(From Theologically Driven)
For decades it was assumed, by both sides of the debate between dispensational and Reformed theology, that the primary distinction between the two models (there were really no other viable evangelical options in the early days) was hermeneutical—dispensationalists held consistently to a “literal” reading of Scripture (and most importantly the OT prophetic portions of Scripture), while the Reformed were comfortable with a nonliteral (e.g., spiritual or typological) interpretation of those same texts.
Anthony Hoekema, for instance, reflecting this understanding from a Reformed perspective, wrote in his chapter of The Meaning of the Millennium,
Premillennialists, particularly those of dispensationalist persuasion, are committed to what is commonly called the ‘literal’ interpretation of Old Testament prophecy…. Amillennialists, on the other hand, believe that though many Old Testament prophecies are indeed to be interpreted literally, many others are to be interpreted in a nonliteral way. (172)
The reasons that non-dispensationalists felt comfortable reading the Scriptures in this way are manifold, but much of the argument rested on the premise that the Bible was not a “normal” book. Unlike ordinary books, the Bible is inspired, the Bible has a unique sort of dual authorship (God and the human author), and the meaning of the Bible is in some sense mediated through the Holy Spirit, who alone knows the mind of God perfectly. For these and other reasons, the Bible cannot be boxed in by the so-called “received laws of language” that seem to govern other literature.
As time has passed (and as mediating positions have multiplied), the argument has changed. Rather than seeing two fundamental hermeneutical approaches, it is common for all of the multiplied parties debating this issue to concede that the “grammatical/historical” method is the common property of all, and then for each to demonstrate that its distinctive application of this shared method is more exegetically defensible. The new leading distinction between theological systems is thus no longer about hermeneutics, but is rather about exegesis and biblical theology. Consequently, the only piece of Ryrie’s trifold sine qua non of dispensationalism that survives, for many, is its distinction between Israel and the Church in the unfolding of biblical theology.
It is my contention in this blog series that this concession has weakened dispensationalism. Specifically, it has barred from debate the transcendental discussion of the “received laws of language” as presuppositional to the exegetical task. This topic is too complex to unfold in a few paragraphs, so if the reader is willing to receive this argument over the course of weeks, I will attempt to complete it in a short series of posts. Many thanks in advance for your patience.
Correspondence & Coherence
When evaluating the truth or error of any proposed theological statement or system, there are two primary questions that the theologian asks: the question of correspondence and the question of coherence. In using these two terms, I am using two recognized philosophical categories, but not necessarily as all users would define them.
In suggesting that we must test a given theological statement or system for its correspondence, I do not mean, as many do, that we ask whether or not it corresponds to “reality” as variously defined in the marketplace of ideas; instead, I mean that we ask whether or not it corresponds to God’s reality as he has defined it. In short we ask, “Does this theological statement/system agree with what God has said in the Christian Scriptures?” In developing any truly biblical system of theology, we spend the lion’s share of our time answering this question. That is because the Christian Scriptures are the Norma Normans non Normata, the governing norm of truth that may not be subjected to manipulation or modification. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts the Bible, then that statement/system, however clever, is invalid.
The question of correspondence is not, however, the only question that concerns the systematic theologian. He must also establish the coherence of his system: the system must agree with itself. If a theological system can survive only by patching up its violations of the received laws of logic and language with appeals to “mystery,” then it is compromised.
For example, assuming a non-equivocating definition of the term omnipotent, a valid theological system cannot countenance a God that is mysteriously both omnipotent and not-omnipotent at the same time. Or, assuming again a non-equivocating definition of the term justification, a valid theological system cannot permit justification to be simultaneously both by works and by faith alone. Any system that permits such absurdities breaks at least one and often several fundamental laws of logic (in this case, viz., the law of identity [A = A] and the law of contradiction [A ≠ not-A]).
For this reason, a systematic theologian must spend time harmonizing texts that seem to contradict (e.g., Job 42:2 with Titus 1:2 and James 1:13 for the issue of omnipotence; Galatians 2:16 with James 2:24 for the issue of justification). At times he is obliged to scuttle his theories; sometimes, however, he is able to tweak and strengthen them by exploring exegetical options and by crafting out carefully nuanced definitions that render his system coherent. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts itself, it is invalid.
The question of record for this blog post is whether the theologian’s hermeneutical method is a matter of correspondence or a matter of coherence: are hermeneutical principles (1) something to be discovered in the Bible itself and constructed inductively from what I find there? Or are hermeneutical principles (2) something to be settled as a matter of transcendental presupposition before I can even start reading the Bible?
My answer (and what to me stands at the centerpiece of the concept of “literal” interpretation) is that the latter option is of necessity true. The laws of language are received by divine grant and are a priori axioms necessary to the coherent, intelligible reading of anything: they must be assumed before they can be demonstrated. Apart from this axiomatic premise, coherent communication would fail us and linguistic anarchy would prevail. In fact, in order for someone to disagree with this position, I would submit, he would have to assume the position in order to express his disagreement with it (which is why I have labeled it a transcendental argument).
Those who use a non-literal (typological/allegorical/spiritual) hermeneutical method do not make this assumption, or at the very least not to the same degree I do. Instead, their hermeneutical method is in part a matter of exegetical discovery. So, for instance, when a non-literalist sees in Matthew 2:15 and 18 the use of a fulfillment formula in connection with two improbable Old Testament historical narratives (Hos 11:1 and Jer 31:15, respectively), he stands quite ready to humbly allow exegesis to correct his presumptive hermeneutic. What’s more, the non-literalist can also argue that since Matthew has validated this appealing new hermeneutic under inspiration, the contemporary reader now has exegetical warrant to interpret other texts in the same way.
The literalist, on the other hand, while not unmindful that depraved minds can distort the received laws of language, is much more disposed, based on his view of the transcendental nature of those laws, to think that his interpretive errors will be resolved by exegetical adjustment than by a radical overhaul of his whole hermeneutical method. And so, rather than acceding quickly to unique hermeneutical models unknown outside the biblical corpus, he will expend enormous effort exhausting all the possible exegetical options available to him within the bounds of a “normal” hermeneutic.
And even if he fails, he is reluctant to concede the existence of a whole new hermeneutical method, much less a prescriptive one. He is reluctant because he knows that appeals to exegesis as a precedent for a unique and non-literal hermeneutical method potentially undermines not only (1) the received laws of language, but also (2) the accessibility of the Scriptures to all who are not apprised of the special method, and (3) perhaps even the integrity and authority of the Bible itself.
This, I would submit, is the heartbeat of literal interpretation.
Next time: What are these “received laws of language” of which I speak? And if we cannot trust Matthew or Luke or Paul to delineate these laws, why should we accept the doodlings of some 21st-century chump (yours truly)?
Mark Snoeberger is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and has served as Director of Library Services since 1997. He received his M.Div. and Th.M. from DBTS and earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. Prior to joining the DBTS staff, he served for three years as an assistant pastor.