I recently read Dan McCartney’s article on hermeneutics entitled “Should We Employ the Hermeneutics of the New Testament Writers?” This was a paper given at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2003.
McCartney’s answered resonated with me. He presented the two most popular options, and then argues there may be a third way. The two most popular approaches are as follows.
Richard Longenecker’s Approach
Acknowledge that the apostles, in accordance with their age, did things quite differently than our grammatical historical approach and that we should not follow the specific apostolic exegetical practices.
Greg Beale’s Approach
The NT authors did follow what is effectively the grammatical-historical meaning, and we should follow their exegetical practice.
McCartney suggests a third answer:
The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis nor did they consistently interpret according to original historical contextual meanings, but we should follow their exegetical lead anyway.
Although McCartney overstates it a little here, he circles around later in the article to acknowledge that they many times do employ something akin to the grammatical-historical approach, but that it does not encompass everything they did.
McCartney clarifies in this paragraph.
All would agree, I think, that the New Testament writers do sometimes follow “natural” or contextual meanings, and I think most would also agree that at times they find meanings in the Old Testament which are hard to justify by strict grammatical-historical interpretation. The question before us is whether and to what degree we can legitimately find meanings by means that do not conform to grammatical-historically derivable meanings.
He agrees with Longenecker on many things. Mainly that the New Testament writers were at times doing something other than grammatical-historical exegesis.
The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis. As Longenecker has pointed out, the New Testament writers were definitely people of the first century, and we are not. They moved in an interpretive world that is different from ours—their interpretive methods are visible in the Hellenistic Jewish world around them. And they were inspired and we are not. In this regard, then, there certainly are some necessary differences between our interpretive approaches and those of the apostles. So far as I can tell on the basis of the New Testament texts themselves, when the apostles used the Old Testament they never asked questions like “what did this text mean in its original historical context of several hundred years ago.” The few times they come close to doing so, they sometimes reject the original historical context as not particularly relevant. (e.g. 1 Cor 9:9, “Is God concerned with oxen? Does it not speak entirely for our benefit?”)
But he also agrees with Beale in that if we don’t get our hermeneutical approach from the apostles then where do we get them? Our interpretation must be grounded in some way in the apostles own use of the Old Testament.
Hence there is a sense in which we must emulate the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers. If we do not adopt the viewpoint of Jesus and the apostles that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament, that Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises, that Christ is the true Israel, true Son of God, that the meaning of the biblical texts for the present-day people of God has to do with our relation to God in Christ, then how can our interpretation be deemed in any sense Christian?
But he also disagrees with Beale in some respects.
But Beale also concedes too much to modernism. Beale, and many others dealing with this issue, also feel the pressure of conforming to modern expectations regarding grammatical-historical meaning. In order for an interpretation to be true, it is assumed that it must be, on some level, grammatical-historical in nature. Thus the approach of Beale and other recent interpreters is to make a valiant attempt to exonerate the New Testament writers of any “non-contextual” interpretation. They argue that (a) the New Testament writers found their christological meanings either in direct predictive prophecy, or more commonly by doing “typology,” rather than force-fitting allegories, (b) typology is not the same as allegory, because it builds on historical correspondence, and (c) the unity of God’s purpose in scripture means that typology is a derivative of grammatical-historical interpretation.
Can typology be put under the grammatical-historical banner? McCartney argues no, although this is a contested issue.
Typology is not grammatical-historical. I very much accept the validity of typological interpretation. But even leaving aside for the moment those tricky passages which present enormous difficulty to those who would squeeze them into the mold of typology, and leaving aside as well the difficulties in interpreting predictive prophecies, I would challenge the whole notion as to whether typology can lay claim to a grammatical-historical pedigree.
According to McCartney, the most assume that grammatical-historical exegesis alone is legitimate for the present-day Christian interpreter. McCartney’s response is not based on some philosophical ground, but on the Bible.
I challenge this, not on post-modernist grounds or by appealing to some recent subjectivist literary theory, but on biblical and theological grounds. Grammatical-historical exegesis is only a very limited method, which doesn’t always get us where we need to be, because grammatical-historical interpretation is strictly interested only in what may be derived from original historical human meaning. The idea of a singular, methodologically isolatable and static historical meaning that we humans can precisely define is an illusory modernist pipe-dream. Meaning is always dynamic and personal.
For McCartney, the divine nature of the text means that grammatical historical exegesis is not sufficient.
Grammatical-historical method does not, and by its very nature cannot, deal with the special hermeneutical considerations of a divine text. A text written by several individuals from different cultures over the course of several centuries, which is at the same time authored by One who knows where history is going before it gets there, is inherently unique. Grammatical-historical interpretation proceeds on the assumption of the similarity of its text to other texts. The Bible is indeed a text like other texts, but it is also in certain ways sui generis, and thus requires something more.
“Pure” grammatical-historical method in Old Testament study does not give us the gospel.
The main response that comes from this is what I call the “Bogeyman Hermeneutic” that asks next, “Well then where is the control? Who says what is right?”
The controls (which I’ll mention momentarily) are not rationally compulsory or mechanically ineluctable, but are, like meaning generally, personal. They come by hermeneutical process, which is not a straight line but a spiral, and the direction in which that spiral makes progress is determined not only by the text itself but also by personal factors, most especially whether one knows Jesus and seeks him.
The fact that controls are personal does not mean they are purely subjective. The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis, but neither were their interpretations arbitrary. Neither, I hope, is what I advocate arbitrary. The real “control” for the apostles and for us comes from at least three directions:
An assumption of coherency of God’s story.
The conviction that Christ is the endpoint of the story.
The promise of the Holy Spirit’s involvement.
These clearly don’t quite give us a “box” that clearly differentiates legitimate from illegitimate hermeneutical activity. They are rather like tethers or trajectories than walls, and hence cannot provide independently verifiable proof of legitimacy. And I make no claim that these “controls” are exhaustively adequate, and would even urge us to continue to think about how we can differentiate good from bad interpretations without jumping to the supposed haven of “pure” grammatical-historical exegesis.
Interestingly, McCartney basically gives three categories for “controls” of interpretation. (1) Biblical theology, (2) Christocentric interpretation, (3) the Holy Spirit’s involvement.
But I would argue there are other “controls” as well. They are:
- contextual factors
- grammatical factors
- historical factors
But then are we not just back to affirming grammatical historical exegesis. Yes and no.
The point is not cast aspersion on grammatical-historical exegesis but to say it is not sufficient. The problem is when one presents grammatical-historical exegesis as if it encompasses all that the authors of Scripture were doing.