Author: Bible Society, 2 September 2021
Most Christians believe that the Old Testament should be interpreted in the light of the New Testament.
Augustine, an influential theologian from the fourth century, put it this way: ‘The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old is made accessible by the New’.
Understanding the relation between the two Testaments can be challenging. Sometimes, for instance, the New Testament seems to give a different spin to passages from the Old Testament than we might expect.
For example, Matthew 2.15 quotes Hosea 11.1, which says ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. Approaching the text from the standpoint of the author, Hosea seems to be referring to the rescue of the Jewish people from Egypt. Matthew, on the other hand, seems to understand the text to refer to the journey back from Egypt of the child Jesus.
To explain this, some theologians have developed a concept called sensus plenior (Latin for ‘fuller sense’). This means that while the human writers of the Bible may have had one thing in mind as they wrote, God (the ultimate author) also meant the words to have a deeper meaning that he would later reveal.
Others might say that the writers of the New Testament just used the Old Testament Scriptures in a different way than a scholar writing today would do; they would draw on the words that spoke into a particular situation without worrying too much about their original context. And after all, this is quite similar to how the Bible speaks to us today: we don't do a detailed study of the original context of a verse before allowing God to speak to us through it. One of the most popular Bible verses is Jeremiah 29.11, where God tells the Jews facing exile in Babylon, ‘I know the plans I have for you’. Many believers have taken that as a personal promise, even though in its original context it isn't.
The Bible is a living book; it's often best if we don't try too hard to work out the technicalities of how the living God speaks through it.