Penpoint Vol. IV:5 (June, 1993) © Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
Theological Battle Today Focuses on Hermeneutics"
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
A substantial part of theological defection from the orthodox Biblical faith in our day traces back to a mishandling of the word of God.
Some schools of theology misinterpret the Bible by bringing to it alien and unhealthy lines of reasoning which are contrary to Scripture's own nature and authority. Other schools tear up the Scripture from within, disregarding or misconceiving the Bible's own convenantal organizing principles. Many apply principles of interpretation to sacred Scripture which are unsound from a linguistic and literary standpoint, even in handling uninspired or secular writings.
And in the midst of these muddles and confusions, those who have departed from historic, Reformed theology have often been able, in a formal way, to affirm their submission to Scripture, while nevertheless resorting to unsound principles of hermeneutics in order to evade, in material content, the specific teachings of Scripture (e.g., regarding creation, predestination, homosexuality, abortion, women in office, etc.).
At the request of the Committee for Confessional Conferences for Reformed Unity, I have devoted considerable time over past months to writing a basic document on hermeneutics, as well as organizing and guiding the input and interaction regarding that document by teachers from four other Reformed denominations. (I am a minister in the OPC; those who have helped me are from the PCA, RCUS, CRC, and RPCNA.)
The document proposes a Reformed statement regarding hermeneutics, organized in 13 articles which comprise a series of affirmations and denials about revelation, Scripture, and its proper interpretation. The document is being distributed for discussion to Reformed churches at present, along with the CCCRU's invitation to a Conference to be held at Wheaton College this July.
Although the full statement is too lengthy to reproduce in full in these pages, the following sections are excerpts from the working paper which should be of interest to the readers of PENPOINT. (For a complete copy, contact Covenant Tape Ministry, 434 Greenwood, Nash, TX 75569. Send $2.50 to cover costs.)
The Relevance of Extrabiblical Scholarship
WE AFFIRM that extrascriptural studies in fields relevant to Biblical interpretation (e.g., linguistics, archaeology, natural science, history) may be a great benefit in elucidating the meaning of the Biblical text and deepening our understanding of it.
WE AFFIRM that when such studies appear to conflict with the Biblical text, they may legitimately occasion the reexamination and possible correction of previous interpretations given to the text.
WE DENY, however, that any Biblical text which has been given its proper linguistic sense (in semantic, literary and theological context) may be challenged, corrected, or ignored on the basis of conclusions reached in fallible, extrabiblical fields of study.
WE DENY that modern studies using sophisticated scholarly tools or computer technology may properly produce such novel interpretations of any Scriptural text that its original recipients, without the tools of modern scholarship, could not have gained that understanding for themselves from the text itself (even with the aid of progressive revelation).
The Historico-Grammatical Method
WE AFFIRM that God's verbal revelation in Scripture is intended as a public communication and must be properly understood according to the same principles of interpretation which apply to any human, non-esoteric, literary work.
WE AFFIRM that the Scripture is interpreted correctly only when interpreted according to its letter ("literally") in the normal, historical and grammatical sense, taking account of a text's literary genre (whether figurative or not, etc.) and the author's intent (as determined semantically, and by the local and broader literary contexts).
WE DENY that Scripture contains secret wisdom or hidden, subtle meanings which are ascertained by approaching the Bible on some supposed higher Spiritual plane.
WE DENY that deeper, creative insights and artistic connections in Scripture should be maximized by lines of interpretation which follow no objective, definite, or consistent rule of interpretation which would make publicly predictable and correctable conclusions possible.
WE DENY that Scripture is properly handled by any "Prooftexting" method which fails to consult a text's local context as well as the entire teaching of Scripture as it pertains to any particular text.
WE DENY as well that any theological or moral truth (including the larger theme or thrust of the Bible as a whole) can be established without adducing texts from Scripture which prove it or without showing that it follows by sound logical inference from such.
WE DENY that Scripture, as some would allege about any literary work, is empty of fixed and objective meaning so that its language makes no unchanging disclosure, its authorial intent is inaccessible, and every reading of a text constitutes a misreading.
WE DENY that literary evidence of stylized expression, order or balance in a text of Scripture precludes its historicity or factuality.
WE DENY that the Biblical authors invented illustrative stories or traditions and then narrated or presented them as though they were actual historical events.
The self-Interpreting Nature of Scripture
WE AFFIRM that the normative themes or conceptual perspectives by which the truths of Scripture should be organized and interpreted may be drawn from the Scripture itself.
WE AFFIRM that extrabiblical themes, perspectives, frameworks or organizing principles which are brought to the text may be pedagogically convenient or effective in teaching the message of Scripture, but have no authority for determining the meaning of the text itself.
WE DENY that any Biblical model or perspective leads to doctrinal or moral conclusions which are at odds with conclusions reached by means of other Biblical models or perspectives.
WE DENY that the pre-understandings and personal horizon which the reader brings to the text of Scripture may properly function to edit its message or render its meaning not objectively uniform for all readers.
WE DENY that the historical and cultural specifics used in Biblical motifs or paradigms hinder a true understanding of the Biblical text, deter readers from discerning its intended sense, or prevent cross-cultural translation, proclamation and application of what the Biblical authors meant.
The Clarity of Scripture
WE AFFIRM that God's central message and demand in Scripture is so clear that any hearer or reader using the common and ordinary means of literary interpretation may understand it.
WE AFFIRM that even the deepest divine mysteries which are revealed in Scripture are communicated clearly enough that with diligence they may be cogently understood and taught.
WE DENY that all parts of Scripture are equally plain to all readers or as readily understood in themselves as other parts of Scripture.
WE DENY that there is a need for a pope, an infallible church or council, or modern scientific experts to interpret the true meaning of Scripture and explain to all men what is and is not incumbent upon them to believe and obey.
WE DENY that the true and full meaning of any Biblical text is multiple, subjective, or varies from reader to reader.
WE DENY that any aspect of the Biblical message can be expressed only in irresolvably contradictory assertions or in a fashion which requires mystical apprehension.