CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (1)

This is a re-run of an old article.

In many respects there is much ground that is mutually shared by evangelical/fundamentalist theology per se. However, consistent hermeneutics is the environment in which dispensationalism thrives. Outside of that environment it fades into nothing.

In this little essay[1] I want to examine some of what is happening in the world of philosophical hermeneutics so that we can better understand the influences that are being seen in evangelical textbooks on the subject. Still more, we shall start to understand why evangelicals are jumping ship from grammatico-historical interpretation; a situation that threatens dispensationalism even more.

Definitions: Hermeneutics, Exegesis, Application

In any discussion, but especially in those involving foundational matters, it is crucial to define ones terms. Hermeneutics has been given a few different definitions. Many are covered by Robert Thomas in his book, Evangelical Hermeneutics.[2] For the moment it will suffice to borrow from a standard conservative manual.

As a theological discipline hermeneutics is the science of the correct interpretation of the Bible…It seeks to formulate those particular rules which pertain to the special factors connected with the Bible. It stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.[3]

The definition above draws a helpful comparison between a book of rules that acts as the control over what is admissible and what is precluded in playing a game. All ought to play by the same rules. If they don’t; if each player thinks they can make up their own rules, the game is spoiled. This has been a good assumption of Bible interpreters, which has yielded excellent sermons, commentaries and theologies in the past. It has also been the operating assumption of those modern scholars whose hermeneutics books advocate a more subjective, reader-response attitude to the text of Scripture. As E. D. Hirsch noted, “Most authors believe in the accessibility of their verbal meaning, for otherwise most of them would not write.”[4] It would seem to be safe policy to define hermeneutics in a reductionistic fashion so as to leave room for clear roles for exegesis and application. Thus, we may begin by agreeing with Thomas’s classification of hermeneutics as “a set of principles” for right interpretation.[5]

Once hermeneutics has been so narrowly (and properly) labeled, it is alright to proceed to define exegesis. Exegesis is the implementation of the rules of hermeneutics to the Biblical text. As such, it involves the use of sanctified reason, as well as a certain finesse wrought out of a familiarity with the contents of Scripture. It is the act of investigative interpretation, which comprises adherence to hermeneutical principles along with a certain artistry brought by the subject. One should not speak of art or imagination when one is defining hermeneutics.[6] Hermeneutics does not entail active engagement with a text. That is where exegesis takes over.[7]

To understand how the definition of hermeneutics has become confused, consider these definitions:

Hermeneutics: Theory and principles of interpretation; for writings, correctly understanding the thought of an author and communicating it to others.[8]

Hermeneutics: The “science” of understanding the significance for a new audience of a text originally intended for a different audience.[9]

The first definition proceeds from formulation to implementation without batting an eyelid. Indeed, it moves beyond that and incorporates application within the actual process of interpretation, so that whereas application should be associated with the end-product of exegetical-expositional communication, here it is being read into the text.

In the second definition authorial intention is displaced by a preoccupation with present-day significance. Application is king! But by what rules is application guided?

We see then that a precise and exclusive delineation of hermeneutics is mandatory for accurate guidance in scriptural comprehension.

Why Hermeneutics is Important

God has given us the Bible so that we can know about Him, about ourselves, and about our world. We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior, and we discover who the Savior is, what He has accomplished on our behalf, and what we must do to acquire salvation.

All of this presupposes that we can understand what God is saying in His Word. Indeed, without the Bible, it is not possible for fallen man to interpret his life correctly. As one recent book explains it, “the Bible provides us with the basic story that we need in order to understand our world and to live in it as God’s people.”[10]

Every time a child opens up a story-book and starts to read, he or she takes for granted certain rules of interpretation; rules about spelling, basic grammar, context, and so on. As grown ups we do the same. Whenever we read or write something we presuppose certain norms of communication. Without them we could neither read nor write intelligibly. In the biblical philosophy of life, God gave human language so that He could converse with His creature, man, and so that man could obey Him dutifully. Language was also given in order that man could converse with God and verbalize God’s praise back to Him. Thirdly, language was given so that man could communicate with his fellow man.[11] This view of language should be taken with us when we attempt to devise a set of principles for Biblical interpretation. The whole aim of Biblical hermeneutics is spelled out by Ramm when he says, “we need to know the correct method of interpretation so that we do not confuse the voice of God with the voice of man.”[12]


[1] This essay is an extract, slightly adapted, from the author’s dissertation

[2] Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 28.

[3] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1975), 11.

[4] E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 18.

[5] Thomas, 27.

[6] As e.g., William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1993, revised and expanded), 5. There is much fine material in this work.

[7] It is unfortunate that even some dispensationalists confound hermeneutics and exegesis. This is somewhat due to the employment of an inclusive designation of hermeneutics as including “observation, interpretation, and application.” Such a definition is, of course, far too broad for a dispensationalist.

[8] Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, Grant Lovejoy, eds., Biblical Hermeneutics, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 367.

[9] Richard J. Erickson, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 222.

[10] Craig G. Bartholomew & Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 21.

[11] A thought-provoking treatment of language from a Christian perspective is Quentin J. Schulze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).

[12] Ramm, 2.

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