This is a critique by Dr. Russell Earl Kelly of an article by J Daniel Hays, Applying the Old Testament Law Today, from the January-March 2001 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra 158, pages 21-35. J. Daniel Hays (THM Dallas; PHD SWBTS) is now Dean at the Pruett School of Christian Studies. His original full article can be found without restrictions at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_law_hays.html. Kelly:
This is a difficult critique to because so much of the material sounds very good at first glance. The overall article is excellent, especially what is said about the traditional hermeneutic which is terribly flawed but probably used by most pastors today.

The title of the article by J. Daniel Hays is Applying the Old Testament Law Today and question to be answered is How should Christians apply the Old Testament Law?

As a Dispensationalist theologian (whether traditional, revised, or progressive) my answer is (1) to keep it simple and (2) only focus on those laws which are clearly repeated or restated in the New Testament after Calvary to the church. That is what God has given us in the pages of the New Testament and it contains the whole gospel. Most Christians cannot even begin to assimilate this information – much less begin to apply and assimilate the complicated 5 steps presented by Hays.

Again, Hays’ answer to the question, How should Christians apply the Old Testament Law?, is (1) for both the pastor and layman to follow his own five step complicated procedure, (2) to determine which eternal moral principle is beneath every single Old Covenant Law, (3) and to bring that principle into the New Covenant. This assumes (1) that every Old Covenant Law indeed has an eternal moral principle beneath it, (2) that God expects all Christians to be able to do the research necessary to perform the task objectively, and (3) that every Old Covenant Law should be brought into the New Covenant in such a manner. In contrast to the Dispensational hermeneutic, Hays thinks that the Christians should apply, not only that which God has specifically repeated and restated to the Church [the Dispensational hermeneutic], but also that which he thinks must underlie every single law. The task is monumental and impossible for the average Christian without a theological degree. It could even discourage Bible study as requiring too much.

Hays: “Paul does not generally base his moral teaching on this foundation [of the Ten Commandments] but on the nature of the gospel, the guidance of the Spirit, and the practice of the churches.”

Kelly: When Paul quotes the Ten Commandments, he uses them in the New Covenant context as what the new-creation-in-Christ will do spontaneously and not as a series of “thou shalt not” commands. I do not understand what is meant by the “practice of the churches,” Paul (who is inspired) simply re-applies the Law in the New Covenant context.

Hays: Matthew 5:17: First, the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refers to the entire Old Testament.”

Kelly: I agree and add the Dispensational hermeneutic stresses that the Law was an indivisible whole as Jesus said in Matthew 5:18-19.

Hays: Jesus was not stating that the Law is eternally binding on New Testament believers. … but that He came to fulfill its righteous demands.

Kelly: Hays’ statement is moot. Jesus’ statement to Jews while the law was still in full force had no hint of its end before Calvary in any sense.

Hays: Jesus fulfilled all the righteous demands and all the prophetic foreshadowing of the Law and of the Prophets.

Kelly: I agree but Hays will subsequently say that every single law did have an eternal moral principle beneath it which Christians should “determine” and obey. I also add that the Dispensation hermeneutic is that Jesus was not even speaking to “New Testament believers” during the Sermon on the Mount. He was speaking to fellow Jews about how life will be during the millennial kingdom of God on earth. The Law was still in full effect since this was before Calvary. In fact Jesus correctly urged obedience to all of the law as in Matthew 5:23-24 — yes, all of the law. To do otherwise before Calvary would have been sin.

Hays: Jesus was the final Interpreter of the Law.

Kelly: Agreed, but before Calvary Jesus only interpreted in the context which the law itself allowed. Jesus was still obligated as a Jew under the jurisdiction of the Law to teach total compliance to it. I think that Hays does not agree and is confused on this point; he has seriously erred here and in the subsequent comments about Matthew 5.

Hays: Jesus restated some of the Old Testament laws (19:18-19), but some He modified (5:31-32). Some He intensified (5:21-22, 27-28), and others He changed significantly (5:33-37, 38-42, 43-47). Some laws He abrogated entirely (Mark 7:15-19).”

Kelly: Sound good, but NO! My second most serious disagreement with Hays in this article is over this statement which is in line with Hays’ overall presentation.(1) Hays has totally ignored Jesus’ own explanation of 5:17 in 5:19 “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”(2) When Hays says that Jesus has “changed significantly” and “abrogated entirely” the law of God BEFORE CALVARY, he has placed Jesus among “the least in the kingdom of heaven” from 5:19.(3) Seriously consider this. It would have been sin for any Jew, including Jesus, to change or abrogate the Law of God before Calvary. Yes or no? Right or wrong?(4) So what do we do with instances where Jesus appears to have changed or abrogated the law before Calvary? Like it or not, we are forced to conclude that the Law itself was flexible enough to include what Jesus said in its interpretation. This flexibility is clearly seen in the various schools and rabbis. One cannot simply abandon the hermeneutic of 5:19 and historical context and say that Jesus was abrogating portions of the law! This was before Calvary! Nowhere did Peter or Paul confirm that Jesus taught contrary to total law-obedience before Calvary. (5) The divorce laws (5:31-32) exhibited the letter of the law and not its spirit. One was not compelled to divorce but could always offer mercy and forgive. Why doesn’t Hays apply his own “eternal principle” here and see that God does permanently put away Israel under the law because of adultery?(6) Concerning oaths (5:33-37), that which God allowed under the Law is not necessarily that which God preferred. (7) Likewise, the “eye for an eye” law (5:38-39) was the extreme letter of the law. One could decide to forgive and offer mercy even under the Law.(8) Concerning what defiles a man in Mark 7:15-19, it is incredible for a trained theologian to infer that Jesus was approving the eating of unclean food before Calvary. His disciples did not grab a ham sandwich. His opponents would have showed no mercy if they had thus understood him. It is obvious that Jesus was discussing that which defiles the very heart of man, his soul. The literal law was but a type of the spirit of the law and many Jews understood such. Instead of “abrogating entirely” any portion of the law before Calvary, Jesus correctly taught its always-current spiritual extension and application within the paradigm of that law.

Hays: Jesus was not advocating the continuation of the traditional Jewish approach of adherence to the Law.

Kelly: The traditional approach was to follow the letter of the law and ignore its spiritual application. The letter of the law was never what God preferred.

Hays: Nor was He advocating that the Law be dismissed altogether.

Kelly: In error Hays seems to think that Jesus could dismiss part of the law. Again (and I cannot emphasize this enough), to advocate dismissing any of it before Calvary would have been sin (Mt 5:19) and Jesus remained sinless (Gal 4:4-5).

Hays: Jesus was proclaiming that the meaning of the Law must be interpreted in light of His coming and in light of the profound changes introduced by the New Covenant.

Kelly: This is only true as long as it stays in the context of 5:19 and the spirit of the law. The changes would only come after the blood of the New Covenant had been shed. Jesus made no mention of New Covenant changes. He was within proper bounds of law-interpreters expanding the letter of the law into the spirit of the law.

Hays: The Law is tied to the Mosaic Covenant, which is integrally connected to Israel’s life in the land …

Kelly: This is a solid Dispensational hermeneutic.

Hays: Christians are not related to that land, nor are they related to the conditions for being blessed in the land.

Kelly: In other words, Christians are not related to the Old Covenant Law because it was the conditions of being blessed in the land. Another good Dispensational hermeneutic.

Hays: Also the Mosaic Covenant is obsolete, having been replaced by the New Covenant. Therefore the Mosaic Law, a critical component of the Old Covenant, is not valid as law over believers in the church age.

Kelly: Good dispensational theology. It is only good as examples and teaching aids. But then Hays teaches that we should discover the moral principle behind every single O.T. law and bring it into the New Covenant. Eh Bible does not command us to do that.


Kelly: The following discussion is the reason for this article. It is the answer to Hays’ question How should Christians apply the law? And Hays’ overall answer is “Apply all of it and not just that which God has restated and repeated to the church. Dig real deep. Determine the underlying moral principle behind each and every law and apply it to the church in New Covenant context.” Again, it sounds good but God has not commanded us to do it.

Hays: (1) consistent; (2) does not depend on arbitrary non-textual categories [not traditional], (3) and (4) reflects context, and (5) corresponds to New Testament teaching.

Kelly: If point 5 is not observed, the first 4 points are meaningless. These 5 points are the same as Dispensationalism. The Law is an indivisible whole for the nation of Israel.

Hays: Footnote: William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard Jr, (Introduction to Biblical Interpretation [Dallas Word, 1993], 279) cites Wright and state that the Law serves as “a paradigm of timeless ethical, moral, and theological principles,” and that the interpreter therefore must strive to “discover the timeless truth beneath its cultural husk.”

Kelly: Now the disagreement shows. When one says that everything in the law reflects something timeless, ethical, moral, and theological and that the interpreter must strive to discover it – the floodgates are thrown wide open for every believer and every pastor to decide for himself what should be brought over from the Old Covenant Law into the New Covenant. This is the problem. Nothing is solved. The Dispensational principle is rejected. As good as this may sound, not everything in the Law reflected “timeless, ethical, moral, and theological principles.” Often we are better served by admitting that we simply do not know why the Law says what it says and focusing our attention on what the New Covenant does indeed plainly teach.

Hays: This is not a theoretical approach, but rather a practical method that can be used by scholars, lay people, and students alike.

Kelly: No. It is not practical! It is overwhelming to ask laymen to go through a thorough five step evaluation of every single text in the Law. No wonder most Christians never bother to even read the Law. Hays has limited its apprehension to a few scholars who have lots of time on their hands to study much deeper.

Hays: Its strength is that it is fairly simple and consistent. As for a weakness it may tend to oversimplify some complex issues.

Kelly: No, it is not fairly simple. Look at the complexity and time consumption involved in following the five steps with every Law text. I thought we wanted more people to read the Bible and not scare them away.

Hays: 1. IDENTIFY WHAT THE PARTICULAR LAW MEANT TO THE INITIAL AUDIENCE. Identify the historical and literary context. … Was the command describing requirements for Israel after they moved into the Promised Land? … What did this specific law mean for the Old Testament audience?

Kelly: To simplify for the confused layman – consider the context. If you do not know it and the text is quoted in the New Covenant, don’t worry about the O.T. context and focus on the New Covenant application.

Hays: 2. Believers in the present church age are under the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant.

Kelly: This is a Dispensational hermeneutic which opposes both traditional and covenant hermeneutics.


Kelly: This statement leads to my greatest complaint with Hays’ hermeneutic. This logic turns the individual believer into a pope speaking officially. It opens the door for every theologian, pastor, and layman to determine privately and subjectively how each law should be handled because many will see universal principles where others will not (such as Sunday Sabbatarians, tithing, and infant baptism).

“Of no private interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20) means that God reveals truth to more than one person. The individual pastor or layman does not have the authority to “develop principles”; rather he is to search to “discover” them if they exist.

Hays: Behind the Mosaic commands for the original audience lay universal, timeless principles.

Kelly: Not necessarily. Many of those laws only pertained to Old Covenant Israel. Numbers 5 describes an accused wife drinking holy water with dust to determine her innocence. Men were not as accountable as women concerning some sexual sins. Slavery was condoned in the Sabbath commandment.

Hays: Each of the Old Testament laws had a meaning for its first audience, a meaning that is related to the Old Covenant. But that meaning is usually based on a broader, universal truth, a truth that is applicable to all God’s people, regardless of when they live and under which covenant they live.

Kelly: Again, abuse of this principle opens the door for each reader to determine and teach what they consider and eternal moral principle. For example (1) while the Sabbath commandment specifically says “the seventh day,” this really means “one day in seven” and finally “Sunday sacredness as the fourth commandment. (2) circumcision is a type of putting always sins of the flesh; baptism replaces the symbol of circumcision; circumcision was on the 8th day; it is it biblical to baptize babies per most mainline churches. (3) tithing of only food from Israel began with Abraham’s tithing spoils of war; Abraham tithed to obey God; Christians should tithe to obey God as an eternal moral principle.

**If every O.T. law had a universal moral principle behind it, then every principle behind every O.T. law should be brought over into the New Covenant. Yet that is not what the Bible teaches. Only those laws which have been repeated and restated in the New Covenant after Calvary to the Church should concern the church.

Hays: In this step one asks, “What universal principle is reflected in this specific law? What broad principle may be applied today?”

Kelly: Again, this paradigm makes a mountain out of a mole hill. This step is totally unnecessary for the average Bible student who does not have the time and education of a Bible scholar. This approach scares many away from trying to understand the Bible. They would rather let their pastor or priest do the Bible study for them.

Hays: The principle should be developed in accord with several guidelines: (a) It should be reflected in the text, (b) it should be timeless, (c) it should correspond to the theology of the rest of Scripture, (d) it should not be culturally bound, and (e) it should be relevant to both Old Testament and current New Testament believers. These universal principles will often be related directly to the character of God and His holiness, the nature of sin, the issue of obedience, or concern for other people.

Kelly: These are the same arguments used by Seventh-day Adventists to justify Saturday sacredness, used by covenant theologians and others to justify infant baptism, and used by tithe-teachers to extend tithing to the Church. Do not forget the original question of this article is: “How should Christians apply the Old Testament Law?” Hays’ answer in the preceding discussion is that every law has underlying eternal moral principles and Christians should bring “develop” and “delineate” those principles and bring all of them over into the New Covenant. As good as his hermeneutic may sound, it is simply overwhelming. It makes the task of a Christian beyond comprehension – the principle beneath every single Old Covenant Law is to be strained out of its original context and taught in the New Covenant to the Church. It is so much easier to simply take only those laws which God has restated to the Church after Calvary in terms of the New Covenant and focus on understanding and applying them.

Hays: Some of the Old Testament laws, for example, are restated in the New Testament as commandments for New Testament believers.

Kelly: Yes and only those should be the ones which really apply directly to Christians.

Hays: When the Old Covenant was abrogated, the Old Testament Law ceased to be a Law for Christians.

Kelly: NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. They never were laws for Christians who never were under the Old Covenant Law.

Hays: However, when the New Testament repeats a law it thus becomes a commandment for believers, to be obeyed as a commandment of Christ. But this validity and authority as a command comes from the New Testament and not the Old Testament.

Kelly: Yes, and leave it at that! Don’t try to change it. This is a sound consistent Dispensational hermeneutic which discards much of what Hays has been saying.

Hays: In addition occasionally the New Testament qualifies an Old Testament law, either modifying it or expanding on it. For example for the command in Exodus 20:14, “You shall not commit adultery,”… Jesus said (Matt. 5:28) … Therefore the commandment for Christians today becomes “You shall not commit adultery in act or in thought.” … Christians should seek to obey this command because it reflects a universal biblical principle reinforced by the New Testament, and not simply because it is an Old Testament law.

Kelly: This was discussed earlier with Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus was speaking to fellow Jews within the parameters of the Law. The fact that lust is a sin is found elsewhere in the New Testament after Calvary (Gal 5:17; James 4:5).

Hays: 5. APPLY THE MODIFIED UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLE TO LIFE TODAY. In this step the universal principle developed in the previous step is applied to specific situations in believers’ lives today. Evidence of principhism can be found in the New Testament.

Kelly: As long as the New Covenant application of the Old Covenant Law principle is clearly made in the New Testament, one does not need this step. Paul preached the whole gospel.

Hays: Leviticus 5:2 “touching unclean defiles.” … Believers under the New Covenant are not made unclean by touching dead animals. They become unclean by impure thoughts or by sinful actions.

Kelly: As long as believers know Hays’ last two sentences above, they do not need to follow the long complicated 5-step process and try to bring the whole law over into the New Covenant.

Hays: The New Covenant also changed the way God’s people are to deal with sin and uncleanness.

Kelly: Yes, we know that. Why? Because it already is clearly discussed in the New Covenant texts. As long as we have the New Covenant explanation and application, it is really not necessary to research and discover all the details of a law which does not apply. That knowledge might be useful for other purposes, but it does not add to our “New Covenant” knowledge. Hays proves my point. This is clearly explained in the New Covenant because God clearly wants us to know this.

By the way, where does J. Daniel Hays stand on tithing? Do his principles allow him to justify teaching it or not. His THM is from Dallas Theological Seminary which does NOT endorse tithing, but his PHD is from SWBTS which DOES very strongly through its President, Paige Patterson.

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD