Tuesday, July 19, 2011

‘Radical Reinterpretation,’ New Testament Priority, and the Hermeneutics of George Ladd

As I continue my discussion on Historic Premillennialism (HP), I want to focus my thoughts on the hermeneutics of HP’s #1 defender in the 20th century—George Ladd. Specifically, I want to address Ladd’s views on how the New Testament (NT) uses the Old Testament (OT). Since Ladd is often looked to as a primary leader of HP, his views on hermeneutics should be examined to help us understand HP or at least modern expressions of HP.

In regard to how the NT uses the OT, I will point out that Ladd affirmed three things: (1) the NT used the OT non-contextually; (2) the NT reinterpreted the OT; and (3) the NT has priority over the OT.

Non-contextual Use of the OT
Ladd believed that the NT writers used OT prophecies non-contextually:

The fact is that the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.[1] (emphasis is Ladd’s)

Responding in agreement to Ladd’s statement, the amillennialist, Anthony A. Hoekema, wrote, “I agree with him [Ladd] that the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New Testament and that a totally and exclusively literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is not justified.”[2]

Ladd also argued for deeper meaning for OT passages given by the NT: “Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament to find their deeper meaning.”[3]

NT Reinterpretation of the OT
In addition, Ladd believed in NT reinterpretation of the OT. In doing so he argued that physical promises to Israel are “reinterpreted” and may find their spiritual fulfillment in the church:

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.[4]

Two passages highlight Ladd’s methodology. First, concerning Matt. 2:15 which states, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” Ladd offered the following:

In Hosea [11:1] this is not a prophecy at all but a historical affirmation that God had called Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus. However, Matthew recognizes Jesus to be God’s greater son and deliberately turns a historical statement into a prophecy. This is a principle which runs throughout biblical prophecy. The Old Testament is reinterpreted in light of the Christ event. (Emphasis is Ladd’s)[5]

Second, Ladd held that Rom 9:24–26 is evidence that the Christian church fulfills promises made to national Israel. He states, “Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. The church consisting of Jews and Gentiles has become the people of God. The prophecies of Hosea are fulfilled in the Christian church.”[6]

Third, according to Ladd, Jesus’ exaltation as discussed in Acts 2 means “new redemptive events in the course of Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”) have compelled Peter to reinterpret the Old Testament.”[7]

 At times, Ladd escalates the concept of “reinterpretation” to “radical reinterpretation.” In regard to Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 2, Ladd said:

This involves a rather radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament prophecies, but no more so than the entire reinterpretation of God’s redemptive plan by the early church.[8] 

In regard to Heb 8:13 and the new covenant Ladd states: “Here again we have a radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament prophets. . .”[9]

NT Priority over the OT
Along with the concept of “reinterpretation” or “radical reinterpretation” of the OT, Ladd explicitly affirmed NT priority over the OT. He did this when comparing Dispensationalism with non-dispensationalism:

Here is the basic watershed between a dispensational and a non-dispensational theology. Dispensationalism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament. It confesses that it cannot be sure how the Old Testament prophecies of the end are to be fulfilled for (a) the first coming of Christ was accomplished in terms not foreseen by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and (b) there are unavoidable indications that the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Christian church.[10]

One important thing to note here is that Ladd views NT priority over the OT as more than just being his own personal view—it is a “watershed” issue that separates non-dispensational theology from dispensational theology. Thus, one can determine whether he or she is a dispensationalist or not based on this understanding. As a dispensationalist, John Feinberg affirms this difference:

Nondispensationalists begin with NT teaching as having priority and then go back to the OT. Dispensationalists often begin with the OT, but wherever they begin they demand that the OT be taken on its own terms rather than reinterpreted in the light of the NT.[11]

(When Feinberg made this statement he did so with Ladd’s previous statement in mind.)

Dispensationalists have responded to Ladd’s claim that the NT overrides the meaning of the OT. John Feinberg claimed that:

No NT writer claims his new understanding of the OT passage cancels the meaning of the OT passage in its own context or that the new application is the only meaning of the OT passage. The NT writer merely offers a different application of an OT passage than the OT might have foreseen; he is not claiming the OT understanding is now irrelevant.[12]

In response to George Ladd’s declaration that the NT reinterprets the OT, Paul Feinberg asked some relevant questions: “If Ladd is correct that the NT reinterprets the OT, his hermeneutic does raise some serious questions. How can the integrity of the OT text be maintained? In what sense can the OT really be called a revelation in its original meaning?”[13]

My purpose here has been to focus specifically on the hermeneutics of George Ladd and his understanding of how the NT uses the OT. I am not saying all historic premillennialists agree with Ladd on every one of Ladd’s assertions. But since Ladd is often looked to as the leading proponent of HP, it is helpful to look at his beliefs in this area and understand that Dispensationalism has strong differences with Ladd on how the NT uses the OT.

[1] George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (IVP, 1977),  20. Emphasis in original.
[2] Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” in  The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views 55. Emphasis is mine.
[3] Ladd, 23.
[4] George E. Ladd, “Revelation 20 and the Millennium,” Review and Expositor 57 (1960): 167.
[5] Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” 21.
[6] Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” 24.
[7] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, Revised edition, 1994, 372.
[8] George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament , 373. Emphasis mine.
[9] Ladd, The Last Things: An eschatology for Laymen, Eerdmans, 1978, 27. Emphasis mine.
[10] Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” 27.
[11] John Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1988), 75.
[12] John Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity
[13] Paul Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, 116. Emphasis in original.


  1. Hi Dr. Vlach,

    I think Feinberg's point is a formidable one. That is, it's difficult for me to see how the Old Testament (or at least portions of it) maintain the status of revelation if we must give the NT priority. What's the rhyme? The Old is in the New restricted, and the New is on the Old inflicted.

    The response that I often here in response, though, is that the Old Testament was just "types and shadows," and so we should expect there to be a "hidden" quality to it. Passages often quoted in support are Col 2:17 and Heb 10:1.

    How would you respond to that line of argumentation?

  2. Mike, I think the error these guys are making is taking truths concerning the temporary nature of the Mosaic Law and then projecting a "shadow/type" paradigm on everything in the OT. Jeremiah 31:31-34 specifically tells us that the Mosaic Law was temporary and would come to an end. So when passages like Col 2:17 and Heb 10:1 tell us the Mosaic Law is fulfilled in Christ, this is a literal fulfillment. But people groups and eternal/unconditional promises cannot be types and shadows that get swallowed up. The NT reaffirms the signifcance of national Israel (Matt 19:28; Rom 11:26; Acts 1:6); Jerusalem (Luke 21:24); and a tribulation temple (2 Thess 2--"temple of God"). The Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation reaffirm OT eschatology.

    In sum, the Mosaic Law and its elements were types but this does not make everything in the OT a type that gets dissolved. Nondispensationalists take a "shotgun" approach to types and want to sweep everything in the OT under the rug of types and shadows. Dispensationalists take more of a "rifle shot" approach claiming that there are types if the NT makes the connection, but not everything in the OT is a type.

    By the way, I still have not forgotten about your question concerning antecedent theology. I'll get back to you on that.

  3. Very helpful response, as always. Thanks so much for your time.

  4. I just came across this as I have been studying topic for a few months now (12/2015). As I am trying to sort this out, one question I have is how the dispensational hermeneutic answers the NT use of OT. I think dispensationalists would agree that the NT use of OT is "loose" at least, right? It doesn't take long in reading the NT to see that it references OT scripture in ways that the OT scripture doesn't lend itself to being used contextually. So why do the NT writers do this? I understand Feinberg's point, but it don't think it really answers the reason why Ladd and others think this way. Ladd thinks this introduces a hermeneutic we should follow of the OT, and Feinberg says no it doesn't. How can we really know? I tend to think Ladd's point is pretty strong - I can only believe that the NT authors used scriptures these ways under inspiration, but it does seem to open the door for willy-nilly interpretive views. What about a hermeneutic that says we take prophetic literature literally unless it is redirected by later Biblical revelation?

  5. Covenant Theology adherents would hold that OT people had a sufficient understanding of the Finished Work of Christ to be Saved just the way we are after the Cross. (eg. C. Sproul and Sinclair Ferguson on January 12, 2012, “Theology Night with Sinclair Ferguson and R. C. Sproul,” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/ligonier_webcast_archive/jan_20_2012 - To hear their remarks, go 39 minutes into this video clip.)

    Surely they would go along with Ladd in their Hermeneutic and thereby invalidate their Soteriological claims, for if we can only understand the OT through the lens of the NT then OT people didn't stand a chance.

    Whereas Dispensationalists are clear that the Object/Content of Saving Faith differs through time while Salvation is always by Grace through Faith as Truth was Progressively Revealed at any particular point in God's Economy.