Is the Covenant with Noah a Recapitulation of a Previous Covenant? (2)

Part One

The second argument, that there are covenantal elements in the Creation narratives, is somewhat dependent upon the first for its advocacy.  Nobody denies that there is a repetition of parts of the Creation mandate in Genesis 9.  But such a repetition was necessary seeing that God had just wiped out every living thing from the map.  That necessity doesn’t extend however, to requiring a covenant given to Adam in the Garden.  And we are not justified in drawing an inference that the earlier use of the words were thereby covenantal simply because their repetition to Noah was in a covenantal setting.  One wonders how the Lord was to warn our Adam about taking from the forbidden tree without including some of the language which would later be used in covenants.  Covenants often included prohibitions and warnings.  They were necessarily made by or with human parties.  In that sense, all prohibitions are formulaic and “covenantal”(speaking anachronistically), but that does not turn them into covenants.     Again we sense a lack of control in the understanding of the function of a Divine covenant.

However, this belief in a pre-Noahic covenant just might be supplemented by Hosea 6, even though it must be admitted that the all-important substance of that particular “covenant” remains anyone’s guess.  Attempts to designate Genesis 2:16-18 as the oath are exegetically specious.  All one can properly bring out of the text is what is there: a prohibition and a dire warning.  That is it.  So one is left with a vacuous covenant with no identifiable solemn oath.  Not much to go on for the exegete, but rich pickings for a pious theologically charged imagination!

As for the third argument put forth by defenders of a pre-Noahic covenant; the mention of “Adam” in Hosea 6:7, we are unmoved.  Although studies by Warfield and others lend some superficial credence to the notion, there remain too many problems and unanswered questions to plague it.  The immediate context favors a location (Tell ed-Damiyeh?).[12]  Concerning the identification of it with the person Adam, McKenzie comments:

modern scholars are nearly unanimous in rejecting this understanding.  For one thing, there is no mention anywhere else in the Bible, including Genesis 2-3, of a covenant between God and Adam… Furthermore, the word “there” in the second line of the verse suggests that Adam may be a place name, and this possibility is strengthened by the places mentioned in subsequent verses – Gilead (v.8) and Shechem (v.9).[13]

Duane Garrett thinks there is a deliberate wordplay between the man Adam and the place of transgression, the town of Adam in area of Gilead.[14]  But we must repeat the fact that even if the exegetical case for the person Adam were in the future universally accepted, we would still be none the wiser as to what the covenant actually entailed.  We would certainly not be constrained to embrace a “covenant of works”, a “covenant of grace”, a “Creation covenant” etc., on such flimsy internal evidence.[15].  Plus, we would not be one step further to knowing what the putative covenant said.

While not everyone will agree with my conclusions, and while respect is owed to those whose opinions differ, I believe the arguments for a covenant prior to the Noahic covenant fall short of being convincing and rely upon inferences brought to the text.  More important is the glaring fact that there is just not enough scriptural data to provide content for these pretender covenants.

Personally, I could wish that I could confidently detect a true covenant in Genesis 1, or Genesis 1-2, or Genesis 2–3.  I am, after all, attempting to show that the biblical covenants contain both the telos and the eschatos of the Creation Project as set out in the pages of Scripture.  But I fear that any attempt to ground my scheme upon a covenant without a defining oath would be to make it, in fact, groundless. And so I am content to connect the covenants with Noah, Abraham, David, etc., with the already noted correspondence between God’s speech and His actions and to treat Divine covenants as intensifications of this motif.

I conclude, then, that for all the assertions of a pre-Noahic covenant notwithstanding, there is little or nothing to show for it but the personal judgments of good men who pour their own meanings into an empty vessel.  The biblical record remains unchanged.  The first covenant in the Bible of which we can speak meaningfully is the covenant God made with Noah after “the world that then was perished.”


[12] Ibid, 164-165.  He cites Craig Bartholomew’s note about marriage being an example of a covenant before the Fall.  I shall return to this, but will just say here that marriage is not a Divine-human relationship.  Furthermore, both Proverbs 2:17 and Malachi 2:14 refer to the encroachments of sin within marriages.  It might be argued that the covenantal aspects of marriage became necessary only after the entrance of sin.  We have argued that the essence of a covenant is to insure obedience of one or both of the parties involved.  This would be unnecessary prior to Genesis 3.

[13] Even Gentry, when rightly speaking of “the covenant with Noah [creating] a firm stage of history where God can work out his plan for rescuing his fallen world” (Ibid, 175), tacitly agrees that this is indeed the principle purpose of the covenant; namely, no more flood guarantees the uniformity of nature and a linear flow of history.  It does not then appear to be necessary to for God to bind himself to Creation this way before the Flood.

[14] See J. Glen Taylor, ‘Hosea’, ZIBBC, Vol. 5, 28

[15] Steven L. McKenzie, Covenant, 22-23.  Earlier he notes that, “The Assyrians probably had a covenant affirming Israel’s vassalhood, against which they rebelled.” – Ibid, 8.  He gives Hosea 12:1; 10:4, and 6:7 as possible references.

[16] Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, NAC 19A, 162-163

[17] Walter C. Kaiser rightly refers to these as “hypothetical” covenants.  See his The Promise-Plan of God, 26.


Is the Covenant with Noah a Recapitulation of a Previous Covenant? (1)

More material from the “big book”.

There need not be much dissension from the view that Genesis 6:18 may refer to a previous understanding of covenant on Noah’s part.[1]  It could equally mean that the covenant was “in God’s mind” before the waters came and He chose out Noah.[2]  In either case the interpretation stresses the gracious (hen) movement of God towards Noah (6:8).

But could it, indeed, should it, be construed as a reference to a “Creation covenant,” instituted in Genesis 1?  If the instructions given to Adam and Eve are repeated to Noah, doesn’t this show that, as Jeffrey Niehaus has it, “the Noahic or recreation covenant with the Adamic one” should be seen “as one legal package”?[3]  That is a big question.  It assumes, in fact, that the “Adamic” or “Creation covenant” is unambiguously self-evident like the Noahic covenant.  But that position requires a good deal of reinforcement if it is to withstand scrutiny.

So what evidence is there of an existing covenant in the first three chapters of Genesis?  I have already alluded to the fact that the evidence is “spotty”.  But it would be of some benefit to examine it a little more closely.  Not uncommonly those who see covenants in the opening chapters of the Bible do not take much space proving it.  But some arguments have been put forth deserve attention.

  1. the language of establishing not “cutting” the covenant.
  2. the repetition of parts of the Creation mandate.
  3. the reference in Hosea 6:7 to “Adam” breaking the covenant.

The first argument, and the best in my estimation, concerns the Hebrew expression used in regards to the Noahic covenant.  Merrill concludes that “Genesis 1:26-28 is at least a truncated example of a royal grant document.”[4]  It may be, but where are its specific terms?  Where is the oath which God supposedly made?  It certainly had nothing to do with a global flood.  Yet the flood is at the heart of the covenant oath God made with Noah as His witness.  In other words, without the assurance that God would not again visit the earth with such a deluge, there would be no reason to even mention the covenant!  To move from that position backwards to the first two chapters of the book in order to find a “Creation covenant” (or other), looks like moving far beyond the evidence readily discernible in the oath of the Noahic covenant.

Niehaus says that the elements of covenant (which he says stems from an “idea” in God), are present in the Creation chapters (Gen. 1 & 2).  So, even though the oath is not found there, the presence of a covenant is assured.[5]  Very well, but without knowing what the oath is we have no way of knowing for sure what the covenant was about.  Once more, Gamble, in his impressive book, thinks that “The reordering of the world after the Flood was a covenantal recapitulation.”[6]  But he gives no solid evidence for this assertion.

Perhaps the best defense of this position is found in the work of Gentry and Wellum called Kingdom through Covenant.  Building on the work of Australian scholar William Dumbrell, whose basic ideas he defends[7], Gentry asserts, and I think proves, that the deliberate choice to use heqim berit (“to establish a covenant”), rather than what would become the normal expression, karat berit (“to cut a covenant”), indicates that God was already committed to this covenant prior to Genesis 6.[8]   This does not mean they support the idea that Genesis 6 and 9 refer to covenant renewal.  Rather, the claim seems to be that God’s pre-existing commitment to His creation is now expressed in the initiation of a promised covenant.

In summary, based on the expression heqim berit, linguistic usage alone demonstrates that when God says he is confirming or establishing his covenant with Noah, he is saying that his commitment initiated previously at creation to care for and preserve, provide for and rule over all he has made, including the blessings and ordinances that he gave to Adam and Eve and their family, are now to be with Noah and his descendants.  This can be substantiated and further supported by noting the parallels between Noah and Adam, and between the covenant terms given to Noah and the ordinances given to Adam and his family.[9]

Gentry goes on to detail the parallels he has mentioned, but the existence of parallels, which it must be admitted, are hardly avoidable, do not require the presence of a covenant. (more…)


Apologetics and Your Kids (Pt.10) – Another Slogan

Part Nine

In the last installment of this series we were looking at a motto which is often misused by the Christian community, and which could mislead young people if not carefully explained.  That motto was “All truth is God’s truth.”  This time round I want to take a look at another slogan; a slogan which should not be adopted by Bible believers, even though some prominent and respected authorities use it.  The phrase I have in mind is this: “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.”

On the face of it, this legend might seem non-objectionable.  We are all aware of the fact that the Bible is not, nor does it ever claim to be, a textbook on Science.  It doesn’t inform us about botany or biology or chemistry or physics: science does, so what’s the problem?

To put it simply, the trouble is that it says far too much about the competence of science, and far too little about the scope and authority of Scripture.  It is quite subtle, yet the problem is acute.  As it sits, saying “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven” is like saying “Jesus teaches us how to be nice.”  A Gospel tract can tell you how to get to heaven!  But the Bible is the Word of God.  It is the only “word” from the outside.  That is to say, it is the only word which is not fashioned by the finite and fallen ingenuity of man.  As such the Bible is the final court of appeal on God-made reality.  To confine it within the bounds of a rather thoughtless jingle is to treat it with dishonor.

Yet that is just one part of the problem.  The catchphrase goes on to assert that “science tells us how the heavens go.”  To this we may reply, “Only if that science agrees with the Bible!”  To create an artificial divide between the Bible and science like this is disastrous.  In point of fact, the Word of God tells us how the heavens go (to the extent that they speak of the heavens), and we would be well advised to accept no “scientific” statement which contradicts the Bible’s teaching on this or any bother subject.  If “science” tells us we evolved from cosmic dust, or we came from apes, or that there is no God (or no way to know there is a God), and a thousand other pronouncements besides, then “science” isn’t true knowledge (which is the meaning of the Latin term scientia).  In fact, it isn’t even science.  It is “science (or “knowledge”) falsely so-called” (1 Tim. 6:20).

Do the problems end there?  I wish they did, but there is more to say, because this way of putting things leads to thinking that the Bible only touches upon the thin aspects of living which we call “spiritual”; all the rest of reality is then thought to be open to independent reasoning virtually unrelated to the pronouncements of Scripture.  Once this thought enters the Christian’s mind it acts like a cancer, and very soon what we proudly call “the Christian worldview” becomes a small timid thing, with little relevance for most of the “non-spiritual” spheres of life.  It is not surprising that our youth are leaving the faith in droves if they are being fed such a paltry diet of the biblical viewpoint.

So why do some respected Christian leaders (like Norman Geisler and Bruce Waltke) make use of this slogan?  There is a clear reason, and it highlights the problem of what I might call “intellectual schizophrenia.”  This problem comes about when a person does not have both eyes and ears on the text of Scripture, but has one ear open to another authority – usually if not always the pronouncements of modern science.  Of course, these leaders do not sense any competition between these two authorities. But that is because they have accepted the forced interpretations of the Bible in order to include statements from scientists which would otherwise contradict the clear statements of the Word of God. When defending their embrace of “scientific” opinions seemingly at variance with the Bible these writers are often led into affirming positions which neither the Bible nor secular science agree with.  This is what we will look at next time.

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A Review of ‘Understanding Prophecy’ by Bandy & Merkle

Review of Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach, by Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015, 264 pages, paperback 

N.B. This review is from the perspective of someone who is less than an enthusiastic supporter of symbolical cum typological interpretations of the Bible, so it will be mainly critical.  However, for those in-tune with the approach of the writers, the book can be recommended as a good explication of the redemptive-historical method. 

This new book on prophecy comes from two writers who differ on whether or not the millennium is here already or whether it is still to come.  Alan Bandy is a historic or covenant premillennialist, while Benjamin Merkle is a covenant amillennialist.  The choice to present biblical prophecy from this angle was clever.  However, this should not be interpreted as anything more than a mere novelty.  As the authors themselves write on the first page of the Preface,

First, we discovered that although our millennial views are different, we actually agree with each other most of the time regarding our interpretation of prophetic texts and our way of seeing the big picture of the Bible. (9)

The admission that the authors “agree with each other most of the time” will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the two eschatological positions, particularly as they are repristinated by the “already-not yet” hermeneutics of G. E. Ladd.

The approach represented here then, is “redemptive-historical” (20 n. 5).  This means they promote what has become the usual way of reading the Bible in evangelical seminaries: with theological assumptions applied by use of symbols and types.  On the next page the writings of T. D. Alexander, Greg Beale, and others are endorsed as further examples of the method being advocated.  These authors admit certain crucial presuppositions in their interpretation which determine their idea of the subject.

From this platform we run into the assertion that the fulfillment of most prophecy is to be looked for at Christ’s first coming (e.g. 10).  So,

Christ is the eschatos of prophecy who gives meaning to all that has happened or will yet transpire throughout human history.  Our approach to prophecy must always be viewed through the gospel and what Christ has already accomplished. (27-28)

A gospel-centered hermeneutic filters all prophecy through the lens of the resurrected Christ. (29)

While these sentiments contain a forceful and persuasive piety, I think they make biblical interpretation more involved than it needs to be.  They also appear to beg the question.  In the first instance both quotations assume that the great stress of the prophetic teaching of the Bible is on the first advent.  But this seems to be palpably untrue.  There are scores of covenanted promises in both Testaments which point to the second advent and events before and (especially) after it.  That is, unless one’s hermeneutics are fashioned in such a way that the prophecies come to be seen as pertaining to the first coming.  As for viewing all prophecy through the gospel and Christ’s accomplishment, the cross and resurrection can be given all the recognition they certainly require without bending the prophetic corpus into the historic past.  For all the world a plain reading of Scripture places an even greater stress upon the coming of the Lord in glory to establish real righteousness and shalom on His earth.  Far better then to let the Bible say what it says without making some of its earlier parts pass through a theological “filter” of the interpreter’s making.

To explain their program the writers call upon “progressive revelation” (31-33), although like most evangelicals today they employ language which sounds like double-speak.  Later revelation can “add to or modify” earlier revelation, but it does not “necessarily supplant or abrogate” previous scripture. This reader begs to differ.  One can nullify earlier statements by declaring they mean something other than their words appear to mean.  Citing Beale, the OT texts “undergo an organic expansion or development of meaning.”  But when one steps back and looks at the result the meaning of the OT passages have not only “expanded”, they have morphed into something else!  As is contended later, “we believe that the text will be literally fulfilled but not necessarily according to the precise wording of the prophecy” (110 n.5).  According to the online Oxford Dictionary, “literally” means,

In a literal manner or sense; exactly:
the driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle 

Notice that the driver in the example above did “fulfill” the direction he was given “according to the precise wording”.  So with all the arguments in the book against plain-sense interpretation one will not be surprised to read that,

If John the Baptist was unsure about the fulfillment of prophecies, what assurance do we have regarding predictions related to Christ’s second coming?  That unfulfilled prophecy will be fulfilled is certain, but precisely how they will be fulfilled is uncertain. (209).

The thesis of the book could not be stated better.  Prophecy as information we can understand is practically mute until God declares it fulfilled.  It is revelation that doesn’t reveal.  I have taken issue with this depiction of God in another place.

The position is then shored up by poking fun at populist dispensational writers like Tim LaHaye and the wacky fringe who do newspaper exegesis while purporting to read the Book of Revelation literally (58).  To show how dispensationalists are mistaken about their understanding of OT prophecy the authors employ Amos 9:11-15 as an example (109ff. This text or Joel 2 is the passage of choice for such discussions).  It needs to be noted that when James uses the passage in Acts 15 he does not say the prophecy is fulfilled. The authors’ case would have been more impressive had they tackled Jeremiah 33:14-26, but who does?

Strangely, when it comes to giving guidance on the Return of Christ the texts are simply quoted with the apparent assumption that they are to be taken, well, literally (179-181).

As said above, if you are taken with this school of interpretation the book has much to commend it.  If, like me, you are not, it could serve as a helpful introduction to what I might call “first coming hermeneutics.”

The book was supplied to me by the publisher.


Apologetics and Your Kids (Pt. 9) – Is “All Truth God’s Truth”?

Part Eight

Last time I asked whether the facts speak for themselves.  My answer was that they do not, they are freighted with interpretations, whether right or wrong.  In Part Seven I called attention to the temptation of attaching ourselves to slogans and ideas from the world.  Before proceeding along the lines I started with in the last post, I want first to take two common but deadly slogans which Christians use and look at them, for though they sound alright, they have been the cause of much confusion among Christians.  The phrase I have in mind today is “All Truth is God’s Truth.”

Misusing a Slogan to Place Man’s Authority above God’s Word.

We have come as far as seeing the importance of embracing the Truth, not for our sake primarily, but for its own sake – because it is an attribute of God.  An accurate view of Truth is essential to a correct Christian Worldview, and a correct Christian Worldview is necessary for the defense of Christianity.  Thus, a clear idea of the character of Truth is of the utmost importance for our children to understand, and this motto, “All Truth is God’s Truth” requires careful handling.

For some people – and that number sadly includes some Christian apologists, the slogan could be paraphrased as, “All that the experts call truth is God’s truth.”

In such a scenario it ought to be clear that it is not what God says that is of first importance, but human estimations and perceptions of what is true that matters.  We think it’s true so we lumber God with it.  Then it is easy to pronounce the Big Bang as God’s truth, or Theistic Evolution (which is rearing its ugly head again!), or the most recent “findings” of archaeologists or Semitic experts, whether they believe the Bible or not.  What this approach asserts is that we decide what is true and then piously say that God did it.  This will not do.

A Use of the Slogan Which Gives the Glory to God

So is there another view?  There is.  It interprets “All Truth is God’s Truth” within the strict parameters of the Bible.  A paraphrase of this position would be, “All that really is true according to Scripture comes from the God of Truth.”

This way of looking at it comports well with the authority we are all supposed to be under: the authority of Scripture.  It automatically has no truck with human assessments of truth, which are always changing anyway.  What is true and what is not true is not ours to decide about.  Our opinion, or the opinions of those we esteem and listen to are irrelevant if they cross what God says about it in the Bible.

What I am saying is that if the phrase “All Truth is God’s Truth” is to be of any acceptable use to us it has to bear a meaning which we can take to God as in agreement with His Word.  We must not let our kids leave our homes with the slippery notion that we can decide what is true and then expect the Lord to place His Divine imprimatur on our assessment.

In the next piece I want to examine another oft-used but dangerous saying which I have encountered in Christian literature.  It is the slogan, “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.”

Part Ten

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

After a ridiculously long delay, I have started to finish off my series on the Parameters of Meaning beginning with this one on Typology.  I believe these guidelines will help Bible students avoid many pitfalls in interpretation by setting limits on what constitutes legitimate hermeneutics.  For those of you interested here are the previous installments:

Parameters of Meaning – Introduction

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2 

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7: Never draw theological conclusions that are based upon typology.  Types are too uncertain and debatable for doctrines to be formulated with them.

The Bible is given, in large part for Theology.  2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us all that

All Scripture is God-breathed [out] and is profitable for doctrine (didaskalia), for reproof, the correction, for instruction in righteousness…

The Greek word didaskalia means “teaching” and is often, as in the above example, translated as “doctrine.”  This word, “doctrine”, signifies the body of biblical teaching cast in the form of propositional truths and life principles.  For doctrines, and, therefore, Theology to be really biblical, they must be clearly traceable to the text of Scripture, interpreted within its proper context.  Our doctrinal formulations should be derived from clear statements of the truth which are accessible to all people.

As we have tried to show with the Rules of Affinity, every major doctrine of the Christian Faith can be ascertained either from direct statements taken from Bible passages (this is usual), or from inferences drawn from direct statements which lead to one inevitable conclusion.  Hence, God has given mankind the essentials of Christianity on the surface, as it were, of His Word.  This being so, it is scarcely necessary to dive into the murky waters of symbolism to uncover theological truth in Scripture.

The Tricky Business of Identification

But leaving that aside, we must ask what is needed for a type to even gain credence as a type.  To begin with, nearly all the best writers on the subject say that typology is intra-testamental. This means that the type is in the Old Testament while the antitype, the fulfillment of the type, is in the New Testament.  So too Leonard Goppelt, in his Typos (ch.1), saw it as his task to examine how the use of typology by NT authors and the church guided the interpretation of the OT.

A 1997 article, “Typology: A Summary of Present Evangelical Discussion,” by W. Edward Glenny (JETS 40.4), provides three competing evangelical views, while commending a fourth; that of Richard M. Davidson, as a way forward.  Davidson himself surveys a host of contrasting theories of typology from both mainstream and evangelical sources, and concludes that they all fall short because “a solid semasiological and exegetical foundation for understanding the nature of typology is never laid.” – Typology in Scripture, 73.  (“Semasiological” refers to the actual meaning of a word as it is used).

Recently, men like RWL Moberly have proposed a typology within the OT itself independent of the NT (at least for Jewish readers).  However, Christian use of this approach will not permit fixity of types unless the NT is ushered in through the back door.  In point of fact the soil out of which much typology has been built is the view that the NT reinterprets the OT.


as more revelation was given over time…we discover more of God’s plan and where that plan is going.  It is for this reason that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament becomes definitive in helping us understand the details of the Old Testament…In other words, we must carefully allow the New Testament to show us how the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 85-86 

But it does not follow that later revelation will always work in this way.  One thinks of the Creation account for instance, or the Fall.  And before it can be asserted that the NT has definitive interpretative clout over the OT we must ascertain whether or not the NT is addressing the particular subject the OT text is addressing.  But this brings to light the major problem, which is whether our interpretation(s) of the NT are infused with dogma.  We find such a problem in the above quotation where the authors assume without proof that “the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ”, by which they mean, the first coming of Christ.  Such a massive presupposition will inevitable color their understanding of typology, since they will be searching for types of first advent “fulfillment.”  This will unavoidably lead them into collision with the many OT texts which place the fulfillments at the second advent.  In fact, the very existence of the collision calls forth their typology to handle it!

Theological Pre-commitment 

To illustrate this idea of frontloaded conclusions again, consider this by covenant theologian Mark L. Karlberg:

The dissolution of the temporal, earthly theocracy coincided with the new covenant’s reign of God in the hearts of his people through the Spirit. In the eschatological age of the Spirit the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality unencumbered by the shadowy, earthly forms (types) characteristic of the ancient theocracy. In the period between the advents of Christ the presence of the kingdom is in anticipation of the realization of the land-promise in the consummation. – ‘The Significance of Israel in Biblical Typology’, JETS 31:3 (September 1988), 268

But it ought to be obvious that such a typological approach can only be sanctioned if the NT is given interpretive priority over the New, which is actually only to say that the interpreter’s own theologically determined conclusions about the NT are read back into the OT!  Typology trumps contextual exegesis whenever a theological commitment predisposes the reader to employ it.  The present writer has tried to show that the new covenant insures the literal fulfillment of OT predictions, not hands them over to be “typologized”. (more…)


Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (Pt.4)

Part Three

Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation

On a more positive note overall is the matter of whether language is merely descriptive or whether it can be said to actually do something. This gets us into the subject of language as “speech-acts.” This view has been defined as follows:

Speech-act theory is a set of pragmatically based principles that were developed at the edge of philosophy and linguistics. The major assumption is that language is not so much concerned with saying as with doing. That is, the use of language is in fact a way of accomplishing things.[83]

Speech-act theory was introduced by the British philosopher of language J. L. Austin in his 1955 Harvard lectures, posthumously published as How to do Things with Words. Austin’s insights, being rather puzzling in places, were improved by John Searle.[84] Both scholars divided speech-acts into locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forms.[85] A locutionary utterance is any act of saying something. Illocutionary acts are what is done in saying something, while perlocutionary acts are what is done by saying something.[86]  An illocutionary speech-act, for example, “It’s time to go” affirms that something is so. So when God makes an illocutionary speech-act, He is affirming the truth (since He cannot lie) about something. Obviously, identifying God’s illocutionary speech-acts helps a person to pay more attention to what God is saying. Thus, illocutions are often considered to be the most important kind of speech-acts.[87]

Although many postmodernists, with their preoccupation with language as a manipulative power tool, will often place more emphasis upon perlocutionary utterances – those expressions which get a person to act or attempt at least to alter the actions of the hearer.

Hill states that propositional sayings ought not to be separated from narratives because “in a sense a narrative just is a set of propositions, albeit about events in time.”[88] But he does say that the Bible contains more than propositions, it “also contains questions, injunctions, and wishes.”[89] While this is true, it does appear that each of these other sayings may be converted into a proposition.[90] The main problem (according to Hill) in biblical hermeneutics is to work out what God is affirming. Speech-act theory’s analysis, particularly of the illocutionary act, is of real help in reaching that goal.

However, there is a word of caution. Briggs points out that since one locution (or simple uttering of words) may entail several illocutions, and some perhaps unintended, in fact, “most locutions are multilayered in some way, and will often admit of unintended illocutions.”[91] For that reason, some interpreters are wary of recommending the theory, at least as a way to get at the message.[92]

Notwithstanding, one must not minimize the obligation to the text as it is understood by the believer.[93] Vanhoozer, in an essay entitled, “From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts” calls attention to the possibility of “an illocutionary act performed on the level of a literary whole.”[94] This is certainly intriguing, especially when Vanhoozer shows the effectiveness of the approach in reading John 21:20-24.[95]

It seems that responsible speech-act analysis is amenable to an attentive form of grammatico-historical interpretation. It involves the reader in the text more because it raises his expectancy.[96]And that is surely a good thing.

Summary in Nine Points

From our survey of some of the major players in modern hermeneutics we can quickly take stock of the main issues:

  1. To define hermeneutics as a set of rules decides the issue beforehand.
  2. Some preliminary understanding (preunderstanding) of a text (both its whole and parts) is unavoidable in every reading.[97]
  3. The ongoing process of a reader’s preunderstanding shaping the text and the text shaping the reader creates a “hermeneutical spiral.”
  4. In this “spiral” the two horizons of text and interpreter “fuse” to some degree, though utter objectivity is never arrived at.
  5. Each individual’s horizon is his or her own. This implies that valid interpretations will differ according to the social, historical and cultural situation of the reader.[98]
  6. This could be taken to mean (and often is) that complete objectivity is an impossible dream, and that, therefore, talk of propositional revelation (wherein truth is situated in the Bible’s propositional teaching) is implausible.
  7. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” further renders propositional truth out of place.
  8. Standard Grammatical-Historical interpretation might be seen as slipping into redundancy, being unable to integrate the findings of modern hermeneutical theories.  However, this is untrue.  But also, it must not be supposed that anything close to the last word has been said about speech-acts.  {Moreover, as Craig Blaising correctly observes: “To postulate a “fulfillment” of…covenant promises by means of a reality shift in the thing promised overlooks the performative nature of the word of promise…” – Craig A. Blaising, “Israel and Hermeneutics”, in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds., Darrell L. Bock & Mitch Glaser, 161}
  9. On a positive note, we can explore the promise of responsible speech-act theory to help us to be more attentive as we read Scripture, and thus, compose our theology.


[83] Stanley Porter, in I. Howard Marshall, Beyond The Bible, 112.
[84] Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory,” in Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 763.
[85] These are sometimes categorized as utterance, performative, propositional, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. See Tate, 350-351. It is quite usual however to find propositional included in locutionary.“Utterances” in Tate’s taxonomy are just reactive sounds.
[86] Daniel Hill, “Proposition,” in Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 632.
[87] Briggs, 763.
[88] Hill, 632.
[89] Ibid.
[90] I have discussed the matter of propositionalism in chapter 4, “The Revelation of the Triune Creator,” of my dissertation.
[91] Briggs, 764.
[92] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 351.
[93] This is where Vanhoozer brings in a covenantal obligation.
[94] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 192. He is talking about the Book of Jonah.
[95] Ibid, 257ff.
[96] Briggs, 766.
[97] We include Maier’s opinion of preunderstanding, which we think is very helpful.Although he rightly holds to presuppositions, he sounds a note of sanity amid the cheers for “preunderstanding.”

All these and other considerations do not exactly encourage us to cling to philosophical preunderstandings or to take them as our guideposts in listening to revelation. As already stated, conscious and unconscious philosophical influences will always accompany our hearing. But they are present in order to be divested of their leading role. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 36.

[98] This is where one encounters various special interest groups like Eco-Feminists, Marxists, and Gays interpreting the Bible according to their agendas.Remember, in postmodern interpretation there are no metanarratives, only individual community narratives.Thus, each interpretation is as valid as another (unless it stakes a claim to be a metanarrative).


Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (Pt.3)

Part Two


Alongside Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005) stands as the most important philosopher of hermeneutics in the last hundred years. His work is often to be found discussed in evangelical circles today, and for that reason we shall devote a little more space to his work. Ricoeur is concerned with how language is used not with how it is structured.[53] As human existence is communicated through language, the study of the use of language is, therefore, the study of human existence. What is language but existence communicated in symbols or signs? Hence, the study of the way linguistic signs are used (semiotics) becomes a way to study the human being and his significance and self-understanding (semantics). It is hardly surprising to learn that for Ricoeur “man is language.”[54]

He believes that contemporary man has become desensitized to symbol and metaphor, and so he is missing in some measure, the hub of his own significance by his failure to experience life in its fullest terms.[55] Ricoeur is a phenomenologist – stressing the activity of the reader once he is impacted by a text.[56] But he utterly rejects man as the starting point in interpretation, preferring a transcendent beginning.[57]His influence is to be seen in several areas.

First, his overall philosophical outlook was hopeful (in contrast to that of the existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre). This meant that he tended to read texts “optimistically” – as, for example, the story of the Fall, which he said contained nothing like “Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.”[58]
Second, he ironically stressed “the hermeneutics of suspicion” whereby one recognizes that, “preunderstanding does indeed influence every interpretive conclusion drawn with reference to the biblical text. Because the baggage brought by an exegete to the reading of Scripture can potentially hinder the hermeneutical process, one must always question every exegetical perspective.”[59]

The third thing Ricoeur is known for is calling particular attention to creative language such as metaphor, narrative and parable.[60] Through careful examination and refection on these language forms he has produced some important thoughts on some important issues within philosophy of religion such as the sort of relationship that exists between God and time.[61] He believed that these ways of expression point us to a fuller appreciation of ourselves and our significance. “The manifesto of hermeneutic philosophy is “existence via semantics”: self-understanding via textual interpretation.”[62]

Lastly, Ricoeur is noted for his focus on genre (the world of the text) and the impact of the text upon the reader’s world (the world in front of the text). The interplay of these “worlds” means abandoning what he calls “the first naivete”: the literal sense, in order to make way for “the second naivete”: finding oneself in and through the world of the text.[63] In other words, the reader must go through a sifting of his faith from a position of fear and emotion to a more level-headed critical understanding of the text (and so the world) in order to have a rational faith.[64] The literal sense cannot supply the truth of existence!
Of course, to comprehend signs truly one must move beyond the signs themselves and concentrate on discourse, hence his focus upon semantics as the key to self-understanding.[65]  Ricoeur also finds himself on the “conservative” side in his rejection of the Kantian idealism of liberalism, which forced churchmen into vainly trying either to prove Christianity to be inductively scientific[66], or to show that Christianity’s “inwardness” made the effort to make it scientific an exercise in missing the point.[67]  And he strikes a chord when he insists that the text must always take precedence over the interpreter.[68]
But he does not believe in the possibility of discovering authorial intention. There is and always will be a “distance” between reader and author. Moreover, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that he learned from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, always makes interpretation a risky business, with “truth,” in a sense far less than certainty but above doubt, being the final goal.[69]

The Postmodern Critique: Derrida

It would be remiss indeed if in a treatise such as this the subject of postmodernism was not broached along the way. We have chosen to include it here because it is in the realm of interpretation that it is, perhaps, at its most menacing. Postmodernism, in fact, seeks to demolish much of the framework around which this present work is constructed. This includes an aversion to metanarratives, or grand narratives under which other (typically western) narratives and thought-forms are housed.[70] These metanarratives are seen as sustaining forms of oppression within society.[71] (more…)



Part One

The Hermeneutical Landscape

The philosopher of religion Gregory Clark admits that, “[some] sources regularly describe the variety of hermeneutical approaches practiced today as ‘dizzying’.”[22]

In closing his article Clark writes:

“Hermeneutics as a discipline is as wild and woolly as it has ever been, and its future shape and even its existence are impossible to predict.”[23]

Reading the “movers and shakers” in evangelical hermeneutics today is a little foreboding. It might be well to start off then by reminding ourselves of a standard definition of hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics…is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.[24]

It would be helpful to add to this Ramm’s observation that it “stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.”[25]  In addition, Ramm added that what the interpreter is looking for is the single-meaning of any passage: “But here we must remember the old adage: ‘Interpretation is one; application is many.’ This means that there is only one meaning to a passage of Scripture, which is determined by careful study.”[26]

Contrast Ramm’s words with those of the prominent British Old Testament scholar David J. A. Clines who writes:

I have been impressed in this study [of Esther] by the value of as many strategies as possible for reading a text. As a critic of the text, I should hate to be restricted by a methodological purism. What I have noticed is that different strategies confirm, complement or comment on other strategies, and so help develop an integrated but polychromatic reading.[27]

Or again,

My experience with Psalm 23 was enough to convince me that ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are not categories to be applied to interpretations, that, as far as I could see, a text can mean anything at all, and that I myself was (oxymoronically) an absolute indeterminist.[28]

Clines exults that he can explore the text of the Bible with complete methodological abandon. This freedom has not come to him through the mere exercise of the imagination. It is a result of studying the philosophical hermeneutics of people like Roland Barthes and Richard Rorty, both of whom teach that subjectivity is desirable in reading a text.[29]  Objectivity is a mirage, a dream perpetuated by the sort of naiveté demonstrated only by intransigent ultra conservatives.

It behooves us then to briefly chart some of what has been going on in the world of mainline hermeneutics so that we might better access what conservative interpreters are being influenced by, not to mention what dispensationalists are increasingly likely to come up against. (more…)


Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (Pt.1)

I have divided this older but over-long piece into more digestible bits: 

In this essay 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.

  1. 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]  In the picture of the bridge across the frozen river (obtained from Servant’s Place) the two banks of the river are connected by the structure.  Hermeneutics is the bridge between the author and the interpreter.  It should be the best way to get from the one to the other.

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. (more…)