Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hermeneutics: Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology?

Last night, I was talking to a good friend of mine in the PhD program here at SBTS. We are both studying church history, both with an emphasis on Baptists. However, he is a Dispensationalist, and I am a Covenantalist. We spent a good while talking about the differences between our respective systems. I was interested to note that he didn’t really have a problem with the eternal covenant of redemption or the covenant of works. He identifies himself as a “federalist,” which means that he believes that everyone since the fall is either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” There is a lot of common ground between us in these areas.

Main Differences
The central difference between us has to do with how we interpret the Old Testament. He believes that the Old Testament was given only to ethnic Israel and that its commands and promises are not binding on NT believers in Christ. His hermeneutic is: “If an OT command or promise is not repeated in the NT, then it is abrogated."

By way of contrast, my hermeneutic is: “If an OT command or promise is not repealed by the NT, then it continues, though it is brought to redemptive historical maturity in Christ.” Another way of stating this principle is to say that the commands and promises of the OT are all abrogated in their specific “before Christ” form, but the principles of the law and the gospel that stand behind them all continue into the NT.

Arguments for Each
My friend argues for his hermeneutic of the OT by saying that the commands and promises to Israel were given only to ethnic Israel in the OT. Thus, he obtains his hermeneutic of the OT from his reading of the OT.

I argue for my hermeneutic by pointing out how the NT authors interpret OT passages. They cite the OT as authoritative in the life of NT believers, but they interpret the OT and apply it in light of the fact that Christ has already come. Thus, I obtain my hermeneutic of the OT from the NT's own hermeneutic of the OT.

Counter-Argument and Reply
He responds to my argument by saying that the authors of the NT had divine authority to interpret the OT the way that they did, while we do not.

However, there are at least two problems with that response. First, it implies that the NT authors had divine authority to mishandle the OT, since he would say it is wrong for us to handle OT texts the way the NT authors handled them. Why would God so consistently authorize sloppy hermeneutics at the hands of the NT authors? Does God have a right to mishandle Scripture?

Second, the NT explicitly teaches that the commands and promises of the OT are for us. Romans 15:4 says “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Thus, the OT “instructs,” or commands, NT believers and gives us “hope” through its promises. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Thus, without the OT instructions, the NT believer would not be equipped for “every good work.” We need the OT to teach us how to live as NT Christians.


  1. Your post rekindled a question that I never settled in my mind. Although it is somewhat unrelated to your post, I'd like to get your thoughts on the idea of sensus plenoir, or fuller meaning. Is it possible for the OT text to have a fuller meaning beyond what the OT author intended? What is your thought on sensus plenoir?

  2. Jonathan, I hold to sensus unum. Exegetes are bound to find the "one meaning" of any given text of Scripture, though finding that meaning involves seeking the mind of the Holy Spirit and not simply the intention of the human author. We see this especially in the multiple, already-not yet, fulfillments of prophecy. For example, in Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I have called my son," the prophet intended the nation of Israel as the "son." But, the Holy Spirit, intended both Israel and the true Israel, Jesus (Matt 2:15).

    I believe that the "one meaning" principle is separate from the idea of a "fuller" or "deeper" meaning.

    L. Berkhof wrote, "If the question be asked, whether it is permissible to speak of a deeper sense of Scripture (huponoia), an affirmative answer may be given. But it is necessary to guard against misunderstanding. Properly understood, the deeper sense of the Bible does not constitute a second sense. It is in all cases based on the literal, and is the proper sense of Scripture. The real meaning of Scripture does not always lie on the surface. There is no truth in the assertion that the intent of the secondary [i.e. human] authors, determined by the grammatico-historical method, always exhausts the sense of Scripture, and represents in all its fulness the [one] meaning of the Holy Spirit. Many of the Old Testament types pointed ultimately to New Testament realities; many prophecies found their final fulfilment in Jesus Christ, no matter how often they had obtained partial fulfillment; and many of the Psalms give utterance to the joy and sorrow, not merely of the poets, but of the people of God as a whole, and, in some cases, of the suffering and triumphant Messiah. These considerations lead us to what may be called the deeper sense of Scripture." Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), 59-60.


  3. Tom,

    I agree that there is one meaning to the text that had a historical meaning, but also pointed to a found its end in Christ. In other words, the meaning of an OT text was never divorced from its final fulfillment. Thus, in that sense I agree with a "one meaning" idea, but sensus plenior can be a helpful term to show how that text "flowered" into a fuller meaning in light of Christ, but not a different meaning. Peter Enns and G.K. Beale have had some discussions about this issues in JETS and Themelios recently. I agree with Beale that there is a relationship between what was written (OT) and how Jesus fulfilled it; thus, seeming to point to your use of "one meaning." In other words, if we mean by sensus plenoir that there is no connection to the OT text, but merely the NT writers are proof-texting or connecting some meaning that the original meaning never intended than I disagree with that definition. I think your one meaning idea is helpful because it shows the fundamental connection between the OT and NT writers under one Sovereign God who wills and works his purposes in human history. I think Peter rightly summarizes this idea in 1 Peter 1:10-12.

    By the way I am going to add your blog to my blog if that's ok. You have some really solid stuff.

    Chad K.

  4. Tom,

    The one meaning concept makes good sense, or better sense than the fuller meaning. My only question is, when does one know when the real meaning lies below the surface? What are the rules of interpretation that determine that? With this method of interpreting Scripture what is to keep one from interpreting, for example, the parable of the prodigal son totally allegorically. I'm just trying to understand this.


  5. Jonathan,

    I wrote a post on literalism, allegory, and typology here:

    You said, "The one meaning concept makes good sense, or better sense than the fuller meaning." I would argue that the fuller meaning is always part of the one meaning and that the two should not be contrasted.

    You asked, "My only question is, when does one know when the real meaning lies below the surface?" My answer is that every passage has a fuller sense. It's not so much that the real meaning always "lies below the surface" as that the real meaning of any text of Scripture always takes the whole Bible into account. Any method of interpretation that interprets any text apart from its Genesis to Revelation context takes a text out of its context and thus fails to grasp the real/true/one meaning of the text. If an exegete tries to interpret any passage apart from the "creation, fall, redemption, and restoration" story line of the Bible, then he fails to interpret that passage fully. This is what is meant by a "fuller sense."

    Unwarranted typology is avoided by paying close attention to the history and immediate context of any given passage.

    In the parable of the prodigal son, the main point, if we follow Dr. Stein for the sake of argument, is about the fretting/angry older son at the end. The older son is angry that the father has been merciful to the wayward and repentant son. He is a picture of the Pharisaical opposition to Christ and His message. How does this fit into the story line of the Bible? This might be one way to do it. The whole redemptive historical story of Scripture is about two seeds, and since the fall, there have always been two seeds. There is the true seed, or the seed of the woman, and the seed of opposition, or the seed of the serpent. The history of Israel is about God's preservation of the seed of the woman in spite of every attempt by the seed of the serpent to crush it. Christ is the true seed, the culmination of God's promise to crush the seed of the serpent. In the New Testament, the opposition of the Pharisees to Christ is the continuation of the opposition of the seed of the serpent to the seed of the woman. This is Satanic opposition. As we read beyond the parable of the prodigal son, we find that the seed of the serpent, which in this case is the Pharisees, actually bites the heel of the seed of the woman by their political maneuvering to send Christ to the cross. The irony is that in their best fretting, angry effort to destroy Christ, Christ actually advances his own design and crushes the designs of Satan. The cross is more powerful than the hard hearted and sinful intentions of the Pharisees. And, one day, the heart of every man will be exposed and laid bare for all to see. Those who are found to be in Christ, in the true seed, will be welcomed into glory. But, those who are found to be in the seed of the serpent, will be condemned for their stubborn opposition to Jesus. So, don't be like the Pharisees! Embrace Christ and trust in Him for redemption.

    The point is that the full meaning of the story of the prodigal son involves setting it fully within its redemptive historical context. Failure to do that might result in kind of moralism which simply says, "don't have a hard heart like the older brother," and leave it at that. Putting this parable in its redemptive historical context and so teasing out its "fuller meaning" points us to Christ to rest in Him for reconciliation and actually to enable and propel us not to have a hard heart like the older brother had.

    Though I've used the two-seed way of setting the redemptive historical context and meaning, there are many ways to do it. The point is that we must take the whole (or full) warp and woof of the Bible into account when exegeting any passage in order to avoid wrenching texts out of context.

    What do you think?


  6. Hey Tom,

    You mention Stein and wanted to get your thoughts about parables. Aside from redemptive-historical issues, Stein (as you point out) advocates one meaning of the parables, whereas some (Blomberg) advocate many points of meaning. For example we can also empahsize from the prodical son, the wayward son, the father, etc, etc. I am curious as to your view on how to view parables (one meaning or many vantage points)? I am assuming you agree with Stein.


  7. By the way, although I disagree with much of Stein's hermeneutical approach, I do agree with him on the parable issue.


  8. Chad, I agree with your first comment that the term "sensus plenior" can be used to show how the text flowered into a fuller sense. I think many people use the term in exactly that way and do not actually mean that the text has multiple meanings. But, I prefer to speak of texts as having one meaning, and that the one meaning always involves a full-Bible sense.

    With regard to parables, I generally agree with Stein, but I think Stein is sometimes misunderstood as teaching that since parables only have one basic point, we should ignore the parables' subpoints in their interpretation and application. Stein doesn't actually teach that at all, since the subpoints help us to arrive at the main point. The basic point of the parable is most important in fitting the parable in the storyline of the gospel in which it appears, but the parable's subpoints are important in understanding the basic point and so in applying it.

    For example, without allegorizing the parable of the prodigal son, we can see that the parable explains *why* the older son is angry with the father. And so we can get a sense of why the Pharisees were angry with Christ from the sub-points of the parable. They were angry with Christ because he was kind and merciful to sinners. They were angry because he didn't condemn sinners but redeemed them. What do you think?

    By the way, I'm curious as to how would you arrive at the "full sense" of the parable of the prodigal son. Would you do it differently than I did it above?


  9. Tom,

    I agree with your statement, "the parable's subpoints are important in understanding the basic point." I am not always comfortable applying the sub points, simply because Jesus had one meaning behind his parables; however, I understand what you are saying. I think at times the parables are used by Christians to justify almost anything.

    I also agree with your statements about the prodigal son. Clearly we see two seed lines in Scripture and the Pharisees are clearly part of that ungodly seed line (e.g., John 8:44; "Your father the devil"). I think another interesting point is how Jesus ministry from the very beginning is spreading to the Gentiles and common people (i.e., sinners). If you look carefully at Matthew you see the Magi (Gentiles) come to see Christ, you see him position his ministry away from Jerusalem and the religious elite, and Matthew quotes from Isaiah to show how Christ is coming to the Gentiles too. I think this is a point dispensationalist's miss. God's purposes were always for all people. God used a nation to carry out those plans, but the dispensationalist confuses the means (Israel) with the purpose (salvation to all peoples).

    I enjoy this fruitful discussion.