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July 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 3 · pp. 48–49 

Response to Erwin Penner

Response to “Interpreting Old Testament Prophecy” by Erwin Penner 6/3 (1977): 38–47.

Delbert L. Wiens

The following argument has been derived from Paul’s citation of Hosea 1-3: Paul’s historical and grammatical interpretation of Hosea had uncovered its underlying theological principle—God accepts the not-accepted. Paul then applied this principle to the entry of the Gentiles into the Church.

Underlying theological principles may, of course, be applied to new situations. And a history ordered by a consistent God will reveal patterns which can be typologically understood. But that Paul derived a principle from a prophecy does not make its re-application the fulfillment of that prophecy. Since Paul similarly applied many OT passages in Romans 9-11, and many of them were not from prophetic contexts, we may argue that Paul did not intend to treat Hosea as prophecy of Gentile acceptance.

So far, the argument summarized above remains reasonably coherent and may be defensible. But then the author worries, “Does Hosea 1-3 really contain all the thoughts that the NT gleans from it?” So far as the above argument goes, and if it is correct, the answer is a clear “yes.” And no sensus plenior needs to be invoked, for it would be pointless to demand of one who enunciates a basic theological principle that he foresee all its possible applications.

That the question exists, that the wholly dubious discussion of sensus plenior follows, and that the essay is structured as it is reveals that a hidden question is being addressed. And the more the argument cited above succeeds, the more this other problem threatens to rise to the surface.

Is that problem the suspicion that Paul’s exegesis may not be vindicated along this line? Or is it that then Hosea’s prophecy becomes the problem? If Gentile entry into the Church is not its “fulfillment,” then what is? And so the elements of a different interpretation are inserted into the text at various points.

This interpretation makes Gentile acceptance the actual fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy rather than another application of its underlying principle. Thus, “Hosea has in view not physical Israel (Paul implies) but {49} the regathered remnant of faith . . . irrespective of their lineage.” But in itself the Hosea passage is “a clear reference to the ten tribes of Israel. . . .” No exegesis can show that Hosea was thinking of Gentiles some eight hundred years later. So the following dispensational principle must now be applied: OT prophecy is related to its fulfillment in a new age as the old age is related to the new. Therefore the literal (but not literalistic!) application of a prophecy not fulfilled in OT times must be as unlike what had to be earlier expected as the new is unlike the old. (Does this not forbid the application of any OT prophecy to modern Israel? And where in Paul, or anywhere else in the NT, was this dispensational principle discovered?) The more this approach succeeds, the more Paul is shown to be reading his interpretation into Hosea (eisegesis) rather than discovering it there by legitimate exegesis.

If exegesis is to remain the discovery of the intention of the author, then Hosea drops out of the picture and yet a third approach emerges. It is God whose intentions must be divined in the text. But who can discern the hidden intentions of God in a text that God apparently intended to be obscure? The doctrine of the sensus plenior tends to undermine all attempts at exegesis despite the claim that God himself will interpret his previous revelations in yet another revelation. The NT interprets the OT. But do we now dare to interpret the New? By what principle may we be confident that God’s latest revelation contains no sensus plenior? The more that this approach seems to succeed, the more it reveals exegesis to be either impossible or arbitrary unless it is the product of yet another special revelation (in which case we have revelation, not exegesis). And such reinterpreting revelation was ruled out, though not on biblical grounds.

The sets of explanations I have outlined are mutually self-contradictory. I assume that they arise from an unstated and contradictory set of expectations. Though this is not the place to make the case, a “critical-historical” exegesis of the writings of the exegetes (including evangelical scholars) will reveal that some of their most basic presuppositions are not so much discovered in the Bible as they are brought to it. This is not necessarily bad. Indeed, I believe it to be logically impossible to define a canon (thus defining ourselves as outside or beyond it) and to operate only with categories “discovered” within it. But this does mean that most of us must radically rethink our hermeneutic stance.

Dr. Wiens is Professor of Humanities at Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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