A Hermeneutical Quandary

Over the past few weeks I have had the privilege of participating in my first doctoral seminar. The text we have been discussing is Dr. Köstenberger’s Invitation to Biblical Interpretation. Dr. Köstenberger argues that the three operative principles that should be at work in our interpretive approach to any biblical text are history, literature, and theology. That is to say, we must pay attention to the historical context, the literary context (canon, genre, literary devices, etc.), and the theological orientation of the text.

Today’s discussion centered on the canon of the Old and New Testaments. Naturally, the topic of the New Testament writer’s use of the Old Testament was raised. We got around to discussing G.K. Beale’s and D.A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament. Though this tool is quite useful, we concluded that it did not offer a comprehensive answer to the hermeneutical tools utilized by the authors of the New Testament.

Eventually, we reached the biblical hermeneutical equivalent of Lessing’s ditch. Can we, after collecting and analyzing all relevant data, formulate a consistent hermeneutic that was utilized by New Testament authors? If so, can the modern Christian utilize that method and apply it to Old Testament texts not addressed by New Testament authors? Finally, would such a discovery significantly differ from the hermeneutical triad or any other hermeneutical method on offer today?

Through no fault of the professor or the students, these questions remained unanswered. This is due in part to the fact that the work hasn’t been done. Even if the work was completely, I’m not sure that Paul’s use of allegory in Galatians 4 should be employed wholesale by modern interpreters. In the past we have seen the devastating results of allegory run amuck, to say nothing at all about typology.

A lesson from past woes keeps me from crossing that hermeneutical ditch. As Lessing said concerning an entirely different matter, “That, then, is the ugly great ditch which I cannot cross, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make that leap.” Rather than adapting the methods of the New Testament interpreters, can’t we just chalk it up to special circumstances allotted to those under the Spirit’s inspiration. After all, I’m very comfortable with my historical-grammatical hermeneutic, thank you very much.

And yet, for me there remains a great deal of cognitive dissonance. I am not entirely satisfied in saying, “We can’t interpret and apply scripture in the same manner as the New Testament writers because we are not writing scripture.” Doing so gives up too much ground. How can we rightly defend and support the interpretive findings of the New Testament authors if we claim that their interpretive method is inherently flawed?

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