Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics (Part 4)

From Theologically Driven. Read the series so far.

Having established two axiomatic principles of language that govern the intelligible use of words (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent), we need to pause, I think, to make an important qualification—not so much a third axiom of language, but an answer to a common observation that is often raised at this point, viz., that the Scriptures have two authors, divine and human.

As such, some non-dispensationalists maintain, God is able to use linguistic structures with a broad semantic/syntactical range to secretly but accurately communicate meanings additional to what the human author intended. This being the case, they reason, it is possible to affirm the two principles above but still find a loophole, unique to the Christian Scriptures, that allows two disparate streams of intentionality in a single text: the divine author intended more than or other than what the human author intended, and that’s OK in view of the inscrutable mystery of inspiration.

Of course it is true that God always knows comprehensively the details and implications of any of his statements, and thus knew quantitatively more and qualitatively better than the human authors did when they wrote (so, e.g., Dan 12:6–9; 1 Pet 1:10–12). But this is not the same as saying that God meant more than the human authors did when they wrote. To put things succinctly, acceptance of the analogical view of truth in one’s epistemology does not legitimate the possibility of equivocation in one’s view of language. Note the following:


The gift of language and miracle of inspiration seem precisely intended to ascertain that the thoughts of God were perfectly communicated in human words (1 Cor 2:13) and to prevent the possibility of alien meanings exclusive to the human authors (2 Pet 1:19­­–21). They are God’s words breathed out (1 Tim 3:16) through human vehicles, not bypassing their respective styles and vocabulary, but ensuring that His Word and their words enjoyed a perfect confluence.


The idea that God used human authors to write something grammatically/technically accurate while at the same time intending something other than what they intended is very difficult to harmonize with the doctrine of inerrancy. At best, it would seem, God is perpetuating deception.


Finally, if God is able, at any time, to mean more than or other than the human author, it would seem to me that whole of Scripture is placed in serious jeopardy and its meaning potentially lost to all that might seek it. The miracle of inspiration is emasculated and the Scriptures themselves are rendered superfluous.

Scripture is, in one sense, a unique book. Unlike all other books, it boasts an inerrant unity that partakes of inspiration. But it does not follow that this uniqueness is such that the Bible must be read with a correspondingly unique hermeneutic. The univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of (unitary) authorial intent cannot be set aside in view of the “dual authorship” of Scripture. Two transmitters are used in the communication of Scripture, to be sure, but they share perfect denotative confluence.

A Textually Based Locus of Meaning

Having discussed two seminal axioms of language that seem to qualify as “received laws of language” (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent) and offering a qualification concerning the dual authorship of Scripture often raised by non-dispensationalists, I turn to a third and final principle, again borrowed from my mentor, Rolland McCune: A Textually Based Locus of Meaning.

This is the capstone of ordinary linguistics. The whole meaning of a text is exhausted in its own words. Any meaning assigned to a text after the fact that cannot be derived from the author’s own words simply isn’t there. To allow any text an afterlife is to remove meaning from the text and grant it to something alien to the text, sending meaning into an inevitably downward spiral of ambiguity and relativism.

Naturally, we must concede that implications of an ancient text can unfold over time and details emerge in the course of progressive revelation. But new meanings can never be assigned or discovered after the fact and apart from the author’s express permission. Specifically, the meaning of a text cannot be moved from the text to:

Holy Spirit “Leading”

Yes, the Holy Spirit is active in causing the believer to welcome a text’s meaning and in helping the believer to discern the implications of a text’s meaning for his own situation (1 Cor 2:14), but the Spirit does not disclose a text’s meaning to the believer. Were this the case, (1) meaning would be wrested from the words and the words rendered, to that degree, unnecessary, (2) the divine purpose for language would be thwarted, and (3) the idea of a sufficient canon would be irrevocably lost.

An Existential Encounter “Above the Text”

Closely related to the previous (and perhaps identical to it) is the Barthian idea that language is an inadequate vehicle for revealing truth, and at best serves as a hinweis or pointer to truth. To apprehend God, one must look not in the text but above it to an experimental “Christ encounter”—a personal disclosure that communicates ineffably what cannot be expressed in words. The same criticisms leveled above are appropriate to this understanding.

Later Revelation

More acceptable in non-dispensational evangelical academia is the idea that there is “additional, deeper meaning, intended by God, but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text when they are studied in the light of further revelation” (Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture, 92), such that “the text’s intention becomes deeper and clearer as the parameters of the canon are expanded” (Waltke, Tradition & Testament, 7). This option provides an advance on the previous two options, but either (1) requires a suspiciously equivocating hermeneutic that applies a grammatical-historical approach to the latter portions of Scripture but not to the earlier ones or else, more ominously, (2) suggests that the promises of God are “never an announcement of what God has irrevocably determined to do, but only of what he will do in certain circumstances,” with he result that “if this makes prophecy seem very uncertain, I am very sorry, but I cannot help it, for it is the way that it is.” (Pieters, The Seed of Abraham, 142)

Pardon me, but that’s not the way it is. There is a better way to protect the meaning of Scripture and that is to insist that the locus of meaning is in the text itself. It is to insist upon literal interpretation.

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