Forty Reasons Why the New Testament does not Necessarily have Priority in Biblical Interpetation

“We have to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that. It sounds good at first and seems to make sense if you think about it from within that category, but after you begin to think about it from outside that framework, you see that it just doesn’t add up.

This is not to say that dispensationalism (notice I use the lower case “d”) necessarily has all the answers, because it doesn’t. The system needs much development (even though I am intrigued by the work of the “progressive dispensationalists” in applying a “salvation-history” framework (which, consequently, is what many of my generation do) is doing much to make dispensationalism what it ought to be as a system. It is interesting that many of the conclusions reached by British theologians (such as Dunn and Wright) who have no prior theological commitments in this regard with regard to the future of Israel and Jewish-Gentile identity are very similar to the conclusions reached by dispensationalism despite serious flaws in the older dispensational model.

In light of this, I urge you to thoughtfully consider Dr. Paul Martin Henebury’s list of forty reasons why the New Testament does not necessarily have priority over the Old in biblical interpretation. (Links are at the end of this post.)

Here are some I think are very important to consider:

1. Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT. Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this.

2. It would mean no one could correctly interpret the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.

3. It forces the NT into saying things it never explicitly says (e.g. that the Church is “the New Israel” or the seventh day Sabbath is now the first day “Christian Sabbath.”)

4. It forces the OT into saying things it really does not mean (e.g. Ezekiel 43:1-7, 10-12).

5. It would require the Lord Jesus to have used a brand new set of hermeneutical rules in, e.g., Lk. 24:44; rules not accessible until the arrival of the entire NT. These would have to include rules for each “genre”, which would not have been apparent to anyone interpreting the OT on its own terms.

6. If the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT then what it says on its own account cannot be trusted, as it could well be a “type” to be reinterpreted by the NT.

12. If the Author of the OT does not mean what He appears to say, but is in reality speaking in types and shadows which He will apparently reveal later, what assurance is there that He is not still speaking in types and shadows in the NT? Especially is this problem intensified because many places in the NT are said to be types and shadows still (e.g. the Temple in 2 Thess. 2 and Rev. 11).

13. It imposes a “unity” on the Bible which is symbolic and metaphorical only. Hence taking the Bible in a normal, plain-sense (the sense scholars advocating this view take for granted their readers will adopt with them, which we would identify as “literal”) would destroy any unity between the Testaments.

14. However, a high degree of unity can be achieved by linking together the OT and NT literature in a plain-sense, even though every question the interpreter may have will not be answered. Hence, this position that the NT must reinterpret the OT ignores or rejects the fact that, taken literally (in the sense defined above) the OT makes good sense.

16. Thus, no unbeliever could be accused of unbelief so long as they only possessed the OT, since the apparatus for belief (the NT) was not within their grasp.

17. This all makes mincemeat of any claim for the perspicuity of Scripture. At the very least it makes this an attribute possessed only by the NT.

18. Thus, the OT is deprived of its own hermeneutical integrity. This would render warnings such as that found in Proverbs 30:5-6 pointless.

20. In consequence of the above the status of the OT as “Word of God” would be logically inferior to the status of the NT. The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.

21. It devalues the OT as its own witness to God and His Plans. For example, if the promises given to ethnic Israel of land, throne, temple, etc. are somehow “fulfilled” in Jesus and the Church what was the point of speaking about them so pointedly? Cramming everything into Christ not only destroys the clarity and unity of Scripture in the ways already mentioned, it reduces the biblical covenants down to the debated promise of Genesis 3:15. The [true] expansion seen in the covenants (with all their categorical statements) is deflated into a single soundbite of “the Promised Seed-Redeemer has now come and all is fulfilled in Him.” This casts aspersions on God as a communicator and as a covenant-Maker, since there was absolutely no need for God to say many of the things He said in the OT, let alone bind himself by oaths to fulfill them (a la Jer. 31 & 33).

23. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired intertextual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants cited in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26). God is always taken at face value (e.g. 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 9:2, 13). This sets up an expectation that covenant commitments will find “fulfillment” in expected ways, certainly not in completely unforeseeable ones.

24. It forces clear descriptive language into an unnecessary semantic mold (e.g. Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14). A classic example being Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezek. 40ff. is not a physical temple even though a physical temple is clearly described.

29. A God who would “expand” His promises in such an unanticipated way could never be trusted not to “transform” His promises to us in the Gospel. Thus, there might be a difference between the Gospel message as we preach it (relying on the face value language of the NT) and God’s real intentions when He eventually “fulfills” the promises in the Gospel. Since it is thought that He did so in the past, it is conceivable that He might do so again in the future. Perhaps the promises to the Church will be “fulfilled” in totally unexpected ways with a people other than the Church?

30. Exegetically it would entail taking passages in both Testaments literally and non-literally at the same time (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; 49:6; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9; Lk. 1:31-33; Rev. 7).

31. Exegetically it would also impose structural discontinuities into prophetic books (e.g. God’s glory departs a literal temple by the east gate in Ezekiel 10, but apparently returns to a spiritual temple through a spiritual east gate in Ezekiel 43!).

32. In addition, it makes the Creator of language the greatest rambler in all literature. Why did God not just tell the prophet, “When the Messiah comes He will be the Temple and all those in Him will be called the Temple”? That would have saved thousands of misleading words at the end of Ezekiel.

36. It makes the unwarranted assumption that there can only be one people of God. Since the OT speaks of Israel and the nations (e.g. Zech. 14:16f.); Paul speaks of Israel and the Church (e.g. Rom. 11:25, 28; Gal. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:32; cf. Acts 26:7), and the Book of Revelation speaks of Israel separated from the nations (Rev. 7), and those in New Jerusalem distinguished from “the kings of the earth” (Rev. 21:9-22:5), it seems precarious to place every saved person from all ages into the Church.

37. In reality what happens is the theological presuppositions of the interpreter which are read into the NT text and then back into the OT. There is a corresponding breakdown between what the biblical text says and what they are assumed to mean. Thus, it is the interpretation of the reader and not the wording of the biblical text which is often the authority for what the Bible is allowed to teach.

40. Finally, there is no critical awareness of much of the problems enumerated above because that awareness is provided by the OT texts and the specific wording of those texts, which, of course, are not allowed a voice on par with what the NT text is assumed to mean. Only verses which preserve the desired theological picture are allowed to mean what they say. Hence a vicious circle is created of the NT reinterpreting the Old. This is a hermeneutical circle which ought not to be presupposed.

The first twenty reasons

The final twenty reasons

For more about Dr. Reluctant read his brief bio.


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Biblical Theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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