I don’t know about you, but I have always been somewhat bothered by how the apostles interpreted the OT at times. While we are taught (rightly so for the most part) that meaning is to be found in the author’s intention, the apostles seemed to find meaning in the OT that the author could not have possibly intended. At times they seem to throw context and the whole historico-grammatical approach to hermeneutics out the door.
For example, in Hosea God says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew says this was prophetic of Jesus’ sojourn and departure from Egypt as a child. Nothing in the original context indicates the passage to be prophetic in nature, or have any Messianic application. It was a mere historical statement about what God did in the Exodus.
Or consider Paul’s use of Genesis 12 and 15. God told Abraham his “seed” would possess the land of Canaan forever. While the word “seed” in Hebrew (zera) is singular, the context makes it clear that God was speaking about all of Abraham’s physical descendents. In Galatians 3, however, Paul interpreted the singular “seed” to be a reference to a single person: Jesus Christ. He is said to be seed to whom the covenant promises applied. From this, Paul made a theological claim that by being united to Christ through faith we too become the seed of Abraham, partaking of the promises God made to Him. A very strange use of Scripture indeed. I can guarantee you that if Matthew or Paul was enrolled in a hermeneutics course today, and interpreted the Scripture the way they did under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the NT, the professor would give them a failing grade.
So how do we make sense of this? Peter Enns, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, offers some help. He authored an article titled “Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving beyond a Modernist Impasse,” which appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the Westminster Theological Journal. While this is a complicated and vast topic that cannot be adequately tackled in a short paper, Enns did a good job of making some inroads. The paper can be downloaded here. While I would highly recommend that you read it for yourself, I will summarize and reproduce relevant points.
Enns begins by acknowledging a genuine conflict between the hermeneutic of the apostles and the hermeneutic of modern Evangelicalism. Whereas many Evangelicals try explaining away the apostles’ regular departure from a historico-grammatical (HG) approach to hermeneutics, Enns admits that the apostles’ hermeneutic is markedly different from the HG method. While at times they used the HG method, at other times they didn’t.
Enns points out that to understand the way the apostles interpreted the OT, we have to understand the hermeneutical principles being used by their contemporaries. Their hermeneutic was culturally informed. Looking at contemporaneous writings it becomes clear that the way the apostles interpreted the OT is consistent with the rabbis of the Second Temple era.
Not only was the apostles’ hermeneutic culturally informed, but more importantly it was eschatologically informed. Enns writes:
The Apostles had their own reasons for engaging the OT, their Scripture. How they engaged the OT (interpretive methods) and even their own understanding of certain OT passages (transmission of pre-existing interpretive traditions) were a function of their cultural moment. But why they engaged the OT was driven by their eschatological moment, their belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God with us and that he had been raised from the dead. True to their Second Temple setting, the Apostles did not arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is Lord from a dispassionate, objective reading of the OT. Rather, they began with what they knew to be true—the historical fact of the death and resurrection of the Son of God—and on the basis of that fact re-read their Scripture in a fresh way. There is no question that such a thing can be counter-intuitive for a more traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture. It is precisely a dispassionate, unbiased, objective reading that is normally considered to constitute valid reading. But again, what may be considered valid today cannot be the determining factor for understanding what the Apostles did.
For example, it is difficult indeed to read Matt 2:15 as an objective reading of Hos 11:1, likewise, Paul’s use of Isa 49:8 in 2 Cor 6:2. Neither Matthew nor Paul arrived at his conclusions from reading the OT. Rather, they began with the event from which all else is now to be understood. In other words, it is the death and resurrection of Christ that was central to the Apostles’ hermeneutical task.
To put it another way, it is the conviction of the Apostles that the eschaton had come in Christ that drove them back to see where and how their Scripture spoke of him. And this was not a matter of grammatical-historical exegesis but of a Christ-driven hermeneutic. The term I prefer to use to describe this hermeneutic is Christotelic. … To see Christ as the driving force behind apostolic hermeneutics is not to flatten out what the OT says on its own. Rather, it is to see that, for the church, the OT does not exist on its own, in isolation from the completion of the OT story in the death and resurrection of Christ. The OT is a story that is going somewhere, which is what the Apostles are at great pains to show. It is the OT as a whole, particularly in its grand themes, that finds its telos, its completion, in Christ. This is not to say that the vibrancy of the OT witness now comes to an end, but that—on the basis of apostolic authority—it finds its proper goal, purpose, telos, in that event by which God himself determined to punctuate his covenant: Christ.
The big question is Can we do what the apostles did? Can we re-read the OT in light of the eschatological Christ event and find Christ where Christ would not be found using the normal HG method of interpretation? Most would say no. Why is it that the apostles could do it, but we can’t? The usual response is that the apostles could do it because they were inspired to do so, whereas we are not; they had apostolic authority to do so, whereas we do not. Enns destroys that argument on several counts. First, it would be all the more reason for us to employ their methods of interpretation. If God inspired them to interpret Scripture in such a fashion, the method must be valid. While we may not be certain that Christ is found in the OT where we think we see Him (since there would be no inspired Scripture to verify that we are right), looking for Him in passages not speaking of Him in their original context could not be condemned as illegitimate. Secondly, if we are to follow the apostles’ teaching, why should we not follow their hermeneutics? Thirdly, rooting the apostles’ ability to handle the Scripture in the manner they did because of their office could actually argue against the legitimacy of their claims to apostolicity. If the H-G method of interpretation is the only valid method, and the apostles did not consistently use it, then they were mishandling the Word of God. That’s hardly befitting of an apostle; hence, they are not apostles. If we reject the conclusions of these three arguments, then we must reject the traditional argument for why we can’t interpret the Bible the way the apostles did.
How does Enns answer this question? He argues that we can use the apostles’ hermeneutical goal, but not their exegetical method. Regarding the former Enns writes:
The Apostles’ hermeneutical goal (or agenda), the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ, must be also ours by virtue of the fact that we share the same eschatological moment. … A Christian understanding of the OT should begin with what God revealed to the Apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for OT interpretation. We, too, are living at the end of the story; we are engaged in the second reading by virtue of our eschatological moment, which is now as it was for the Apostles the last days, the inauguration of the eschaton. We bring the death and resurrection of Christ to bear on the OT. Again, this is not a call to flatten out the OT, so that every psalm or proverb speaks directly and explicitly of Jesus. It is, however, to ask oneself, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this proverb?” It is the recognition of our privileged status to be living in the post-resurrection cosmos that must be reflected in our understanding of the OT. Therefore, if what claims to be Christian proclamation of the OT simply remains in the pre-eschatological moment—simply reads the OT “on its own terms”—such is not a Christian proclamation in the apostolic sense.
Regarding the latter Enns writes:
What then of the exegetical methods employed by the Apostles? Here I follow Longenecker to a degree in that we do not share the Second Temple cultural milieu of the Apostles. I have no hesitation in saying that I would feel extremely uncomfortable to see our pastors, exegetes, or Bible Study leaders change, omit, or add words and phrases to make their point, even though this is what NT authors do. One very real danger that we are all aware of is how some play fast and loose with Scripture to support their own agenda. The church instinctively wants to guard against such a misuse of Scripture by saying, “Pay attention to the words in front of you in their original context.” What helps prevent (but does not guarantee against) such flights of fancy is grammatical-historical exegesis.
But this does not mean the church should adopt the grammatical-historical method as the default, normative hermeneutic for how it should read the OT today. Why? Because grammatical-historical exegesis simply does not lead to a Christotelic (apostolic) hermeneutic. A grammatical-historical exegesis of Hos 11:1, an exegesis that is anchored by Hosea’s intention, will lead no one to Matt 2:15. The first (grammatical-historical) reading does not lead to the second reading. This is a dilemma. The way I have presented the dilemma may suggest an impasse, but perhaps one way beyond that impasse is to question what we mean by “method.” The word implies, at least to me, a worked out, conscious application of rules and steps to arrive at a proper understanding of a text. But what if “method,” so understood, is not as central a concept as we might think? What if biblical interpretation is not guided so much by method but by an intuitive, Spirit-led engagement of Scripture with the anchor being not what the author intended but by how Christ gives the OT its final coherence?
I’ll leave you hanging with that. Check out the article.
For additional resources, check out this excellent lecture by Matt Harmon, Associate Professor of NT Studies at Grace Theological Seminary, and this article by Glenn Miller (I haven’t finished reading it yet, but Miller is always good).