Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Old in the New

When the writers of the New Testament quoted from the Old Testament in support of their message, they did not use the historical-grammatical method. Instead they used a hermeneutic most Evangelicals would find disconcerting. They clearly interpreted Old Testament passages in ways that the original writers could never have intended them to be read.

Peter Enns addresses this in his book,
Inspiration And Incarnation: Evangelicals And The Problem Of The Old Testament.

There is also an article,
Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving beyond a Modernist Impasse, online which contains the heart of his thesis. Here are a few quotations (emphasis added):

The manner in which the Apostles handled the OT seems unexpected, strange, even improper by modern conventions. The Apostles do things with the OT that, if any of us were to do likewise, would be criticized as deviations from “normal” hermeneutical standards.

Grammatical-historical exegesis insists that the interpretation of texts must begin with the words in front of us understood in the context in which these words were written. Even with the caveats that pure objectivity is an illusion and that the author’s intention is essentially unrecoverable (or better, recoverable only on the basis of the words in front of us, which places the modern interpreter in a hermeneutical circle), it is nevertheless a fundamental notion that meaning must be “anchored” somehow in something beyond the mere will of the interpreter. Any writer (including this one) who wishes to be understood will have a deep-rooted sympathy for such a hermeneutical principle.
A problem arises, however, when we observe how the Apostles handled the OT. Despite protestations to the contrary, grammatical-historical hermeneutics does not account for the New Testament’s use of the Old. However self-evident grammatical-historical hermeneutics may be to us, and whatever very important contributions it has made and continues to make to the field of biblical studies, it must be stated clearly that the Apostles did not seem overly concerned to put this principle into practice.

And it should be self-evident that, for various portions of Scripture, we have in our minds pre-existing interpretations of the Bible that reflect what we have come to think the Bible contains…. These views are sometimes held so deeply (and unwittingly) that it is only through considerable argumentation that someone can be shown that what they may consider part of the Bible really is not.

Paul did not begin with Isa 49:6, which speaks of Israel’s return from Babylon, and conclude grammatical-historically that this speaks of Christ. Rather, it is the reality of the risen Christ that drove Paul to read Isa 49:6 in a new way: “Now that I see how it all ends, I can see how this, too, fits; how it drives us forward.”

To put it another way, it is the conviction of the Apostles that the eschaton had come in Christ that drove them back to see where and how their Scripture spoke of him. And this was not a matter of grammatical-historical exegesis but of a Christ-driven hermeneutic. The term I prefer to use to describe this hermeneutic is Christotelic…. To see Christ as the driving force behind apostolic hermeneutics is not to flatten out what the OT says on its own. Rather, it is to see that, for the church, the OT does not exist on its own, in isolation from the completion of the OT story in the death and resurrection of Christ. The OT is a story that is going somewhere, which is what the Apostles are at great pains to show. It is the OT as a whole, particularly in its grand themes, that finds its telos, its completion, in Christ. This is not to say that the vibrancy of the OT witness now comes to an end, but that—on the basis of apostolic authority—it finds its proper goal, purpose, telos, in that event by which God himself determined to punctuate his covenant: Christ.

The church instinctively wants to guard against such a misuse of Scripture by saying, “Pay attention to the words in front of you in their original context.” What helps prevent (but does not guarantee against) such flights of fancy is grammatical-historical exegesis.

But this does not mean the church should adopt the
grammatical-historical method as the default, normative hermeneutic for how it should read the OT today. Why? Because grammatical-historical exegesis simply does not lead to a Christotelic (apostolic) hermeneutic. A grammatical-historical exegesis of Hos 11:1, an exegesis that is anchored by Hosea’s intention, will lead no one to Matt 2:15. The first (grammatical-historical) reading does not lead to the second reading. This is a dilemma. The way I have presented the dilemma may suggest an impasse, but perhaps one way beyond that impasse is to question what we mean by “method.” The word implies, at least to me, a worked out, conscious application of rules and steps to arrive at a proper understanding of a text. But what if “method,” so understood, is not as central a concept as we might think? What if biblical interpretation is not guided so much by method but by an intuitive, Spirit-led engagement of Scripture with the anchor being not what the author intended but by how Christ gives the OT its final coherence?

The more I reflect on the nature of biblical interpretation throughout its long history as well as in today’s world, the more I am convinced that there must be more to the nature of biblical interpretation than simply uncovering the “meaning of the text,” as if it were an objective exercise.

But biblical interpretation is a true community activity. It is much more than individuals studying a passage for a week or so. It is about individuals who see themselves in a community that has both synchronic and diachronic dimensions. Truly, we are not islands of interpretive wisdom, degrees in hand and off to conquer the Bible. We rely on the witness of the church through time (with the hermeneutical trajectory set by the Apostles as a central component), as well as the wisdom of the church in our time—both narrowly considered as a congregation, denomination, or larger tradition, and the church more broadly considered as a global reality. Biblical interpretation is not merely a task that individuals perform, but it is something that grows out of our participation in the family of God in the broadest sense possible.

You may wish to read the entire article or, better yet, buy the book.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


Luke Britt said...

Is it possible that the grammatical historical method is not the only method that does exposition and gramattical exegesis?
The NT writers did not use the GHM in reference to the OT, but should we use their sermons in the GHM?

Pastor Rod said...


I believe we need to deal differently with the Old Testament and with the New Testament. I believe that we should be following the example of the NT writers in preaching from the OT. I don't think we have license to do that from the NT.


nathaniel adam king said...

I think both Luke and I would agree with you pastor that if the New Testament writers interpreted a certain way from the Old Testament, then we should likewise do the same.

But what exactly is your opinion on how to interpret the New Testament authors? If you posited that we should interpret them exactly as they do the Old Testament, you would be presented just as much a preference as if we said we should interpret them using the Historical Grammatical method. Either way, neither could prove which would be the better method.

Perhaps if we considered the early church fathers?

I am not well versed in the early church fathers. But if it could be shown that they did use the historical grammatical method when interpreting the New Testament authors, would you then think it a viable interpretational method when likewise interpreting the New Testament authors?

Pastor Rod said...


The reason that the NT writers read the OT the way they did was because they had received the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ. The mystery had been revealed.

I do not think that their example gives us warrant to treat their writings in the same way that they did the OT writings.

The key again is seeing everything as a part of God's grand narrative.


nathaniel adam king said...

Yes, but even 'God's grand narrative' included God telling Moses quite specifically 'thou shall not'. God's commands are not in narrative form. The relaying of God's commands can be in narrative form, or there can be a narrative that includes the giving of the commands of God. But simply because we are partaking of a grand narrative, we shouldn't conclude that everything is narrative.

Paul and myself both participate in this 'grand narrative'. We would both agree. But we shouldn't then agree that because Paul partakes in a narrative, that he cannot tell believers (me by implication) certain truths. Simply because we are within this grand narrative of God, we shouldn't think that this excludes non-narrative type relaying of communication.

If your theory was correct, we should expect to find absolutely no non-narrative format books within the Scripture. We do not, by your own concession. Therefore, your theory is inadaquet.

Pastor Rod said...


Your example of the Mosaic Law is excellent. When people extract it from its narrative context they get all kinds of things wrong.

It belongs (according to Wright and others) in Act III. We're living in Act V.