Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics (Part 3)

From Theologically Driven. Read the series so far.

We come now to the heart of this series, viz., a discovery of the “received laws of language” that we as humans unconsciously use every day as we engage in ordinary communication with one another. The material here is not new with me, but rather is a distillation of an article published in 2002 by Rolland McCune, “What Is Literal Interpretation?” that he contributed to a start-up journal published by a missionary with whom he was acquainted, Sola Scriptura, issue #3. It is unfortunate that the study has not been circulated more widely.

The Univocal Nature of Language

The first of the hermeneutical rules he proposes is the Univocal Nature of Language. By univocal is simply meant “one voice.” By saying that the Bible speaks univocally we mean that its statements can have only one signification in any given context. To this I add the following qualifications:

  1. while we must concede that many words have wide semantic ranges, we would insist that they bring but one meaning to any single propositional context; further,
  2. while we admit that some people occasionally use double entendres or puns to deliberately connote two things at once, we would argue that such figures only “work” when hearers successfully incise the play on words: a communicator who uses puns that his audience doesn’t “get” is a failure. To summarize, no system of language/thought can survive solely or principally on such clever ambiguities. They are incidental exceptions that prove the rule.

As a transcendental rule, this seminal principle of language is axiomatic—it must be assumed true in order to be disproved. To assert otherwise would require words that follow this rule, or else the argument would fall apart into meaninglessness.

Applied to Bible study methods, this principle means that the Bible, since it is written in a “normal” manner with respect to grammar, syntax, genres, figures, etc., and was written for the express purpose of revealing truth, contains no additional, hidden meanings that were “missed” by the original writers/readers using standard grammatical and syntactical hermeneutical methods. A statement made in the OT had precisely the same meaning to its immediate readers that it has to its modern readers. To cite Fee and Stuart, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” True, later revelation often clarifies or expands what was known by earlier revelation, but it never divulges hidden messages unknown to the original communicators, much less those that resignify the text.

To affirm otherwise, I would argue, is to introduce uncertainty to the whole of Scripture. In Milton Terry’s words, “The moment we admit the principle that portions of Scripture contain an occult or double sense we introduce an element of uncertainty in the sacred volume, and unsettle all scientific interpretation.” Who knows? Perhaps the plain meaning of the precious New Testament promises of eternal life, heaven, and eternal reward will one day yield to some new meaning that rises to replace it! We surely cannot countenance this scenario, and so it follows that we cannot countenance any scenario that does this to any text of Scripture. To use transcendental terms, the Christian system cannot survive the implications of a Scripture that allows for the possibility of evolving, surrogate, or alien meanings anywhere within its leaves.

As such, a literalist resists hermeneutical models specializing in “mystery”—models that boast hidden meanings, whether they be twofold (the Apostolic Fathers), threefold (Origen), fourfold (Cassian), or the more domesticated typological/Christological school popular today. Instead, the literalist does not rest until he discovers an exegetically plausible and “normal” explanation for each difficult text of Scripture, viz., one that preserves the univocal nature of language.

The Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent

A second received law of language that may be deduced from common usage is the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent. I proposed last week that a text can have but one signification in any given context; this week I suggest further that the sole arbiter of that signification is its author. This seminal axiom of language is mnemonically captured in Fee and Stuart’s statement, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” The meaning of a given text is always found in the author’s original intention: it can never be changed after the fact by a reader, some alien force, or even (after further reflection) by the author himself. Denotative meaning is static and perpetual.

Of course, the meaning of Scripture is not uniformly perspicuous, and it is impossible to interview an author or to enter his mind for clarification. Meaning can, at times, be elusive. But since the author is using the established grammatical, syntactical, and lexical norms of a given historical context, we can with patience reduce the options considerably. This is what is meant by grammatical-historical interpretation. And since the purpose of Scripture is revelation, we should expect that God would not be in the habit of obfuscating that meaning.

Due to the uniqueness of Scripture as an inerrant unity, we also have another interpretive tool at our disposal, viz., the analogia fidei­, or the analogy of faith (sometimes called the analogia scriptura or the analogy of Scripture). By this we mean that the interpretive options for a given text can be categorized as likely, possible, unlikely, or impossible not only in view of linguistic factors, but also in view of theological factors. So, for instance, when Paul says that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28) and James that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24), we know that certain linguistically possible interpretations of this pair of texts are not theologically possible.

But while we must admit the propriety of appeals to the analogia fidei, we must also be keenly aware of the susceptibility of this principle to abuse. Specifically, while the analogia fidei­ can help to reduce the number of linguistic options during the course of exegesis, it cannot create new linguistic options that the author demonstrably never intended. So, for instance, after God clarifies at length and with unequivocal specificity that Abram’s biological seed would be eternally plentiful (Gen 15:2–5) it is not possible for a modern interpreter to allow this explicit denotation to fall away in favor of a “greater seed” and a “greater Israel” that Abram did not have in mind on this particular historical occasion. Similarly, after God invites Abram to pace through the land of promise to establish its precise length, breadth, and contours (Gen 13:17), it is not possible for this explicit denotation to fall away in favor of a “greater land” that Abram did not have in mind on this particular historical occasion. Likewise, when the prophets dedicate dozens of chapters to exultations about millennial blessings that are geological, zoological, meteorological, agricultural, medical, political, sociological, etc., it is not possible for the modern reader to resignify these as merely spiritual blessings.

To interpret Scripture in such a way is to resignify an author’s words without his permission, and thus to banish that author from his own words. And this simply cannot occur in any sustainable theory of language.

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