Is There An Apostolic Hermeneutic And Can We Imitate it?

ryrie-study-bibleYes 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 a kind of 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 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 (many 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:

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

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 ideas 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

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 there 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 Galatians 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.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2007.

    Post authored by:

  • 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. The preincarnate Christ of the Mount and the Theophanies and the incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended Christ are the same Person, but does that mean that when Christ comes for His people He’ll come as a cloud on the mount and/or as a Theophany for Israel as a nation. No? Why not? Because the God-Man has replaced the Theophany? No, but because the preincarnate Christ has BECOME the God-Man.
    Similarly the Church has not replaced Old Testament Israel, so that we will not see a reappearance of Old Testament Israel. No Old Testament Israel has BECOME the Church. So when Christ comes for His people there will be only one such people.
    So what is this mystery of Israel? Well, my personal view is that right at the end of time all those left alive who have a true descent from Old Testament Israel will suddenly believe the Gospel and in almost an instance of time flood into the visible church, and between then and Christ’s coming again very few will get to hear of it. So Christ will only be coming for one Church.

  2. Hoping I’m on the right track but does not Luke 24:27, 33, 44-48 cite most vividly Jesus’ own claims that all of the OT speaks of Him? Especially v. 44, “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

    Have been reading Brown/Keele’s “Sacred Bond” and it piqued my interest in other works that speak of Jesus in the OT; David Murray’s “Jesus on Every Page” is next in my reading queue. I’d become aware of Clowney’s “Unfolding Mystery” only last night so this post really grabbed me! There is a newer edition of the book published last year and if you don’t mind me plugging RHB I will post their link to the book here (and at a good price!).

  3. Re: “Typically they don’t even know these works exist.”

    Briefly put, same for ‘broad evangelicalism’. It seems that if we did know of the existence of these works and that our eyes would be opened to the idea of “unity of salvation” throughout all of Scripture, then it would also likely follow that the doctrine of infant baptism of covenant children would be a “slam dunk”, pardon the reverse pun!

  4. How and when did Dispensationalism come about? It seems rather odd that it has become the prominent view in American evangelicalism when it is such a confusing, contorted, weird, unnatural way of reading the Bible.

  5. Thank you for taking this stand for the truth of the gospel.

    I think Christians who understand the Scriptures should tell the world what Jesus said about the religion of the Pharisees, which has been passed down through the generations to this day. For what it’s worth, I wrote about this topic in chapters 5 and 6 of Return to Genesis: What Ancient Poetry Reveals About Christ, the Church, and the Kingdom. I also addressed the dispensationalist error in much detail.

    You and I are in agreement about typology in the OT. Well, actually I’m not sure exactly what you mean by seeing the entirety of the OT as typological. Taken literally, that seems to spiritualize the history and people of the OT. Nonetheless, I think the main purpose of the OT is the typology pointing not only to Christ, but also to the Church (Israel).

  6. Thank you, this is (as always) very helpful. Thanks also for the links, I’m looking forward to reading them.

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