Hermeneutics 201: Navigating OT/ NT Connections
We call the message of a biblical text its theology. This is because the message is from God and it makes demands on our lives. It includes both the primary and ancillary theological principles that God inspired a text to communicate. A text’s message/theology represents the future-oriented direction of the text. In other words, its goal is to get us to conform our lives to it going forward.
Old Testament narratives differ from NT epistles in three keys ways. The first is that OT narratives are a form of indirect communication. New Testament epistles are a form of direct communication. The messages of NT epistolary texts are clearer, more straightforward. They often use reason and logic to make their points. Old Testament narratives, however, seek to persuade by enrapturing us in their stories, thereby causing us to lower our defenses so that their messages can land easily and affectively on our hearts.
The second key difference between OT narratives and NT epistles is that the complete units of thought (CUTs) of OT narratives tend to be one to two chapters in length. The size of a NT epistolary CUT tends to be one to two paragraphs long. Identifying CUTs is crucial, because they provide the smallest unit of textual context that must be considered when interpreting anything within its boundaries.
The third key difference is that unlike NT epistles, OT narratives do a lot of describing and not a lot of prescribing. That is, they say a lot about what happened and only a little about what should have happened or must happen in the future. Compare 2 Samuel 11:1 with Colossians 2:6–7:
2 Samuel 11:1 (OT Narrative) Colossians 2:6–7 (NT Epistle)
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.”
Colossians 2:6–7 (NT Epistle)
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
It’s at this point that an important hermeneutical principle comes into play: Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative (i.e., obligatory) way—unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.” In other words, it is illegitimate—i.e., going beyond the bounds of biblical authority—to turn the individual actions or behaviors that a text describes into principles or commands to be obeyed, unless we can make a really good case for it. Ignoring this principle is called atomistic interpretation
You might be wondering, “How can I know when a described behavior is prescribed?” The answer is: through a careful examination of a combination of factors (1) in a CUT or (2) its book that work together to prescribe the described behavior. For example, in terms of factors in a CUT, in 2 Samuel 11–12 most of chapter 11 describes David’s murderous activities. At the end of the chapter we read, “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (11:27). From this combination of factors, it is accurate to conclude that “murder is wrong, even for the king.” For discovering how (and how difficult it is) to discern exceptions through a combination of factors in a biblical book, see Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004).
When we take these three key differences between OT narratives and NT epistles together, an important point emerges: OT narratives convey a small number of theological principles. The number of theological principles in one or two chapters of OT narrative pale in comparison to one or two chapters of NT epistle. Furthermore, as seen in the previous paragraph, it usually takes at least half of a narrative CUT for even ancillary theological principles to be taught.
For preaching, this means that OT narratives contain very few legitimate application principles. What is application? Application is an actionable principle, instruction, or exemplification that derives from the theology (i.e., message) of a biblical text. Application is not a good idea that comes to our minds when we read or preach a text. Application is not a principle that we “see” illustrated in a text. It is a requirement of God that is taught in the passage at hand, or a way to carry out such a requirement.