Jesus Learned Hermeneutics

Our Lord Jesus interpreted the Old Testament. But where did he learn how to interpret it? Did he use the same methods as the Pharisees of his day? Did the Holy Spirit reveal new interpretive principles to him in order to find the Messiah in the OT and justify his mission? Was Jesus a novel theologian, conducting fresh hermeneutical moves to justify his ministry by the OT? James Hamilton claims that “On the human level, Jesus learned the interpretive perspective he taught to his disciples from Moses and the Prophets.”[1] I agree. Jesus both learned hermeneutics from the OT and taught hermeneutics in line with the OT as it stood prior to the writing of the New Testament (NT). We will explore both of these ideas below. But before we do so, it is important to acknowledge how vital it is for Christian interpreters to both understand Jesus as an interpreter of the OT and to follow him in this regard. The entire NT is based on Jesus’ view of himself in relation to the OT. The sinless Son of God saw the OT as that which pointed to him. The authors of the books of the NT not only agreed with this assessment, they wrote in light of it. And since the writings of the NT are inspired documents, this is also God’s view of Jesus and the OT. In other words, the NT is the infallible interpretation of Jesus in relation to the OT. This is no small matter, indeed! Jesus understood the OT to be the Word of God written, and he saw it as pointing to him. His view of the OT became the view of the writers of the NT. It seems to follow that Christian interpreters ought to follow the lead of Jesus and the authors of the NT. Unfortunately, not all agree, though the conclusion seems inescapable. If Jesus viewed the OT as a witness to himself and the authors of the NT did as well, utilizing the same hermeneutic as Jesus, then all Christian interpreters ought to follow them.

Is it true that Jesus learned hermeneutics and is it true that he taught hermeneutics? I think the answer to both questions is yes and I also think that this demands that all subsequent interpreters follow our Lord’s hermeneutical lead. How could it be any other way? Some say that since the writings of the NT were inspired by the Holy Spirit, we cannot follow them in terms of their hermeneutical procedures. I do not think this follows. It certainly follows that since they were inspired their conclusions about the OT were infallible. It does not follow, however, that we should not attempt to follow their procedures. Assuming we should not follow their procedures, whose should we follow? Certainly all interpreters of all types of literature utilize some of the same interpretive procedures. We are all creatures, created in the image of God, with the ability to communicate and understand language. However, we learn those procedures from others and apply them. But what if there are interpretive procedures in the Bible that are unique to the Bible that help us understand it better? It seems to me that we should at least remain open to this possibility and, if it turns out to be the case, utilize these very principles.

Before discussing Jesus learning hermeneutics, it is important to stand back a bit and think through some issues related to orthodox Christology. The Second London Confession of Faith of 1677/89 at 8.7 says this: “Christ in the work of Mediation acteth according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to it self...”[2] This is a carefully formulated doctrinal assertion concerning the work of our Lord in his mediatorial and incarnational vocation. It seeks to protect the integrity of the two natures of our Lord as we contemplate his actions. In the work of mediation, our Lord acts according to both natures, since persons act according to nature. But in his acts according to either nature, each nature does what is proper to itself. In other words, it would be a Christological error to assert that our Lord died according to his divine nature. It would be orthodox to assert that the incarnate Son of God died according to the only nature that could die; he died according to his human nature. Careful distinctions must be maintained as we contemplate the acts of our Lord in order to protect the integrity of our two-natured redeemer. This orthodox Christological formulation helps us think through various aspects of our Lord’s state of humiliation. It should be a filter through which all of our contemplations upon the earthly life and ministry of our Lord are sifted. Taking this careful distinction with us as we think about our Lord and hermeneutics helps us determine not only that he must have learned such but also how he learned such.

Let us consider two true or false statements which are calculated to assist us in our Christological contemplations terminating on acts of our Lord when he was with us on this earth. First, true or false: The Son of God incarnate learned obedience according to the only nature that can learn obedience—human nature. Though in the work of mediation our Lord acts according to both natures, each nature does that which is proper to itself (2LCF 8.7). It is proper to human nature alone to learn obedience. Second, true or false: The Son of God incarnate learned hermeneutics according to the only nature that can learn hermeneutics—human nature. It is proper to human nature alone to learn hermeneutics.

These are perplexing issues for some, especially in our day. Did Jesus learn hermeneutics? Did Jesus learn anything at all? Isn’t the incarnate Mediator very God? And doesn’t being very God imply divine omniscience? The answer to these questions is yes. But isn’t he very Man as well? Again, yes. Given the two-natured Redeemer, is it even appropriate to ask the questions asked above? I think it is. If our Lord is very God and very Man, it is right to ask questions like the ones above. In answering them, we need to be very careful to distinguish between the two natures of our Lord. We must not convert one into the other or deny either as truly and really what it is. Did our incarnate Lord learn hermeneutics? I will answer yes to this question, very carefully and reverently. Let us explore this in more detail.

Jesus was a master-teacher of God’s truth. I fully believe his is the first theological mind of anyone depicted to us in the NT (or OT and ever since). He was the first-rate theologian of the first century and all other centuries before and after. No other mind at that time (or any other time) was able and enabled to read and meditate upon the data of our OTs and do what he did with the results of that meditation. He changed the face of the world. How Jesus interpreted and applied the Hebrew Scriptures in the first century affects us on a daily basis over two thousand years later.

Jesus Christ was and is the greatest theologian ever; and this point will become even clearer next time as we consider more closely the connection between theology and our Lord. 

Richard C. Barcellos is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ.

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"Christ, Fully-Human" by Adam Parker

The Incarnation in the Gospels by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, and Daniel Doriani

"On Informed Reading" by Richard Barcellos 

The Incarnation in the Gospels by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, and Daniel Doriani

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[1] Hamilton, What is Biblical Theology?, 20.

[2] Cited from A Confession of Faith, 1677 (Auburn, MA: B&R Press, facsimile edition, 2000).