The limitations of grammatical-historical method for Christians (McCartney vs. Beale)

A friend just pointed out this gem by Dan McCartney, Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? (ETS 2003).

Favorite quotes: “Method, even a strict grammatical-historical method, does not guarantee correct results. What matters more is the questions one is expecting a text to answer, and the assumptions made about the text in question…The idea of a singular, methodologically isolatable and static historical meaning that we humans can precisely define is an illusory modernist pipe-dream. Meaning is always dynamic and personal.”

[Later] Biblical study cannot be impersonal and strictly controlled. I’m afraid we are going to have to relinquish the illusion of impersonal scientific control of biblical study by strict method, for three reasons:

  1. It is unsuited to the nature of the Bible as divine book (noted already).
  2. Knowledge, meaning, and interpretation is tied up with the person who knows and interprets (Polanyi).
  3. Method alone cannot force all rational people into agreeing on what a text says (quite apart from the question of its truthfulness).

Following are some longer excerpts to help you get the flavor of his argument and whet your appetite. The further you go, the more interesting the article gets [all bolding and italics were added by me].

Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? The answer to this question is usually framed in one of two ways. The approach of Longenecker is to acknowledge that the apostles, in accordance with their age, did things quite differently than our grammatical-historical approach would allow, and concludes, “Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to the specific apostolic exegetical practices.” 1

The other approach is that presented by Greg Beale in his article in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? (hereafter RDWT), 2 who argues that “In fact, of all the many Old Testament citations and allusions found in the New Testament, only a few plausible examples of non-contextual usage have been noted by critics … [and] it is by no means certain that even these examples are non-contextual….”, 3 and concludes that the New Testament did (at least most of the time) follow what is effectively the grammatical-historical meaning, and we should follow their exegetical practice.

I want to suggest a third answer: The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis nor did they consistently interpret according to original historical contextual meanings, but we should follow their exegetical lead anyway

All would agree, I think, that the New Testament writers do sometimes follow “natural” or contextual meanings, and I think most would also agree that at times they find meanings in the Old Testament which are hard to justify by strict grammatical-historical interpretation. The question before us is whether and to what degree we can legitimately find meanings by means that do not conform to grammatical-historically derivable meanings…

…If we do not adopt the viewpoint of Jesus and the apostles that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament, that Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises, that Christ is the true Israel, true Son of God, that the meaning of the biblical texts for the present-day people of God has to do with our relation to God in Christ, then how can our interpretation be deemed in any sense Christian?

But Beale also concedes too much to modernism. Beale, and many others dealing with this issue, also feel the pressure of conforming to modern expectations regarding grammatical-historical meaning. In order for an interpretation to be true, it is assumed that it must be, on some level, grammatical-historical in nature. 6 Thus the approach of Beale and other recent interpreters is to make a valiant attempt to exonerate the New Testament writers of any “non-contextual” interpretation. 7 They argue that (a) the New Testament writers found their christological meanings either in direct predictive prophecy, or more commonly by doing “typology,” rather than force-fitting allegories, (b) typology is not the same as allegory, because it builds on historical correspondence, and (c) the unity of God’s purpose in scripture means that typology is a derivative of grammatical-historical interpretation.

Typology is not grammatical-historical. I very much accept the validity of typological interpretation. But

even leaving aside for the moment those tricky passages which present enormous difficulty to those who would squeeze them into the mold of typology, and leaving aside as well the difficulties in interpreting predictive prophecies, I would challenge the whole notion as to whether typology can lay claim to a grammatical-historical pedigree…

…The difference between allegory and typology is thus not so much in method but in interpretive goal…Typology may very well build on historical correspondence, and may be able to link to grammatical-historical interpretation for one of the corners of typological housebuilding, 9 but typology is not grammatical-historical exegesis. Typology is a theological construction based on a conviction that two events in history or an event in history and a (separate) event in a text are somehow actually related (not just comparable or similar, nor just literarily related) in that the meaning of the former event (or the written record of such) only becomes fully manifest in the later event. [emphasis added] Such a construction cannot be derived purely from the events themselves. Historical meaning indeed provides a tethering point for typology, but what drives typology is the fulfilment in Christ, not the historical meaning itself. 10

Summary to this point:

The argument that has been enjoined in evangelical journals and books so far has usually centered on whether the New Testament writers conformed to the expectations of grammatical-historical exegesis. Beale says that they did (not that they had a carefully worked out methodology, but they stuck to the historical sense generally); therefore we do what they did because it fits with grammatical-historical (contextual) exegesis. Longenecker says that at least sometimes they did not. The New Testament writers were inspired, and by revelation saw applications and meanings that are not derivable by grammatical-historical method, but we do not have the advantage of inspiration; therefore we cannot follow them.

Note that both Beale and Longenecker, and just about everyone else outside of postmodernism, simply assume that a grammatical-historical exegetical method is the correct and only correct way to go about the task of interpretation…

…One recent writer (John Walton) has even gone so far as to deny the term “hermeneutics” to anything which is not a strict application of grammatical-historical method. W. Kaiser, discussing Matt 2:17, quite logically applies this stricture even to the New Testament writers: “Did Matt use Jeremiah 31:15 in the same way that Jeremiah meant it to be understood, or did Matthew misappropriate Jeremiah’s text and shape it for his own purposes?” 12 Note the either/or. Either the biblical writers were presenting the Old Testament text in the same way the original author intended it, or they were misappropriating it. To preserve the integrity of the New Testament writers, then, it becomes necessary to argue that somehow the New Testament writers were basically interpreting literally along the lines of what we do in grammatical-historical interpretation. Otherwise one would be forced to a conclusion like McCasland’s (reprinted in RDWT), that the New Testament writers simply distorted and misused the Old Testament, and their conclusions are simply false…

What ties all these viewpoints together, liberal and conservative, is the simple assumption that grammatical-historical exegesis alone is legitimate for the present-day Christian interpreter, and that true interpretation of the meaning of a text is, unless over-ridden by mysterious divine inspiration, 13 completely constrained by grammatical-historical principles.

I challenge this, not on post-modernist grounds or by appealing to some recent subjectivist literary theory, but on biblical and theological grounds.

Grammatical-historical exegesis is only a very limited method, which doesn’t always get us where we need to be, because grammatical-historical interpretation is strictly interested only in what may be derived from original historical human meaning.

The idea of a singular, methodologically isolatable and static historical meaning that we humans can precisely define is an illusory modernist pipe-dream. Meaning is always dynamic and personal. (By “personal” I mean “involving relationships between persons,” not “individualistic,” and certainly not “subjectivistic.”) But even if one could isolate a static and impersonal meaning to the biblical text, the grammatical-historical method alone would still be inadequate.

Grammatical-historical method does not, and by its very nature cannot, deal with the special hermeneutical considerations of a divine text…the apostles and their Jewish contemporaries all understood the Bible to have divine meanings because it was a divine book. If we agree, then why should we limit our hermeneutic to a method that explicitly limits the meaning to the human intent?

“Pure” grammatical-historical method in Old Testament study does not give us the gospel. When we try to read the Old Testament from the vantage point of its original context we find hints at the gospel, and we find principles about the nature of God and man that imply the gospel, and we find prophetic expectations of a gospel, but one cannot really see the gospel itself until one gets to the New Testament (cf. Heb 11:39-40). But then we are, after the fact, able to see how the Old Testament is as a whole, moving toward the gospel. A second reading, a re-reading of the Old Testament from the standpoint of knowing its eventuation in Christ, manifests what God was doing all along.

The apostles regard the Old Testament as containing something that was hidden, something that is only now revealed. I think we can illustrate this, as others have done, by pointing to some similarities of the story of the Bible to a mystery story.

A “first reading” is characterized by uncertainty, wondering what it’s all about, and how it’s going to conclude. There are clues, many of them ambiguous, which result sometimes in “false” leads (e.g. the notion that attempting to obey the law leads to life). The surprise ending is then really a surprise, but once a reader gets to the end, the story holds together. One can then see how the clues were really all there, but they didn’t make sense until the ending pulled it together.

Just as a good mystery writer knows the solution to the puzzle even as he lays out the material, so the Bible’s divine Author knew the end of the story before he set out the process of revealing the story in time. I vigorously and whole-heartedly believe that Jesus was absolutely correct when he told the disciples in Luke 24 that the Old Testament was about him, his death and resurrection, and the offer of the gospel to the nations. And from our post-resurrection perspective, we can see it. But I have difficulty in seeing how one can aver that an ordinary time-bound human, believer though he be, could have seen it prior to the event.  Where, in a strictly grammatical-historically understood Old Testament, is the death and resurrection of Messiah? Jesus and Paul and Peter all say that Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just predicted but lies at the core of the meaning of the Old Testament, yet not a single Old Testament passage, when viewed strictly from its ostensive grammatical-historically determinable meaning, unambiguously states that the messiah will die and rise three days later. We can only see it after the fact. A genuine “first reading” of the story allows for a surprise element. Or as Paul calls it, a mystery which is now revealed.

Interpretive method is subservient to interpretive goals and assumptions. An interpretive method is a codification of procedures used to find or elucidate the meaning of a text. But the procedures are simply tools for understanding, and therefore method is chosen according to what one is trying to accomplish with the text, what the interpreter thinks the text is, and what it is about. In other words, what determines both method and results is the interpretive goal and assumptions about the text. Method, even a strict grammatical-historical method, does not guarantee correct results. What matters more is the questions one is expecting a text to answer, and the assumptions made about the text in question. 16

…pure grammatical-historical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible doesn’t at all “prove” that Jesus is the Christ…

…The Bible is redemptive-historical in character…Redemptive history is not just about the past; it pushes its way into the future, and has eschatological purposes that could not be perceived in its original environment. 19…if one expects, along with the apostles, Jesus, the Jews of the first century, and the Christians of all ages (even the Antiochenes) until the Enlightenment, that the Old Testament text speaks to what for its writers were future generations, and if one thinks that all the promises of God, not just those the New Testament specifically interprets, are yea and amen in Christ, one will be unsatisfied with grammatical-historical interpretation (unless one fudges).

…Jesus and the apostles tell us what the genre of the Old Testament is: it is a book that points us to Christ. Yet we resist what they tell us, and argue, “no, no, it is a historical document—the only effective difference between it and other purely human documents is that it is without error.”…

..[The lack of controls] scares people, because it looks like all the certainty we achieved by holding to an inerrant bible has just been thrown out the window by recognizing that there is no way to rigorously control meaning. There are controls, but they are not ones that can, by dint of rational exactness or methodological rigor, guarantee correct results. The controls (which I’ll mention momentarily) are not rationally compulsory or mechanically ineluctable, but are, like meaning generally, personal…

…The fact that controls are personal does not mean they are purely subjective…The real “control” for the apostles and for us comes from at least three directions:

  1. An assumption of coherency of God’s story.
  2. The conviction that Christ is the endpoint of the story.
  3. The promise of the Holy Spirit’s involvement.

These clearly don’t quite give us a “box” that clearly differentiates legitimate from illegitimate hermeneutical activity. They are rather like tethers or trajectories than walls, and hence cannot provide independently verifiable proof of legitimacy…

…Summary: There is certainly a necessity for us to do disciplined grammatical-historical interpretation. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that grammatical-historical interpretation of the Old Testament is going to give us all we need…

My CONCLUSION then: Because we stand outside the immediate stream of biblical history we benefit enormously from carefully examining ancient Near Eastern environments and historical circumstances within which the text grew, and differentiating how the text functioned in its ancient Near Eastern setting from the way it functions later in the course of biblical history—i.e. unlike the apostles we engage in conscious historical study and grammatical-historical interpretation. On the other hand, even were such study as “objective” and independent of larger interpretive concerns as some people seem to think, we dare not stop there. If we do, the Old Testament will remain either an antiquarian curio, a museum piece from which, like Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, we might be able occasionally to draw a moral lesson or tidbit of wisdom, or alternatively a legal code, but it will not itself be a gospel book. We must rather, like Jesus and the apostles, go on to see and read the Old Testament text in the context not just of the Bible as a whole, but in the context of redemptive history as a whole. In particular, we must read the Old Testament with Christian eyes, with eyes that believe the Old Testament as part of a gospel book, as a vital story that becomes our story because it is Christ’s story. Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? Indeed we must.

Footnote 6.: Subsequent to the actual delivery of this paper, Greg Beale indicated some dissatisfaction with being classed with the “grammatical-historical-only” people, and averred essential agreement with my material which follows. However, as the quotation on p.1 shows, Beale still labors to preserve the notion that the NT writers were only minimally midrashic; I am more sympathetic to Longenecker’s contention that the NT writers were, like their contemporaries, unabashedly midrashic, and we need not jump through exegetical hoops to try to maintain otherwise.

Dan McCartney, Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? Happy reading!

Side Note: Though Peter Enns was the lightening rod for the hermeneutics debate at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, McCartney is the most recent biblical studies faculty to leave the Philadelphia campus; he is now teaching at Redeemer Theological Seminary in Dallas.  This provides more evidence that recent debates at WTS were never exclusively about Enns and his book. The fact that Westminster recently hired Greg Beal to help replace McCartney on the NT faculty reflects the administration’s current hermeneutic orientation in relationship to what McCartney proposes here.


7 thoughts on “The limitations of grammatical-historical method for Christians (McCartney vs. Beale)

  1. Marty Foord says:

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for the link to this paper dude, I really enjoyed reading it. It’s interesting because there’s much in it that coheres with a brilliant paper written by David Steinmetz (an historical theologian) entitled “The Superiority of Precritical Exegesis” ( particularly concerning the hegemony of the grammatical-historical method from the Enlightenment.

    Blessings bro,

    Marty Foord.

    ps: I’m now home from Tyndale and teaching again at my college in Perth, Australia. It’s good to be back.

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for stopping by Marty. I’ll check out Steinmetz’s article. Welcome back to the homeland. Three of the guys from here are going back to Tyndale again to finish off their work.

  3. David Ker says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m heading over to read the original paper.

  4. […] Ben Byerly for some useful links on […]

  5. Rich Rojas says:

    Ben! Good to run across your blog. Thnks for the helps during the WTS yrs.

  6. […] Byerly points to (and quotes extensively from) an essay on how historical exegesis relates to the patterns of exegesis used within the New […]

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