Careful students of the Bible must base their reading on some key principles
Richard M. Davidson
How should we approach Scripture? It appears evident that without specific divine revelation on the subject of hermeneutics, we will never be able to find our way through the maze of human theories. On the other hand, if we accept the full authority of Scripture with regard to other biblical doctrines, should we not also expect to find in Scripture the divine perspective on how to interpret Scripture?
Seventh-day Adventists believe that just as we go to Scripture to find the doctrines of God, humanity, sin, eschatology, etc., so it is appropriate—essential—that we should go to Scripture itself to discover the doctrine of Scripture, and in particular, to learn the scriptural teaching on hermeneutics as a basis for constructing a theology that is faithful to Scripture.
Of course, we come to Scripture acknowledging our own biases, our own pre-understandings, but we come willingly, and claiming the divine promise that the Spirit will bring our presuppositions ever more in harmony with the biblical presuppositions (e.g., John 16:13; 14:16, 17, 26).
PRESUPPOSITIONS (FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES) FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
A. The Bible and the Bible Only (Sola Scriptura)
A first presupposition set forth by Scripture concerning itself is that the Bible alone is the final norm of truth and absolute source of authority, the ultimate court of appeal, in all areas of doctrine and practice. The classic text that expresses this basic premise is Isaiah 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (NIV). The two Hebrew words for law and testimony point to the two loci of authority in Isaiah’s day that now constitute Holy Scripture: the Pentateuch (the Torah or Law of Moses) and the testimony of the prophets to the previously revealed will of God in the Torah. Jesus summarized the two divisions of Old Testament Scripture similarly when He referred to the “'Law or the Prophets'” (Matt. 5:17). The New Testament adds the authoritative revelation given by Jesus and His apostolic witnesses (Eph. 2:20).
Isaiah warned apostate Israel against turning from the authority of the Law and the Prophets to seek counsel from spiritist mediums (Isa. 8:19). In the New Testament era other sources of authority were threatening to usurp the final authority of the biblical revelation. One of these was tradition. But Jesus and Paul clearly indicate that Scripture is the final arbiter over tradition, including the tradition of the religious authorities (Matt. 15:3, 6). This does not deny the usefulness of Judeo-Christian tradition, as some wrongly interpret sola scriptura, but rather upholds the supreme authority of Scripture over all tradition as the final norm of truth. Tradition, even ecclesiastical tradition, must be judged by Scripture.
Paul also emphatically rejects another source of authority, that of human philosophy, as the final norm of truth for the Christian (Col. 2:8). Even the philosophical presuppositions of fundamental theology must be judged by the standard of sola scriptura. Seventh-day Adventists believe that much of Christian fundamental thinking (“the principles behind the principles”) since shortly after New Testament times has been dominated by dualistic (Platonic-Aristotelian) philosophical foundations that present a timeless and spaceless concept of God. Thus the passages in Scripture that speak of God dwelling in a spatio-temporal reality must be deconstructed and reinterpreted in allegorical, figurative, or metaphorical terms. Adventists see the biblical teaching about God as including a call to Christians for a radical return to the biblical realism of sola scriptura that views the being of God as compatible with space and time.
Paul likewise rejects human “knowledge” (“science,” KJV) as the final authority (1 Tim. 6:20). Both Old Testament and New Testament writers point out that since the fall in Eden, nature has become depraved (Gen. 3:17, 18; Rom. 8:20, 21) and no longer perfectly reflects truth. Nature, rightly understood, is in harmony with God’s written revelation in Scripture; but as a limited and broken source of knowledge about God and reality, it must be held subservient to, and interpreted by, the final authority of Scripture (Rom. 1:20–23; 2:14–16).
Humankind’s mental and emotional faculties have also become depraved since the Fall; but even before the Fall, neither human reason nor experience could safely be trusted apart from or superior to God’s Word. This was the very point upon which Eve fell—trusting her own reason and emotions over the Word of God. The wisest man in history (who ultimately failed to heed his own warning) perceptively observed: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12, NKJV).
The principle of sola scriptura goes beyond the concept of prima scriptura. The Bible is not only the primary authority, it is the sole final and ultimate authority, the final arbiter of truth. Roman Catholics can affirm the primacy of Scripture, but as Frank Hasel observed, “in Roman Catholic dogma it is the church, and the church only, with its tradition, that claims the right to interpret Scripture authentically and authoritatively. . . . Thus Scripture, even though it is the primary source for theology, is domesticated by the hermeneutical spectacles of the church and its tradition.”1
The principle of sola scriptura implies the corollary of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible stands alone as the unerring guide to truth; it is sufficient to make one wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15). It is the standard by which all doctrine and experience must be tested (2 Tim. 3:16–17; Ps. 119:105). Scripture thus provides the framework, the divine perspective, the foundational principles, for every branch of knowledge and experience. All additional knowledge and experience, or revelation, must build upon and remain faithful to, the all-sufficient foundation of Scripture.
The sufficiency of Scripture is not just in the sense of material sufficiency, i.e., that Scripture contains all the truths necessary for salvation. Adventists also believe in the formal sufficiency of Scripture, that the Bible alone is sufficient in clarity so that no external source is required to interpret it rightly.
Adventists maintain the rallying cry of the Reformation—sola scriptura, the Bible and the Bible only—as the final norm for truth. All other sources of knowledge and experience must be tested by this unerring standard. The appropriate human response must be one of total surrender to the ultimate authority of the Word of God (Isa. 66:2).
B. The Totality of Scripture (Tota Scriptura)
A second general principle of biblical interpretation is the totality of Scripture (tota scriptura). It is not enough to affirm the sola scriptura principle. Those like Martin Luther, who called for sola scriptura, but failed to accept fully the Scriptures in their totality, have ended up with a “canon within the canon.” For Luther this meant depreciating the book of James (as an “epistle of straw”) and despising other portions of Scripture (as presenting the way of law and not the gospel).
The self-testimony of Scripture is clear in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NKJV).
All Scripture—not just part of Scripture—is inspired by God. This certainly includes the whole Old Testament, the canonical Scriptures of the apostolic church (Luke 24:17, 32, 44, 45). But for Paul, it also included New Testament sacred writings as well. Paul’s use of the word scripture in his first epistle to Timothy (5:18) points in this direction. He introduced two quotations with the words “Scripture says,” one from Deuteronomy 25:4 in the Old Testament, and one from the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 10:7. The word scripture thus is used simultaneously and synonymously to refer to both the Old Testament and the Gospel accounts in the technical sense of inspired, sacred, authoritative writings.
Numerous passages in the Gospels assert their truthfulness and authority on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g., John 1:1–3 paralleling Genesis 1:1). Peter’s use of the term scriptures for Paul’s writings supports this conclusion: “Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15, 16, NKJV). By comparing Paul’s letters to the “otherScriptures” (ESV, italics supplied), Peter implies that Paul’s correspondence is part of Scripture.
The New Testament is the apostolic witness to Jesus and to His fulfillment of the Old Testament types and prophecies. Jesus promised the 12 apostles to send the Holy Spirit to bring to their remembrance the things He had said (John 14:26). Paul states that “the mystery of Christ” was “revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:4, 5, NKJV). The apostles held a unique, unrepeatable position in history as bearing witness of direct contact with the humanity of Christ (Luke 1:2). This certainly validates the apostolic writings by the apostles like Peter, John, and Matthew. Paul also was called to be an apostle (Rom. 1:1), and he indicates that his writings are given under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and have full apostolic authority (1 Cor. 7:40). Thus, the New Testament embodies the witness of the apostles, either directly, or indirectly through their close associates Mark, Luke, James, and Jude (Luke 1:1–3; Acts 12:12, 25).
The principle of tota scriptura involves several related issues/corollaries.
1. Tota Scriptura and the Canon. What is the full extent of the biblical canon, and what forces/sources “authorized” the various biblical writings to be canonical? Adventists join other Protestants in affirming that the canonization of both Old Testament and New Testament is not a product of human agencies but of the Holy Spirit, and that the canonical books contain internal self-authenticating and self-validating qualities that were recognized as such by the community of faith.
Regarding the Old Testament, Adventists, along with other Protestants, accept only the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, and not the so-called deuterocanonical books of the Apocrypha. The latter books, while containing some helpful historical information, were not written by inspired prophets, but came after the close of the Old Testament prophetic period (ca. 400 B.C.). Adventists accept a sixth-century date for the writing of Daniel (in harmony with the internal claims of the book), and place the canonization of the Old Testament in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (ca. 400 B.C.), both of whom as prophets played a role in popularizing and affirming the canonized books among the Jewish people (Ezra 7:10; Neh. 8:2–8). Jesus Himself recognized the three-part Hebrew canon (Luke 24:44), which was later reaffirmed at the Council of Jamnia (ca. 90 A.D.).
Regarding the New Testament, we have already noted above the apostolic witness inherent in all of these writings—all written by an inspired apostle or an apostle’s direct disciple who was an inspired eyewitness—and thus the canon of the New Testament was closed by the end of the first century when the last inspired apostolic document had been written. Such inspired apostolicity/canonicity was eventually recognized by the New Testament covenant community. The church “came to recognize, accept, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church.”2 In sum, the church did not determine the Canon, but discovered it, did not regulate the canon, but recognized it; the church is not the mother of the canon, but the child of the Canon, not its magistrate, but its minister, not its judge, but its witness, not its master, but its servant.3
2. Inseparable Union of the Divine and Human. All Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, is of divine origin. It is “inspired by God” (NASB), literally “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). The picture here is that of the divine “wind” or Spirit coming upon the prophet, so that Scripture is a product of the divine creative breath. Thus it is fully authoritative: profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.
A corollary of the tota scriptura principle is that all Scripture is an indivisible, indistinguishable union of the divine and the human. A key biblical passage clarifies the divine nature of Scripture in relation to the human dimensions of the biblical writers: “We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21, NIV).
Several related points are developed in this passage. Verse 19 underscores the trustworthiness of Scripture: it is “the word of the prophets made more certain.” Verse 20 explains why this so: because the prophecy is not a matter of the prophet’s own interpretation. The context here primarily suggests the prophets giving the message, without injecting their own ideas into the message, although the implication may be heeded by the non-inspired interpreter of Scripture.
Verse 21 elaborates on this point: Prophecy does not come by the initiative, the impulse, or the will of the human agent; the prophets are not communicating on their own. Rather, the Bible writers were prophets who spoke as they were moved, carried along, even driven by the Holy Spirit.
This passage makes clear that the Scriptures did not come directly from heaven, but rather God utilized human instrumentalities. An inductive look at the biblical writings confirms that the Holy Spirit did not abridge the freedom of the biblical writers, did not suppress their unique personalities, did not destroy their individuality. Their writings sometimes involved human research (Luke 1:1-3); they sometimes gave their own experiences (Moses in Deuteronomy, Luke in Acts, the psalmists); they present differences in style (contrast Isaiah and Ezekiel, John and Paul); they offer different perspectives on the same truth or event (e.g., the four Gospels). Yet, through all of this thought-inspiration, the Holy Spirit is carrying along the biblical writers, guiding their minds in selecting what to speak and write, so that what they present is not merely their own interpretation, but the utterly reliable word of God, the prophetic word made more certain. The Holy Spirit imbued human instruments with divine truth in thoughts and so assisted them in writing that they faithfully committed words the things divinely revealed to them (1 Cor. 2:10–13).
This corollary of the tota scriptura principle, that the human and divine elements in Scripture are inextricably bound together, is reinforced by comparing the written and incarnate Word of God. Since both Jesus and Scripture are called the “Word of God” (Rev. 19:13), it is appropriate to compare their divine-human natures. Just as Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, was fully God and fully human (John 1:1-3, 14), so the written Word is an inseparable union of the human and the divine. Just as Jesus’ humanity was sinless, so the Holy Scriptures, though coming through human instrumentalities, is fully trustworthy.
3. The Bible Is Equivalent to—Not Just Contains—the Word of God. Another corollary of the totality of Scripture principle is that the Bible is equivalent to, and not just contains, the word of God. The testimony of Scripture is overwhelming. In the Old Testament there are about 1,600 occurrences of four Hebrew words (in four different phrases with slight variations) that explicitly indicate that God has spoken: (1) “the ‘utterance’ of Yahweh,” some 361 times; (2) “Thus ‘says’ the Lord,” some 423 times; (3) “God ‘spoke,’” some 422 times, and (4) the “ ‘word’ of the Lord,” some 394 times. Numerous times are recorded the equivalency between the prophet’s message and the divine message: the prophet speaks for God (Ex. 7:1, 2), God puts His words in the prophet’s mouth (Deut. 18:18), the hand of the Lord is strong upon the prophet (Isa. 8:11), or the word of the Lord comes to him (Hosea 1:1). Jeremiah 25 rebukes his audience for not listening to the prophets (vs. 4), which is equated with not listening to the Lord (vs. 7), and further equated with “His words” (vs. 8).
Summarizing the prophetic messages sent to Israel, 2 Kings 21:10 records, “The Lord spoke by His servants the prophets” (NKJV), and 2 Chronicles 36:15, 16 adds: “The Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, . . . but they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets” (NKJV). The prophetic message was God’s message. For this reason, the prophets often naturally switched from third-person reference to God (“He”), to the first person direct divine address (“I”), without any “thus saith the Lord” (Isa. 3:4; Jer. 5:7; Hosea 6:4; Zech. 9:7). The Old Testament prophets were sure that their message was the message of God!
Numerous times in the New Testament “it is written” is equivalent to “God says.” For example, in Hebrews 1:5-13, seven Old Testament citations are said to be spoken by God, but the Old Testament passages cited do not always specifically ascribe the statement directly to God. Again Romans 9:17 and Galatians 3:8 (citing Exodus 9:16 and Genesis 22:18 respectively) reveal a strict identification between Scripture and the Word of God: the New Testament passages introduce the citations with “Scripture says,” while the Old Testament passages have God as the speaker. The Old Testament Scriptures as a whole are viewed as the “oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2, NKJV).
Though the Bible was not verbally dictated by God so as to bypass the individuality of the human author, and thus the specific words were the ones chosen by the human writer, yet the human and divine elements are so inseparable, the human messengers so divinely guided in their selection of apt words to express the divine thoughts, that the words of the prophet are called the Word of God. The individual words of Scripture are regarded as trustworthy, accurately representing the divine message.
This is illustrated by a number of New Testament references. Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “‘“Man does not live on bread alone but on every word [the Greek word for “word”; Hebrew for “everything”] that proceeds from the mouth of God”’” (Matt. 4:4, NIV). Paul says of his own inspired message: “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13, ESV). Again Paul writes: “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13, ESV).
What is stated explicitly in the New Testament is also indicated by the instances when Jesus and the apostles base an entire theological argument upon a crucial word or even grammatical form in the Old Testament. So in John 10:35 Jesus appealed to Psalm 82:6 and the specific word gods to substantiate His divinity. Accompanying His usage was the telling remark: “The Scripture cannot be broken” (NKJV). That is, it cannot be “loosed,” “repealed,” “annulled,” or “abolished.”
In Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus grounded His final, unanswerable argument to the Pharisees upon the reliability of the single word Lord in Psalm 110:1. In Galatians 3:16, the Apostle Paul likewise based his Messianic argument upon the singular number of the word seed in Genesis 22:17, 18. As we shall see below, Paul is recognizing the larger Messianic context of this passage, as it moves from a collective plural seed to a singular Seed. Jesus shows His ultimate respect for the full authority of the Old Testament Torah when He affirmed its totality: “‘For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled’” (Matt. 5:18, NKJV).
C. The Analogy (or Harmony) of Scripture (Analogia Scripturae)
A third general foundational principle of biblical interpretation may be termed “the analogy (or harmony) of Scripture” (analogia scripturae).
Since all Scripture is inspired by the same Spirit, and all of it is the Word of God, therefore there is a fundamental unity and harmony among its various parts. The various parts of Old Testament Scripture were considered by the New Testament writers as harmonious and of equal divine authority. New Testament writers sometimes supported their point by citing several Old Testament sources as of equal and harmonious weight. For example, Romans 3:10–18 includes scriptural citations from Ecclesiastes (7:20), Psalms (14:2, 3; 5:10; 140:4; 10:7; 36:2), and Isaiah (59:7, 8). Scripture is regarded as an inseparable, coherent whole. Major Old Testament themes are assumed by the New Testament writers and further developed.
The two Testaments have a reciprocal relationship in which they mutually illuminate each other. Jesus described how the Old Testament illuminates the New Testament (and Himself in particular) in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (ESV, italics supplied). Elsewhere Jesus describes how He is the Illuminator, even the fulfillment, of the Old Testament: “‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill’” (Matt. 5:17, NKJV).
Neither Testament is superseded by the other, although the later revelation is tested by the former, as illustrated by the example of the Bereans, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11, ESV, italics supplied). Even Jesus insisted that the conviction of His disciples not be based primarily upon sensory phenomena alone, but that they believe in Him because of the testimony of Old Testament Scripture (Luke 24:25–27).
The “analogy of Scripture” principle has three main aspects: (a) Scripture is its own interpreter (scriptura sui ipsius interpres); (b) Scripture is consistent; and (c) Scripture is clear.
1. “Scripture Is Its Own Interpreter” (Scriptura sui ipsius interpres). Martin Luther described it this way: “Scripture is its own light.” Because there is an underlying unity among the various parts of Scripture, one portion of Scripture interprets another, becoming the key for understanding related passages.
Jesus demonstrated this principle on the way to Emmaus when “Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27, NKJV). Later that night in the upper room, He pointed out “‘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” (Luke 24:44, 45, ESV).
Paul expressed this same principle in 1 Corinthians 2:13: “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (NKJV). This text has been translated in different ways, but certainly the apostle’s own use of Scripture indicates his adoption of the principle. We have already noted the Old Testament quotations cited in Romans 3:10–18. The same phenomenon may be observed in Hebrews 1:5–13; 2:6–8, 12, 13.
In practical application of this principle that the Bible is its own expositor, Jesus, on the way to Emmaus, showed how all that Scripture says about a given topic (in His case, the Messiah) should be brought to bear upon the interpretation of the subject (Luke 24:27, 44, 45). This does not mean the indiscriminate stringing together of passages in “proof-text” fashion without regard for the context of each text. But since the Scriptures ultimately have a single divine Author, it is crucial to gather all that is written on a particular topic to be able to consider all the contours of the topic.
2. The Consistency of Scripture. Jesus succinctly stated this aspect of the analogy of Scripture: “‘The Scripture cannot be broken’” (John 10:35, NKJV). Since Scripture has a single divine Author, the various parts of Scripture are consistent with one another. Thus Scripture cannot be set against Scripture. All the doctrines of the Bible will cohere, and interpretations of individual passages will harmonize with the totality of what Scripture teaches on a given subject. We have already seen how the New Testament writers linked together several Old Testament citations from different Old Testament genres as having equal and harmonious bearing upon the topic they were explaining.
While the different Bible writers may provide different emphases regarding the same event or topic, this will be without contradiction or misinterpretation. This is evidenced especially with parallel passages such as in the four Gospels. Each Gospel writer recorded what impressed him most under the inspiration of the Spirit, and each facet of the whole is needed in obtaining the full and balanced picture.
3. The Clarity of Scripture. The principle of the analogy of Scripture also involves the aspect of the clarity of Scripture. Adventists, with other Protestants, understand that the Bible is clear and precise. The biblical testimony encourages the readers to study the Bible for themselves to understand God’s message to them (Deut. 30:11–14; Luke 1:3, 4; Rev. 1:3).
The implication is that the meaning of Scripture is clear and straightforward, able to be grasped by the diligent student. Jesus illustrates this in His dealing with the lawyer. He asked him, “‘What is written in the Law? . . . How do you read it?’” (Luke 10:26, NIV). In other words, He expected that the Bible could be understood. When the lawyer cited Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, Jesus commended him for having correctly answered (Luke 10:27). In numerous times in the Gospel accounts, Jesus made the same point: “‘Have you never read in the Scriptures . . . ?’” (Matt. 21:42, NIV) or an equivalent expression.
The consistent example of the Bible writers is that the Scriptures are to be taken in their plain, literal sense, unless a clear and obvious figure is intended. Note especially Jesus’ own distinction, and the disciples’ recognition, of the difference between literal and figurative language in John 16:25, 29. There is no stripping away of the “husk” of the literal sense in order to arrive at the “kernel” of the mystical, hidden, allegorical meaning, which only the initiated can uncover.
Scripture also maintains that there is a definite truth-intention of the biblical writers in any given statement, and not a subjective, uncontrolled multiplicity of meanings. Jesus and the apostles spoke with authority, giving not just one of many individual readings of a passage, but the true meaning as intended by the human writer and/or divine Author (Acts 3:17, 18). At the same time, the New Testament interpretation does not claim to exhaust the meaning of a given Old Testament passage; there is still room for careful exegesis. There are also instances in which the biblical writer intentionally used terminology or phraseology with a breadth of meaning that encompasses several different nuances indicated by the immediate context of the passage (John 3:3).
This is not to deny that some parts of Scripture point beyond themselves (e.g., typology, predictive prophecy, symbols, and parables) to an extended meaning or future fulfillment, but even in these cases, the extended meaning or fulfillment arises from, is consistent with, and in fact is an integral part of the specific truth-intention of the text; and Scripture itself indicates the presence of such extended meaning or fulfillment in such cases.
It is also true that not every portion of Scripture was fully understood by the original hearers, or even by the inspired writers. In 1 Peter 1:10–12, the apostle indicates that the Old Testament prophets may not have always clearly understood all the Messianic implications of their prophecies. Thus Peter implies another facet of the principle of the clarity of Scripture, that additional clearer revelation becomes a key to more fully understanding the less-clear passages. This same point seems implied also from a different perspective in 2 Peter 3:16, when Peter writes that some of the things Paul has written are “hard to understand” (NKJV). These difficult passages are not to be the starting point, which “the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (vs. 16, ESV), but are to be viewed in the larger context of clearer scriptural statements of truth (vs. 18).
The clarity of Scripture corollary also involves the concept of “progressive revelation.” Hebrews 1:1-3 indicates this progress in revelation from Old Testament prophets to God’s own Son (John 1:16–18). This is not progressive revelation in the sense that later Scripture contradicts or nullifies previous revelation, but in the sense that later revelation illuminates, clarifies, or amplifies the truths presented previously. So Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), does not nullify the precepts of the Decalogue, but strips away from them the accretions of erroneous tradition and reveals their true depth of meaning and application.4 The basic insights on this fuller import of the law were already in the Old Testament, and Jesus enables these gems of truth to shine with even greater brilliance as they are freed from the distorted interpretations of some of the scribes and Pharisees. Progressive revelation also occurs in the sense that Jesus is the fulfillment of the various types and prophecies of the Old Testament.
A final practical application of this principle of clarity is to recognize the increasing spiral of understanding as one passage illuminates another. On one hand, later biblical authors wrote with conscious awareness of what has been written before and often assume and build upon what comes earlier. A close reading of a later passage may indicate echoes of, or allusions to, earlier passages, and the earlier passages in their context become the key to interpreting the fuller meaning of the latter (see, for example, the rich intertextuality in the Book of Revelation). On the other hand, earlier passages may not be fully understood until seen in the light of the later revelation. This is true in particular with typology and prophecy (Matt. 12:6, 42, 43). Thus, the spiral of understanding grows as later illuminates earlier, and earlier illuminates later.
D. Spiritual Things Spiritually Discerned (Spiritalia Spiritaliter Examinatur)
A fourth general principle of biblical interpretation concerns the issue of pre-understanding or objectivity. In modern hermeneutical approaches toward the Bible, both among conservative/evangelical and liberal critical scholars, it is often assumed that the original intent of the Bible writer can be ascertained by the rigorous application of hermeneutical principles and exegetical tools, quite apart from any supernatural spiritual assistance. Thus, non-Christians can determine the meaning of Scripture as well as Christians, if they use the tools and apply the principles correctly. This assumption is maintained in the laudable interest of upholding a degree of objectivity in interpreting the biblical text.
Scriptural data, however, lead to a different conclusion. Note in particular: “Who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. . . . The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:11, 14, ESV).
1. The Role of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. Since the Bible is ultimately not the product of the human writer’s mind but of the mind of God revealed through the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:12, 13), it is not possible to separate “what it meant” to the human writer—to be studied without the aid of the Holy Spirit, from “what it means”—to be applied by the help of the Spirit. Both the original meaning and its present application involve the thoughts of God, which according to Paul can be adequately comprehended only if we have the aid of the Spirit of God (John 6:45; 16:13).
Some have resisted letting the Spirit have a place in the hermeneutical spiral because it seems to them to allow the subjective element to overcome solid exegetical/hermeneutical research. It is true that “spiritual exegesis” alone—that is, an attempt to rely totally on the Spirit without conscientiously applying principles of exegesis and hermeneutics arising from Scripture, can lead to subjectivism.
But the proper combination of dependence upon the Spirit with rigorous exegesis based upon sound hermeneutical procedures, far from leading to subjectivity, constitutes the only way of escaping subjectivity. Modern scholars are increasingly more willing to recognize that all come to the Scripture with their own preconceptions, presuppositions, and biases. This cannot be remedied by approaching the text “scientifically” without a “faith bias.” In fact, since the Scriptures call for a response of faith, an attempted neutral stance is already at cross-currents with the intent of Scripture (Matt. 13:11–17; John 6:69).
Believing and Spirit-led interpreters also come with their own biases and pre-understandings and are not impervious to error. But for Christians who believe the promises of Scripture, it is possible to ask God to transform their minds so that they increasingly adopt and incorporate the presuppositions of Scripture and not their own (Rom. 12:1). The Spirit of truth was promised to the disciples and to us: “‘When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth’” (John 16:13, NKJV). It must be noted that the “you” here is plural; the Spirit directs interpreters together in the fellowship of the church body (Ps. 119:63; Acts 2:42; 4:32), where they may be benefitted by exchange with and correction of other believers.
Interpreters must make a decision that their preconceptions will derive from and be under control of the Bible itself, and constantly be open for modification and enlargement on the basis of Scripture. They must consciously reject any external keys or systems to impose on Scripture from without, whether it be naturalistic (closed system of cause-and-effect without any room for the supernatural), evolutionary (the developmental axiom), humanistic (humankind the final norm), or relativistic (rejection of absolutes). They must ask the Spirit who inspired the Word to illuminate, shape, and modify their preconceptions according to the Word, and to guard their understandings to remain faithful to the Word.
2. The Spiritual Life of the Interpreter. The idea that spiritual things are spiritually discerned implies not only the need of the Spirit to aid in understanding, but also the spirituality of the interpreter. The Spirit not only illuminates the mind, but also must have transformed the interpreter’s heart. The approach of the interpreter must be that called for by Scripture, an attitude of consent or willingness to follow what Scripture says, if he or she is to understand Scripture’s meaning: “‘If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own’” (John 7:17, NIV).
There must be diligent, earnest prayer for understanding, after the example of David: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end” (Ps. 119:33, NKJV). There must be an acceptance by faith of what the prophets say (2 Chron. 20:20; John 5:46, 47).
In sum, the Bible cannot be studied as any other book, coming merely “from below” with sharpened tools of exegesis and honed principles of interpretation. At every stage of the interpretive process, the book inspired by the Spirit can be correctly understood only “from above” by the illumination and transformation of the Spirit. God’s Word must be approached with reverence. Perhaps the best encapsulation of the interpreter’s appropriate stance before Scripture is recorded by Isaiah: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2, ESV).
SPECIFIC GUIDELINES OR PROCEDURES FOR INTERPRETATION
A. The Historical-Grammatical Method
The specific guidelines for interpreting biblical passages arise from and build upon the foundational presuppositions/principles we have observed in Scripture thus far. These guidelines encompass essentially the historical-grammatical (also called the historical-biblical) method. This robust hermeneutical method has its roots in Scripture itself: the biblical writers explicitly indicate basic presuppositions and principles of interpretation, and illustrate appropriate hermeneutical procedures as they conduct their own intertextual interpretation of earlier Scripture.
A Scripture-based hermeneutic has been carried on since biblical times by various interpreters with a high view of Scripture, including the early Jewish exegetes who followed Rabbi Hillel’s seven hermeneutical rules, the Antiochene school of interpretation in the early centuries of the Christian Church, and especially the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century and their followers in the conservative evangelical community. The historical-grammatical method is solidly affirmed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church today.
B. Biblical Interpretative Steps Arising from Scripture
Most Judeo-Christian writers on the subject of the proper hermeneutical approach to Scripture simply list the various interpretive steps. But a full commitment to sola scripturawould seem to imply that all these basic guidelines also either explicitly or implicitly arise from Scripture itself.
It may be appropriate here to point out that many modern scholars do not consider the Bible writers’ own hermeneutical practice a very helpful place to go for guidance in developing a sound hermeneutic. It is claimed that the New Testament writers often followed the first-century prevailing Jewish rabbinic methods of exegesis that were often not faithful to the original meaning of the Old Testament text.
But the published dissertation by David Instone-Brewer, which may be destined to rock the presuppositions of current critical scholarship regarding first-century Jewish exegetical methods, demonstrates that “the predecessors of the rabbis before 70 CE did not interpret Scripture out of context, did not look for any meaning in Scripture other than the plain sense, and did not change the text to fit their interpretation, though the later rabbis did all these things."5 Brewer’s work calls for a fresh examination of New Testament exegetical methods in light of these conclusions. This new approach to the New Testament has already begun in recent decades, and a number of studies of various New Testament passages have concluded that New Testament writers were careful to represent faithfully the original plain meaning of the Old Testament texts for the New Testament readers.
Some basic interpretative guidelines emerge from the Bible writers’ own hermeneutic.
1. Text and Translation. Since the focus of the hermeneutical enterprise is upon the written Word, it is of great importance that the original text of the Bible be preserved as much as possible. The Bible itself underscores the vital necessity of preserving the words of sacred Scripture (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:5, 6; Rev. 22:18, 19).
The Bible has been carefully and painstakingly preserved down through the centuries to the present day, and the actual amount of variation among the many extant manuscripts is very small. Remarkable finds of ancient manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Uncials of the New Testament, the Chester Beatty Papyri and others provide broad support for assurance that the text of our Bible is the most well attested of any set of documents from the ancient world. There are nonetheless, small variations arising either from scribal errors or intentional changes during the history of textual transmission. The science (or art) of recovering the original biblical text is termed textual study (sometimes called “textual criticism”). Textual scholars use a variety of criteria to determine what reading is the most likely or closest to the original text written by the author. An essential internal criterion is that the reading accepted as the original will be in fundamental harmony with the rest of Scripture. The principles of textual study must be carefully controlled from within Scripture.
The Scriptures also give numerous examples of the need for a faithful translation of the words of Scripture into the target language (Neh. 8:8; Matt. 1:23; Heb. 7:2). There are several different modern translation types: formal “word-for-word equivalency” translations; dynamic “meaning-for-meaning equivalency” translations; a combination of formal and dynamic approaches; and the interpretive paraphrases. Each type has scriptural precedent. The translation of Scripture should remain as faithful as possible to both the form and content of the original.
2. Historical Context/Questions of Introduction. The Old Testament is largely a history book. The accounts of Creation, Fall, Flood, patriarchs, the emergence of Israel, Exodus, conquest of Canaan, judges, kings, and prophets of the united and divided monarchy, exile, return, and rebuilding of the Temple—all the persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament are presented as straightforward history. The later Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the New Testament writers continually refer back to the earlier Old Testament accounts, interpreting these as historically reliable descriptions of God’s real space-time interrelationships with His people.
The historical context of biblical narratives is accepted at face value as true, and there is thus no attempt to reconstruct history in a different way from that presented in the biblical record. The New Testament writers, in their interpretation of the Old Testament, show a remarkably clear acquaintance with the general flow and specific details of Old Testament history (see, e.g., Stephen’s speech in Acts 7; Paul’s discussion of the Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10). The typological arguments of the New Testament writers assumed the historical veracity of the persons, events, and institutions that were types; in fact, the whole force of their typological argument depended upon the historicity of these historical realities.
In the inner-scriptural hermeneutic of biblical writers, mention is often made of various questions of introduction, and these questions sometimes become crucial to the Bible author’s argument. In each case, the plain declaration of the text is accepted as accurately portraying the authorship, chronology, and life setting for the text. For example, the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 (as stated in the superscription of the psalm) is crucial to Jesus’ final clinching, unanswerable argument concerning His Messiahship (Matt. 22:41-46). Again, Davidic authorship of Psalm 16 is also crucial to Peter in his Pentecost sermon to convince the Jews of the predicted resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:25-35).
The life setting of Abraham’s justification by faith in the Genesis account is very significant in Paul’s argument to the Romans, to show that it was before Abraham had been circumcised that this had happened (Rom. 4:1-12). For Paul, there was no question of a hypothetically reconstructed life setting that gave rise to the account, but the apostle—and all the other biblical writers consistently throughout Scripture—accepted the life setting that was set forth in the biblical text.
Thus by precept and example Scripture underscores the importance of interpreting the biblical material in its literal, historical sense, including details of chronology, geography, and miraculous divine interventions in history.
3. Literary Context/Analysis. For the biblical writers, the literary context of the Scriptures was no less important than the historical context. Scripture is not only a history book, but a literary work of art. Scripture itself gives us countless explicit and implicit indicators of the presence of its literary qualities and the importance of recognizing these as part of the hermeneutical task. Recent study is giving increasing attention to the literary characteristics and conventions of Scripture.
One of the first tasks in interpreting a given passage in its immediate literary context is to determine the limits of the passage, in terms of paragraphs, pericopae, or stanzas. Even though the paragraph and chapter divisions of our modern versions of the Bible were added much later than biblical times, the Bible writers often provided indicators of passage limits and in their interpretation of antecedent Scripture show awareness of the discrete units of Scripture. The Book of Genesis, for example, is divided neatly into 10 sections, each identified by the phrase “the generations of . . . .” In the Psalms, along with the superscriptions introducing individual psalms, a number of psalms contain (a) stanzas that naturally divide the sections of the psalm, or (b) the word selah [71 times in Psalms], or (c) an acrostic [e.g., Psalm 119, with every succeeding eight verses starting with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet].
The Bible writers repeatedly identified their written materials in terms of specific genres or literary types. A few samples include: “history” or “account,” legal material, covenant making and renewal, riddles, court chronicles, psalms or songs, proverbs, prophetic oracles or “burdens,” visions, covenant lawsuit, lamentation, gospels, parables, “figures,” epistles, and apocalyptic. Each of these genres has special characteristics that emerge from a careful study, and these characteristics are often significant in interpreting the message that is transmitted through the particular literary type. Literary form and interpretation of content go hand in hand.
In more general depiction of literary genre, the biblical materials separate themselves into poetry and prose. The poetic sections of Scripture (some 40 percent of the Old Testament) are characterized particularly by various kinds of parallelism (“thought rhyme”) and to a lesser degree by meter and stanzas (or strophes). The prose may be of various kinds, such as narrative, legal, and cultic material. The prose sections, and in particular biblical narratives and discourse, have been the object of much recent intense study, revealing the intricate artistry involved in relating the narrative/discourse.
The literary structure, both on the macro-structural and micro-structural levels, is a crucial part of the analysis of a passage, often providing a key to the flow of thought or central theological themes.6 Bible writers have structured their material by such devices as matching parallelism (the Book of Jonah), reverse parallelism (or chiasm, e.g., the books of Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Song of Songs), inclusio or “envelope construction” (e.g., Ps. 8:1, 9; 103:1, 22), acrostic (Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145), qinah (3+2 meter, the Book of Lamentations), and suzerainty treaty components (the Book of Deuteronomy).
Many other literary techniques, conventions, and stylistic elements were utilized by the biblical writers. Irony, metonymy, simile, metaphor, synecdoche, onomatopoeia, assonance, paronomasia (pun/play on words)—all these literary features are important for the biblical writer as they contribute to the framing and forming of the message, and they are essential for interpreters who seek to understand the meaning of a given passage.
4. Grammatical/Syntactical/Semantic Analysis. Scripture, and in particular the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament, provides evidence for engaging in the analysis of the grammatical forms and syntactical relationships, with attention to the meaning of various words in context, in order to arrive at the plain, straightforward meaning of the passage being interpreted.
A classic example of grammatical sensitivity on the part of the New Testament writers is in Paul’s interpretation of the word seed in Galatians 3. Citing several texts in Genesis, Paul recognized (Gal. 3:16) that the singular form of seed narrows in meaning to single Seed—the Messiah—while a few verses later (vs. 29) he correctly pointed to the collective plural aspect of this same term in its wider context.
A vivid example of the apostle’s syntactical sensitivity is in the citation of Psalm 45:6, 7 in Hebrews 1:8, 9: “‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your Kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (NKJV). The syntax of the Hebrew original points to One who is God, who is also anointed by God, thus implying the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Godhead.
There are numerous examples in Scripture in which New Testament writers were careful to represent faithfully the meaning of crucial words in the original Old Testament passage. Note, for example, Paul’s use of “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, citing Habakkuk 2:4); Matthew’s selection of virgin to best represent the Hebrew for the same word in Isaiah 7:14 (“‘the virgin shall conceive’” (Matt. 1:22, 23, NIV); and Christ’s use of the word gods in John 10:34, citing Psalm 82:6.
Numerous other examples may be cited, in which the New Testament quotation of an Old Testament passage involves the New Testament writer’s recognition of the wider context of the Old Testament citation. This larger Old Testament context is frequently the key to understanding the interpretation drawn by the New Testament writer. For example, C. H. Dodd has shown how Peter alludes to the larger context of Joel 2 in his Pentecost sermon, and again, how Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 did not take the Old Testament passage out of context, but rather placed it in the larger context of the eschatological/Messianic New Exodus motif in Hosea and the other eighth-century prophets.7
The grammatical-syntactical and semantic-contextual analysis often becomes more involved for us today than for those whose native tongue was the living biblical Hebrew/Aramaic or koine Greek languages. It is necessary now to make use of appropriate grammars, lexicons, concordances, theological wordbooks, and commentaries.
5. Theological Context/Analysis. The biblical writers provide abundant evidence for the need to ascertain the theological message of a passage as part of the hermeneutical enterprise.
For examples, Jesus laid bare the far-reaching theological implications of the Decalogue in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17–28). The Jerusalem Council set forth the theological import of Amos 9:11, 12—that Gentiles need not become Jews to become Christians (Acts 15:13-21). Paul captured the theological essence of sin in various Old Testament passages (Rom. 3:8-20) and of righteousness by faith in his exposition of Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:1 and 2 (Romans 4). Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2) delineated the theology of inaugurated eschatology found in Joel 2, and his first epistle explored the theological dimensions of the Messiah’s atoning work as set forth in Isaiah 53 (1 Peter 2:21-25).
The theological messages of the New Testament writers presuppose, build upon, and stand in continuity with the major Old Testament theological themes such as God, humankind, Creation-Fall, sin, covenant, Sabbath, law, promise, remnant, salvation, sanctuary, and echatology.
The New Testament writers also placed their theological analyses of specific passages within the larger context of the multiplex “grand central theme” or metanarrative of Scripture as set forth in the opening and closing pages of the Bible (Genesis 1–3; Revelation 20–22): creation and the original divine design for this world; the rise of the cosmic moral conflict (Great Controversy) over the character of God, in the setting of the sanctuary; the plan of redemption-restoration centering in Christ and His atoning work; and the eschatological judgment and end of sin at the climax of history.
The theological thought-patterns of New Testament writers, though expressed in Greek, stayed within the trajectory of biblical Hebrew thought, and did not imbibe alien thought-forms of the prevailing surrounding culture such as Gnosticism and platonic dualism.
6. The Deeper Meaning of Scripture. Some parts of Scripture inherently point to a fulfillment beyond themselves, as in prophecy and typology; other parts point to an extended meaning beyond themselves, as in symbolism and parables. Each of these kinds of theological material in Scripture calls for special attention, and from within Scripture emerge principles for its interpretation.
In their exploration of the “deeper” meaning of Scripture, in particular with regard to the fulfillment of Old Testament types (whether persons, events, and institutions), the New Testament writers do not read back into the Old Testament what is not already there (inspired eisegesis), or what is not apparent to the human researcher (sensus plenior), or an arbitrary assigning of meaning that strips away the historical “husk” (allegory). Rather, they remain faithful to the Old Testament Scriptures, which have already indicated which persons, events, and institutions God has divinely designed to serve as prefigurations of Jesus Christ and the gospel realities brought about by Him. The New Testament writers simply announced the antitypical fulfillment of what had already been verbally indicated by the Old Testament prophets.
The New Testament writers do not give an exhaustive list of Old Testament types, but show the hermeneutical procedure, controlled by the Old Testament indicators, of identifying biblical types. Furthermore, the New Testament writers provide a theological (salvation-historical) substructure for interpreting the eschatological fulfillment of Old Testament types. Based upon a clear theological understanding of the theocratic kingdom of Israel and the kingdom prophecies within the context of covenant blessings and curses, the New Testament reveals a three-stage fulfillment of the Old Testament types and kingdom prophecies—in Christ, in the church, and in the apocalyptic conclusion of salvation history. Each stage has a different modality of fulfillment based upon the nature of Christ’s presence and reign. Thus, the New Testament writers have worked out a sound hermeneutic for interpreting the types and kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament, built upon solid controls arising from the Old Testament scriptures.
7. Contemporary Application. For the New Testament biblical writers, the contemporary application arises naturally out of their theological interpretation of Old Testament passages. We have just noted how the application of the types and kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament arises from understanding the three-stage fulfillment within salvation history. All the promises of God have their yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). And all the Old Testament types find their basic fulfillment in Him. If we are spiritually part of the body of Christ, we therefore share in the fulfillment of those prophetic and typological promises, and yet await their final glorious literal apocalyptic fulfillment. These basic hermeneutical principles dealing with the fulfillment of Israel-centered prophecies in the New Testament provide a Christocentric approach that safeguards against dispensationalism and literalism.
The biblical writers insist that the message of Scripture is not culture-bound, applicable only for a certain people and a certain time, but permanent and universally applicable. Peter, citing Isaiah 40:6-8, forcefully stated, “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because ‘All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25, NKJV).
Most of the ethical instruction in the New Testament gospels and epistles may be seen as the practical homiletic application of Old Testament passages: for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-32) applying the principles of the Decalogue; James’ application of the principles of Leviticus 19 throughout his epistle; and Peter’s ethical instruction building on “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; citing Leviticus 11:44 and 45).
Of course, it is true that certain parts of the Old Testament, in particular the ceremonial/sanctuary ritual laws and the enforcement of Israel’s civil/theocratic laws, are no longer binding upon Christians. The New Testament writers did not arbitrarily (by a casebook approach to Scripture) decide what laws were still relevant, but they consistently recognized the criteria within the Old Testament itself indicating which laws are universally binding.
The general principle, then, articulated and illustrated by the New Testament writers in their homiletic application of Scripture, is to assume the transcultural and trans-temporal relevancy of biblical instruction unless Scripture itself gives us criteria limiting this relevancy. As William Larkin states it, “All Scripture, including both form and meaning, is binding unless Scripture itself indicates otherwise.”8
The final goal of interpreting Scripture is to make practical application of each passage to the individual life. Christ and the apostles repeatedly drove home the message of the gospel contained in the Scriptures to bring the hearers or readers to salvation and an ever closer personal relationship with God.
At the Exodus, God articulated a principle in which each succeeding generation of Israelites should consider that they personally came out of Egypt (Ex. 12:26, 27), and this principle of personalization was repeated many times, both to Old Testament Israel (Deut. 5:2-4) and to spiritual Israel (Gal. 3:29; Rev. 15:1, 2). The Scripture should ultimately be read and accepted as if the readers were participants in the mighty saving acts of God—as if God’s messages were personally addressed to them. They are God’s living and active Word to the soul.
THE HISTORICAL-GRAMMATICAL VS. THE HISTORICAL-CRITICAL METHOD
In contrast to the historical-grammatical method, another major method of biblical interpretation arose during the time of the Enlightenment (17th century), which has become known as the historical-critical method. Whereas the historical-critical method attempts to verify the truthfulness and to understand the meaning of biblical data on the basis of the principles and procedures of secular historical science, the historical-grammatical (also called the historical-biblical) method seeks to understand the meaning of biblical data by means of methodological considerations arising from Scripture alone.
The central presupposition of the historical-critical method is the principle of criticism. The term criticism is used by proponents of the historical-critical method in its technical sense of Cartesian “methodological doubt.” According to this principle, nothing is accepted authoritatively at face value; everything must be verified or corrected by rationally re-examining the evidence. The Bible is always open to correction, and therefore the human interpreter is the final determiner of truth and his or her reason is the final test of the authenticity of a passage. As Edgar McKnight summarizes: “The basic postulate [of the historical-critical method] is that of human reason and the supremacy of reason as the ultimate criterion for truth.”9
With regard to the historical-critical method, and the principle of criticism in particular, Gerhard Maier, a noted German scholar who broke with the historical-critical method, writes: “A critical method must fail, because it represents an inner impossibility. For the correlative or counterpoint to revelation is not critique, but obedience; it is not correction of the text—not even on the basis of a partially recognized an applied revelation—but it is a let-me-be-corrected.”10
As to the basic hermeneutical procedures, both the historical-critical and historical-biblical methods deal with historical context, literary features, genre or literary type, theology of the writer, the development of themes, and the process of canonization. But the historical-biblical approach rejects the principle of criticism; it analyzes, but refuses to critique the Bible; it accepts the text of Scripture at face value as true, and refuses to engage in the three-fold process of dissection, conjecture, and hypothetical reconstruction (often contrary to the claims of the text) that is at the heart of standard historical-critical analysis.
Some evangelical (including Adventist) scholars in recent decades have attempted to “rehabilitate” the historical-critical method by removing its anti-supernatural bias and other objectionable features and still retain the method. This is not really possible, however, because presuppositions and method are inextricably interwoven. The basis of the historical critical method is secular historical science, which by its very nature methodologically excludes the supernatural and instead seeks natural causes for historical events. Moreover, the fruits of this enterprise have not been encouraging. The process has continued the dismantling of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God.
As long as the basic principle of criticism (“methodological doubt”) is retained even to the slightest degree, the danger of the historical-critical method has not been averted, even though the supernatural element in theory may be accepted. And if this principle of criticism is removed, it ceases to be a historical-critical method. The presence or absence of the fundamental principle of criticism is really the litmus test of whether or not critical methodology is being employed. Seventh-day Adventists have taken an official stand against even a modified version of the historical-critical method which retains the principle of criticism: “Even a modified use of this [the historical-critical] method that retains the principle of criticism which subordinates the Bible to human reason is unacceptable to Adventists.”11
Those who follow the historical-biblical method apply the same study tools utilized in historical criticism. There is careful attention given to historical, literary, and linguistic, grammatical-syntactical, and theological details. But while utilizing the gains brought about by the historical-critical method in sharpening various study tools for analysis of the biblical text, there is a consistent intent in historical-biblical study to eliminate the element of criticism that stands as judge upon the Word.
In the past quarter of a century, there has been a major recent paradigm shift in critical biblical studies toward an emphasis upon various new literary-critical hermeneutical approaches. These critical procedures usually do not deny the results of historical criticism, nor abandon the central principle of criticism, but rather bracket out the historical questions concerning the historical development of the biblical text and concentrate upon its final canonical shape.
Many of these literary-critical hermeneutical approaches focus upon the final form of the biblical text as a literary work of art. These synchronic approaches (i.e., approaches that deal with the final form of the text) include such (overlapping) procedures as rhetorical criticism, New Literary criticism, and close reading. Common to all of these is the concern for the text as a finished work of art.
Seventh-day Adventists welcome this renewed interest upon the synchronic analysis of the received canonical form of the biblical text, and appreciate many of the literary tools of analysis developed within these approaches. Unfortunately, however, in these approaches as commonly practiced by critical scholars, the literary productions of the Bible are usually divorced from history and regarded as works of fiction or myth, with their own “autonomous imaginative universe” and “imitation of reality.” Emphasis is placed upon the various literary conventions utilized (consciously or unconsciously) by the writers as they creatively crafted the fictional biblical “story” into a literary work of art. Such presuppositions that ignore, or go against, the historical claims of the biblical texts are rejected by Adventist interpreters.
Another recent synchronic approach is biblical structuralism. Its main purpose is to “decode” the text to uncover the subconscious “deep-structures” universally inherent in language that deterministically impose themselves upon the writer. The divine absolute in this method is replaced by an absolute from below—the deep structures of language. A related literary approach is semiotics, or “sign-theory,” which focuses upon the linguistic codes that form the framework within which the message of the text is given (much like the musical staff and clef in music where the specific notes may be placed). The concern of these approaches is upon neither the history nor the meaning of the text, but upon the layers of linguistic structures or sign-systems underlying the message. These approaches have limited value in Adventist hermeneutics inasmuch as fundamental presuppositions tend to compromise the sola scriptura principle.
In recent decades, a number of postmodern approaches to Scripture have been developed that retain the critical presuppositions of the historical-critical method but focus attention upon other goals than hypothetically reconstructing the historical development of the biblical text. Some of these postmodern approaches build upon new trends that have been addressed previously. Major examples include: philosophical hermeneutics, hermeneutics of socio-critical theory (sociological, liberation, and feminist); reader-response criticism, and deconstructionism.
In these postmodern methodologies, no longer is there a single objective, normative meaning of Scripture: rather there is a feminist reading, a black reading, an Asian reading, a Latino reading, etc. All are seen to have their own validity as the reader’s horizon merges with the horizon of the biblical text. These latter approaches have provided some useful insights into the biblical text, and rightfully point out the need for the modern interpreter to recognize his or her individual cultural context, but the common tendency is to have some external norm—be it philosophy, sociology, Marxist political theory, feminism, or the subjectivism of the reader—that replaces the sola scriptura principle and relativizes Scripture.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church affirms the hermeneutic of the biblical writers and the Protestant Reformation, and rejects the historical-critical method of the Enlightenment and its later post-Enlightenment developments. Seventh-day Adventists are the hermeneutical heirs of the Reformation. In the spirit of the Reformers, and in harmony with the official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, interpreters seek to base all their presuppositions and principles of interpretation, their faith and practice, upon the absolute authority of God’s infallible Word.
Richard Davidson, Ph.D., is the J. N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and Chair of the Old Testament Department, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Frank M. Hasel, “Presuppositions in the Interpretation of Scripture,” in George W. Reid, ed., Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, Biblical Research Institute Studies (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), vol. 1, p. 43.
2. Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 287.
3. Adapted from Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995), p. 173.
4. J. H. Gerstner, “Law in the NT,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1986), pp. 85–88.
5. David Instone-Brewer, Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis Before 70 CE (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992), p. 1.
6. David A. Dorsey, Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999), pp. 15–44.
7. Charles H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-structure of New Testament Theology (London: Collins, 1952), pp. 59, 60.
8. William J. Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1988), p. 316.
9. Edgar V. McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1988), p. 45.
10. Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical Critical Method (St. Louis: Concordia, 1977), p. 23.
11. “Methods of Bible Study Committee Report,” approved at Annual Council, 1986, printed in Adventist Review (January 22, 1987), pp. 18-20.