George Smeaton on Christ’s Own System of Hermeneutics

Ever wonder how the apostle’s developed their particular brand of Christ-centered hermeneutics?  This has been a frequently-discussed and hotly-debated subject over the last few years.  Numerous books have addressed the subject.  For instance, Greg Beale, ed. The Wrong Doctrine from the Right Texts?; Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period; Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim; Sidney Greidnaus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament are a handful of them.

Yet, perhaps the best answer I have found goes back nearly 150 years.  In the opening pages of his book, The Apostles’ Doctrines of the Atonementnineteenth century New Testament theologian, George Smeaton, answers this question: How did the apostles develop their hermeneutics.

Without batting an eye, he turns to the forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples between his resurrection and ascension.  He posits that the “Lord’s system of hermeneutics” was passed on to these inspired authors and that in every instance where the disciples spoke of the terms, concepts, and types found in the Old Testament, they did so as learned pupils of their master teacher–Jesus Christ.

Smeaton’s quotation is lengthy, but well worth pondering.

But the fresh instruction which they received from personal interviews with the Redeemer subsequently to the resurrection must next be noticed.  This oral instruction received from the lips of the risen Lord is certain as to the matter of fact, and on many grounds was indispensably necessary.  Nor was it limited to the eleven alone.  Paul, too, received it at a later day, when he took rank among the apostles as one born out of due time.  How far the oral instruction of the risen Redeemer extended, it may be difficult for us to say.  Whether or not it comprehended all the great articles of divine truth, it certainly extended to the atonement (Luke xxiv. 25).  This was to be the substance and foundation of all their preaching [1 Cor 2:2], and it was indispensably necessary for them to possess the most accurate knowledge of it.  One object, therefore, which the Lord had in view during those forty days’ sojourn with the disciples after His resurrection, was to open their understandings in the course of these personal interviews, to apprehend with all possible precision the nature of His death–its necessity, consituent elements, and efficacy; against which, in every form, they had long entertained the most invincible prejudice.  He now made all things plain, showing that the Christ must have suffered these things.

How they were introduced into the theology of the Old Testament is specially worthy of notice.  A due consideration of this point serves to bring out one most important fact, viz. that Christ’s oral expositions are to be taken as THE MIDDLE TERM, or as the connecting link between Old Testament records on the one hand, and the apostolic commentary on the other.  In a word, He was Himself the interpreter of Scripture, and of His own history, in the course of those oral communications.  In the book of Acts, and in the epistles, we find numerous interpretations of the prophecies, as well as of the types and sacrifices which owe their origin to this source.  The evangelist Luke relates, that on the first resurrection-day, upon the Emmaus road, in order to instruct the two disciples with whom He entered into conversation, the Lord, beginning at Moses and all the prophets, expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27); that is, He led them to a full survey of the typology and of the prophetical system of the Old Testament Scriptures.  The same evening He reviewed the whole subject not less fully in presence of the eleven and other disciples, expounding them how the Old Testament Scriptures received their fulfillment in Himself, and  opening all that related to His death and resurrection. . . . The evangelist [Luke] mentions that His exposition extended to the Law of Moses, to the Prophets, and to the Psalms.  The allusion to the Law of Moses recalls the whole range of typical theology–the sacrifices, the priestly institute, and the temple services.  The allusion to the prophets reminds us of the wide field of Messianic prophecy, form the first promise in the garden of Eden to the last of the prophets.  The allusion to the Psalms recalls those utterances which were put beforehand into the mouth of the suffering Messiah in a series of psalms in which the Lord Jesus found Himself.  He thus, in all these three divisions of Scripture, supplied them with the key which served to unlock what had never been so fully understood before in reference to His atoning death.

These invaluable expositions, which may be called in the modern phrase the Lord’s own system of hermeneutics, formed the apostles to be interpreters of the Old Testament, directing them where and how to find allusions to the suffering Messiah.  Hence the certainty and precision with which they ever afterwards preceded to expound those holy oracles in all their discourses.  Although these comments from the lips of the Messiah, have not been preserved to us in a separate form, they are doubtless to a large extent wrought into the texture of Scripture; and under the apostle’s allusions to the Old Testament we may read the Lord’s own commentary.  These expositions, whereby He opened their understandings to understand the Scriptures, introduced the apostles into the true significance of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44), throwing light on the two economies [Old and New], and thus bringing in the authority of Christ to direct them in all their future career.  His sanction is thus given to the apostolic interpretation of the Jewish rites; and we are warranted to say that we see the Lord’s own commentary underlying that of the apostles, whether we find allusion to the types, or to the prophecies, or to the Psalms, in their sermons and epistles.  These expositions made the apostles acquainted with the doctrine of the atonement, in its necessity and scope, in its constituent elements and saving results.  The apostles received the fullest instruction from the lips of their risen Lord; and on this theme it appears that the instruction was subject to none of the reserves which checked their curiousity upon another occasion, when they would make inquiries as to points bearing on the future of His kingdom (Acts 1:7).  (George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 4-7)

If you are not familiar with Smeaton, you should be.  He is a model exegete and a learned theologian.  In his day, he was the foremost New Testament scholar in Scotland and maybe beyond.  His two volumes on the atonement of Jesus Christ are excellent as is his reading of the gospels and the epistles.

May we continue to see Christ in all Scripture and faithfully show others how the Old and New Testaments are united in him.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

3 thoughts on “George Smeaton on Christ’s Own System of Hermeneutics

  1. Pingback: The Need for Expositional Preaching (pt. 3): Jesus was an Expositor | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Four Reasons You Should Read and Preach the Old Testament | Via Emmaus

  3. Pingback: Will the Real Elijah Please Stand Up? Learning from Jesus How to Read the Bible Literally | Via Emmaus

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