The New Testament’s Interpretation of the Old Testament–Hermeneutical Model or Inspired “Answer Key”

Edmund Clowney

In a lecture on Biblical theology,[1] Dr. Edmund Clowney states the following,

Now…I was taught that…you can’t find any type in the New Testament that’s not identified as a type in the New Testament. But…that’s certainly safe. You know, it’s like you got a book of math or something; and you can’t solve any problem if it’s not given in the back of the book. I mean, you know the answer’s right ’cause it’s in the back of the book; but you say [conclude], “you can’t work any of the problems yourself; you can only look in the back of the book.” It’s kind of a confession of hermeneutical bankruptcy from one perspective. It’s saying, “the New Testament writers can interpret these things; but we don’t have a clue on how they did it. If we knew how they did it, we could do it. But we don’t know how they did it, so we can’t do it. So to play safe, we won’t identify anything as a type if it’s not already identified as a type.” And see, my argument is that they [the New Testament authors] have taught us a lot by the way they identify types.

Dr. Clowney’s point in this quote pertains specifically to typological interpretation; but the principle can be expanded beyond this. Clowney’s point is that the New Testament (NT) writers interpret the Old Testament (OT) accurately, in a hermeneutically responsible way that accords with inspiration, progressive-revelation, as well as redemptive-history which culminates in Christ. (At least) two implications may be drawn from this.

Implications

First, as interpreters of scripture, not only can we follow the apostles’ model of interpretation (learning how to interpret scripture from scripture itself, implementing sola scriptura into our hermeneutics), we ought to. The OT anticipates Christ as its climax and is yet an unfinished story without Him.[2] Not only so, but Christ is God’s ultimate “act” of revelation. And therefore, as its fulfillment, He sheds light on all previous revelation. To interpret the OT other than through the “lens of Christ” is not necessarily to misinterpret it, but to interpret it in such a way that does not consider its fullest significance and meaning in light of redemptive-history that culminates in Christ, to teach it as something other than Christian scripture.

Second, concerning those systems of theology that attempt to “put the testaments together,” those systems of interpretation that for all practical purposes reject the apostles’ manner of interpreting the OT (e.g., “the apostles interpreted the OT in bizarre ways that cannot be explained hermeneutically but only in terms of their inspiration; and therefore, we should not seek to model the apostles’ interpretive methods [if they even had any!]”–what I was taught at my dispensational undergraduate school) in principle admit the hermeneutical bankruptcy of their system. In other words, by lacking a legitimate explanation for the apostles’ hermeneutic, they admit that their hermeneutic does not cohere with the NT model. Correspondingly and consequently, their system of interpretation will inevitably conflict with the way the NT understands its relationship to the OT, a relationship so central to “putting one’s Bible together” properly.

Douglas Moo

In closing, Moo’s comment below helps provides a helpful “check and balance” to this discussion.

The revelatory stance of the New Testament interpreters of the Old must not be ignored; and some of the applications they make would never have been discovered if they have not told us of them. … The specificity of the application could not have been made without the benefit of revelation. …

In the debate over whether we can “reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament,” then our answer must be carefully nuanced. On the one hand, we do not have the same revelatory authority to make the specific identifications made in the New Testament. But, on the other hand, we can usually see the theological structure and hermeneutical principles on which the New Testament interpretation of the Old rests; and we can follow the New Testament in applying similar criteria in our own interpretation.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, the apostolic hermeneutic is always correct; and therefore, it is obvious that we should seek to model it. But at the same time, some of the apostles’ specific observations are so incredible that their insight is best explained by the Spirit’s inspiration (an inspiration that implemented accurate hermeneutics, mind you!). Therefore, we should take caution in trying to make equally insightful observations ourselves, lest we become imaginative and play fast-and-loose with our hermeneutics.

Notes

[1] Lecture “Christ in All the Scriptures 11: Jesus Shows the Father,” in a class titled “Biblical Theology: Edmund Clowney’s class on biblical theology,” by Westminster Theological Seminary via Apple’s iTunes U; release date: May 17, 2010.

[2] Let me clarify this statement. The various portions of the OT, and the OT as a whole, can be called “complete” in a similar way to how one may speak of a fully written and edited chapter of a book–complete. The OT (in terms of parts and its whole) is an adequate and significant revelatory act of God on its own terms. But at the same time, like a book lacking its final chapters, chapters that bring ultimate meaning to the entire book by shedding light on the significance of previous chapters, so the OT (in terms of parts and its whole) is unfinished and therefore incomplete.

[3] Douglas Moo, “The Problem of Sensus Plenior,” pg. 206 in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon by D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge.

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