Poythress on Grammatical-Historical Exegesis

Posted by David Gadbois

I wanted to post a few brief points to follow up Lane’s post on the Christotelic hermeneutic and grammatical-historical exegesis.

1. The debate brought to mind these brief snippets from Dr. Poythress’ Understanding Dispensationalists regarding the relationship between typology and grammatical-historical exegesis. It strikes me that many of the errors of the hyper-Christotelic method are actually features of the dispensational hermeneutic method, even though this charge has been lobbed toward the critics of this method.

A Limit To Grammatical-Historical Interpretation

One more difficulty arises in relation to typology. As I argued in the previous chapter, the significance of a type is not fully discernible until the time of fulfillment. The type means a good deal at the time, but it is open-ended. One can anticipate in a vague, general way how fulfillment might come, but the details remain in obscurity. When the fulfillment does come, it throws additional light on the significance of the original symbolism.

In other words, one must compare later Scripture to earlier Scripture to understand everything. Such comparison, though it should not undermine or contradict grammatical-historical interpretation, goes beyond its bounds [emphasis-DG]. It takes account of information not available in the original historical and cultural context. Hence grammatical-historical interpretation is not enough. It is not all there is to interpretation. True, grammatical-historical interpretation exercises a vital role in bringing controls and refinements to our understanding of particular texts. But we must also undertake to relate those texts forward to further revelation that they anticipate and prepare for.


Perhaps even more forcefully, he says that the grammatical-historical method itself contains a built-in open-endedness that is amenable to the fulfillments that the NT teaches:

I claim that there is sound, solid, grammatical-historical ground for interpreting eschatological fulfillments of prophecy on a different basis than preeschatological fulfillments. The Israelites of Jeremiah’s day should have absorbed (albeit often unconsciously) the earthshaking, transformational character of the eschatological coming of God. It is therefore a move away from grammatical-historical interpretation to insist that (say) the “house of Israel” and the “house of Judah” of Jeremiah 31:31 must with dogmatic certainty be interpreted in the most prosaic biological sense, a sense that an Israelite might be likely to apply as a rule of thumb in short-term prediction.

What I am calling for, then, is an increased sense for the fact that in the original (grammatical-historical) context, eschatologically oriented prophecy has built into it extra potential. With respect to eschatology, people in the Old Testament were not in the same position as they were for short-range prophecy. Eschatological prophecy had an open-ended suggestiveness. The exact manner of fulfillment frequently could not be pinned down until the fulfillment came.


2. One resource that I cannot recommend highly enough on this topic is the audio recording of the recent Christ the Center conference on the subject of Christotelism. In fact, I have benefited greatly from all of the Christ the Center podcasts. Lane Tipton, in particular, was not someone who was “on my radar” until I heard him speak on these podcasts, and I’m very glad that I’ve received exposure to his various insights, especially on this matter. You will note that he does not consider the “Christotelic” hermeneutic, per se, to be the problem. But, rather, the problem is when the Christotelic hermeneutic is not joined with a Christocentric hermeneutic. He argues that the bare Christotelic hermeneutic (what I would term the hyper-Christotelic hermeneutic) cannot account for the fact that Jesus and the Apostles held the Jews culpable for failing to identify Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

3. Robert Reymond, in his Systematic Theology, outlines 16 points (pgs. 528-535 in the 1st edition) in defense of the proposition that “the requisite condition for salvation is identical in both the Old and New Testaments; the elect were saved, are saved, and will be saved only by grace through faith in the (anticipated or accomplished) work of the Messiah.” The foil here is, again, the dispensational view. But I wonder how the hyper-Christotelic view can account for the passages that are marshaled in defense of the proposition that the object of faith of the Old Testament saints (i.e. the Messiah) is the same object of faith shared with the post-Incarnation saints. Another way of framing this argument is: does not the unity of the covenant of grace exclude the hyper-Christotelic hermeneutic? We can grant that the OT saints only knew a shadowy, incomplete, shrouded-in-the-mist-of-the-future Messiah. But if Jesus of Nazareth is merely something the NT authors project backward into the OT, how can it be said that the NT saints share the same Messiah, the same object of faith, as the OT saints?

Reymond writes:

The last thing that Paul would have wanted anyone to believe is that his was a “new doctrine.” In light of these Old Testament examples it would have never dawned on Paul to say: “We know how the New Testament saint is saved-he is saved by grace through faith in Christ, but how was the Old Testament saint saved?” Instead he would have reversed the order of the sentence: “We know how the Old Testament saint was saved- he was saved by grace through faith in Messiah; we had better make sure that we are saved the same way, for there is no other way to be saved.  pg. 528