In a previous post in this series, I took issue with the view that today’s interpreter has an obligation to discover and imitate the “apostles’ hermeneutic” in the way he handles the OT. In doing so, I noted that when one recognizes the plurality of ways in which the NT writers use the OT, it becomes clear that the NT writers often referred to the OT without seeking to interpret it for their readers. In retrospect, I realize that providing an example of at least one of these alternate ways might have been helpful, and that’s what I’d like to do now.
In Romans 9:24 the apostle Paul writes of how God has called individuals unto salvation “not from among the Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” Then, in Romans 9:25-26, he continues by quoting from the OT: “As He says also in Hosea, ‘I will call those who were not My people, “My people,” and her who was not beloved, “beloved.” And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,” there they shall be called sons of the living God.’”
What immediately strikes the reader of Romans 9:25-26 is that Paul quotes Hosea 2:23 (in v. 25) and Hosea 1:10 (in v. 26) in reference to the Lord calling vessels of mercy from among the Gentiles in the present age. In their original context in Hosea, however, these verses speak of God’s restoration of ethnic Israel in the last days. So why did Paul quote them in reference to Gentiles? There are three primary ways to answer this question.
The Reinterpretation View
The first approach is to say that Paul has spiritualized or reinterpreted the Hosea passages, and, in doing so, has provided their true and proper meaning. This approach is advocated by George Eldon Ladd, who claims that “the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.” For this reason, such interpreters say that not only should we accept the NT writer’s interpretation as the true interpretation of the OT passage in question, but we should also take that same spiritualizing approach with similar OT prophecies. As Ladd explains further:
Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. The church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, has become the people of God. The prophecies of Hosea are fulfilled in the Christian church. If this is a “spiritualizing hermeneutic,” so be it….It is clearly what the New Testament does to the Old Testament prophecies.
The main problem with this view is a hermeneutical one. If you study the Hosea passages in their original contexts, the clear and unmistakable antecedent of the “people” in question is the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of ethnic Israel. There was no other meaning available to the original hearers or readers of these passages. Likewise, there was no other possible meaning available to faithful Jews for 700 years prior to the writing of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
To some, I realize, this is not a problem. I find it very difficult, however, to accept a hermeneutical approach which insists that the original readers of the Old Testament were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises in the Old Testament. This is an outright denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In my understanding of the nature of Scripture, God’s intent was to reveal truth in His Word, not conceal it. I have a difficult time adopting a view that, says, in effect, that much of the Old Testament was intended to be an unsolvable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.
The other problem I have with this approach is how often it flows out of the untested assumption that a given NT writer must always be interpreting the OT and thereby providing its divinely intended meaning. Some who take this view do so having never considered any of the alternatives which have been proposed. I believe that this kind of approach fails to appreciate the complexity of the issues involved in the use of the OT in the NT.
The “People” = Israel View
The second approach is to say that, in the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 9, he applies the Hosea passages not to the salvation of Gentiles, but rather to the salvation of Jews. In other words, according to this view, the “people” in the Hosea quotations refer exclusively to ethnic Israel, just as they did in their original context. In this way, Paul’s use of the OT is seen as one in which he interprets the passages according to the normal grammatical historical method and then appropriately applies that meaning to the calling of Jewish vessels of mercy. According to John A. Battle, Jr., “this approach has the distinct asset of taking Hosea’s prophecy at face value and maintaining complete harmony between Hosea and Paul.”
In contrast, I believe there are two clear indicators in the immediate context which tell us that Paul is indeed applying his quotations of Hosea to Gentiles. First, in Romans 9:24, the apostle speaks of God calling individuals “not from among the Jews only, but also from among the Gentiles.” Therefore, when Paul begins his quotations of Hosea in verse 25, not only is the closest antecedent “Gentiles,” but he has just emphasized the Gentiles by saying “not only Jews, but also Gentiles.”
Second, in Romans 9:27, Paul introduces further quotations from the OT with the words: “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel….” It makes good sense that Paul, having just quoted the OT in reference to Gentiles, would then introduce an OT quotation in reference to Israel by explicitly naming Israel in the way that he does. In this way, after stating that God has called vessels of mercy from among both Jews and Gentiles (v. 24), Paul quotes the Old Testament in reference to both groups, Gentiles in verses 25-26 and Jews in verses 27-29. In fact, as Douglas Moo points out, Paul’s quotations from Hosea are chiastically related to the final words of verse 24:
- A God calls Jews (v. 24)
- B God calls Gentiles (v. 24)
- B’ OT confirmation of God’s call of Gentiles (vv. 25-26)
- A’ OT confirmation of God’s call of Jews (vv. 27-29)
Then, starting in verse 30, he continues his discussion by contrasting the two groups he has just discussed. For this reason, I think it is unlikely that Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26 is a reference to God’s calling of ethnic Jews.
The Analogical View
There is a third approach, however, which I believe does more justice to the biblical data than the other two. Put simply, I believe that Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26 is analogical in nature. More specifically, I believe that Paul is drawing a comparison or analogy between the calling of Gentiles from unbelief and the restoration of Israel from exile and judgment. As Scott Hafemann explains, “Just as God can bring Israel back from the dead, he can also call Gentiles to new life.”
Therefore, rather than reinterpreting these verses in Hosea, Paul is drawing a parallel between the future restoration of the Jews and the present salvation of the Gentiles in order to highlight the graciousness of God toward those who have no claim on His mercy. Put another way, the apostle is underscoring a point of continuity between these two distinct situations without equating them or suggesting that one fulfills the prediction of the other. That point of continuity is the mercy of God toward those who are not His people and the calling of God to make them His people. As F.F. Bruce writes:
What Paul does here is to take this promise, which referred to a situation within the frontiers of the chosen people, and extract from it a principle of divine action which in his day was reproducing itself on a world-wide scale. In large measure through Paul’s own apostolic ministry, great numbers of Gentiles, who had never been “the people of God” and had no claim on his covenant mercy, were coming to be enrolled among his people and to be recipients of his mercy.
Therefore, as Herman Hoyt observes, while Paul applies promises of Israel’s restoration to Gentiles in Romans 9:25–26, he does so not to include Gentiles in his concept of “Israel,” but rather to explain something that is true of both the future restoration of Israel and the present salvation of Gentiles. To summarize:
In the original context these passages from Hosea refer to the spiritual restoration of Israel. But Paul finds in them the principle that God is a saving, forgiving, restoring God, who delights to take those who are “not my people” and make them “my people.” Paul then applies this principle to Gentiles, whom God makes his people by sovereignly grafting them into covenant relationship (Kenneth Barker).
There are several arguments for this understanding of Paul’s use of Hosea. First, and most importantly, this view honors the integrity of the clear meaning of both Old Testament verses in their original contexts, while—at the same time—providing a reasonable explanation of how Paul used these verses to make a point in his context. Furthermore, it provides an explanation of Paul’s use of the OT (analogical) which has precedent elsewhere in Scripture.
Second, as Scott Hafemann and W. Edward Glenny note, the word translated “as” at the beginning of the introductory formula in Romans 9:25 is the comparative particle hos, which denotes comparison in the New Testament. This suggests that the Hosea quotations in Romans 9:25–26 may be an analogy of the previous statement in verse 24 that God is calling Gentiles unto salvation. At the same time, however, it is difficult to be dogmatic about the significance of the introductory hos for two reasons: (a) nowhere else does Paul introduce an Old Testament quotation with hos, so there is no recognizable pattern of how he might be inclined to use the particle, and (b) the particle hos is used (outside of Paul) to introduce Old Testament quotations that do not consist of an analogy.
Third, this interpretation is supported by “the absence of any referent in the introductory formula such as the explicit formula ‘concerning Israel’ found in 9:27” (Hafemann). And fourth, although Paul’s use of the Hosea passages basically follows the text of the Septuagint, his various modifications (e.g., he alters the verb “I will say” in Hosea 2:23 to “I will call” in Romans 9:25) suggest that he is adapting Hosea for his own purposes rather than simply reinterpreting the meaning found in the original context of Hosea.
In the end, I certainly don’t expect that everyone will embrace the view I have presented here. But at the very least, I hope my explanation will enable some interpreters to see past the simplistic assumption that there is but one way in which the NT writers used the OT. In addition, I hope it will spur on those same individuals to labor patiently and diligently in this fascinating but very difficult field of study.