Forty Reasons For Not Reinterpreting The Old Testament By The New: The Last Twenty

The First Twenty Reasons (link)

In presenting these objections to the reinterpretation of OT passages by favored interpretations of the NT I am not throwing down the gauntlet to anyone.  If someone wishes to respond to these objections I would be fascinated to read what they have to say.  But no one is under pressure to agree with me.  However, I hope these forty reasons will be given thoughtful consideration by anybody who comes across them.

I believe, of course, that the NT does throw much light upon the OT text.  But it never imposes itself upon the OT in such a way as to essentially treat it as a sort of ‘palimpsest’ over which an improved NT message must be inscribed.     

By way of illustration, there are huge ramifications in making a dubious allusion in John 7:38 to Zechariah 14:8 a basis for a doctrine of the expansion of the spiritual temple over the face of the earth.  Such a questionable doctrine essentially evaporates huge amounts of OT material from, e.g.,  Numbers 25; Psalm 106; Isaiah 2; 33; 49; Jeremiah 30-33; Ezekiel 34; 36-37; 40-48; Amos 9; Micah 4-5; Zephaniah 3; Zechariah 2; 6; 8; 12-14; and Malachi 3, as well as all those other passages which intersect with them.  The cost is too high as well as quite unnecessary.

Here are twenty more reasons for not insisting the NT reinterprets the OT:

21. It devalues the OT as its own witness to God and His Plans.  For example, if the promises given to ethnic Israel of land, throne, temple, etc. are somehow “fulfilled” in Jesus and the Church what was the point of speaking about them so pointedly?  Cramming everything into Christ not only destroys the clarity and unity of Scripture in the ways already mentioned, it reduces the biblical covenants down to the debated promise of Genesis 3:15.  The [true] expansion seen in the covenants (with all their categorical statements) is deflated into a single soundbite of “the Promised Seed-Redeemer has now come and all is fulfilled in Him.”  This casts aspersions on God as a communicator and as a covenant-Maker, since there was absolutely no need for God to say many of the things He said in the OT, let alone bind himself by oaths to fulfill them (a la Jer. 31 & 33).

22. It forces one to adopt a “promise – fulfillment” scheme between the Testaments, ignoring the fact that the OT possesses no such promise scheme, but rather a more relational “covenant – blessing” scheme.

23. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired intertextual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants cited in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26).  God is always taken at face value (e.g. 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 9:2, 13).  This sets up an expectation that covenant commitments will find “fulfillment” in expected ways, certainly not in completely unforeseeable ones.

24. It forces clear descriptive language into an unnecessary semantic mold (e.g. Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14).  A classic example being Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezek. 40ff.  According to this view it is not a physical temple even though a physical temple is clearly described.

25. It impels a simplistic and overly dependent reliance on the confused and confusing genre labeled “apocalyptic” – a genre about which there is no scholarly definitional consensus.

26. It would make the specific wording of the covenant oaths, which God took for man’s benefit, misleading and hence unreliable as a witness to God’s intentions.  This sets a poor precedent for people making covenants and not sticking to what they actually promise to do (e.g. Jer. 34:18; cf. 33:15ff. and 35:13-16).  This encourages theological nominalism, wherein God’s oath can be altered just because He says it can.

27. Since interpreters in the OT (Psa. 105:6-12); NT (Acts 1:6); and the intertestamental period (e.g. Tobit 14:4-7) took the covenant promises at face value (i.e. to correspond precisely to the people and things they explicitly refer to), this would mean God’s testimony to Himself and His works in those promises, which God knew would be interpreted that way, was calculated to deceive the saints.  Hence, a “pious transformation” of OT covenant terms through certain interpretations of NT texts backfires.

28. The character of any being, be it man or angel, but especially God, is bound to the words agreed to in a covenant (cf. Jer. 33:14, 24-26; 34:18).  This being so, it would mean that God could not make such covenants and then perform them in a way totally foreign to the plain wording of the oaths He took; at least not without it testifying against His own holy veracious character.  Hence, not even God could “expand” His promises in such a fashion that would lead literally thousands of saints to be misled by His oaths.

29. A God who would “expand” His promises in such an unanticipated way could never be trusted not to “transform” His promises to us in the Gospel.  Thus, there might be a difference between the Gospel message as we preach it (relying on the face value language of the NT) and God’s real intentions when He eventually “fulfills” the promises in the Gospel.  Since it is thought that He did so in the past, it is conceivable that He might do so again in the future.  Perhaps the promises to the Church will be “fulfilled” in totally unexpected ways with a people other than the Church?

30. Exegetically it would entail taking passages in both Testaments literally and non-literally at the same time (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; 49:6; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9; Lk. 1:31-33; Rev. 7).

31. Exegetically it would also impose structural discontinuities into prophetic books (e.g. God’s glory departs a literal temple by the east gate in Ezekiel 10, but apparently returns to a spiritual temple through a spiritual east gate in Ezekiel 43!).

32. In addition, it makes the Creator of language the greatest rambler in all literature.  Why did God not just tell the prophet, “When the Messiah comes He will be the Temple and all those in Him will be called the Temple”?  That would have saved thousands of misleading words at the end of Ezekiel.

33. It ignores the life-setting of the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 in the context of their already having had forty days teaching about the very thing they asked about (the kingdom – see Acts 1:3). This reflects badly on the clarity of Risen Lord’s teaching about the kingdom.  But the tenacity with which these disciples still clung to literal fulfillments would also prove the validity of #’s 23, 26, 27, 28 & 32 above.

34. This resistance to the clear expectation of the disciples also ignores the question of the disciples, which was about the timing of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, not its nature.

35. It turns the admonition to “keep” the words of the prophecy in Revelation 1:3 into an absurdity, for how many people can “keep” what they are uncertain is being “revealed”?

36. It makes the unwarranted assumption that there can only be one people of God.  Since the OT speaks of Israel and the nations (e.g. Zech. 14:16f.); Paul speaks of Israel and the Church (e.g. Rom. 11:25, 28; Gal. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:32; cf. Acts 26:7), and the Book of Revelation speaks of Israel separated from the nations (Rev. 7), and those in New Jerusalem distinguished from “the kings of the earth” (Rev. 21:9-22:5), it seems precarious to place every saved person from all ages into the Church.

37. In reality what happens is the theological presuppositions of the interpreter which are read into the NT text and then back into the OT.  There is a corresponding breakdown between what the biblical text says and what they are assumed to mean.  Thus, it is the interpretation of the reader and not the wording of the biblical text which is often the authority for what the Bible is allowed to teach.

38. This view also results in pitting NT authors against themselves.  E.g. if “spiritual resurrection” is read into Jn. 5:25 on the rather flimsy basis of an allusion to Dan. 12:1-2, that interpretation can then be foisted on Rev. 20:4-6 to make John refer to a spiritual resurrection in that place too.  Again, if Jesus is said to refer to His physical body as “this temple” in Jn.2:19 then he is not allowed to refer to a physical temple building in Rev. 11:1-2.  This looks like what might be called “textual preferencing.”

39. This view, which teaches a God who prevaricates in the promises and covenants He makes, also tempts its adherents to adopt equivocation themselves when they are asked to expound OT covenantal language in its original context.  It often tempts them to avoid specific OT passages whose particulars are hard to interpret in light of their supposed fulfillment in the NT.  It also makes one over sensitive to words like “literal” and “replacement,” even though these words are used freely when not discussing matters germane to this subject.

40. Finally, there is no critical awareness of many of the problems enumerated above because that awareness is provided by the OT texts and the specific wording of those texts, which, of course, are not allowed a voice on par with what the NT text is assumed to mean.  Only verses which preserve the desired theological picture are allowed to mean what they say.  Hence a vicious circle is created of the NT reinterpreting the Old.  This is a hermeneutical circle which ought not to be presupposed.

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14 comments

  1. Fastinating summary Paul, thank you for putting these forward. I find the remark “the theological presuppositions of the interpreter which are read into the NT text and then back into the OT” is helpful because everyone including me will make some mistakes of reading something into the New Testament texts at some point, while we are denying it. This is why book studies on their own with their proper contexts are very important, and don’t over-rely on either concordances to do cross references from other Books, or use similar sounding terms in another book to redefine the term in the passage being studied, just to cancel out the most obvious plain sense meaning in that passage!

    To me, it is just theological prooftexting of a higher order,. It may appear more biblical from the naked prooftexting the likes of popular pragmatic evangelicals such as Bill Hybels of the Willow Creek Community Church or Kerry Shook of the Fellowship of The Woodlands, but nonetheless still the same mistake.

    I thank God for giving you the time to prepare this summary, and pray that this will be used to encourage and exhort brothers and sisters. May all of us repent from theological prooftexting.

  2. Hi Paul, an innocent glance on the net shows a critical response from a Reformed minister named Gervase Charmley to your series on Fred Butler’s blog. From what I found Charmley is the minister at the Bethel Evangelical Free Church at Hanley, Stoke on Trent

    Any comments on Charmley’s rebuttal?

    —————————————————————————–

    http://hipandthigh.blogspot.com/2012/01/on-interpreting-ot-with-nt.html

    Highland Host said…

    Of course, we must also avoid the reverse error; that of forcing the New Testament into Old Testament categories in such a way as to deny any progression in God’s self-revelation. I mention this because I have met antitrinitarians and physicalists who reinterpret the New Testament by the old and say “Well, if God is not revealed as Trinity in the Old Testament, that means the Trinity must be heretical. I can’t name names because these were street-preaching encounters.

    So there must be a sense in which we read the Old Testament as Christians; we cannot avoid doing so. But we must be careful not to force the Old Testament to say what we want it to say rather than what a serious consideration of the text leads us to. We cannot shut out the light of Christ, nor should we want to, but at the same time we test our theology by the Bible, not the other way around.

    Which, incidentally, is why I do not find the fall of Satan in Isaiah 14. That involves reinterpreting Isaiah’s Old Testament text by Jesus’ New Testament teaching. The text is clearly a poetical description of the fall of the King of Tyre.
    2:11 AM
    Blogger Highland Host said…

    I just read it, and Paul Martin Henebury’s material is clearly meant for his own side, as Jamin Hubner’s is meant for his, which explains the liberal use of language that can only be intended to create or encourage antipathy to the ‘other side’. This means that it is as useless as Gary DeMar’s stuff at convincing the ‘other side’, because what good argument there may be is effectively concealed by fighting language. I do wish that there would be a total end to all the throwing of epithets and burning of straw men, and that there would be a conference at which you would all sit down and talk like Christian brethren.

    This is why more and more I avoid the discussion of eschatology like the plague. It creates a great deal of heat and precious little light, and as long as people write only for their own side I see no hope.

    As the Scots Bard put it: ‘O that some higher power would gie us/ Tae see ourselves as others see us.’ (from memory, sorry).
    3:05 AM
    Blogger Highland Host said…

    Finally; no covenant theologian is likely to read this and be convinced. The hostile rhetoric effectively neutralises the argument where they are concerned. I’d like to see Jamin Hubner interact with it as well, but I hope you don’t think this is the best you have, because I don’t, I’m sure there is better.
    3:32 AM

    1. I appreciate Fred Butler but his comments about Rosenberg may be somewhat harsh. Rosenberg isn’t a theologian and doesn’t pretend to be (either am I) but I wouldn’t put him in the same bucket with a Hagee. The fact is that non-dispies, who claim dispensationalism is a heresy, don’t need either a Rosenberg or a Hagee to do so, and will readily find antipathy coming from those who simply disagree with them.

      I recently had a lively discussion with an amilliennialist who took the view that it was a heresy to take the resurrection in Rev 20:4 and the millennium literally.

      It’s a common position. Take this from Engelsma:

      “The matter of the millennium, mentioned only in Revelation 20, has come to require more attention in eschatology (the church’s doctrine of the last things) than Scripture would suggest. The thousand year period is just one more feature of the revelation of the end in the book of Revelation. The reason why the subject receives so much attention, and must receive so much attention, is that serious doctrinal errors have attached themselves to the millennium of Revelation 20….On the one hand, there is the grievous heresy that bewitches multitudes of supposed evangelicals and fundamentalists so that they expect a carnal kingdom of the Jews in Palestine, preceded by a secret “rapture” of the church. This bizarre teaching involves denial of the oneness of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church, rejection of the unity of the covenant of grace, opposition to infant baptism, and embrace of the dread doctrine and practice of antinomism (lawlessness of life with appeal to “grace”).”

      http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/eschatology/amillennialsm/reformed-amillennialism-revelation-20-by-prof-david-j-engelsma/

    2. Joel,

      This is pure evasion. Notice he does not engage a single point. I suppose we must be so genteel in our disagreements that we begin to look like a group of fops disagreeing over what cake to serve! Really, this is very sad: “the liberal use of language that can only be intended to create or encourage antipathy to the ‘other side’.”

      I’m sure that he would only be satisfied if I simply agreed with him! Well, there is nothing gained from trying to reason with this sort of person. I hope some worthier Christian will actually respond to my points from his point of view. Then, perhaps, we can all grow a bit, and begin to scale the heights of spiritual superiority by which Bro. Charmley judges the motives of others 🙂

      God bless,

      P.

      1. Paul,

        You beat me to the punch regarding the comment, “what good argument [you may have had] is effectively concealed by fighting language.”

        This is unfortunate and also quite typical of the age in which we live.

        1. That the reader is unable to read plain factual statements without finding “fighting language” in them I’m thinking says more about the sway of his predisposition to the subject than your presentation. Your presentation was not aggressive and to find it so bespeaks a viewpoint of dislike for the content rather than the presentation.

        2. Being unable to clearly state simple differences in view without compromise and then winding up branded as aggressive and divisive, not to mention unchristian, is really out-of-touch. One wonders if these same people have ever read Spurgeon or the like, not to mention the OT prophets or the apostle Paul. Somehow it is acceptable in their eyes for ‘great preachers’ or historic biblical writers (that is, people who are now dead) to “tell it like it is,” but for anyone living to do so in our day is unbrotherly conduct.

        3. I’m thinking that postmodernism contributes to this tendency — moving away from logic and rational thinking in favor of external appearance and emotion (squishy unbiblial love being one) such that accuracy matters little so long as we all “just get along” which is interpreted to mean we don’t express our different perspectives on what the Scriptures are actually saying. This is big in the Emergent movement too: truth takes a seat in the back of the bus.

        4. One of the results is a dislike, even avoidance, of large portions of the Scripture: namely passages with prophetic themes. One does have to wonder, though, why God put those passages in there and if, after all, He does intend us to try and make sense out of the details? If “pan-theology” is acceptable to God, then why did He give us all this detail? Does He really want us to “keep it” (Rev. 1:3) through a type of morose numbness and disinterest that it “will all work out” and we don’t have to be bothered?

        Unfortunately, we appear to be living in an age where many Christians have antipathy toward what they consider to be the dirty “D” word: doctrine. Never mind that it is the primary task of the elder/pastor to uphold doctrine and to handle and teach the Scriptures accurately to His sheep. The sad result seems to be that many who God has called to examine His Word closely and try to understand as much as He cared to reveal to us often come under friendly fire as being too critical.

      2. Hi Paul and Tony,

        I think it is human nature (not to say it is acceptable to God though, because it isn’t how a Christian should behave!) that we are not comfortable to engage doctrinally with people that we think got it “wrong” on areas we felt convicted to believe the Christian position is settled. We dispensationalists often do the same thing likewise. I notice that on many online forums people, even moderators, simply dump verbatim responses from the likes of Jack Kelley or Thomas Ice when asked to engage an issue or Bible reading question without spending time to exegete the right answers in their own words. When the genuine dissenter posts additional questions, we shout him/her down in the name of protecting the flock by claiming “that’s it. You go and do your hard work. We have come to our conclusions. We will not tolerate the false teaching…”

        Often, strange enough as it is, the nastiness is not confined to eschatology on such dispensational forums! I have seen over the years that a number of fellow dispensationalists have run into troubles on dispensationalist forums in some of these areas:

        1. I’ve noticed teachings of John MacArthur and Arnold Fruchtenbaum become progressively shunned, and now on the verge on banned (if not already) on some prominent dispensational forums. Charles Ryrie will perhaps not be far behind on the list, from the way things are going.

        2. Don’t get people started on why the charismatic movement is wrong! The dirty secret behind is that at least 50% of Christians who are dispensational in eschatology are Pentecostals and charismatics. (and likely to be much higher if from non-US Western countries)

        3. If you start talking about why hymns are good and why Bible reading should be encouraged, bad choice in topics. Any discussions deviating from the accepted norm of soft rock style contemporary praise and worship “raising hands” service is taboo. You will get labelled as an old-fashioned fundamentalist, or worse a liturgical ritualist just because you may believe songs should not be sung en block for 20 minutes at a church service.

        4. And don’t get started on why serious Bible teachings rather than populist soundbites is the way dispensationalism needs in order for it to survive. People will have melt-downs!

        Something I have learned while attending an expositional, moderately-Reformed, and non-dispensational church is that, whenever you teach, you must engege yourself directly with the Word of God itself at some point. This means not to be a lazy guy and pasting D.A. Carson or J.I. Packer answers en bloc! I found this a very important lesson for all genuine Christians regardless of your theological position: it is good to read reputable teachers and be edified by their teachings, but you must not forget to read the relevant passages in the Bible yourself and retrace the doctrinal developments in your own words.

        I do pray that God will develop our honesty on these areas and we will not shy away from pointing out where each other’s post seems wrong. Pray that we will not shy away from doing so, even on this blog. Because at the end, only His Word is infallible and we are not. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

      3. Joel,

        Well said.

        The business of doing “due diligence” when responding to others is probably the main reason why I do no longer frequent many blogs or forums. Some years ago I was more involved with several forums but quickly learned that it simply involves too much work to engage fully in discussions. There are several things at work here.

        One problem is that textual (typing) interaction is very inefficient when compared to live discussion. There is also the problem of lack of body language. So many discussions which take place on forums would be better done at a local church where face-to-face discussion is more nuanced and provides the higher bandwidth needed. Of course this points out another problem: many Christians are not participating in a local fellowship and substituting network interactions instead. So pointing them to their pastors often results in a disconnect since they don’t have any.

        Another is that careful reading seems to have gone the way of the Dodo bird. It takes significant time and real work to think through what someone else is saying before shooting from the hip in response. The result, sadly, is that much which passes for discussion on forums is really people shooting past each other and rarely thinking through what the other person just said. How often does one person spend a lot of effort carefully composing a reasoned response to have it “fall on the floor” as others react without dealing with the issues raised. We’ve all been there I’m sure.

        Then there is the cultural trend of vilifying somebody who has a different opinion. Used to be that people could disagree and still maintain civility. But that appears to be old-fashioned now. Just take a quick peak at any comment section following a typical story on any of the many news sites to see a morass of verbal abuse and invectives.

        So it takes a great deal of personal discipline to make this online stuff work. When it does it can be really great as you can learn a lot and also have fellowship with folks you wouldn’t normally come across personally in the region you live in.

        Blessings – Tony

  3. Two excellent comments. Tony, I have myself wondered about the indirect influence of postmodernism on the hermeneutics of CT’s and others who go down this road. Guys like Thiselton and Vanhoozer, while not themselves being postmodernists, veer close to it in their writings. One disturbing trend is that of not wanting to call a thing by its real name, but instead screaming “pejorative language” while relabeling something with a trendier, nicer sounding name. Thus, we now have to talk in terms of “redemptive-historical hermeneutics” and the like. But what does it DO to much of the Bible – it spiritualizes it!

    Joel, your words contain exactly the kind of gracious sentiments I wish I could encounter more. Yes, we all have our biases and blindspots. But we should all humbly listen to each other and not change the subject or howl “pejorative” everytime somebody says something we don’t like.

  4. I began my walk as babe with dispensation and in a Friends Church. I discovered Sproul on the radio. I learned the reformed perspective. As a result I believe that I am now neither but rather a blend of the two. I cannot deny progressive revelation nor can I deny conventionalism. The 5 Solas are my foundation. I reject the replacement spiritualising of the literal the equivocation tactics of the reformers. Even my eschatology is a blend of the two. The Apostle Johns students speculated as to the identity of the yet unknown antichrist. There is a literal 1000 years with Satan sealed away. Matt. 13 is not about the rapture by the second resurrection. This is a great forum. I thank you.

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