Old Testament Law…What did that say?

Within the context of the Old Testament covenants and New Testament understandings, there comes a conflict when Gentiles and Christian Jews attempt to discern whether the Levitical and Deuteronical laws apply in the new faith and new covenant through Jesus Christ.  It is this conflict that J. Daniel Hays attempts to resolve in his essay “Applying the Old Testament Law Today.”  Hays points out (correctly) that the inter-weaving of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws prohibit an outright categorization based on locale of the scripture.  Hays puts forth a suggested new approach, which he calls “principlism” to help Christians ascertain which elements of the Law pertain to modern life.

The Traditional Approach & Principlism

In his essay, Hays summarizes what he refers to as a “traditional approach” as a categorization of the 613 laws based on whether or not the law falls into one of the three areas listed above.  The problem herein lies with some laws that might bridge that gap.  Hays references Exodus 20:8 in which the Lord declares to “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” (NIV)  The question is whether or not this law is ceremonial or moral.  As a part of the Ten Commandments, many believe this to be a universal, moral law.  If that is the case then, most Christians are in violation of this law.

In addition to verses that bridge gaps in the Old Testament law, Hayes argues that when using a traditional approach to interpreting the law and applying it to our modern world, we omit several factors that include the Law’s place within the narrative of the Old Testament and the theological context of the Law.  When we interpret the law for our purposes, we must remember that these legal, ceremonial and moral laws were given to a nation that was to be a theocracy.  Secular governmental laws override many of the edicts given by God within the text of the Pentateuch.

Hays’ “principlism” then is a point of view that, while intriguing, has its own strengths and weaknesses.  In strength, it places much more emphasis on the intent of the law (principle), than on the letter of the law.  Whereby one might traditionally say that most of the Law would not have application today, through “principlism” we can find meaning in the Law and apply it to our lives.  In weakness, what Hays has done is open the text up to a myriad of interpretations by various theologians who could potentially have a myriad of views on these topics.  Hays does put forth a five-step approach to accomplishing this task; even still there may be too wide an opening for liberal interpretation when it comes to concrete teachings from God.

New Understanding

I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Mosaic Law as a Christian; not knowing how to interpret the verses in the New Testament that pertain to whether or not the Law should be obeyed.  It is possible, however, that given the context of the time in which the New Testament writers were authoring scripture one might offer forbearance to the vague approach to the Law.  Seeing that the Jewish leadership had been segmented into multiple groups (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.) who all interpreted their own law very differently, it is easy to understand that the writers of the New Testament didn’t address the Law in specificity but rather in more vague terms.

In one particular instance, Peter is given a vision from Heaven in which all kinds of unclean animals were offered to him.  Peter, being the good Jew that he is resists, but the voice tells him that God has made all things clean:

11He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.  13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

Acts 10:11-16 (NIV)

What is interesting here is that Peter protests initially, then is rebuked by the voice from heaven, but the does NOT partake of the animals of which were offered.  Some theologians have argued this is absolutely a permission by God to eat any kind of animal and that the Levitical dietary laws no longer apply.  Others have argued that the animals on the sheet actually represent Gentiles, and that Peter should not be afraid to go to them (as Cornelius’ men are at the door).

Applying Principlism

In one text in Deuteronomy, we can see “principlism” at work in our application of the first part of this law (verse 10), but we can also see a traditional approach as appropriate.

9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God.

Deuteronomy 18:9-13

In the first half of the 10th verse, we see a command from God to not allow people to live among you who would sacrifice their children. Using Hayes’ “principlism” approach further, we can also determine the following things; that there were going to be (and there were) people living in Canaan who did these practices, and that the Israelites were going to have to “kick them out.” In a “principlism” context, this part of the law might be interpreted differently than the absolute text given in the following verses.  While you would have a very difficult time finding parents in this modern world who burn their children as sacrifices, we do see rampant abortion, child pornography, molestation, and prostitution.  In the context of “principlism,” we absolutely could apply this text from Deuteronomy to the modern world.

What Hayes might call the “Universal Principle” of this text is that we should not sacrifice our children’s well being for any purpose.  In America today we can see this very behavior; that parents will work an inordinate amount of hours to make a comfortable living all the while neglecting the children who have been given them for blessing.  Jesus taught in Luke chapter 19 that children should not be hindered from coming to him; He says flatly “do not forbid them.” (KJV)  This is the emphasis Jesus puts on the children, that they are valuable and to be valued.  What we, as Christians must do is endeavor to value children highly, and do not turn them away.

In looking at the remainder of this law in a more traditional way, we as Christians learn to abstain and keep distance from those who practice the occult.  This pertains to fortune telling, astrological fortunes or signs, palm-readings, Ouija Boards, etc.  What God (through Moses) told the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan River was this, “keep away from the stuff, it is bad and will cause you harm.”  In our modern society, we can see the affects of these occult practices on a daily basis.  Canadian Pastor Jim Reimer wrote in 2009:

“Whether it is innocent exploration or appealing fascination, delving into spiritualism can be dangerous and destructive. Seeking the advice of a fortuneteller, psychics, horoscopes or Ouija boards can bring confusion, fear, and guilt to the seeker as they try to make sense out of cryptic messages. The knowledge presented is only partial and can be easily misunderstood by the presenter or by the one seeking guidance.”

Pastor Reimer is absolutely correct; the knowledge is only partial and furthermore is the same lie that Satan has been telling since his encounter with Eve in the Garden of Eden.  This is Satan’s first lie; “…your eyes will be opened…” (Genesis 3:5) or as some have called it, secret knowledge.


While Hays’ essay is solid and his reasoning is sound on the idea of applying “principlism” to the Old Testament law, the approach does have weaknesses, especially when given to those who do not have a firm grasp on theology, or the context of the scriptures themselves.  In Hays’ defense however, his approach does lay out a framework for interpretation that stringently holds to the idea that we can still apply he laws of the Pentateuch in today’s world and that it certainly has not passed from relevancy.


Whalen, Clinton. “Peter’s Vision and Conflicting Definitions of Purity.” New Testament Studies 51, no. 04 (2005): 505-518.

Hays, J. Daniel. “Applying the Old Testament Law Today.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (2001): 21-35.

Reimer, Jim. “What Spirit Is It.” Nelson Daily News, October 30, 2009, Final ed.