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The Literal Grammatical Historical Hermeneutic and Modernity’s Voice

A guest post by Jerome Wernow.

I wonder if the literal-grammatical-cultural-historical hermeneutic used in current Evangelical exegesis is but a modernist construct arising from the fundamentalist-theological liberalism debates of the late 19th century like that of Charles Hodge’s common sense realism and Baconian inductivism. It seems to have gained traction and solidified in the early 20 century by particularly as advocated by J. Gresham Machen in the Princeton Theological Seminary debates. Here the philosophy wherein the method is structured is predicated upon a logical positivism similar to the early Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy. It is taken up by Bernard Ramm and later by Carl Henry’s propositional revelation notions.

My notion has been better clarified by my good friend R.T. Michener where he suggests that “fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism too seriously. The way I see it ( Hauerwas affirms this and I agree) is that theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order bases or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.” After pondering his clarification, I find myself in accord with his musings.

Further, I suggest mining the philosophical constructs of those who wrote grammar and hermeneutical textbooks used in Evangelical seminaries using ‘the method,’ as well as, the content of the books themselves. My counter to those who appeal to antiquity to demonstrate a golden braid free from modernity’s web is this. Could it be that the principles of the ‘the method’ found in antiquity are mere voicings of a Greco-philosophical rationalists’ strand of modernity that is critiqued by Heidegger and more properly Westphal, voicings that ‘became’ the univocity of modernity?

Now, one should not take my concord with the voices of Heidegger, Westphal, and R.T. ( he does not demean) as ultimately demeaning the method. For me, it is “one way of saying being” amidst many ways (William Desmond-Philosophy and Its Others). The method is useful and ready-in-hand as a tool to unlock one of the bolts in order to enter the ‘Doors of the Sacred ’ (to mine Moriah in Tolkien speak). It is not the only voicing needed to open that door, however. Exegesis emerges from a dynamic plurivocity where the Triune God conducts the voices from the middle (the metaxu to use William Desmond speak). He as Conductor leads to conscious emergence of exegetical significance and meaning.

Picture the plurivocity of voices in the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:25-39). Whatever hermeneutic was involved in the Eunuch’s ordinary language understanding would be but univocal in had he sat in his chariot alone with his text-in-hand. Other voices that are ‘saying being’ co-participated in exegetical emergence when he sought dis-closure-of-truth-in-text. It included the current community narrative of Philip, the Eunuch’s emotional emergence of spiritual consciousness in community worship, the salvation history of church universal in process, spiritual illumination by the Holy Spirit’s voicing, the voice of the angel, and perhaps others as well i.e. Candace.

Well enough, I must return to my exegetical tasks of the day – constructing the sermon…take a look and uncover my hypocrisy http://www.gracepointfellowship.org/
;-)

Flotsam and jetsam (9/13)

Reading the Bible like classical literature…kind of

Justin Taylor posted a summary of Leland Ryken’s “Eight Easy Ways to Misread the Classics.” According to Ryken, each of the following is a fallacy that we often commit when reading the classics.

  1. Be sure the read the classics for their ideas.
  2. Assume without question that the classics tell the truth.
  3. Look upon the classics as “improving literature.”
  4. Regard the classics as beyond criticism.
  5. Assume that moral considerations are irrelevant to the classics.
  6. Be sure that you do not see anything in the classics that the author and original audience did not see it in it.
  7. Assume that all that matters is what a work says to you.
  8. View the classics as relics in the museum of the past.

These are all great points to consider when reading the classics. I know when I first started reading classical literature on my own, the first point was really all I had in mind. I didn’t read the classics because I enjoyed them as works of art. Instead, I mined them for ideas. Of course, their ideas are worth engaging, but reducing a classic work of art to its cognitive dimension is tragic. So, by the way, is forcing teenagers to read the classics because “it’s good for you” (fallacy #3).

As I was reading the list, though, I began to reflect on whether these same fallacies applied to the Bible. At first glance, the last four seem to hold true when discussing the Bible.  Moral considerations (#5) are never irrelevant to a holy God who judges sin and a loving God who wants the best for his people. And, we should say that the Bible is the kind of “classic” that has the ability to transcend the particular concerns of its author and to speak in new contexts and in new ways (#6). We don’t want to lose sight of the authorial context, but we can and should be open to the possibility that texts (particularly when brought into canonical relationship with other texts) might be able to speak in new and unexpected ways. And, the last two seem pretty straightforward. What the Bible says to me is important, but always secondary to what God is saying in the text. And, obviously, we can’t view the Bible as just a relic of the past.

But, what about the first four? While I agreed with each of these when I was thinking about classical literature, I realized that each needs to be nuanced in important ways when discussing Scripture.

  1. Although I would never reduce the Bible to its “ideas,” we should read the Bible to understand what it is saying about God, us, and our world.
  2. We absolutely should assume that the Bible tells the truth. There’s plenty of room for us to discuss what it means to say that the Bible is “true” and what level of confidence any of us can have that we have actually understood its truth. But none of that changes the fact that we should read the Bible as true.
  3. I’ll fudge a little here because I think it would be horrible to see the Bible as “improving literature.” The Bible does not primarily provide a message about how we can living better loves. Nonetheless, the Bible is God’s transformative message to humanity that radically shapes and continually reshapes his people.
  4. This one needs to be nuanced depending on what you mean by “criticism.” On the one hand, of course we want to engage the text critically, bringing to bear all of our intellectual resources as we wrestle with the text to understand its meaning. On the other hand, if “criticism” means (even implicitly) an attempt to avoid the Bible’s authority, placing oneself in judgment over the text, and refusing to be humbled before God’s word, then we’ve got a problem.

So, I think we read the Bible differently from other classical works, and I’m okay with that. Indeed, I think it’s essential for reading the Bible the way that it asks to be read – the way God asks us to read it.

What do you think? Would you nuance these eight fallacies differently than I have when it comes to reading Scripture? I’d be particularly interested to hear what you have to say about #2 and #4. But, feel free to comment on any/all of them.