How to apply the Old Testament: Canonical Contexts

El LissitzkyThe first application of any Old Testament passage is the one that the original author/speaker intended for the original readers/listeners. Each passage of the Old Testament called for a response from the people for whom it was first written. At it’s heart this is what we mean by the authority of the scriptures: that they can legitimately demand the response for which they call. We might feel like we live in a different universe to those who first heard the words of the Old Testament, but honestly, very often the response they require from us, as christian readers of the Old Covenant word, is the same response they required of their original hearers, even when this is understood and transformed by the coming of Christ. It is therefore extremely important in our study of an Old Testament passage to work out what response was required from the original hearers. This is a work of humble imagination. Imagination? Because this is the faculty we use to indwell other people’s worlds. Call it ’empathic’ reading, whatever. Humble? Because imaginations have a tendency to get carried away, and in this case we need an imagination that is the servant of the communicative intention of the author; a faithful imagination; one that listens before acting out.

But sometimes the later history of Israel and/or the coming of Christ reveal a meaning and richness in a text that wasn’t able to be seen in the original context. As a result, the text may call for a different response in the light of these later contexts than it did in the original context. This may have come as a surprise to the original human author, but not to the divine author who always intends the application for the original hearers, and the later applications as well (I know that this view of author’s intention is controversial, sorry, don’t have time to defend it).

Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written as a warning to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. (1Corinthians 10:11 HCSB)

Because biblical texts have inhabited many different contexts and been read many different times within the canon itself. It is extremely helpful… no, essential, to build up our understanding of the application of a particular passage by examining how it would have been understood in the various different contexts created by God’s ongoing plan leading up to Christ. Call this: reading within the ‘canonical’ context (borrowing from Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine). The various times, places, voices, communities who have had their lives enscripturated, together make up an interpretive community within the one book, ‘Bible’. If you need examples, consider how the people of Israel read and understand the history of the Exodus in the time of Kings David and Solomon. Look at how this event is celebrated in Psalms, how it shapes the language of the Davidic covenant and the building of the Temple. But then move forward, how would the events of the Exodus been understood and applied in the time of the exile to Babylon? And how did the Davidic readings influence this? In our search for application, look at all these already-given, intra-scripture, interpreted instances of application. Every original context in the Old Testament has at least two further ‘interpretive’ canonical contexts in the New Testament, but it may also have a range of interpretive canonical contexts within the Old Testament itself. We should pay more attention to these.