Trying to read and interpret the New Testament is a daunting task. Myriad questions come to mind. What does this word mean? How does this fit into the larger story of Scripture? What does this teach me about God? Are there historical elements behind the text that would help me understand it better? The list could go on.
Fortunately, Jonathan Pennington and Constantine Campbell have written Reading the New Testament as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Survey—a New Testament introduction that helps us answers these huge questions. Far from a dry textbook full of historical data and Greek word studies with no real theology or application, Pennington and Campbell bring the most important topics to light: who God is, why we have the Bible we do, and how to understand what God wants to teach us through his Word.
I corresponded with Pennington and Campbell about the distinct ideas and assumptions in the book.
The title of the book urges us to read the New Testament as Christian Scripture. This seems obvious, so why title the book this way?
CC: To read the New Testament as Christian Scripture is to read it in line with its clear intent, which is to make disciples of Christ. Our goal in reading isn’t merely to garner information but also to experience transformation—to become a different kind of people, conformed to the image of Christ himself. Anything less than this transformative pilgrimage is less than a Christian reading of the New Testament.
You often call upon a more ancient or premodern way of reading the New Testament. What are some strengths and weaknesses of both ancient and modern hermeneutics?
JP: Every culture and age has particular insights and blind spots. This applies to biblical interpretation as well. In the West we’re a few hundred years into particular modes and habits of reading the Bible, what we can call modernist hermeneutics. Modernist hermeneutics serve us well in providing a depth of historical background, insights from literary analysis, and a focus on hearing the human author’s intent. But modern approaches to interpreting the Bible often fail to read theologically, canonically, and tropologically (for moral formation). Believing interpreters will also seek to interpret the Bible in these latter ways, but the modern hermeneutical commitments are ironically contrary to these good reading habits.
Our goal in reading is not merely to garner information but also to experience transformation.
Premodern interpreters operated with different priorities and sensibilities when reading Scripture. Theological, moral formative, intra-canonical, devotional, and homiletical interpretations were seen as primary and ultimate because this is why God has given Scripture to his people—to shape us to be like him, to be holy as he is holy. This transformative purpose isn’t a mere application of biblical interpretation. It’s good interpretation. Premodern readers were often much more in tune with the nature and purpose of Scripture.
Thankfully, today we’ve inherited a rich and varied tradition of Christian reading. We don’t have to choose between historical readings and formative readings, between grammatical analysis and theological interpretation. The wisest readers of the Bible will not only approach Scripture with modern hermeneutical habits and sensibilities, but will also combine these with the older and more theological reading styles of premodern readers.
In the gap between the “historical Jesus” and readers of the New Testament are the biographical narratives presented in the Gospels. How do we read the Gospels as they were intended to be read both individually and also as a corpus, and how does that challenge common ways we approach the Gospels?
JP: From the earliest decades of the church and continuing in the following centuries, the four Gospels were central to Christianity. This shouldn’t surprise us, since Christianity isn’t first and foremost a set of doctrines, but is a faith based on a Person—the incarnational revelation of God in the Son, Jesus the Christ. This means that who Jesus was and what he did, not just doctrines about him, are central to our Christian faith. Therefore, the Gospels—best described as theological biographies—are of utmost importance for Christian understanding and practice. They’re a gift to the church.
Every culture and age has particular insights and blind spots. This applies to biblical interpretation as well.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are clearly aware of each other and complement each other in meaningful ways. They stand as individual literary and theological masterpieces, designed to inspire, shape, and give life to their readers. But they’re not to be read only as individual books within the Bible. Canonically the Gospels are crafted and fitted together into one fourfold book—the book of the good news of Jesus, given in four voices.
All of this affects our reading of the Gospels in this way: the Gospels stand as a fulcrum point to leverage our understanding of all of Scripture, showing how Jesus completes the story of Israel and provides the foundation for Christian doctrine and morality. We can and should study the Gospels individually, but their unified four-in-one message becomes the focus of our faith.
You say in the book, “The New Testament is more than a historical record; it aims to teach eternal truth and transform its hearers.” In teaching the New Testament, how do you balance historical data with theological truth?
CC: Our concern is to read the New Testament in line with its clear intent, which is to make disciples of Christ. Whenever we read ancient documents, we’ll tend to focus on the elements that draw us to them in the first place. If our interest is purely historical, we’ll tend to prioritize their historical character. But if our interest is in Christian transformation, then we ought to examine historical elements in service of theological truth and transformation. It’s not so much about balance as it is about order; historical data and literary features are vital, but they serve the broader goal of hearing God’s voice in the Scriptures.
How do the hermeneutics of the apostles apply to us today? Should we imitate them, or was their method unique to them as eyewitnesses or divinely inspired writers?
JP: There are many great hermeneutics-teaching texts we can go to in Scripture, but I think one of the best is Luke 24. To culminate and complete his Gospel story, Luke recounts how the post-resurrection Jesus met with some of his despondent disciples while they were traveling to Emmaus. Luke uses this beautiful story to reiterate what he has been showing throughout his Gospel, that Jesus is the center of all of history, and all events and reality must be understood through the Spirit-filled Son of God incarnate. Jesus himself explains what this means when it comes to Scripture—that Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms are actually speaking about him (Luke 24:27, 44)!
There’s much more that we could say about how Luke 24 teaches us to read Scripture, but I’ve started with this text to answer your question about the hermeneutics of the apostles. This is because we can observe in this story that the Luke 24 Christological re-reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus teaches isn’t something special and unique given only to the apostles. It’s the basic hermeneutical approach given to all of Jesus’s disciples, modeled here with these non-apostolic disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Christians have always understood that Jesus is the key to reading all of Scripture Christianly.
Nothing in Scripture indicates that there’s a special hermeneutical approach reserved solely for the apostles. From the earliest days of the church and continuing until the modern period, Christians have always understood that Jesus is the key to reading all of Scripture Christianly. This is the basic hermeneutical stance of all Christians. A Scripture-soaked and Christ-focused reading of the whole Bible is what the apostles model for us in their own writings—the New Testament—and we continue to read Scripture the same way. The difference between our readings of Scripture and that of the apostles is authority, not hermeneutics. So in 1 Corinthians 10:5, when Paul interprets the exodus-era rock as Christ, we’re encouraged to do the same kind of figural reading of the Bible, even though our interpretations will never have the same binding authority as that of the apostles.
First published 27.11.20: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/read-bible-missing-point/