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What I Was Taught in Seminary About Interpreting the Bible Was Wrong

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,
[Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
– The Gospel According to Luke 24:27

God has already interpreted the Old Testament by raising Christ from the dead.
– Peter Enns, Commentary on Exodus

Let me say from the outset that I loved my seminary career. I was able to study under many godly, learned professors and grow in the way of the Scriptures. Yet, with that said, I think the apostles would have failed both my preaching and hermeneutics (e.g., Bible interpretation) classes had they gone to seminary. Why? Because they used the Bible in a way that contradicts the rules many (most?) evangelical seminaries teach for interpreting the Scripture. What’s the rule? The one which says that the original author and audience determines what a passage says and means. Is it a bad rule? Not at all. Indeed, I think it’s a good corrective against reading whatever you want into a passage (i.e., eisegesis). For example, when studying the book of Isaiah we should seek to discover who Isaiah was and the historical situation in which he and his intended audience found themselves. This is why young seminarians are told to hold to the maxim popularized by scholars such as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their fantastic book How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth: A text cannot mean what it never meant. In other words, “A [biblical passage] cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.”[ref]Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 74.[/ref]

The only problem with this rule, as I understand it, is that it’s not entirely correct.[ref]I would be happy to acknowledge I may simply misunderstand what Fee and Stuart, among others, are saying. My apologies if true.[/ref] As I’ve grown in understanding biblical theology and the idea that Scripture has a Christological center (e.g., Lk. 24:27, Jn. 5:39, Mt. 5:17), I have come to the conclusion that the “original author/audience” rule falls short hermeneutically. Why? Because to see the apostles use the Old Testament is to see them if not break that rule, at least redefine it. Let me explain by referencing Old Testament scholar Peter Enns’ introduction to Exodus where he introduces a vital, foundational key to hermeneutics for Christians: the resurrected Jesus.

This is where the gospel comes into play. To look at God’s intention is ultimately to look to the end of the story and work backward.We know how the story winds up; not every detail, but the bold contours of the story are clear —we are living in the still, fresh blast of light from the empty tomb. Like the mystery buff who sneaks a peek at the final chapter, we know the conclusion, and that knowledge forms the proper setting within which Christian interpretation of the Old Testament takes place. If I can put this another way, for a Christian it seems that the “meaning”of an Old Testament text cannot simply be equated with what was intended by its human author and what it meant to its original audience. It means more. Ultimately, the question turns to the connection between the meaning of a text in its original setting and the effect the resurrection of Christ has on our understanding of that meaning. (We are getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, so we will come back to this below.)[ref] Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 22.[/ref]

Enns helps us see that Jesus and his redemptive work transforms how New Covenant believers read their Bibles. I might say it this way, the gospel broadens the terms used in the maxim that a passage cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or readers. That is true if we expand author to be God and the readers to be those of us on this side of the Cross. This is no cheapening of the verbiage but a fuller, more complete sense of it. God orchestrated history and the recording of the Scripture to ultimately point us, the audience until the Second Advent, to the Person and Work of Jesus. In that sense, I agree that a text cannot mean what the ultimate author never meant for his ultimate audience. Yet it is also why, as Enns notes, that Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:2 can cite Isaiah 49:8 which on the surface seems only to deal with Isaiah’s historical situation of the Babylonian captivity but the apostle, under full inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says is a reference to Jesus Christ. Enns concludes in challenge:

There is nothing in Isaiah 49:8 that an ‘objective’ reading would lead one to think of Christ! You can only see Christ there if you are standing at the end of the story, as Paul was and we still are today…This is only one example, but it demonstrates an interpretive principle repeated throughout the New Testament. What we call the Old Testament is rightly understood fully only in light of the resurrection of Christ…My contention is that proper Christian interpretation of the Old Testament cannot and must not proceed without taking seriously into account the interpretive stance of the apostles themselves.[ref] Ibid, 28.[/ref]

I’ll say it once again, if the apostles took the same classes I did on biblical hermeneutics and preaching, they likely would’ve failed. Peter, Paul, and the rest would have seen the redemptive thread realized in Jesus and re-interpreted the Scriptures as Christ did, often beyond the original human author’s intended message for his original audience, but not the ultimate author and his final audience. I had a seminary professor reply when I pointed this out during my school days respond, “Yancey, unless you are an apostle, I suggest you stick with the hermeneutical rules we’ve given.” I understood what he was saying. Just because Jesus fulfills the Scripture doesn’t mean I can do a cheap parlor trick and pull him out of the hat in any given passage. The apostles were also working under the full guidance of the Spirit. I get it. I can’t throw away every wise rule of studying the passage because I think I saw Jesus behind a rock or tree in the text. Good hermeneutics are essential. Nevertheless, the apostles are a guide for me in that I want to approach interpreting any passage of the Bible with the ultimate story of redemption in mind, as Enns says, “standing at the end of the story,” a story in which the ultimate author wants his ultimate audience to discover, know, and receive the One in whom this story is consummated: Jesus!

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

4 thoughts on “What I Was Taught in Seminary About Interpreting the Bible Was Wrong”

  1. The apostles are a special case. They were writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Which is why they can create new scripture. We, on the ther hand, do not have that authority.

    If you can create new scripture, then by logical inference you can interpret the Old Testament in ways the original human author and readers did not envision.

    Since you and I can’t write a new book in the bible (unless you count my book as 2nd James) , it makes no sense for me to be able to put new meaning to old text.

    I think your theology professor was correct.

  2. Hey Yancey,

    I think you would enjoy (if you haven’t already) Jesus: A Theography, by Lenoard Sweet. His whole book advocates a Christocentric hermeneutic. Good stuff.

  3. Great article, Yancey. Made me think of 2 Tim 3:16-17…? All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

    ~ Coach Sam Chadwell

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