Hermeneutics: How should 21st Century Christians Read the Old Testament?

So here’s the question, posed by Josh Philpot: Should 21st century Christians reinterpret the OT in light of the NT the way the apostle’s did (in preaching and teaching)? Or, was there a specific hermeneutic used by the apostles (through divine revelation, of course) as the church began? Or, should we maintain the original intent of the OT author in the same way that we do for NT authors? Would this deemphasize the Messiah in the OT?

So much has been written on this subject lately.  These mere responses are just scratching the surface on a subject that has much history and much need for further exegetical examination.

My first thought is, Why would anyone want to intrepret the Scriptures, the OT in particular, in manner other than the apostles? Dividing the OT from the witness of the NT seems inherently Marcion, except with a priority given to the OT. With so many hazardous methods of correlation espoused throughout church history, the way that the apostles read the Scripture, as inspired readers and writers, seems best. Evaluating and judiciously employing their mode of interpretation seems to be the most biblically consistent way of reading the book that had a single Divine author.

I don’t think that the apostles ripped Scripture out of context, as some assert. Instead, being steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, discipled by Jesus himself, and uniquely led by the Holy Spirit, I give them pride of place in being able to interpret the OT. We know Jesus saw himself in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, and it only makes sense that those who walked with him after the Resurrection had their eyes and minds opened to see (Luke 24:31, 45) and understand how all the OT pointed to Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 10:6; 2 Cor. 1:20; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). While we twenty-first centuries may have difficulty putting the testaments together, so did the apostles–until Jesus Christ explained the Scriptures to them (cf. Luke 24).  At which point, it appears that the apostles with the finality of the resurrection, couple with the instruction of the Christ, and the leading of the Spirit saw the light.   So, I gladly sit at their feet.

Personally, my method of interpretation has been influenced by Richard Lints three-fold approach found in his book, The Fabric of Theology, introduced by Steve Wellum, where we must read the text in its literary context–exegetically, epochally, and canonically.  As Daniel Block, a strong proponent of authorial intent, once said, “We must put ourselves in the shoes of the author to discern his original intent.” I agree, however, we cannot stop there and draw mere moral principles. We must move to the second horizon, the epochal context. Like Walter Kaiser, we must read the text in light of its antecedent theology and see how the text fits into its immediate historical and cultural context and its place in the storyline of Scripture. Finally, though, we must see the text in light of the entire canon of Scripture. We cannot think that God is making up the story as he goes. Jesus completing fulfills the OT Law, because when Moses was receiving the Decalogue, God was making preparations for Jesus to come and as the telos of the law (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom. 10:4). Only when we read the Bible in light of all three contexts or horizons can we properly discern the authorial intent and the intention of the Author and Perfecter, Himself (cf. Heb. 12:2).  For instance, only in light of the coming of Jesus Christ does the annihilation Israel’s make sense. Without the “Big Picture” and the light of the NT, these ostensible commands for genocide do not have a context.

While I concede that the apostles, being inspired by the Spirit, had a measure of authoritative interpretation and inscripturation that we do not, I think that should encourage twenty-first century Christians to look to their interpretative model all the more, not discourage exegetes from looking at their model. Would it be better to look to the allegorical method of Alexandria? Or the demythologization of Bultmann? Or the trajectory hermeneutic of William Webb? Or even the historical-literary model of Robert Stein?  No, it seems much better to give attention to Peter, Paul, and John. Those who deny NT light to illuminate OT Scripture minimize the unity of the Bible, disregard Jesus’ statement that all Scripture points to him (Luke 24:26-27, 44-46; John 5:39), and neglect an interpretative method that maintains full biblical authority, encourages a forward-looking, hope-giving biblical eschatology, and esteems Jesus Christ.

All that to say, in reading the OT like the apostles (or at least attempting to), Jesus Christ is most highly exalted and most closely rooted in the biblical contours of the canon. So I affirm the apostolic reading of the Scripture, and humbling attempt to see how the OT and NT fit together, unified in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

I know I haven’t figured it all out.  I haven’t come close.  But as I read the Scriptures, the gospel of Jesus Christ comes alive as I see the shadows of Christ in the Old Testament and His substance in the New Testament.  To that end, I will keep reading the whole counsel of Scripture, looking for Jesus.  What about you?

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

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