Against ‘Reinterpreting’ the Old Testament

Does the New Testament give Christians leeway to ‘reinterpret’ the Old Testament? This important question essentially boils down to the following: Will unconditional, as-yet-unfulfilled literal promises that God made in the Old Testament be literally fulfilled — or are these promises fulfilled (or will it yet be) in a non-literal way, that is, allegorically, metaphorically or spiritually?

New Testament Priority over the Old Testament?

If Riddlebarger (2003:37–38) is to be believed, the New Testament is the final arbiter over the Old Testament, because if the New Testament authors seemingly spiritualized some Old Testament prophecies and treated them in a non-literal way, then other Old Testament prophecies must also be treated that way. With reference to the treatment of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, Ladd (1977:20-21) says that the New Testament interprets the Old Testament in a way that is not suggested by the Old Testament context, and he therefore believes that the Old Testament should be reinterpreted by the New Testament in light of the Christ event. This approach (call it “Approach A”) gives priority to the New Testament over the Old Testament, resulting in significant consequences for one’s understanding of how literal, unconditional and as-yet-unfulfilled Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled.

Another approach (call it “Approach B”) emphasizes, just like Approach A, that the Person and work of Jesus Christ is the central focus of the whole of Scripture. However, because later revelation builds upon earlier revelation that God has already given, advocates of “Approach B” maintain that the starting point to understand Old Testament is still the application of normal, literal interpretation to such Old Testament texts. You don’t find the meaning of Old Testaments texts in the New, you find them in the Old Testament, and in that context. For example, the original intent of Isaiah is not found in Revelation, Hebrews or Acts, but it is found in Isaiah. One reads the Bible from the beginning to the end, not vice versa. Of course, the New Testament may shed light on the Old Testament, comment on it, provide additional applications or add referents, but, as Vlach (2012:24) indicates, the New Testament does not change the original intent or meaning of the Old Testament authors.

Stallard summarizes the above two approaches to Biblical theology:

 Approach AApproach B
Step 1Acknowledge own presuppositions.Acknowledge own presuppositions.
Step 2Formulate a Biblical theology of the New Testament based on a literal interpretation (grammatical-historical method) of the New Testament.Formulate a Biblical theology of the Old Testament based on a literal interpretation (grammatical-historical method) of the Old Testament.
Step 3Formulate a Biblical theology of the Old Testament based on a New Testament understanding of the Old Testament.Formulate a Biblical theology of the New Testament based on a literal interpretation (grammatical-historical method) of the New Testament with consideration of the results of step 2.
Step 4Produce a Biblical theology and afterwards a Systematic theology by systematizing all input, including steps 2 and 3.Produce a Biblical theology and afterwards a Systematic theology by systematizing all input, including steps 2 and 3.

Source: Stallard (1997:16-18).

Why is Approach B better? At least seven reasons can be proffered:

  1. Elevating one part of the Bible above another flies in the face of the concept of inspiration, for all of God’s revelation is equally authoritative. Moreover, revelation that God inspired in the New Testament cannot contradict revelation that God inspired in the Old Testament. If Approach A is followed, contradictions abound. For example, when He revealed the New Covenant to Jeremiah (31:31-37), God explicitly said that the offspring of Israel will never cease. Many proponents of Approach A, however, says that Israel has been replaced and/or that it has no future as a nation. But that is precisely the opposite of what God promised in Jeremiah 31:35-37!
  2. The superstructure of Biblical theology reflects the ‘revelational foundation from which it has been derived’ (Stallard 1997:19). Approach B is true to this historical perspective in which written revelation has been given, but Approach A is not (Stallard 1999:19).
    1. Viewed negatively, if the interpretation of the Old Testament is made subservient to the New Testament (steps 2 and 3 of Approach A), it becomes clear where the classic debate between “literal” and “allegorical/spiritual” interpretations come from (Stallard 1997:18). Approach A is the result of the grammatical-historical hermeneutics for the New Testament, but then the exegete moves back to what Approach A thinks the Old Testament teaches (Saucy 1993:20). The Old Testament is then ‘reinterpreted’ and even minimalized by what today’s commentators think the New Testament says about the Old Testament (Pettegrew 2007:196).
    2. Viewed positively, if Biblical theology of the Old Testament serves as input for Biblical theology of the New Testament, then the Old Testament can still be interpreted consistently with the aid of the grammatical-historical method. Stallard (1997:18) rightly holds that one cannot rise above your sources, and that Approach B is better because it preserves a true Biblical theology of the Old Testament (step 2 of Approach B), which then serves as the basis for a Biblical theology of the New Testament (step 3) so that Biblical theology can then be used in Systematic theology (step 4).
  3. Approach B preserves the story-line of the Bible, particularly as it relates to the doctrine of the kingdom. Vlach (2017:39) writes: ‘[T]he NT continues the OT storyline and affirms literal fulfillment of the OT promises and covenants in all their dimensions through two comings of Jesus’.
  4. J.S. Feinberg (1988:76, 79) warns that, unless the New Testament explicitly indicates it, progressive revelation cannot cancel or undo unconditional and hitherto unfulfilled promises or prophecies in the New Testament. What goes for literal prophecies also goes for types and antitypes: sure, the principle of literal interpretation recognises the use of type and antitype, but it is a category mistake to abolish the grammatical-historical method or to replace it with a new hermeneutical method, called ‘typological interpretation’.
  5. If Approach A is followed, mysteries revealed in the New Testament are unlikely to be interpreted correctly. (That does not mean Approach B gets everything right.) As I see it, Approach B also better appreciates the prophetic significance and typological fulfilment of the feasts of the LORD.
  6. In my view, Approach B leads to a more Biblical understanding of Israelology, Ecclesiology and Eschatology.
  7. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said: ‘Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil’. The Law and the Prophets here is a shorthand reference to all the Old Testament. Jesus continued to say that heaven and earth cannot pass away until all is accomplished (Mat 5:18). In agreement with Vlach (2017:310), Jesus states ‘that all details and predictions found in the OT must come to completion’. The following quote of Vlach (2017:311-312) is important:
    1. ‘Some take what could be called an “absorption” or “embodiment” view of fulfillment where the details of OT prophecies are absorbed into Jesus or embodied by Him. Supposedly, the physical, national, and/or land promises of the OT find fulfillment, not by actually being fulfilled literally in history, but by being fulfilled in the person of Jesus who represents the highest ideal of these matters. But this view is not completely accurate. Yes, Jesus is the perfect embodiment of certain OT matters such as the Mosaic Law. Jesus embodied the essence of the Mosaic Law by loving God and others just as the law required (Rom 13:8–10). The Old Testament itself predicted that the Mosaic Law would be replaced by the superior New Covenant (Jer 31:31–34). But the promises and people involved with the covenants of promise are not transcended. These must be fulfilled as stated. Prophecies concerning Israel, land, temple, and other matters in the OT will be fulfilled just as predicted. Jesus himself often refers to specifics of OT prophecy as needing to be fulfilled’.

Fruchtenbaum’s (n.d.:17-18) observation sums it all up:

[I]t is incorrect to say that the Old Testament should be interpreted by the New Testament because if that is the case, the Old Testament had no meaning and seemed to be irrelevant to the ones to whom it was spoken. On the contrary, the validity of the New Testament is seen by how it conforms to what was already revealed in the Old Testament. The Book of Mormon and other books by cultic groups fail to stand because they contradict the New Testament. By the same token, if the New Testament contradicts the Old Testament, it cannot stand. It is one thing to see fulfillment in the New Testament, but it is quite another to see the New Testament so totally reinterpret the Old Testament that what the Old Testament says carries no meaning at all.

Fulfilment in the New Testament

Can the New Testament contradict the meaning of the Old Testament or reinterpret it to such an extent that it essentially cancels the original intent of the Old Testament authors? The answer is a resounding ‘No’. Why, then, do many still follow Approach A? Some think because the New Testament has examples of non-literal fulfilment, that it then also necessarily means that unconditional, as-yet-unfulfilled prophecies will not literally be fulfilled. But this thinking is wrong.

According to Cooper (1958:174, 209–215; cf. also Rydelnik 2010:95–111; Fruchtenbaum 2016:11-44), there are four kinds of prophetic fulfilment of Old Testament texts in the New Testament, namely:
(1) Direct, literal fulfillment;
(2) Typological fulfillment;
(3) Applicational or analogical fulfilment; and
(4) Summation fulfilment.

There is no reason to believe that the authors of the New Testament used the Old Testament out of context or ‘creatively’, or that they changed or reinterpreted the meaning of the Old Testament (Rydelnik 2010:111; Fruchtenbaum 2016:43). The hermeneutical principle of normal, literal interpretation (grammatical-historical method) is not revoked in the New Testament, to the contrary, it is confirmed (cf. Chou 2018). There are rules for the interpretation of types and analogies, but it functions within the hermeneutical principle of normal, literal interpretation (the grammatical-historical method) and for this reason, the allegorization or spiritualization of parts of Scripture based on the existence of types and analogies cannot be justified (Feinberg, P.D. 1988:123).

When there are typological, applicational or summation fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New Testament, does this not mean that all direct, literal prophecies now fall away and/or ‘change’ into the abovementioned typological and/or applicational and/or summation categories of fulfilment? No! One must at least concede that literal Old Testament prophecies about Christ’s second coming will be fulfilled (Scholtz 2016:7). But what about direct, unconditional and still unfulfilled non-Christological covenant promises and prophecies in the Old Testament? Will God fulfil these directly to the people to whom He made these promises? Yes, because God cannot lie. God will do what he unconditionally promised to those to whom He promised it, even if He made this promise or gave this prophecy only once (Feinberg, J.S. 1988:76–77). I agree with Turner (1985:282): ‘If NT reinterpretation reverses, cancels, or seriously modifies OT promises to Israel, one wonders how to define the word “progressive”. God’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel must also be explained’.

Concluding Remarks

Whether it is found in the Old or New Testament, every word in the Bible is inspired. Because God’s Name and honour is at stake, He will literally fulfil what He promised. If God has not yet literally fulfilled what He unconditionally promised, then He has not yet fulfilled it. But He will, for God is faithful, trustworthy and true.

Sources

Chou, A., 2018, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids.

Cooper, D.L., 1958, Messiah: His Historical Appearance, Biblical Research Foundation, Los Angeles. (Available at Ariel Ministries.)

Feinberg, J.S., 1988, ‘Systems of Discontinuity’, in J.S. Feinberg (ed.), Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, pp. 63–88, Crossway, Wheaton.

Feinberg, P.D., 1988, ‘Hermeneutics of Discontinuity’, in J.S. Feinberg (ed.), Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, pp. 109–130, Crossway, Wheaton.

Fruchtenbaum, A.G., 2016, Yeshua: The life of Messiah from a Messianic Jewish Perspective, vol. 1, Ariel Ministries, San Antonio.

Fruchtenbaum. A.G., No Date, ‘Israel’s Right to the Promised Land’, Ariel Ministries, Delivered at Pre-Trib Centre. Available at www.pre-trib.org/pretribfiles/pdfs/Fruchtenbaum-IsraelsRightToPromisedLand.pdf

Ladd, G.E., 1977, ‘Historic Premillennialism’, in R.G. Clouse (ed.), The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, pp. 17–40, InterVarsity Academic, Downers Grove.

Pettegrew, L.D., 2007, ‘The New Covenant and New Covenant theology’, The Master’s Seminary Journal 18(1), 181–199.

Riddlebarger, K., 2003, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, Baker Books, Grand Rapids.

Rydelnik, M., 2010, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? B&H Publishing, Nashville. (NAC studies in Bible & Theology; Series, ed. E.R. Clendenen).

Saucy, R.L., 1993, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids.

Scholtz, J.J., 2016, ‘Vooronderstellings wat die eskatologie beïnvloed’, In die Skriflig 50(1), a2170. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ids.v50i1.2170

Stallard, M., 1997, ‘Literal Interpretation, Theological Method, and the Essence of Dispensationalism’, The Journal of Ministry & Theology, Spring, 5–36.

Turner, D.L., 1985, ‘The continuity of Scripture and eschatology: Key hermeneutical issues’, Grace Theological Journal 6(2), 275–287.

Vlach, M.J., 2012, ‘What is Dispensationalism?’, in J. MacArthur & R. Mayhue (reds.), Christ’s Prophetic Plans: A Futuristic Premillennial Primer, pp. 19–38, Moody Publishers, Chicago.

Vlach, M.J., 2017, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God, Lampion, Silverton.

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