Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

5 Jun 2015

Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 4c)


Having established two axiomatic principles of language that govern the intelligible use of words (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent), we need to pause, I think, to make an important qualification—not so much a third axiom of language, but an answer to a common observation that is often raised at this point, viz., that the Scriptures have two authors, divine and human. As such, some non-dispensationalists maintain, God is able to use linguistic structures with a broad semantic/syntactical range to secretly but accurately communicate meanings additional to what the human author intended. This being the case, they reason, it is possible to affirm the two principles above but still find a loophole, unique to the Christian Scriptures, that allows two disparate streams of intentionality in a single text: the divine author intended more than or other than what the human author intended, and that’s OK in view of the inscrutable mystery of inspiration.

Of course it is true that God always knows comprehensively the details and implications of any of his statements, and thus knew quantitatively more and qualitatively better than the human authors did when they wrote (so, e.g., Dan 12:6–9; 1 Pet 1:10–12). But this is not the same as saying that God meant more than the human authors did when they wrote. To put things succinctly, acceptance of the analogical view of truth in one’s epistemology does not legitimate the possibility of equivocation in one’s view of language. Note the following:

  • The gift of language and miracle of inspiration seem precisely intended to ascertain that the thoughts of God were perfectly communicated in human words (1 Cor 2:13) and to prevent the possibility of alien meanings exclusive to the human authors (2 Pet 1:19­­–21). They are God’s words breathed out (1 Tim 3:16) through human vehicles, not bypassing their respective styles and vocabulary, but ensuring that His Word and their words enjoyed a perfect confluence.
  • The idea that God used human authors to write something grammatically/technically accurate while at the same time intending something other than what they intended is very difficult to harmonize with the doctrine of inerrancy. At best, it would seem, God is perpetuating deception.
  • Finally, if God is able, at any time, to mean more than or other than the human author, it would seem to me that whole of Scripture is placed in serious jeopardy and its meaning potentially lost to all that might seek it. The miracle of inspiration is emasculated and the Scriptures themselves are rendered superfluous.

Scripture is, in one sense, a unique book. Unlike all other books, it boasts an inerrant unity that partakes of inspiration. But it does not follow that this uniqueness is such that the Bible must be read with a correspondingly unique hermeneutic. The univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of (unitary) authorial intent cannot be set aside in view of the “dual authorship” of Scripture. Two transmitters are used in the communication of Scripture, to be sure, but they share perfect denotative confluence.

4 Responses

  1. A big question surrounding the debate is, “Did the biblical authors write better than they knew?” Could it be that the OT biblical authors of later texts–say the prophets—knew they were building on the story of earlier Scripture? And furthermore, could they have left a certain “open-endedness” to their part of the story for later authors to build upon?

    For example, I think of Hosea 11:1. I think John Sailhamer believes that its reflects back on Numbers (I think Greg Beale makes the same argument too). So could Hosea be building on a theme which began in Numbers and then leave a certain “open-endedness” to his prophesy which Matthew picks up later?

    Thus, you wouldn’t have to appeal to a “Hey, God put a new meaning in there!” type of argument but could see the texts as being organically related to one another. Which is kind of the point of progressive revelation, right? That Scripture builds to something, namely, Christ. But you’re not leap-frogging over whole eras of biblical history to get to Him allegorically.

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Chris, My take is that one of the bedrock principles of language is that a writer can never write more or less than he intends: he writes exactly what he means. The only possible exception is a transmission error (an author means one thing but actually uses words that mean something else)–which I think we’d both reject when talking about Scripture. It is also possible for a reader to (1) make an error or to (2) muse after the fact that a set of words might be taken in more than one way, both of which are true (an irony). But these do not alter the author’s meaning.

    If there is a genuine meaning in any text, it is there because the author meant it. Any other supposed “meanings” are either errors of reader inferences.

    Of course we also have puns (authorial intended double meanings), but we can only appeal to these when there is some indication that they are intended as such. And so when it comes to Hosea 11:1, in order to suggest that “Hosea is building on a theme which began in Numbers and then leav[ing] a certain ‘open-endedness’ to his prophecy which Matthew picks up later,” there would have to be some grammatical-historical indication that Moses and Hosea are actually engaged in predictive prophecy in the first place–and I’m coming up blank on that one. Without this all important hermeneutical element, it seems to me that we are back to Moses, Hosea and others unintentionally inserting clandestine details under unconscious duress from the Other Author. And that scares me.

  3. Mark

    Thank you for this work Mark. I fully sympathize with your approach. However, Caiaphas causes me some heartburn. Perhaps this is not a similar problem, but it seems like it is parallel in some ways. The ESV states that his words were not said “of his own accord…he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (John 11:51-52)

    At the least, it appears that Caiaphas meant one thing and under the Spirit he prophesied something more/different than he was thinking. By analogy, a person could argue that inspiration could produces similar results. Did Caiaphas say more/better than he meant?

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Mark, I gave something of an answer to this in the comment section of Part 4a. Below is the comment I offered then. Let me know if I have addressed your specific question:

    John 11:49–52 is undoubtedly one of the more thorny texts in this matter. But I think our options remain at least somewhat open:

    1. It is exegetically possible, I think, that John is simply pointing out an irony after the fact. Caiaphas said something and it was true, but not exactly what he meant—something of an unintentional double entendre.
    2. It is also exegetically possible to see the tension as residing in the realm of significance rather than meaning. IOW, Caiaphas was correctly intending to affirm that a man was going to die for the advantage of the Jewish nation, and while he was not aware of all the implications of his statement, his meaning was entirely true and accurate.
    3. It is also exegetically possible that God commandeered Caiaphas’s voice and made him say something other than he intended (cf. Saul among the prophets).
    4. It is also exegetically possible that the prophet Caiaphas meant one thing and God meant something entirely different (the standard typological approach to the text).

    My preference is option #2. But even if one chooses option #4 (which I am disinclined to do), I don’t see this as a green light to take every OT prophecy and assume that this is a systemic pattern. To me this is to engage in hermeneutical anarchy that turns the whole of OT revelation into an inscrutable code that its readers uniformly misunderstood until the New Testament came along with the key.