Reading the Prophets With The New Testament (1)

The importance of interpreting the Old Testament prophets in light of how the New Testament authors understood them

The Modernists were often guilty of sloppy biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) but the fundamentalist turn to science as the category in which to think about biblical interpretation was also misleading. They appealed to science as the model because they wanted to stress the objectivity of the truth of Scripture and the clarity of Scripture. Some of them, however, also came to think that hermeneutics is scientific process that, when employed correctly, will produce the same, true results every time. As part of this approach they were convinced that the only meaning of Old Testament texts was their meaning in the original context as the fundamentalists understood that context.

 

Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting texts. Our English word comes from the Greek word for “interpretation” (ἑρμηνεία). It was used among the classical pagan authors (e.g., Plato and Xenophon) and the verb “to interpret” is used in the New Testament. Scripture must be interpreted. Against the Modernists, there were some fundamentalists in the early part of the 20th century who wrote and spoke as if believers do not interpret Scripture as much as simply read it and recognize what it obviously says to any reasonable person. The Modernists had called attention to the difficulty of interpreting Scripture and left the impression that it is so difficult that no one can have certainty about the meaning of any passage except Jesus’ ethical teaching. The Modernists were sure they understood that. The Modernists were often guilty of sloppy biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) but the fundamentalist turn to science as the category in which to think about biblical interpretation was also misleading. They appealed to science as the model because they wanted to stress the objectivity of the truth of Scripture and the clarity of Scripture. Some of them, however, also came to think that hermeneutics is scientific process that, when employed correctly, will produce the same, true results every time. As part of this approach they were convinced that the only meaning of Old Testament texts was their meaning in the original context as the fundamentalists understood that context.

Many of the old fundamentalists combined this way of thinking, writing, and speaking with their commitment to a form of Dispensationalism, which was a nineteenth-century approach to the history of redemption that originally divided Scripture into 7 different dispensations and was understood by many to teach multiple ways of salvation in the various dispensations. Later versions (e.g., modified and progressive) abandoned that view but one conviction that unites all Disepnsationalists holds that the Lord has an “earthly people” (national Israel, Jews) and a “spiritual people” (the New Testament church). This theological commitment when combined with the particular definition of “historical-grammatical” interpretation sketched above, created a system in which OT texts were read in isolation from the NT. This isolation became a matter of principle. In Dispensationalist circles it became an article of faith that not only was the NT to be read in light of the OT (not a controversial idea) but their “grammatical-historical” approach to the OT limited what the OT could mean in any given case and also controlled what the NT writers could mean. These convictions are much more problematic. They effectively forbid us from allowing the NT writers to teach us not only what a particular passage means but it also precludes the NT from teaching us how to interpret the OT.

In short, the Dispensationalists and those whom they influenced put the Scriptures into a box that was created not by Scripture itself but was created outside of Scripture and used to interpret Scripture. There is a great irony to this history since among Dispensationalists it is an article of faith that they are only following Scripture and they are using the most faithful approach to reading Scripture. It is a standard Dispensationalist criticism of Reformed covenant (or federal) theology that it “imposes” a theological system on Scripture. This makes discussions between Dispensationalists and Reformed writers difficult because the Dispensationalist hermeneutical system is hermetically sealed from correction. Further, Dispensationalists have a difficult time recognizing the ways in which their approach to reading Scripture (i.e., their hermeneutic) is not only alien to the way the NT reads the OT but foreign to most of the history of the church and particularly foreign to the Reformation approaches to reading Scripture. Further, they do not seem to recognize the ways their hermeneutic resembles that of the Modernists, whom they intended to oppose.

Recently I have been meditating on a couple of passages that serve as illustrations of this problem and that point us to a resolution. Consider Jeremiah 31:31–33:

Behold, the days are coming, declares Yahweh, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares Yahweh. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares Yahweh. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (emphasis added).

First we do want to pay attention to this prophecy in its own context.

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