Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics? (Part 2)

(From Theologically Driven. Read the series so far.)

This blog post is fairly ambitious, seeking to answer two questions: (1) How can we prove the existence of universally “received laws of language”? And, assuming they exist, (2) Who gets to decide what those laws are in the absence of an explicit biblical statement of those laws?

My answer to the first question may seem a bit unnerving, but hopefully I can make a recovery with the explanation. My answer, simply, is that we can’t prove the existence of universal laws of language. That’s the nature of a transcendental—it can’t be proven, only assumed. But what we can do is to demonstrate that people universally observe certain laws when they use the medium of human language; in fact, they cannot cogently do otherwise. This is what logicians sometimes call “transcendental” argumentation.

The idea of transcendentals is often traced to the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, who ostensibly coined the term and established “the one” as their principal and only absolute transcendental. Plato also developed, however, several subsidiary transcendentals that flow from “the one,” viz., “the good, the beautiful, and the true.” (Other transcendentals have been floated over the years, but these have proved the most resilient proposals.) We err, however, if we conclude that the idea of transcendentals is of Greek vintage. The Bible itself makes certain transcendental assumptions. First among these is the ontological assumption of God’s existence with which both testaments begin (Gen 1:1; John 1:1). The Scripture writers nowhere seek to prove that the Christian God exists; rather, they assume that he exists. Further, they demonstrate conclusively that humanity universally presuppose, indeed must presuppose, God’s existence for their very survival (so Acts 17:24–28; Rom 1:18ff; etc.): God alone supplies the requisite preconditions of intelligibility in our universe, and no one can survive the absurdity of a universe without God. In short, since the creation of the world, everyone everywhere knows and needs God. Humanity needs no “proof” of God beyond this demonstration.

The Scriptures also assume ethical transcendentals subsidiary to the principal fact that “God is.” These transcendentals are no less true than the fact that “God is,” but they are subsidiary in that their truth exists only because of the more primary fact that “God is.” The Apostle Paul weaves certain of these transcendent ethical principles into his broader demonstration of God’s existence in Romans 1­–2, assuming certain inescapable standards of morality, known by all, without which the natural order will fail—laws written upon the heart and universally understood to be the basis by which judgment will occur.

I would argue that there are other transcendentals that may be known the same way. For instance, we know that there is an epistemological transcendental of “truth” that flows from God’s being and is expressed in his revelation. And in order for mankind to receive that truth, there must be some universal medium whereby that truth may be transmitted and received: the received laws of language and logic often headed by the label Hermeneutics.

The difficulty with this final category of transcendentals is that God never explicitly defines them. This puts it in a class slightly different from the transcendentals of God’s existence and moral law, which God does not leave in the realm of assumption. Knowing that depraved people will attempt to exchange these transcendentals for incongruous alternatives, God offers an enormous amount of explicit, propositional data about his ontological nature and ethical perfections in the Bible. But when we start to talk about transcendentals in other spheres (epistemics, aesthetics, etc.), the absence of explicit revelation leads to controversy. There are three basic approaches to this dilemma:

  • Some conclude that hermeneutical transcendentals do not exist or are subject to change, and that human language is thus an inadequate vehicle for revealing God. At best, God may be known by an existential encounter “above” the text. This most serious error is beyond the scope of this series.
  • Others suggest that hermeneutical methods are not universal/transcendental, but are instead provincial and utilitarian expressions of diverse cultures to which God’s method may or may not conform. This error is not so serious as the first, but still quite troubling, suggesting that even when the Bible is available, its message is inaccessible to anyone who has not learned (by some sort of illuminating work) its mysterious hermeneutical key. Perhaps the most obvious example here is Gnosticism, a movement ostensibly quashed by the Ante-Nicene Church, but the ideas of which certainly live on.
  • A third response affirms that universal hermeneutical principles exist as shared transcendentals, rendering the Bible a “normal” book accessible to all without distinction via the received laws of language. This response leads to the grammatical-historical model. But until the various proponents of this ideal define these laws, they remain vulnerable to fragmentation—not all grammatical-historical hermeneuts are literalists.

So who determines these rules and how? For many, the answer is that exegetes learn these rules discursively: we learn how language works by the analogy of subsequent Scripture or by the hermeneutical example of Christ himself. IOW, the treatment of earlier Scriptures by later Scripture-writers (with priority sometimes accorded to Christ’s own use of earlier Scriptures) divulges the hermeneutical paradigms by which we read Scripture as a whole.

In many senses, this approach is quite reasonable—surely God in Christ or God via inspiration will not violate his own laws of language! And we would be fools to abandon the value of the analogia fidei in our study of the Scriptures (although privileging later Scriptures is not so easily defended [see Kaiser]—and more on this later). But in another sense, this approach leaves serious holes: first among these is the fact that God communicated to humans quite successfully long before they had the NT Scriptures ostensibly necessary to discovering the laws of language. In short, since the creation of the world, everyone everywhere knows and needs these laws apart from their exegetical demonstration. They need no “proof” of these laws beyond this. But second, this approach (which in keeping with my last post, is a correspondence approach) offers no check for coherency. That is, it does not ask whether tentatively proposed hermeneutical rules, gleaned by exegesis, can survive the rigors of ordinary communication. It does not demand that we demonstrate that we can live credibly with the implications of those derived laws in our everyday use of language. It is this problem, I would argue, that the “literalist” is best suited to surmount.

Next time: A summary delineation of the seminal laws of language and the means of testing them.

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Bert Perry's picture

Want to read other comments and am looking forward to the sequel.   I must admit that I hadn't thought that much about the argument about whether there are indeed "received laws of language" or not.

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