Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics1

Article excerpt


Biblical interpretation is the soul of theology. Truth is the ultimate accolade that we accord an interpretation. Christian theology therefore succeeds or fails in direct proportion to its ability to render true interpretations of the word of God written.

They asked for a plenary paper on truth and interpretation. It took me some time to figure out what they meant. Only when I put it in canonical context-the ETS program book!-did I realize that I had to discuss the use of the Bible in theology, because systematic theology was not otherwise represented as such in the other plenaries. My focus is thus on doctrine, the main product of theology's interpretation of Scripture, and hence the linch-pin between biblical interpretation and theological truth.

1. Pilgrim's egress: setting out. There has been too much wrangling over whether evangelicalism is a matter of doctrine or piety, the head or the heart. Those who see the essence of evangelicalism in pietistic terms tend to see the Bible primarily as a means of spiritual sustenance. Those who see the essence of evangelicalism in doctrinal terms tend to see the Bible primarily as a means of propositional communication. It is neither necessary nor advisable to take sides in this debate.2 Indeed, to do so is to reduce, and so distort, the very concept of biblical and doctrinal truth. Let no one put asunder what God has joined together. Far better to see the Christian life as a way where head and heart come together to get the feet moving. Evangelicals need to put feet on the gospel, and on our doctrine. Evangelical theology should provide direction for walking the way of truth and life.

John Bunyan knew this long ago. His Pilgrim's Progress pictures Christian as a wayfarer directed by a Book on a way to the city of God. Christian's neighbor, Pliable, asks him if the words of his Book are certainly true. "Yes verily" Christian replies, "for it was made by him that cannot lie." Evangelist then leads Christian to the Wicket Gate where, he says, he will "receive instruction [doctrine] about the way." In Bunyan's words, "[Evangelist] told him that after he was gone some distance from the gate, he would come to the House of the Interpreter, at whose door he should knock; and he would show him excellent things."

2. Why are they saying such awful things about truth and interpretation? Fast forward to the twentieth century: "All this stuff about hermeneutics is really a way of avoiding the truth question." So spoke homo Tyndaliens, Tyndale man, to be precise, a NT Ph.D. student at Tyndale House, Cambridge, in 1984. My immediate reply: no, all this stuff about truth is really a way of avoiding the hermeneutical question. What I now want to say to my erstwhile colleague is this: all this stuff about hermeneutics is a way of facing up to the truth question: "Hermeneutics has become a bogey with which to frighten the children, and yet... its message is really rather simple. Appropriating ancient . . . texts [and not ancient only!] requires an effort of understanding and not just philological skills."3

Contemporary evangelicals had best face up to both questions. The temptation of conservative evangelicals is to play the propositional truth card in order to trump interpretation; the temptation of what we might call "emergent" evangelicals is to play the interpretation card in order to trump propositional truth. Neither move is ultimately satisfying, nor edifying.4

3. "Lost in interpretation": how hermeneutics complicates "Bible and theology." In what sense are we "lost in interpretation"? I mean (at least) four things by this phrase (apologies to Walt Kaiser and other single-sense folk!).

a. The author is lost in interpretation. There is a tendency in certain contemporary approaches to interpretation to lose the author, either because the author is historically distant or because the author has drowned in the sea of linguistic indeterminacy. …