Scripture’s Doctrine And Theology’s Bible: A Bilateral Hermeneutic

Circular hermeneuticsI recently wrote a post on what I labeled, The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption. In it I asked if we are in danger of limiting the work of the Holy Spirit to good exegesis. The comments made on the post helped me give some precision, which was originally lacking, and you can read the exchanges there. One comment raised the issue of the theological convictions with which we approach Scriptures. Scientific exegesis of a biblical text will not always bring us to the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ but instead gives us the author’s intent or original meaning. Our understanding of Scripture means we interpret texts within their wider salvation context and therefore Christian exegesis asks how the author’s intent – attained through careful exegesis – fits within the message of Scripture as a whole, the gospel of our Lord. I want to repeat my response below with supplementation.

The Evangelical approach to Scripture is both presuppositional and a result of perspicuity. In other words, the Christian worldview presupposes that God is the single author behind Scripture, therefore Scripture is read with that view; and exegesis of Scripture has lead to the understanding that Scripture contains a single, unified and coherent message. Our doctrine of Scripture is founded on and flows from Scripture. How do these two characteristics of the Evangelical approach fit?

Firstly, Christians presuppose revelation is coherent because God is the author behind it. So, in our age of narratives, Scripture is viewed as a metanarrative scripted by God. During the Reformation, and in protestation to the Catholic claims of exclusive interpretive rights, the analogia fidei was introduced as a corollary to non-contingent divine revelation. We can only use the clearer parts of Scripture to interpret the murky bits because of this presupposition. Furthermore, if God is the cause of Scripture in its entirety we can ask the bigger question of authorial intent for the work as a whole.

Secondly, studied exegesis of Scripture has and does yield its perspicuous message: the gospel of grace. Though our interpretation of Scripture is based on a theological conviction, outlined above, that theological conviction is proven by exegesis. As we study Scripture we see that the parts contribute to and are enmeshed with the whole, the grand unifying theme of salvation in the gospel. I have already noted that our theology is a fruit of exegesis and I believe that careful exegesis of Scripture results in us being confronted with the summons to salvation, as well as proving the presupposition that God is the single author. Perspicuity is, as the Reformers emphasised, an objective attribute of Scripture.

9780567083777_p0_v1_s260x420If this post argues for anything then it is this: there is a dialogue in hermeneutics between theology and exegesis. And we must hold that it is a dialogue and not a monologue. The latter would have us advance no further than Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum or Augustine’s ‘believing in order to understand’. There is no denying that we work from a presuppositional doctrine of Scripture yet, as John Webster reminds us, in his essay On The Clarity Of Holy Scripture, all dogmatic confessions are “wholly subordinate to the primary work of the church’s theology, which is exegesis.”

To close I will adapt something Karl Barth wrote in the introduction to the fourth edition of his commentary on Romans. We are never compelled to choose between strictly scientific exegesis and our doctrine of Scripture, for they enjoy an established and healthy bilateral relationship. And so, like Barth, we can expend all of our energy in endeavoring “to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still.”

(PS: the title of this post is stolen from the collection of essays edited by M. Bockmuehl and A. J. Torrance, which is sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.)

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • I am hesitant to leave clarity at the Gospel.
    If our definition of clarity says “the Gospel is what God intended to communicate and, therefore, that is what is clear”, we must then define the gospel as the communicated content on which we can all agree (seeing as it is what is clear).
    People disagree about what we would consider foundational to the gospel. In order to uphold what we understand as the true gospel (at its most basic level), we must reject their interpretations. We would then end up saying that clarity is only effective to Christians (whose minds are not darkened by unbelief) but then the relevance of clarity falls away since we have to understand the content that clarity reveals to us in order to have it revealed.
    I’m writing a post that I hope will contribute towards clarifying my position though.
    If what I’ve written is unclear, let me know. If you disagree with the logic hang back till I post…

    • I managed to follow your logic, though I look forward to that forthcoming full length post. Preface: I wrote this just now and my connection dropped while posting so I’m rehashing it with haste, and angst. The Reformed tradition did limit clarity in some of its aspects to Christians, illumined by God the Holy Spirit. Calvin saw the Spirit’s task in illuminating Scripture as completely bound up with his operation through the Word in bringing home what our sinful natures intrinsically rejects (Carson, Collected Writings On Scripture, p186).

      Thiselton gives four polemical characteristics of clarity in New Horizons. The last and possibly most important gets us beyond Luther’s external and internal clarity to what he calls functional or relational clarity, which begins to converge with the efficacy of Scripture (p184). It’s a good point because external clarity does not guarantee I won’t approach Scripture with my own presuppositions or ideas. If clarity is, as I presupposed, the narrative of God’s salvation expressed ultimately and experienced fully in Christ’s life and work, which is also a result of exegesis, then I know enough to respond to Scripture’s communicative action (Vanhoozer, Is There A Meaning In This Text?, p317).

      Perhaps it’s a blurring of the lines between efficacy and clarity. But then the work of the Spirit who both illuminates and enables us to respond is also a bit fuzzy right now. Since it is the power of the Holy Spirit that performs the work of God through the Word we can, in my opinion, allow for this mingling of categories. I don’t know if there’s any traceable logic above; come back at me.

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