July 29, 2011

“That’s What It Says, but…”

by Mike Riccardi

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issue of proper, sound principles of interpretation of Scripture, and particularly how those principles relate to the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament. Studying hermeneutics is a tricky issue, because, of course, the student of Scripture wants to adopt principles of interpretation that are in line with Scripture. But the question quickly surfaces: How can I derive my hermeneutics from Scripture if I first need a hermeneutic by which I approach Scripture? Isn’t it circular to attempt to interpret Scripture in search of how to interpret Scripture? As Professor Matt Waymeyer has cleverly quipped, it’s sort of like asking how it’s even possible to read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book! Where do we start?

I’m not absolutely sure of all my conclusions yet, but I thought I’d present some of my thoughts. This is a little bit more heady than is probably acceptable for a blog post, but I promise I won’t make it a habit. But let me assure you that I think if there’s a topic that’s worthy of a little extra mental effort, hermeneutics is it, precisely because it is so foundational to how we approach and understand the Word of God. (If you’re interested, you might read Dan Phillips’ classic post on how hermeneutics proved to be a life or death issue for him.)

Scripture is God’s Communication

A fundamental assumption that we must work with is that all Scripture is God’s revelation to man. By means of His Word, God is speaking, or communicating, to human beings. I think this is pretty easily established by Scripture itself.

  • The opening verse of Hebrews tells us that God spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and many ways (Heb 1:1). That is, the Old Testament is God’s speaking to man.
  • The writer continues, “In these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son” (1:2). Christ is the ultimate revelation (Heb 1:3; John 14:9) or explanation (John 1:18) of the Father to mankind.
  • Then, in His earthly ministry, the Son promised that He would send the Holy Spirit to bring to the Apostles’ remembrance all that He said (John 14:26). The product of this promise is the four Gospels, and thus the Gospels are God’s speaking to man in His Son.
  • The Son also promised that the Spirit would guide them into all truth, revealing to them those things which they could not bear then (John 16:12–13). This is the rest of New Testament revelation, and thus Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation are God’s speaking to man in His Son.

To reiterate by way of summary, then, all of Scripture is God’s speaking, or His communicating to man. Therefore, if we’re going to honor and respect God’s revelation on its own terms—i.e., as communication—we must seek to understand it as we would aim to understand any other form of communication. That is to say, in the same way one desires to be understood in a way that neither adds to nor takes away from his words, we should afford that courtesy to the Biblical authors. This is often referred to as the hermeneutical Golden Rule: do unto authors as you would have them do unto you. In his book, Think, John Piper puts it like this:

At the root of [a] coherent worldview and the process of being rooted in the Bible is the hard work of understanding what an author intends to communicate. … When I write something, I generally have an idea that I would like others to grasp. If they construe my sentences in a way different from what I intend, then either I have written poorly or they have read poorly. Or both. But in either case, I am frustrated, because the aim of writing (except for liars and spies) is to be understood. So the aim of reading should ordinarily be to understand what the writer wants understood.[1]

We know that God does not inspire poor writing. We also know that neither He nor the biblical authors were liars or spies. So a fundamental aim of our reading the Bible is to understand what the original author wants understood. We must understand God’s Word through the original authors in a way that neither adds to nor subtracts from their words.

The Normal Sense

I believe the only logical conclusion to be reached from these truths—specifically, that Scripture is God’s revelation or communication to us with the intention of being understood—is that our default orientation to any passage of Scripture is to read it in the plain, normal sense. The old grammatical-historical axiom is valid: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”

Recently in a discussion about the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, someone was speculating on whether or not the passage had anything to say about the doctrine of eternal security, or the perseverance of the saints. Her thought was that Scripture sometimes speaks of oil as being indicative of the Holy Spirit. And since the foolish virgins originally had some oil to keep their lamps burning, that they at one time had the Holy Spirit—and thus were to be considered saved—and then did not have the Holy Spirit—and thus were to be considered lost. Now, this is a rather extreme example, but at the root of this person’s many interpretive problems was simply the fact that in Matthew 25:1–13, oil just means oil. There’s no reason to go fishing for a deeper meaning behind Jesus’ choice of illustrations. The plain, normal sense of the words leads you to a proper understanding of Jesus’ point.

In his Biblical Hermeneutics, Milton Terry put it this way:

It is commonly assumed by universal sense of mankind that unless one designedly put forth a riddle, he will so speak as to convey his meaning as clearly as possible to others. Hence that meaning of a sentence which most readily suggests itself to a reader or hearer, is, in general, to be received as the true meaning, and that alone.[2]

I don’t believe, based on the passages above about Scripture being God’s communication to man, that God has designedly put forth a riddle. The perspicuity of Scripture keeps us from seeking a “deeper meaning” behind what God has clearly said through the Biblical authors.

Now, of course this does not mean, as is so often charged, that we must be committed to a wooden literalism that doesn’t allow for figures of speech. Understanding language in its plain, normal sense allows for someone to interpret a metaphor as a metaphor, hyperbole as hyperbole, sarcasm as sarcasm. If I say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” you shouldn’t start looking for a really big grill. But neither should you conclude that I have very inimical feelings toward all things equine. Given the conventions of language, you should understand that I’m using a common, agreed-upon figure of speech to emphasize my hunger.

And so, when Micah prophesies that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), we don’t need to find some symbolism about Messiah being Yahweh’s provision of spiritual nourishment from the “house of bread” (HT). We understand that that was a prophecy about the literal birthplace of Messiah. And yet at the same time, when Jesus says, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (John 6:54), we understand that this was a figure of speech that pictured a greater reality (Lk 22:19–20).

So What?

Now, some of you—hopefully most of you—might be sitting there saying, “Tell me something I don’t know!” And you’d be right to feel that way. I haven’t said much that sound Biblical interpreters of various theological stripes would disagree with. At least, they wouldn’t disagree with it on paper. But when the implications of these principles get fleshed out, a lot of toes start to get stepped on. Especially in texts like Genesis 1–11, Ezekiel 40–48, and Revelation 6–20. But we’ll leave those issues for another time.

The main take-away from the above discussion is that, based on the conclusion that Scripture is God’s communication to man (Heb 1:1-3), one’s default approach to understanding any passage of Scripture is to understand it in its plain, normal sense. And if we were ever to deviate from that default sense (which is certainly sometimes warranted), the burden of proof is on us to show why that’s a legitimate move. And such evidence must be presented from the text and context of Scripture itself.

God has spoken. What a remarkable truth! And He has spoken to us. What a breathtaking reality! And He has spoken to us clearly. What a marvelous gift! How unfortunate it would be to take an infallible, inerrant, clear text of Scripture and preach error from it because we’ve sought to make it more complicated than it is.

Update: Click here for a sort of Part 2.

[1] John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 45.

[2] As quoted in Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 291.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Some brief essays on hermeneutics from a variety of angles: http://www.searchingtogether.org/essaysonhermeneutics.htm

  • Tim

    Often a decent English translation of a passage is easily read and understood by modern readers, but some passages require a more extensive grammatical-historical context (and thank you for using “grammatical-historical” in your post so no one thinks that I am the one introducing $20 words here!). One good example where the reader needs an understanding of the grammatical-historical context is 1 Timothy 2:12, as well as the surrounding passages.

    The word commonly translated as “authority” in verse 12 is the Greek word “authentien”, and this is apparently the only place that Greek word is used in the Bible. When Paul then goes on to discuss Adam and Eve, it is in the historical context of a region (Ephesus and western Asia Minor) that had been developing for centuries a bizarre Eve cult that twisted the Old Testament narrative into something almost unrecognizeable to us today (An extreme example of the false teaching had Eve as a spiritual being who awakened Adam spiritually after her own awakening by the snake). In Greek literature and local religious use, “authentien” could mean author, creator or source. Around Ephesus, especially with its influential Artemis worship, Eve was seen as the source of Adam. It gives you a lot to think about regarding 1 Timothy 2:12 beyond its English language wording in isolation.


    P.S. I’ve heard some people explain away Deborah’s leadership in Israel during the time of the judges as being an anomaly, even going so far as to say that there was not a single man willing to serve so God had to settle for a woman. (This also turns Barak’s desire to have Deborah accompany him on its head.)

    • It’s important to understand, as best we can from reliable sources, the historical-cultural context of any passage of Scripture. That is part of the interpreter’s task, because it respects the fact that God has not given us His Word in a vacuum. Yet given the decided lack of detail in 1 Timothy regarding the heresy of that time, the poverty of detail in the historical record, as well as the variety of interpretations and suggestions about the heresy, it’s unwise to make a narrow conclusion based on what might have been going on.

      It’s definitely important to frame Paul’s teaching on women’s roles in context — there was a clear lack of submission on the part of some of the Ephesian women. But any interpretation that emasculates the plain sense of that verse — “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man” — is not a sound interpretation. It would be emphasizing the “historical” (based on what at best amounts to educated guesses) at the expense of the “grammatical.”

      For anyone else interested in how the meaning of authetein affects one’s interpretation of 1Tim 2:12ff, see Douglas Moo’s chapter (chapter 9, pp. 179-193) in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

      • Tim

        One should also see the Kroegers’ “I Suffer Not a Woman”.

        Simplistic analysis based on English translations is problematic. While the English translation you give above seems “plain”, the original Greek readers in Ephesus certainly had a historical-grammatical framework that we do not have (although to them it was contemporary-grammatical). If to them it means what we say it means in English, then plain it is. But if to them it meant something different because they had a particular grammar and background that Paul also had in mind and something is now lost in the translation, then our English version is not only not plain but obscure.

        This was not meant to become a debate on women and men in the church, but merely an example of how the historical-grammatical analysis is one important tool in hermenutics. If someone thinks they’ve got a verse down pat – whether 1 Timothy 2:12 or any other – great. But one should not come to such a conclusion simply because the English translation seems simple to understand. One should do the work when possible and then see if the initial understanding still makes sense.


        • Simplistic analysis based on English translations is problematic. … But one should not come to such a conclusion simply because the English translation seems simple to understand. One should do the work when possible and then see if the initial understanding still makes sense.

          Right. That’s actually what I was hoping to convey by saying: “It’s important to understand, as best we can from reliable sources, the historical-cultural context of any passage of Scripture. That is part of the interpreter’s task, because it respects the fact that God has not given us His Word in a vacuum.”

          If to them it means what we say it means in English, then plain it is. But if to them it meant something different because they had a particular grammar and background that Paul also had in mind and something is now lost in the translation, then our English version is not only not plain but obscure.

          I like this a lot. I think it’s a concise, helpful statement about reading the text in context. And it captures the crux of the matter. Any discussion about any text has to answer the questions: “What did the original author intend to communicate, and what did this text mean to its original audience?” Rick Holland would often say, “You can’t know what the text means until you know what it meant.”

          And I gotta say, I also appreciate your courtesy in bringing up that this isn’t a complementarian-egalitarian debate. I thought we were headed down that road, but appreciated your push to stay on topic. So thanks for that. Just in case it might help/interest you, though, there’s a review of the Kroegers’ book that I found quite helpful. You can read it here.

          • Tim

            The historical-grammatical analysis reminds me a lot of what happens in my courtroom. Sometimes an ottorney will describe all facts they have and then ask me to rule in their favor, to which I usually reply, “You may very well be entitled to that ruling, but do you mind if I wait to hear from the witnesses myself before deciding?” It’s a somewhat Bereanish attitude, but I find it useful.


            P.S. I would appreciate reading whatever you recommend, but I think your recomendation got cut off in your last post. Can you re-post it?

          • Sorry. I tried to fix it in the above comment. Does it show now? If not, here’s take two.

          • Tim

            It’s there now, Mike. Thanks. By the way, did you know othat “ottorney” is a variant spelling of “attorney”? Neither did I until I read how I spelled it above.

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  • Good post. Thanks

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