During my first year of seminary, I took a hermeneutics class which required me to read two books: Let the Reader Understand by Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton and Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy Zuck. Although I was largely ignorant of the various controversies in the field of hermeneutics at the time, I was quickly introduced to two distinctly different approaches to interpreting the Old Testament:
Approach #1: “To understand the OT properly, it must be read in the light of the NT” (McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand, 48).
Approach #2: “Recognizing the progress of revelation means that the interpreter will be careful not to read back into the Old Testament from the New” (Zuck, Basic Bible Intepretation, 73).
What struck me then (as it does now) is how the first approach insists that we do precisely what the second approach warns us not to do. Hardly a subtle contrast. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the first approach is generally taken by covenant theologians, whereas the second approach is characteristic of most dispensationalists.
The reason this came to mind is that I just stumbled across a blog article by a recent transfer to Westminster Theological Seminary who describes how the hermeneutics of covenant theology were misrepresented during his previous time at a dispensational seminary. Unfortunately this new convert to covenant theology inadvertently returns the favor by misrepresenting dispensationalism as a child of the Enlightenment. He writes:
The dispensational method of interpretation actually began in the Enlightenment when exegetes who denied the inspiration of the Scriptures, and therefore denied a complete canon, interpreted each individual text solely in light of its original context. No later revelation could be used to interpret a particular text because the Bible is not inspired and has no inherent unity. God cannot use later revelation to shed light on earlier revelation because God did not write the Bible, so says the Enlightenment. For some reason dispensationalists, some of the staunchest defenders of the inspiration of Scripture, have adopted this Enlightenment hermeneutic.
In reality, the dispensational approach to reading the Old Testament has nothing to do with the Enlightenment and everything to do with the perspicuity of Scripture. Put simply, if the OT cannot be understood apart from the light of the NT, the original readers of the OT were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises. This is an utter denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In my understanding of the nature of Scripture, God’s intention was to reveal truth in His Word, not conceal it. For this reason, I have a difficult time adopting a hermeneutical approach which says, in effect, that much of the Old Testament was intended to be an indecipherable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.
In the end, the main problem I have with the hermeneutics of covenant theology is that “shedding light on earlier revelation” often means reinterpreting the Old Testament in a way that completely alters the meaning of the passage in its original context. It’s one thing for a NT passage to bring a clearer understanding of an OT passage by providing more details or by fitting more pieces into the overall puzzle. But it’s quite another to use the NT to completely change the meaning of the OT as communicated to its original audience. The former is the necessary task of every theologian; the latter is a rejection of the perspicuity of the Old Testament.