What Exactly is the “Apostles’ Hermeneutic”?

In a recent blog post entitled “Dispensationalism and Modernism,” Tom Hicks writes that one of the biggest problems with dispensationalism is its refusal “to accept as paradigmatic and normative the NT’s own hermeneutic of the OT.” According to Hicks, the hermeneutic we use should be derived from the Bible itself.

This criticism of dispensationalism is often articulated in terms of an exhortation to imitate the “apostles’ hermeneutic.” In other words, rather than coming up with our own hermeneutic, we should seek to discern the hermeneutic modeled by the apostles in the way they handled the OT, and then we should use that same hermeneutic to interpret Scripture.

As often as this argument is repeated, it is interesting that nobody actually sets forth exactly what they believe the “apostles’ hermeneutic” to be. I find myself waiting for a list of hermeneutical principles, each one with biblical references from the OT and NT which show clearly where this specific principle is modeled by the NT writer’s use of the OT. Something along the lines of this:

  1. Principle #1: _______________________ (OT/NT)
  2. Principle #2: _______________________ (OT/NT)
  3. Principle #3: _______________________ (OT/NT)
  4. Principle #4: _______________________ (OT/NT)
  5. Principle #5: _______________________ (OT/NT)

And so on. Of course, any principle which cannot be proven clearly from Scripture would not be allowed on the list and should not be used by the one committed to using the “apostles’ hermeneutic.”

In case you can’t tell, I’m not very optimistic that such a list could be produced. As I wrote in a previous post here at Expository Thoughts, whenever I hear about the need to use the “apostles’ hermeneutic,” I find myself with questions like these:

What exactly is the “apostles’ hermeneutic”? What exactly is this pattern that modern-day interpreters are to follow? What specific hermeneutical principles are modeled by the NT writers that should guide contemporary interpretation? Can they be stated propositionally? If so, what are they? If not, why not? Should these hermeneutical principles be applied consistently to all of Scripture, or only certain parts of it? If only certain parts, which parts, and why only those parts?

I realize that these questions may seem designed to badger more than inquire, but I think they highlight part of the problem with exhorting people to avoid the evils of dispensational modernism in favor of a “biblical hermeneutic.” After all, if we’re going to use the so-called “apostles’ hermeneutic,” we need to know what it is, don’t we?

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bobby Grow on September 23, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Amen Matt, I echo your protest. And if you don’t mind here is an old post I did on this same issue:


    In Christ

  2. Matt,

    You have put your finger on the pulse of the issue and there’s no heart-beat!

    It should also be noted that some dispensationalist like S. Lewis Johnson embraced an “apostolic hermeneutic” which as much as I like Johnson on some things was terribly unconvincing. He too was unable to elucidate any hermeneutical principles in this regard. In his exposition he had to resort to extreme typology and even allegory to maintain this perspective (see his preaching of Leviticus).

    I think what is usually referred to as an “Apostolic hermeneutic” is actually a theological grid imposed onto a given text. This of course highlights another issue which is the tendency to place theology before exegesis.

  3. Posted by roberttalley on September 24, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    So I suppose we have to fall back on interpreting everything according to context, both immediate and total. I can live with that.

  4. I haven’t read the work you cite. But many would say the NT hermeneutic regarding the OT is one of fulfillment. Paul in particular understood the church to be the antitype of OT Israel. In this regard the NT is not a “church age” set aside where God pauses in His work with the nation of Israel, rather the NT is the completion, or fulfillment of this work. In I Cor. 10 Paul says Israel is our example for today. In Gal. 1 he says Gentile and Jew “are one” coming together under a New and better covenant.

    So that where traditional dispensationalism seems to minimize the similiarty and typology of the OT with the New, Paul and the other NT “apostolic” authors seem to stress it’s significance in their interpretation of it.

  5. Are there some good books that represent your viewpoint (assuming you agree w/ Dr. Thomas from Master’s)?

    The only one I really know of is Kaiser’s.

  6. David,

    Without getting into specific issues of continuity and discontinuity you have not addressed the problem that Matt has raised. What are the hermeneutical principles that the Apostle Paul employs? Does he always do this? Are such principles repeatable? Likewise what exegetical methodology did all the Apostles use? Could you tell us what those principles were?

    You answered this by noting that “many would say the NT hermeneutic regarding the OT is one of fulfillment.” All evangelical exegetes would agree that there is fulfillment in the NT. Do you know any who would not agree to this? However to argue that this is a hermeneutical principle in the NT is an inadequate generalization. Let’s say for a moment that the common number 4,105 is correct. That is the number of times that the NT alludes, quotes, or breathes in the direction of the OT. Are you saying that these references can all be explained as “fulfillment”? As Matt noted in his post, “Should these hermeneutical principles be applied consistently to all of Scripture, or only certain parts of it? If only certain parts, which parts, and why only those parts?”


    You’ll find this perspective represented by many theologians from various angles. In addition to Kaiser and Thomas you’ll notice this among the writings of John Feinberg, Roy Zuck, John Walton, Gordon McConville, Darrell Bock, Willem VanGemeren, John Sailhamer and Richard Longenecker who have all written on this issue. They all emphasize some of the same key issues yet there is variety among their statements. Also, and our commenters should note this well, this is not an issue that can be reduced to dispensationalism vs. covenant theology as the names listed above should show.

    “Ours is to reproduce the faith and doctrine of the NT in ways appropriate to the apprehension of people today, not to attempt to reproduce – or to feel guilty about not being able to reproduce – the specific exegetical procedures contained therein” (Richard N. Longenecker “Who is the Prophet Talking About?’ Some Reflections on the New Testament’s Use of the Old” [Themelios 13.1 (Oct./Nov. 1987)]: 4-8).

  7. Sidenote:

    John Sailhamer delivered the presidential address at the 52d annual meeting of the ETS on November 15, 2000, in Nashville, TN. His address was called “The Messiah and the Hebrew Bible” and was subsequently printed in JETS 44:1 March 2001, pp.5-23. In this address and paper, Sailhamer makes one of the strongest proposals for the priority of the OT rather than the common view that the OT is interpreted through the NT.

  8. Paul,

    I think one of the difficulties with dealing with this issue lies in the fact Paul or the other apostles, didn’t leave us a textbook for deriving hermeneutical principles from their writings. We are left to discern or draw out how they applied the OT to their own contemporary audience under the New Economy.

    Of course Jesus taught that He was the fulfillment of OT writings and prophecy. This is not really contended. But when we turn to the larger corpus of NT writings we also find the church being addressed as the fulfillment of Israel. And like you suggest, leaving the issues of continuity aside these are the interpretive principles that should guide our thinking.

    Yet if we follow the thought of traditional dispensationalism, which suggests the church age is a parenthesis within God’s greater redemptive work with Israel, then the majority of the Bible (except for the few epistles addressed directly to the churches) become more or less irrelevant to the New Testament believer. Most of the Bible, in this instance, was written for those other than NT Christians.

    But this isn’t how we find the NT authors treating the OT texts. The apostles see a great deal of typology in OT Israel, an unfolding of God plan of salvation from Genesis onward. A church “under age”, if you will. I’m sure you’re familar with the idea that in the OT you have the NT concealed and in the NT you have the OT revealed.

    This is the hermeneutical principles used by the apostles. They interpreted the less clear (the OT), in light of the more clear (the NT). They believed themselves to be living in the fulfillment of OT Israel and was to consider OT Israel as an example of how God was going to deal with the church. In other words, rather than the church being “another way” God dealt redemptively with mankind, it is Israel in all it’s glory. There is no anticipation on the part of the NT authors that God would once again turn His redemptive plans back towards an ethnic Israel, but rather Christ’s church was the antitype, the fulfillment in all that God is planning to achieve in redemptive history.

  9. David,

    Thanks as always for the interchange.

    You asked, “I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea that in the OT you have the NT concealed and in the NT you have the OT revealed.” Yes, I am aware of Augustine’s famous quip but being old does not make it right. I think Willem VanGemeren has represented your position with the more apt, “The Old is by the New restricted and the New is on the Old inflicted.” I thought you might like that.

    I think you make a number of assumptions about “dispensationalism” that are at best hasty generalizations. It would be incorrect for me to lump all covenant theologians into the same group especially in light of the fact that about the only thing they all agree on is that “God made a covenant.” There is a lot of “discontinuity” of thought among covenant brethren.

    At any rate I cautioned in my last comment that this issue should not be reduced to “covenant theology vs. dispensationalism”. I will be the first in line to say that “traditional dispensationalism” (to borrow your phrase) has made some terrible mistakes and overstatements. Surely you will admit the same for your theological heritage as well.

    One thing I noticed again in your most recent comment is that your not distinguishing what a hermeneutical principle actually is. When you say that “when we turn to the larger corpus of NT writings we also find the church being addressed as the fulfillment of Israel” are you suggesting this is a hermeneutical principle? You say so in the very next line. However, whether the church replaces, fulfills, or is to be distinguished in some way from Israel is not a hermeneutical principle in any shape or form. Such a derivation is a theological conclusion not a hermeneutical axiom.

    Suggesting that there is some sort of peculiar function or parenthetical nature to the NT church does not necessitate “then the majority of the Bible (except for the few epistles addressed directly to the churches) become more or less irrelevant to the New Testament believer.” This is an oft repeated claim that simply does not hold up to those who are actually writing and preaching about such issues. The only group I’m aware of today who would say such a thing are ultradispensationalist who are so irrelevant to the discussion that I can’t think of one of their names. Like any good exegete we would deeply affirm 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Your concern if often repeated and rarely demonstrated.

    Your last comment is very revealing and I think shows the built-in biases of your position. You state, “They interpreted the less clear (the OT), in light of the more clear (the NT).” Saying that the OT awaits Messianic fulfillment is a far cry from saying the OT was “less clear”. My fellow contributor, Randy McKinion, has highlighted this issue when he quoted Christopher Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness, 60:

    “Far from being a problematic, outdated, or downright misguided witness to God … the Old Testament is God’s shared gift to the church, meant to guide its present life in Christ. Paul and the church understood this when they declared Jesus’ death and resurrection to be ‘in accordance with the scriptures,’ the Old Testament. Jesus understood this when he declared that he would give his life as a ransom for many. Such a death is only comprehensible against a background of Old Testament accordance.”

    David, I greatly appreciate your input and interaction here. I hope we can somehow transcend the common assumptions and historical inaccuracies that are often leveled in these kinds of discussions. If I have made any in regards to your perspective, by all means point them out.

    Your brother in Christ,

  10. I have read both Mr. Hicks article and Mr. Weymeyers’ older one. I’m not sure what Mr. Hicks is getting at, you’d have to ask him what he means by that comment quoted above.

    Mr. Weymeyer’s previous article is rather good and I agree in principle with what he states there.

    Let me back up and say, I don’t believe we have to follow a strict NT hermeneutic in interpreting the OT. But in attempting to answer the question, “How do the apostles interpret the OT?”, I’d answer as I have previously. That is, in addition to the historical significance of Israel as a nation-state filled with God’s people, they also took into consideration OT Israel’s typological significance as well.

    I believe there to be interpretive principles being used here by the NT authors and that we should seek to align ourselves, as best we can, with their examples.

    Just as a couple of simple illustrations of what I mean;

    1) Paul speaks of the rock in the OT wilderness as being Christ. I believe Paul to be speaking figuratively, the rock is a type of Christ. But can we not take Paul’s use of an OT figure and let that help us understand the OT the same way he did? i.e. finding Christ in other “types”?

    2) When Peter preached at Pentecost and made reference to Joel, he states that Joal was speaking about “this day”. In other words, Peter understood Joel’s words to be fulfilled at Pentecost under the New Economy. In other words a interpretive principle of “fulfillment” was used by Peter regarding Joel. Therefore I’d suggest we can safely apply this hermeneutical principle in our use of OT text as well.

    I hope this helps.

    As an aside, why would Joel have been speaking to issues regarding the church, if the church age is a distinctly seperate dispensation of God’s grace?

    Thank you too for the interaction.

  11. […] we rationalist? R. Scott Clark has responded to Matt’s post with the following: “It’s isn’t that complicated. Pay close attention here: The […]

  12. David,

    What bearing do you see the doctrine of inspiration having on both of your questions as it pertains to Paul and Peter’s use of the OT?

    In other words, were the Apostles actually employing historical-grammatical exegesis of these passages or were they giving information (fulfillment or otherwise) that was only available through the process of the Spirit inspiring scripture? I don’t think we can conclude that there is a one size fits all approach which is one of the things Matt was attempting to point out. There is no standard way in which the apostles approach the 4,000+ texts of the OT that are used in the NT.

  13. As Matt has pointed out, inspiration has a great deal to do with it. But we are to always take the inspired text of Scripture and attempt to rightfully apply them to ourselves. Can you explain why inspiration would be a reason NOT to use their example?

    I don’t think we have to pit sound exegetical and hermenuetical principles against inspiration. If we find that this is how the apostles understood and interpreted OT texts, then there appears no sound reason why we should not try to follow their example. Especially when we see it bring Scripture together as a whole.

    I will say I agree with Dr. Clark’s statement that we should look for Christ in all of Scripture. I also understand that Dispensationalism has moved away from some of it’s original positions regarding the relationship between the OT/NT and issues like the establishment of God’s kingdom. Progressive dispensationalism seems much more in line with covenant theology than it’s predecessor in these regards.

  14. I might add, Dr. Clark asks the rhetorical question,

    “Can we observe how they (the apostles) read Scripture and imitate it?”

    He answers his question, “Yes.”

    I agree with him here. Though the apostles were inspired, this does not neccesarily result in our inability to learn, follow and imitate their example.

    Rather, I think it begs the question, “Why wouldn’t we want to do so?”

  15. Posted by Ronjour Locke on October 4, 2007 at 2:11 am

    I am late in joining the discussion. I have been tremendously helped by Elliott Johnson’s book, Expository Hermeneutics. Johnson does a great job of arguing for a stability of meaning in the text. The apostles did not always use the OT to announce its fulfillment in their own context. To discern their use, one must understand both the OT passage’s contextual meaning and the NT’s contextual meaning. In doing so, one can be helped more in discerning the NT author’s usage of the OT.

    Also, I am concerned with the comment that dispensationalists, since they hold to the church as being a parenthesis, they see most of the Scriptures as irrelevant. This is simply not the case. Again, following Johnson, if one understands God’s creation purpose to restore mediated rule over the earth (Gen. 1-3, esp. 3:15); and if one understands God’s continuing subordinate purposes to allow evil, judge evil, deliver the elect from judgment, and bless the elect (Gen. 4-11); and if one understands the various administrative changes as God furthers history towards the fulfillment of His creation purpose (Gen. 12-50; Ex.-Gospels; Acts-Rev. 19; Rev. 20), then one can discern how the author’s message applies or is significant to the church today.

    For instance, traditional dispensationalists state that the church is not Israel. That is not to say that the OT is not applicable to the church because of the discontinuity between audiences, for the church holds a similar position in relationship to God as Israel did in the OT; we are both in a relationship with God under His rule and mediating His rule over the earth. Now the responsibilities of that mediated rule are different, and that produces the change in application. But there is enough similarity (continuity?) that we listen and heed the OT also.

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  17. […] to this argument in general—I wrote a post on September 23 where I asked the question, “What exactly is the ‘apostles’ hermeneutic’?” In this post, I challenged the advocates of the apostles’ hermeneutic to provide a list of […]

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