Holy Spirit, History, Hermeneutics and Theology: Toward an evangelical/Catholic Consensus

By Dorman, Ted M. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Holy Spirit, History, Hermeneutics and Theology: Toward an evangelical/Catholic Consensus

Dorman, Ted M., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


This essay seeks to explore what role the Holy Spirit plays in the work of hermeneutics and theology and how understanding the work of the Spirit may produce more fruitful results in the ongoing dialogue between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.1 I shall begin by arguing that the Holy Spirit, while not providing a hot line to heaven that conveys additional data to the interpreter of Scripture, nevertheless has an indispensable role in the Church's endeavor to understand who God is and what he requires of us. I shall then briefly explore the relationship between exegesis, Biblical theology, historical theology and dogmatics and how I believe the Spirit relates to each area of inquiry. I shall conclude with two case studies, one dealing with doctrine and the other with ethics.


In a recent article2 Clark Pinnock defines the relationship between exegesis and the work of the Holy Spirit in a manner similar to that set forth in an earlier essay by Daniel P. Fuller.3 Both Fuller and Pinnock believe that the role of the Spirit in Biblical interpretation is not to impart new information to the reader beyond the grammatical-historical data but to change the heart of the reader so that he or she might become more willing to accept the gospel message revealed in Scripture.4

Standing behind Fuller's and Pinnock's rejection of the notion that the Holy Spirit imparts new information to the reader is the distinction between "meaning" and "significance" articulated by E. D. Hirsch5 and common within the writings of evangelical Biblical scholars.6 This distinction defines meaning as the message the original author intended to convey and significance as how that meaning is relevant to other people and situations. Pinnock therefore states that "the significance of texts changes-but not their meaning."7 Yet shortly after this remark he adds that "the meaning [of a text] can be enlarged upon reflection.... The text can come to be seen to allow a larger interpretation than was strictly intended."

It would appear, then, that Pinnock's distinction between meaning and significance is not a hard and fast one. Indeed this malleability of the word "meaning" manifests itself among a number of evangelicals as well as liberals, postmodernists and deconstructionists. s It has to do with questions of the unity of the Bible9 and the relevance of the Bible to the reader's life situation or "horizon."10 And while one could argue that the question of relevance is principally concerned with significance, the problem of the unity of the Bible is by definition concerned with whether there exists one overall meaning that relates the diverse messages of the Biblical writers to one another.

Despite this lack of a clear line between meaning and significance it is useful and proper to distinguish the two concepts without positing an absolute dichotomy. For this reason the next two sections of our discussion will address the work of the Holy Spirit as it relates to meaning and significance respectively. In the first section we shall link meaning to hermeneutics, which pertains to the disciplines of exegesis and Biblical theology. In the following section we shall relate significance to the term "theological method," which pertains to systematic theology and ethics.


As we address the subject of hermeneutics within the context of the recent dialogue between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, a good place to begin is to examine insights set forth by Oscar Cullmann, who was already engaged in fruitful dialogue with Roman Catholics a generation before evangelicals considered this to be worthwhile. As I have noted elsewhere,11 Cullmann insists that the Holy Spirit is active in our ongoing interpretation of Scripture as the Church seeks "to translate the biblical message into the language of today.

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