Hermeneutics: New Testament Priority

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New TestamentOne important aspect of biblical hermeneutics (the theory of biblical interpretation) is the principle of “New Testament priority.” At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) expressed New Testament priority with the phrase, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” Augustine meant that the Old Testament contains shadowy types and figures that are only clearly revealed in the New Testament. In other words, the New Testament explains the Old Testament. The Protestant Reformers and Puritans also looked to the New Testament to govern their interpretation of the Old. An early confessional Particular Baptist, Nehemiah Coxe, agreed with the Reformed interpretive principle when he wrote, “…the best interpreter of the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the new.” [1]

The interpretive principle of New Testament priority is derived from an examination of the Scriptures themselves. As we read the Bible, we notice that earlier texts never explicitly interpret later texts. Earlier texts provide the interpretive context for later texts, but earlier texts never cite later texts and explain them directly. Rather, what we find is that later texts make explicit reference to earlier texts and provide explanations of them. Moreover, the later portion of any book always makes clear the earlier portion. When you just begin to read a novel, for example, you’re still learning the characters, the setting, the context, etc., but later on, as the story progresses, things that happened earlier in the book make more sense and take on new meaning. Mysteries are resolved. Earlier conversations between characters gain new significance as the novel unfolds. Later parts of the story have primary explanatory power over the earlier parts.

The hermeneutical principle of New Testament priority simply recognizes these facts. Following the Bible’s own example, interpreters should allow later revelation in Bible to explain earlier revelation, rather than insisting on their own uninspired interpretations of earlier revelation without reference to the authoritative explanations of later revelation.

A Response to John MacArthur’s Opposition to New Testament Priority

Over and against New Testament priority, John MacArthur claims that to make “the New Testament the final authority on the Old Testament denies the perspicuity of the Old Testament as a perfect revelation in itself.” [2] Of course, MacArthur’s claim is easily reversed. One might argue that to suggest that the New Testament is not the final authority on the Old Testament denies the perspicuity (which means “clarity”) of the New Testament as perfect revelation in itself. Moreover, MacArthur doesn’t account for the fact that the Old Testament teaches that its own prophecies can be hard to understand because they are given in riddles (Numbers 12:6-8). The New Testament too acknowledges that the Old Testament is not always clear. It tells us of “mysteries” in the Old Testament yet to be revealed (Colossians 1:26). The meaning of the Old Testament “shadows” (Hebrews 10:1) and “types” (Galatians 4:24) only become clear after Christ comes. Historic Baptists understood this. The Second London Baptist Confession 1.7 accurately declares, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves.” That is, all of Scripture is not equally perspicuous, contrary to John MacArthur. Thus, MacArthur’s critique of New Testament priority is not consistent with what the Bible teaches about the Old Testament’s “shadowy” character. [3] 

New Testament Priority: Dispensationalism and Paedobaptism

To illustrate how this principle of New Testament priority effects our theology, consider the example of Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists. Both Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists wrongly allow the Old Testament to have priority over the New Testament. Both systems of interpretation read the promise of a seed in Genesis 17:7 as a promise of a large number of physical offspring from Abraham. In Genesis 17:7, God says, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you.”

Dispensationalists think Genesis 17:7 establishes an everlasting promise to national Israel, and they read their interpretation into the New Testament, convinced that God has future plans for national Israel. Paedobaptists, on the other hand, think the promise in Genesis 17:7 is the covenant of grace with Abraham and all his physical children, which leads to the baptism of infants in the New Testament and to churches intentionally mixed with believers and unbelievers. [4]

If, however, we allow the New Testament to interpret Genesis 17:7, then we will avoid the error committed by Dispensationalism and Paedobaptism. Galatians 3:16 says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Note well that Galatians 3:16 explicitly denies a plural offspring. The promise is to one Offspring only, not to many. “It does not say ‘And to offsprings’” (Galatians 3:16).

Therefore, in light of the clear teaching of the New Testament, we must conclude that both Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists misinterpret the Old Testament because they fail to allow the New Testament to have priority of interpretation. Both systems conclude that the promise to Abraham’s seed is a promise to physical descendants, rather than to Christ. This error leads Paedobaptists to over-emphasize a visible church propagated by natural generation in their reading of Scripture, and it leads Dispensationalists to over-emphasize Israel, when the New Testament clearly teaches us to emphasize Christ. The promise to “seed” is a promise to Christ, not to men. [5] This is not a denial of any collective aspect to seed; rather, it recognizes that the seed is Christ and that by saving union with Him, the elect are also seed in Him (Galatians 3:7, 14, 29). Thus, all the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 were made to Christ and to all who are savingly united to Him, Jew and Gentile alike. The promise is, therefore, Christ-centered, not man-centered, which is what historic Baptists have always taught.

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1 Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, ed. Ronald D. Miller, James M. Renihan, and Fransisco Orozco (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 36.

2 John MacArthur, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist,” a sermon delivered at the Shepherd’s Conference in 2007.

3 For an extensive treatment of John MacArthur’s dispensationalism, see Samuel E. Waldron, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response (Owensboro, KY: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2008). For a short critique of Dispensationalism’s hermeneutic in general, see Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 33-40.

4 For an excellent critique of Reformed paedobaptism, see Fred A. Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2003, revised and expanded, 2007).

5 To see this argument worked out more thoroughly, see Fred A. Malone, “Biblical Hermeneutics & Covenant Theology” in Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive, ed. Earl M. Blackburn (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 63-87.

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17 Responses to “Hermeneutics: New Testament Priority”

  1. An old Puritan whose name escapes me for the nonce declared something to this effect: that our biggest problem with interpreting and understanding the Bible is its perspicuity. In other words, the clarity of the Bible is our difficulty. An American Indian provided an illustration of what the Puritan had to say. The Indian was fishing on a mountain stream in Virginia, and he saw a big rock on the other side and further downstream. That was where he thought the trout might be laying up out of the heat. He said he looked down at the water and decided that it was only 2-3 feet deep. After all, he could see the grains of sand rolling along the bottom. He stepped off into the stream with all of his fishing gear on and nearly drowned. The stream was 18-20 feet deep, and he nearly drowned. God’s word is like that . It has a clarity that is truly beyond our depth perception without the aid of the Holy Spirit. The mystery of God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility is a case in point. Likewise we find a mystery in the matter of our Lord’s deity and humanity, in the return of Christ and the number of the redeemed, in the Divine and human elements of verbal inspiration, in the local and universal nature of the church, and more, much more.

    In addition, we have an issue in our approach to scripture which is much like our present day scientific method, namely, that we are too analytical. We cannot handle exceptions. Like science, we need a synthetical method, one that can comprehend the rule and the exceptions. We might add a remark from the past, one that might have come from the philosophical sources of Puritanism, namely, this: “If the rule is true and the exceptions are true, then the truth is both the rule and the exceptions.”

    Reply
    • David Emme

      Do you think dispensationalism might be seen as a product of rationalism and the scientific method?
      Be assured I struggle with dispensationalism in my life because it came so early in my Christian life…sort of became codified in my mind. On the other hand, I have a hard time accepting a system never really mentioned in scriptures except some tenuous references to the word “dispensation” when it seems the scheme God had instituted is Covenants as we are in the New Covenant and every dispensation seems to follow a covenant. Why depart from what the scriptures plainly teach. Just a bit of honesty as far as me being conflicted with dispensationalism.

      Reply
  2. I think that a major flaw with the argument by Dispensationalists that using the NT to interpret the OT denies the perspicuity of the OT is that they don’t consider that the NT authors are using the same intertextual hermeneutics observed in the OT such as intertextuality in the Prophets’ use of the Pentateuch and intertextuality in the Pentateuch itself. Puritan Henry Ainsworth demonstrates this methodology in his Annotations on the Pentateuch, Psalms, and Song of Songs by showing how the OT interprets the OT and the climax of biblical theological motifs in the NT’s interpretation of the OT. Often times the accusations that the NT authors are misinterpreting the OT texts shows a lack of study on our part for not observing the development within the OT as the OT interprets the OT, so then we don’t see the complete trajectory when the NT interprets the OT.

    Also Dr. Richard Barcellos demonstrated very clearly in his doctoral dissertation (The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology) that Dispensationalism is influenced by the enlightenment often making the rules of interpretation for the Bible just like any other book. That is a result of overemphasizing the human authorship and ignoring the Divine authorship of Scripture and its implications for intertextuality and hermeneutics.

    Reply
  3. Ron Henzel

    As a former credo-baptist Dispensationalist who is now a Covenant paedobaptist, it seems to me that the argument here hinges on a misreading of Gal. 3:16 that results from severing it from its context in 3:15-18, where Paul is explaining why the Mosaic covenant does not nullify the Abrahamic covenant. Paul’s answer is that only the original parties to the covenant can alter it, and those parties are two: Abraham and Christ. Thus Paul is not discussing whom the promises are for, but only whom the promises are to. He is not saying that the covenant contains no promises for plural offspring, but only that it was made with only one particular offspring as a party to it.

    In discussing the Abrahamic covenant, which I see as an administration of the covenant of grace, Paul is making a similar point to the one we find addressed n the Westminster Larger Catechism’s question 31: “With whom was the covenant of grace made? The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” The difference, of course, is that on this account the covenant of grace has no party other than Christ. But still, while its promises are to Him, they are for His seed.

    Reply
  4. In an interview on Christ the Center on Dispensationalism, Kim Riddlebarger argues:

    …the problem with that is, when you’re using a Christ-centered hermeneutic, you don’t start with Genesis 12 and look at the promise God made to Abraham and then insist that that reading of the promise overrides everything that comes subsequent to that. So for example the land promise in Genesis 12 – and it’s repeated throughout 15, 18, 22, on and on and on – when that land promise is repeated, dispenationalists say “See, that must mean Israel means Israel and that God is going to save Israel again to fulfill the land promise at the end of the age.” Whereas I would look at that and say, “How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the land promise? How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the Abrahamic Covenant?” And that is at the heart of this entire debate.

    http://reformedforum.org/ctc149/

    To which the baptist responds (demonstrating Tom’s point above):

    …the problem with paedobaptism is, when you’re using a Christ-centered hermeneutic, you don’t start with Genesis 17 and look at the promise God made to Abraham and then insist that that reading of the promise overrides everything that comes subsequent to that. So for example the offspring promise in Genesis 17 – and it’s repeated throughout 12, 15, 22, on and on and on – when that offspring promise is repeated, paedobaptists say “See, that must mean offspring means offspring and that God included physical offspring in the church and never took them out.” Whereas I would look at that and say, “How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the offspring promise? How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the Abrahamic Covenant?” And that is at the heart of this entire debate.

    Reply
  5. Just a point of clarification. I think it is fair to say that their are scholars who hold to what you point out as MacArthur’s view, such as Walt Kaiser, who would not consider himself a dispensationalist.

    Reply
  6. I began my ministry under the premil. interpretation of NelsonReagan, Dr.Ernest R. Campbell, and R.G. Lee. As the years passed and my research in the bible and Church History became more intensive and as well as extensive, I realized that the the premil. dispensational view was serious flawed, that it was like the blinders that a horse wears to keep its eyes focused on the row and to keep it from shying. There are difficulties that are not addressed or even considered in that approach to last things. First, consider the few of which our Lord spoke, i.e., many be called but few chosen and narrow is the way and few find it. However, there are the promises of such a seed as numberless as the sand of the sea as the stars of heaven and of the number of the redeemed that no one can number (Rev. 7:9) along with the references of I Chron.16:15, “the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” which could allow for anywhere from 20,000 to 900,000 years (depending on how long a generation might be and Mt.. 24:31, “from one end of the heavens to the other.” The latter suggests that man might go to the stars (if has not already done so) and spread throughout the universe. The idea struck me as possible, when I read John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, the man whom some have credited with being the source of the doctrine of Limited Atonement (He was not the author of Particular Redemption which has a biblical basis and has been noted in church history before Owen and Calvin). Owen was the source of Andrew Fuller’s sufficiency-efficiency, when he spoke of the value of the blood of Christ as having such excellence that it could redeem the people of many worlds (shades of a coming reality?). Anyway there is more, but I am tired and weary.

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  7. Good article. I completely agree with the principle of New Testament priority; and agree that both Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists fail to use this principle in some of their theological conclusions. Unfortunately, so do Covenant Baptists. Dispensationalists error on Israel, Paedobaptists on baptism, and Covenant Baptists on the Mosaic Law. If the NT fulfills the OT shadows, then we should be obliged to accept the NT teaching about the Law being fulfilled in Christ. Covenant Baptists declare PARTS of the Law fulfilled, while other parts still binding. This is most clearly seen with the Sabbath issue, where NT priority would insist that we see the Sabbath Day as fulfilled in Christ and non-binding. Covenant Theology instead seems to ignore the NT teaching, change the so-called “unchanging moral law” by declaring Sunday the new “Christian Sabbath” in order to remain faithful to the theological system or the preferred confessional statement. The NT declares the Sabbath to be a “shadow” fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:16-17) and Paul wrote that “keeping a special day” was inconsequential (Rom 14:5). That’s a far cry from an Old Testament “Sabbath” mentality. So while I agree with the article’s premise, I think there is still a need for advancement if a truly consistent hermeneutical principle of NT priority is to be applied. Semper Reformanda. Correct?

    Reply
    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Shane, thanks for your comment friend. Covenant Baptists disagree with the exegesis of New Covenant Theologians. We believe the NT affirms the whole decalogue, including the moral Sabbath, as perpetual moral law for the Christian. In fact, in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8, God’s “laws” are said to be “carved” on our hearts in the new covenant. We believe that careful exegesis will show that the law written on the hearts of new covenant members is the moral law, written on Adam’s heart as an image bearer, which was later summarized in the Ten Commandments. We believe the Mosaic Sabbath is completely abolished, which is what we think the passages you cite refer to (though some of those passages seem to refer to ceremonial sabbaths as well). However, the moral Sabbath, written on Adam’s heart (Rom 2), affirmed by Christ in His earthly ministry, “the sabbath was made for man,” and transferred to Sunday in the Apostolic period, is perpetually binding.

      We believe in the perpetuity of the Sabbath, not because its found in Mosaic legislation, which is how paedobapitsts and theonomists may argue. On the contrary, we covenant Baptists hold to the Sabbath because the NT everywhere affirms the perpetuity of moral law and never abrogates the moral Sabbath.

      Spurgeon’s sermon arguing for the “Perpetuity of the Moral Law” did so based on the NT alone.

      Reply
  8. Thanks for responding Tom. I know that CT and NCT disagree on these issues. Partly because of the original premise of this article on NT priority. You say the “moral Sabbath” is binding in the New Covenant. I’m not familiar with any passages that refers to a “moral Sabbath.” What verse would you cite for that? Or what verse would justify moving the Sabbath to Sunday? I’ve studied all the verses the 1689 uses to defend this, but none of them hold water. Especially in light of the “Sabbath fulfillment” verses I cited above (NT priority, right?). As for Jer. 31 teaching the laws written on the heart are the Decalogue; once again there would seem to be no Biblical support for this. If we interpret the “Israel” of Jer. 31 to be the “New Covenant” Israel (i.e., the church); then wouldn’t the context demand we also see the laws written on the heart as New Covenant Laws as well? Likewise the idea of the Decalogue being written on Adam’s heart. It seems creative assumptions are made that the text of Scripture never gives us. How might the commandment for Adam to “honor his mother” have been interpreted by him?….. I don’t expect you to answer all these questions. I know the CT position, just as I’m sure you know the NCT one. My point is that if NT priority is going to be applied consistently, then some of the CT positions are going to have to be either defended from NT Scripture, or abandoned.

    Thanks again for responding.

    Reply
    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Good to hear from you again. Just quickly:

      1. The idea of a moral Sabbath isn’t drawn from a verse, but from noticing that Sabbath transcends all of Scripture, both before Sinai and after.

      2. Sabbath moved to Sunday because the OT predicted it in its eighth day Sabbaths, which foreshadowed redemption and the coming Christ, and from Apostolic teaching, and we know this is correct because of the revelation of the Lord’s Day. See these articles from Founders:

      http://theblog.founders.org/biblical-theology-and-the-transfer-of-the-sabbath-part-1/

      http://theblog.founders.org/biblical-theology-and-the-transfer-of-the-sabbath-part-2/

      http://theblog.founders.org/biblical-theology-and-the-transfer-of-the-sabbath-part-1/

      3. NC Israel grows from the root of OC Israel (Rom 11). It’s the same *people* who had the same laws written on their hearts. It’s the law David had written on his heart and Jesus had written on his heart (Ps 37:31 [Messianic Psalm]; 40:8). God’s people in the OC and NC are one.

      4. I believe Paul is thinking of the Decalogue in Romans 2, when he says the work of the law is written on the hearts of Gentiles, since he cites some of the decalogue (2:21-22) and distinguishes “the law” from “circumcision” (v. 26). He speaks of those who keep “the law” without being circumcised (2:26). This can’t merely be speaking of the Mosaic covenant, but is saying that the moral law of the 10 commandments is on the hearts of all men.

      5. We don’t say the 10 commandments as given by Moses are identical to moral law, only that they are an accurate summary expression of them. The 10 commandments as given by Moses are abolished. But each represents transcendent law, though there are positive elements in each.

      Thanks for the exchange my friend. One day, we will all agree, when we behold His face in glory. I thank the Lord for brothers willing to discuss these things.

      Reply
  9. Thanks again for responding. This will be my last comment, as I do not wish to tie up your Saturday any further. 1. You said, “The idea of a moral Sabbath isn’t drawn from a verse.” Indeed you are right. And this is my point. How can the Sabbath “transcend Scripture”? Especially in light of the NT passages I cited earlier. “New Testament Priority” clearly proclaims the Sabbath as a shadow fulfilled in Christ. (Col. 2:16-17) Many of your statements in your last comment refute your own premise of NT primacy. Making theological assumptions when we have no verse to justify our positions is problematic. You are using the same principle paedobaptists use to justify infant baptism.

    In closing, I agree that we will all agree in glory. Until then, we keep “searching the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so.” (Acts 17:11) I hope you have a great weekend. Thanks again for the exchange.

    Reply

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