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Interpreting Prophecy: The Canonical Principle

Dispensationalists often accuse covenantalists of reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament. If this charge means that covenantalists read the OT in light of the NT, it is readily conceded.

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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Dispensationalists often accuse covenantalists of reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament. If this charge means that covenantalists read the OT in light of the NT, it is readily conceded. Covenantalists believe that the very idea of a progressive revelation requires that we read the earlier in light of the later,1 that we use the greater light provided by later stages to help us understand that which was given only in a shadowy way, in seed form, in previous times. We ought to use the advantage of maturity and the increase of knowledge.

Dispensationalists, on the other hand, claim to read the OT on its own terms, taking it literally (the sensus literalis) according to what the authorial intent behind a given OT text would have been, given the author's historical context. Dispensationalists are certain that covenantalists cannot practice historical-grammatical exegesis in their reading of OT prophecy, that they are engaging instead in something akin to the allegorical method (though typological exegesis may be a more accurate description). At any rate, dispensationalists are sure that covenantalists are engaged in eisegesis — artificially imposing the NT upon the OT — and are not reading the OT in a natural (i.e., literal) way, as the contemporaries of the prophet would have understood his message.

The Canonical Approach
The covenantalist approach, however, is canonical. It insists that we read the OT texts from a canonical perspective, that the normative interpretation of these texts is determined by the "macro-genre" of the canonical Scriptures of the Christian church (a literary unit) and how these smaller subunits (whether pericopae or books) communicatively function within this higher level of textual organization. We must read any text contained in Scripture according to the genre-conventions of this larger unit of canon and according to its structuring and shaping (and otherwise influencing) of the content — according to its enkaptic leading/directing-function over the various subunits whereby they are made to serve the canon. To say this is to say that the entire Bible — OT and NT — is New-Covenant canon and all the literature included in the Christian Bible is to be read from the stance of the New Covenant that constitutes them as canon and regulates their meaning as a narrative covenant of New-Covenant witness. Accordingly, what the dispensationalist is in effect proposing is that we read OT texts in a noncanonical way, and this is contrary to what the New Testament teaches concerning the witness of all the Scriptures to Christ.

Before we examine NT teaching on this subject, however, we need to confront the question of authorial intention. Supposedly, covenantalist hermeneutics does not properly respect authorial intention in the special case of prophecy. We need, however, to face the great difficulties that are involved in discerning what that original intent is.

Even if we are enthusiastic proponents of a historical method and emphasize the role that background (e.g., biographical data, socio-historico-cultural context) should play in the interpretation of literature, we must recognize our limited ability — especially in literature as ancient as the OT — to reconstruct the setting of a text and specify the influences upon the author, his motivations, etc. In interpreting the OT literature, with rare exceptions we are not likely to discover a great deal about the author apart from what the text reveals (and sometimes that is very little). In other words, we must approach the authorial intention through the text; it is for the most part only on the basis of information contained in the text, when this is viewed from a historical perspective as a relic or artifact — as historical evidence — and appropriate historical methods are brought to bear in its analysis, that we can learn anything about the author and what was in his mind to communicate.2 Authorial intention is thus something of an ideal (and perhaps a very elusive ideal).

Yet is this really to be our ideal? That is, however important the authorial intention (if we mean merely the human author) is, do we really intend to reduce the meaning of the Scriptural text to this (human) authorial intention? Does understanding the function of the words that are recorded in the text according to their original meaning (= what the human speaker desired to communicate) on the occasion within the specific historical context — in which he spoke them, exhaust their meaning and become normative for their meaning in the text (and relative to literary context, as opposed to merely historical context)? Does the original speaker's intent (the meaning of the utterance relative to the time uttered and the parties immediately addressed as audience) always and necessarily coincide with the meaning of the words within "the text," the meaning intended by the author of the text that records the utterance? Moreover, what do we mean by "the text:" just the single composition (e.g., the book of Isaiah) or the unity of the entire canon of Scripture? Which of these three contexts — time of utterance, its meaning in written form at the time of the composition of the text that records it, or its meaning-function in a broader literary whole — is normative?

The Historical-Criticial Method
It is of course the historical-critical method that attempts to be consistent in ascertaining what the original author intended and what the original audience (or readership) understood — what it could understand — within the historical context that gave rise to the utterance or text. This method uses tools such as source-criticism, tradition-criticism, and (to some extent) form-criticism to isolate the original oral utterance and place it in historical context, and it uses form-criticism and (especially) redaction-criticism and literary criticism to trace the later function of this saying (its enduring significance beyond the originative occasion) and, in particular, the way it is used and interpreted in an extant literary composition by the author of that text. The practitioner of this method will necessarily distinguish between the original intent of the speaker and the original intent of the author who subsequently committed the saying to writing, since original utterance and textualization occur at different times and in different circumstances and intend to address different parties.

The thoroughgoing historico-critical exegete believes the evangelical practitioner of historical-grammatical exegesis is quite inconsistent; authorial intent is restricted to the human author and thus intends only to address those who are his intended, primary audience/readers and their context of understanding. We cannot assert that this historical approach to meaning is the key to unlocking the sense of a text, only to turn around and assume a concomitancy involving a divine author (and his alleged intent) "in, with, and under" the human author that would make the human word revelational of any information that transcends the human element and its historical situatedness. We cannot as scientific historians simply assume a theological dogma — a matter of religious faith beyond the pale of critical reason — about revelation and inspiration, but must treat the documents as thoroughly human documents arising in history by historical forces, in the same historically conditioned way all human documents come to be. The evangelical is not being truly and thoroughly historical, it is held, for he is engaged in special pleading if he seeks to interpret the humanly authored text in such a way that would construe the human word as revelational of any information that transcends the capacities of the human element and its inherent historicality (the exhaustion of meaning in the historical conditioning, the reduction of meaning to the historical situation).

Accordingly, if we are to be truly historical in our exegesis, it is impossible that Isaiah intended to speak of the virgin birth of Jesus several centuries beyond his time, or that the contemporary audience/readership he addressed in the "oracle" of Is. 7:14 could have understood such a remote event as the sign to which he refers King Ahaz. The historical-grammatical exegete, believing what Matthew says, is hardly literal when he reads Is. 7:14 as a prediction of Jesus' birth; if he speaks of the nativity story as the fulfillment of what Isaiah spoke, he "finds" a sense in the words of the prophet beyond what Isaiah meant to convey and an application Isaiah did not foresee. The evangelical reads Is. 7:14 as he does only because he believes what Mt. 1:23 asserts, and Matthew's pesher exegesis (an interpretation based upon the LXX text) is not privileged, for, bracketing out the possibility of the "supernatural," there is no warrant for believing that the human evangelist-theologian Matthew (writing many centuries later) had any special insight into the mind of the human prophet Isaiah.

It is difficult to know what Isaiah did or did not intend, to ascertain whether he knew the full meaning of his words as these are brought out by Matthew. Perhaps he did not (1 Pet. 1:10-13). However, if we accept the view that Isaiah's words were literally the very word of God (2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16) in a dual authorship of concomitancy (making the words both human and divine), we know what God intended by these words if we accept Matthew's testimony as also the inspired word of God, the subsequent revelation by the Holy Spirit of the true meaning — the authoritative interpretation — of what God was speaking through Isaiah.

Clearly, divine authorial intent — something transcending the historical context — is what is decisive in understanding this prophecy canonically and so understanding it as Messianic prophecy. The word of God for Isaiah's day — an occasioned or time-conditioned message that may as such have had a more proximate reference to a more imminent fulfillment-referent — does not exhaust the oracle. The proximate fulfillment (a sign to Ahaz) may have only been a type that, partially fulfilling the conditions of the sign, was divinely intended to prefigure and anticipate a greater, eschatological, antitypical fulfillment on a more remote horizon beyond Isaiah's own ability to envision. That remote horizon of greater fulfillment, perhaps never conceived by Isaiah as contained in the words he spoke, is a fulfillment that God referred to by a foreshortening conflation of prophetic signs and horizons of reference.3

If this is the case, Isaiah's understanding (or that of his contemporaries) is not normative for determining the canonical meaning of the Immanuel-oracle. Moreover, the canonical function of the prophecy (the reason why it is included in the canonical Scriptures) is not simply to serve as a historical record (documentation and preservation) of various words of God spoken at sundry times within and to specific periods in the history of the covenant people (a witness to Old-Covenantal revelation), but was itself revelation to the New-Covenant people of a New-Covenant event. Thus, the function of that word for the prophet's day (its proximate reference) may not be identical to the ultimate reference (or fulfillment) that warrants its subsequent inclusion in the canon. The progress of revelation may disclose in subsequent stages that earlier prophets — earlier organs of revelation — spoke more than they knew, that their own "private" interpretation enjoys no special privilege, that the word of God that came to them as they were moved by the Holy Spirit looked beyond their limited historical horizon and exceeded their expectations and understandings, that the dual authorship posits a dual intention that does not allow a simple identification of God's meaning and the prophets' meaning. The prophets may only have seen in a glass darkly, knowing in part, while the sensus plenior that their words contained (because God spoke by the mouths of the prophets) was hidden from them and thus cannot be found in human authorial intent (note here the case of Caiaphas' ironically prophetic words in Jn. 11:49-51).

As Christians we are to read the OT in light of the Christ-event. Christ has opened the OT Scriptures to us and shown us that their proper interpretation involves reading them as a witness to him (Lk. 24:27, 44-46; Jn. 5:39; Mt. 13:17). The meaning-content of the inscripturated, theopneustic Word is the Word (Jn. 1:1); the gospel narrative is the key that unlocks the message of Scripture. The truth-claims of a prophecy of Scripture (according to the divine intent of the Spirit who moved the prophets) is that which the canonical witness of New-Covenant Scripture — the finished product, the end of the process of revelation in history — intends to assert as true. If we are controlled by that canonical truth-claim, we must read Scripture as Promise and Fulfilment centering on the Christ-event and thus read the Old Testament as having been captured by, and made captive to, the enkapsis of the New Covenant. Any other reading of the OT writings than a New-Covenantal reading illumined by the Spirit of Christ (imparting to us the mind of God, their ultimate author — 1 Cor. 2:9-16) veils the revelation that is the proper canonical function of the OT within the Christian Bible (2 Cor. 3:6-18). Canonical interpretation is Christocentric. The sundry times and diverse manners in which God formerly spoke by the prophets were always controlled by his eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus (a mystery not revealed in former times as it has been in the NT revelation-event). The Son is the full and final word that all previous words anticipated and prepared for, and it is that New-Covenantal Son-Word that unifies and gives canonical significance to all that came before. Accordingly, canonical hermeneutics requires our reading the OT in light of the fuller NT revelation. This is what covenant theology attempts to do and what dispensationalists fail to do to the extent they are true to their professed hermeneutic.

Ultimately, then, however important historical background may be to exegesis, we must read the prophecies of Isaiah, et al. in terms of their literary context, within the perspective of the whole (the broadest genre-context). The whole within which these have their meaning is the whole of tota scriptura — the canon. The idea of the canon as a unified corpus, a single literary entity, provides a leading/directing function to all that is contained in the canonical collection, providing us with the analogy of Scripture as a limiting concept upon our interpretation of any part thereof in its function of contributing to the organic unity of the whole. It is the final redaction that reveals divine authorial intent. To ignore the canonical context is to read smaller textual units out of context and so misconstrue their God-asserted, canonical truth-claims — their Christological meaning.

The Bible Interprets Itself
The upshot of all this is that literalism cannot be given a criteriological status as the way we are to interpret texts. We must rather pay attention to the way the NT treats OT texts, learning our paradigms of interpretation from canonical examples of New-Covenantal interpretation. We must read the OT bearing in mind that what God promised to the patriarchs God has fulfilled in his raising up Jesus (Ac. 13:32b-33a) and that all the promises of God are affirmed as fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). We must look at the time inaugurated by the coming of Christ as the last days and time of eschatological fulfilment — the antitypical substance of which the Old Covenant was but the typological shadow. Recognizing this, we will understand, for example, that Isaiah 2:2-4 does not refer to fleshly Israel's future glory in a coming millennial age (a judeocentric reading), but to the result of Pentecost. We will not look to another New Covenant (to be made in the future with fleshly Israel and Judah) as the fulfilment of Jeremiah's prophecy, but will take literally what Hebrews tells us, even as we will accept at face value what Peter said at Pentecost regarding the prophecy of Joel 2. We will understand OT eschatological expectation as that which the NT gospel announces as fulfilled. We will not allow an abstract (self-contained, stand-alone) OT theology — an Old-Covenantal theology — to determine the shape of NT theology and Biblical theology as a whole, but we will use NT theology as a key to interpreting the OT and read the OT as a part of a whole Biblical Theology that is the canonical theology of the New Covenant, seeking to understand how the end was declared from the beginning and how the NT develops OT themes. Such is the reading of faith.


1. Which by no means is to say that we are not to read the later in light of the earlier as well. The earlier is foundational and provides necessary background — context — for the later. It would be Marcionism to read the NT in isolation from the OT, as though the NT were not but the continuation of the story begun in the OT. One does not start a novel in the middle, but one may re-read earlier portions after finishing the novel, discovering in light of the conclusion the significance and meaning of earlier portions of the narrative that were not obvious on the first reading. Hindsight (a retrospective interpretation) is an illumined perspective in which we see things more clearly and have a better understanding of trajectories.

2. Despite the difficulties involved, there is much to be said for the hermeneutical circle (or spiral) and its ability to make progress in understanding in many cases. We must recognize that this method, if employed properly and successfully, is not a case of vicious circularity that continues only to take us back to our original starting point without our gaining any new information. The method involves a dynamic, reflexive process of engagement that allows for ongoing revision and correction through continued "circling" from text to author and back to text, shifting from historical to literary questions at appropriate points in the circle so that the perspective we begin with (the text as historical data about the author and his situation) is not the same as the perspective we bring to the text as we "return" (now concerned with its meaning as literature). Background and meaning prove mutually illuminating; with each re-entry into the text the exegete carries with him the fruit of his previous excursions and can use this newly acquired knowledge as a key to unlock yet more insights and correct previous hypotheses.

3. We should note that what is figurative and what is literal in the correspondence of the prophetic utterance to the fulfillment-referent changes between the proximate and remote horizons of reference.

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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