Sunday, December 20, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks IV

This will be our last post on Hermeneutical frameworks. I also will not be posting this upcoming week. I'll be going back home to Rochester, NY to spend time with our family and friends. In our last post we looked at the rule of faith as a framework within which to operate. The position we will look at today is similar in some senses, in that it allows much more flexibility than the traditional Evangelical position permits. Our fourth position goes further than the 'rule of faith' in that it seeks to place no boundaries upon the interpreter. Obviously, this seems to many to be a highly dangerous position for you could end up denying anything. However, at least those working within a reformed framework would stress that the Holy Spirit will keep them Orthodox.

Why would no boundaries be a good thing? Some have grown tired of seeing a lot of effort expended to answer objections to the doctrine of inerrancy that are raised over issues that sometimes are at best tangential to the didactic purpose of the text. They might simply ask, 'what's the big deal' over the issue related to Mark 2:26 that we have outlined in previous posts. The point of Mark 2:26 isn't to tell us who the high priest was in the time of King Saul, it is to tell us something about Jesus, to tell us about his Messianic status. The doctrine of inerrancy might be reformulated along these lines, 'in Scripture, God inerrantly accomplished his goals of communication.' In their opinion, the Bible should be used for what its purpose is, to tell us about God. Activities ranging from reconstructing history from the Bible to basing science upon it may be misguided.

Besides the potential scariness of this viewpoint, one might also ask if it runs the risk of downplaying the historical aspects of the text too strongly. After all, don't passages like 1 Cor. 15 seek to ground the central Christian confession firmly in history?

One final possible criticism is that such a redefinition of inerrancy is not permitted by the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration (i.e., that God inspired the very words of Scripture). In fact it does seem to outlaw it for even incidentals would need to be inerrant. However, they may counter by suggesting that verbal plenary inspiration does not accurately describe the mode of inspiration of Scripture, for modern linguistics has shown that individual words do not carry meaning.

Post Script: What is the best way forward?

In my opinion this last position has the most going for it. I think it seeks to honor the God who revealed himself in Scripture and understand the Bible on its own terms (this is not to imply that the other positions do not, it's more of an assertion against contrarians). With that said, I think this approach can be strengthened by utilizing the rule of faith as a help; how has the church historically handled this passage? While it shouldn't act as a box, the history of interpretation can be a faithful guide. Additionally, historical methodologies should not be thrown out the window. While no text in the Bible is 'history' in the modern sense, much of the revelatory deposit in the Bible is clearly historical and cannot be rightly understood otherwise.

Ultimately, no matter which methodology you utilize, the key thing to remember is that, 'the Lord knows those who are his' (2 Tim. 2:9). He will preserve us to the end, and I believe, keep us orthodox as we strive to know him more fully through his revelation in his word.


  1. Have a good time in NY. It's been good listening to your thought process unfold and now being able to see it in print.

  2. A quick comment on the plenary/word thing: It's true that contemporary linguists don't take meaning to lie purely within words themselves apart from sentence context, but I don't think it follows that there's no meaning for words. In a particular sentence, a word does have a meaning. Nouns refer to things. Verbs denote actions. Adjectives describe properties of things. Adverbs describe properties of actions. This isn't as precise as a linguist would put it, but it gets the idea across, I think.

    But suppose I were to concede that words don't have meanings, and the smallest unit of meaning is the sentence. It would still be true that sentences have the meaning the have in virtue of the words they have. So God's inspiration of the very words accomplishes something that a kind of inspiration that doesn't go down to the very words wouldn't. It gets precisely the right words for the sentence to mean exactly what God intends for it to mean. So I don't think the claim that words don't have meanings in themselves has any bearing on plenary inspiration.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. My understanding was that the smallest unit of meaning is the sentence, but maybe that's not the case. If it were, there's more than one way that you could arrive at the same meaning for the smallest unit of meaning and thus it wouldn't be necessary to hold that inspiration was down to the level of the words, but down to the smallest unit of meaning. However, I'm not sure if it's necessary assume inspiration even at the smallest unit of meaning. To do so seems to marginalize the role of the human author too much. I would suggest that it functions more at the level of 'argument' (probably not the most precise term for what I mean). The Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture of the general framework of the argument but left the particulars to them (I know that's vague but it's as far as I can go at this point).

    A 'stronger' notion of inspiration seems to me to ending up at the same spot as a dictation theory, even if the means to get there are somewhat different, but maybe I just don't understand it that well.

  4. It depends on what you mean by meaning. I think linguists tend to focus on truth-evaluable meaning, and nothing smaller than a sentence has a truth value (but even that isn't true; clauses have truth value and are combined with others according to rules of syntax to produce a larger truth-evaluable sentence).

    What I'm saying is that there's something else that ordinary people use the word "meaning" for, and it's what nouns refer to, etc. as I explained.

    I think if you change words, you do get a slightly different sense, even if you use a synonym. Changing word order usually changes nuance, even if both orders are allowable, because it goes to emphasis.

    How does it marginalizethe human author too much? If God is sovereign over all we do anyway, then God is sovereign over the small things like the very words someone he's inspiring to write scripture might choose. If God's sovereigntyover human choice is compatible with human freedom on larger matters, why shouldn't it be on smaller matters, which can have a huge effect on larger matters (e.g. the butterfly effect)?

    The difference between a dictation theory and plenary inspirationis that the dictation theory has God stating the exact words, where it doesn't come out of the human author's creative processes, whereas the verbal plenary view has God working through the creative processes of the person's own mind in the same way that a view of total sovereigntyover all affairs has God standing behind all things (at the very least by being able to intervene to make things go differentlyif he wants to).

  5. Thanks Jeremy, those are helpful clarifications. I'm not that widely read in linguistics, most of what I get, I get second hand through theologians, so perhaps this is a good impetus to read more in that field.

    I didn't think about inspiration in compatablist terms before; that may be a good way to understand how inspiration works. I strongly dislike views on which limit God's authorship to basically stamping his approval on the text the human authored. At the same time the humanity of the text screams out all of the time. Somehow the human and divine elements have to be held in tension, and I think what you're suggesting does that well. I'll have to ponder this more too.