In March 2018, I attended the launch of the Tyndale Center for Bible Translation held in Valencia, California. At the event, John MacArthur spoke about the new book by Abner Chou dealing with the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers, entitled, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles. Although I had read his previous article on this subject (publicly available here), it was immediately clear to me that I needed to feature Abner in an interview at MIKRA because of three important factors.
First, in recent years, there has been an ongoing discussion related to the way in which the New Testament writers interpreted and used the Old Testament. This is represented in the debate over the grammatico-historical model of hermeneutics versus the Christocentric hermeneutic model. This is an important issue that deserves more attention by those in the position to explain what the Bible means by what it says.
Second, this topic was the subject of Abner’s doctoral dissertation at The Master’s Seminary. Getting the text of Scripture right is, perhaps, the standout contribution of The Master’s Seminary to the church in our generation. Since Abner specialized in this subject at TMS and serves as a full-time faculty member at The Master’s University, his voice carries a particular measure of weight. In fact, he is the John F. MacArthur Endowed Fellow in the department of Biblical Studies at the university.
Third, for a number of years, I was connected to a theological seminary that does not offer a standalone course in hermeneutics. Rather, hermeneutics is worked into other courses on other more prioritized subjects. This experience allowed me to witness firsthand how an educational philosophy that prioritizes other important disciplines over hermeneutics impacts an institution’s culture, the students it graduates, and subsequently the leadership and health of its churches. I am convinced now, perhaps more than ever, that this subject needs a fresh consideration.
I asked Abner to answer what he believes are the most important questions that his book addresses, and that people need to understand, on this critical subject. Below are 6 of those critical questions.
1. What is hermeneutics?
Sometimes we think hermeneutics is the same as the practical steps of studying the Bible (e.g., historical backgrounds, context, word study, etc.). While hermeneutics may include this, it goes far deeper than that. Hermeneutics deals with the principles that govern how we read the Bible. It discusses the reasons for why we read the Bible the way we do. It discusses the way the Bible works. Thus, hermeneutics helps us know our ultimate goal when reading the Bible; what we are looking for. It also sets up a method to read the Bible correctly and examine its depths exhaustively.
2. Why bother to study hermeneutics?
Talking about why we do what we do can seem pretty academic and impractical. However, for those who believe the Scriptures, this is an essential issue. How do we know that our particular way of reading the Bible is correct? How do we know if we read a certain text accurately? What even is an "accurate" understanding of Scripture? Without discussing the principles that ground interpretation, we cannot be sure we have understood a text rightly and as a result, we could be believing or living at best a misunderstanding or at worst, a lie. It would be tragic to stand before God in the end and say, "Lord I have done what you have asked in Your word" for Him only to reply, "No you didn't because you didn't even understand what I was asking." There is a reason that scholars often say that hermeneutics is at the foundation of studying the Bible, theology, and practical living. Accordingly, what is at stake with hermeneutics? In a word, everything.
But we don't merely need to talk about the need for hermeneutics negatively. We can speak of this positively. Initially, based upon what was just discussed, we could say that hermeneutics gives us confidence that we have read God’s Word correctly and live for Him rightly. That matters. Moreover, when we understand how the Bible works, then we are aware of its profound depths and can explore those riches. We discover how sophisticated the biblical writers are and how even an individual word can carry an entire chain of texts and concepts with it. We discover how the biblical writers united the Bible into a cohesive and compounding storyline from Genesis to Revelation. Hermeneutics brings out the epic nature of Scripture from its breadth to its individual detail. All of it is theological and beautiful. Why bother thinking through hermeneutics? Hermeneutics is equally about learning all that we are missing as much as it is avoiding error.
3. How do we know we are studying the Bible rightly?
Sometimes people talk about a "literal-grammatical-historical" method. This examines a text with a view to authorial intent (literal) through the text's wording and in light of the facts of history. How can we be sure this is the way God wanted us to view a text? After all, the Bible is a supernatural text. Perhaps a different method is warranted.
Initially, we could make an argument based upon the nature of language and communication. In other situations, we do not think twice about reading something this way. We do this with our contracts, emails, and our bank statements! God used human language in writing the Bible and arguably it operates along the same line. An even better approach is to see how the biblical writers themselves read and write. When they use Scripture, they claim it is "according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:1-5), "as it is written," or "what the prophets have spoken." They insist their interpretation is not contradicting the language of Scripture but based upon authorial intent. Upon closer examination, the biblical writers read the Bible contextually and with an eye to detail. They link related passages together (Rom 9:25-29), showing they are aware of how the Bible contextually fits together. They also make a theological point based upon a single word (Heb 3-4) or grammatical observation (Gal 3:16).
This demonstrates that the biblical writers themselves believed the Bible is based upon authorial intent and that, because of inspiration (2 Tim 3:16), it is good down to the finest detail. Moreover, they read the text highlighting pertinent historical background (Mark 7:3-4), being sensitive to chronology (Gal 3:17), and even discussing history outright. They believed history helped to explain what they meant. The biblical writers themselves reveal the way they read and wrote Scripture. This then is the way the Bible works and grounds our reading of the biblical text. We read the Bible with a view to authorial intent through grammar and history because the biblical writers first did so for us.
In sum, the Bible comes with "hermeneutics included" and that gives us assurance that we did not make up our approach. Rather, the Bible invites us to read this way.
4. The Old Testament seems like it is a bunch of confusing poems and stories; is there really profound truth in these texts?
Yes, the Old Testament is filled with profound truth. The key is to read it rightly. For one, to understand the Old Testament well we need to remember that it is about God and not us. When we read the Old Testament with the question, "What is in it for me?", it may not make a lot of sense because we are asking the wrong question. When we read the Old Testament as an epic presentation of who God is, we can see the beauty of what Scripture says . After all, God is the main character of the story from the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:1). Part of reading a text well is asking the right questions, the ones the author would want you to ask.
Furthermore, the biblical writers have a strategy for how they lay out theology in their writings. They connect their text back to a previous text. The way they do this is a lot like how we play modern games like Catch Phrase or Taboo. We say something that causes us to think of a related idea, word, or phrase. The biblical writers did this and did so to anchor their writings to a specific theological topic, one discussed in the text they are alluding to. For example, in 1 Kings 4:23, we have a list of food provided to Solomon's household daily. What could be theological about a list of food? But the food items in that text are only found in one other passage, Deut 14:3-11. The context of that passage pertains not only to the food that Israel can eat but would eat when God is fulfilling His promises to them about dwelling in the Promised Land. This initially shows that Solomon's kingdom was working out those promises.
Even more, Deut 14 itself has some interesting wording. It says, "You may eat from any …" (Deut 14:11), language that imitates what God said to Adam in the garden of Eden (Gen 2:16). Deuteronomy is not merely talking about the promises to Israel but has linked that with the fact that Israel's promises are tied with the restoration of the world back to Eden. Thus, Solomon's food list shows a bounty that reflects of how God is not only working out His promises for Israel but for the entire world. Even a food list has theology and if that is the case, how much more can we observe rich theology everywhere in the Old Testament. We just need to ask the right questions and connect the dots.
5. I have heard that the New Testament misreads the Old Testament. Is that true?
Overall, scholars recognize that the New Testament reads the Old Testament contextually. The fact that the apostles even reads the same Old Testament text consistently the same way throughout the New Testament is evidence of their exact methodology. For example, Jesus speaks of "loving your neighbor" (Lev 19:18) as the greatest commandment and the same Old Testament text is applied the exact same way in Paul (Rom 13:9), James (Jas 2:8), and John (1 Jhn 3:23). Likewise, Isaiah 53 is found nearly in every New Testament book and all of them are applied around Jesus' atoning work for His people. So overall, the apostles read the Old Testament not only consistent with itself but by that, consistent with each other.
However, scholars have noted some seeming exceptions to this rule. Some even used that to argue that this warrants a new hermeneutical methodology that reinterprets Old Testament texts. Before jumping to that conclusion, we should consider two factors. First, this is already to be the exception to the rule. This is not commonplace. Second, even more, I contend these supposed exceptions actually prove the rule. If we look at these limited instances more closely, we will see that the apostles knew what they were talking about. We just need to know our Old Testament better.
An example of this is Matthew's use of Hos 11:1 in Matt 2:15. It seems Matthew takes Hosea out of context because he applies a description of Israel's Exodus (Hos 11:1) to Jesus' deliverance from Herod (Matt 2:15). The Old Testament is talking about Israel and history; how can it apply to something in the future about Jesus? The key in answering this question is to realize that if Matthew merely wanted to compare Jesus with Israel's Exodus, there is a better book to do so: the book of Exodus! In fact, there is even a passage in Exodus that has similar wording to what Matthew quotes (Exod 4:22). So if that is all Matthew wanted to do, he chose quite an obscure passage to do so. So why does Matthew use Hosea? If we look at the context of Hos 11:1, we see that God does talk about Israel's past Exodus but in context that has a purpose. It is not merely to recount the past but that this moment drives God to deliver His sinful people again in a second Exodus (Hos 11:8, 11).
In context, Hos 11:1 intends to speak of the first Exodus as what drives a future one. In fact, in the flow of Hosea, this second Exodus is led by a new Moses (Hos 1:11) who is a new David (Hos 3:5). With this in mind, we arrive at Matthew who describes how Jesus was delivered from Herod as a baby just like Moses was delivered from Pharaoh as a baby. Jesus is that new Moses who will lead that new Exodus anticipated by Hos 11:1 in context. That is Matthew's point. Put differently, Matthew used Hosea because he didn't just want to talk about the Exodus event but wanted to talk about it the way Hosea did. He used the text in context; we just didn't see it because we do not know very well the flow of Hosea.
In this way, I contend that further investigations show that the supposed exceptions prove the rule. They actually show how precise and thoughtful the New Testament writers are. They are a model to us of thinking through the complexity of the Old Testament well.
6. What is one suggestion you would make for people to improve their study of the Bible?
If I had only one suggestion to help improve Bible study, it would be to look carefully for how Scripture connects with itself and builds upon itself. As I discussed above, these connections show every passage has theology as it anchors back to a text to expound upon the theological topic presented in that earlier passage. This helps us understand all that is entailed in a certain word or phrase, or the unique contribution a certain text makes in a larger biblical theme. The more we see how Scripture refers to itself, the better we understand the context of what is involved in a text and we grasp its depths better.
How can we make these connections? The cross references in our Bibles are helpful. The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, which is free online, can also be a great compendium of connections in the Bible. On top of this, using Bible software searches can assist in finding where certain words or phrases are found through Scripture. So connecting the dots in Scripture is very useful in teasing out the theology of Scripture and we have resources at our disposal to do so. This is something that can help us see the depth of Scripture and the value of all Scripture.
Note: The interviewer for this post was MIKRA Ceo and Principal Researcher, Brian Rickett. Editorial assistance was contributed by MIKRA staff.
*Abner Chou holds the ThD in Old Testament from The Master’s Seminary, is a professor of Biblical Studies, and is the John F. MacArthur Endowed Fellow at The Master’s University. He is the author of The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles.
For a few other works on hermeneutics that we recommend for use, see:
Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible.
Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word.
Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation.