to Silva's "Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation"
1. I stand within this
"Protestant evangelical" tradition, particularly as that has come to expression
in classical Reformed theology. Such a perspective, however, does not necessarily
exclude important and valid insights provided by the other approaches discussed
in this essay.
2. For important treatments
of this period, see H. G. Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and
the Rise of the Modern World, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress,
1985) esp. Part 2; W. G. Kummel, The New Testament: The History of the
Investigation of Its Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972) esp. Parts
2 and 3.
3. This movement, which
is akin to the discipline known as "comparative religions," flourished
at the beginning of the twentieth century. The attempt to explain the origins
of Christianity by taking into account its religio-historical environment
usually focused either on Jewish apocalypticism or on the Hellenistic religions,
4. Primarily as a result
of James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1961).
5. Rudolf Bultmann,
"Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?" in Existence and Faith:
Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (New York:
World Publishing, 1960) 289-96.
6. Ibid., 291-92.
7. This emphasis was
hardly unique to Bultmann. Many challenges to the supposed objectivity
and impartiality of the scientific enterprise have been thrown by scholars
in a variety of fields. In theology, note in particular the work of Cornelius
Van Til; building on the philosophy of Abraham Kuyper, he developed a system
of apologetics in which the role of presuppositions was fundamental. See
especially his book The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg,
N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967; repr. 1985).
8. The very use of
the singular form hermeneutic reflects the changed perspective.
The term "can become coterminous with Christian theology as the statement
of the meaning of Scripture for our day" (James R. Robinson, "Hermeneutic
Since Barth," in The New Hermeneutic, New Frontiers in Theology,
eds. J. R. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr. [New York: Harper & Row,
1964] 1-77, esp. 6). The term hermeneutics had been used in a much narrower
sense: a discipline that deals with the principles and methods of interpretation.
9. Joel C. Weinsheimer,
Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1985), puts it this way: "Whether an interpretation
is true is a matter of taste. If this seems to denigrate truth, that is
only because we have denigrated taste as a cognitive capacity able to arrive
at the truth. It is only because we have thought truth is exclusively something
that has been or can be proven" (111).
10. Thomas S. Kuhn,
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., International
Encyclopedia of Unified Science 2/2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1967). For the relevance of Kuhn's work to hermeneutics, see Vern S. Poythress,
Science and Hermeneutics: Implications of Scientific Method for Biblical
Interpretation, Foundations of Contemporary interpretation 6 (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) chaps. 3-4.
11. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation
Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian
University, 1976) 29-30; see also Essays on Biblical Interpretation,
intro, by Lewis S. Wedge (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980). Among various
important assessments of Ricoeur, see especially Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical
Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and
Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
12. J. Severino Croatto,
Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading as the Production
of Meaning, trans. R. R. Barr (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987) ix, 17,
13. E. D. Hirsch, Jr.,
Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).
This work has been embraced by many evangelical writers, such as W. C.
Kaiser, Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago:
Moody, 1985), and some other biblical scholars concerned with the objectivity
of historical meaning, but Hirsch has not been well received by the mainstream
of philosophical and literary thinkers. For a brief criticism see Anthony
C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice
of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 13.
Ben Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament, Princeton Theological
Monograph Series 17 (Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick, 1989) chap. 2, defends
the intended sense of texts while recognizing weaknesses in Hirsch's argument.
14. Among the most prominent
conservative scholars of the last two centuries are such NT specialists
as J. B. Lightfoot, Theodore Zahn, Bernard Weiss, J. Gresham Machen, Herman
Ridderbos, and F. F. Bruce. In
the field of the Old Testament (OT), note such names as E. Hengstenburg,
Franz Delitzsch, Robert Dick Wilson, Edward J. Young, and the Jewish scholar
15. W. G. Kummel, The
New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (Nashville:
Abingdon, 1972) 29-31 and passim.
16. This label served
to distinguish the more controversial approaches from investigations focusing
on language and textual transmission, which were referred to as "lower
17. BAGD, xxiv.
18. G. W. Turner,
Stylistics (Baltimore: Penguin, 1973) 100-101. It is important to note
that this approach focuses primarily on poetry, a medium that frequently
uses deliberate ambiguity and thus invites imaginative response.
19. Perhaps the best-known
representative is Leonard Bloomfield's classic work Language (New
York: Holt, 1933).
20. Thomas G. Pavel,
The Feud of Language: A History of Structuralist Thought (Oxford:
Blackwell , 1992), vii; see also 76 and 130-32. Even if Pavel's criticisms
are exaggerated, it is clear that the links between French structuralism
and linguistics were superficial and tenuous. From a different, but also
critical, perspective, see the important comments by Martin Krampen, "Ferdinand
de Saussure and the Development of Semiology," in Classics of Semiotics,
eds. M. Krampen et al. (New York and London: Plenum, 1987) 59-88, esp.
21. John Dominic Crossan,
Cliffs of Falls: Paradox and Polyvalence in the Parables of Jesus (New
York: Seabury, 1980) 9-10, 71.
22. D. Robertson, "Literature,
the Bible as," in IDBSup, 547-51, esp. 548.
23. Kuhn, Scientific
24. I must leave out
of account here many other relevant developments, such as the implications
of the "uncertainty principle" in the field of quantum physics.
25. Edgar V. McKnight,
Postmodern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1988) 28, 59, 60.
26. Ibid., 240, with
reference to Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological
Literature and the Drama of Reading Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1985) 201-2.
27. Ibid., 61.
28. Stanley Fish, "Is
There a Text in This Class?" in Is There a Text This Class? The Authority
of Interpretative Communities (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1980) 303-21, esp. 21. On the same page, he affirms that his views
do not give rise to solipsism or idiosyncrasy, and the reason for this
confidence is reflected in the subtitle of his book. As he puts it
in the preface: it is possible to identify "a structure of meanings
that is obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretive
assumptions happen to be in force" in a community (p. viii). For his more
recent formulations, see Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric,
and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Oxford: Clarendon,
29. For some, perhaps,
it simply means that all views deserve to be tolerated.
30. Arguing that his
viewpoint does not imply an "infinite plurality of meanings," he points
out that "sentences emerge only in situations, and within those situations,
the normative meaning of an utterance will always be obvious or at least
accessible, although within another situation that same utterance, no longer
the same, will have another normative meaning that will be no less obvious
and accessible" (ibid., 307-8). Again: "It is impossible even to think
of a sentence independently of a context, and when we are asked to consider
a sentence for which no context has been specified, we will automatically
hear it in the context in which it has been most often encountered" (310).
31. John M. Frame,
The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ.: Presbyterian
and Reformed, 1987) 83.
32. See Roland Barthes,
The Pleasure of the Text (London: Cape, 1975) 27: "As an institution,
the author is dead: his civil status, his biographical person have disappeared."
33. Walter Kaiser,
to be sure, has argued that the divine meaning must be the same as the
human meaning, because otherwise the real meaning of Scripture would be
inaccessible to us; after all, grammatical-historical exegesis is our only
way to determine what the actual text says (see above, n. 12). This approach
appears to restrict unnecessarily the meaning of the word meaning.
Kaiser's legitimate concerns can be preserved by insisting that the historical
sense constitutes the semantic center, to which any other meaning ("application"?)
must be demonstrably related. For a nuanced discussion, see Vern S. Poythress,
"Divine Meaning of Scripture," WTJ 48 ( 1986): 241-79.
34. See Robinson, "Hermeneutic
Since Barth," 23: "One's subjectivity does not simply introduce distortions;
it ensures that the phenomena with which the text was grappling - if it
is a serious text - are not overlooked or distorted into curiosities. It
is this relevance of `Bultmannian' hermeneutic for the understanding
of the past in its own right (in distinction from any modern appropriation
of the message of the past) that is often overlooked" (italics added).
evangelical thought has been inclined to the view that such concepts as
biblical inerrancy, propositional revelation, and authorial intent entail
one another. While the connections among them are indeed close, some distinctions
are necessary. For a nuanced discussion of the variety of biblical genres
and how that variety relates to biblical authority, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer,
"The Semantics of Biblical Literature: Truth and Scripture's Diverse Literary
Forms," in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon eds. D. A. Carson and
). W. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986) 53-104.
36. Helmut Franz, "Das
Wesen ties Textes," ZTK 3, 69 (1962) 190, italics added. Quoted
in Robinson, "Hermeneutics Since Barth," 46.
37. See Richard Rorty,
ed., The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). It is important to distinguish
"philosophy of language," which indicates one of the subject matters of
philosophy, from "linguistic (or analytic) philosophy," which refers to
a particular method of doing philosophy.
38. See Colin Lyas,
ed., Philosophy and Linguistics (New York: Macmillan, 1971). For
more recent developments, see Alice ter Meulen. "Linguistics and the Philosophy
of Language," in Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey, 4 vols., ed.
F. J. Newmeyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 1:430-46.
39. Stephen Ullmann,
The Principles of Semantics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1951). In the second
edition, published in 1957, Ullmann noted the "remarkable" affinity between
L. Wittgenstein's functional theory of meaning and modern linguistic thought
(303; Wittgenstein had a great impact on Anglo-American language philosophy).
See also James Barr, Biblical Words for Time, 2nd ed., SBT 1/33
(London: SCM, 1969) 197.
40. John Lyons, Semantics,
2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
41. Ibid., 1:4, 33;
2:733. It would not be fair to say that Lyons's remarks apply only to oral
communication. Much of his own early research, in fact, focused on ancient
Greek literature, especially Plato's writings.
42. On the basis of
Austin's work, more detailed "speech-act" theories have appeared, with
subsequent application by some biblical scholars. See Thiselton, New
Horizons, esp. chap. 8.
43. The adjectives
paradigmatic and syntagmatic, respectively, are used to describe
these two kinds of relationships.
44. A few of the ideas
and descriptions in this article are treated in greater detail in Moises
Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? The History of Interpretation
in the Light of Current Issues, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).