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

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The more biblical studies I learned, the harder it was to preach it UNTIL . . . (AKMA on hermeneutics)

AKMA: Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs (an article well worth reading.)

. . . Once I settled into my seminary studies, however, I discovered that my fascination with biblical studies engendered a baffling problem: the more I learned in my biblical courses, the less my studies seemed to enhance my ministry and preaching. Like any good academic apprentice, I tried at first to redouble my efforts. That only aggravated the problem; I knew more and more, but the technical apparatus of my learning always seemed to stand between me and the fluent, compelling, preach-able biblical theology for which I thirsted. My increasing technical expertise did not help me inhabit and proclaim the traditions I was studying.

. . . My way forward involved learning to explore the Bible and Christian tradition without participating in the ceaseless power struggle over whose interpretation is authoritatively right and whose is wrong. This means sidestepping — recuperating from — a fixation on the illusory authority of claiming the “correct” interpretation. I offer instead a way of thinking about interpretation that still involves deliberation about better and sounder interpretations, but without pretensions to decisive interpretive authority.

. . . I’ll summarize my postmodern therapy — a way out of the power struggle — in a quick tour of a promising alternative to the familiar landscape of modern critical biblical studies. Such an alternative may necessarily appear unfamiliar, and defy some deeply embedded imperatives of modern academic biblical study.

. . . One distinguishing mark of this alternative approach is the shift from hermeneutics oriented around the written word, to the interpretation of signs (semiotics) that is oriented toward communication and meaning in general, of which the interpretation of words is but one instance.

. . . Everything signifies, and in the economy of signification, words make up only a small, specific ingredient.

. . . The illusion that “meaning” lies within our control tends to blind us to how partially we understand our interpretations, even interpretations of our own words and actions.

We thus have no overarching criterion that separates legitimate interpretive sheep from misconceived goats. We can always assert that this or that interpretation passes muster — but we cannot display an ultimate criterion that gives decisive legitimacy to our favored interpretations. This should come as no great surprise. A truly universal criterion would meet with no dissent, since its status as a transcendent, universal criterion would render dissent incoherent. Critical readers have tried to define a hermeneutical method that results in unassailably legitimate interpretations, but none has attained a consensus that befits a universal or transcendent standard.

. . . Our communications function predictably and (on the whole) quite successfully because they rely on our participation in powerful patterns of shared behavior and custom. The more thoroughly one complies with one’s neighbors’ expectations, the more likely one’s communication with these neighbors will play out to mutual satisfaction.

[Note: this is where Relevance Theory can come in.]

. . . Signifying practices constitute subcultures with their own rules of engagement, jargon, expectations, etiquette. We learn how to participate in these distinct practices by inhabiting them, acknowledging the extent to which the subculture’s traditions and axioms prevail over our own bright ideas, and learning to express our ideas in the idiom of the particular signifying practice.

The upshot:

We have to get used to the idea that we have no access to an “objective,” universal criterion for deciding the absolutely right interpretation. [Emphasis mine.] We need to allow an elasticity, a mutual generosity, that neither historicists nor inerrantists can account for. We shouldn’t be looking for “the right answer” but should rather arrive at answers by which we can live and, in the end, by which we can stand before God’s throne of judgment. Each of us has to recognize that there are plenty of people smarter and more pious than you or me who will come to conclusions about scripture that we won’t like. So — thanks be to God — we who interpret scripture in the church have centuries of the saints’ teaching to show us ways of living, embodying, these answers.

I have made these points in public forums and time after time the upshot has been lost. What people hear and fear is relativism, chaos, indeterminacy. . .

. . . Jesus did not bring the gospel by coercion. He laid out the gospel so that people were free to decide. God vindicated him, as God will vindicate all who in faithfulness perpetuate the gospel in their lives.

. . .  There isn’t some esoteric meaning in Jesus’ sayings that takes an academician to explain; the gesture of teaching to give, the gesture of giving, and the gesture of living frugally all communicate something about how we put this world’s resources to use. Thus, the disciplined study of the Bible and of its interpreters over the ages leads some practitioners to deeper, sounder faith, while it leads others to church-less skepticism. It’s not the apparent facts that determine interpreters’ reception of them, but the ways that interpreters fit them together — or can’t. . .

By shifting our interpretive attention slightly away from words’ allegedly intrinsic meanings, and noticing the world’s vast interwoven fabric of expression and apprehension, offering and uptake, we can recognize biblical writings as gestures on the part of generations of storytellers and lawgivers, authors and editors and scribes, toward helping us recognize God’s ways and God’s character. The earliest audiences for these gestures perhaps misconstrued them; subsequent generations misconstrued them; and we too are likely to misconstrue them. We cannot stave off error by intensifying our attention to methods and facts in a futile effort to impose or control correct interpretation. We can, however, work toward minimizing our errors by . . . [click on Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs]

Late draft for an article published in the Yale Divinity School alumni/ae magazine Reflections, Spring 2008, pages 53-57. I reckon this draft differs from the final copy in some respects, but the differences should be slight

Take a quick 7 question quiz to find out your views on how the NT interprets the OT

Zondervan’s Koinonia blog has a 7 question quiz “that looks at your view of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.” It’s only 7 questions long, so TAKE THE QUIZ and see where you line up!

To anyone who knows me or my pedigree, my results will be no surprise; I was pretty solidly in one camp.

This fall Zondervan is publishing the book Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns are  contributors to the book.


Bible interpretation test; universal or cultural?

Most of us probably think that we are reasonably consistent in the way we interpret the Bible. Test it out with this Cultural Hermeneutics Test from William J. Webb. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), pages 14-16.

“Vote” for each verse: A, B, or C.
“A” means “universal and transcultural,”
“B” means “Christians don’t agree”
“C” means “Cultural and not for Christians today.”
[This is McKnight’s version; couldn’t find the link.]

Explain WHY you feel this way?

Webb’s original question: “Which of these instructions from Scripture are still in force for us today exactly as they are articulated ‘on the page’?”

[Go with your best hunch, and enjoy ;-]]

  1. ‘God. . . said to them [Adam and Eve], ‘Be fruitful and increase in Number’ ” (Gen 1:28).
  2. ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5).
  3. ‘When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce. . . you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 26: 12).
  4. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (l Cor 16:20).
  5. “Women should remain silent in the churches” (l Cor 14:34).
  6. “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (l Tim 5:23).
  7. “Set apart for the LORD. . . every firstborn male of your herds and flocks” (Deut 15:19). Continue reading

Take a hermeneutics quiz

From Scot McKnight’s Leadership Journal Intro: When we interpret Scripture, what goes on in our heads and our minds and our traditions (and the latter is far more significant than many of us recognize) in making our decisions.

What decisions? Which passages not to read as normative. The passages we tend not to read at all.

If we’re all subject to selective perception, at least to some degree, it’s important to recognize what we tend to miss or gloss over, especially if we’re church leaders.

This quiz is designed to surface the decisions we make, perhaps without thinking about them, and about how we both read our Bible and don’t read our Bible. Some will want to quibble with distinctions or agree with more than one answer. No test like this can reveal all the nuances needed, but broad answers are enough to raise the key issues. On a scale of 1-5, mark the answer that best fits your approach to reading the Bible. (If you fall between response 1 and response 3, give yourself a 2.) Your score will reveal where you land on our hermeneutical scale.

Take the Test – 20 questions; quick clicks

Historical-grammatical exegesis & the “eclectic and literary method” (quotes)

Yesterday, I cited Christianity Today’s interview with Carson and Beale about Commentary of the NT use of the Old Testament. Here are some further quotes about methodology and some of the limitations of historical-grammatical exegesis.

Beale: Historical-grammatical exegesis traditionally has been used to exegete a Hebrew or Greek paragraph. You try to interpret it contextually in the book, using word studies, grammar, and syntax. You try to understand the logical development of thought within the paragraph, historical background, and theological or figurative problems. You check for parallel texts. It’s a whole array of things you bring to bear on a particular paragraph.

Eclectic and literary [method] extends grammatical-historical exegesis from just looking atomistically at the paragraph in the context of its book. In my view, part of exegetical method has to do with how the passage fits into the corpus of the author, how it fits in the New Testament, and how we relate it to the Old Testament. One would especially want to pay attention to Old Testament allusions and quotations, going back to see what’s happening in the Old Testament. You might call that a biblical-theological perspective that really goes beyond the traditional understanding of grammatical-historical.

I like to use the phrases “narrow-angle exegesis” and “wide-angle exegesis,” letting Scripture interpret Scripture, or “canonical-biblical exegesis.” This lets later texts in the Old Testament interpretatively develop the earlier texts, and traces how the trajectory finds further development with the New Testament writers. They tend to be sensitive, when quoting one text, to other developments of that text in the Old Testament. That’s a wider consideration than just looking at your paragraph in the New Testament book. You have to do both.

The limitations of historical-grammaticial exegesis are evident. The problem with any form of communication is that you need the context in order to fully understand its meaning. (Tip of the hat here to the Relevance Theory of Linguistics, which like the Bible is easy to understand in broad strokes but quite complicated in detail.) It’s hard enough when we try to communicate with our own loved ones. Understanding the Biblical context is further complicated by an interval of 2000 years and several layers of culture.

While we are on the subject of historical-grammatical exegesis. I liked this reference by DJA Clines who described it more of a way of life than a method.

From On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays 1967-1998, Volume 1
(JSOTSup, 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 23-45

[Click here for Cline’s whole essay on methods.]

i. Historical-grammatical exegesis. This is in fact not so much a method, but more a way of life to most biblical scholars. The term refers to . . . Continue reading