Is “Reinterpretation” The Right Term?

I have been a little disappointed at the lack of interaction from naysayers on my “40 Reasons” posts.  Where there has been a bare trickle of response it has been ad hominen and trivial.

But Fred Butler informed me that Steve Hays had written something on his blog, which, although it doesn’t directly interact with my articles, at least addresses two pertinent points.  Steve does not say he had me in mind when he wrote, so I have no right to expect to read a full response from him.  But I am glad that he has touched on a couple of issues.

Firstly, he rejects the opinion that the NT “reinterprets” the Old.  That will be the topic of this post.  He is concerned that if we do not track the developments between the Testaments in line with Apostolic practices we shall treat them “as if they represent diametrically opposing principles of promise and fulfillment.”

I think I understand what he means.  If I’ve got it right Hays is concerned with the problem of discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  I think some dispensationalists have represented things like that, even if by “discontinuity” they have in mind, not the overarching Plan of God, but the textual relationships between the promises God made in the OT and the “fulfillments” which they see in the NT.  Hays’s main concern is that the OT itself signals the sort of interpretation which he sees taking place in the NT.  I shall have to look at that claim separately.  In this post I want to explain a little more what I mean by the word “reinterpret.”

The real problem for anyone passing from the OT to the NT is what to make of the “newness” of the Church (cf. Eph. 2:15; Cf. Matt. 16:18; Jn. 7:39, etc.).  Dispensationalists, by and large, are not given to seeing the Church in the OT.  There may be vague adumbrations in the OT (per the Progressives), but the Church as the Body of Christ is not there.  Therefore, Israel in the OT is not in any sense the Church (of course, Stephen, in Acts 7:38 is not referring to Israel as the Body of Christ, despite the best efforts of Bishop Bancroft.  The word ekklesia simply refers to Israel as “a called assembly”).  Covenant Theologians (CT’s), in the thrall of the “covenant of grace,” see only one people of God in both Testaments, which must be the Church.  From this conclusion OT Israel has to be understood as being the Church in the OT, whether the Bible says it is or not.  I realize CT’s do recognize a change from OT church to NT church, but that is another matter.

Once this view is adopted, any unity cannot, of course, be arrived at via plain-sense, law of identity interpretations.  The only way unity can be saved is by making the Apostolic authors identify OT objects as “types” and such, to be realized in different form in the NT (i.e. via reinterpretation).

As I said on my thirteenth reason.  This procedure:

“…imposes a “unity” on the Bible which is symbolic and metaphorical only.  Hence taking the Bible in a normal, plain-sense (the sense scholars advocating this view take for granted their readers will adopt with them, which we would identify as “literal”) would destroy any unity between the Testaments.”

As I have just said, this way of dealing with the problem of the use of the OT in the New is what I call “reinterpretation.”  Steve doesn’t see it as reinterpretation.  Nevertheless, he does speak of “territorial referents” changing

Now I should say that I chose the word “reinterpret” knowingly.  In #39 I wrote:

“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.”

One of the frustrations some of us encounter when dealing with CT’s is their habit of redefining words like “literal,” and “replacement,” and “transform,” and even “reinterpretation.”  As well, they don’t wish to be cumbered with the term “spiritualizing,” even though their forebears (e.g. O.T. Allis, G. Hospers, M. Woudstra) had no trouble with it.  And, as an aside, it is hard for me to comprehend men like C. Venema when they write about the First Resurrection of Revelation 20 as “not a physical but a spiritual participation with Christ,” while insisting we take “the thousand years of Revelation 20 as figurative, rather than literal,” – ( R. D. Phillips & G. N. E. Fluhrer, These Last Days, 122, 121).  If this be the case, “spiritual” seems to equate to “non-literal.”  As G. Goldsworthy says, “Some literalists have an aversion to spiritualizing, but it is clear that there is a real sense in which the New Testament spiritualizes the Old.” – Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 248, n.14.

Be that as it may, some Covenant Theologians do say that the NT “reinterprets” the OT (e.g. K. Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 37).  To re-interpret something is “to interpret in a new or different way.”  Is that not an accurate description of the position of those who teach that the NT is needed to understand the OT when it speaks of “Israel” and “land” and “temple” etc.?  Isn’t that exactly what we are often told the NT writers did with OT contexts?  Consider this example:

All that the OT foresaw would occur in the end times has begun already in the first century and continues on until the final coming of Christ.  This means that the OT end-time expectations of the great tribulation, God’s domination of the gentiles, deliverance of Israel from oppressors, Israel’s restoration, Israel’s resurrection, the new covenant, the promised Spirit, the new creation, the new temple, a messianic king, and the establishment of God’s kingdom have been set in motion irreversibly by Christ’s death and resurrection and the formation of the Christian church.” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 161).

To be clear about this, Beale, as Goldsworthy, and most contemporary CT’s, thinks Jesus is Israel (thus, the church is “new Israel” in Him).  Jesus is also the temple (ditto the church).  Further, we are presently living through the great tribulation.  What is one to make of this?  Is no reinterpretation going on?  Is one thing in the OT not being interpreted “in a new or different way” by the New?  The loophole is via typology.  Hays writes,

“It is possible, therefore, to oppose “Zionist” exegesis without taking the position that the NT reinterprets the OT. In principle, you could do that by taking OT typology as your benchmark or starting-point.”

Again, he may not be interacting with my piece, and I have yet to get to his examples.  But does a resort to a debatable typology solve the problem?  As I shall show next time, Hays’ examples of “recapitulation” from Isaiah 11 & 35 & Jeremiah 16 seem to exemplify a reinterpretation along typological lines.  And if we switch out the word “reinterpretation” with “typological” or “Christocentric” or “Christotelic,” or “expansionist,” the “40 Reasons” remain untouched and still in need of a clear counter-argument.

And if we suppose for a moment that “re-interpretation” is not happening.  IF what we see is simply “interpretation,” then it stands to reason that it is not possible to interpret the OT on its own.  One must have the NT to “interpret” it.  But if that is so what have we gained?  The 40 objections still stand intact.  Therefore, if Steve doesn’t like “reinterpretation” let him choose another term; so long as it is not ambiguous and evasive.   It all comes out the same way.  At the end of the day, the types must be uncovered with the NT antitypes.  But then we bump into the “40 Reasons.”  And round we go again.

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20 comments

  1. “The real problem for anyone passing from the OT to the NT is what to make of the “newness” of the Church”.

    And the same thing goes for Israel: because it did not always exist either. It was a new thing back then with the arrival of Jacob (=Israel), although foretold to Abraham. But still a new development in its own time. I know full well that CT’s will use that argument to say: see Israel is just another name for the believers, and so is the Church and therefore both are the same and have always existed. But Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, the Ninevites, and others, were also saved and believers and nevertheless they were not part at all of Israel (and not part of the Church either). What we can agree on is that believers have always existed and always will (even during the great tribulation, when the true Church is no longer on the earth), but that doesn’t mean they all belong to the same group.

    I don’t like the term Dispensationalist, although others might say I am one. But one thing is clear: God dealt with Man differently at different times and that has its consequences, not in salvation, but in rewards and responsibility. Israel will be restored, the Church won’t. What CT’s fail to see is that there is a whole lot more to the story than personal salvation. Col 1:17 – 20. And God has His own purposes and ways to carry that out.

  2. You raise an important issue for Biblical Studies, although it is conveniently swept under the carpet by most writers. To my mind the issue begins to crystallize once we take seriously the Bible’s picture of Israel, the Nations, and the Church as three distinct people groups in the eschaton. They are one as far as their common humanity is concerned, but three as far as their respective representations are concerned. Thus, Israel is truly God’s “wife,” the Church is Christ’s bride, leaving the Nations to be “espoused” to the Spirit (?).

    If this is correct we have a wonderful (and not totally unexpected) triad of humanity in the consummation. I am not sure how one fits pre-Israel and the Nations together as one group, but I at least can conceive of it.

    Also, you are right about CT’s being fixated with salvation as if that was the whole story. Man is created to govern creation, but creation is not incidental.

    Thanks for a helpful comment.

    P.

  3. I’m WTS philly graduate and quite honestly, after reading the “40 objections”, all I could do is shake my head and say, I don’t have time to redo a dissertation to correct everything that is wrong with this line of thinking. In my studies, I find that Beale, Riddlebarger, Vos and many others are diametrically opposed to your view and yet none of them fall prey to any of your 40 objections. I say this simply to agree to disagree, but cannot spend the required amount of time needed to counter every one of your objections. Good providence to you.

    1. Dear “Trinity,”

      I should at least be gratified that you read my “40 Reasons.” That you think that “Beale, Riddlebarger, Vos and many others are diametrically opposed to your view and yet none of them fall prey to any of your 40 objections,” is quite a statement to make without proof. Perhaps you think I haven’t read these men and am shooting in the dark?

      I understand, of course, that it is easier to state a proposition than to defend one. It would be unfair of me to ask you to engage every single one of the objections, but someone as well trained as you (with a WTS doctorate?) ought to be up to the task of responding to two or three. I had already cited both Beale and Riddlebarger in the post you chose to leave your comment on.

      Allow me to furnish you with the Riddlebarger quote. I apologize for its length:

      “Historically, Protestant interpreters have argued that the New Testament provides the controlling interpretation of the Old Testament. The goal of the interpreter of eschatology is to determine how prophecies made in the Old Testament are treated and applied by writers of the New. If the New Testament writers spiritualize Old Testament prophecies by applying them in a nonliteral sense, then the Old Testament passage must be seen in light of that New Testament interpretation, not vice versa…
      Old Testament prophets and writers spoke of the glories of the coming messianic age in terms of their own premessianic age. They referred to the nation of Israel, the temple, the Davidic throne, and so on. These all reflect the language, history, and experience of the people to whom these prophecies were originally given. But eschatological themes are reinterpreted in the New Testament, where we are told these Old Testament images are types and shadows of the glorious realities that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. According to amillenarians, this means that Jesus Christ is the true Israel. Jesus Christ is the true temple…” – K. Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 37.

      Now, in light of these words you will have to excuse me if I find your dismissal of my article hard to swallow. I invite you also to read G. Goldsworthy’s According To Plan, 82, 123, 202.

      Witsius spoke of OT saints abiding in “the obscurity of the old economy,” as in the “twilight before the rising of the sun.” – Economy of the Divine Covenants, II. Bk.IV. chap. XIII.V

      As far as the actual identity of the Messiah is concerned he is right (and this is why dispensationalists do not like to speak blithely about saints in the OT being saved by looking to the Cross). They looked for a Redeemer, because one was literally promised. But they also looked for many other things which God led them to believe would be fulfilled literally (cf. Jer. 33:14-26). But Riddlebarger’s view (which cannot be too far from yours?) runs us into my “40 Reasons.” They are not to be dismissed in the fashion epitomized by your opinion.

      Perhaps you will respond to a couple of the objections. Then I can begin to size up your comment above, and, perhaps, view it with more gravity than I do right now.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

      1. @Paul, I suspect it is too strong a language to claim all or even most dispensationalists “do not like to speak blithely about saints in the OT being saved by looking to the Cross”. I certainly don’t witness this attitude from Arnold Fruchtenbaum or even pop writers like Jack Kelley (whose views I find rather lacking).

        I found this quote from Jack Kelley’s site: “In the Old Testament that meant keeping the commandments and offering the sacrifices as evidence they believed in a coming Messiah” http://gracethrufaith.com/ask-a-bible-teacher/gods-covenant-with-the-jews/

        But you are right that in a sense, the CT is claiming that all the OT believers were looking towards is the messiah for atoning sins. “The early possessions promised by God are just types for heavenly possessions which will be revealed as just shadows and worthless post-cross” is a claim that are backed only through these use of selective reasoning when interpreting verses like Hebrews 11:16. I guess we often feel like circles trying to talk to each other and everytime we get standard responses like “you don’t understand us. You were dealing with a cariature!” or “You haven’t read the definite guy on Covenant theology yet!”.

      2. Joel,

        I’m not sure you understood my comment. I actually agree with the Kelley quote you cited. But that is not the same as saying saints in the OT looked to the Cross. OT saints didn’t know who Jesus of Nazareth was, and they did not know He would die on a Roman Cross for their sins. The content of their faith had to be different because the circumstances of their available knowledge was different.

        But I do strongly agree with your statement about CT’s saying, “you don’t understand us” and “you need to read so and so.” How often have I heard those lines down the years! 🙂

        God bless,

        P

      3. 15. Saying the types and shadows in the OT (which supposedly include the land given to Israel, the throne in Jerusalem, the temple of Ezekiel, etc.), are given their proper concrete meanings by the NT implies neither the believer nor the unbeliever can comprehend God’s promises solely from the OT.

        This is exactly what Riddlebarger believes regarding Isaiah 65 when he appeals to Motyer:

        “Things we have no real capacity to understand can be expressed only through things we know and experience…In other words, metaphors are used of things neither we nor Isaiah can fully understand. The poetic structure surely points in this direction.”

        http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/the-latest-post/2010/6/9/isaiah-65-death-and-old-age-redux.html

        In fact, as Matt Waymeyer has shown in “Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate” there’s a fair amount of reinterpreting done to sections of the NT insofar as Revelation is concerned. Amils take the physical resurrection in Rev 20:4 as actually symbolic, spiritual or just regeneration. See Riddlebarger’s “A Case for Amillennialism” (p 221) and Donaldson’s “the last days of dispensationalism” (pp 141-142). As Waymeyer points out, this then means these saints are regenerated after their beheading. But that’s another story.

  4. Dear Trinity,

    Even if you only make a generalized disagreement to Dr. Henebury’s “40 Reasons,” why would your appeal be to your degree, Beale, Riddlebarger, Vos, and many others ? Like Dr. Henebury, I, too, would like to hear from those who disagree, but with an appeal to Scripture.

    God bless.

    David M.

  5. >But I do strongly agree with your statement about CT’s saying, “you don’t understand us” and “you need to read so and so.” How often have I heard those lines down the years!

    This is silly. It is Dispensationalists who need to resort to such exasperation. Covenant Theologians from the Westminster Divines to Louis Berkhof were quite capable of making themselves understood.

    1. Dear F. S.,

      If you will reread my comment you will discover that I was referring to CT’s generally, not the likes of Berkhof. I completely agree with you that these men were very capable of making themselves understood. The frustration is not with them. It is with the general run of CT’s who, when you quote directly from these men, STILL insist CT is being misrepresented. I hope you see the difference.

      Nevertheless, I do think some misrepresentation from both sides is inevitable (if regrettable). Nevertheless, when I pick up an argument from a CT against dispensationalism I know what I will find. DT’s teach two ways of salvation; DT’s believe in a secret rapture; DT’s see the Church as an afterthought; DT’s want an easy “out” for themselves in the rapture, etc. THAT comes from many (not all) CT’s not studying dispensational works and being content to cite a study Bible and Lindsey and LaHaye and not the scholarly works of DT’s.

      God bless,

      Paul H.

  6. I’ll use a sports analogy. Dispensationalism is like Arena Football trying to get attention by pretending to be at the same level as the NFL. I.e. it’s not a serious debate. When you learn Covenant Theology it is a inwardly-directed study. We are *moved* to learn it and get parts in relation to the whole understanding of it. We end up reading and studying influences such as Vos and Bavinck and the Westminster Divines and Berkhof and Turretin and on and on al set against the raw material of the word of God which we have as foundation; then Dispensationalists (Arena Football enthusiasts) come along and tell us we need to read *Ryrie*. Do you see the difference in scale here? The difference in seriousness?

    There is too much at stake for me to even debate Dispensationalists. I stand upon the Pactum Salutis as my very Constitution and legal standing in the Kingdom of God. I see it, I understand it, I was never approached by anybody to learn it (unlike Dispensationalism), but was guided and inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit Himself to learn it and get understanding of it.

    Arena Football may be entertaining for some people, but biblical doctrine is *armor of God.* With armor you want the real thing. The Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God are all too serious a reality to fool around with anything less than the real thing; with anything less than the real armor of God.

    1. When I read this response by F. S. my first thought was that perhaps I had encountered the ‘Leona Helmsley’ of Covenant Theology: “We don’t play with dispensationalists. Only the little people play at dispensationalism…”
      O

  7. You’re comment only works if I’m alone. Basically, you’re projecting. Getting your doctrine from isolated 19th century guys who were re-inventing the wheel and throwing down ad hoc ‘Hey, what about this’ will put you in a weak position where projection will likely be unconscious and aggressive.

    1. Now F.S.

      Instead of exemplifying a superior and proud attitude I want you to display your learning by actually presenting arguments against my posts. In that way we can all learn from both your humble example and your capacious theological intellect. If you don’t come up with the goods all future comments of yours will be deleted.

      P

  8. I’m not a liberal Christian who sees value in constantly re-inventing the wheel. To suggest exegesis/biblical theology hasn’t been done over and over is, I’ll use the word again and give you an opportunity to delete all my posts: silly.

    I merely posted a comment to call you guys on this notion that it is the Covenant Theology side that complains nobody understands us when it is the multi-ad hoc dispensational ‘system’ that needs to fall back on such tactics.

    1. Last chance F.S.,

      Nowhere have I implied that “biblical/systematic theology hasn’t been done over and over.” You are projecting your own prejudices onto DT’s. It is YOU who is “silly.” And who called you liberal?

      If you bother to read my “answers to the “95 Thesis Against dispensationalism” you will see I pinpoint many misrepresentations of one sort or another. If you want to see this in CT books I recommend W. Edgar’s “Truth in all Its Glory,” or Gerstner’s “Wrongly dividing the Word of Truth.”

      Also, if you can show where and how I or some other DT has misrepresented CT, or if you can put forth a half-decent argument against my posts, then please DO SO.

  9. Gday Paul
    Just wondering if you know the origins/history of this NT reinterpretive hermeneutic?
    My understanding is that from the englightenment came rationalism which in turn gave rise to liberalism resulting in subjectivism… Was this ‘reinterpretive hermeneutic’ a by product of the conservatives who were reacting against the liberals?

    Regards
    David

    1. David,

      The problem started very early on. It especially got going under the influence of Augustine and Jerome, and then Joachim of Fiore in (12th century). The Reformers were heavily influenced by these men and have passed on this way of thinking to many who came after. There is an underlying strain which must be understood. It is composed of three things: 1. That the NT fulfillment requires reinterpretation of the OT along allegorical or typological lines. 2. That there is one people of God – the Church (which is often read back into the OT); and 3. that the hermeneutical touchstone for the Bible is the Cross & resurrection (i.e. the first advent).

      This link to an occasional series I am redoing may help a bit: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/an-overview-of-the-history-of-interpretation-part-1/

      Cheers,

      Paul H

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