Presented to The Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, October 3, 2012
To assess the implications of literal grammatical-historical hermeneutics (LGH) for the handling of the Bible it is helpful to consider three related stages of application. The first stage establishes warrant for preferring LGH over other historical and contemporary interpretive methods. This stage considers the epistemological basis for such a preference, and arrives at a prescriptive if/then conclusion from descriptive premises. The second stage explicates a particular method for applying the principles of LGH in the exegetical process. This stage quantifies LGH, parsing exegetical steps to insure LGH adherence. This second stage is, simply put, the exegetical method as governed and required by LGH.
Whereas the first stage justifies LGH, and the second stage applies LGH in exegesis, the third stage provides certain important ground rules for praxis (by this I mean a theory of practice, or the the grounding of practice) and an expositional approach that are equally as governed by LGH as are the stages of justification and exegesis. In other words, if we understand LGH to be preferred and even prescribed, then we do well to consider the implications of that preference and prescription for all textual considerations, not just interpretive ones. If LGH is to govern our exegesis, then we are inconsistent if we do not allow the same to govern our praxis and exposition. This present discussion considers the first two stages (epistemological justification and exegetical method) with a view to understanding their implications for the third stage (praxis and exposition), and for arriving at a model to integrate the second and third stages.
FIRST-STAGE LOGIC OF LGH: JUSTIFICATION
Preference of LGH over other historical and contemporary interpretive methods rests on a simple, logical flow of ideas that can be formalized as follows:
P1: There exists an uncreated God who created (Gen 1:1; Jn 1:3; Rom 1:20; Col 1:16).
P2: Both language (Gen 1:3) and humanity (Gen 1:26-27) originated from God.
P3: God communicated (Gen 2:16-17) with humanity using language (the method of spoken communication involving the structured use of words).
P4: God’s use of language confirms language to be a suitable vehicle for God’s revelation (Ex 3:14, 17:14, 34:1).
P5: The earliest recipients of God’s communication understood it to have meaning, and ascertained that meaning based on a normative use of language (Gen 3:1-5, 9-13).
P6: The earliest and definitive model of interpretation was one in which God’s words were taken at face value, were understood to follow basic rules of grammar, and were understood within a historical and contextual frame of reference (Ex 19:8; 24:3, 7).
P7: Of historical and contemporary hermeneutic methods, LGH uniquely represents this early and definitive model (Gen 6:13-22).
C: If Biblical interpreters are to understand the intended meaning of God’s communication in the manner of the earliest recipients, then LGH must be employed (Prov 30:5; Deut 8:3; Mt 4:4).
This argument, with its Biblical underpinnings, shows our LGH preference to be multidisciplinary in its implications. For example, from a Biblical perspective epistemology is neither rationalist nor empiricist. Instead, certainty is grounded in a specific perspective of God through revelation (Job 28:28; Prov 1:7, 9:10). Despite the efficacy of natural revelation for rendering all without excuse (Rom 1:20), necessary knowledge of the Divine is exclusively ascertainable through special revelation (Ps 34:11; cf., Prov 1:2, 7). Likewise, historical linguistics is not merely a study of the evolution of language as having no traceable beginning point. Rather from a Biblical perspective there is a beginning point (Gen 1:3; 2:16) followed soon after by a transitional event (Gen 11:1, 7-9) that together serve as explanatory devices governing linguistic disciplines. Anthropology, if discerned Biblically, considers humanity to be broken with no intrinsic ability for repair (Gen 6:5; 8:21; Rom 3:10-20; Eph 2:1-10).
By contrast, non-Biblical anthropology generally views humanity to be on an upward trajectory, independent of divine aid. A Biblical psychology regards there to be a non-corporeal aspect of humanity, and emphasizes human responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions (Gen 2:15-17; 3:17, Ps 139:23-24; Rom 1:20). This is not so in secular psychology, which considers the soul to be no more than mind, and human thought and action to be no more than a series of physiological causes and effects.
These are just a few examples of the broad influence of Biblical hermeneutics. Further, these examples show LGH a device effecting much more than just a few strategic prophetic passages. Rather, it is a comprehensive tool for understanding humanity, history, the world, and God Himself. If we take the Biblical data seriously as the product of a creative God who communicated with His creation through the use of language, then we have no alternative to LGH as the interpretive device, lest we sacrifice meaning itself in favor of the meaningless and arbitrary.
SECOND-STAGE LOGIC OF LGH: EXEGESIS
An exegetical method that is governed by LGH includes a series of steps, all of which are necessary for ascertaining the meaning of any given passage. These steps represent a sort of sine qua non for doing exegesis.
Step 1: Verify the text and translation.
Step 2: Understand background and context.
Step 3: Identify structure.
Step 4: Identify grammatical and syntactical keys.
Step 5: Identify lexical keys.
Step 6: Identify Biblical context.
Step 7: Identify theological context.
Step 1: Verify the text and translation
If we recognize that God communicated at specific times using particular languages, then we must realize (1) the implications of our being generations removed from the original manuscripts, and (2) how much is lost when we translate from those languages. This first exegetical step considers especially lower criticism, examining the text in the original language to determine the scope and limits of the passage, and to verify the text itself.
For example, P66 records John 3:13 as ending with the phrase, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (consistent with Siaiticus and Vaticanus, neither of which include the phrase who is in heaven), while the same passage in Stephen’s TR, ends with ο υιος του ανθρωπου ο ων εν τω ουρανω (consistent with Jerome’s Vulgate, which includes the phrase qui est in caelo). Though this variant is seemingly not doctrinally significant, the latter reading would constitute at least a confusing representation of Christ (as being concurrently in heaven and on earth). Absent this step of verifying the text itself along with the veracity of the translation, we can’t even begin the exegetical process, being unable to determine something so basic as what the text actually says. Biblical exegesis demands at least a basic understanding of lower criticism and the Biblical languages.
Step 2: Understand background and context
The normative use of language requires a consideration of the text in context, and in light of key background information. Considerations in this step include higher criticism, authorship, timing, audience and culture, literary genre, and occasion, to name a few aspects. For example, it is increasingly popular to recognize the Gospels as Graeco-Roman bios, a literary form that allows for non-literal meanings of otherwise literal language. Michael Licona illustrates this in his explanation of Matthew 27:52-53:
Given the presence of phenomenological language used in a symbolic manner in both Jewish and Roman literature related to a major event such as the death of an emperor or the end of a reigning king or even a kingdom, the presence of ambiguity in the relevant text of Ignatius, and that so very little can be known about Thallus’s comment on the darkness…it seems to me that an understanding of the language of Matthew 27:52-53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible (Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 552.).
If we conclude that the resurrections described in Matthew 27:52-53 are special effects, then on what textual authority can we argue that the resurrection of Christ was not also special effects? Were the Gospels divinely inspired historical accounts, or were the writers simply skilled in the historical fiction paradigm of the day? What is understood of background and context profoundly influences the remaining exegetical steps.
Step 3: Identify structure.
Internal clues to the structure of Biblical books are both readily available and necessarily discerned for understanding the theses and supporting material of each book. Genesis uses the word תּוֹלֵדוֹת (toledoth, meaning generations) to divide the book (Gen 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 37:1).
John 20:30-31 describes σημεῖα as the building blocks of his Gospel. Acts 1:8 provides the geographical and chronological outline of the book. Revelation 1:19 introduces the three sections of that prophecy. As is evident in these examples, the normative use of language places tremendous weight on rhetorical structure for ascertaining meaning.
Step 4: Identify grammatical and syntactical keys.
Grammar and syntax consider normative principles for relationships of words to each other. Grammar is the framework of rules, while syntax is descriptive of usage. Both are important, in historical context, for discerning meaning. Acts 2:38 provides an important example of the importance of understanding word-relationships: “Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Peter’s imperative seems, in English, to require water baptism in order to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, the imperative μετανοήσατε, the second pronoun ὑμῶν (the sins of you), and the verb λήμψεσθε are all second person plural, while the imperative βαπτισθήτω is in the third person singular. In light of the syntactical relationships of these words and phrases, the passage could be read, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Relationships of words, and rules governing those relationships are often dispositive for understanding the meaning of phrases and passages.
Step 5: Identify lexical keys.
Words are the fundamental building blocks of language. Consequently, for ascertaining meaning the normative use of language demands that words be understood. Before examining a word in its Biblical or theological context, the interpreter should first understand the lexical meaning and etymology of the word. The importance of this principle is evident in Daniel 9:24, as the KJV, NASB, and ESV all translate the first phrase of the verse as seventy weeks. If the Hebrew שָׁבֻעִ֨ים (shabe’yim) has a lexical meaning best translated as weeks, then to conclude that the word weeks is referencing a period of seven years requires non-literal interpretation and an abandonment of LGH. To conclude thus requires a departure from the normative use of language. However, שָׁבֻעִ֨ים is literally translated sevens (e.g., Gen 5:7), as is the corresponding ἑβδομάδες (hebdomades) in the LXX. In this case the translations are misleading in regards to the simple definition and earliest Biblical usage of this word.
Step 6: Identify Biblical context.
Recognizing Biblical context is one of the most critical steps in the exegetical process, and is rightly understood to be an elementary aspect of the normative use of language. Whether the applicable context is immediate (adjacent to the passage), near (within the book), or broad (related context but from a different Biblical book), the meaning of a given passage is not discernible with certainty until related contexts are acknowledged and understood. For example, 2 Chronicles 7:14 records a promise for God’s healing of His people’s land. If considered separate from its immediate context, this appears a universal principle. However, 7:15 qualifies that promise as response to prayers offered from Solomon’s temple. In Job 34:35-37, it appears that Elihu indicts Job of sin, which would be an error. However, 34:34 clarifies that Elihu is representing the views of Job’s other friends. Context is the difference between Elihu being completely wrong, and being completely accurate.
Step 7: Identify theological context.
Though Biblical context is more central to discerning meaning, theological context is also important. For example, in John 14:1-3, the doctrine of the rapture seems lexically and perhaps even syntactically absent. However, when read in conjunction with other passages (especially 1 Thes 4, 2 Thes 2, and 1 Cor 15), it is evident that the rapture is theologically in view. Further, understanding the theological relationship of works, faith, and justification in Romans 4 helps to resolve a potentially sticky discussion of that same relationship in James 2.
Understanding theological context is important for discerning meaning. However, reading theological conclusions into the text as a hermeneutic device is incompatible with LGH. If an interpretation is derived from a theological conclusion, rather than a textual analysis that considers theological context, that interpretation is invalid in the sense of being improperly earned.
Verification and Implications
After the seventh step, secondary verification is a helpful exercise for confirming adherence to LGH throughout the exegetical process, and involves considering secondary, extra-Biblical data (commentaries, teachers, and other resources). Consulting secondary sources cannot be considered part of the exegetical process, per se, but their utilization can help the interpreter ensure that no steps have been missed. Such interpretive humility is important. Still the interpreter must be courageous enough to allow the Biblical text to speak for itself, even if the secondary sources disagree with the exegetical results. In short, secondary verification is not an exercise in extra-Biblical proof-texting, instead, it is a process for checking adherence to the hermeneutic and to the process itself.
Each of these seven steps together (along with secondary verification) and in succession represent a reasonable application of LGH that is consistent with the seven aforementioned premises for justifying the preference of LGH. If the trajectory of the argument has successfully guided us from Point A (justification) to Point B (application in exegesis), then we must be open to the implications of that trajectory for arriving at Point C (praxis and exposition).
THIRD-STAGE LOGIC OF LGH: PRAXIS AND EXPOSITION
Beyond justifying LGH and applying it in the exegetical process, LGH also governs praxis and exposition. In respect to believers doing the word, the Bible has much to say. Scripture is univocal in asserting its sufficiency not just for learning and/or teaching, but also for personal appropriation in thought, speech, and action. A truly Biblical praxis demands proper application of LGH in the exegetical process and, in fact, cannot stand without it. Likewise, the proper application of LGH in the exegetical process leaves the interpreter unable to escape the many Biblical prescriptions – for the unbeliever, to respond in faith, and for the believer, to walk in faith.
How can one fulfill James’s prescription for believers to Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου (become workers of the word) if the word has not been correctly understood (Jam 1:22)? Paul exhorts believers to engage in correct thinking and action on the basis of the mercies of God (Rom 12:1). Such conduct is the logical (λογικὴν) service of believers. Paul’s comments here are significant, as he encourages believers to employ logic or reason in understanding the basis for their motivation. For Paul to exhort in that manner absent the expectation that his readers would actually understand what was revealed about the mercies of God in Romans 1-11 would be strange, to say the least. It is evident that the same principles required to understand God’s mercy are required for walking in it. In order to walk in a manner worthy of the believer’s calling, the believer must ascertain the correct meaning of that calling (Eph 4:1).
Correct exegesis is prerequisite to correct praxis. Further, correct praxis without correct exposition is oxymoronic. LGH is necessary for exegesis, for praxis, and consequently for exposition. While praxis is inextricably dependent on LGH, it is evident that exposition is simply one of many facets of practice. Believers are universally exhorted to teach others (Col 3:16), even if not all believers are said to have the gift of teaching (Rom 12:7), and not all believers will serve as pastor-teachers (Eph 4:11-12; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Jam 3:1). Regardless of one’s role in the body of Christ, all share the same responsibility for knowing all of God’s word (Heb 5:12). With respect to accountability for Biblical knowledge and duty in sharing it with others, the Scripture draws no clergy/laity distinction. All believers are to let the word of Christ dwell richly in them (Col 3:16). All believers are to be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17). Arguably, all believers are to follow the apostles in their responsibility to make disciples – a process which includes teaching (Mt 28:19-20).
Purpose, Content, and Mechanics of Biblical Teaching
The purpose of Biblical teaching is described succinctly in two particular contexts. Ephesians 4:11-12 describes pastoral teaching as being purposed for or unto (πρὸς) the equipping or adequacy (τὸν καταρτισμὸν) of the saints. Importantly we must realize that pastoral teaching does not equip saints. Nor does any other human ministry. Rather, these ministries are purposed for the equipping of saints. Second Timothy 3:16-17 describes the content of Biblical teaching as all Scripture (πᾶσα γραφὴ), and characterizes it as that which is beneficial (ὠφέλιμος) for the qualification (ἄρτιος) and adequacy or equipping (ἐξηρτισμένος, same root used in Eph 4:12) of the man of God. Consequently, if the purpose of Biblical teaching is for saints to be equipped by the word of God (rather than by the teacher), then it is incumbent upon Biblical teachers to ensure that they are handling God’s word in the most responsible manner possible, with the ultimate goal always in view.
The mechanics of Biblical teaching is not a matter of preference. That too, like exegesis and all other aspects of praxis, is subject to LGH. Paul illustrates the mechanics of Biblical teaching in 2 Timothy 2:2, when he says, “entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” The process is one of entrusting these things (ταῦτα παράθου) – the word of God. The goal of teaching is elsewhere defined as adequacy or equipping of saints, but in this passage, Paul offers a tangible method for measuring the effectiveness of Bible teaching. Are those learners who are entrusted to our care developing a capability to teach others? Are we giving them the tools to do so, or are we simply telling them what actions to avoid and which ones to prefer? Are we trying to simplify things because they couldn’t possibly understand if we just taught the Text? Are we teaching them that when they need answers they should open their Bibles…and call on us? These scenarios have no place in Paul’s model of Biblical teaching.
God revealed Himself using language. That he revealed Himself in such a way has tremendous implications for teaching. God expected that His audience would be sufficiently skilled in the principles of the languages He used so that they could understand His meaning. We all need to understand how to understand God’s word. We all need to know how to handle variants, translations, background, rhetorical structure, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and context. If we as pastors or other Bible teachers are simply spouting Biblical data without showing learners how to discover and understand that data for themselves, then we are failing in our stewardship. We are making dependents rather than disciples, hearers rather than doers, and warriors who have no idea how to wield a sword.
Biblical learners, whether during Ezra’s time (see Ezra 8) or Paul’s, understood the basics of LGH and the exegetical process, even if not always intentionally, because those principles involved the simple, natural, everyday use of the languages God employed. Even those that were too young to understand, were taught at home by their fathers so that they could understand (Deut 6:6-9). Because in our time most of those we teach are unfamiliar with those languages, we face a unique dilemma that, seemingly, neither Ezra nor Paul faced. But how we respond to that challenge will go a long way in determining the quality of our teaching ministries. We can keep the exegetical process to ourselves. In so doing, we are inconsistent insofar as we argue that LGH is warranted, that we must use it to derive our Biblical interpretations, and that it governs our praxis, but that it has no place in exposition.
If we would be consistent, we must recognize that our exposition is also governed by LGH. In so doing, we ought to integrate our exegesis with our exposition – meaning that we ought simply to teach the Text as it is written and show our work. We ought to be forthright about how we derive conclusions. We ought to be transparent about why we interpret passages as we do. We ought to immerse learners in the principles of the Biblical languages, teaching them grammar, syntax, and vocabulary wherever possible. We ought to handle the Text word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line, book by book – all the while modeling the exegetical process. Doing, while being observed is a critical component of the teaching process. That principle was modeled by God when he prescribed to Israel that fathers should behave in such a way that their sons and grandsons would fear the Lord and be obedient (Deut 6:1-2).
Can our children and grandchildren in the faith observe how we handle His word, follow our example, grow to maturity, and so teach others? If so, we will have successfully integrated exegesis and exposition and taken LGH to its logical conclusion.