The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles by Abner Chou
Abner Chou, professor at The Master’s University, has written an important book concerning biblical hermeneutics. But Chou’s book is not covering standard interpretation issues, rather its focus is on how the human authors of the Bible handled and understood Scripture even as they wrote it. A key concern among Bible expositors is how the NT writers quoted and interpreted the OT. Did they randomly rip certain scriptures from their context and use them for their own purposes? Or did they, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reinterpret OT texts to reveal their true or deeper meaning (Sensus Plenior)? Chou believes neither and offers this study to show that the apostles did not change the meaning of previous revelation but fleshed out its implications (p. 22). Let’s follow Chou’s reasoning.
First, the author champions literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics (pp. 13-14). This approach lets the Bible speak for itself and therefore is a quest for the “author’s intent” (p. 239 cf pp. 26-30) that is, what did the biblical authors mean, in their immediate context, by what they wrote? This is foundational and guides us in our own interpretations of Scripture. Chou speaks of “the quest for authorial logic” meaning the quest for understanding the biblical writer’s logic in the background and bringing it to the foreground. New Testament authors, Chou believes, interpreted the OT passages just as the OT authors did (see p. 19). In turn this should be our approach as well. Neither the apostles, nor Christians in general, have any right to dismiss authorial intent and logic and introduce their own ideas.
Secondly, Chou offers the concept of “intertextuality” to explain authorial logic. His thesis is that the writers of Scripture, both OT and NT, alluded to and connected other parts of Scripture in their writings (p. 21). The OT prophets were theologians who studied previous revelation and understood that what they wrote was cohesive with the rest of that revelation. The NT apostles continued this same logic in their writings. This has important implications for our own understanding of Scripture for, as Chou promises:
This book uses the New Testament use of the Old to teach us the nature of hermeneutics and interpretation. My mission is to vindicate the prophets and apostles and use them to shape our own understanding of God’s Word (p. 23).
Third, Chou distinguishes meaning of a biblical text from its significance (pp. 30-40). Meaning “refers to the particular ideas of the original author,” while significance “denotes the various repercussions, inferences, or implications stemming from the author’s meaning” (i.e. application) (p. 32). The biblical writers desired for us to understand what they were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and how to apply it to life. If this pattern is followed by us today it will be necessary for the reader to detect intertextually or, more simply put, to connect the dots. The dots are the other texts to which the authors were alluding, and then connect them in such a way that they reveal the meaning intended. Many OT scriptural passages, those that seem difficult to understand or are used in the NT in ways that seem out of context, actually become clear when the dots are connected (pp. 39-40). Chou believes the OT authors were exegetes and theologians who used intertextuality liberally (p. 4); every book of the OT alludes to other revelation (pp. 51, 92). Chou shows how the OT authors connected the dots by examining specific passages: Exodus 3:6 (pp. 41-43), Ezekiel 18:2-3 (pp. 64-66), Daniel 9:24-26 (pp. 66-68), Isaiah 56:4-5 (pp. 69-70), 2 Samuel 7:9-14 and the Davidic Covenant (pp. 73-80), Genesis 3:15 (pp. 83-89), and Psalm 80:9-17, the vine metaphor (pp. 80-83).
Fourth is the issue of directionality, or progressive revelation (pp. 93ff). Chou does not believe that the OT prophets always knew the full meaning of what they wrote, but they knew far more than we often give them credit. The OT writers “intentionally set a trajectory toward the apostles” (p. 93). “In sum, the prophets had a redemptive historical logic that establishes their texts in a trajectory which prepares well for the New Testament” (p. 95; cf 97, 110, 119-120). Chou demonstrates this by examining some of the more difficult uses of OT passages by the apostles: Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 (pp. 105-110); Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 (pp. 113-119); Exodus 13-17 in 1 Corinthians 10:4 (pp. 110-113).
Fifth, Chou discusses continuity and how the apostles interpreted the OT prophets (pp. 121ff). The question is, “Does the apostolic hermeneutic continue the prophetic hermeneutic?” Chou proves that it does in chapter five, and how exactly the apostles went about doing so (pp. 122-131). The author exegetes a number of NT scriptures to reveal this continuity: Hosea 11:1; Matthew 21:33-44; 1 Corinthians 10:4; Galatians 3:16; Matthew 2:18, 27:6-10, John 19; Acts 2:26-28, 15:15-17, and Galatians 4:21-31. He insists that new revelation did not reinterpret past revelation but rather fleshed out the implications (p. 153).
Sixth is the understanding of apostolic use of the OT in their development of theological thought and redemptive history (pp. 156-198). Chou insists, “The Old Testament shapes the New Testament and its message. In this way, we can say that hermeneutical continuity helps produce the theological fabric of the New Testament…If you want to be a better reader of the New Testament, then you need to be a better reader of the Old.” (p. 198). Chou demonstrates his conviction through an analysis of Galatians 3:10-14 (pp. 171-172), Habakkuk 2:4 (pp. 172-176, 181-183), Genesis 15:6 (pp. 173-174, 184-186), Jude 14-15 (p. 189-191), John 13:34 (p. 195), and the place of the Law in the church age (pp. 177, 213-218).
The concluding chapters detail how to examine the intertextual literary context by first collecting the dots and then connecting them (pp. 206-208). Five cautions are offered in order to correctly connect the dots: the importance of authorial intent, the necessity of antecedent revelation, use of the normal exegetical process, careful precision, and knowledge of the big picture informing the details (pp. 210-212).
While not the primary focus of the book, literal – grammatical – historical hermeneutics undergirds this whole process. “The Bible comes with ‘hermeneutics included’” (p. 323). In this regard Chou challenges on several occasions an extreme and dangerous use of the redemptive–historical, or Christocentric hermeneutic that has recently become popular (pp. 15, 97, 133, 218-221). The Christocentric approach finds Christ in every text of Scripture which Chou rightly sees as reading in Scripture what the authors did not intend. The key passage used by Christocentric promoters is Luke 24:25-27 of which Chou writes, “The text does not say Jesus read all the Scripture as about Himself. It states “He expounded the things concerning Himself that are throughout all the Scriptures” (p. 133). Concerning the OT prophets Chou writes, “While they did prophesy about Messiah, the prophets did not make every text Christocentric. We need to make sure we find Him in the Old Testament the way they intended” (p. 219). The OT prophets saw Christ as the end or goal of the plot line but “instead of trying to force Christ into every text, we can zoom out and see how the prophets relate individual texts to that grander story line” (p. 219). And he warns, “In our busyness to ‘see Christ in every text,’ we not only may commit unnecessary eisegesis but we also miss where and how Christ is genuinely found” (p. 221). In light of Chou’s clear rejection of the redemptive–historical hermeneutic I find it unfortunate that he used the term “redemptive–historical” often in the book. His use is of a generic nature of the historical plot of redemption found throughout Scripture, but in light of the development of this hermeneutic as a system I believe his very use of the term unwise. It would be akin to speak of the “emerging” church as merely a recent development in the church without sensitivity to how the word has been used in the 21st century. With this one caveat I found The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers a valuable contribution to the study of biblical interpretation.
The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles by Abner Chou (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018) 251 pp., paper $24.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel