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Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics

While reading this new volume on hermeneutics, Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, I was struck by how many theological issues “in the news” these days are addressed by this short piece, either directly or by implication. The NT use of the OT is certainly a hot topic, particularly in light of Greg Beale’s works on the subject. (See here for audio of Beale’s, “A Thorn in the Side of Inerrancy?”, where Beale treats the same text that this hermeneutics volume treats, Matt 2:15 and Matthew’s use of Hosea 11.) The relationship between exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology seems to be a perennial issue. So I thought it might be helpful to run through Richard Gaffin’s entry “The Redemptive-Historical View” with the goals of 1) pointing readers in the direction of the book so you can further interact with Gaffin and others, and 2) to address through this volume a number of hermeneutical issues to which Gaffin brings unique clarity.

Gaffin’s hermeneutic is redemptive-historical, and as those familiar with his work will know, he builds upon the work of Geerhardus Vos. Gaffin outlines six basic elements of his approach:

  1. Distinct from but always within the context of his self-revelation in creation and history (or “general revelation”), God’s special revelation has two basic modes: deed revelation and word revelation.
  2. Redemption/revelation is historical.
  3. Jesus Christ in his person and work, centered in his death and resurrection (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-4), is the culmination of this history of redemption (revelation).
  4. The subject matter of revelation is redemption.
  5. Scripture is itself revelation, not somehow less than revelation.
  6. To focus the preceding points hermeneutically: As revelation is the interpretation of redemption, so the interpretation of Scripture is always derivative, the interpretation of interpretation.

Having outlined these key hermeneutical features, Hebrews 1:1 serves to focus and exegetically support much of what is to follow:

God, having formerly spoken at many times and in various ways to our fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us through the Son.

This passage (Gaffin’s translation) explicitly supports point #2 above, as well as two additional observations:

“God’s Son is the consummate and integrating focus of this history….” and “…this Christ-centered history, complete and unified in its basic two-stage unfolding, is marked by diversity.” (p. 94-95)

Although Christ is the center of history and revelation indeed progresses toward Christ as its center, Gaffin wants to qualify what is meant by “progressive revelation”:

“Progressive” is not the most apt word here, particularly if taken in the sense of smoothly evolving advancement or steady and untroubled improvement…Yet “progressive” is properly retained in view of the inexorable forward movement of this history, in all of its twists and turns, toward its intended goal, Christ. (p. 91 fn11)

Gaffin goes on to make an important exegetical point with profound implications for our doctrine of inspiration. The author of Hebrews throughout his epistle attributes various Old Testament passages and events (words and deeds) to the Holy Spirit, implying both that the Holy Spirit is the one author of various Scriptural books and that the Holy Spirit is the primary author. That the Holy Spirit is primary author can be demonstrated in a couple of ways. First, the author of Hebrews quotes from a number of human authors across multiple biblical books from the Law, Prophets and other writings (Exodus/Leviticus, Jeremiah, Psalms). Second, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95 twice, in Heb 3:7 and in Heb 4:7. Heb 3:7 indicates the Psalm is what “the Holy Spirit says” and in Heb 4:7 God is the implied subject, speaking “through David.” (p. 96) So the orthodox understanding of inspiration is on sure exegetical footing, and the hermeneutical implications that follow will focus on affirming Scripture’s diversity (human authors) and more primary unity (one divine Author) throughout.

Gaffin rounds off two final observations of the redemptive-historical hermeneutic:

First, a primary concern of this method is fidelity to the fundamental hermeneutical proposition given with the Reformation’s sola Scriptura, the well-known “Scripture interprets Scripture”…Second, redemptive-historical interpretation is marked by a sense of continuity between the interpreter today and the New Testament writers. (p. 97)

After describing the forest, Gaffin turns to the trees, specifically how to apply this redemptive-historical hermeneutic to a legendary difficult passage, Matthew 2:15 and its use of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In order to hone in on this specific passage, however, we need to zoom out again and see a bit more of the forest. There are two basic aspects of the use of the OT in the NT:

(1) the specific and varied ways in which the New Testament quotes, appeals to and otherwise utilizes the Old, and (2) general statements about the Old, whether in whole or in part. (p. 98)

In addition, “hermeneutical priority belongs to New Testament statements, especially overall generalizations, about the Old…Two such general statements, particularly instructive, are Luke 24:44-47 and 1 Peter 1:10-12.” (p. 98-99) After making some specific observations regarding both of these passages, Gaffin summarizes and clarifies the OT/NT issue well:

In any event, multivalent, even contradictory, trajectories will appear to be the case when the Old Testament documents are read “on their own terms” in the sense of bracketing out fulfillment in Christ and the interpretive bearing of the New Testament. For new-covenant readers, submissive to both the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God, such a disjunctive reading of the Old Testament is illegitimate, as redemptive-historically (and canonically) anachronistic. To seek to interpret the various Old Testament documents for themselves and apart from the vantage point of the New exposes one ultimately to misinterpreting them. The Old Testament is to be read in the light of the New not only because Jesus and the New Testament writers read it this way, but also because Jesus and the New Testament writers are clear about the continuity in intention and meaning that exists between themselves and the various Old Testament authors and what those authors wrote in their own time and place.” (p. 101, my italics)

As the article turns specifically to Matt. 2:15, Calvin’s interpretation is particularly useful in both his conclusions and because of his historical context. Calvin, notably in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment setting, understands the hermeneutical difficulty in this passage just as much as current interpreters but also interprets Matthew’s understanding of Hosea as typological. Calvin rules out as an option the conclusion that Matthew is simply taking Hosea out of context to fit his own purposes.

Gaffin helpfully pinpoints the Matthew/Hosea question in the terminology of continuity and discontinuity. In what way can we say that Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea is continuous with Hosea’s own intent of meaning? Is there discontinuity between the two? So, Gaffin:

A typological reading of the Old Testament, like Matthew’s, is only as sound as it is continuous and concordant with the sense intended by the human author…A method that ignores or is at odds with the meaning intended by the human author, regardless of accepted Second Temple hermeneutical conventions, has to be judged invalid. (p. 104, and fn44)

Gaffin gives three reasons why the above is the case.

First, as we have seen, 1 Peter 1:10-11 says so…

Second, and with an importance I cannot begin to address adequately here, if there is not continuity or basic agreement in intention between God as the primary author and the human authors of the Old Testament in what they wrote, then the Bible, as a whole and in its parts, textually considered, is basically incoherent and any meaningful notion of its divine authorship excluded.

Third, and related to the preceding point, if this basic congruence is lacking, then it is also difficult to see how the unity of biblical religion – salvation by old-covenant faith in God’s promises in continuity with new-covenant faith based on their fulfillment in Christ – can be maintained – as Hebrews 11:1-12:2, for one, does. (p. 105)

If you’re wondering where the specific exegetical, biblical-theological details are, they follow the quote above. I leave them for you to read, as important as they are, so that we can concentrate on principles that will also apply to other texts. As you might be able to tell, the temptation is very strong to put this whole chapter into quotes and call it a day. Suffice it to say, Hosea wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at Matthew’s use of his words, and the Egypt-Israel typology present throughout Hosea demonstrates as much.

Finally, Gaffin offers a tremendously helpful summary statement:

One need not flatten out the differences between the Old and New Testaments nor lose sight of clearer and fuller understanding after the cross and resurrection in order to recognize in the text of Hosea an incipient and seminal grasp, however otherwise shadowy and inchoate, of the messianic plant whose eventual full flowering in Christ Matthew documents and explicates. (p. 108, my italics)

This is certainly a volume to be interacted with, and this chapter in particular deserves much attention. I’m often perplexed at what bloggers and theological commentators choose to highlight and discuss at the expense of other potential topics, but I hope that general pattern is broken, even temporarily, for the sake of interacting with this excellent and thought-provoking essay.

You can find the book here, along with a preview and sample pages.


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