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.
Above we considered the nature of hermeneutics generally, the genre of prophetic literature, and how the New Testament authors interpret the OT prophets by focusing on the way the NT interprets Jeremiah 31:31–33. Here we will consider a second example, namely the way the NT interprets Joel 2 and especially 2:28–32 as interpreted by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:17–21.
There is much about Joel the Prophet and the setting of the book that we do not know. Scholars are divided about the date. It appears to be oriented to Judah and Jerusalem. He seems to have some knowledge of the temple. We can, however, see a clear structure in the book: 1:2–2:11 is law, i.e., the announcement of the demand of God’s law for perfect righteousness and the prosecution of sin in light of that law. The second part, 2:12–3:21, is gospel, i.e., the announcement of the good news of the coming gracious salvation of God’s people by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Messiah.4The passage on which we intend to focus is in the gospel section of Joel’s prophecy.
In his lectures on Joel (published in 1559) Calvin observed that in the section before 2:12 Joel has been proclaiming the “dreadful judgment” of God upon the people in order to “encouraged them to repentance.”5 Calvin summarizes Joel’s message in this section, “‘Even now,’ that is, ‘Though ye have too long abused God’s forbearance, and with regard to you, the opportunity is past, for ye have closed the door against yourself; yet even now,—which no one could have expected, and indeed what ought to be thought incredible by yourselves,—even now God waits for you, and invites you to entertain hope of salvation.’”3
God is calling his people to genuine repentance and faith. He demands what Calvin suggested were extraordinary signs of repentance, fasting, weeping, and wailing. Hence Joel says, “rend your hearts and not your garments” (v. 13). The basis of his calls to repentance and his sincere invitation is Yahweh’s undeserved favor: “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (v.13; ESV). Through his prophet Joel, Yahweh calls for a fast and solemn assembly (קָהָל) of the covenant people (v. 16). He calls the priests, the ministers of Yahweh weep and intercede for the people (v. 17).
Then Yahweh answers their prayers and promises the very things they ask, that they shall no longer be a “reproach among the nations (v. 19). He will remove the invading forces (v. 2). The children of Zion will rejoice again in his blessings, early and latter rains, an abundant harvest, deliverance from pests (vv.22–26). The greatest blessing of all, however, is not food or freedom from oppression. It is much greater indeed: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Yahweh your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:27). We can hardly understand the passage in question (vv. 28–32) without understanding this prologue, this context.
This is the language of the Abrahamic promise from Genesis 17:7–8, which reverberates throughout the Old Testament scriptures: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (ESV). In Leviticus 26:12 the promise is summarized thus: “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (ESV). Moses prayed in Exodus 34:9 that Yahweh would ” go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” Jeremiah 14:9 reflects this same conception, the same desire, the same prayer, that Yahweh should fulfill Abrahamic promise to be their God and to dwell in their midst. These passages reflect the unifying function of the Abrahamic promises in the history of salvation.
The end of the chapter, which Peter quotes in Acts 2 is an elaboration of v. 27. Here the Abrahamic promise is re-cast in prophetic idiom, hyperbole included. On this stylistic feature see the discussion in part 1. How does Joel portray the coming fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise? “It shall comes to pass,” Yahweh promises, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” Let us stop here as this is a clear instance where we must account for the nature of the genre. Yahweh did not promise and Joel did not say that the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon everyone who was to be alive at the time of the fulfillment of the prophecy. This is why I use the word hyperbole. Further, we know from Acts 2 that not everyone present received the Holy Spirit but more on that below. The prophecy elaborates: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants, in those days will I pour out my Spirit” (vv. 28–29). These are different classes of people within Israel. The gift of the Spirit will not be restricted to special officers (e.g., prophets, priests, and kings) but will be given to all those to whom God gives new life and true faith. This is not to say that the OT believers did not have the Holy Spirit but clearly there is a difference of degree. Pentecost did not happen before it did. Christ had to be raised and ascended for the Holy Spirit to be poured out in this way. This is not to say that the OT administration of the covenant of grace was not a genuine administration or that the covenant of grace was not actually present but merely revealed and waiting to appear with the death of Christ. Rather, the covenant of grace was present in a way appropriate to the period of types and shadows. It was in, with, and under the types and shadows and the believers really received the grace of Christ even as they anticipated the fulfillment of the promises.
The last section (vv.30–32) is marked by even greater hyperbole. The fulfillment of the promise will be accompanied with “wonders” in heaven and earth, with fire, smoke, and blood. The sun will be darkened and the moon turned to blood on the “great and awesome day of Yahweh” (v.31). That day will be the day of salvation from the wrath of Yahweh. Everyone who calls on his name “shall be saved (v.32).
How do we interpret such language? We need not guess. We first do as we have done briefly here: pay close attention to the primary text in its original context to the degree possible. The second thing to do is to notice how the NT writers received and understood this passage and we have just that in Acts 2:14–24, in Peter’s Pentecost sermon.
Representing the disciples (v. 14; “the eleven”) explained what they had just seen and heard, the tongues of flame and the preaching of the gospel in their own language. People were asking, “what does this mean?” (v. 12). Peter tells this what it means: “…this is what was uttered through prophet Joel.” He proceeds to quote Joel 2:28–32. At Pentecost there was a “sound like a mighty rushing wind” (2:2; ESV). There were, as noted, “tongues of fire” (2:3) and the Apostles were empowered to preach in foreign languages, which they had not previously learned. The moon was not literally darkened. There are no prophesying servant girls and not everyone present was endowed with the Holy Spirit let alone everyone else in the world. Yet Peter explicitly claimed that what happened at Pentecost was the fulfillment of what was promised in Joel 2. It is our job as Christians not only to submit to the Spirit-inspired interpretation of Joel recorded by Luke to but to observe how Peter reads Joel 2. We should not set up a system for interpreting Joel or Jeremiah that defies what we see the Apostles doing in their preaching and writing.
For Peter, Pentecost was the moment at which “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord” would be saved. It is clear that the name of Yahweh is Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, dead, raised, and who has ascended to the right hand of the Father. This is what he said. He prosecuted the “men of Israel” present for the feast of Pentecost for crucifying Jesus (v. 23). He quotes Psalm 16:8–11 and says that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. He is the Risen One. He explains that David is not the King, Jesus is. It about Jesus that Psalm 110:1 speaks. Peter says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (ESV). The Spirit used Peter’s preaching of the law and the gospel to bring some of those “men of Israel” to faith and they cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s reply: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39; ESV).
Here, following Joel, Peter connects the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit with the Abrahamic promise. The sign of entrance into the visible covenant community is baptism. Where Abraham and his sons had been circumcised, now it is baptism. The blessing of the New Covenant is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The ground, however, is as old as Genesis 17: the promise of Yahweh to be God to his people and to their children and to the gentiles. God had promised to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3) “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed Yahweh, and Yahweh imputed it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:5–6). The Abrahamic promise had always included the ingathering of the gentiles, which Peter confirmed in Acts 2:39. He was announcing to all those sons of Abraham present for Pentecost that all that God had promised was coming true, in Christ, right before their eyes. The Seed had come. God was in their midst. He was their God and they his people. There is free salvation in the Seed and the structure of the promise remains: Jesus is the God of believers, those who have Abraham’s faith in Jesus (John 8:56) and he is a God to their children. He will regenerate old men, children, servants, men, and women. That is what began at Pentecost: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). The good news of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise is going from Judea, to Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8) and it is all a fulfillment of the prophetic re-casting of the Abrahamic promise made in Joel 2.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. The introduction provided by H. G. M. Williamson, in ISBE 2.1077 is helpful.
2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 2.55.
3. Ibid., 2.56.
4. John F. Graybill, “Jeremiah,” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), 655.
5. E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: The Tyndale Press, 1949), 252.
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In our time the word,”Reformed” has been so loosely adopted that it has practically lost any real meaning. Thanks to your dedicated efforts many of us have come to see how the Reformed confessions enable us to understand what it means to be Reformed, and the rich heritage we have in the confessions as an aid to properly understand Scripture. Also your sharing of how biblical scholarship or hermeneutics helps us is greatly appreciated by us, many ,who do not have the opportunity to study at seminary. Thank you for this article, the next one, and any more to follow on the vital subject of hermeneutics.
I think I hear you saying that the way the Dispensationalists limited the use of the “grammatical-historical” approach to interpretation led them astray. You are not saying that the “grammatical-historical” method of interpretation is an insufficient method of interpretation are you? Do you subscribe to the assumption that there is only one correct interpretation of a passage, but many applications? In reviewing some other methods, such as the religious-historical method and the existential methods, I was under the impression that the grammatical-historical method was the classical method of the church, and the safest method of interpretation. I appreciate any further comments you may make to help me understand this better.
Paying attention to the grammar and the historical context of the passage is essential for understanding it. I hope that you noticed my attempt to do that within the limits of this brief piece. I paid attention to the original setting and to the grammar of the passage.
I am objecting to the way the Dispensationalists and others have combined what they call “the grammatical-historical” method with their theological convictions to exclude either the NT interpretation of the OT generally and the prophets specifically and to exclude the method used by the NT writers.
We should not be wiser than God nor wiser than the Apostles. Look at how they interpreted Jeremiah 31. Does their method qualify as “historical-grammatical” (as defined by various Dispensationalists and fundamentalists)? If not, we need to revise the definition to conform to the biblical practice.
Take a look at the additional articles linked below the essay above (which is part 1 of a 2-part series). They will help fill-in the picture.
Your remark about dispensationalists regarding their system as being “hermetically sealed” from criticism is interesting. Later dispensationalists, such as Walvoord and Ryrie, felt justified in criticizing the earlier writers, such as Darby and Scofield, but felt affronted when even later scholars dared to criticize *them.*
The latest twist, so to speak, came with the development of “progressive dispensationalism” (which gives away much of the dispensationalist store to the Reformed camp) as pioneered by scholars such as Robert L. Saucy (1930-2015). His book, “The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism” (1991 or so) is, I guess, the pioneer document in this area. (By the way, he wanted to call it “A Case. . .” but his publisher insisted on the definite article which, I think, annoyed him.)
Thanks for the link, “What the Bible is all About.” Some years ago I read about an elderly lady who suffered from dementia. In her younger years she had memorized many passages of Scripture, but now all she could remember was, “Him, Him, Him, Him,” which she repeated constantly. It seems to me that is the essence and glory of the Reformed understanding, that it is all about the promised One, expressed as one covenant of grace under two administrations.