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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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