"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, April 27, 2009

The cult of "historical-gramatical"

A presumption today is that an historical-grammatical approach to Biblical interpretation translates into solid, healthy, orthodox Christianity. Such is the assumption in evaluating sermons, constructing small group Bible studies and teaching college and seminary level courses on the Bible. In all these venues, one's exegesis is deemed "conservative" and orthodox if it relies on the grammatical structure (looking at how the words function in a particular Biblical passage) and the historical context (looking at the historical background and original understanding of a text when the Biblical book was written). These are the two elements of interpretation, and no others, for many exegetes.

I would, however, like to suggest that the historical-grammatical-only approach is not only not the only valid approach to interpretation, but when used by itself is anemic to Christian growth and a truly Christian and biblical reading of Scripture. But before you label me a liberal, let me explain:


The historical-grammatical-only approach to Scripture has problems which mitigate against it.

1) It is wholly modern and novel

Though many respected teachers argue that an exegetical approach to the text of Scripture derived from historical-grammatical principles alone are the basis of correct interpretation, such an approach is very new in Christian Biblical interpretation. Even those seen as reading “close to the text” like Chrysostom did not employ this method alone. Old puritans, who one would think would teach the Scripture this way, teach the Song of Solomon as ultimately about Christ, something teachers ranging from Mark Driscoll to Tommy Nelson mock.

Yet, it is not merely because my beloved "Dead Theologians" don't use historical-grammatical alone, therefore I won't do it. There are even bigger reasons.

2) Historical-grammatical-only is a method not draw from Scripture

"Biblical Preaching" should at some point have a claim to "biblical" justification. Yet, our search of the Scriptures find no such thing. When Paul instructs Timothy, though Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is "God-breathed" and useful in all sorts of ways, no instruction is given to be careful only to teach Scripture as it was historically understood when it was written and how it is grammatically constructed. Paul's specific instructions, though lacking this, DO have instructions for Christian preachers.

Paul repeatedly gives the criteria for judging a Christian, biblical message: Christ is preached (1 Cor 1:23, Eph 3:8, Php 1:15, Rom 15:20, etc). This is the consistent content of the message of bible teachers for Paul.

But are these two things (historical-grammatical-only, and preaching Christ) opposed? Yes, for

3) Historical-Grammatical-only argues against a Christotelic reading of Scripture

Since reading it in several sources (Peter Enns, and G.K. Beale) my favorite example to display the unscriptural nature of an historical-grammatical-only approach is Matthew 2:15, where Matthew says that Christ fulfilled what is written in Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt, I have called my son."

Here's my challenge. Read Hosea 11. Show me how this can be read in an historical-grammatical-only way to see Christ. The passage actually speaks of Israel, not Christ. Historically, no Jew had read this passage as being about Christ. Grammatically, it makes no sense to see Christ in Hosea 11:1. We now have two possibilities: We can say that Matthew is a poor exegete of Scripture. Or, we can say that we have a flawed method of interpretation.

[I have shown elsewhere how we understand this passage if this problem just gave you an ulser]

Even if we say Matthew can do things differently than us, because he was inspired and had the Holy Spirit there to give him permission to do something we can never do (violate Historical-Grammatical-only interpretation) then we have done something else serious:

4) Historical-Grammatical-only undermines plenary inspiration

The Historical-Grammatical interperation is largely a modernist method for Bible study which assumes the authors of Scripture are human, ignoring divine inspiration. If we truly believe that Scripture is divinely guided, inspired beyond the knowledge of capability of human authors, then the original author and audience is not sufficient to understand all that Scripture is saying. Hosea 11:1 is understood by Hosea and Israel at the time to be refering to Israel. As Enns points out, after the Christ-event, Matthew would have to instruct Hosea on the full meaning of his words. Hosea and historical Israel are not the authority of final appeal on the meaning of Scripture. If they were the only authors and audience, then we could say so, but they are not.


Is there an alternative to reading Scripture only within a modernist Historical-Grammatical method? First we must say that, for as much as I have maligned it, the Historical-Grammatical method of inquiring into the original meaning of the text with historical and linguistic methods is not bad, and is in fact necessary to understanding Scripture. It is NOT, however, the end of our quest for the meaning of a text. Two passages come to mind on the final meaning of any major passage of Scripture.

First, Jesus appeared to two men after his resurrection:

Luke 24:44-45 - Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,

Second, Jesus also had some direct teaching for the Pharisees in John 5:

John 5:39-40 - "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life."

Christ gives us the biblical approach to reading and preaching Scripture: it points to Christ. How is this done without doing violence to a text? Here are a few quick suggestions in reading:

1) Pointed reading

Christ said that he came to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17). Therefore, the Law has a particular assignment in Scripture to point to Christ in some way. If a Law is ceremonial about the sacrificial system, the sacrifice ultimately points to the need for a perfect sacrifice that did not need repeating, but is fulfilled in Christ. If the Law is civil dealing with governing or the kingdom, then the Law points to Christ as King, in His role as governing and his authority to rule. If the Law is moral, then it points to the character of Christ, a perfect moral Person, exercising justice and mercy perfectly in his Person and work.

And if it is prophetic...then hey, it's easy!

2) Typographical reading

Sometimes the Scripture will contain a narrative. There, the characters in the story will in some way point to Christ, either as type or anti-type. Even in direct typography, such as Christ as the New Adam (Romans 5) or the new David, the imperfections of the first are perfected in Christ, just as the command to Israel in Hosea 11:1 was to a disobedient son, while the command to Matthew was to an obedient son.

3) Theological reading

Sometimes a Scripture may just speak of the condition of man or the world. Such is the case with large portions of Job or Ecclesiates, where the state of man and the world are lamented. Here we see the result of Genesis 3 on everything, and we feel the angst that ultimately is resolved in Christ. We see concepts in Scripture that ultimately resolve theologically in Christ

4) Historical Redemptive Reading

The story of Scripture is one of redemption. From start to end, it is a story of sin, fall, calamity, and redemption and restoration. No matter where you are in the text of Scripture, one can find where one is in that story.

There's certainly more, but I am still a student of Scripture. I have not come to the end of how Scripture reveals Christ to the church, though I do know it is through more than a modernist historical-grammatical method.


CMWoodall said...

Problem 5: It is the best example of the Church feeding from the carcass of the Liberal German method. We don't have to scavenge when we have the living water and the bread come down from Heaven.
I literally cringe every time a hear someone refer to Sacred Scripture as 'the text'. How clinical! How irreverent!
Your solution is also good. I like to say that we should use 'the method' as an ingredient of the recipe...not the meal itself.
I prefer my barley roasted and fermented. wink!
Bible-Churches got seriously infatuated with feeding upon the dry ingredients, not taking the time necessary to produce wholesome bread.
Good work, my friend.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Good thinking Jared! Are you sure you're a DTS student??? :-)

Bob said...

Your post is a great encouragement to me, having received so much grief from the 'cult'. I have posted a sensus plenior reading of Jonah here:

Though it will appear to be at first glance free-for-all allegory, it is not since it complies with the rules here: http://www.sensusplenior.net/?page_id=379 which constrain it.

My work is a first pass and needs others to validate it.