Book Review: The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers
What is the correct hermeneutical method? Inerrantist evangelical scholars have a clear historical answer: a literal-historical-grammatical method. But does the Bible itself support this view? How did the biblical writers interpret Scripture? How should their interpretive methods inform our own? Dr. Abner Chou, John F. MacArthur Endowed Fellow at The Master’s University, seeks to answer these pressing questions in his recent book The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles (2018, Kregel). Overall, Chou’s volume is an engaging and thought-provoking addition to the academic conversation surrounding Biblical hermeneutics.
To begin, Chou lays out his main argument: By understanding the manner in which the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles utilized Scripture in their own writings, we can understand how we ought to interpret Scripture today. He asserts, “The prophetic hermeneutic continues into the apostolic hermeneutic, which is the Christian hermeneutic” (22). In opposition to skeptics who claim the prophets and apostles exhibited erratic and creative hermeneutical practices, Chou seeks to “vindicate the prophets and apostles” and show from their writings that “Literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics is not a modern formulation” (23). Before providing examples of a consistent prophetic-apostolic hermeneutic, Chou lays out three standard evangelical presuppositions underlying his work. First, the author’s intent determines the true meaning of any Biblical passage. Second, a natural distinction exists between the singular “meaning” and potential “significance” of any Biblical passage. Third, the Bible is an intertextual document.
The Prophetic Hermeneutic
Having established his presuppositions, Chou demonstrates the contours of the “prophetic hermeneutic.” He provides numerous examples of themes developed throughout the prophetic corpus. In their developments of theological themes, Chou claims, the prophets never twist the meaning of antecedent revelation, “but rather further explain the details and ramifications of the meaning that is already present, within the parameters of significance the original author established [emphasis mine]” (89).
By way of example, Chou argues that when Moses penned the famous Protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, he intentionally “sets up for what later prophets will say” regarding the evil-vanquishing seed of Eve (86). In other words, “Moses desires Israel and the rest of history to continue the search for the seed of Genesis 3:15 with all its theological implications he has developed in his own writings” (87). Moses sets an intentional trajectory for later prophets to develop Messianic theology. Though neither Moses nor the later prophets had exhaustive knowledge of the Messiah about whom they wrote, they had enough to set up the dots for later biblical authors to connect. For later prophets to have connected the dots the earlier prophets laid out, they must have been keenly aware of the Bible’s intertextuality. This understanding of the Bible’s intertextuality is the heart of the prophetic hermeneutic. A later prophet like Micah may have made an allusion to Genesis 3:15 which on the surface seems to betray any original meaning Moses intended. However, earlier prophets had rightly interpreted and developed Moses’s intended “significance” throughout the centuries, and Micah expresses this through an intertextual allusion. The prophets, according to Chou, were expert exegete-theologians whose extraordinary familiarities with the Scriptures enabled them to develop theological themes via new revelation and a reverence for earlier authors’ intended implications.
The Apostolic Hermeneutic
Following his demonstration of a consistent prophetic hermeneutic, Chou argues that the apostles used the Old Testament in a similar fashion in the New. One can explain many of the apostles’ more confusing OT allusions through considerations of intertextuality. The apostles did not often allude to an isolated verse or phrase, but to an “entire chain of texts” containing elaborate developments of biblical themes pertaining to soteriology, eschatology, or the Messiah (141). This “rigorously contextual” practice shows that the apostles followed the prophets in their hermeneutic rationale (138).
The Christian Hermeneutic
In the final and shortest section of his book, Chou turns to considerations of contemporary hermeneutics. Unsurprisingly, his main exhortation to modern readers is that they become more attuned to the Bible’s intense intertextuality and utilize this knowledge in their exegesis. Chou provides several lists of helpful questions for modern exegetes to consider when determining the extent and nature of intertextual elements in a passage (205-207). Moreover, he comments on the relative importance of historical context, word studies, and genre in one’s hermeneutical method.
The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers is a combination of persuasive and questionable elements. Persuasive elements include his treatments of biblical theology and the New Testament’s use of the Old. Chou explicitly states the New Testament’s use of the Old “was the impetus for this entire endeavor” (212). This shows in his writing. His section on the apostolic hermeneutic is a sharp explanation of intertestamental hermeneutics. Moreover, the biblical-theological considerations underpinning this section are impressive. Throughout the book, Chou demonstrates the elaborate and extensive interconnectedness of canonical themes through examples from the Pentateuch, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, Gospels, and NT Epistles. Serious students of the Bible will benefit from Chou’s many examples of biblical-theological development throughout the canon.
Questionable elements include his argument for a traceable prophetic hermeneutic and its implications for contemporary literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutics. Chou claims that earlier prophets intentionally planted certain ramifications within their texts that later prophets (and apostles) could develop. However, Chou is unclear at times on how the dual authorship of Scripture affected this process. Though he emphatically notes that the biblical authors were both “readers of Scripture and those who revealed Scripture,” it is often unclear where literary genius ends and divine superintendence begins. How can one tell what constitutes God-given revelation in a prophet’s text as opposed to human refinement of a previous writer’s implication?
In addition to his shadowy explanations of inspiration, Chou does not provide any systematic exposition of the prophetic-apostolic hermeneutic. He presents the elements of such a hermeneutic clearly: a well-developed respect for intertextuality, a reverence for previous authors’ intended meanings and significances, and a keen awareness of one’s place in redemptive history. However, Chou never tells readers how these elements work together to produce quality exegesis. Furthermore, his section on contemporary Christian hermeneutics is terse and equally unsystematic. Though Chou prompts his reader to develop an awareness for “inspired cross-referencing,” other hermeneutical considerations seem to be lacking (202).
Altogether, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers is a valuable read for serious students of biblical hermeneutics. Chou challenges readers to expand their views of biblical intertextuality and argues convincingly that the biblical authors often had much wider literary contexts in mind when quoting earlier Scriptures than modern interpreters typically assume. Though certain elements of Chou’s work need development, his work is a welcome addition to evangelical scholarship. At one point, Chou concedes that “the task of tracing the apostles’ hermeneutical rationale is a matter for volumes and not a chapter” (156). I look forward to Chou’s subsequent volumes and further insights into these critical hermeneutical matters.