Apostolic Hermeneutics

Peter Enns is an evangelical biblical scholar at Westminster Seminary. I am not usually disposed to post things from WTS, but this article will prove helpful to those wondering how the Orthodox Fathers exegete Scripture. While not, for obvious reasons, always consistent with Orthodoxy, he comes very close to it and has came to see the inadequacies of the grammatical-historical methodology that is so prized among Protestants.



  1. Protestants can be roughly categorized as either pogo-stick Prots or pin-ball Prots.

    I often heard (from Calvinists, no less!) that many Prots were of the “BoBo” variety when it came to the person and work of the Holy Spirit- they believed that they H.S. ‘blinked on’ during the Apostolic era, then ‘blinked off’ when Constantine decided to make Christianity lawful in 313. T hen It/He ‘blinked on’ in 325, at Nicea I, (those are the creedal Bobo’s, you understand…) then It/He ‘blinked off’ until whenever, then “blinked on with the Hussites, Waldenses, etc, and then REALLY ‘Blinked on’ during the Reformation, then “blinked off’ soon after, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

    Maybe this is just a variant on the pogo stick approach. I am not sure. But this blog is like a Graduate Degree in Theology all over again! Thanks for the discussion.

  2. I’m currently reading an excellent book which touches upon this very subject, i.e., the limitations of Enlightenment thought, specifically, the historical-critical method, when dealing with Biblical studies and theology. It’s “Discerning the Mystery” by Andrew Louth. Originally published by Oxford in the early 80s, it has just been reprinted by Eighth Day books, and, man, is it a gem! Louth examines the modern critiques of Enlightenment categories offered by such folks as Gadamer and M. Polanyi, then argues that the patristic way of reading Scripture embodies a very similar approach to that of these critics of modernist thought.

    Although to the point that I’ve read in the book Louth hasn’t used the term ‘postmodern,’ what he seems to be saying is that the way forward out of the postmodernist impasse is, in fact, backwards to certain elements of pre-Enlightenment thought. I’ve believed this for quite a while, but have never seen it fleshed out in the manner that Louth does in this book.

  3. There is a long history of just such an emphasis on the normative character of Apostolic exegesis in the Westminster Seminary redemptive-historical hermeneutical tradition, and there have been any number of publications on this subject over the years, each of them every bit as substantial as Peter Enns’ article linked above (cfr. many articles in WTJ, in particular; also, among recent publications, cfr. the chapters on Galatians and Philippians by Moisés Silva in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, and Dennis Johnson’s Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, which I hope to review in the next few weeks).

    As a commented noted above, it just a hop and skip from that to the realization that apostolic and patristic exegesis are “of a piece,” and a few of us have made the connection, and therefore also have come to the Church.

  4. Enns seems to be comparing/contrasting the Historical Grammatical Method / Grammatico-Historical Method/Hermeneutic (i.e., HGM, GHM, GHH – I’ll use GHM) with what the Apostles used when dealing with the Old Testament, the Apostolic Hermeneutic (AH). He discusses the tension between GHM and AH and the ways GHM must be nuanced to account for Apostolic exegesis and preaching.

    Per Wikipedia:

    The historical-grammatical method, also referred to as grammatico-historical or grammatical-critical, is a component of biblical hermeneutics that strives to find the intended original meaning in the text. This original intended meaning of the text is drawn out through examination of the passage in light of the grammatical and syntactical aspects, the historical background, the literary genre as well as theological (canonical) considerations. The historical-grammatical method distinguishes between the one original meaning and the significance of the text. The significance of the text includes the ensuing use of the text or application.

    The aim of the historical-grammatical method is to discover the meaning of the passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood. The original passage is seen as having only a single meaning or sense. As Milton S. Terry said: “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.”

    What happens when one applies GHM to the New Testament passages in question? The author’s intended meaning, and the audience’s understanding, is the AH. One can say that the OT passage really means thus and thus, or meant thus and thus to the original author/prophet, but it’s clear that for the Apostles and their audiences, the OT passage (as well as the text they use – e.g., LXX versus Hebrew text) is and means what the Apostle says it is and means – unless one wants to accuse the Apostles and the inspired writers of Scripture of promoting errors and misunderstandings. By accepting the inspiration of the New Testament, it seems that proponents of GHM have to let the AH reshape and color their reading of the Old Testament, because regardless of what GHM determines the OT and its original spokespersons or authors said or meant, as far as the New Testament is concerned, “This is that…” (Acts 2:16)

    I’m probably not expressing the above very well, but it seems to me that GHM-onlyists are in a bind, because the Apostolic kerygma, once declared to be inspired and authoritative, becomes by GHM’s definition the primary lens through which the Church and Christians are to read and understand their Scriptures.

    Please help me express the above better, or correct me if my conjecture or assertion is invalid – or ignore the above if I’m barking up the wrong tree. 🙂

  5. One has to give folks like Enns time to make the connections. Sometimes the penny has to roll and bounce around a bit before it finally drops. I know it did for me.

    This discussion brought to mind a similar one that arose in the late 1980s, I believe, amongst the Christian Reconstructionists (David Chilton, James Jordan, Greg Bahnsen, etc.) Chilton and Jordan, if memory serves, had beed putting forth the idea of what they called a “maximalist hermeneutic,” which was an approach whereby every possible drop of meaning was squeezed from a Scriptural passage, going beyond HGM strictures. In effect, it echoed the apostolic/patristic type of interpretation. I have a series of taped lectures by Chilton on the subject of the Ascension, and in the Q&A session he addresses this issue. (Chilton was on his way to becoming Orthodox, but died before he made the full plunge.) I stopped reading the Reconstructionists in the early 90s, so I’m not sure how long this discussion continued, or whether it had any impact on the larger Reformed community.

  6. Well, to me HGM seems idolatrous.

    The disciples of the Apostles would be taught, in a large degree, by imitation of the Apostles and Christ. In every the Apostles and Christ taught by example–if they didn’t their disciples couldn’t learn.

    Moreover, one of the things the Apostles would teach as first and foundational is interpretation of the Scriptrues.

    That means we have an obligation before God to be disciples of Christ and the Apostles, in our hermeneutics. And moreover, if we don’t imitate them in our hermeneutics, we are setting up hermeneutics as something ours and not Christ’s–that is, we are being idolatrous.

  7. Jacob,

    I was also taught the same response and, regrettably, taught the same to others. May God overlook those times of ignorance.

    In my mind, Protestants can be roughly categorized as either pogo-stick Prots or pin-ball Prots. This is not a very scientific classification, of course, and is intentionally simplified, but it seems to be consistently true.

    Pogo-sticks journey from the 1st cent. to the Reformation (or whenever their particular brand of Protestantism hit the market) in one giant leap. This type somehow tries to get into the heads of the Apostles by various means (HG method, sola scriptura, whatever) and has a devil of a time doing it. It’s like a man waking up from a coma after 1500 years and expecting to pick up where he left off.

    The pin-baller’s journey at least takes into account the fact that people actually lived in the intervening years, but they arrive at their theological positions by wildly careening off of one Father to another, taking with them nothing except what agrees with their already settled theological system.

    Where does Enns fit in?


  8. It has always puzzled me how the Evangelists and St. Paul fail the test of a strict historical-grammatical reading of Scripture. Of course, the standby response has always been that it’s ok that they “break the rules” because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, whereas we as interpreters are not.

    I was told this almost verbatim by members/leaders of a large “Bible Church” we used to attend. It always puzzled me, too. I thought years ago that the Book of Hebrews, e.g., was given to us as an example of how to read the Old Testament. The same, perhaps, could be said about St. Matthew’s use of the Old Testament.

  9. “By expecting the Apostles to conform to modern assumptions we run the
    danger of missing the theological and kerygmatic richness of the Apostles’ use of
    the OT.”


    It has always puzzled me how the Evangelists and St. Paul fail the test of a strict historical-grammatical reading of Scripture. Of course, the standby response has always been that it’s ok that they “break the rules” because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, whereas we as interpreters are not.

    But if the Apostles, and Christ Himself, intended us to view the Old Testament from the “kerygmatic richness” of a Christological interpretation, then the application of a strict “authorial intent” hermeneutic is inadequate on so many levels.

    Thanks for posting it!

  10. Nicodemus:
    My thoughts exactly. Great article, and it’s certainly a step in the right direction, but Enns seems to be coming at it as a typical Protestant individualist. He would like to add “the witness of the church through time” as a neat element in his hermeneutic endeavors. But he still seems more comfortable describing the NT writers as *individuals* whose hermeneutic is influenced by their Second Temple culture, rather than the very Body of Christ to whom the Holy Spirit Himself might reveal such things as Ezekiel 44:2 referring to the Theotokos. Still, it’s great to see a Reformed theologian break out of the HGM-only paradigm (contra Macasil).

    Awesome blog, guys (but usually above me). I just discovered it a couple weeks ago, and now it’s my homepage. Every once in a while I can even understand what you’re saying.

  11. Good article. But, how can someone get *this* close (see p. 286 first paragraph) and not make the connection to the Church? Can one truly think to “rely on the witness of the church through time,” yet bounce directly from the 1st cent. to the Reformation? Enns is still battling a historical disconnect from the “Apostolic” Church to today’s “evangelical” churches–they are not one and the same for him, sadly.

    In spite of the inconsistencies, Enns has some good insights. Thanks for the article, and I’m happy to have found this blog. (I guess the discussion over at Morey’s was sovereignly used by God to direct me here–teehee).

  12. Excellent. Thank you for this. Sometimes it takes an unlikely suspect to put in order all the disparate thoughts that bounce about one’s mind.

  13. Very interesting article. It’s good to see some Evangelicals taking note of such things — maybe a rebirth of interest in patristic exegesis among these guys will follow, when they realize that apostolic and patristic exegesis are of a piece?

    An article I read in ‘Touchstone’ many years ago made some related points. I have it to thank for stimulating my initial interest in Orthodoxy, while I as an Evangelical was struggling with issues related to sola scriptura and scriptural interpretation. Up until I read this piece, I was completely unfamiliar with the EO Church, thinking it was “the Greek branch of the Catholic Church.” The piece made a lot of sense to me at the time, so I decided to dig further, and the rest is history. It too was written by an Evangelical, Steve Hutchens:


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