Johann August Ernesti: The Role of History in Biblical Interpretation
Sailhamer, John H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
This article will address the question regarding the role of history in Biblical interpretation. It will do so within the context of an evangelical view of Scripture. By this I mean a view that holds the Bible to be the inspired locus of divine revelation. There are, of course, other approaches to Scripture and hermeneutics. There are probably also other definitions of the evangelical view of Scripture; but I think the view I have described is the classical view that is rooted in classical orthodoxy and the Reformation creeds.
My primary interest in the subject of this article is and has been in the hermeneutics of the OT. The literature and historical situation of the composition of the OT and the NT are different enough to caution against a facile application of the same hermeneutical principles to both. Nevertheless, I believe that the same principles do apply to both, but each in terms of its own specific issues and questions.
In this article I will approach the question of the role of history in Biblical interpretation from the point of view of the history of interpretation. I have elsewhere given a lengthy theoretical discussion of the issue.1 There I argued that history, and especially the discipline of philology (the study of ancient texts), should play a central role in our understanding about the Biblical texts. Who was the author? When was a book written? Why was it written? What is the lexical meaning of its individual words? History also plays a central role in the apologetic task of defending the historical veracity of the Biblical record. Are the patriarchal narratives historically reliable? Were the Biblical authors influenced by ancient mythology? Did Jesus rise from the dead?
When it comes to the meaning of the Biblical text, however, I argued that history, that is, historical reconstructions of the Biblical events, cannot, or at least should not, take the place of the depiction of the actual events described in the text.
It is not a question of whether we can accurately fill in the many historical details that have been left out of the Biblical picture. I believe we can do that. Our ability to fill out the Biblical picture is, in fact, the chief problem. We have the same ability to fill in the historical details of Scripture as we have of painting over the shadows of a Rembrandt painting with intricate details of seventeenth-century life. Our effect on the Rembrandt painting would be no more or less than on the Bible. By filling in the Biblical narratives in this way, we may learn much about the events narrated by the Biblical writers, but our goal in hermeneutics is not an understanding of those events as such. It is understanding the Biblical text. We want to know what the Biblical texts say about the events they record. No amount of information from history outside the text will tell us that.
The task of understanding the events themselves is the task of Biblical historiography. That, of course, is an extremely important task. It is not, however, the same task as Biblical hermeneutics. Hermeneutics, as I understand it, always is and always should be devoted to discovering the meaning of the Biblical text. To quote Sternberg, "the text itself has a pattern of meaning."2
II. HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION
1. Introduction. I now want to turn to the history of Biblical interpretation to address the question of the role of history in Biblical hermeneutics. My aim will be to trace the meaning of the phrase "grammatical-- historical method." My thesis is that the meaning of these two terms, "grammatical" and "historical," were best defined and defended by Johann August Ernesti.3 Not only does Ernesti's viewpoint best fit the nature of the Biblical texts as such, but his view is also most commensurate with the view of Scripture held by classical orthodoxy and modern evangelicalism.
Ernesti's approach has long been hailed as the definitive statement of what was to be known as the "grammatical-historical method. …