Top Twenty Reasons for Not Reinterpreting the Old Testament by the New

Too busy to finish the pieces on “The Future of an Allusion (Pt.4),” or “Christ at the Center (Pt.4d), so here’s my choice of the 20 best reasons why we ought not reinterpret the OT by the NT.  I have not yet heard a decent argument against any of these points:

See Forty Reasons for not Reinterpreting the OT by the New

Introduction

It seems to be almost an axiom within contemporary evangelical Bible interpretation that the New Testament must be allowed to reinterpret the Old Testament.  This belief in the interpretative priory of the NT over the OT is accepted as “received truth” by a great many evangelical scholars and students today.  But there are corollaries which are often left unexplored or ill-considered.  Did God speak to men in times past in symbolic language so that we today could unravel what He really meant?  Doesn’t this strongly imply that the OT was not really for them, but for us?   This list comes from a longer list of forty reasons why a student of the Bible should not adopt the common tactic of reading the New Testament back into the Old:

20 Reasons            

1. Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT.  Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this.  No Apostolic writer felt it necessary to place in our hands this hermeneutical key, which they supposedly used when they wrote the NT.

2. Since the OT was the Bible of the Early Christians it would mean no one could be sure they had correctly interpreted the OT until they had the NT.  In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.

3. If the OT is in need of reinterpretation because many of its referents (e.g. Israel, land, king, throne, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, Zion, etc.) in actual fact refer symbolically to Jesus and the NT Church, then these OT “symbols” and “types” must be seen for what they are in the NT. But the NT never does plainly identify the realities and antitypes these OT referents are said to point towards.

4. It would require the Lord Jesus to have used a brand new set of hermeneutical rules in, e.g., Lk. 24:44; rules not accessible until the arrival of the entire NT, and not fully understood even today.  These would have to include rules for each “genre”, which would not have been apparent to anyone interpreting the OT on its own terms.

5. If the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT then what it says on its own account cannot be trusted, as it could well be a “type,” or even part of an obtuse redemptive state of affairs to be alluded to and reinterpreted by the NT.

6. Thus, it would mean the seeming clear predictions about the Coming One in the OT could not be relied upon to present anything but a typological/symbolic picture which would need deciphering by the NT.  The most clearly expressed promises of God in the OT would be vulnerable to being eventually turned into types and shadows.

7. It would excuse anyone (e.g. the scribes in Jn. 5:35f.) for not accepting Jesus’ claims based on OT prophecies – since those prophecies required the NT to reinterpret them.  Therefore, the Lord’s reprimand of the scribes in the context would have been unreasonable.

8. Any rejection of this, with a corresponding assertion that the OT prophecies about Christ did mean what they said, would create the strange hermeneutical paradox of finding clear, plain-sense testimony to Christ in the OT while claiming the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT.  One could not maintain this position without calling the whole assumption under review.

9. The divining of these OT types and shadows is no easy task, especially as the NT does not provide any specific help on the matter.  NT scholarship has never come to consensus on these matters, let alone “the common people” to whom the NT was purportedly written.

10. If the Author of the OT does not mean what He appears to say, but is in reality speaking in types and shadows, which He will apparently reveal later, what assurance is there that He is not still speaking in types and shadows in the NT?  Especially is this problem intensified because many places in the NT are said to be types and shadows still (e.g. the Temple in 2 Thess. 2 and Rev. 11).

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

12. Thus, no unbeliever could be accused of unbelief so long as they only possessed the OT, since the apparatus for belief (the NT) was not within their grasp.

13. This all makes mincemeat of any claim for the clarity of Scripture.  At the very least it makes this an attribute possessed only by the NT, and only tortuous logic could equate the word “perspicuity” to such wholesale symbolic and typological approaches.

14. A corollary to this is that the authority of the OT to speak in its own voice is severely undermined.

15. In consequence of the above the status of the OT as “Word of God” would be logically inferior to the status of the NT.  The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.

16. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired inter-textual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants are cited and taken to mean what they say  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.

17. 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.

18. 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, 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 a fashion that would lead literally thousands of saints to be misled by them.

19. 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 say Jn. 3:16; 5:24; Rom. 3:23-26), 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, the Church being just a shadow of a future reality?

20. 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.  But, of course, the OT is not allowed a voice on par with what the NT text is assumed to make it 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.

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4 comments

  1. Paul, I’m reprinting remarks from a lay sister in Christ in WELS from her website “Questioning Amillennialism” which she wrote back in the year 2000. She reinforced your points from a layperson’s perspective:

    —————————————–

    http://www.geocities.ws/questioningamillennialism/index-1.htm

    Claim:”You are consistently using the Old Testament to interpret the New Testament.”

    Response:

    I don’t think I am. I’m showing that the Old Testament and the New Testament agree. I guess I don’t understand the idea of not looking at the Old Testament in the same way as we look at the New Testament. Ultimately, there is only one author. He doesn’t change, and He says things like, “Will I say a thing and not bring it to pass?”

    When the Bereans searched the Scriptures, what were they reading? The Old Testament. The Bible doesn’t say they were a bunch of scholars. Chances are, they were common people like me. If what Paul had to say REALLY changed the meaning of those Scriptures, were they such an easy sell? Is it possible that some of these things required little explanation because they DIDN’T change the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures?

    Think about it. How much discussion is given in the New Testament to the proper understanding of the law? Quite a lot – and that doesn’t contradict anything in the Old Testament. Yet, our entire understanding of Old Testament prophecy is supposed to change based on a verse here and there. One verse in Romans changes the entire meaning of Hosea. A mention in Acts changes the understanding of Amos. Truly – were those first century, regular people, such an easy sell? Or, is it possible that the New Testament writers were not changing the understanding but simply reminding people of what they already knew?

    ————————————————

    Claim: “Studying the Scriptures it isn’t as simple as you state. Nuances of languages are difficult even if one knows the languages – look at what Peter wrote about Paul’s letters (2 Pet. 3:15-16). It is simplistic to claim that all of Scripture is equally clear. Too many want to make the Bible a 21st century American English text that is as easy as a third grade reader – and then claim that I, who study Greek and Hebrew texts, do not accept the Bible as “literal.””

    Response:

    This Missouri Synod pastor makes some valid points, but he wrote this after reading only the Introduction. Hopefully it became clearer what I meant as he read on.

    Pastors deserve our thanks and our prayers. They feel a call from God and spend years and years learning and preparing to shepherd a flock. Then they take that job seriously and diligently work to feed their sheep. I think it’s wonderful that Lutheran pastors learn the original languages and can explain the finer points of God’s word to us. Not knowing those languages, I know that there are many things that I will never understand as well, at least on this side of heaven.

    That said, I don’t think God ever intended for the majority of His word to be understood only by church leaders. Of course there are many, many things that I don’t understand, but overall the message is relatively clear. If it means something entirely different in English, why bother with translations? Certainly, there will be occasions when knowledge of the original language will add a different twist on a verse, but if that is the case with everything, how good a job did the translators do? Even though I used the NIV for most of this, I personally find the King James to be the most useful for studying individual verses. It was translated by Godly, prayerful men, who were well versed in the original languages.

    Going back to the Bereans – what were they using when they “searched the Scriptures daily?” Chances are, they were not using the original Hebrew, but the translation in the language of their day, the Greek Septuagint. They were most likely regular people, not scholars.

    Granted, for a translation to be perfect, you’d have to be God, but I also believe that God is perfectly capable of preserving His word for us today, not just for the original people it was written to. Why did Martin Luther bother making a German translation? Because he firmly believed in the “priesthood of all believers.”

    When we’re talking individual verses, no question, you that have knowledge of Greek and Hebrew are way above the rest of us. We’re not talking a few verses, though, but a substantial portion of the Bible. If I’m going to misunderstand a substantial portion of the Bible without knowing the original languages, I’d better toss out my English Bibles.

    Here are some verses that come to mind as I think about us as the shepherd’s sheep, little children, and as members in the priesthood of believers.

    Matthew 4
    4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

    Numbers 23
    19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

    Matthew 11:25
    At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children

    —————————————————

    Claim: “The Bible itself tells us when things should be interpreted figuratively.”

    Response:

    This is a hard one, because there is so much packed into that sentence. The statement is absolutely true, but I know the person saying it is really saying “Your interpretation of the passages given is incorrect.” One person even said, “May God grant all who try to lead her to the truth patience and wisdom, and — more importantly — may the Holy Spirit teach her the true interpretation of the Scriptures.”

    Instead of trying to argue as though I know better, because I certainly don’t, I’m going to fall back on the fact that I’m just regular plain Jane, congregation member (who perhaps studies her Bible more than most women). In the book Biblical Interpretation: The Only Right Way by David Kuske, ã 1995, Northwestern Publishing House, it says:

    How does the interpreter decide whether a biblical passage is literal or figurative? The decision must be based on the same criteria as in any other literature: (1) Either the writer or speaker must indicate in direct words that the is using a figure of speech; (2) Or the context must make it clear that the words have to be taken figuratively. In any other case, the literal meaning of the words must be accepted as the intended sense.

    That makes perfect sense to me. And yet, to me – plain Jane, congregation member – it seems like that gets applied only when convenient. If something doesn’t fit ABC doctrine, then the passage must mean something else, regardless of whether it fits the above or not. A pastor at my church got through the last eight chapters of Ezekiel with two sentences: “This a picture of perfect worship. We worship differently today.” Eight full chapters of details reduced to meaninglessness. That doesn’t mean I understand those chapters! How do I reconcile them with Hebrews? I have no idea, but neither am I going to insist they mean something else. I just leave that on my growing list of things for Jesus to help me understand when I sit at his feet.

    Also, just because something is obviously figurative doesn’t mean the things around it necessarily are. I might say, “That rat owes me $20!” The “rat” is figurative, but the rest is perfectly literal. Jesus does that here:

    Luke 13:32
    He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’

    And, just because something is figurative, doesn’t mean it can’t make absolute, plain sense. Medical doctors have been amazed at the accuracy of Psalm 22 in describing what would happen during crucifixion:

    Psalm 22

    14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
    My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted away within me.
    15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

    The Bible is filled with different kinds of figures of speech and incredible imagery. That is not limited to the poetic or prophetic books, but is found throughout. Most of the time, symbolism is either explained right there or somewhere else in the Bible. The Book of Revelation is like a code in that regard. Sure, it’s filled with symbols, but to crack the code, you just need to look at the rest of the Bible. For example, compare the symbols of Revelation 12:1 with Genesis 37:9-10.

    From my plain-Jane-congregation-member point of view, it seems odd to insist on the plain sense of Scripture except when it comes to prophecy, and especially prophecy concerning the Jews.

    I would just ask that if this is your objection, that my interpretation of Scripture is wrong, that you would not make general statements, but pull out something specific that I’ve quoted and show me why.

    Romans 15:4
    For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

    1. It’s a bit long for a comment, but it really hits home. If I was asked what the first essential presupposition of the doctrine of revelation is, I would say, “The Bible is for Everyman – saved and unsaved.”

      My second would be, “The Bible is sufficient in itself for its proper interpretation.”

      Much Christian theology denies, at least implicitly, both of these tenets.

      God bless,

      Paul

  2. “The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.” (from #15 on your list, above)

    Dr. R.,

    Could this (#15) explain why such a high percentage of (self-described) Bible-believing preachers virtually ignore the OT in their weekly sermons? Aside from the first 10 chapters of Genesis, and the books of Psalms and Proverbs (okay, we’ll toss in the book of Daniel, too, since it perhaps it has now reached “Top 5 Most-Interesting OT Books” status in many circles), it is rare to hear messages (much less a *series* of messages!) from an OT book these days. Your thoughts/insights, please?

    Grace

    p.s. Would love to read the other twenty reasons from the original list of 40!

    1. Grace,

      I gave a link to the full 40 Reasons at the top of the post 🙂

      My take on why the OT isn’t preached from is that people (pastors included) don’t read their Bibles as much anymore, and don’t “know” these books.

      God bless,

      Paul

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