Friday, February 25, 2011

NT use of OT Part 4: Contextual Use of the OT by the NT Writers

Before we discuss specific passages in regard to NT use of the OT, I think there are some basic principles that can help navigate us through the hundreds of uses of the OT in the NT. For this entry I want to focus on one principle:

The majority of NT uses of the OT reveal a common sense literal and contextual understanding of the OT texts by the NT writers.

Or in other words, when the NT writers quote the OT they usually do so in a way consistent with the historical contexts of the OT passages. While I often disagree with Greg K. Beale on eschatological issues,[1] I affirm the following statement in which he affirms a mostly contextual use of the OT by the NT writers:  

It is often claimed that an inductive study of the New Testament reveals a predominately non-contextual exegetical method. But, in fact, of all the many Old Testament citations and allusions found in the New Testament, only a very few plausible examples of non-contextual usage have been noted by critics.”[2]

Beale lists examples where some claim non-contextual usage takes place but then notes, “It is by no means certain that even these examples are actually non-contextual. A number of scholars have offered viable and even persuasive explanations of how they could well be cases of contextual exegesis.”[3] He also points out that even if it can be established that there are examples of non-contextual hermeneutics, “it does not necessarily follow that they are truly representative of a wider hermeneutical pattern in the New Testament. They may be exceptional rather than typical.”[4] In fact, to claim that the NT writers used the OT in mostly non-contextual ways is “a substantial overstatement.”[5]

I have found Beale’s observations to be on target and helpful as we study NT uses of the OT. I can say this because I have literally (no pun intended) looked at every NT quotation of the OT and have been convinced that most quotations of the OT are consistent with the OT context.

Yes there are difficult passages such as Matt 2:15/Hos 11:1; Matt 2:17-18/Jer 31:15; Acts 15:13-18/Amos 9:11-12 and others that test the limits of contextual understanding or historical-grammatical hermeneutics. These examples need serious examination and it is these examples and others that will lead some to believe that the concepts of sensus plenior, second temple hermeneutics, or NT reinterpretation of the OT are necessary. It is not my intent to address those concepts right now but in my own study of NT uses of the OT, I am struck with how the NT writers use the OT contextually. There are many examples of direct prophetic fulfillment (Matt 2:6/Micah 5:2; John 12:15/Zech 9:9); literal restatements of OT passages (Matt 5:21/Exod 20:13); literal applications of a timeless moral principle (Luke 4:8/Deut 6:13); affirmations of OT prophetic texts that are still future (Matt 24:15/Dan 9:27); and others. The contextual uses of the OT far outnumber the cases where there may be non-contextual understandings.

I note this point because studies of NT uses of the OT often start with the difficult examples such as Matt 2:15/Hos 11:1, etc. But in doing so an impression can be given that most examples of NT use of the OT are non-contextual, when this simply is not the case. I am concerned when some believe they have documented non-contextual uses of the OT and then declare that non-contextual understandings are the norm. I am also alarmed when some claim they have found the “Apostles' Hermeneutic” which for them is a formula for understanding the OT non-contextually.

At this point, I have not argued or proven that there are not non-contextual understandings of the OT by the NT writers. I’ll discuss this at a later date. But I am affirming that the vast majority of references to the OT in the NT are consistent with contextual understandings. Thus, one principle I abide by is that “the majority of NT uses of the OT reveal a common sense literal and contextual understanding of the OT texts by the NT writers.”

[1] Beale is an Amillennialist. To clarify, I am not claiming that Beale would affirm my understandings of NT use of the OT or that he would affirm the theological conclusions I will come to.  I do find agreement with him, though, that most NT uses of the OT are consistent with a contextual understanding of the OT.
[2] G. K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? An Examination of the Presuppositions of Jesus’ and The Apostles’ Exegetical Method,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 388–89.
[3] Ibid., 389.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 398.


  1. Howdy Michael,

    Thanks for blogging here. I will anticipate learning from your series here on the NT use of the OT. I have been dealing with this as a pastor and am right now a "Historical Premillennialist" with "Amillennial" sympathies. I would NEVER that the NT reinterprets the OT, but that it expands it to new referents and contexts while maintaining a single meaning (generally taking Darrell Bock position in "Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament", (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008)).

    I am striving to learn more about this important issue, which I believe is very important for pastors to understand as it affects how they preach and teach. I am open to changing because of being convinced scripturally, and not by mere tradition (or folk theology) which I see allot of Christians more committed to than the scriptures today. Learning happens in good irenic dialog with other believers like yourself without talking past one another.

    Thanks again for your posts so far and I eagerly await others as you will probably be arguing for a different position that what I currently hold to. But that will be good for me. Thanks again for tackling this issue.

  2. Glenn, it's great to meet you. Thanks for joining our discussion. I think Bock is right on several points so maybe we will have some points of agreement. Part of the reason I am doing this is to have my ideas tested in a public forum, so I welcome good discussion on this issue. I may learn some things from you as well.

  3. Glenn, one more thing. I think this is an issue in which there are some significant differences even amongst those in the various theological camps. Not all dispensationalists have the same view on NT use of the OT. The same goes foe Covenant theologians, etc. I actually like some of what Beale (an amill guy) has to say on this topic more than some other dispensationalists with whom I usually agree on other issues. So there's a lot of variety on this issue.