Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

8 May 2015

Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 2)


When evaluating the truth or error of any proposed theological statement or system, there are two primary questions that the theologian asks: the question of correspondence and the question of coherence. In using these two terms, I am using two recognized philosophical categories, but not necessarily as all users would define them. In suggesting that we must test a given theological statement or system for its correspondence, I do not mean, as many do, that we ask whether or not it corresponds to “reality” as variously defined in the marketplace of ideas; instead, I mean that we ask whether or not it corresponds to God’s reality as he has defined it. In short we ask, “Does this theological statement/system agree with what God has said in the Christian Scriptures?” In developing any truly biblical system of theology, we spend the lion’s share of our time answering this question. That is because the Christian Scriptures are the Norma Normans non Normata, the governing norm of truth that may not be subjected to manipulation or modification. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts the Bible, then that statement/system, however clever, is invalid.

The question of correspondence is not, however, the only question that concerns the systematic theologian. He must also establish the coherence of his system: the system must agree with itself. If a theological system can survive only by patching up its violations of the received laws of logic and language with appeals to “mystery,” then it is compromised. For example, assuming a non-equivocating definition of the term omnipotent, a valid theological system cannot countenance a God that is mysteriously both omnipotent and not-omnipotent at the same time. Or, assuming again a non-equivocating definition of the term justification, a valid theological system cannot permit justification to be simultaneously both by works and by faith alone. Any system that permits such absurdities breaks at least one and often several fundamental laws of logic (in this case, viz., the law of identity [A = A] and the law of contradiction [A ≠ not-A]). For this reason, a systematic theologian must spend time harmonizing texts that seem to contradict (e.g., Job 42:2 with Titus 1:2 and James 1:13 for the issue of omnipotence; Galatians 2:16 with James 2:24 for the issue of justification). At times he is obliged to scuttle his theories; sometimes, however, he is able to tweak and strengthen them by exploring exegetical options and by crafting out carefully nuanced definitions that render his system coherent. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts itself, it is invalid.

The question of record for this blog post is whether the theologian’s hermeneutical method is a matter of correspondence or a matter of coherence: are hermeneutical principles (1) something to be discovered in the Bible itself and constructed inductively from what I find there? Or are hermeneutical principles (2) something to be settled as a matter of transcendental presupposition before I can even start reading the Bible? My answer (and what to me stands at the centerpiece of the concept of “literal” interpretation) is that the latter option is of necessity true. The laws of language are received by divine grant and are a priori axioms necessary to the coherent, intelligible reading of anything: they must be assumed before they can be demonstrated. Apart from this axiomatic premise, coherent communication would fail us and linguistic anarchy would prevail. In fact, in order for someone to disagree with this position, I would submit, he would have to assume the position in order to express his disagreement with it (which is why I have labeled it a transcendental argument).

Those who use a non-literal (typological/allegorical/spiritual) hermeneutical method do not make this assumption, or at the very least not to the same degree I do. Instead, their hermeneutical method is in part a matter of exegetical discovery. So, for instance, when a non-literalist sees in Matthew 2:15 and 18 the use of a fulfillment formula in connection with two improbable Old Testament historical narratives (Hos 11:1 and Jer 31:15, respectively), he stands quite ready to humbly allow exegesis to correct his presumptive hermeneutic. What’s more, the non-literalist can also argue that since Matthew has validated this appealing new hermeneutic under inspiration, the contemporary reader now has exegetical warrant to interpret other texts in the same way.

The literalist, on the other hand, while not unmindful that depraved minds can distort the received laws of language, is much more disposed, based on his view of the transcendental nature of those laws, to think that his interpretive errors will be resolved by exegetical adjustment than by a radical overhaul of his whole hermeneutical method. And so, rather than acceding quickly to unique hermeneutical models unknown outside the biblical corpus, he will expend enormous effort exhausting all the possible exegetical options available to him within the bounds of a “normal” hermeneutic. And even if he fails, he is reluctant to concede the existence of a whole new hermeneutical method, much less a prescriptive one. He is reluctant because he knows that appeals to exegesis as a precedent for a unique and non-literal hermeneutical method potentially undermines not only (1) the received laws of language, but also (2) the accessibility of the Scriptures to all who are not apprised of the special method, and (3) perhaps even the integrity and authority of the Bible itself.

This, I would submit, is the heartbeat of literal interpretation.

Next time: What are these “received laws of language” of which I speak? And if we cannot trust Matthew or Luke or Paul to delineate these laws, why should we accept the doodlings of some 21st-century chump (yours truly)?

1 Response

  1. Thank you for this excellent second post in the series. Though directed in a slightly different direction than him, I thought it expressed well the best of the Clarkian critique regarding theological methodologies and their relationship to language and logic.

    Would you want to assert, however, that the laws of language themselves are a priori or simply that the logical structures upon which they depend are a priori? I suppose that question will be answered once we see what you assert those laws to be.

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