Old Wine in New Wineskins: Can and Should We Read the OT the Way the NT Authors Did?

Two days ago I had the privilege of giving my “inaugural lecture” here at Grace Theological Seminary, the title of which is the heading for this post. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, as the audience asked good, thought-provoking questions. If you are interested, the audio can be found here.

The short answer to the question I posed was not only should we read the OT the way the NT authors did, but that we must if we are to be faithful to the way that Jesus expects us to read the OT. I then proceeded to look at three key passages: Luke 24:25-32, 44-49; Romans 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11. After examining these passages, I concluded by offering four key assumptions that the NT authors had when they read the OT. They are:

1. Because Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises in the OT, every part of the OT in some way points forward to Christ and the redemption he accomplished.

2. Within all its diversity the OT tells an overarching story of God’s plan to redeem a people for himself who proclaim his glory to the ends of the earth.

3. History is unified by a wise and sovereign plan of God such that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to latter points in history.

4. In light of the first three assumptions, our reading of the OT and our understanding of redemption in Christ must continually reshape each other.

I don’t pretend to have made the definitive statement on the subject, and I am well aware that the issues surround the question are complex, but I am convinced that identifying these assumptions of the NT authors is a useful starting point.

I’d welcome any comments or questions you might have.

7 thoughts on “Old Wine in New Wineskins: Can and Should We Read the OT the Way the NT Authors Did?”

  1. I appreciated your topic at GTS on Tuesday night, I was there…

    Here are a some thoughts I would like to share:

    1. I think you made a necessary distinction when you said, “yes” to your title-question, but also “no” in that we cannot use the NT author’s methods – I do believe this was Longenecker’s point (Biblical Exegesis), and Thomas’ point that they were inspired. Thereby, the scarlet thread of Rahab should not be read in the same way as Paul’s rock or the crossing (1 Cor. 10).

    2. Your point is well taken about the chiding of the disciples in Luke 24 et al. These do show that much can be missed when we read Scripture through conditioning. The case in point being the Suffering Servant being overlooked, maybe because they could not grasp it without further revelation.

    3. Most importantly in my journey in hermeneutics is the concept that we do not “stop” with the grammatical-historical meaning of the OT when we come to the NT – God has every right to add to, subtract from, modify, etc. His prior word and still be faithful and true to His word. I think that it is a sound method to look at the “informing theology” of prior texts and how they interact with later revelation (cf. Bright; Kaiser, Jr.).

    4. Another issue that you brought out in your lecture – at least what I walked away with – is the enormity of the task at hand and that we may have to live with some tensions in our interpretation (cf. 2).

    5. Lastly, what you proposed (correct me if I am wrong), and what I hold to is what is being chided as a “complementary hermeneutic.” The OT grammatical-historical meaning is not jettisoned and reinterpreted by grammatical-historical meaning in the NT.

    GTS Student

  2. Pauly,

    Thanks for attending and posting these thoughts. Here’s my response to your post:

    1. I am still wrestling through the issue regarding methods. I am hesitant to embrace Longenecker’s position because it raises a dilemna in that we are required to embrace their conclusions while rejecting their methods. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, but I have yet to articulate a full response to the alternative. But I agree that one must factor in the “inspired” nature of the NT authors’ interpretation of the OT, a position which we today do not have.

    2. I agree that elements of God’s revelation cannot be understood without the light of later and fuller revelation on God’s part. Latent within many OT passages are kernels of significance for later acts of God that cannot be understood until after their fulfillment.

    3. I agree that as Christians we cannot stop with the original intended meaning of an OT passage. Otherwise the OT becomes little more than historical and moral background for the NT, which I believe is a sub-Christian view of the OT.

    4. Could not agree more. My goal was to establish the larger structures of a framework in approaching the issue, not eliminate all tensions and challenges. The enormity of the task rests in the fact that it is God’s Word we are dealing with.

    5. I’m not sure I follow you here. I agree that the original meaning of an OT passage is not jettisoned by its use in the NT. But I do believe that the NT authors do speak authoritatively on how OT texts should be understood. In fact, they are our only divinely inspired “interpretation” of the OT. So I would argue that NT interpretations of the OT MUST be understood as authoritative. But maybe I have misunderstood your comment here.

    Again, thanks for attending and your comments here.

  3. A Classic Dispensationalist once told me that to understand the new covenant of Jer. as being the same covenant as observed by the church would mean that God was misleading in His promise. What I found behind this view is a hermeneutical methodology that says that since I/J are addressed the church cannot be later included in the covenant, which breaks the single meaning principle.

    R. Thomas in his book, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New verses the Old, tabulates the new hermeneutic as including “later complementary additions in meaning” against the old grammatical-historical hermeneutic as being “one meaning only.” He does so against Progressive Dispensationalist, et al. who complements older revelation with new revelation, which, changes the single meaning derived from the old hermeneutic.

    Now, I would agree that in an exegesis of the text of Jer., it would be incorrect to read the church back into the meaning, but in my exposition, it is not incorrect to show through biblical theology the inclusion of the church into this promise; hence, my “we cannot stop” with the OT meaning when later revelation adds to it; therefore, a complementary hermeneutic.


  4. Pauly,

    I am not satisfied with the “single meaning” approach you mention for many reasons, but I will highlight just two.

    1. This approach cannot adequately deal with the way the NT authors understand the OT. There are numerous cases in which a prophetic word from the OT clearly has multiple meanings, some of which would not have been understood by the original audience. For example, the promise to David in 2 Sam 7:13 finds fulfillment in both the reign of Solomon (initial) and in Christ (final). I do not see how the single meaning approach can do justice to texts such as these.

    2. We must never forget that Scripture has TWO authors, human AND divine. I think there were places where the human OT authors had little or no understanding of what they were being prompted to write, let alone its fulfillment. But God knew all along. And even in those cases where the human author’s intention seems to point to one single meaning, it is not unusual for that passage to be given new meaning in the NT.

    3. If meaning is dependent upon context, then we must acknowledge that there are multiple layers of context – historical, literary, and redemptive (aka biblical-theological or even canonical). When OT passages are read in light of these different contexts, different meanings emerge.

    4. Meaning cannot be limited to what the original human author understood or what the original human audience would have understood. We must allow for the possibility of someone “speaking better than he knows.” We see this in John 18:49-52 with Caiaphas.

    Hope this helps. These are important issues that are worth sorting out. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am doing my best to account for as much of the data with the least amount of difficulties.


  5. matt,

    thanks for linking to the audio. i listened to it on a drive with my music pastor and we really enjoyed it. (though the sound quality could be improved in the future).

    a couple of thoughts i had:

    a) i was surprised that 1 peter 1:10-12 was not brought into the discussion. it seems germane…though possibly it is only limited to prophecy? at the least, it seems to fit into your discussion here with pauly. (please don’t see this comment as saying you were deficient in your handling of the issue…not at all. there are dozens of other texts that could be brought in, but time is limited.)

    b) i found myself in hebrews 7 again last week. i got so fired up with the author’s explanation that melchizedek is a type of Christ. he draws out amazing things (like M not being of the tribe of Levi, or the Levites tithing to M thru Abe, etc) that have to be the product of divine revelation. as i read the text, i get fired up because it seems the author is fired up about this revelation. it’s so crystal clear for us (now!), but it’s like he’s teaching something new to these hebrew believers (though they’ve had the genesis text for thousands of years).

    i think this idea is foreign to us because we live in an era where some “reclaim” movie scripts or novels to have Christian meaning in areas the author has not intended (or atleast hasn’t clearly stated that intent). we see someone make a point, and it’s not awful, but we’re not sure we can totally stand behind it because it just seems they are manipulating things somewhat.

    this could not be the case for the NT writers. i clearly couldn’t claim the same authority in finding Christian meaning from the OT (unless stated in the NT) because i can not claim my words to be inspired, but this does not diminish their ability to do so. in fact, because their words were inspired, we can not approach with the attitude that they made up a plausible meaning to establish their case…we have to state it was the meaning in the first place. (something i can’t do when i try to claim the “christian meaning” in “weekend at bernies.”)

    of course, the text may have multiple “layers” but we have to claim the layer that speaks of Christ is THE layer…don’t we?

    sorry i’ve rambled. again, enjoyed the audio.

  6. Good post. Came across your blog through another. You may be interested in my blog. It is concerned with the things you talk about in this post.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *