Challenges to the Redemptive-historical Christocentric Approach to the OT (2 of 7)

People Still Dissent against the most Biblically Supported Hermeneutic

Despite our utter certainty that Christ and his followers read the OT as a christocentric document, scholars today still attempt to discredit the apostolic hermeneutic and erect other hermeneutics in its place. As Johnson aptly noted, “when any hermeneutic method disqualifies… the ways that Jesus… interpreted the Word of God… this dissonance is a signal that something is seriously amiss.”[1] What is amiss is our interpretative fallenness due to sin-induced noetic corruption. Moreover, since critics of apostolic hermeneutic cannot directly deny its widespread use, they attack one or more of its essential features, as we will see.

1) The Aftermath of the Enlightenment

Scholars influenced by the Enlightenment, such as adherents of modern historical criticism, reject the divine inspiration of Scripture and God’s sovereign control over history, and thus reject the theological unity of Scripture; hence, such scholars “dismiss the apostle’s belief that God designed events in Israel’s history to foreshadow the coming Messiah and his mission.”[2] Even more extreme, scholars following the New Hermeneutic approach, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, as well as Reader-response critics, deny that texts, including Scripture, can have any discernable, fixed meaning.[3]

2) Dispensationalism

Evangelical scholars, in line with the Reformers, have emphasized a grammatical-historical[4] reading of Scripture as a response to such relativistic, postmodern readings of Scripture. But not all scholars understand the term grammatical-historical in the same way. Dispensationalists claim to hold to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic and assert that Israel is the main point of the OT, with prophecies about Christ interspersed throughout. If a passage does not contain an explicit prophecy about the Messiah, it is a violation of grammatical-historical hermeneutic to interpret it in a christocentric light, a brazen act of allegorizing or spiritualizing the text.[5] However,

according to Martin Luther, who led the return to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, there was no difference whatsoever between that and the ‘hermeneutic of Christ’; in fact, his grammatical-historical hermeneutic was, in his own words, simply the interpretation that ‘drives home Christ.’[6]

Therefore, the dispensational version of the grammatical-historicalmethod is nothing more than

a naturalistic, or literalizing hermeneutic, and certainly not the hermeneutic of the reformers, who taught, with very good reason, that a proper hermeneutic sees Christ displayed everywhere, foreshadowed, typified, promised, and prepared for in the Old Testament, and bringing all its mysteries and hidden gospel-treasures to light in his life and accomplishment in the New Testament.[7]

To be fair, any evangelical position that stands as a bulwark against historical criticism or postmodern-relativism, including Dispensationalism, has some value. Yet it is key to recognize that, while Dispensationalists do agree with the theological normativity of the Scriptures (to their credit), they dismiss the unity of God’s plan and God’s people, rejecting the fact that “a single redemptive history underlies both testaments.”[8] For instance, most (certainly classical) Dispensationalists read the OT with

sharp distinctions between God’s dealing with ethnic Israel under the Mosaic Covenant before Christ’s coming and in a future millennium, on the one hand, and his dealing with the multiethnic church in this period between the comings of Christ [which results in] a bifurcated perspective on God’s purpose in history and his mode of relating to two distinct peoples, ethnic Israel and the multiethnic church.[9]

Moreover, those who read Scripture with a dispensational lens are anxious about distinguishing literal readings from symbolic/typological readings of the OT. However, Jesus and the apostles’ hermeneutic is based on the belief that the events of the bible really occurred, had a symbolic depth, and with the coming of Christ were “fulfilled in ways that transcend the physical.”[10] Therefore,

we can see how the apostles could affirm the historical veracity of biblical historical narrative and at the same time confess that those real historical events were invested by God with symbolic significance that pointed beyond their own time and place in the history of redemption, directing the gaze of God’s people forward in history to the coming King.[11]

The if the underlying dispensational principle of “literal where possible” were rigidly followed through, it seems its logical terminus would be the approach of E. D. Hirsch, who asserts that passages of Scripture have one fixed meaning, only that which their original inspired authors would have been able to understand.[12]

Thus, against historical criticism’s dismissal of Scripture’s doctrinal unity; and against the principled subjectivism and relativism of postmodern interpreters (like Gadamer), we need to assert the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Dispensationalists seemed to have done this, but they misuse the term grammatical-historical. Dispensationalism, which adopts a misleadingly-rigid, naturalistic, and literalistic approach under the guise of a grammatical-historical reading, along with the even more extreme position of Hirsch, who restricts “a biblical text’s meaning to the human author’s original historical horizon,” are not “consistent with the unique character of the Bible as a divine and human word”; rather, we must hold to an approach that “takes the NT literally when [it] affirms that an OT pattern is ‘fulfilled’ in the redemptive work of Christ?”[13] This would represent a more biblical notion of literal where possible.


[1] Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 153.

[2] ibid., 118, 126, 131-33.

[3] ibid., 137-38.

[4] Grammatical-historical, meaning, “attending to the language of the text (not only grammar, but also semantics, figures of speech, genre, literary context, and parallels), and to the meaning that the text’s original recipients could be expected to understand in their historical context.” ibid., 135.

[5] No author. Is a “grammatical-historical Hermeneutic” Different from a “Christ-centered Hermeneutic”? (2008).

[6] ibid., Luther, Martin, Christum Treibet, in Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, Helmut T. Lehmann, Christopher Boyd Brown. Works of Martin Luther (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1955), 396.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid., 133. Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 48.

[9] ibid., 134. Again, since the practice of a redemptive-historical christocentric apostolic hermeneutic is virtually undeniable, the burden is on Dispensationalists to explain passages in the NT that “apply Israel’s titles, privileges, and mission to the new covenant church” (Johnson, 134); Dispensationalists explain that NT authors are applying, not interpreting, the OT in these instances. But how can application rest on anything other than interpretation?

[10] ibid., 137.

[11] ibid., 137. Emphasis of quotes are original throughout, unless otherwise noted.

[12] ibid., 137-138.

[13] ibid., 139-140.