Volume 43 - Issue 2

The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles

by Abner Chou

Troubling. Weird. Random. Creative. Misguided. Terms such as these characterize the apostles’ use of the OT, according to some Bible interpreters. Abner Chou, on the other hand, depicts the apostolic use of the OT in other terms: brilliant, sophisticated, careful, logical, and rational.

Chou serves as the John F. MacArthur Endowed Fellow at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, California. He has written a commentary on the book of Lamentations in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2014), as well as the monograph, I Saw the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Vision (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013).

The thesis of the book is that we ought to interpret the Scriptures in the same way that the apostles and prophets did, because they always honored the authorial intent of prior revelation (p. 22). They never attempted to alter the original and fixed meaning of Scripture, therefore Christians can and should imitate their hermeneutic. The apostles and prophets did not play fast and loose with the OT—they handled it contextually. Put another way, the authors of Scripture used grammatical-historical hermeneutics: “Literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics is not a modern formulation but how the biblical writers read Scripture” (p. 23). Expressed as an equation: the prophetic hermeneutic = the apostolic hermeneutic = the Christian hermeneutic. Chou says, “my thesis resonates with Beale, Kaiser, Carson, Hamilton, Caneday, and Bock” (p. 23).

The author defends three presuppositions that should govern our interpretive approach to the Bible, especially regarding the NT use of the OT (ch. 2). First, our job as Bible readers is to seek the author’s intent (pp. 26–30). Postmodernism, deconstructionism, and skepticism mitigate this endeavor. More specifically, Chou argues from Scripture that no distinction exists between the human author’s intent and the divine author’s intent (contra the sensus plenior theory).

Second, a distinction does exist between the meaning of a passage (illocution) and its significance (perlocution) (pp. 30–34). If an apostle drew upon an OT significance rather than an OT meaning, and we fail to observe the distinction, we might wrongly accuse him of violating the original OT context.

And third, later biblical writers used earlier texts (or a network of texts), a literary technique known as intertextuality (pp. 35–40). Every book of the Bible contains intertextual connections (p. 51). If we miss a connection, we miss the author’s full intent. The reader can detect intertextual connections by observing intentionally-chosen linguistic triggers, and by applying Richard Hays’s classic criteria for identifying literary allusions and echoes (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989], pp. 29–32).

Chapter 3 contends that the OT prophets excelled as masterful exegetes and theologians. As scholars, they were intimately acquainted with previous revelation, and they handled it with impeccable accuracy and precision. This supposition sets up chapter 4, which addresses the question, “Did the prophets speak better than they knew, or better than we give them credit for?” Chou maintains the latter, suggesting that the prophets understood their own place in redemptive history. When God used their mouths, he did not bypass their minds.

The apostles, like their prophetic predecessors, handled the OT contextually (ch. 5). In other words, no hermeneutical shift occurred at the Christ event, or in the move from OT to NT. Hence, the sensus plenior theory constitutes a failed attempt to explain the relationship between the Testaments. Having established this principle of continuity, chapter 6 explores the rationale of the NT writers in their use of the OT.

The treatise exhibits many obvious strengths. For one, the author builds his case in a logical and step-by-step manner. He shows a willingness to discuss presuppositions that affect biblical interpretation. Moreover, the writer devotes a generous amount of space to addressing common objections to his own viewpoint. He does not dodge controversy; instead, he deals with the most disputed passages, such as the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, the use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18, the use of Zechariah 11:4–9 in Matthew 27:6–10, the use of Amos 9:11–12 in Acts 15:15–17, and so forth. The copious documentation in the footnotes enables the reader to see how the author’s ideas fit within the field of study. He interacts with leading hermeneuticians, exegetes, and theologians.

Obviously, readers may at times explain perplexing texts differently. In a helpful way, the author invites his readers to consider whether “Edom” in Amos 9:12 represents all the nations, as he suggests (p. 147). In addition, he recognizes the presence of an interpretive device known as “corporate solidarity,” in which an individual (e.g., Messiah) represents a people group. According to the author, this device occurs in texts such as Genesis 3:15 and Hosea 11:1 (pp. 84, 107). Proposals such as these inform the audience of various interpretive options.

The absence of indexes stifles the usefulness of the book, and it discourages other researchers from interacting with the book in their own writings. The omission of a Scripture index especially devalues a book of this nature—a book in which the choice of biblical excerpts plays an important role. For example, where, if anywhere, does the author discuss Paul’s “allegorical” treatment of the OT (Gal 4:24)? Without an index, who knows?

Does the author prove his thesis? Absolutely. As one of the promotional blurbs puts it, “Whether Chou’s explanations of how the Bible’s writers use earlier Scriptures [convince] readers to embrace his understanding of difficult texts, his most central thesis ought to convince readers” (p. 1). Without hesitation, I eagerly commend this book to serious Bible students who have an interest in the interrelatedness of the Scriptures. Professors could adopt the volume as a textbook for undergraduate- or graduate-level courses in hermeneutics, biblical theology, or the NT use of the OT.

Mark A. Hassler

Mark A. Hassler
Virginia Beach Theological Seminary
Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

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In The God Who Saves (2016), David Congdon seeks an elusive synthesis of Karl Barth’s dogmatics and Rudolf Bultmann’s hermeneutics: he integrates Bultmann’s insistence on the concrete historicity of individual human experience with Barth’s stress on the universal salvific significance of Christ...

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