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Yesterday, Covenant theology was defined. This post evaluates their hermeneutics.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the part that hermeneutics plays in understanding Scripture. A hermeneutic is most simply defined is a set of principles one employs to interpret a particular writing. For Christians, hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy that involves formulating principles to properly interpret Scripture. I say it is a branch of philosophy rather than a branch of theology because one’s theology (whichever branch) should flow from Scripture rightly interpreted, not the other way around (though there will obviously be interplay between them). I may be accused of, so to speak, “slicing the pie fairly thin” in this caution, but if one’s hermeneutic is simply a construct of one’s theology then one will simply find in Scripture whatever one is looking for. It is also important to understand the affect that the cultural milieu that an individual or group is situated in has on the hermeneutic they espouse. The various cultural forces of a given age may exert a powerful influence upon how Christians of that age interpret Scripture. The effect of one’s cultural milieu upon the principles of interpretation that one formulates may never be entirely eliminated: as absolute objectivity is impossible for man. However, if one is aware of that effect, the influence upon one’s hermeneutic may be circumscribed to a certain degree.

The crux of CT’s hermeneutic is typology. However, typological hermeneutics are much older than CT. “Modern interpreters are not the inventors of typology; indeed, the fact that it is part of the warp and woof of Scripture is what gives this whole method its significance.”[1] It was Christian interpreters of the Bible shortly after the close of the apostolic era that pioneered typological interpretation. “One of their [post-apostolic Christians’] most pressing tasks was to demonstrate the underlying agreement and continuity between the Old Testament, properly understood, and Christianity and its claims”[2] Gundry argues that typology became popular in order to give validity to Christianity’s claims via establishing continuity with the OT. However, he argues, “But there was a danger inherent within this approach, and it is easily discoverable to anyone who will read early Christian writings. That danger is that whenever typology is used to show the Christocentric unity of the Bible, it is all too easy to impose an artificial unity (even assuming that there is a valid use of the basic method).”[3] The imposition of artificial unity happens when, “types come to be created rather than discovered, and the drift into allegorism comes all too easily. In fact, it is often difficult to distinguish typology from allegory.”[4] However, “it may be noted that typology is an effort to understand the unity of the Bible from the standpoint of history rather than allegory.”[5]

In reality the history of typological/allegorical interpretation pushes farther back than this, and it might be legitimate to say that the hermeneutical method that post-apostolic Christians picked up on in order to show the Christological unity of the Old and New Testaments was simply “in the air.” A likely source of this method of interpretation in Christian circles was Philo. “Philo of Alexandria (b. about 20 B.C.; d. about 42 A.D.) stands as the leading exponent of the Jewish-Alexandrine religious philosophy, and in its influence upon the literature of the Christian Church its foremost representative.”[6] The influences upon Philo’s employment of typology/allegory can be traced back even further. “He knew all the important Greek philosophers, from whom he cited freely; but first for him was Plato, from whom he derived his philosophical content, while in his method of extravagant allegorizing he imitated the Stoics.”[7]

It was primarily the Stoics who “allegorized the Greek myths in the effort to philosophize the multiple forms of popular religion and reduce them to simple fundamental principles; so did Philo in dealing with the Biblical and legal forms and cultic prescriptions of the Jews, in the interest, however, of monotheism.”[8] Jackson notes, “The allegorizing of Philo is said to have gathered up into a mighty basin all the streams of Alexandrian hermeneutics from the past and discharged them again into multiple streams and rivulets of the later exegesis of Judaism and Christianity.”[9]

In Alexandria was one of the great libraries of the ancient world. “In the Museum was the equivalent of a university, famous throughout the Græco-Roman world. Before the end of the second century Christianity was represented by vigorous but divided communities.”[10] There was founded in Alexandria a catechetical school the primary purpose of which “was the intstruction of candidates for Church membership in the principles of the Christian faith.”[11] One of the heads of this school who exerted tremendous influence on succeeding generations of Bible interpreters was Origen. Origen believed that the Scriptures were the word of God and that “nothing in them was to be believed that was unworthy of God.”[12]

For Origen, the way around anything he deemed “unworthy” of God was found through discerning three levels of meaning in the text: “first, the common or historical sense which is on the surface for even the simple-minded; second, the soul of the Scriptures which edifies those who perceive it; and third, for the perfect, a meaning hidden under what superficially is repugnant to the conscience or the intellect but which, discerned, can be expressed by allegory.”[13] The influence of Origen on later interpreters should not be underestimated. “Most of the Greek fathers of the third and fourth centuries stood more or less under the influence of the spirit and works of Origen, without adopting all his speculative views.”[14]

There were of course rival schools of thought in the early church; of which, the Antiochian school is one example. “The Antiochian School was not a regular institution with a continuous succession of teachers, like the Catechetical School of Alexandria, but a theological tendency, more particularly a peculiar type of hermeneutics and exegesis which had its centre in Antioch.”[15] Concerning this “peculiar type of hermeneutics and exegesis,” according to Schaff, “The characteristic features are attention to the revision of the text, a close adherence to the plain, natural meaning according to the use of language and the condition of the writer, and justice to the human factor.”[16] However, despite this the Antiochian school was not entirely free from allegorizing when it was expedient: as can be easily seen in a perusal of the writings of the “prince of commentators” among the church fathers, Chrysostom.

In fact, “Though there was diversity of opinion between the Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetes as to the importance of literal exegesis, they were united on the importance of the witness of all scripture to Christ, and typological exegesis of scripture was one means of seeing that unity and witness.”[17] Further, “Those exegetes influenced by the Antiochene school placed more emphasis on the historical and literal, though they were not immune to the allegorizing tendency themselves. Jerome, who was profoundly influenced by the Antiochene viewpoint, had sound exegetical principles, but in practice he was an allegorist, even to the point of allegorizing the New Testament.”[18]

Typological exegesis continuously found fresh impetus for its use because of its convenience in polemical settings. It was found to be useful by Irenaeus in his contest with Marcion, who posited a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Typology was also the tack taken by Justin in his dialogues with Trypho as he attempted to show how the Old Testament found fulfillment in Christ.

Typological/allegorical hermeneutics were also a weapon often used against chiliasts, whose conceptions of the millennium were considered too carnal by their opponents.[19] “With the work of Augustine, allegorism became the most dominant interpretative method in the West. He had been driven to it in his reaction to the letterism of the Manichaens.”[20] This continued through the Middle Ages and became an integral part of the scholastics’ hermeneutics. Typological/allegorical hermeneutics continued to be used down to the time of the Reformation.

With Luther, Calvin, and others there was a conscientious turning away from allegory toward historical-grammatical hermeneutics. This however was not a complete jettisoning of typological or even allegorical interpretation. Gundry explains,

Calvin and Luther brought about a new epoch in the typological interpretation of scripture with their return to the literal sense and methodical exegesis of scripture. With this renewed concern for the grammatico-historical sense came a new appreciation of typology. A typology grounded in an appreciation of the historical verities precipitated a distinction once more between the typological and allegorical, though neither Calvin nor Luther worked out a system of typology of his own. But through them typology had gained a new lease on life.[21]

There came at the time of the reformation a separating out of typology and allegory. Typology is not necessarily antithetical to a historical-grammatical hermeneutic since typology is largely concerned with discovering the unity of the Bible from a historical standpoint. In fact, the literal interpretation of a passage becomes quite important since the antitype would be rendered meaningless if the type had never actually existed.

The long history of typological hermeneutics has great importance for the formation of CT because what early federalists did was essentially develop a unique framework of history along covenantal lines by which they could make typological applications between the Old and New Testaments. Karlberg explains,

The sixteenth-century federalists were responsible for establishing the redemptive-historical structure of biblical revelation, and the covenant structure was the distinguishing mark of Reformed theological interpretation. Beginning as a term descriptive of the era of redemption the covenant concept was broadened, in the interests of further systematic and historical reflection, to include the preredemptive period of biblical history. The entire development of the covenant idea was controlled and elicited by the Reformers’ understanding of justification by faith, in the forensic sense, and the coordinate law-gospel distinction.[22]

As the reformers sought to find intertestamental unity centered on the person of Christ, the undoubtedly biblical concept of covenant came to the fore as a convenient framework by which to categorize and understand all of divine revelation. The covenant concept that was easily developed from the covenants explicitly revealed in Scripture, which centered upon Christ and his kingdom, was, so to speak, extracted from its native soil and transplanted as an overarching framework. This framework facilitated the drawing of typological lines between the testaments and blurred the intricacies and nuance of the biblical covenants in favor of a flattened out single covenant (the covenant of grace) that had as its parties God and men and as its substance justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The concept of a prelapsarian covenant (the covenant of works) came to capture the imagination of later reformers in the midst of the fires of the theological controversies of the latter part of the 16th century, to which we now turn.

Continue reading part 3 Covenantal Polemical Theology

[1] Stanley N. Gundry, “Typology as a Means of Interpretation: Past and Present,” JETS 12, No. 4 (Fall 1969): 234.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 235.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 234.

[6] Samuel Macauley Jackson, ed., “Philo of Alexandria,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 15 vols (repr; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 9:38.

[7] Ibid., 9:39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A  History of Christianity, 2 vols (1953; repr, Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1997), 1:146–47.

[11] Ibid., 147.

[12] Ibid., 149–50.

[13] Ibid., 150.

[14] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols (1910; repr, Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 2:797.

[15] Ibid, 2:816.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gundry, “Typology as a Means of Interpretation,” 234.

[18] Ibid., 235.

[19] For an excellent treatment of the millennial controversy in the early church see, Martin Erdman, The Millennial Controversy in the Early Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005).

[20] Gundry, “Typology as a Means of Interpretation,” 235–36.

[21] Ibid., 236.

[22] Karlberg, Covenant Theology, 20.