Was There An Apostolic Hermeneutic And Can We Imitate It?

 Yes and yes. No, it’s not in the Scofield Reference or Ryrie Study Bibles.

It seems that some of our dispensational friends have yet to read the memo. See this example sent to me a by a friend. This writer, whom I do not know, claims that folk such as we talk about the apostolic hermeneutic and claim to be able to replicate it but never say what it is.

One throws up one’s hands in amazement and wonder.

It’s isn’t that complicated. Pay close attention here: The Apostolic hermeneutic is to see Christ at the center of all of Scripture. We’re not reading him into Scripture. We’re refusing to read him out of it. There, I said it. That’s what it is. Perhaps the reason our dispensational friends cannot see it is because they are blinded by their rationalism. They know a priori what the organizing principle of Scripture must be and it isn’t God the Son, it’s national Israel. “What my net can’t catch must not be butterflies.” Do they ever stop to think that the trouble could be their net? Does it ever trouble them that any system that leads to the conclusion that one day the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36), who is presently ruling the nations (Acts 2:36; Rev 5:12-13) is going to sit on a throne in Jerusalem to watch sinful human priests slaughter lambs? Does it trouble them that, effectively, they agree with the Pharisees? I’m pretty sure I remember J. Dwight Pentecost saying that the Pharisees had the right hermeneutic but they came to the wrong conclusions. Really? Is that what Jesus said about them? “You guys are really close to getting it right if you would just tweak this one little detail?” I think not.

Just so no one thinks that I’m pulling hermeneutical rabbits out of exegetical hats:

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (ESV)

“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).

“For Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56).

Yes, Reformed folk (and others) have been reading the bible like this for a very long time. The earliest post-apostolic Christians, in contrast to the Jewish critics of the Christian faith, read the Bible to teach a unity of salvation organized around Jesus Christ. The entire medieval church read the Bible this way as did the Reformation and post-Reformation churches.

There were exceptions, however. In the patristic period the Marcionites radically divided Scripture and set the “Old Testament” god against the NT “God.” In the medieval church the Albigenses did something similar as did the 16th-century Anabaptists (all of whom denied justification sola gratia, sola fide). Those groups all also had trouble with the humanity of Jesus. What ties those two things together? A Platonizing dualism that sets the material against the physical. This same tendency produces a similar hermeneutic among many American dispensationalists as well. This dualistic tendency explains why dispensationalists refer to the apostolic hermeneutic as “spiritualizing.” Yes, rather, but not in the way they think. “Spiritual” in Paul’s vocabulary does not mean “immaterial” but “of the Holy Spirit.” The same Spirit who inspired Moses also inspired Paul. There is a “Spiritual” interpretation of Holy Scripture that focuses on the God-Man who entered history and around whom all of God’s self-revelation is organized.

Where have Reformed folk specifically detailed, illustrated and practiced the apostolic hermeneutic? Here’s a reading list:

E. P. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament 
Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ From All of Scripture
Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Nashville: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).
Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics 
Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology .
Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation 
Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue (PDF).

Here are some short popular attempts to mediate some of this stuff:

This Christian Life
The Israel of God
What Is the Bible All About?” (this link takes you to the MR page but the article is not online).

What method do we use? It’s grammatical and historical! It reads the Old in the light of the new. It doesn’t set up arbitrary a priori‘s about what can and can’t be. We don’t begin with an unstated premise, “All reasonable people know p.” We don’t think that any uninspired hermeneutic (system of interpretation) is superior to Paul’s or James’ or Peter’s.

One need not be inspired to read the Bible the way the apostles did. I’m not even sure it’s proper to say that their hermeneutic was inspired. We confess that Scripture is inspired, but was their way of reading Scripture inspired? I doubt it. As John Frame used to ask in class, were the apostolic grocery lists inspired? No. Can we observe how they read Scripture and imitate it? Yes.

One need not be inspired to see that when Ps 110 says, “Yahweh says to Adon, ‘Sit at my right hand'” that David, whose bones are still in the ground, is not Adon! Jesus, who is ascended and ruling at the right hand of the Father, is Adon. There are two reasons one might not see this: 1) unbelief, as in the case of the Jews who rejected Jesus as Savior; 2) rationalism that says, “We know how the story turns out and this can’t be the right ending! There has to be a restoration of the national people or it doesn’t count. We want do-overs.”

No Christian should find either one of those reasons compelling.

Update on Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 01:21PM

Two items:

1) Paul Lamey at Expository Thoughts replies to my post. He complains about my rhetoric. Get in line buddy! I don’t think he understood what I mean by rationalist. He says ” I will also point out that many reformed interpreters have flattened the text and are quick to excuse elements of discontinuity.” This is absolutely true. In over-reaction to dispensationalism, many Reformed folk have flattened out discontinuity between Moses and Christ.

That’s not the issue here, however. The issue is whether it is possible to observe and follow the apostolic hermeneutic. The claim was that it either hasn’t been done or it can’t be done. In response I offer multiple concrete examples where it has been done and is being done.

Paul bristles at my characterization of his post as dispensationalist. Okay. Fine. “Evangelical.” “Fundamentalist.” Let’s say “Bible Church.” Indeed, there are nominally “Reformed” folk who would say something quite similar and be just as wrong and they don’t represent the mainstream of the tradition.

He claims that there are dispensationalist interpreters who see Jesus at the center of Scripture. Fine. He doesn’t cite any examples. Let’s grant that the latest version of dispensationalism comes closer to an historic Christian hermeneutic, but they’re still hoping not only for the conversion of Jews but the restoration of a national kingdom. Isn’t this what John MacArthur said that Calvin would hold if he were alive today? Right.

Let me raise the stakes. He says, “Last time I checked, christology is a branch of systmematic theology and not a branch of hermeneutics but don’t get everything bunched-up just yet.” This is exactly what I’m talking about. This is what “evangelical” or “Bible church” folk don’t understand. “Hermeneutics” is not a discipline that may be hermetically-sealed from “theology.” This is where the “rationalism” creeps in. No one says, “Today I shall be a rationalist.” What they do, however, is to set up an a priori whereby they establish what Paul or Peter can do and what we can’t do when reading the Bible. Can a “Bible Church” hermeneutic do Galatians 4? I can. Why? Because I understand what Paul is doing their and, sola gratia I am learning, with the catholic church, to read the Bible the way Paul does. I don’t think there’s any way the typical “Bible church” hermeneutic can account for Gal 4.

I don’t think there’s anyway for the typical “Bible Church” hermeneutic to account for Gal 3 for that matter. Paul says that Moses works for Abraham and Abraham, as it were, works for Christ. That isn’t the conclusion to which most “Bible Church” interpreters have come. Why not? Because they have a different hermeneutic than Paul. They don’t really think that Moses was a temporary addition to the Abrahamic covenant. They think that the real action was in the Mosaic covenant, that Jesus came to re-establish it, and with the Jews having refused it, he’s going to re-establish it the first chance he gets.

As Reformed folk read the Bible we not only see on occasional typology of Christ in the Hebrew scriptures we see the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures as typological. The entire structure of it is typological. I really don’t believe that they understand this. Yes, “Bible Church” types do typologies about the red thread and the like, but that’s not really what I’m talking about.

The other thing I notice is that “Bible Church” interpreters do not give evidence of ever having read Vos or Clowney or any of the other titles that I mentioned. I say this on the basis of years of personal experience with folk in “Bible Churches.” Typically they don’t even know these works exist.

2) I omitted a text that I should have mentioned. My friend and colleague Dennis Johnson has just out a terrific new book: Him We Proclaim advocates the Christ-centered, redemptive-historical, missiologically-communicated, grace-grounded method of Bible interpretation that the apostles learned from Jesus and practiced in their Gospel proclamation. Moving beyond theory, it shows how apostolic preaching opens up various biblical texts: history, law, wisdom, psalm, prophecy, parable, doctrine, exhortation, and apocalyptic vision. Our Price: $17.36

 From 25 Sep 2007 from the old HB Archives

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This is a great post, rhetoric and all.

    I think the prologue in John 1 (as well as the whole gospel) really really really sets the tenor for the entire New Testament. Especially as to how we are to understand and interpret the Old Testament scriptures. It IS so Christ-centered it ought to be outright embarrassing for certain interpretive traditions.

    Because it seems that John’s apologetic for the deity and eternality of the Logos includes an implicit argument for the entirety of what came before as being ABOUT the Logos. As a consequence, EVERYTHING up to and including John the Baptist was looking forward. This includes Moses, Law, tabernacle, glory cloud, Lamb sacrificed for sin, the prophets who spoke (read: God’s promises to Israel), God dwelling with his people in a visible way, etc. The Law and the prophets testified until John.

    But now, according to John, now its about fullness and grace and truth. Now what was being looked forward to has arrived. Now we no longer need to be looking forward, we receive the fullness. We can only look back to see how everything before was looking forward!

    There’s the apostolic hermeneutic in a nutshell, and it is inseparable from the apostolic witness to the identity of Jesus as God the Son incarnate. The coming of Christ is situated on a timeline such that all before looked forward to him and all since looks back in light of the fullness of everything before him: BECAUSE he is the eternal Word from whom and through whom and for whom all things were made!

    He IS the life and he IS the light, in all ages. That is why like you said we must refuse to read Christ OUT of scripture, because all of scripture witnesses to the eternal Word creating, operating, judging, delivering, testifying. It is all about him because it is all by him and from him.


  2. Amen!

    I don’t think it gets any clearer than Luke 24:25-27: “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

    And John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
    Here it seems that the hermeneutics utilized by the Pharisees is exactly the problem. They refused to see past the types and shadows of the OT promises. They were so obsessed with a “literal” fulfillment that they would not accept Christ’s kingdom.

  3. Brother Matt,

    When you have the time and money, you should take a look at the book “The Right Doctrines from the Wrong Texts” ed. G. K. Beale- particularly Richard Longnecker’s and G.K. Beale’s discussion of the apostolic hermeneutic. Beale specifically lists several hermeneutical principles that arise from the apostolic interpretation of R-H, and the passages that teach them, if I remember correctly.

    However, I agree with Dr. Clark that your insistence that one needs a “comprehensive [!] list of hermeneutical principles” in order to legitimately hold to the apostolic hermeneutic smacks of modern rationalism. But I’m sure you don’t intend to be counted with that bunch of rapscallions!

    As servants of the word (and sinners to boot!), we need to remember that “comprehensive” anything in theology is a theologia gloriae and ‘the devil masquerading as an angel of light.’ The best any of us can hope for is fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). There are a number of fine works available that can give you a good start in wrestling through the apostolic hermeneutic and your concerns about it. The Beale book is a really good place to begin, but also check out Greidanus, Clowney, Vos, and Goldsworthy (for starters). May the Lord richly bless you as you study, meditate, and prayer on these issues!

    Grace and peace to you brother,

  4. To me, one of the greatest arguments (not the most direct; the Scripture proofs are better in that regard) is that Paul in Colossians 1 tells us that the entire universe and all of human history is by, for, and of Christ and that all things hold together only in Christ: and if so in “secular” matters, then how much more so in Scripture!

  5. Excellent post, Dr. Clark. Indeed, I was thinking of how our Lord tells the *Pharisees* “you diligently search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. But they are those which testify of Me. Yet you will not come to Me, that you may have life.”

    Doesn’t sound like the Pharisees had the right hermeneutic at all! They were way out in left field.

    Christ in the morning. Christ in the afternoon. Christ in the evening. Christ when I eat, breathe, and sleep. Wonderful, beautiful Savior!

  6. Brandon: My request for a comprehensive list of hermeneutical principles has nothing to do with rationalism and everything to do with the original article by Tom Hicks which started this whole dialogue a year ago. Rather than repeating what I’ve already written, I would recommend that you reread the first four paragraphs of the link I provided above, “In Search of the Apostles’ Hermeneutic (Part 1).” That should help you understand why I specifically called for a list that is comprehensive.

    Thank you for the book recommendation. I have indeed read the chapters you recommended in “The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text,” several times, in fact. If you reread Beale’s chapter, you will find that he does not list the several hermeneutical principles arising from the apostolic interpretation of the OT that you thought he did. I don’t fault him for this; it was obviously not the goal of his article. As for Longenecker, I thought his chapter was excellent and would recommend it as a good place to start on this issue. In fact, if you reread the second link I provided above—“In Search of the Apostles’ Hermeneutic (Part 2),” you will find that I ended that article by quoting Longenecker’s final conclusion in that very chapter: “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.”

  7. Dear Brother Matt,

    Your linked posts were what prompted my comment. I understand your concerns, but my point is that the “comprehensivity” which you insist upon is unattainable in theology (the church’s understanding of the Sacred Word is always a work in progress in this present evil age). But this goal of comprehensivity is all the more problematic when it is couched in the language of ‘I won’t believe it until I see how all of the pieces fit together.’ Whether you agree with the so-called apostles’ hermenuetic or not, I hope you can at least agree that this sort of epistemological talk is truly out of place in a religion which confesses that the “finite cannot contain the infinite.” Whatever reasons one might have for legitimately rejecting the idea of an apostolic hermeneutic, the inability to speak comprehensively is not particularly compelling.

    Second, I must beg to differ with you about Beale’s article. He does list at least five hermeneutical principles that can be gleaned from the apostles. I’m lifting these out of my sem notes from when I read his article.

    1) Corporate solidarity
    2) Christ representing the true Israel
    3) History is unified by a wise and sovereign plan
    4) The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ
    5) The latter parts of redemptive-history interpret the earlier parts

    He lists a number of other hermeneutical pointers, as well. My uncertainty was over whether Beale listed the proof-texts that go with these. I apologize for not catching the Longnecker quote in your second link.

    Blessings to you,

  8. Brandon: You are exactly right, and I was wrong. That list is right here on page 392. Thank you for pointing it out. I look forward to giving it a closer look. Regarding the whole issue of a “comprehensive” hermeneutic, I don’t think you are connecting with what I’ve written. But rather than going back and forth, I will simply invite others who may be interested to read the first four paragraphs of the link above (“In Search of the Apostles’ Hermeneutic [Part 1]”) and decide for themselves. Thank you for the interaction.

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