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.”