A few weeks ago I was alerted to a criticism raised about an old blog post of mine—a post in which I argued for a universally shared a priori awareness of linguistic laws that make possible the successful reading of Scripture by all image-bearers. We all know generally how language “works,” and for this reason communication is possible. In so arguing, I admit that my hermeneutical cues do not come immediately from the Bible itself, and this, my critic suggested, constituted a “direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture.”
My critic later qualified his concern, conceding that there must exist some tentative/provisional awareness, prior to reading the Bible, of certain basic hermeneutical a prioris. Otherwise, we would be caught in a paradox: we could not access the very Bible from which we learn how to read the Bible. The objection narrowed thus to a concern that I commended a settled understanding about biblical hermeneutics prior to reading the Bible. No hermeneutical principles may be described as “settled,” he reasoned, until Scripture confirms them, a posteriori, by the interpretation of earlier Scriptures in later ones. Only then may one’s tentative/provisional hermeneutical rules become confident ones.
The notion that hermeneutical methods derive principally from the Bible’s use of itself is gaining traction in evangelicalism today. Conversely, the notion of transcendentally received laws of language—objective hermeneutical rules known before one reads the Bible—is cast as a “modernist” notion to be rejected. The lost ideal in need of restoration, the argument continues, is “premodern exegesis,” especially as practiced in the Apostolic, Patristic, and early Medieval eras—all prior to the insidious rise of Modernism. Many premodern Church Fathers accepted senses additional to the “literal” one (e.g., allegorical, tropological, and anagogical), and by virtue of (1) a spirituality greater than that of most modernists, (2) a professed commitment to biblical sufficiency, and (3) their temporal proximity to the apostolic era, have an exegetical advantage over the modern interpreter, who by his historical-critical and grammatical-historical methods, seats meaning strictly in the stated intention/understanding of the original authors within their historical context.
An example may be seen in the interpretation of God’s promise to Abram. If I double down, as Abram did in Genesis 15, on the promise of an ethnic/biological seed (a seed that is physically “from Abram’s loins” and excludes the progeny of his trusted servant Eliezer—vv. 2, 4) who would collectively occupy a very specifically defined tract of land (vv. 18–21), the premodern exegete will accuse me of focusing too narrowly on the literal sense of that promise. This sense, we are told, is the least important sense, and even a dispensable one (i.e., the literal can “fall away” once other senses are realized). Much more important, the premodern exegete insists, are the Christological and typological senses, senses that God would not reveal for another 2000 years. This discovery of these additional meanings by holy men, writing under inspiration, gives us the authority to interpret the rest of Scripture similarly.
But is the premodern hermeneutical method really more faithful to the doctrine of biblical sufficiency? I’m not convinced. Let me explain.
- Assuming my critic is exemplary of the approach, he concedes that he does not technically begin with Scripture, but with a tentative faith-acceptance of unverified linguistic principles that are his via intuition or convention. These he accepts provisionally to access the Bible, an exercise that refines his hermeneutic so that he can understand more. To use apologetical terms, he is a hermeneutical verificationist, not a presuppositionalist. The mature hermeneutical approach, as observable in contemporary premodern literature, is an amalgam of intuition, convention, biblical patterns, subjective illumination, and reliance on the “Great Tradition.” If I may, the contemporary premodern interpreter has not cornered the “sufficiency” market just yet.
- While the historical-critical method adopts an anti-supernatural and atheistic worldview and a view of language as a highly-evolved human convention, the grammatical-historical method does not. The grammatical-historical model does not suggest that fallen humanity has autonomously constructed a science of linguistics and imposed it on the Bible (this would be a Modernist approach, and I join with my interlocutor in rejecting it). Rather, it affirms that God himself crafted a complete, objective, and fixed body of linguistic laws that are (1) prior to, (2) transcendental of, and (3) presuppositional of divine revelation and discourse—laws shared by all humanity as part of the divine image. We might call our realization of these laws a sensus linguisticus, similar to Calvin’s sensus divinatus, which he here describes:
God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. This is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget, though many, with all their might, strive to do so (Institutes, 1.3.3).
- When God said, “Don’t eat the apple,” Adam incised instinctively God’s precise intent. He did not respond with perplexity, “Whatever do you mean, God? I have no complete canon or Great Tradition by which to establish my hermeneutic, so your words mean nothing…or they may mean anything.” No, Adam knew intuitively and immediately how language worked—God’s own hermeneutic, which flows from his very nature, was stamped on Adam’s very soul. Adam’s certain recognition of God’s intentions was no more destructive of the sufficiency of Scripture than was his certain recognition of God’s form when He appeared. The facts that (1) God is (2) God has revealed himself intelligibly to his image-bearers are matters of presupposition and assumption. While we should surely expect the Bible to operate according to those assumptions, one need not explore all of the Bible’s hermeneutical examples before one can successfully hear God. We share the Bible’s hermeneutical/methodological assumptions, and that is enough. This is not a betrayal of biblical sufficiency, but an affirmation of it.
- We note further that the multiplied “senses” of the OT Scriptures are not observable until the NT era. When God promised Abram a seed and a land, the biblical record of Abram’s faithful acceptance of those promises as guaranteeing an everlasting nation of ethnic Israelites occupying a precisely delimited land establishes Abram’s commitment to the “literal” sense without apparent reference to any other premodern “senses.” Indeed, this is the experience of 2000 years of faithful Israelites. We cannot just write off the understandings, intentions, and sustained expectations of the whole OT community in light of a handful of NT anomalies. The analogy of Scripture will not allow it: the enormous body of overwhelmingly clear OT texts must weigh on our exegesis of the NT. And once this occurs, we shall find the grammatical-historical method, a literal hermeneutic (or, as I prefer to label it, an originalist hermeneutic), and attending received laws of language more urgently commended.
The preceding does not render the received laws of language immediately propositional, and much debate may yet attend their codification. Still, we need not limit our quest to biblical proof texts, much less the supposed unity of the “Great Tradition.” We have at our disposal transcendental arguments—preconditions of intelligible discourse necessary to the successful use of language—which commend rules demonstrably assumed by the Scripture writers, and which you, the reader, necessarily used to understand the totality of this blog post.