Hermeneutics in Logic

Hermeneutics and Christ

Graeme Goldsworthy

HERMENEUTICS has been one of the big topics of the last 25 years. A seemingly endless series of books has been produced and academic papers written.

However, ‘hermeneutics’ is not only the preserve of academia. The Christian who says “I’m just a simple Bible-believer” can be just as adept at imposing an interpretation on the text as the most sophisticated theologian. Nor is ‘hermeneutics’ an entirely modern question. Christians have always struggled with how to read and apply the Bible, and have adopted various ways of doing so.

In fact, the history of how Chris­tians have read and applied the Bible is most instructive, especially if we take note of what was really happen­ing in the various historical develop­ments. What we find repeatedly is that when people were asking ‘What do we think about the Scriptures?’ they were really asking ‘What do we think about Christ?’. This is because what we think about the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, will run parallel with what we think about the inscripturated Word of God, the Bible.

1. Apostolic hermeneutics

The apostolic answer to the herme­neutical question is the correct one: Jesus Christ is the God-man, saviour and Lord, to whom the apostles and all the Scriptures testify. This means that the objective historical Jesus is in fact the content of the gospel message and the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). The apos­tle’s answer comes from taking seri­ously the fact that Jesus claims to be the truth. There is a sense in which the apostles understood the Old Tes­tament as providing the substructure of the gospel – and so the Old Testa­ment helps us understand the New Testament. But the main thrust of the New Testament is on the person of Jesus as the one who makes clear what the Old Testament is all about. So the apostle’s hermeneutical posi­tion is that the gospel is the power of God for interpreting the Bible.

2. Early Christian hermeneutics

The early church was characterised by two streams, one from Alexan­dria and one from Antioch.

Christians at Alexandria followed Hellenistic Jews in adopting Greek ideas. Gnostic influences, which dis­counted the material world as inher­ently evil, led to a spirituality which moved God away from his historical acts. The historical events were seen as just allegorical stories and that inevitably led to the gospel being eclipsed as an historical event.

Antioch, on the other hand, emphasised the historical meaning of the Bible and so preserved the gospel as an historical event in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Out of this grew the historical method of typology which saw the Old Testament events as foreshadowing the gospel without dissolving the Old Testament’s nat­ural, historical meaning. The Anti­och strand’s weakness was its ten­dency towards the subtle heresy of Nestorius, which split Jesus’ divine nature from his human nature and declared him to be not only of two natures, but also to be two persons.

A third development in the early church was interpreting the Bible in the light of ecclesiastical authority and dogma. This is a subtle problem because we all do it and, to some degree it’s right that we do. We all interpret the Bible from inside our own adopted tradition and climb on the shoulders of the believers who have gone before us. The problem is when an ecclesiastical creed or con­fession of faith becomes the external authority by which Scripture is tested and understood. This became a bigger problem in medieval hermeneutics.

3. The struggle for an orthodox hermeneutic

The two big theological questions over which Christians struggled in the first four centuries were about the nature of God and about the person of Christ. How could God become man? And how could a man be both God and man?

By moving away from the apos­tolic hermeneutic of an historical Jesus, the biblical perspective on the relationship between the divine and the human, and between the eternal and the historical, was lost – both in relation to the Bible and Jesus. With­out this perspective, people came up with all sorts of heresies about the nature of God and Christ, fusing or separating Jesus’ divine and human natures. Ebionism (Jesus is only human), Docetism (Jesus is only divine), Apollinarianism (Jesus is divine but not fully human), and Nestorianism (Jesus is two persons, two natures), were all trying to solve the mystery by dissolving one reality to make room for another. The same happened in heresies about God. The unity of God was preserved by reducing the Son and the Spirit to beings who were less than fully God.

Eventually, in 451 AD, the Coun­cil of Chalcedon set things straight by formulating a way of speaking about Christ which didn’t try to solve the mystery of how God could become man, but instead preserved it by setting the bounds of true state­ments. The Council decided that to keep an orthodox view you should believe that: a. Jesus is true God; b. Jesus is true man; c. the two natures are united in one person, but not fused; d. the two natures remain dis­tinct, but are not separated. This struc­ture of unity and distinction charac­terised the relationships in the Trinity. It also kept the true relationship between the divine and the human, and between the eternal and the historical, both in relation to the Bible (the hermeneutical question) and Jesus (the Christological question).

4. Medieval hermeneutics

Hermeneutics was very complex in the medieval period (500 AD-1500 AD). The influences of Antioch and Alexandria were both struggling for ascendancy and, although the search for the natural and historical signifi­cance of the Bible was never aban­doned, Alexandria won over Antioch.

This lead to a complex method of interpretation being developed which didn’t ignore the natural meaning, but said that the text could be read in a four-fold way – the literal sense, the moral sense, the allegori­cal sense and the anagogical sense (which derived heavenly meanings from the earthly text). Allegorical meaning was at the heart of this approach. Allegory comes out of fus­ing the historical and the eternal, and the divine and the human. They are not kept distinct, and so the basic historical meaning of the text is lost.

Related to this was the idea of the rule of faith – the accumulation of biblical doctrine – which developed into the idea that only the clergy could interpret the Bible correctly. This was really fusing the Christ of history with the body of Christ, the church, so that there was no distinc­tion between Jesus’ authority and the on-going authority of the church through its clergy. It eventually led to the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The other great hermeneutical problem is best seen in the work of Thomas Aquinas. A theological trend that had begun in the second century with Irenaeus, led to the sep­aration of the natural and supernat­ural on the one hand and the fusion of the historical and the divine on the other. Catholicism, as it developed from this through to the late medieval period, came to fuse the ‘Christ who is without’ (the Jesus of history) with the ‘Christ who is within’ (that is, by the presence of his Spirit). The gospel event was redefined more and more in terms of what God does in us rather than as what God has done for us in the historic Jesus. Justification and sanctification were reversed so that a changed life became the basis of acceptance with God. Grace was redefined. It ceased to be God’s atti­tude which makes for the justification of the ungodly, and became the spiri­tual influence which flows (mainly through sacraments) into the soul making it good and, eventually, acceptable to God.

5. The hermeneutics of the Reformation

Luther, and then Calvin along with the other Reformers, abandoned allegorical interpretation and went back to looking for the natural his­torical meaning of the Old Testa­ment. As they did so they also recov­ered the historical gospel, restored justification as the basis of sanctifica­tion, and moved grace from the heart of the believer back into the heart of God.

The Reformation’s hermeneuti­cal principles came out of what the Bible said, and so the gospel returned to being the key to proper interpretation. The unity and distinc­tion of the Old and New Testaments were clearly recognised. Exegesis became a matter of understanding the divine word as it comes to us in human dress. The Christological question “What do you think of Christ?” once more dominated in the interpretation of the Bible. If Jesus was the divine-human word incarnate, the Bible was seen as the divine-human word inscripturate. So, once again, there is unity and distinction. Even though the Bible and Jesus are distinct, they are also the same – they’re both manifesta­tions of the one Word of God.

6. Enlightenment hermeneutics

The Enlightenment of the late sev­enteenth and eighteenth centuries began more as a tendency to the Ebionite heresy in down-playing God’s influence on humanity. Even­tually it rejected God altogether. Instead of the divine and human being both united and distinct in both writing the Bible and reading the text, they were separated. So, even if the Holy Spirit existed, he had no part in writing the texts and the inspiration of Scripture became a meaningless concept. Nor could the Bible-reading believer count on the Spirit to help them understand what they were reading.

The Enlightenment led to vari­ous developments in the business of interpreting the Bible. Once the the­ory of interpretation was divorced from divine revelation in the Bible, working out what the Bible said came to be thought of as a matter of human scientific advances. Different philosophical perspectives, which had always dogged the question of hermeneutics, took over from bibli­cal views of reality and knowledge (metaphysics and epistemology). Theological hermeneutics gave way to philosophical hermeneutics. Rev­elation by God was replaced by nat­ural processes and independent human thought declared God to be irrelevant.

Even though the structure of unity and distinction was held in the­ory, in practice it was constantly attacked by a tendency to turn dis­tinction into separation. In biblical criticism, the Enlightenment led firstly to a concentration on the his­tory of religious thought and the his­tory of the biblical texts. These are both legitimate dimensions of the Bible to study, but concentrating on them separated them from the Bible’s theological and literary dimensions. When the new hermeneutic turned to consider the nature of the Bible texts, their theology was down-played and the author’s inten­tion ignored.

7. An evangelical approach

As evangelicals we believe in the Bible as God’s word to us, but what does this mean?
a. Unlike the Alexandrian strand, we recognise the Bible as both divine and human. The great diversity of texts in the Bible find unity in their common role of testifying to Christ. We reject all tendencies to a docetic or Gnostic Bible which ignores the human context of the divine word.
b.Like the apostles, we recognise that the Old Testament finds its fullest significance in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The rela­tionship of the two Testaments is unity and distinction.
c. Unlike the medievalists, we avoid fusing the historic Christ with the Church as the body of Christ. So we recognise that the Church, far from being the Lord of Scripture, is created by the word and must submit to its authority.
d. While welcoming many of the insights of the Enlightenment, we reject its separation of the divine and human. We see Jesus’ incarnation to be the theological reason for all proper critical study of the text and its background. Much modern liter­ary and historical criticism assumes God has nothing to do with the text, but evangelicals refuse to separate the historical and literary dimen­sions of the Bible from its theological dimension. All critical procedures must be tested by the authority of Christ in his gospel.

This is only the beginning of the story, but at least we can recognize that we can’t think about hermeneutics with­out thinking about Christ.

The Abandonement of Hermenuetics, Part 2

Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:15-21 are the subject of our next inquiry into the “Science” of Hermeneutics. It has been posited in the comments section of the answer to Part 1 that this should be used as a proof text for those who support Women’s Ordination and to not to leads to “General Assembly-like” pronouncements like women not being able to teach adult men but being able to teach male children.

There are several questions that come up when thinking here and must be understood when looking at these two passages. 1) How should we look at Old Testament passages cited by New Testament authors (inspired by the same Spirit?) 2) How much can we read into a text before we obscure and obfuscate its meaning? 3) Can a text have separate contexts?

However first we need to define the major word of this pericope. PROPHECY. John Calvin in his commentary on Acts 2 says, “…this word prophesy doth signify nothing else save only the rare and excellent gift of understanding, as if Joel should say, Under the kingdom of Christ there shall not be a few prophets only, unto whom God may reveal his secrets; but all men shall be endued with spiritual wisdom, even to the prophetical excellency.” John Chrysostom in his Homily V on Acts 2 also gives the same definition as John Calvin saying,” but for the grace, he fetches the prophet as witness. “I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh.” [“And your sons,” etc.] To some the grace was imparted through dreams, to others it was openly poured forth.” This Prophecy of which both Calvin and Chrysostom speak has nothing to do with teaching or preaching, as some have surmised, but has to do with the revelation of the Will of God. In this case Peter is speaking to the Jews who are wondering why Cretans and Arabs are speaking in tongues they do not understand. They are speaking not only in a tongue the Jews cannot understand but of a way that cannot be understand because the Holy Spirit has not been imparted to them. John Piper in a sermon on Acts 2 says this:

In the Old Testament the Spirit of God is the presence of God in the world to reveal himself by some action or word. Therefore when Joel says that God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, he means that God will draw near to men and women and make himself known and felt in a powerful way. There is a great difference between perceiving a lake at a distance and being immersed in the lake. So there is a great difference between experiencing God as a distant object of knowledge and being immersed in his presence. The picture of a worldwide pouring compels us to think of being soaked and saturated and swept along by the Spirit of God. Joel wanted his readers to anticipate an unmistakable flood-tide of God’s presence.

The context of Peter’s commentary and quotation of Joel 2 belies nothing that would tell us Peter here is speaking about teaching and preaching in the Church. Peter is speaking to the Jews during the event of Pentecost when Jesus’ words to the Apostles were fulfilled. To make the argument that Peter here is is quoting Joel to give the office of teacher to both men and women is stretching the meaning of the text. As we see from the several commentators we cannot give a meaning to a text that it itself cannot and does not give. This on its own not only breaks Scripture’s internal hermeneutic but it violates the rules of literary analysis, tools that even wacko conservatives use to help determine the meaning of the text. Also as Reformed Christians who hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the best summary of the Doctrine of the Christian life we must (unless you are like our dispensational friends that believe that we can still receive prophecy after the death of the last Apostle) say that Prophecy has ceased. Richard Gaffin, Professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in his book Perspectives on Pentecost in summary says, “The apostolic witness, prophecy and tongues were bound up with the foundation of the church following the ascension of Christ, and therefore, since the foundation has been laid, have no purpose for today.” For a Reformed believer if Prophecy has ceased then what Joel and Peter speak of in this passage cannot have bearing on us because we do not live in the Apostolic age. The Westminster Confession says:

The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1, section 1:

Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.
Chapter 1, Section 6:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

Even moreso Paul in 1st Timothy 5:17 says, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Now who is to be preaching and teaching? Elders. What are the qualifications for Elders according to Paul (who like Peter and Joel is inspired by the Holy Spirit)? Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 that the office of Overseer, or Elder is restricted to “…the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Now where do Elders receive their call to head the Church? For that let us take a look at Acts 20:17-38. In this passage Paul is writing to the Elders at the church in Ephesus. He is giving them a sort of pep talk and exhorting them to keep strong in the faith that has been delivered to them and to be vigilant like a shepherd tending to their flocks. Now what does this description sound like to you? Sounds like the daily work of a Pastor does it not? Also worth remembering is the location of Timothy when Paul writes to him. Where is he? Ephesus. So if Paul believes that only qualified men (not all men) can be Elders, and Elders are the Shepherds of the Church, and Elders are to be the ones preaching and teaching what does that say about Joel and Peter and there speaking of Prophesy? Well we can be sure that it does not mean that Peter in Acts 2 and Joel in his book chapter 2 cannot be, if taken with the whole counsel of Scripture, to mean that the act of “Prophesy” which both men and women are called can be conflated to therefore mean that both men and women are called to and can preach and be Teaching Elders in the Church of Christ.