Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting texts. Our English word comes from the Greek word for “interpretation” (ἑρμηνεία). It was used among the classical pagan authors (e.g., Plato and Xenophon) and the verb “to interpret” is used in the New Testament. Scripture must be interpreted. Against the Modernists, there were some fundamentalists in the early part of the 20th century who wrote and spoke as if believers do not interpret Scripture as much as simply read it and recognize what it obviously says to any reasonable person. The Modernists had called attention to the difficulty of interpreting Scripture and left the impression that it is so difficult that no one can have certainty about the meaning of any passage except Jesus’ ethical teaching. The Modernists were sure they understood that. The Modernists were often guilty of sloppy biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) but the fundamentalist turn to science as the category in which to think about biblical interpretation was also misleading. They appealed to science as the model because they wanted to stress the objectivity of the truth of Scripture and the clarity of Scripture. Some of them, however, also came to think that hermeneutics is scientific process that, when employed correctly, will produce the same, true results every time. As part of this approach they were convinced that the only meaning of Old Testament texts was their meaning in the original context as the fundamentalists understood that context.
Many of the old fundamentalists combined this way of thinking, writing, and speaking with their commitment to a form of Dispensationalism, which was a nineteenth-century approach to the history of redemption that originally divided Scripture into 7 different dispensations and was understood by many to teach multiple ways of salvation in the various dispensations. Later versions (e.g., modified and progressive) abandoned that view but one conviction that unites all Disepnsationalists holds that the Lord has an “earthly people” (national Israel, Jews) and a “spiritual people” (the New Testament church). This theological commitment when combined with the particular definition of “historical-grammatical” interpretation sketched above, created a system in which OT texts were read in isolation from the NT. This isolation became a matter of principle. In Dispensationalist circles it became an article of faith that not only was the NT to be read in light of the OT (not a controversial idea) but their “grammatical-historical” approach to the OT limited what the OT could mean in any given case and also controlled what the NT writers could mean. These convictions are much more problematic. They effectively forbid us from allowing the NT writers to teach us not only what a particular passage means but it also precludes the NT from teaching us how to interpret the OT.
In short, the Dispensationalists and those whom they influenced put the Scriptures into a box that was created not by Scripture itself but was created outside of Scripture and used to interpret Scripture. There is a great irony to this history since among Dispensationalists it is an article of faith that they are only following Scripture and they are using the most faithful approach to reading Scripture. It is a standard Dispensationalist criticism of Reformed covenant (or federal) theology that it “imposes” a theological system on Scripture. This makes discussions between Dispensationalists and Reformed writers difficult because the Dispensationalist hermeneutical system is hermetically sealed from correction. Further, Dispensationalists have a difficult time recognizing the ways in which their approach to reading Scripture (i.e., their hermeneutic) is not only alien to the way the NT reads the OT but foreign to most of the history of the church and particularly foreign to the Reformation approaches to reading Scripture. Further, they do not seem to recognize the ways their hermeneutic resembles that of the Modernists, whom they intended to oppose.
Recently I have been meditating on a couple of passages that serve as illustrations of this problem and that point us to a resolution. Consider Jeremiah 31:31–33:
Behold, the days are coming, declares Yahweh, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares Yahweh. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares Yahweh. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (emphasis added).
First we do want to pay attention to this prophecy in its own context. Jeremiah served Yahweh in the late 7th century and early 6th century BC. It was a period of great tumult, the middle period of the divided kingdom. John F. Graybill characterized this period as one of “constant political, moral, and religious decline, culminating in the Babylonian exile. This final period of decline was the time of the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah.”1 According to E. J. Young, the setting of chapter 31 is difficult to determine but likely belongs to a period after “the deportation [of Jehoiachin] had occurred” and under the reign of Zedekiah.2 The Spirit moved Jeremiah to promise future spiritual blessings to his people who were in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty.
The first promise is that Yahweh will “cut” (כָרַתִּ֗י) a “new covenant” (בְּרִ֥ית חֲדָשָֽׁה) “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” Yahweh’s kingdom will no longer be divided. In v.32, to explain the nature of the coming covenant, Yahweh makes a contrast. We must note the exact nature of the contrast. The new covenant will not be like the covenant (כַבְּרִ֗ית) Yahweh made with their fathers. Which fathers? When? With the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? No. The way most evangelicals speak and write about this verse one might think it says, “it will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers, when I led them out of Ur of the Chaldees.” It does not say that, however. It says, “when I led them out of Egypt.” The covenant with which the new covenant is contrasted is the Mosaic covenant. In v. 33 the new covenant is characterized not in terms of the Mosaic but principally in Abrahamic terms. Yes, Yahweh promises to put his law within them but that is in contrast to Moses, which was marked by (as the rabbis counted them) 613 mostly ceremonial and civil laws. The new covenant will not be marked by external laws and ceremonies. It’s not that there will be no law but rather that the law will be written on our hearts. There is still a law. It is the moral law. Note in what language the new covenant is characterized: “And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the language of the Abrahamic covenant, that covenant that Paul says in Galatians 3:15–18 was before the Mosaic covenant and unlike the Mosaic is permanent. Like the Abrahamic covenant, the new covenant cannot be broken. The Mosaic covenant, however, was broken. For Jeremiah, the Mosaic, the Abrahamic, and the new covenant are not identical. This is not to say that, for Jeremiah, the Mosaic was not also an administration of the Abrahamic, but that is not the point at issue here nor is it the contrast that he is drawing.
We should also not the genre of the passage. It is prophetic. The future is cast in present (Mosaic-Davidic) terms. Jeremiah used concepts and categories with which his readers and hearers were familiar. We do this regularly. There are no literal horses under the hood of your car but we still speak of “horsepower.” Cars were once “horseless carriages.” We used familiar terms to describe new things. Prophetic discourse is also marked by hyperbole or deliberate exaggeration. When he says that no longer shall anyone have need of a teacher or anyone to say, “Know Yahweh, for they will all know me” that is hyperbole. Obviously, in the new covenant there are teachers. They are ordained by God. The hyperbole is intended to draw a stark contrast between the relative emphasis on the external law in the Mosaic covenant and the relative absence of the same in the new, where the types and shadows have been fulfilled and the civil and ceremonial laws are abrogated by the reality to which they pointed, namely the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Finally, we need not speculate whether this is the correct interpretation and the correct way to interpret prophetic discourse. We have multiple examples in the NT to which we can point. Hebrews appeals to Jeremiah 31:31–33 twice. In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul contrasts the death giving letter with the life-giving Spirit. The contrast there is between the old, Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. When we assign the old covenant specifically to Moses, we are following Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 where he does this very thing explicitly.
Hebrews 8:8–12 and 10:16–17 quote Jeremiah 31:31–33. Hebrews 8:6–7 Scripture says, “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (ESV). The contrast there is explicitly between Christ and Moses, and between the two covenants they represent, the old and the new. The “first covenant” here is relative to Christ. It is not absolute. In absolute terms, the first explicit covenant is with Noah in Genesis 6 and he nowhere comes into view here. The writer is trying to help Jewish Christians understand why it is foolish to go back to Moses since he himself was looking forward to Christ. Just after this explanation he quotes our passage in Jeremiah and afterward (in v. 13) says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (ESV). The “first one” here is Moses. His covenant, the old covenant, is obsolete. Abraham is not in view in this contrast. The only way one can involve Abraham in this passage or to identify him with the “old” and “obsolete” covenant that is “passing away” is to know a priori that Hebrews must have him in mind even though Jeremiah is clear enough on his own terms and both Paul and Hebrews are quite clear about the nature of the contrast between Moses and Christ.
Note too that the writer to the Hebrews is probably preaching a sermon but whatever the exact genre we infer from Hebrews that the new covenant does indeed involve teaching and it does involve someone saying, “Know Yahweh” because that is what was at issue. Do the Hebrew Christians know Yahweh? Have they trusted him or are they about to fall back into the types and shadows? In this case, learn how to interpret prophetic discourse. We learn not to take hyperbolic language literally but to interpret it accurately, the way the New Testament writers did.
Next time: what Joel 2 teaches about how to interpret prophetic language.
1. John F. Graybill, “Jeremiah,” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), 655.
2. E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: The Tyndale Press, 1949), 252.