Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A "Return" to American Evangelical Hermeneutics

For anyone who has read me for any length of time at all, it should by now be eminently clear that I have somewhat removed myself from the usual Evangelical-Fundamentalist method of biblical interpretation (not because I think I am better than, or because I no longer self-identify as an American Evangelical; because I do); or from what is known as the historical-critical or Literal, Grammatical, Historical (LGH) reading of the scriptures. It is, in fact, this method of biblical interpretation that has given rise to an idiosyncratic (and I mean this in the sense that this method is peculiar, by and large, to a certain and even large swath of American Evangelicals) expression of this kind of interpretive work; which as I have been surveying in a couple of posts (here & here) prior, is known as dispensationalism. 

I have often, again for anyone who has been reading me for any length of time, referenced how this situation, for American Evangelicals, has come to be. That is, how it is that many American Evangelicals have embraced this mode of biblical interpretation for themselves; it is really a quite ironic (and unfortunate) move, since it is this kind of rationalist, positivistic, and historist approach to biblical interpretation that these same American Evangelicals (originally known as Fundamentalists---I realize they are not the same exact thing, socio-culturally, but Evangelicalism still operates, linguistically and doctrinally from the same historical moorings that their parents, the Fundamentalists taught them) were decrying. They were fighting against the penetration of historical-criticism into the halls of what used to be 'Conservative' American Christianity (like that represented at Princeton, with B.B. Warfield & co.); and yet they chose to fight fire with fire instead of using water to put the fire out [I'd like to try fighting this historical-critical fire and its penetration into American Evangelicalism with the fresh and everlasting water of Jesus Christ ... the kind that once a person gets a drink of she/he never want anything else again]. Jens Zimmerman provides a good sketch, and helpful substantiation of my oft assertions in this very regard; Zimmerman writes,

Modernist interpretation emphasized historical-critical reading of the scriptures that modified or denied the Bible's own claim to be divine revelation and largely abandoned the biblical text as a unity. As a result, other texts gained more importance, and hermeneutics came to be conceived more broadly, comprising secular literature as well. Historical criticism is, of course, enormously important for any textual work. The historical-critical school, with its application of scientific method and positivistic approach to the biblical text, however, forces texts into the Procrustean [sic] bed of an Enlightement framework and rationalist standards, lopping off offending and bothersome textual elements and unenlightened statements with almost Puritan zeal.

Modern fundamentalists [and Evangelicals] who react against this so-called liberal theology unfortunately proceed from the same assumption as the "enemy," namely, that a text can have only one normative meaning but many possible applications, which can never become normative. Premodern interpreters by contrast possessed superior interpretive concepts, such as progressive revelation and typology, and were more keenly aware of the multiple layers of textual meanings. Their view of God's word as a vehicle of typological exegesis, the idea of sensus plenior [fuller meaning], and the analogy of faith renders fundamentalist notions of stable, unitary meanings highly problematic. Yet fundamentalist interpreters cheerfully continue to use modernist principles in their defense of theology, a highly unhelpful strategy of entrenchment, the zeal of whose practitioners does little to conceal the increasing irrelevance of their effort. [brackets our mine] [Jens Zimmerman, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 22-3.]

If this is juxtaposed with my last post on dispensationalism, it becomes clear how dispensational hermeneutics came to be; they are simply a re-telling of an centuries old American interpretive schema (with German origins) that has been employed over and over again within American biblical exegesis and exposition. Such that, the capacity for folk who have sat under the sway of this sometimes bellicose system of interpretation have become incapacitated to critically make a distinction between their system of biblical interpretation and the actual biblical narrative and its primary meaning.

Again, this post only really gestures towards the more 'Christ-conditioned' approach that I want to advocate for. Adam Nigh, an contributing author to our book has offered good development on how I would like to move forward in understanding a doctrine of scripture, an ontology of scripture (its place relative to God's own Self-testimony and speech for us); and how these two realities implicate a system of interpretation (hermeneutics) that finds its orientation intensively in its reality, Jesus Christ. Adam's chapter is entitled The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism [Chapter 3]. Adam sometimes ;-) blogs over at Out of Bounds.

Anyway, as usual, there is more to be said; and I will try to say more as this living thing known as my blog continues to give expression to more of my flowering thoughts on such things and more (of course).   


  1. Obviously the older methodology of types requires a bedrock of what these types are talking about. History is replete with examples of theologians who take types to mean something other than Christ and thus Christ becomes redefined (usually inadvertently) as a type Himself! I think of some of the allegorical methods of Origen or the the methods to provide backing for a Papal Magisterium.

    However just because the root can be wrong, doesn't mean the method is wrong. I think the methods of the rationalistic mode root themselves in the early scholastics of the Reformation. They planted the seeds that grew into both Schliemacher and Machen. They had already turned around from where Calvin stood and the road they went down was indeed strange!

    I think the funniest applications of the Evangelical model is the pragmatic approach employed by men like Rick Warren. We get things like the Daniel Diet, Jabez prayer or the comprehensive explanation of why pigs were off limits!

    We seem to forget that besides the historical context, the prophet's themselves did not understand everything they wrote. Which some interpret some Koranic dictation, but I don't even understand everything I write, let alone one guided by the Breath of God.

    Also, why the picture of Jerome?


    1. Hi Cal,

      Yes, I am not advocating for a paleo-allegorical method, or a return to the Augustinian Quadriga. Instead, more of a constructive return to Thomas Torrance's appropriation of the Patristic (and Irenaeus') employment of the regula fidei or 'Rule of Faith'. As Torrance understood this, this was the core reality of the Apostle's teaching; that is, that Jesus Christ is the principled reality of all of Scripture's witness and Spirit spiration.

      The picture of Jerome is simply because he is who I found in Google images; who in my mind represents an old school guy who is associated with the Bible (for good or ill, eh). So nothing more than that. Irenaeus, on second thought would have been better.

  2. I should say that the Pragmatic approach is just a logical extension of the methodology but it is decried by most of the evangelical crowd!

    I remain christocentric in my reading of Scripture (as imperfectly as that is).



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.