We come now to the heart of this series, viz., a discovery of the “received laws of language” that we as humans unconsciously use every day as we engage in ordinary communication with one another. The material here is not new with me, but rather is a distillation of an article published in 2002 by Rolland McCune, “What Is Literal Interpretation?” that he contributed to a start-up journal published by a missionary with whom he was acquainted, Sola Scriptura, issue #3. It is unfortunate that the study has not been circulated more widely.
The first of the hermeneutical rules he proposes is the Univocal Nature of Language. By univocal is simply meant “one voice.” By saying that the Bible speaks univocally we mean that its statements can have only one signification in any given context. To this I add the following qualifications: (1) while we must concede that many words have wide semantic ranges, we would insist that they bring but one meaning to any single propositional context; further, (2) while we admit that some people occasionally use double entendres or puns to deliberately connote two things at once, we would argue that such figures only “work” when hearers successfully incise the play on words: a communicator who uses puns that his audience doesn’t “get” is a failure. To summarize, no system of language/thought can survive solely or principally on such clever ambiguities. They are incidental exceptions that prove the rule.
As a transcendental rule, this seminal principle of language is axiomatic—it must be assumed true in order to be disproved. To assert otherwise would require words that follow this rule, or else the argument would fall apart into meaninglessness.
Applied to Bible study methods, this principle means that the Bible, since it is written in a “normal” manner with respect to grammar, syntax, genres, figures, etc., and was written for the express purpose of revealing truth, contains no additional, hidden meanings that were “missed” by the original writers/readers using standard grammatical and syntactical hermeneutical methods. A statement made in the OT had precisely the same meaning to its immediate readers that it has to its modern readers. To cite Fee and Stuart, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” True, later revelation often clarifies or expands what was known by earlier revelation, but it never divulges hidden messages unknown to the original communicators, much less those that resignify the text.
To affirm otherwise, I would argue, is to introduce uncertainty to the whole of Scripture. In Milton Terry’s words, “The moment we admit the principle that portions of Scripture contain an occult or double sense we introduce an element of uncertainty in the sacred volume, and unsettle all scientific interpretation.” Who knows? Perhaps the plain meaning of the precious New Testament promises of eternal life, heaven, and eternal reward will one day yield to some new meaning that rises to replace it! We surely cannot countenance this scenario, and so it follows that we cannot countenance any scenario that does this to any text of Scripture. To use transcendental terms, the Christian system cannot survive the implications of a Scripture that allows for the possibility of evolving, surrogate, or alien meanings anywhere within its leaves.
As such, a literalist resists hermeneutical models specializing in “mystery”—models that boast hidden meanings, whether they be twofold (the Apostolic Fathers), threefold (Origen), fourfold (Cassian), or the more domesticated typological/Christological school popular today. Instead, the literalist does not rest until he discovers an exegetically plausible and “normal” explanation for each difficult text of Scripture, viz., one that preserves the univocal nature of language.