According to E.J. Carnell, in The Case for Orthodox Theology, pp 53-65, the following five rules govern Biblical hermeneutics.
1. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament.
The relationship between the two Testaments is that of preparation and fulfilment. The old is a ‘shadow of things to come’, Heb 10:1. Therefore, in no case does the Old Testament enjoy supremacy over the New Testament. ‘Moses is a servant in the house, while Christ is the Son.’ A failure to see this blights the Jewish nation, 2 Cor 3:15.
Thus, Roman Catholicism is cultic when it bases prayers for the dead on passages in the Apocrypha, and Seventh-Day Adventism when it sides with Jewish tradition in worshiping on the seventh day of the week rather than with Christian tradition first-day worship. Dispensationalism is similarly cultic when it uses Old Testament prophecies to prove that the Jews have a theocratic destiny outside the church. But the degree to which a prophecy is typical or literal is to be decided by the theology of the New Testament.
The New Testament abrogates everything that does not materially advance the Abrahamic covenant. We do not follow Old Testament laws on divorce, slavery, stoning rebellious sons, and the like. But the New Testament does not reject the Old Testament. ‘These things were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come’, 1 Cor 10:11. The Old Testament is a storehouse of instruction because it adumbrates the New Testament.
2. The Epistles Interpret the Gospels
In liturgical churches it is customary for the laity to rise when the Gospel is read. This is cultic, because it implies that the Gospels are entitled to more reverence than the Epistles. But the fulness of revelation came after the Gospels, Jn 16:12f.
Jesus did not teach systematic theology for at least two reason: firstly, a normative account of his life, death and resurrection could not be given until those events had taken place; and secondly, the Holy Spirit could not be sent in the name of Jesus until that name had been earned, Jn 7:39.
[Comment: this principle is relevant to the stance of many within the Emerging Church ‘conversation’, who wish to reverse the order by giving the Gospels – construed as records of the teaching and example of Jesus – priority over the Epistles. JEM]
3. Systematic Passages Interpret the Incidental
Justification, for example, is only taught in systematic, didactic form in Romans and Galatians. Other references and allusions, as in the life of Abraham, in Phil 3:6ff and Titus 3:5ff need to be understood in the light of the teaching of Romans and Galatians.
The reference to ‘baptism for the dead’ in 1 Cor 15:29 is admittedly obscure. But it is incidental, and Mormonism is cultic when it elevates proxy baptism to a cardinal doctrine. Similarly, limiting fellowship according to beliefs and practices of Baptists on baptism by immersion, Lutherans on the real presence, Anglicans on succession, and Methodists on subjective holiness, is likewise cultic, for none of these belongs to the centre of Christian faith, as defined in Romans and Galatians.
In its view of justification, Roman Catholicism prefers James above Paul. But writes to correct an abuse of faith, not to develop the plan of salvation. The doctrine of justification is to be learned from Paul.
4. Universal Passages Interpret the Local
The principles of love and humility are universal; but the washing by Jesus of the disciples’ feet was a local illustration of these principles. Similarly, the principle of modesty is universal; Peter in 1 Peter 3:3 gives a local illustration of this. To universalize his advice is to render Christianity trivial and offensive. 1 Cor 7 contains a baffling mixture of local and universal elements. To defend perpetual celibacy on the basis of Paul’s teaching there is cultic. Female subjection to male headship is universal; veiling of the head is a local expression of this, 1 Cor 11:2-10. Christian fraternity is universal; greeting one another with a kiss is local, Rom 16:16.
5. Didactic Passages Interpret the Symbolic
Symbolic passages are not self-interpreting. They need to be interpreted by the open and plain meaning of didactic passages. To reverse the order is cultic. Roman Catholicism is wrong to claim that the Book of Revelation implies that virginity is better than marriage, for Rev 14:4 does not have moral theology in view. Dispensationalists use Biblical symbols to defend their views of the rapture, but the plain didactic teaching of 2 Thess 2:1-12 is that the church’s hope is the return of Christ, not deliverance from tribulation. Dispensationalists also look for a future earthly Semitic kingdom. But this is ignore the fact that the Jewish church was a figure of the Christian church.