Where is the Interpreter to Learn Proper Hermeneutics?

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proper hermeneutics

Where is the interpreter to learn proper hermeneutics? What is the authoritative source that teaches how to rightly handle the Scripture? Can we and should we follow the exegetical practices of the New Testament? Richard N. Longenecker answers those questions in the following manner:

 It is my contention that, unless we are ‘restorationists’ in our attitude toward hermeneutics, Christians today are committed to the apostolic faith and doctrine of the New Testament, but not necessarily to the apostolic exegetical practices as detailed for us in the New Testament (“Negative Answer to the Question—Who is the Prophet Talking About? Some Reflections on the New Testament’s Use of the Old,” The Right Doctrine From the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, 385) .

Longenecker is arguing that we must be committed to the conclusions of the apostles while simultaneously believing that they came to those conclusions invalidly (though their conclusions were protected by divine revelation). Were the apostles wrong in the way they handled Old Testament texts? If they were not wrong, then how could we be wrong in following their example?

According to Longenecker, apostolic hermeneutics and exegesis should be judged by contemporary theories rather than the other way around. Over one hundred years ago, E. C. Dargan, professor of homiletics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary contended, “Thus in all essential respects we find the apostolic preaching the regulative basis for Christian preaching in all times” (A History of Preaching: From the Apostolic Fathers to the Close of the Reformation, vol. 1, 25). S. Lewis Johnson reached the opposite conclusion of Longenecker regarding apostolic hermeneutics:

 In conclusion I raise the question again: ‘Can we reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament?’ Unhesitatingly the reply is yes, although we are not allowed to claim for our results the infallibility of the Lord and His apostles. They are reliable teachers of biblical doctrine and they are reliable teachers of hermeneutics and exegesis. We not only can reproduce their exegetical methodology, we must if we are to be taught their understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Their principles, probably taught them by our Lord in His post-resurrection ministry, are not abstruse and difficult. They are simple, plain, and logical. The things they find in the Old Testament are really there, although the Old Testament authors may not have seen them fully (The Old Testament in the New: An Argument for Biblical Inspiration, 93-94) .

The view, most fiercely defended by Walter C. Kaiser, that proper hermeneutics involves searching for the single original intended meaning of the human author in the biblical texts immediate and antecedent contexts alone cannot adequately account for the biblical testimony. For instance, Robert Reymond critiquing Kaiser notes,

 Aside from the vexing fact, however, that we just do not know for sure the chronological relationship that exists between some portions of Scripture (was Obadiah written before Joel, Psalm ‘x’ before Psalm ‘y,’ Mark before Matthew, Colossians before Ephesians, 2 Peter before Jude?) and hence could fail to use an antecedent bit of revelation, it is just a fact that there are passages where there is no way the exegete can discern what the author or speaker intended without the benefit of subsequent revelational insight. As one example, apart from the apostles’ later authoritative insights found in Acts 2:24-31 and 13:34-37, there is no way that the modern exegete could discern, on the grounds allowed him by Kaiser, that David was not speaking of his own resurrection when he wrote Psalm 16 but was rather speaking specifically and exclusively of Messiah’s resurrection. . . .

[W]e should not hesitate to employ later expressions of the divine Author’s mind spoken through inspired men to clarify earlier expressions of his mind to inspired men (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 51).

According to Kaiser, the interpreter must never distinguish between the human author’s intention and the divine author’s intention because they are always equated; furthermore, if a different sense were ever found, then it would no longer be an objective sense or a Scriptural sense (“The Single Intent of Scripture,” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: 55-69). But such a distinction is found throughout the Scripture. Consider the example of Caiaphas in John 11:49-52:

 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.’ Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Caiaphas, the high priest, intended to refer only to a volatile situation between the Romans and the Jews; Jesus had to be put to death before his popularity upset national security. But it is clear that John records a divine intention behind these prophetic words that exceeded the intent of the original author of the words. John asserts that what Caiaphas said was not “on his own initiative” but was an unwitting prophesy about the relationship between the substitutionary death of Christ and the universal gathering of the redeemed children of God. This is one obvious example that reveals that there can be a divine intention in words that surpasses the author’s intent. D.A. Carson explains,

 Caiaphas spoke his considered if calloused opinion. But when Caiaphas spoke, God was also speaking, even if they were not saying the same things. … While Caiaphas is thinking at a purely political level, John invites his readers to think in terms of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 422).

Wicked Caiaphas was ironically functioning as a prophet in his role as high priest. Herman Ridderbos writes, “It is much rather the intent of the Evangelist to say that Caiaphas, as the highest officeholder of the (historic) year, had to give prophetic expression not to his own purpose but to God’s purpose in the death of Jesus in the words he chose” (The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, trans. John Vriend, 409).

Raju D. Kunjummen explains the implications of this text for hermeneutics: “it calls into question the a priori assumption of constant confluence between human and divine meaning intentions,” and “it opens the possibility that God may through a later author explain more of what he had in mind in an earlier statement” (The Single Intent of Scripture—Critical Examination of a Theological Construct” Grace Theological Journal 7 no. 1 (1986): 81-100).

The testimony of Scripture demands faithful interpreters understand both the intended meaning of the original author and the divine intention of the ultimate author. As Kunjummen reasons, “Divine accommodation in the use of human language is not tantamount to divine self-reduction of authorial intent to the understanding of the biblical author” (“The Single Intent of Scripture,” 108). Moreover, “the analogy of Scripture” is a principle that Scripture itself commends to interpreters, not some foreign notion imposed on the text. The analogy of Scripture simply reminds the interpreter that the Word of God is infallibly autointerpreting. “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” and the God who gives his word is also the interpreter of his word (1 Tim 3:16). The scriptural data forces us to conclude that later canonical context provides interpreters with fuller understanding of the meaning of earlier Scriptural passages. We must approach every biblical text like the apostles, unapologetically prejudiced by the canonical revelation of Christ and his kingdom.

By |December 8th, 2014|Categories: Blog|Tags: , |

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About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today


  1. Jeremy Byrd December 8, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    This is a fascinating article. It is possible that the human author may not have known the full ramifications of the inspiration of the Divine author, particularly in the context of the ongoing redemptive plan in the Old Testament setting.

    “The scriptural data forces us to conclude that later canonical context provides interpreters with fuller understanding of the meaning of earlier Scriptural passages. We must approach every biblical text like the apostles, unapologetically prejudiced by the canonical revelation of Christ and his kingdom.”


  2. Eric J. Dolce December 9, 2014 at 8:54 am

    “The analogy of Scripture simply reminds the interpreter that the Word of God is infallibly autointerpreting.” This is simultaneously an awesome and comforting truth to live by. Thanks for this article!

  3. Rich Barcellos December 9, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    “The analogy of Scripture simply reminds the interpreter that the Word of God is infallibly autointerpreting.” I am going to tweet that! 🙂

  4. Rich Barcellos December 9, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    this to supplement what the prince has said:

    Cf. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward An Exegetical Theology (1981; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, Sixth printing, January 1987), 134ff., where Kaiser fails to distinguish properly between analogia Scripturae and analogia fidei and advocates what he calls “The Analogy of (Antecedent) Scripture.” In the conclusion to his discussion (140), he says, “However, in no case must that later teaching be used exegetically (or in any other way) to unpack the meaning or to enhance the usability of the individual text which is the object of our study,” emphasis Kaiser’s. This is, at worst, a denial of the historic understanding of analogia fidei and, at best, a very unhelpful and dangerous modification of the principle. It seems to me that this would mean, for example, that we cannot utilize anything in the Bible outside of Gen. 1-3 to help us interpret it. Since there is nothing in the Bible antecedent to Gen. 1-3, interpreters are left with no subsequent divine use, no subsequent divine explanation of how to understand that passage. This method ends up defeating itself when we consider that Genesis (and all other books of the Bible) was never intended to stand on its own and that the Bible itself comments on antecedent texts, helping its readers understand the divine intention of those texts. Kaiser’s method seems to imply that the exegesis of a given biblical text is to be conducted as if no subsequent biblical texts exist. We must realize that, in one sense, we have an advantage that the biblical writers did not have–we have a completed canon. But we must also realize that the Bible’s use of itself (whenever and wherever this occurs) is infallible. If this is so, then the exegete, using tools outside of the biblical text under consideration, ought to consult all possible tools, which includes how the Bible comments upon itself no matter where or when it does so. If the Holy Spirit is the only infallible interpreter of Holy Scripture, then certainly exegetes ought to utilize biblical texts outside of Genesis to aid in the understanding of Genesis. It seems to me that Kaiser’s proposal would give warrant for exegetes to consult fallible commentaries on Genesis to aid in its interpretation, but deny the use of the Bible itself (which contains inspired and infallible commentary) to that same end.

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