Engaging Exposition (6): 10 Basic Principles of Hermeneutics (continued)

6) The author’s intended meaning should be interpreted literally, unless the genre and the use of figurative language suggests otherwise.

Hermeneutics has a famous axiom: “If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” When we speak about the literal meaning of a text, we are referring simply to the natural interpretation of the words as they are joined together into sentences and paragraphs. The writers were normal, rational people who communicated in the same basic ways that we do, only in different languages and historical contexts. So, when you are interpreting a biblical text, if the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense. This observation does negate the intriguing issues of sensus plenoir or Christological hermeneutics.

Now, if the literal sense is confusing, you may be encountering figurative language. We all do this, because we can say what we want to say more vividly and forcefully by figures of speech than we can by saying it directly. Figurative language helps make the “abstract concrete.” When a writer incorporates figurative language, often he is using the “connotation” of a word or words in order to provide a broader understanding of the concept he is addressing. The connotation of a word is what it suggests beyond what it expresses: its overtones of meaning. Connotation is especially important to poets. It allows them to explore and enrich their content, and to do so with an economy of words.

Consider Psalm 23. David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd.” David is using the connotation of a shepherd to give us an important metaphor for God. Like a shepherd, he provides (“there is nothing I lack”), he cares (“he lets me lie down in green pastures”), he directs (“he leads me beside quiet waters”), he encourages (“he renews my life”), and he guides (“he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake”). All of these traits are connotations we derive from our understanding of the word “shepherd.”

7) The author’s intended meaning in a specific biblical text should be informed by the writings of other biblical authors on the same concepts.

As we study the totality of scripture, we will encounter many reoccurring, theological concepts. This makes sense when we remember that the Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. As a result, we should expect to encounter these theological concepts as they are revealed and developed in the Scriptures. Be prepared to let other biblical texts inform our understanding when they share the same theological concepts. This is what we mean by inner-canonical. In other words, we begin with a presupposition that there is a unity of theological concepts within the Scriptures, and we must be prepared to allow our understanding of those concepts to influence our interpretation of individual texts. As a result, it is important to adopt the following guidelines to help us understand and teach theological concepts.

First, the interpretation of brief texts is always influenced by our interpretation of longer texts that share the same theological concept. Sadly, many an error in doctrine has resulted from an interpreter who built a whole theology on a brief text (often taken out of its context), while ignoring the clear teaching of a lengthier text on the same concept.

Second, interpreters must distinguish between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” texts in Scripture. Fee and Stuart state, “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way-unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.”

Third, the interpretation of obscure biblical texts should be influenced by texts on the same subject that are more fully developed.

8) The author’s intended meaning in a specific biblical text may have a fuller meaning, but that meaning can only be determined on the basis of subsequent biblical revelation and the whole canon.

As interpreters, we are searching for the author’s intended meaning in every Old and New Testament text. Since God’s revelation is progressive, we must acknowledge that the Old Testament writers did not have the benefit of New Testament revelation. Granted, God allowed certain Old Testament authors like Daniel and Isaiah to have glimpses into the future outworking of his redemptive plan, but they did not have all of the particulars. Paul describes this truth in Ephesians 3:1-7. Paul stated that the mystery of the gospel, and its global application, was revealed to him following the ascension of Jesus. We cannot of our own accord, therefore, force New Testament revelation upon Old Testament texts.

However, the Bible is one book with one divine author. It does tell one great story framed in a “grand redemptive narrative.” All the “little narratives” have their place in the “big narrative.” Further, there are Old Testament passages that are specifically declared in the New Testament to have some level of “fuller meaning.” In the field of Hermeneutics, we refer to this as the sensus plenior of the text. Now to be clear: it is not a different meaning but a more full meaning with implications and significance the human author did not fully know or grasp.

Second, these fuller meanings are not the result of allegorical interpretation, but they are revealed by subsequent revelation. Individual texts must be interpreted within the larger context of the entire canon. This is especially true when studying the Old Testament. As interpreters, we study the Old Testament from a New Testament context. We do not read the Old Testament like Jewish rabbis! We read the Bible, all of it, as Christian Scripture. As a result, we are able to see a foreshadowing of New Testament teaching and theology within the texts of the Old Testament.

Revelation is progressive, and so we find that the New Testament informs the Old Testament and reveals legitimate instances of sensus plenior. However, we also recognize that the Old Testament informs the New Testament, something some expositors miss or neglect too often. Bryan Chapell provides helpful insight for us. He states, “Christ-centered preaching rightly understood does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ.”

9) The author’s intended meaning in a specific biblical text will never be in contradiction to his own writings or the rest of the canon.

Despite the individual nature of the parts, we affirm that the Scriptures comprise a single whole that can never contradict itself. At the core of this conviction is an even greater conviction about God, who is the ultimate “Author” of the canon. Because God is the ultimate Author of scripture, we can expect to find unity in the immediate, sectional, book and canonical contexts as well.

10) The author’s intended meaning in every biblical text has a theocentric/Christological purpose, and as a result, it has significance for all people, in all places, at all times.

Once the interpreter has discovered both the content and the context of a biblical text, his final task is to verbalize his understanding of the author’s intended meaning. This is the goal of hermeneutics and the moment of truth in exegesis. The author’s intended meaning will always be theocentric-it will reflect the great truths about God and His Christ. After all, the Bible is first and foremost a record of God’s redemptive plan for the world, through Messiah Jesus.

In recent years, the Church has experienced a significant increase in man-centered preaching. This type of preaching, which places its primary emphasis upon the “felt needs” of the listener, often substitutes psychology for exposition. Greidanus states, “In contrast to anthropocentric interpretation, therefore, theocentric interpretation would emphasize that the Bible’s purpose is first of all to tell the story of God. In relating that story, the Bible naturally also depicts human characters-not, however, for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them.” Our awareness of the theocentric nature of Scripture will help ensure that our interpretation and preaching are God-centered with a Christological focus (cf. John 5:39).

These ten principles serve as the foundation for our exegesis. It is important to keep them in the forefront of our thinking when we study the Bible.

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  1. Eric Carpenter   •  

    Dr. Akin,

    Thank you for these posts. I have found them very helpful in thinking through these issues.

    I do have one question. You wrote, “Second, interpreters must distinguish between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ texts in Scripture. Fee and Stuart state, ‘Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way-unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.’

    How do we correctly, as Fee and Stuart say, determine when “it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.” In other words, how should we go about knowing specifically when narrative/description is designed to be prescriptive for us today? I’d greatly appreciate any thoughts you have on this particular issue. I’d also love to hear of a biblical example of narrative/description that you believe is prescriptive.

    Thank you very much.

  2. Daniel Akin   •     Author

    On the question of how we determine what is descriptive versus prescriptive in a narrative, the matters of literary and historical context are key (as is the case in nearly all genres of Scripture, wisdom being an exception – at times). Thus, when interpreting historical narrative we should first consider where, or rather when, this text occurs in the meta-narrative of Scripture. Meta-narrative refers to the fact that we have one Bible, Genesis to Revelation, as a witness of the one God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-in his relationship with creation and his covenant people. Some refer to this as Salvation History. So the first step is to consider where the particular historical narrative lies in the overall, salvation-historical, narrative of Scripture.

    Second, issues of literary and historical context on a smaller level come into play. For historical narrative, historical context is key to understanding the elements of a particular discourse. These elements include the geographical, political, social, and cultural aspects of the text. Literary context helps us understand how particular historical narratives fit into their context of a section of a book, whole book, or grouping of books (e.g. the Pentateuch).

    Third, an important point to remember is that in a historical narrative meaning lies on the level of a whole discourse. This means that individual verses should not be taken as “prescriptive” apart from their placement in the paragraph or story in which they fall. Thus an important step in interpreting these texts is to figure out the beginning and end of a particular “narrative.” For example, when preaching the famous Good Shepherd discourse of John 10, should one begin with John 10:1 or John 9:39? A brief investigation will show that, in John 10, Jesus is likely speaking to the Pharisees who booted the blind man from the synagogue in John 9. This changes our understanding of the passage a great deal if we thought that he was speaking primarily to his disciples. What is then “prescriptive” from this passage? Unfaithful leadership (shepherding) is judged by God, Christ is the faithful, good shepherd and so his people find rest in him. (An eye to the larger narrative context would then look to John 21 and Jesus command for Peter to feed/tend his sheep.)

    All this is meant to indicate that historical and literary context is indeed key in determining the meaning of any text, but especially historical narrative. This meaning should yield a robust theology that is applicable for “today.” Determining what is prescriptive or descriptive in a text should, then, flow from these considerations.

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