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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NT Use of OT Part 2: Seven Approaches to How the NT Uses the OT

With this blog entry I want to survey what I believe are seven different approaches used by scholars to understand how the NT uses the OT. This is not a defense or refutation of any of these approaches, but an explanation of the main positions. Note that these are brief and broad descriptions and do not indicate nuances and subdivisions that could exist within each camp. But I do think the list below gives a basic understanding of the main camps or approaches that exist in regard to how the NT authors used the OT. I will comment on each of these camps at a later date:

1.      NT Adherence to OT Meaning Approach (or Single Meaning Approach). While applications of the OT passages may be varied, the NT always adheres to the human authorial intent (which is also God’s inspired intent) of the OT passages. The NT writers do not add new or different meanings to OT passages or alter/transcend the original OT meanings as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics. The NT authors may apply the OT passages in a variety of ways, and concepts such as corporate solidarity, typology, and antecedent theology must be taken into account, but the NT authors never quote the OT out of context or in ways inconsistent with the original meaning. This view also rejects the concept of sensus plenior in which there is added meaning beyond the meaning offered by the OT human author (key representative: Walter Kaiser)

2.      Sensus Plenior (Fuller/Deeper Meaning) Approach. There are additional fuller/deeper meanings in OT passages intended by God but not intended by the OT human authors. Thus, the human OT author did not always fully comprehend the meaning of what he wrote, although God did. God, at times, intended more meaning than what the human author knew. Further NT revelation reveals these added or deeper meanings that go beyond what the OT authors understood. This approach does not deny the importance of historical-grammatical interpretation of OT passages and actually acknowledges its importance, but argues that this alone does not uncover the full meaning of what God intended. (key representatives: S. Lewis Johnson; J. I. Packer)

J. I. Packer: “The point here is that the sensus plenior which texts acquire in their wider biblical context remains an extrapolation on the grammatico-historical plane, not a new projection on to the plane of allegory. And, though God may have more to say to us from each text than its human writer had in mind, God’s meaning is never less than his. What he means, God means.” (J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and Inerrancy,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E. R. Geehan (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977), 147–48.)

3.      The Contemporary Judaism/Second Temple Judaism Approach. The NT authors often relied upon interpretive principles of the period of Second Temple Judaism including midrash, pesher which often apply OT passages in ways not in accordance with the historical-grammatical contexts of the OT passages. The Bible student must keep in mind that the writers of the NT were not bound by modern conceptions of how the OT should be used. Instead they used the OT to support their understanding that Jesus was the Messiah and the fulfillment of the OT. Thus, the NT writers were not bound by historical-grammatical hermeneutics to show the connection between the OT and the NT. (key representative: Peter Enns; Richard Longenecker)

4.      NT Reinterpretation of OT Approach. The Christ-event now means that OT passages and themes about physical and national matters have been reinterpreted to refer to greater spiritual realities and truths now being revealed in the NT. Thus, the NT is viewed as the divine interpreter and reinterpreter of the OT and the lens through which the OT must be viewed. One should not start with the OT to understand the OT; one must start with the NT to understand the OT. (key representative: George Ladd). Although we are not saying that the authors below consciously adopt the title, “NT Reinterpretation of the OT,” below are statements in line with this idea that the NT “reinterprets” the OT:

George Ladd:   “The Old Testament must be interpreted by the New Testament. In principle it is quite possible that the prophecies addressed originally to literal Israel describing physical blessings have their fulfillment exclusively in the spiritual blessings enjoyed by the church. It is also possible that the Old Testament expectation of a kingdom on earth could be reinterpreted by the New Testament altogether of blessings in the spiritual realm.”(George E. Ladd, “Revelation 20 and the Millennium,” Review and Expositor 57 (1960): 167. Emphasis mine.)

Kim Riddlebarger: “But eschatological themes are reinterpreted in the New Testament, where we are told these Old Testament images are types and shadows of the glorious realities that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. (Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 37. Emphasis mine.)

Kim Riddlebarger: “This [literal interpretation of the Bible] leaves dispensationalists frequently stuck in the awkward position of insisting on an Old Testament interpretation of a prophetic theme that has been reinterpreted in the New Testament in the light of the messianic age which dawned in Jesus Christ.”(Ibid., 38. Emphasis mine)

Stephen Sizer: “Jesus and the apostles reinterpreted the Old Testament.” (Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers: The Bible, Israel and the Church (Nottingham, England: InterVarsity, 2008), 36. Emphasis mine.)

Gary Burge: “For as we shall see (and as commentators regularly show) while the land itself had a concrete application for most in Judaism, Jesus and his followers reinterpreted the promises that came to those in his kingdom.” (Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 35. Emphasis mine.)

5.      Canonical Approach. The canonical approach asserts that the OT text’s intention became deeper and clearer as the parameters of the canon were expanded. Older texts in the Bible underwent a progressive perception of meaning as they became part of a growing canonical literature. Thus, the NT has priority in unpacking the meaning of the OT. (key representative: Bruce Waltke)

Bruce Waltke: “The Christian doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture demands that we allow the Author to tell us at a later time more precisely what he meant in his earlier statements.” (Bruce K. Waltke, “Is it Right to Read the New Testament into the Old?” Christianity Today (September 2, 1983): 77.)

Bruce Waltke: “This approach is similar to sensus plenior in that both methods depend on further revelation to find the full meaning of an earlier text. But the distinction from it lies in this: whereas the supposed sensus plenior depends exclusively on further revelation and may allow a reinterpretation of the prophecy, the canonical process approach combines further revelation with the sharpening focus of history itself and disallows the possibility of reinterpretation.” (Bruce K. Waltke, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Crossway, 1988), 284.)

6.      Inspired Subjectivity Approach (or Inspired Sensus Plenior Application). This approach asserts that OT passages have only one meaning as discovered by historical-grammatical hermeneutics but the inspired NT authors sometimes applied OT passages to present events and circumstances in ways not consistent with original meaning of the OT passages. Thus, the NT writers subjectively applied OT passages in non-literal ways to convey new revelation that went beyond what the OT authors intended or knew. This inspired subjectivity method, however, was limited to the NT writers because they operated under inspiration and is not allowable for Christians since they are not operating under inspiration. (key representatives: Robert Thomas; John Walton)

Robert L. Thomas: “In such cases, New Testament writers applied Old Testament texts to situations entirely different from what was envisioned in the corresponding Old Testament contexts. The New Testament writers disregarded the main thrust of grammatical-historical meaning of the Old Testament passages and applied those passages in different ways to suit different points they were making. They usually maintained some connecting link in thought to the Old Testament passages, but the literal Old Testament meanings are absent from the quotation.” (Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: the New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 247.

Robert L. Thomas: “Clearly the New Testament sometimes applies Old Testament passages in a way that gives an additional dimension beyond their grammatical-historical meaning. This does not cancel the grammatical-historical meaning of the Old Testament; it is simply an application of the Old Testament passages beyond its original meaning, the authority for which application is the New Testament passage.” (Ibid., 251).

7.      Eclectic Approach. This approach takes a some-of-the-above approach and believes that several methods are needed to address the complexity of the NT use of the OT issue. (key representatives: Darrell Bock; Douglas Moo)

“The author [Bock] also hopes that in being rather eclectic with the various approaches, the wheat has been successfully retained from each view while the chaff has been left behind.” (Darrell L. Bock, “Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New, Part 2” Bibliotheca Sacra 142 (Oct. 1985): 302-19)


  1. Dr. Vlach - in your facebook status you said that you didn't use Bock's categories for this topic. Do you have a link to his categories? Where do you agree with him and where do you differ with the list?

    Bryan Wolff

  2. Bryan, here is a link:

    I like Bock's categories but since he wrote this twenty years ago there have been more recent developments like Dr. Thomas's 'Inspired Sensus Plenior Application.' Plus I think we need to recognize the category of NT Reinterpretation of the OT, which is a category in my mind (although I strongly disagree with this approach). So I view myself as builing off of what Bock did, not really contradicting him.

  3. Dr. Vlach,

    First, thanks for your new blog. I am very much looking forward to it.

    Secondly, thanks for taking on this particular subject. I am currently working through this myself. You mentioned that Dr. Walton and Dr. Thomas take the same view. You quoted Thomas, but not Walton. Do you have any resources where Walton makes similar statements? He was one of my Profs in my days at Moody and I've always appreciated him.

    Jason Alligood

  4. Hi Jason. I have link for you below. Dr. Thomas and Dr. Walton have minor points of disagreement but they are basically in the same camp.

  5. Where do D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale's book "Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament" fall in your categories? Can it even be categorized due to the number of contributors?

  6. Dan, in the beginning of the Carson and Beale book they state that the book is not really about a specific theory of how the NT uses the OT. The judgments are left up to the many individual contributors. So although the book is really good in many ways it's not really a help when it comes to deciding a specific approach to the exclusion of others.

  7. Thanks Mr. Vlach for these posts. I begin to translate these articles into Spanish for publication in my blog.

    In Christ
    Armando V.

  8. Armando, I'm glad you are finding these helpful.

  9. Hi Dr. Vlach,

    Thanks for doing this. This is great.

    Dwayne Holloway

  10. Dr. Vlach,

    Thanks for your new blog.

    You didn't specify your preference regarding the seven different approaches. Would you care to do so?


  11. I hold to #1 with some nuanced explanation that includes typological connections and analogies. I'll have more to say on this later, but I hold to #1. The one that I'm most distanced from is #4 which is NT reinterpretation of the OT.

  12. Thank you for this blog, it's helpful to understand more of the details of NT vs. OT interpretation.

    I've heard of some of these approaches, but am unclear regarding the distinctions between some of the different approaches, especially between #1, 2, 5, and 6. Do you have some specific scripture-reference examples that relate to these different approaches -- how the different approaches would interpret the same specific verse(s)?

    I've been listening to S. Lewis Johnson a lot, including his Isaiah series that discussed Isaiah 7:14 and explanation that the prophecy only refers to the Messiah, that it has only one meaning, and that such meaning was/should have been clear even to King Ahaz (and to Isaiah), based on the actual words used. So I'm just wondering in what way that differs from #1 "single meaning approach" and is "sensus plenoir"? I've read elsewhere that he held to "sensus plenoir" but still unclear as to how that comes out differently than #1 Single Meaning Approach.

  13. Hi Lynda, great question! I hope to expound on the different camps in later entries. It may help to understand that several of these camps have points of agreement at times which may add to the confusion a little bit. Often people who hold to sensus plenior actually agree with much of position #1 but just feel it falls short on a few examples. I think S. Lewis Johnson is one of those. He clearly holds to sensus plenior at times but also believes in a contextual understanding for most NT uses of the OT. I persnally have learned from several of the camps with the lone exception being NT reinterpretation of the OT approach, which I feel has no basis and has implications for the integrity of Scripture.