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preaching the bible like the new testament authors did? – jonathan robinson

Paul preaching on Mars Hill

In a pastors cluster I used to be part of we would take it in turns to bring some study or discussion topic to the group. Before I left the group to do some further study I used my turn to ask them about the way the New Testament (NT) interprets the Old Testament (OT) and also to what extent they felt comfortable using the same methods the NT authors used in their own preaching of scripture. 

They were all familiar with the way the NT applies some forms of allegory, typology, and analogy, the way it seems to take passages out of context, uses different meanings created by translation of the Hebrew into Greek, its habit of reading into Bible passages messages about Christ and the church when the passages were about something else, and so on. All these things, of course, are exactly what we are taught not to do at seminary/Bible college! 

My friends in the pastors group felt, in general, that while it was ok for the NT writers to do these things they were not comfortable to do them themselves. The assumption, and I think it was a fair one, was that we don’t fully understand why and how the NT authors arrived at these interpretations and so imitating them would be dangerous. 

At the same time, I can’t help but feel that there is something inconsistent with following the NT authors in what they preach and proclaim, but not following their methods. Not least, this creates issues for us because we then want to arrive at the same conclusions they do, but we have to take a different route (and this is not always possible). 

This is what I have spent that last two years studying (one more to go) and I’d like to say things were becoming clearer. In a way they are, my own opinions and understandings are beginning to form, but I also have to acknowledge that not every expert would agree with me. I could tell you what I think, but the next thing you read might argue for something different. Equally, most preachers do not have the time to become experts on the how 1st century Jews read and interpreted the Scriptures and the way those are present in the NT. Besides – is that necessarily the way forward?

What I do think we all need to face up to is that the modern Western, methods are not the only way, or even the best way to read Scripture. It carries with it all sorts of assumptions about Scripture and interpretation that are not necessarily Christian and often miss out interpretations that we find in the NT. Evangelicals have often emphasised historical meaning and the author’s intent as a way to safeguard against error in interpretation. But in doing so they subtly argue that the NT is in error in its use of the OT. Additionally, because grammatical-historical study (studying the meaning of the original language and what life was like in ancient Israel and Palestine) is reliant on our scientific understanding of the ancient languages and historical contexts; that meaning is always liable to change. It doesn’t truly safeguard that we get it right any more than any other method.

I’m not advocating a slide into interpretive chaos, or that we give up discussing how to apply the Bible for today so that the Bible can mean whatever we want it to. I do think we have lost a great deal in our interpretation and therefore preaching if we only apply modern approaches to interpretation. The riches of interpretation within the Bible and in the apostolic, early church, and medieval church should not be ignored, but explored studied and employed. Resources like the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament would be a good start (although only a start). The same is true of forward looking resources like Journal of Theological Interpretation.

I’m wondering, what would it look like and sound like, if we preached and taught from Scripture the way the NT authors did?

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