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.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 15: The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part C

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part C

2. Preaching must honor the principle of authorial intent, recognizing that the ultimate author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, God Himself.

The faithful expositor is humbled, even haunted, by the realization that when he stands to preach he stands to preach what has been given by the Holy Spirit of God. Why is he haunted? Because he understands that what is before his eyes is divinely inspired by God, and he trembles at the very thought of abusing, neglecting or altering what God Himself wrote. Yes, the Bible is best described as the Word of God written in the words of men. However, we must never forget it is ultimately the Word of God, and the divine author’s intended meaning as deposited in the text should be honored. The Westminster Dictionary (A.D. 1645) captures this well when it states, “. . . the true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers, . . . in order that the text may speak . . . and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner that [his audience] may discern [the voice of God].” Charles Spurgeon notes,

A sermon comes with far greater power to the consciences of the hearers when it is plainly the very Word of God–not a lecture about the Scripture, but Scripture itself opened up and inforced . . . I will further recommend you to hold to the ipsissima verba, the very Words of the Holy Ghost . . . those sermons which expound the exact words of the Holy Spirit are the most useful and most agreeable to the major part of our congregations. They love to have the words themselves explained and
expounded (Lectures to My Students, 73).

Haddon Robinson adds, “When a preacher fails to preach the Scriptures, he abandons his authority. He confronts his hearers no longer with a word from God but only with another word from men.” In the 20th century the issue of authorial intent came under heavy and sustained assault, especially with the popularity of the deconstruction movement and its godfather, the deceased Jacques Derrida. For a number of years the English literary critic E. D. Hirsch stood in the gap. Kevin Vanhoozer has exposed the underlying [a] theistic/ [a] gnostic agenda that was driving the deconstructionist all along. In his work, Is There a Meaning in This Text, he presents a careful and impressive defense for “Resurrecting the Author” (ch. 5) and “Redeeming the Text” (ch. 6). This is a much needed critique. It is a sad commentary how easily evangelicals can be fooled, if not by the academy, then by the culture. That this theological and hermeneutical quicksand is ever a serious consideration for those who man our pulpits and shepherd the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a tragedy with enormous consequences. We should not ignore what a reader or hearer brings to a text or a sermon. However, we should not deify (small “d”) it either.

3. Scripture must be interpreted and understood as it was given to the original audience. The text cannot mean today what it did not mean then.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart correctly assert, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 64).

This principle does not neglect the fact that the faithful expositor must build a sturdy bridge between the historical audience and their context, and the audience he addresses here and now. It does mean he will not “eisegete” the text, reading into it the preconceived notions of his own imagination or interest. Further, he will not injure the inspired text with a fanciful and irresponsible hermeneutic that surpasses the allegorist of the medieval period. As evangelical expositors we must continue to affirm that “the meaning is one, though the applications are many.” We must honor the text as it was given and as it would have been understood by the original audience. However, and this is crucially important. This principle does not ignore the divine authorship of Scripture, interpreting Scripture in light of the whole canon, the flow and nature of redemptive history and its Christological focus (principle #5 below), or the intriguing issue of Sensus Plenior. As Vanhoozer argues, and we find his argument compelling, “‘the fuller meaning’ of Scripture–the meaning associated with divine authorship–emerges only at the level of the whole canon . . .the canon as a whole becomes the unified act for which the divine intention serves as the unifying principle. The divine intention supervenes on the intention of the human authors. The Spirit will apply meaning, not change it” (264-65). In other words, implications and significances embedded in the meaning of the text, in light of the whole canon and the grand redemptive storyline may certainly come to light. This will provide balance, as well as a healthy affirmation of the principle of progressive revelation.