . every morning! However, there was one redeeming aspect inherent in the routine—the cereal box. The box was so captivating that I and my siblings would usually quarrel over whose turn it was to take possession of it as we ate our breakfasts.
What was the allure? Sometimes the box served as a convenient wall to shield against the glares of those same siblings. But often it was the games and riddles printed on the backs of those boxes. I especially liked the word puzzles that required decrypting. The challenge was to crack the riddle without the help of the key, which was usually found at the bottom of the bag of cereal inside the box. Although I found the games far more stimulating than my classes at school, I cannot say that my record as a wannabe codebreaker was that inspiring.
The concept of coded language is not limited to children’s riddles printed on the back of breakfast cereal boxes. It is often assumed in the reading of Scripture itself—particularly of the Old Testament. For example, a surprising number of Christians approach the Old Testament as if it is partly—if not mostly—unintelligible apart from a decoder key. While readers may try to guess at its real meaning, that meaning cannot be confidently known apart from the decryption provided by the New Testament. This assumption is expressed by the popular refrain, “You can’t rightly understand the Old Testament without the New and you can’t rightly understand the New Testament without the Old. The Bible is one cohesive story.” For some, the saying even functions as a shibboleth for a high view of Scripture.
But does this refrain truly advance a deep reverence for God’s word? A careful examination of the wording reveals reasons to be cautious.
What the Statement Gets Right
To evaluate the statement, let us consider its three assertions—two of which unquestionably affirm a high view of Scripture.
- We can begin with the final assertion of the saying: “The Bible is one cohesive story.” Indeed, from beginning to end, the sixty-six books of Scripture—written by at least forty men of differing times, backgrounds, and cultures—provide a unified witness to the character of God, the nature and consequences of sin, the means of salvation, the exclusivity of the Savior, and the glory of God. As John MacArthur states, “It is one book. It has one plan of grace, recorded from initiation, through execution, to consummation. From predestination to glorification, the Bible is the story of God redeeming his chosen people for the praise of his glory.” This cohesiveness is due to the fact that the Scriptures ultimately originate in God (2 Tim 3:16), and because of this, as Charles Hodges asserts, “it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture.”
At the same time, the “cohesive” nature of the Bible’s contents should not be understood as though both Testaments, each of their books, or every chapter repeats the very same knowledge about God, sin, salvation, the Savior, or glory from beginning to end. On the contrary, each text of Scripture makes its own unique contribution to this unified storyline. Each pericope has its own role to play. There is a beautiful diversity in Scripture, ranging from its variations in literary types to its variations in revelatory focus to its variations in the styles of its human writers to its variations in the way its portions respond to the needs of the original recipients.
Therefore, we must reject the notion that the propositions of Scripture are true only if they are abundantly repeated. The truthfulness of a divine revelation is neither enhanced nor diminished based on the number of times it is restated. Even if God reveals something just once it is enough to be believed and obeyed. Furthermore, we must resist the impulse to flatten out Scripture’s contents to make it nicely into a prefabricated form. Certain portions of Scripture will emphasize truths found nowhere else. Such peculiarities are not contradictions; nor do they betray a weakness.
- We can wholeheartedly affirm another portion of this refrain: “you can’t rightly understand the New Testament without the Old.” God not only revealed His knowledge through dozens of human writers, He did so over a vast period stretching from Moses (who wrote the Pentateuch between 1445 and 1405 bc) to the Apostle John (who wrote Revelation around ad 96). God unfolded His truth progressively (Heb 1:1-2), meaning that He began with basic truths and furnished them with detail and development over time.
But the amplification and development provided in later portions in no way create disagreement with the earlier ones. Neither does progress imply that a mutation in meaning has occurred. Analogous to the construction of a house, progressive revelation begins with the foundation and expands upward, but no part of the ongoing construction changes the essence of the original foundation. Concrete piles remain concrete; they do not morph into iron—even after the windows, shingles, and siding has been added! As Robert Thomas explained,
Progress in divine revelation is quite apparent in tracing through the books of the Old and New Testaments chronologically, but “progress” in the sense only of adding to what has already been revealed, not in any sense of a change of previous revelation. To change the substance of something already written is not “progress”; it is an “alteration” or “change” that raises questions about the credibility of the text’s original meaning.
Consequently, the New Testament—like the top floor of a house—is directly dependent upon the Old Testament—which is the foundation. A reader cannot adequately understand it unless he reads from the beginning, with a forward-looking approach. The Old Testament must have priority, not in terms of preference or appreciation, but in terms of an epistemological starting point. There must be a forward reading approach to comprehend successfully the progressing storyline contained in Scripture. Yes, let the reader understand: you cannot rightly understand the New Testament without the Old.
Where the Statement Goes Wrong
It is the first part of the refrain that contains the problem: “You can’t rightly understand the Old Testament without the New.” Taken at face value, the statement implies that the knowledge revealed in the Old Testament remained necessarily hidden, obscure, or otherwise unintelligible until the full contents of the New Testament canon were not only recorded by the designated human writers but also recognized as Scripture by the early church. In other words, until the Apostle John finished the last words of the book of Revelation, and until that revelation was made known to believers of the New Testament era, Christians were not adequately equipped to interpret the knowledge revealed in the Old Testament. Only once the final word had been recorded could readers interpret the Old Testament adequately, using a backward reading, New Testament priority approach. This conviction is reflected in the argument of Michael Lawrence when he writes,
We need to remember that revelation is progressive, and in the revelation of Jesus Christ, we’ve been given both the main point and the end of the story. This means that we have an advantage over Old Testament readers. We work from the story of the whole Bible back to the prophecy, not the other way around. . . . Therefore the New Testament determines the ultimate meaning of Old Testament prophecy, not the other way around.
What challenges does this assertion introduce to a high view of Scripture? There are several:
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New undermines the ministries of the Old Testament prophets—the very mouthpieces of this revelation. If their words were not understandable until the New Testament was complete, they would have been the first to not understand, misunderstand, or generally miss the point of the words of the Lord that came directly to them. It lessens the significance of the blood spilled by the earliest prophet of the Old Testament, Abel, to its last prophet, Zechariah, the son of Berechiah (Matt 23:34–36) in their effort to communicate the words of God. Could they understand what were they paying for with their lives if they did not understand their own messages?
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New minimizes personal responsibility on the part of the original recipients of the Old Testament texts. If the Old Testament on its own merit was obscure, its authority to bind the conscience, render its readers without excuse, and provide its recipients with knowledge of redemption was necessarily limited. This not only calls into question the severe judgments God prescribed for disobedience in Old Testament times, but it throws into doubt the profundity of the faith of Old Testament saints.
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New diminishes the apologetic value of Old Testament prophecy. While many references could be made, the logic of Isaiah 40–48 is particularly important as Yahweh compares Himself repeatedly with the false gods of the nations. Central to the argument of Yahweh’s incomparability is His ability to speak clearly through His prophets, and in particular, to make predictions that come to pass exactly as stated. For example, Isaiah 45:18b–19 states, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right.” This whole argument is thrown into disrepute if God, in the Old Testament, was speaking in darkness.
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New contradicts Jesus’ assumptions that His audiences should understand the Old Testament—and these assumptions were made well before the first books of the New Testament were even written and even, in many cases, before His work of redemption had been completed. He repeatedly castigates the religious leaders of His day by asking, “Have you not read?” “Have you not read in the Law?,” or “Did you never read in the Scriptures?” (e.g., Matt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:6, 42; 22:31). He even calls His disciples “foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). Jesus explicitly lays the blame for this misunderstanding at the feet of His followers; He never suggests the fault was the obscurity or temporary inaccessibility of the prophets’ writings.
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New undermines how the New Testament writers so often cite or allude to the Old Testament without commentary or qualification. True, there are several instances where New Testament writers use the Old Testament in ways that challenge modern interpreters, but these are by far a minority of cases. Like the Apostle Paul in Berea, the New Testament writers reference the Old Testament in ways that allow for simple, straightforward examination “to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New gives an excuse for shoddy Old Testament exegesis. When the interpreter assumes that the New Testament must be read back into the Old Testament text, that the Old Testament text will be misleading if it is not interpreted through a New Testament prism, he inevitably diverts his attention away from that Old Testament text to the New Testament. In that case, priority is given to the New Testament not only in terms of an epistemological starting point but also in terms of preference. Moreover, it pushes the interpreter closer and closer toward allegorical forms of interpretation, wherein the Old Testament text is spiritualized to make it repeat exactly that which is stated in the New.
- That the Old Testament could not be understood without the New is not even consistently held by proponents of this refrain. In all fairness, many who repeat this saying actually produce quality exegesis in Old Testament texts without ever reading the New Testament back into their texts. So why then the assertion? It is not really about the Old Testament in general, but only about certain parts—particularly, about the prophecies concerning the future of Israel. An illustration of this can be seen in the esteemed Old Testament professor, E. J. Young. Much of his exegesis of Old Testament texts reflects a forward-reading approach. He interprets many Old Testament texts—especially narrative texts and even prophetic texts related to the Messiah’s first advent—according to their historical and literary context. But when he comes to prophecies concerning the nation of Israel and the Messiah’s second advent, his approach changes. He explains as much in his classic work, My Servants the Prophets:
Since the revelation granted to the prophets was less clear than that given to Moses; indeed, since it contained elements of obscurity, we must consider these facts when interpreting prophecy. We must therefore abandon once and for all the erroneous and non-Scriptural rule of “literal if possible.” The prophetic language belonged to the Mosaic economy and hence, was typical. Only in the light of the New Testament fulfillment can it properly be interpreted.
But when such an approach is taken it raises a question fundamental to a high view of Scripture: “How can the integrity of the OT text be maintained? In what sense can the OT really be called a revelation in its original meaning?”
Therefore, the next time you hear the refrain, “You can’t rightly understand the Old Testament without the New and you can’t rightly understand the New Testament without the Old; the Bible is one cohesive story,” think carefully through each assertion. Consider their implications. Treating the Old Testament as a riddle and the New Testament as its decoding key may be intriguing, but it posits many significant challenges for a high view of Scripture that is consistent.
 John MacArthur, “Introduction to the Bible,” in The MacArthur Study Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), xii.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1873), 187.
 See Brad Klassen, “Premillennialism and Hermeneutics,” Master’s Seminary Journal 29, no. 2 (Fall 2018), 137–45.
 Robert L. Thomas, “The Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism,” Master’s Seminary Journal 6, no. 2 (Spring 1992), 90 n. 47. In the words of Article V of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive. We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it.”
 Some attribute this saying to Augustine. The closest wording in Augustine that this writer has found is as follows: “To the Old Testament belongs more fear just as to the New Testament more delight; nevertheless in the Old Testament the New lies hid, and in the New Testament the Old is exposed” (Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, VII 2.73).
 Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 49.
 Edward J. Young, My Servants the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1952), 215 n. 21.
 Paul D. Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 116.