King's Evangelical Divinity School

15 November 2011

Allowing the text to speak for itself

Biblical interpretation can be hard work, with all manner of pitfalls the interpreter of Scripture must avoid. Two issues in particular represent serious challenges to the hermeneutical task. The first is the danger of so focusing on interpreting individual texts that the establishment and interpretative value of any overarching narrative of the Bible as an essential hermeneutical tool is lost. Synchronic interpretation at the expense of a   diachronic approach represents a serious loss to the interpretative process, particularly for the Evangelical interpreter for whom the canon of Scripture exhibits internal unity and purpose as the revealed word of God.

In short, it's all very well (and an essential aspect of exegesis) to study individual short texts in depth, historically, linguistically and of course theologically. However, unless these texts are related back to and interpreted in light of the wider narrative running through the Bible, the hermeneutical process is incomplete. This focus on a theological and canonical interpretation is known as biblical theology, which seeks to establish overarching themes and narratives throughout the whole Bible. (Incidentally, the term "biblical theology" has had several meanings in the history of the academy, so my definition above should not be confused with these.)

A second issue, representing a major difficulty the interpreter faces, is imposing his or her worldview, values and experiences upon the world and age of the ancient text. The inability to get beyond this presuppositional spare baggage is known as the hermeneutical circle. Thus the exegete sets about interpreting the text but in doing so imposes current values and experiences upon the text, rendering the meaning of the text something quite different from what the original author intended. Hence, the process begins all over again, but once more the interpreter fails to ditch his/her presuppositions. Some observers (usually postmodern cynics) argue this cycle is unbreakable, hence the phrase "hermeneutical circle", so that establishing true authorial intent is impossible. Instead the interpretative focus shifts away from authorial intent to reader responses ("what does the text mean for/to you?"). Naturally, the twin foci of relativism and subjectivism fit nicely within this postmodern emphasis upon what the text means to the reader rather than what it meant to the author.

Evangelicals, of course, believe the hermeneutical circle can be broken, that God intends us to read, understand and indeed be shaped by His word. Thus while cultural and historical spare baggage indeed has a bearing on how we understand a Bible text, nevertheless exegetes are capable of ditching their presuppositions and getting ever closer back to the original meaning of the text. Hence, we speak of a hermeneutical spiral rather than a hermeneutical circle, that is, we continuously seek to ditch our presuppositional spare baggage and in doing so manage to get ever closer to authorial intent and the true meaning of the text.

Yet for Evangelicals both issues - establishing an overarching biblical narrative and combatting presuppositionalism - remain distinct challenges. For example, an important problem facing proponents of biblical theology is determining which themes and overarching narrative best fit Scripture in a manner that does not arbitrarily impose an internal structure upon the Bible which is simply not there. Thus within Evangelical Christianity there are several theological metanarratives (or overarching theological systems) which are quite contradictory towards each other. The obvious candidates at two opposite ends of the spectrum are, of course, covenant theology and dispensationalism, where proponents of both have produced quite disparate metanarratives and sometimes accuse the other of arbitrarily imposing a theological system upon the Bible which simply isn't there. Some scholars hold aspects of both these theological systems in tension, taking a middle route between the two. Others have sought to challenge and modify these two major theological systems. Thus in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of progressive dispensationalism, while the rise of New Covenant Theology represents a "bottom up" corrective of covenant theology.

A focus on the central metanarrative, overarching themes, internal coherence and structure of the Bible are essential to understanding and studying the Scriptures, which is why at King's Evangelical Divinity School biblical theology plays an important role in our B.Th. programme and also features in our M.A. course. I think the challenge is not to become overly dogmatic about the internal theological system one imposes upon the text, which system of theology one endorses, but rather let students work this out for themselves over time.

Some schools do it the other way round: teach the systematics first and outline the central tenets of a doctrinal position (so as to make good Calvinists, dispensationalists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans, etc) before moving on to the tasks of hermeneutics and biblical theology. But the obvious danger here is to become prey to that second pitfall, presuppositionalism, which usually leads to analysing the text through the particular systematic theology spectacles we've been given (whether covenant theology, dispensational, NCT, or whatever). In short, if you are a dispensationalist and study a text, the chances are you will invariably interpret that text via your theological lens. Equally, if you espouse covenant theology a text will always be read through your covenant theology spectacles. Thus, systematic theology actually begins to shape our hermeneutics ("this text doesn't fit in with the theological system I believe in, so it must need interpreting in another manner"), when in fact it should be the other way around: our hermeneutics should determine our theological system.

That's why at King's we don't espouse any particular theological system or metanarrative, with the exception of a broad Evangelicalism which holds to the essentials of Evangelical theology and practice (aptly summarised in David Bebbington's quadrilateral: crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism and activism). Tutors and students come from a range of Evangelical backgrounds and no particular theological viewpoint is imposed upon them. That's why our statement of faith is so brief! Our aim is not to espouse a particular theology (other than Evangelicalism), but rather equip students to engage in rigorous exegesis and hermeneutics to reach solid theological conclusions. That is not to say, like other Evangelical scholars, our students and tutors don't struggle with their own presuppositions having a bearing on how they view and interpret the text, which is all part of the hermeneutical spiral. But the focus at King's is definitely hermeneutics and biblical theology first, systematics second, rather than the other way around. Indeed, this focus on hermeneutics and biblical theology as a first port of call is quite liberating. It frees up an individual from defending a theological system at all costs, thereby permitting a fresh look at a text or issue without having to toe a party line, and as such is ideally suited for the free-thinking exegete.

For more information about King's distance learning courses in hermeneutics and theology, please visit The school offers a Bachelor of Theology, Graduate Diploma in Theology (for those with a degree in another subject), and a Master of Arts (Theology).


Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - I think you might clarify presuppositonalism a little more closely because there is a place for presuppositionalism in epistemology, also with regards to presuppositional apologetics as opposed to evidential apologetics. Presumably what you mean is that correct hermeneutics is to get one's own presuppositions as close to the original authors as possible. Imre Lakatos, a Jewish convert to Calvinism, believed that we need to hold a core of beliefs dogmatically to avoid relativism in science - it might apply to theology as well.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Comment by Anonymous deleted as it didn't abide by the comment rules (did not relate to this post). Comment rules here:

Andrew Sibley said...

I wanted to comment on another point if may Calvin? You seem to juxtapose progressive dispensationalism against New Covenant Theology, but I would suggest covenant theologians concerned about the question of Israel today want to emphasise unity and continuity between Old Testament Israel and the Church. As the wiki entry writes; "Covenant theologians deny that God has abandoned his promises to Israel, but see the fulfillment of the promises to Israel in the person and the work of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who established the church in organic continuity with Israel, not a separate replacement entity."

Calvin L. Smith said...

Hi Andrew, this post have nothing at all to do with Israel, but rather the interpretative framework (presuppositional baggage) we bring to the hermeneutical process. I merely juxtapose progressive dispensationalism and NCT because both represent attempts to modify the two better known systematic expressions.

Chris Lazenby said...

Hi Calvin
I think you're right. A great deal of my own degree work took place a college which espoused Reformed theology. This was stamped into every part of scriptural study. Eventually, I found myself (like many others no doubt) tied to a particular outlook which I think is not the right place to start. It has taken me 15 years to start and sort myself out so that I see scripture more impartially. This in turn has helped me as I seek to help King's students examine their presuppositions. Of course, at the outset, they may find having their views being questioned a little unsettling. But in the final analysis, I believe we simply have to go through this process which will ultimately give us a better understanding hermeneutically, not to mention helping to strengthen our faith.

Brendan said...

Hi Folks,
Yes, I think King's Evangelical Divinity School's B.Th.Theology and Bible Hermeneutics degree programme is supportive in allowing the student exegete to establish a 'therapeautic' approach to establishing a system for Bible exegesis and hemeneutics. i.e. the student is not 'forced' to subscribe to denominational dogmatics, and their approach can be more eclectic.
In conclusion to this finding, I have actually discovered that by allowing scriptural text to 'speak' for itself there are many theological, historical, cultural, political, and societal revelations, etc, that scripture can offer us - that is beneficial to our spiritual development.
Originating from a conservative Christian denomination that bases it's theology on tradition, which is also dogmatic in nature, I believe that King's Evangelical Divinity School in conjunction with Chester University, has the more balanced approach.

Andrew Sibley said...

IF you read the Old Testament prophets (Hosea to Zechariah) in the context in which they wrote, it seems most of the promises concerning the restoration of Israel were directed at the northern ten tribes exilled around 721 BC. That restoration and healing of the division between the house of Israel and the house of Judah by the coming Messiah was their concern. I have discussed this in my book Zion's New Name. But I would ask whether we can now apply those promises to the present day situation because surely that would take it out of context, would it not?

Philip said...

I'm not one to usually sit on the fence, but dare I say that Biblical theology and Systematic theology complement each other?

For a start, systematics are very much more in line with the way humans conceptualise things (though this is not a knock-down argument).

More importantly, Jesus himself uses systematics: 'And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24.27)'.

Presuppositions should never be left unchallenged (hence Biblical theology is a complement), but as a tool, and as a Biblical example, they are surely useful and right.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Andrew, I disagree. Not only does this render those texts irrelevant for readers since, but it also ignores their eschatological aspects (the majority of scholars, for example, regard various chapters in Zech as apocalyptic in style and aim).

Philip, yes, I agree totally. BT and ST should complement each other. Unfortunately that's too often not the case, with some schools/interpreters/pastors deciding what their system is, then "interpreting" Scripture accordingly. This means there's never any room for a fresh insight/examination of a text or concept because (to use a political term) a settlement has been reached on that issue/text.

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin, you appeal to the authority of a 'majority of scholars' (who ever they are) to disagree with my position, but also criticise those who restrict freedom for fresh insights...

I was brought up on Hal Lindsay, and I thought his basic hermeneutic was right concerning the end times, but I was less convinced about details because it seemed too much shaped by American politics, cold war considerations etc. i.e. Russia was Gog and Magog etc.

But just looking at Zechariah for instance there are several allusions that were interpretted by the NT writers as speaking of the events surrounding Christ's life, death and ressurection. We see the king of Zion coming into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, we see the 30 pieces of silver, we see the mourning for the one pierced, events arguably fulfilled in the events of the passion of Christ and on the day of Pentecost. Also Peter believed the prophets spoke of his time (Acts 3:24), as did James in terms of the rebuilding of David's fallen tent (Acts 15:16).

We see also Zechariah still concerned about the people of Ephraim and Joseph, how should we interpret that concern, bearing in mind that Joseph and his sons Ephraim and Menassah held the birthright of Israel (1 Chronicles 5:1), but were by Zechariah's time still in exile ?

If we are to get back to the intentions of the writers then I would suggest that these are questions we must ask and consider.

Brendan said...

Hi Philip,
Very interesting what you have expressed regarding systematic and Biblical theology.
I suppose with the certain amount of dogmatics that would naturally be included in the conceptualising of systematic ideas, when studying the Bible - there is a bigger possibility of formulating Church dogma from these findings. (Maybe this is a rhetorical statement).
I think a significant percentage of tradition influences religious dogma, which has to a certain extent influenced our theology within the Church today;beautiful concepts potentially based on what we (we meaning 'us'generally as people) want from God - which can and does create theological difficulties.
Nevertheless, the real difficulty may be best expressed as, "Are we being too subjective?"