Jun 18, 2010

NT use of the OT - Part II (Should we employ the hermeneutical method of the NT? No. [Part 2])

1.      The Apostles’ hermeneutic was unique and not to be employed by subsequent interpreters. One school of thought claims that the apostolic hermeneutic was unique and should not be utilized as a model for subsequent interpreters. Adherents to this position claim that the New Testament authors did not always employ grammatical-historical hermeneutics when interpreting and applying the Old Testament. Since this is so, and since we are bound to apply grammatical-historical hermeneutics, then their method must be viewed as unique because inspired by the Holy Spirit. This position is relatively new in the history of Christian interpretation.

a.      Richard N. Longenecker: previous post

b.      Robert L. Thomas: Thomas also holds this position, though with his own nuances. Thomas sees two types of uses of the Old Testament in the New. He says:

…one finds two kinds of uses of the OT by the NT writers: one in which the NT writer abides by and applies the grammatical-historical sense of the OT passage and another use in which the NT writer goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense of the OT passage to assign the passage an additional meaning in connection with its NT context. In the former instance, a NT writer uses the OT in its literal sense. The latter instance is a nonliteral use of the OT. We may call this an “inspired sensus plenior application” (hereafter usually ISPA) of the OT passage to a new situation. It is “inspired,” because along with all Scripture, the NT passage is inspired by God. It is “sensus plenior” in that it gives an additional or fuller sense than the passage had in its OT setting. It is an “application” because it does not eradicate the literal meaning of the OT passage, but simply applies the OT wording to a new setting.[1]

Thomas mentions “a new situation” and “a new setting.” What does he mean by this? He asks this important question: “Why did the NT writers attach these sensus plenior meanings to OT passages?”[2] Here’s his answer:

In almost if not every instance, the new meaning given an OT passage related to Israel’s rejection of her Messiah at His first advent and the consequent opening of the door to a new people consisted of both Jews and Gentiles as fellow members of the body of Christ. That such a new union would exist was unrevealed in the OT, as Paul points out in Eph. 3:1-7. New meanings through special divine revelation were necessary to give this new program a connection with what God had been doing throughout the OT period.[3]

A suggested reason for the inspired sensus plenior applications of OT passages in the NT is Israel’s rejection of her Messiah at His first advent. One of the ramifications of that rejection was new revelation regarding OT passages related to a body called the church, revelation that was not foreseen in or a part of the OT.[4]

In a more recent article, Thomas says:

That obvious change in Jesus’ ministry illustrates the way that His ministry in response to His negative reception by His own people changed in other respects. He never withdrew the promises of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants, but He did provide for an interim movement to come between His ascension and His second advent, a movement that was unforeseen in the OT. The interim period was of such a nature that OT prophecies had to take on additional meanings to supply biblical support for God’s dealings during this interim period.[5]

According to Thomas, many of the instances of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament are not grammatical-historical interpretations but inspired sensus plenior applications (ISPA). These ISPAs are brought on by new circumstances not foreseen by the Old Testament. His whole theory is predicated upon the Jewish rejection of the Messiah resulting in a new, unforeseen situation which demands a new reading and application of the Old Testament to this new, unforeseen era.

Two things are interesting to note about Thomas’ theory. First, it asserts, without proof, that the reason for the New Testament’s grounds for breaking the rules of grammatical-historical hermeneutics is the first-century Jewish rejection of Christ. Maybe he supplies it elsewhere. But could it be that they did not break the rules of grammatical-historical hermeneutics or that Thomas’ understanding of grammatical-historical hermeneutics is too restricting?

Second, it assumes a very limiting view of hermeneutics. He says that grammatical-historical hermeneutics consists of “[i]nterpret[ing] each statement in light of the principles of grammar and the facts of history. Take each statement in its plain sense if it matches common sense, and do not look for another sense.”[6] One wonders who gets to determine what constitutes “common sense” and if Jesus and his apostles would agree. Thomas’ view of grammatical-historical hermeneutics comes, in part, as a result of his commitment to what he calls the principle of single meaning.[7] He sees the New Testament adhering to this principle sometimes, but abandoning it at others.

Sometimes the NT interprets OT prophecies in their literal sense, but other times it assigns an ISPA sense to them. That does not give license to the contemporary interpreter to imitate the hermeneutics of NT writers, because such a procedure would violate the grammatical-historical principle of single meaning. The NT writers could do it because of their status as writers of inspired Scripture.

According to Thomas, it is ok for writers of inspired Scripture (and by implication God) to violate the grammatical-historical principle of single meaning. They can use a hermeneutic that contradicts common sense. Jesus and the apostles do not always provide for us models of biblical exegesis worth emulating.

[1] Robert L. Thomas, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” The Master’s Seminary Journal (TMSJ) Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 80.

[2] Thomas, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” 87.

[3] Thomas, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” 87-88.

[4] Thomas, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” 96.

[5] Robert L. Thomas, “The Great Commission: What to Teach,” TMSJ Volume 21, No. 1 (Spring 2010): 7.

[6] Robert L. Thomas, “The Principle of Single Meaning,” TMSJ Volume 12, No. 1 (Spring 2001): 44.

[7] Thomas, “The Principle of Single Meaning,” 33.

Category: Hermeneutics


Samuel Emadi on Jun 19, 2010 8:50am

Have you read Leithart's "Deep Exegesis"? Incredibly thought-provoking. I intend on writing a book review of it (I know I keep saying that and never delivering on my promise but I assure you they are coming!). Leithart is incredibly thought-provoking (and for the most part I believe hits the nail on the head) when he argues that the Apostles are not merely teaching us how to read the OT, they are in fact simply teaching us "how to read." Here are some quotes to whet your appetite.

"If apostolic reading of Scripture is defended by appeal to the uniqueness of Scripture, how is this method of reading supposed to inform our reading of other texts? Apostolic reading would give us a sacred hermeneutics, applicable to the single double-authored, inspired text of the Bible but inapplicable to every other text. We might read Jeremiah as Matthew does, but we ought not read Marvell that way. Do the apostles teach us how to read double-authored texts? Or do they teach us how to read?...I believe [the latter], and I believe it can be done by highlighting the crucial factor of time in interpretation." (39).

And if that doesn't get your hermeneutical mouth watering listen to his critique of Longenecker in a section titled "Kantian Evangelicals."

"Longenecker places us squarely in the husk/kernel hermeneutics of modern liberal theology, at a somewhat different level. He certainly wants us to acknowledge Paul's theology, and to do theology in the way Paul did. He certainly thinks that Paul had every right to argue the way he did. he wants us to draw the same conclusions Paul drew from the gospel, and to affirm that we are reconciled to God by the grace of Christ through faith. But Longenecker does not always want us to follow the reasoning Paul used to draw those conclusions. We are supposed to follow Pauline doctrine, but not Pauline exegesis. The kernel of doctrine is detached from the husk of Paul's puzzling and odd, if entertaining, rhetoric and dialectic. We are to follow Paul's doctrine, and in the few instances where he shows us the pathway to the doctrine we can follow his path. We are not, however, suppose to use the same path elsewhere. Paul may teach us how to read certain texts, but Paul is not supposed to teach us how to read." (33-34).

Isn't it interesting that both R. Thomas and Longenecker's diligent efforts to avoid typological/allegorical readings of the text in the name of "literal"/"grammatical-historical" hermeneutics actually creates the same "husk/kernel" detachment that appears in liberal/modernist theology? As Leithart argues the figural/typological/allegorical readings of the text is a "hermeneutics of the letter."

Richard Barcellos on Jun 19, 2010 2:13pm

Sam, I have heard of the book and I think I read a reveiw or rec. of it recently. Sounds great. I have found PL a bit eccentric in the past. :-)

Samuel Emadi on Jun 19, 2010 4:56pm

He is a bit eccentric, which is why he is so fun to read!