Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

11 Jun 2015

Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 4d)


Having discussed two seminal axioms of language that seem to qualify as “received laws of language” (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent) and offering a qualification concerning the dual authorship of Scripture often raised by non-dispensationalists, I turn to a third and final principle, again borrowed from my mentor, Rolland McCune: A Textually Based Locus of Meaning.

This is the capstone of ordinary linguistics. The whole meaning of a text is exhausted in its own words. Any meaning assigned to a text after the fact that cannot be derived from the author’s own words simply isn’t there. To allow any text an afterlife is to remove meaning from the text and grant it to something alien to the text, sending meaning into an inevitably downward spiral of ambiguity and relativism.

Naturally, we must concede that implications of an ancient text can unfold over time and details emerge in the course of progressive revelation. But new meanings can never be assigned or discovered after the fact and apart from the author’s express permission. Specifically, the meaning of a text cannot be moved from the text to:

  • Holy Spirit “Leading.” Yes, the Holy Spirit is active in causing the believer to welcome a text’s meaning and in helping the believer to discern the implications of a text’s meaning for his own situation (1 Cor 2:14), but the Spirit does not disclose a text’s meaning to the believer. Were this the case, (1) meaning would be wrested from the words and the words rendered, to that degree, unnecessary, (2) the divine purpose for language would be thwarted, and (3) the idea of a sufficient canon would be irrevocably lost.
  • An Existential Encounter “Above the Text.” Closely related to the previous (and perhaps identical to it) is the Barthian idea that language is an inadequate vehicle for revealing truth, and at best serves as a hinweis or pointer to truth. To apprehend God, one must look not in the text but above it to an experimental “Christ encounter”—a personal disclosure that communicates ineffably what cannot be expressed in words. The same criticisms leveled above are appropriate to this understanding.
  • Later Revelation. More acceptable in non-dispensational evangelical academia is the idea that there is “additional, deeper meaning, intended by God, but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text when they are studied in the light of further revelation” (Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture, 92), such that “the text’s intention becomes deeper and clearer as the parameters of the canon are expanded” (Waltke, Tradition & Testament, 7). This option provides an advance on the previous two options, but either (1) requires a suspiciously equivocating hermeneutic that applies a grammatical-historical approach to the latter portions of Scripture but not to the earlier ones or else, more ominously, (2) suggests that the promises of God are “never an announcement of what God has irrevocably determined to do, but only of what he will do in certain circumstances,” with he result that “if this makes prophecy seem very uncertain, I am very sorry, but I cannot help it, for it is the way that it is” (Pieters, The Seed of Abraham, 142).

Pardon me, but that’s not the way it is. There is a better way to protect the meaning of Scripture and that is to insist that the locus of meaning is in the text itself. It is to insist upon literal interpretation.

2 Responses

  1. Don Johnson

    I was reading Isa 53 this AM and was struck by the idea that everyone interprets Isa 53 literally (with allowances for poetic expression, I suppose) but the surrounding material on a kingdom and everlasting peace for Israel somehow mean something other than what they say.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3