The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

I was wondering what I ought to write about when I stumbled upon my old unfinished series on The Parameters of Meaning. I think these parameters are quite helpful guides for interpreters, but I clean forgot about them. Well, I’m going to try to put things right! Here’s “Rule 9” with a link to the previous eight:

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale spiritualizing or allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal.” There will always be another literal meaning available that preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.

Reminding ourselves that by “literal” interpretation I am just talking about a prima facie or plain-sense reading of the text in its right setting, taking special care to examine the surrounding context before employing a text theologically. Strange as it may seem, more than one literal reading of a text is possible (hence, these “parameters”). It is possible to take a literal view of one text which will skew the rest of the passage, or a whole theology. A few examples will show what I mean:

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Does Romans 4:13 Universalize Israel’s Land Promises?

Masada National Park

Romans 4:13 has become a hotly debated verse lately between those who believe in a literal future fulfillment of Israel’s land promises and those who do not. Here Paul declares:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:13).

Much discussion involves what Paul means when he says Abraham is “heir of the world.” Some non-dispensational scholars see this verse as evidence that Israel’s land promises in the Old Testament have been universalized in such a way that there is no longer an expectation of fulfillment of particular land promises for national Israel. Thus, Romans 4:13 allegedly transcends the Old Testament expectation of the land promises to Israel. Theologians such as N.T. Wright and Gary Burge, along with others, have promoted this view. Concerning Romans 4:13 Burge says,

The formula that linked Abraham to Jewish ethnic lineage and the right to possess the land has now been overturned in Christ. Paul’s Christian theology links Abraham to children of faith, and to them belongs God’s full domain, namely, the world” (Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology, 86). (emphasis mine).

N.T. Wright declares:

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Biblical Hermeneutics and Postmodernism, Part 2

Read Part 1.

The Hermeneutics of Postmodernism

The hermeneutics of postmodernism are very diverse and difficult to understand.13 Written communication has three components: the author, the text, and the reader. As already noted, premodern and modern interpreters tried to uncover the intention of the author as expressed in the text. What is consistent in postmodern approaches of interpretation is that the author no longer controls the meaning of the text. Authorial intention is irrelevant in postmodern interpretation. Further, the text itself does not control meaning. The text is devoid of meaning altogether. In postmodern thinking, the reader not only controls the meaning but actually creates it. The text is merely an opportunity to explore the reader’s own perspectives. Vanhoozer explains: “Postmodernity is the triumph of situatedness—in race, gender, class—over detached objectivity… . Postmoderns typically think of interpretation as a political act, a means of colonizing and capturing texts and whole fields of discourse.”14

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Biblical Hermeneutics and Postmodernism, Part 1

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty and Alice share this playful exchange:

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

While Carroll wrote long before the rise of postmodernism, his fictional dialogue anticipated the hermeneutical chaos raised in postmodern thinking. We see Alice’s confusion and Humpty Dumpty’s disdain. Alice can’t quite wrap her mind around what Humpty Dumpty is saying; meanwhile Humpty Dumpty appears to enjoy the confusion his semantic wordplay is causing. This is the same kind of confusion postmoderns champion. Carroll’s fantasy has become reality. Postmodernism raises fundamental questions about the validity of communication. Questions such as, where does meaning originate? Who (or what) controls meaning? How do we know what truth is? Is truth objective and knowable? Is communication even possible?

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Mind the Gap ...

I don’t believe most evangelicals self-consciously think about how they interpret Scripture. We often don’t have to consider how and why we do what we do.This means it’s always interesting when you’re forced to re-think your own assumptions. How can two people with a professed commitment to the Scriptures read the same material and come up with contradictory explanations? I recently wrote a critical review of a book penned by a gay Episcopal priest who advocates for loving, monogamous same-sex relationships in the Church. Here he is, arguing his case from Leviticus:1

The prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were not about sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century. These prohibitions had to do with keeping a rigid and male-dominated society distinct from that which surrounded it: to clearly delineate roles and societal rules.

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Literal or Figurative?

One of the biggest debates among Christians is how to interpret the Bible. Liberals accuse conservatives of taking the Bible too literally. Conservatives accuse liberals of not taking the Bible seriously enough, often by declaring controversial sections to be figurative. That seems to be a handy way to avoid passages that teach what you don’t want to believe.

But even conservative Christians divide over the issue of literal verses figurative. For example, Dispensationalists often accuse the Reformed of spiritualizing certain sections of Scripture, and the Reformed frequently fault Dispensationalists for their “wooden literalism” by awkwardly forcing literal interpretations upon passages that are intended to be figurative.

Dispensationalists charge the Reformed with “Replacement Theology,” which means interpreting Old Testament prophecies made to Israel as fulfilled in the New Testament Church, and the Reformed return the favor by charging Dispensationalists with interpretive myopia; focusing too narrowly upon the immediate context, and failing to see the forest for the trees.

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Interview with Albert Mohler on the State of Complementarianism

"An affirmation of biblical truth, which would include the affirmation of complementarianism, has to be rooted in a joyful biblical theology that is grounded in God’s purpose in creating human beings in His image, His purpose in making us male and female, instituting marriage, and the gift of sexuality." - CBMW

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