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The Worst Interpretive Rule I Ever Learned

???????????????????????????????If there is one thing I can say about the church I was raised in, indeed I can say many things about it, but this blog is rated PG-13, I suppose, so, I can’t repeat most of them in present company, it is that they had some of the worst biblical interpretation I’ve ever encountered. I am not trying to bash them, though the leaders there deserved a good swift kick in the seat of the pants; I am simply stating a formative fact of my up-bringing. I cut my teeth on bad Bible, twisted logic, pseudo-spiritual rationalities, and a host of teachings that verged on the heretical. “Verged on” is me being nice. So when I talk about the worst interpretive rule I ever learned, that’s really saying something.

Oddly enough, however, I didn’t learn the worst interpretive rule from my church alone. I learned it again in Bible School. I have read it in hermeneutics books. It is a rule of interpretation that is shared by a vast portion of the Christian church. It even gets its own poem. It is a truly ancient rule that has, as far as I am concerned, cast a dark shadow over the church’s understanding of Scripture for many centuries. Some who read this blog may even hold to it and grow angry over my disparaging of it.

Annoyed that I haven’t told you what it is yet? Sorry.

The poem goes, “The New is in the Old Concealed, the Old is in the New Revealed.” The rule is: We interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.

Many of those who hold to progressive revelation, (which I do) the idea that God’s unfolding of his plan grows clearer through the ages, will consider this rule a given (which I don’t, obviouisly). Shouldn’t we interpret the less clear vision of God’s plan as expressed in the Old Testament, in the clarity that newer revelation, especially the grand revelation that Jesus provides? Shouldn’t we interpret a prophecy in light of its declared fulfillment?

Well, when you put it that way…. NO! Not even then.

  1. We either believe in authorial intent or we don’t. Thus, we either believe that the proper meaning of an act of communication is found in the author’s intentions, garnered from a serious investigation of Historical Grammatical and Literary context or we don’t. Any notion that the Holy Spirit has got his own secret agenda at work apart from what the prophet thinks he’s communicating robs the text of all discoverability… it puts all the power of interpretation on the Spirit illumined readers… the more spiritual the better… “So no matter how crazy my reading sounds, you just sit and listen, cuz I’m the illumined one.”
  2. We should not be talking about the NT’s interpretation of the OT. We should be talking about the NT’s USE of the OT. USE is radically different than INTERPRETATION and to confuse them will muddy many things in our minds when we seek to understand what a NT writer intends by any given use he gives to an OT passage.
  3. There is a significant difference between MEANING and IMPLICATION. The meaning of a prophecy is the theological intention of the prophet as he is carried along by the Holy Spirit. The prophet speaks and writes to his own community. He looks to the past, giving inspired interpretations of Israel’s history with God. He may even look to the future to show Israel where God is taking them yet. But he is speaking a word in the present… a word with far seeing implications. This is what you should be, should think, should do in light of your past and your future.
  4. Finally, at least for today, one must understand that the NT writers did not write in general to explain the OT. They wrote, using the OT, to explain Jesus and his Church. They used that which was known to the community of faith to unpack that which was unknown. This does not mean that they did not explain anything from the OT, especially those things commonly misunderstood about the ancient scriptures, but it does mean that the NT writers were not using Jesus as some grand re-interpretation lens. This is why # 2 is so important. I do not come to understand the temple and its sacrifices because of Jesus; I come to understand Jesus because the NT writers use the temple and its sacrifices to teach me about Him and his work. The direction is all important. If the NT writers unpack Jesus in light of the OT, but I assume Jesus and use Him to interpret the OT, then I have warped my understanding of the very thing the NT writers were trying to use to explain Jesus in truth.

So, I say this. While we may apply the OT in the light of the NT, we should not interpret the OT in light of the NT. It is far more profitable to interpret the OT within its own historical grammatical literary context and to ask the question, “How did the NT writers get this out of that?” The question itself can lead to great understanding.

[1] media pic from sxc.hu

3 thoughts on “The Worst Interpretive Rule I Ever Learned

  1. Jim Darlack says:

    You’re such an ETS fundie, Andrew. 😉 Hirsch would be proud.

    What room is there for the divine Author’s intent? Is intent ONLY found in the human author? Is discernment of ‘divine intent’ a matter of being “more spiritual” or is it interpreting in light of the unfolding of the history of redemption.

    Now mind you . . . I typically eschew typological readings of the OT (that have not already been picked apart by the NT writers). As I’ve said before in more pompous days, Don’t put Jesus where he doesn’t belong! (Typically that was something I ‘harrumphed’ at the lunch table in response to the latest Christ in the OT lecture by Dr. Huggybear. . . My stance is less curmudgeony now . . .)

    So give us a few examples! How would you treat things like a ‘typological reading’ of Isaac’s bearing of the wood to Mt. Moriah? Or the difference between ‘almah and parthenos in Isaiah 7:14 MT/LXX – and the NT authors’ appropriation? What of Gen 3:15?

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