In my last post, I tried to lay a foundation for an understanding of some ground-level issues relating to hermeneutics, or principles of interpretation of Scripture. Like I mentioned there, studying hermeneutics is rather tricky, because it seems circular to attempt to interpret Scripture in order to glean biblical principles of interpretation. You know, chicken or egg?
I suggested that the way out of this conundrum was to consider the nature of Scripture itself, particularly as defined in the opening verses of the book of Hebrews. From those verses we learned that God spoke, and thus Scripture is fundamentally communication. And based on that, the interpreter’s default orientation to the text is to understand it in its plain, normal sense, just like he does with other communication.
John MacArthur summarizes the point well:
Because God has revealed himself in an understandable, clear way, in keeping with the normal means of human language and communication, the student of Scripture can rightly interpret God’s message in the normal sense in which human language and communication is interpreted. Whether preaching poetry, prophecy, or Paul’s epistles, the student of Scripture is correct if he approaches Scripture with the confidence that God revealed it clearly, and he did so using the normal features of language.
Scripture as Communication vs. New Testament Priority
Now, I also mentioned towards the end of the last post that those foundational principles are not earth-shattering to a faithful, Bible-believing Christian. But when those principles get fleshed out into practice, we do start to see some areas of disagreement. One particular area that is popular right now is how to interpret and understand the Old Testament, especially in relation to Christ and His coming. Some believe (based on what I think are shallow interpretations of Luke 24:27 and John 5:39) that one should find Christ in every verse of the Old Testament. One wonders what he should do if Jesus doesn’t seem to be there. Some respond that we should find Christ in every verse by reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Some will go as far as to say that the meaning of any Old Testament text cannot be understood without the New Testament. In fact, it seems that this is the majority position among conservative biblical interpreters.
But I think that our previous study presents some problems for that position. What I mean is, to say that the Old Testament can’t be understood apart from the New—and that the New Testament sometimes reinterprets the Old such that the original recipients could not have understood the meaning—is to deny that the Old Testament succeeded as God’s revelation and communication to those to whom it was addressed. Remember: long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to the fathers by the prophets (Heb 1:1). He actually said something to them that was understandable to the faithful Israelite. But to suggest that the original audience could not have understood the intent of the author is to deny the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In that case, it was not light in any meaningful sense, despite the testimony of Psalm 19:8, Psalm 119:105, 130, and Proverbs 6:23. Rather than communicating, it obscured. Rather than revealing, it concealed.
In fact, holding this position would require one to admit the Old Testament did more than conceal. It misled and deceived. For example, throughout the Old Testament God continues to promise what could only legitimately be understood by the faithful Israelite as an earthly reign of Messiah with the nation restored to the land. Yet the majority of otherwise-theologically-sound, conservative evangelicals interpret such passages as God making spiritual promises to the Church, not physical promises to national Israel. Yet it is difficult for me to square such an approach to the text with the reality that Scripture is revealing instead of concealing. Professor Matt Waymeyer summarizes helpfully (see also page 7 here):
I find it very difficult, however, to accept a hermeneutical approach which insists that the original readers of the Old Testament were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises in the Old Testament. This is an outright denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In my understanding of the nature of Scripture, God’s intent was to reveal truth in His Word, not conceal it. I have a difficult time adopting a view that, says, in effect, that much of the Old Testament was intended to be an unsolvable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.
“Have You Not Read?”
Further, Jesus’ own comments seem to contradict the notion that the Old Testament can’t be rightly interpreted apart from the New Testament. His many interrogative indictments of, “Have you not read?” (Matt 12:5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10; Luke 6:3) demonstrate pretty clearly that He expected the Jews of His day to both (a) interpret the Old Testament on its own terms, since there was no New Testament revelation through which to interpret it; and (b) to interpret it properly, i.e., to understand its true intent.
In fact, this was the way in which the first New Testament believers were to examine this new teaching that Jesus and His Apostles were bringing. God, through Luke, commends the Bereans as more noble because they searched the Old Testament Scriptures to examine the truth claims Paul was making (Ac 17:11). Yet how could that be a noble—much less fruitful—endeavor if the true interpretation of the Old Testament couldn’t be understood without the New as an interpretive grid? Further, how could Paul, in defending himself against the accusations of the Jews, appeal to the fact that he had preached “nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place” (Ac 26:22)? And wouldn’t we have to admit that Jesus was being too hard on the two men on the road to Emmaus when He said, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!”? They should have simply said, “Take it easy, man. How can we understand all that the prophets have spoken? We don’t have the New Testament yet!”
And so it seems rather plain that both Jesus and Paul believed that the true intent of the Old Testament could be understood by interpreting the Old Testament on its own terms.
Honor Christ by Honoring the Text
Now, I’m not arguing that we should preach the Old Testament in a way that would make a contemporary Jewish person comfortable. We must certainly preach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. But we don’t have to make it Christian Scripture by interpreting it non-contextually. It already is Christian Scripture on its own, because the Old Testament as a whole does indeed point to Jesus as the promised Messiah and King. My point is simply that we can see how all the promises of God find their “Yes” in Christ without twisting some of them beyond recognition. We can preach Christ in every sermon while acknowledging that He is not in every text. This doesn’t make us any less “Christocentric.” This is actually more honoring to Christ because, rather than implying that God has not spoken clearly or reading Christ into texts where He’s not (as if the OT just needed a little help), it respects all of God’s Word on its own terms, as His clear communication.
 John MacArthur, “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Study Method for Expository Preaching,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, eds. Leyland Ryken and Todd A. Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 79.