Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New versus the Old

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Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old. By Robert L. Thomas. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002, 524 pp., $23.99 paper.

Robert L. Thomas describes his own work fairly: "The remarks in this present volume come from an exegetical practitioner, one who is not a hermeneutical theoretician and who has no aspirations of becoming one" (p. 19). Despite this confession, he sets out to critique what he takes to be modern and post-modern hermeneutical models, specifically the idea of preunderstanding, which he believes lies behind most of the problems in biblical interpretation and indeed in evangelicalism today.

The critique begins in chapter 2. Thomas argues that instead of accepting any concept of preunderstanding (which, he claims, confuses him), God communicates objectively in Scripture, and thus, "neutral objectivity" is possible because of the Holy Spirit. (This theme is also discussed by Brian A. Shealy in chapter 7 as the confusion of application with interpretation.) The contrast of objectivity with non-objectivity is shown in chapter 3 in an examination of eschatology, especially 2 Thess 2, where several reformed scholars, a number of translations, and many older mainline scholars are critiqued in favor of a dispensational approach. (Unfortunately, none of the scholars he cites is noted for his use of new hermeneutical insights.) This debate is a case of reformed/liberal verses dispensational, all cast as a discussion of exegesis rather than hermeneutics.

Chapter 4 claims dynamic equivalent translations are an example of the new hermeneutic; thus, only formal equivalent translations are appropriate. One reason for this is the uniqueness of biblical language, which is Thomas's point in chapter 8, where he definitively rejects "modern linguistics." The rejection of linguistics is related to chapter 5's rejection of general revelation in the sense of the integration of biblical insights with other truth and in particular with their integration with psychology.

For Thomas, all truth is not God's truth. If Scripture can be studied objectively and the integration of other disciplines is counterproductive, then one reaches the conclusions of chapter 6 that there is only one meaning in a text, and thus, most contemporary works on evangelical biblical interpretation or hermeneutics are mistaken. This is also the case when it comes to the use of the OT in the New (chapter 9). Walter Kaiser is wrong, for there is indeed a sensus plenior, but it is an "inspired sensus plenior" occasioned by Israel's rejection of their King. It is certainly not a method that is reproducible today. No mention is made of its similarity to contemporary Jewish exegetical methodologies.

Given Thomas's analysis of the special nature of biblical language, it is not surprising that chapters 10 and 11 reject genre analysis (a lot of issues in biblical criticism are gathered under that heading) in the interpretation of both the gospels and Revelation. …