In Search of the “Apostles’ Hermeneutic” (Part 2)

In answer to the question, What exactly is the ‘apostles’ hermeneutic’?, R. Scott Clark writes, “The Apostolic hermeneutic is to see Christ at the center of all of Scripture.” This explanation is problematic for a number of reasons. The first problem is that it lacks the kind of comprehensiveness that is needed from those who claim to use the “apostles’ hermeneutic.” As I pointed out yesterday in part 1, if our hermeneutics are to be derived only from Scripture, then those who insist on the “apostles’ hermeneutic” should be able to produce a comprehensive list of hermeneutical principles along with the biblical references which clearly model each principle. This simply has not been done. In fact, I’m guessing that it has never even been attempted.  

Perhaps the assertion that “one should see Christ at the center of all of Scripture” could be considered the first principle on the list, but where are the others, and where are they clearly modeled by the apostles? I cannot imagine that this one principle would constitute the entirety of the hermeneutical guidelines that Clark and Hicks would teach their hermeneutics students. In fact, I am even guessing that they would teach many guidelines that cannot be shown clearly to be part of the “apostles’ hermeneutic.” If so, do they advocate a hermeneutical approach that is partly derived from Scripture and yet partly derived from “speculative human reasoning”?  

A second problem with Clark’s definition is that it is perfectly compatible with the kind of allegorical approach to Scripture that it leads to a subjectivism far more speculative than anything the wildest of dispensationalists have come up with. As Paul Lamey notes, if the “apostles’ hermeneutic” is to see Christ at the center of all Scripture, how do you do that without resorting to a highly subjective—or even hyper-allegorical—approach to the OT?  

According to Moises Silva, “If we refuse to pattern our exegesis after that of the apostles, we are in practice denying the authoritative character of their scriptural interpretation.” And yet elsewhere Silva warns against “indiscriminate imitation” of the apostles and cautions that we are not to reproduce their hermeneutical approach “in all its features.” The problem is this: where exactly do we draw the line? Which parts of the apostles’ hermeneutics do we imitate and which do we not?  

I think most advocates of the “apostles’ hermeneutic” would concede that there must be some objective controls or guidelines to prevent a drift into unbridled subjectivity. But this raises the question: What exactly are these objective controls? And just as importantly, where are these objective controls clearly modeled by the NT writers in their handling of the OT? Or are they derived from “speculative human reasoning”? 

I think of Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15. In the original context of Hosea, it seems pretty clear that the prophet is looking back 700 years to Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, not 700 years forward to Christ’s return from Egypt after Herod’s death. In other words, Hosea 11:1 would appear to be history, not prophecy. At least that how it looks without any light from the NT. So would it be fair to derive the following hermeneutical principle from Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1?: Historical statements in the Old Testament which describe a past event involving the nation of Israel should be interpreted as predicting a future event in the life of Christ. Is this one of the hermeneutical principles modeled by the apostle Matthew? If not, why not? If so, why is everyone so hard on Origen? After all, the man was simply applying the hermeneutics taught in the Bible, wasn’t he? 

A third problem with Clark’s approach concerns the perspicuity of the OT. According to Clark, the OT should be read in light of the NT and cannot be understood apart from the light it provides. As I’ve written elsewhere, however, this hermeneutical approach 

insists that the original readers of the OT were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises in the OT. This is an outright denial of the perspicuity of the OT. 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 OT was intended to be an unsolvable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.   

This, of course, is where Clark will accuse me of being a rationalist who sets up arbitrary assumptions about what can and cannot be. But there is nothing arbitrary about assuming that the intent of God’s written revelation was to reveal truth, not to hide it or mislead those who were trying to understand it. In addition, there are clear indications in Scripture that the OT could indeed be understood properly apart from the light of the NT. In Luke 24:25, Jesus rebuked the two disciples for not believing all that the prophets had written about Him (cf. John 5:39-47). This implies that He must have expected them to be able to read, understand, and believe what the OT taught about Himself apart from the light of NT revelation (since the NT had not yet been written). If the OT cannot be understood apart from the NT, these disciples could have legitimately responded to Jesus’ rebuke by saying: “How can you say that we are foolish and slow to believe the OT since we are not even able to understand it apart from light which has not yet been provided?” This is not to deny that Christ is the pinnacle of redemptive history, but rather to say that OT revelation could be understood by its original audience. (For a discussion of how people misuse 1 Peter 1:10-12 to deny this, see “Walt Kaiser on 1 Peter 1:10-12”; for a discussion of Luke 24 and the Christological hermeneutic, see here.) 

A fourth problem with using the “apostolic hermeneutic” is that it fails to recognize that there are a multitude of different ways that the NT writers used the OT in their writings. In contrast, many who advocate the use of the “apostles’ hermeneutic” seem to operate from the assumption that the NT writer is always setting forth the divinely intended meaning of the OT passage he is citing. It seems more accurate to say, along with John Feinberg, that “there is no such thing as the NT pattern of OT usage” but rather that “there are varieties of NT uses of the OT.” 

Those who advocate the “apostles’ hermeneutic” certainly have their work cut out for them in discerning what exactly those hermeneutical principles are. Sometimes the NT writer appears to completely ignore the original context of the OT passage when he quotes it. Should that be considered part of the approach that we should use today? Other times, the NT writer alters the actual quotation of the OT passage to fit with his purpose in citing it. Is that one of the methods we should imitate? 

When one recognizes the plurality of ways in which the NT writers use the OT, it becomes clear that they often referred to the OT without seeking to interpret it. Helpful here are the insights of Douglas Moo:  

Much like the speech of a person raised on the classics will be sprinkled with terminology and idioms drawn from those texts, New Testament writers often–without intending to provide a “correct” interpretation of the Old Testament text–use Old Testament language as a vehicle of expression.  

According to Silva, the NT writers were so acquainted with the Scriptures that they would often make “relatively casual references” to the OT. “If they did,” Silva writes, “these casual references would reveal nothing about their exegetical method.” I couldn’t agree more.  

John Walton takes this a step further. According to Walton, the “NT authors never claim to have engaged in a hermeneutical process, nor do they claim that they can support their findings from the text; they claim inspiration” (more on this below). With this in mind, it is obvious that the modern-day interpreter who seeks to imitate the NT writers’ “interpretations” of the OT will be led astray at times, for often the NT writer is not engaging in the process of interpretation.

When dealing with the use of the OT in the NT, I believe we need to study each passage in its own original context—honoring the principle of “the progress of revelation” in the process—and then determine the relationship between the two, without simply assuming that relationship at the beginning. For an example of an attempt to do so, see “Paul’s Use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26.” 

A fifth and final problem with trying to imitate the so-called “apostles’ hermeneutic” is this: The difference between human interpretation and divine inspiration separates the modern-day exegete from the NT writer in such a way that the former is not able to employ the methods of the latter. As Walton writes, “We cannot speak of reproducing the methods of the NT authors, for the subjectivity of their methods is not allowed to those of us whose interpretation does not enjoy the affirmation of inspiration.” To state it another way, the NT writers were superintended by the Holy Spirit, and modern-day interpreters are not. Therefore, as Walton writes, “We do not wish to reproduce the hermeneutics of NT authors because they, by virtue of inspiration, accrued authority to themselves by means unavailable to us.” 

The point is this: The NT writers’ use of the OT was a function of divine inspiration, and not simply a matter of human interpretation carried out in accordance with divinely revealed hermeneutical principles. In other words, when the apostle Paul quoted or alluded to the OT in his epistles, he wasn’t applying God-given hermeneutical principles to various passages in the OT; he was being superintended by the Holy Spirit in such a way that he wrote precisely what God was pleased to supernaturally reveal to him. The NT writers do not claim a superior hermeneutical approach to the OT; they claim inspiration. For those who are not able to claim inspiration, this method cannot be employed.

In the end, I find myself in hearty agreement with the quotation that Paul Lamey provided from Richard Longenecker:

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. 

Put another way, it’s time to call off the search for the so-called “apostles’ hermeneutic.”

19 responses to this post.

  1. Matt,

    Are you aware of any written work that dissects all the uses of the OT in the NT? I know some hermeneutics books take specific examples and discuss them but is there one excellent volume that deals with all of them?

    Helpful post as always.


  2. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 5, 2007 at 9:18 pm


    No, I’m not, but there is a book coming out in November that might come close: “Commentary on the New Tesetament Use of the Old Testament” (eds. D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale). It looks really good. Here are the contributors:

    Craig L. Blomberg (Denver Seminary) on Matthew; Rikk E. Watts (Regent College) on Mark; David W. Pao (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Eckhard J. Schnabel (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) on Luke; Andreas J. Köstenberger (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) on John; I. Howard Marshall (University of Aberdeen) on Acts; Mark A. Seifrid (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) on Romans; Roy E. Ciampa (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) and Brian S. Rosner (Moore Theological College) on 1 Corinthians; Peter Balla (Károli Gáspár Reformed University, Budapest) on 2 Corinthians; Moisés Silva on Galatians and Philippians; Frank S. Thielman (Beeson Divinity School) on Ephesians; G. K. Beale (Wheaton College Graduate School) on Colossians; Jeffrey A. D. Weima (Calvin Theological Seminary) on 1 and 2 Thessalonians; Philip H. Towner (United Bible Societies) on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus; George H. Guthrie (Union University) on Hebrews; D. A. Carson (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) on the General Epistles; G. K. Beale (Wheaton College Graduate School) and Sean M. McDonough (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) on Revelation.

    If you check it out on Amazon, you can actually read the first several pages of the book. I really like the approach it seems to take–definately at the top of my Christmas list.

  3. Posted by Scott Christensen on October 5, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    Maybe this is too much to ask, but it would be nice to know where some of your quotes are taken from.

  4. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 5, 2007 at 10:07 pm


    I made them up.

  5. Posted by Scott Christensen on October 5, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Yeah! I remember you do that in your seminary papers too!

  6. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 5, 2007 at 10:10 pm


    No, seriously, I will send you the sources next week. I am under the pile getting ready for Sunday. My preference is to include all the bibliographic info right there in the article, but that doesn’t seem to fit the genre of a blog post.

  7. Kate Turabian looks upon Matt W and smiles, whispering, “Well done Matt, well done!”

    The more I thought about my post the more I realized how huge an undertaking that would be. The reason I asked was simply to assess if the NT authors always used the OT in a Christocentric way. I think the answer, as you pointed out above, would likely be no. But I’m speculating.

    The book you ref seems to be a great way to approach it (book by book of the NT). That book will be a nice addition to this quest.

    I’m still willing to buy In-N-Out.

    Thanks Matt.

  8. Posted by Scott Christensen on October 5, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Understood. You’re a man with less time on your hands then me?

  9. Posted by Scott Christensen on October 5, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    Sorry, didn’t mean to put a ? mark after that sentence.

  10. Rich,

    If we can show that the Apostles did not use a so-called “Christocentric” method even once then their entire thesis falls apart. Of course if “christocentric” is defined rather broadly then some may find a way to include every quote and/or allusion in the NT. If something is defined so broadly then it is useless especially when trying to determine if there is a repeatable hermeneutic outlined in the NT for all to follow.

    There is little debate that the Apostles employed various perspectives when recounting OT passages. The question Matt has so ably raised is can those various perspectives be repeated and if so how does this account for the doctrine of inspiration and its cessation? Furthermore, can what the Apostles did really be called hermeneutics?

    Rich, you can buy me In-N-Out any day.

  11. Posted by Jerry Wragg on October 6, 2007 at 2:06 am

    Matt –
    I’ve pre-ordered that new volume edited by Carson. It should be helpful.
    I agree that our Amill brothers have not produced a consistent list of interpretive parameters for their “Christocentric” hermeneutic. This, in short, is the death knell of that approach. When God chose to use earthly agents for special revelation, the vehicle was always the human language of that historical period. From Adam, to the patriarchs, to the prophets, to Jesus Christ Himself, normal human language has been the vehicle. As far as I know, when the prophets spoke “Thus saith the Lord” no one was suspicious of hidden meanings. Nor did the hearers doubt the perspicuity of the message. Of course, God revealed Himself through human instruments using every communication and literary device common to cultures (including types-antitypes, promise-realization, hidden mystery-full explanation, sign-arrival, prophecy-fulfillment, etc.). However, none of these devices precludes a clear understanding of the link between words and intent. Anything less would’ve simply been poor communication, something God cannot be charged with.
    Also, you continue to mention your belief that the Apostles, being inspired, did not necessarily use a hermeneutic when referring to the OT. Unless I’m assuming something, your view of how the Apostles used the OT would be Non-literal, Inspired. Is this correct?
    In light of this view, how would…say…Matthew (in 2:15 particularly vis=a=vis Hosea 11:1) have been able to convince a predominantly Jewish audience that his Messianic understanding of the OT was compelling if all he were doing was inspired quoting? Wouldn’t they simply have charged him with teachings that are not consistent with a normative view of Hosea’s prophecy? If the Apostles appealed exclusively to inspiration, how could they have avoided the charge of being poor exegetes?
    While I agree that they were inspired (and so we cannot duplicate that element), and that they use the OT in a variety of ways (some of which obliterate the argument for an consistent “Apostle’s hermeneutic”), why not study each OT quote with the goal of determining if the Apostles stayed within the bounds of a grammatico-historical approach that didn’t violate any of the normative meaning of the OT texts in question? S. Lewis Johnson, among others, was convinced this was the case, and both Dan Wallace and Ken Barker have contributed some very compelling exegetical essays in this regard.
    If it can be shown that the Apostles were committed to quoting the OT without doing violence to normal human language and literary device (the very principle we hold to with a grammatico-historical model), we would demonstrate the importance of that method (as opposed to hyper-typologicalism and NT priority revelation), and it would explain how the 1st century Jews never quibbled over the variety of ways the Apostles liberally quoted the OT, linking it to Jesus.
    Perhaps they did simply quote in a way we can never do…but until we can prove their alleged violations of a normative view of the OT, I think we needn’t retreat to “inspirational license” just yet.
    Looking for your insights,


  12. Jerry,

    Great questions and insights. I have not read Wallace and Barker on this. Could you give the references if you have the time?


  13. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 6, 2007 at 4:13 am


    I must confess that I feel like a finger-painting four-year-old who has just been approached by Picasso and been asked for some help. Regarding my view of how the apostles used the OT, I agree that they used the OT in a variety of ways. To me, that’s part of what makes this such a fascinating field of study: there is no single method that was used by the apostles. This, I believe, creates a need for books like the one coming out in November. Even where I may disagree with a given contributor’s conclusion, I am sure I will be helped immensely by the way he walks through the process. I am convinced that nobody has all right answers on this one. I myself am on square one.

    I actually agree completely with the approach you suggested when you wrote: “why not study each OT quote with the goal of determining if the Apostles stayed within the bounds of a grammatico-historical approach that didn’t violate any of the normative meaning of the OT texts in question?” In fact, when I begin the process of studying both passages in their original contexts to determine the relationship between the two, my working assumption at the start of the process is that the apostles DID “stay within the bounds of a grammatico-historical approach.” I may later conclude that they are using the OT in a different way, but that is where I start. I don’t think that is necessarily where you would HAVE to start—after all, if that is indeed how the NT writer is using the OT, that should come out clearly in the end anyway—but that has been the most helpful approach for me.

    Regarding the apologetic value of Matthew’s of Hosea, I must confess that I have the same questions as you, and I’m not sure how to answer them. Back in my Campus Crusade days as a college student, I was a hardcore evidentialist in my apologetical approach, and unfortunately this led to something of a crisis of faith for me. I can remember eventually coming to the place where I looked at the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 (and other such uses of the OT in NT) and was “unimpressed” with the evidence it provided for the veracity of the Christian faith. I will say this: If an unbelieving Jew doesn’t see Jesus in Isaiah 53, he certainly won’t see Him in Hosea 11:1.

    Perhaps you’ve read it already, but you might get a clearer idea of how I approach the issue by reading the link provided in the original post entitled “Paul’s Use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26.” In it, I compared three possible answers to the question of how Paul is using Hosea in that passage. It is somewhat of a simplistic look at the issue, but it may be helpful in illustrating what I refer to as the “analogical use” of the OT, a use that I suspect may be common. Incidentally, if I remember correctly, Dr. Mayhue sees the same kind of thing going on in Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (in Matt 2:15) and Isaiah 53:4-5 (in Matt 8:17) (see Richard Mayhue, “For What Did Christ Atone in Isa 53:4-5?,” TMSJ 6 [1995]: 121-41).

  14. Posted by Jerry Wragg on October 6, 2007 at 9:13 am

    Paul –
    I’ll send the essays or references as soon as I can dig them up.

    Matt –
    I agree with your “analogical use” category, so long as it can be shown that an Apostle making analogical connections fits well within a normative (i.e. grammatico-historical) approach to an OT text.
    Regarding Hosea 11:1, I think that upon closer exegetical scrutiny it can be demonstrated that Matthew gave an interpretation in harmony with a typical grammatico-historical framework, looking at the Israel/Son solidarity motif as a legitimate interpretive hinge for both retrospective (Israel called “out of Egypt” historically) and prospective (the Son “called out of Egypt” as the fulfillment of prophecy) understanding.

  15. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 6, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Depending on what you mean, I think my “analogical” understanding of Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26 “fits well within a normative (i.e., grammatico-historical) approach to [the] OT text,” as you put it, at least in this way: A proper understanding of Paul’s analogy is dependent on understanding the grammatical-historical meaning of the Hosea passages in their own original contexts. As I wrote in the original post, one of strongest arguments for the analogical view is that it “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.” Understood in this way, not only is the analogy tight, but it also reflects the fact that Paul understood the originally intended meaning of Hosea, even though he is not seeking to set forth that meaning in Romans 9. Regarding Matthew’s use of Hosea, I’ll need to spend some more time looking into that.

    Thanks, Jerry, for pressing me to think more precisely about these issues. All the more this makes me look forward to Carson’s book.

  16. Posted by Bobby Grow on October 6, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    Good points, Matt.

    I am of the opinion that w/o inspiration, or guidance from the Holy Spirit, the NT author could not make certain “typological” connections that he does in any “meaningful” way.

    I know Walter Kaiser believes that the “informing theology” allows for intertextual context that further allows for explaining how the NT used the OT w/o assuming a sensus plenior of sorts. But I simply think this just does not work for every situation . . . which then brings me back to a fuller meaning approach (viz. for the NT authors). D. Moo mentions the Acts 2/Ps 16 usage in reference to the resurrection (a promise/fulfillment) . . . how would the “informing theology” of Kaiser work in this instance? I don’t think it does.

  17. Posted by CalebKolstad on October 6, 2007 at 7:41 pm


    In what ways do you agree with Dr. Thomas’ ISPA and in what ways do you disagree? Perhaps a future post topic, idk.

    Great work here.


  18. Posted by CalebKolstad on October 8, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Da Bears are back (atleast for one more week). It was a great win over Favre in Green Bay. Hope you enjoyed the game. ;)


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