by Cory M. Marsh, PhD
I’m a full-time New Testament professor. This means I design class lectures, create syllabi, and craft assignments for all our New Testament courses. But, like many working profs, my teaching duties extend past covering the New Testament. I also teach contemporary religious movements, systems of theology, languages, and yes, even hermeneutics. Over the years—in just about every class I teach—I’ve grown accustomed to declaring this one statement that connects every course: everything boils down to hermeneutics.
No sui generis theology
What I mean by “everything boils down to hermeneutics” is that at the root level of anyone’s doctrine or theology lies an interpretation. There are no exceptions. No one invents a doctrine sui generis, completely unique to itself. Hermeneutics, theology, and authority are intertwined. On the far end, the various cults testify to this fact, as do orthodox traditions on the other end. Each theological belief—for good or bad—results from an interpretation.
J. I. Packer once noted, “Every hermeneutic implies a theology, just as every theology involves a hermeneutic, so that where a false hermeneutic operates the Bible will not in fact have authority, whatever is claimed to the contrary.”1 All readers of Scripture base their doctrinal conclusions on a certain understanding of Scripture. In other words, one’s theology will result from one’s hermeneutic. Unmistakably, hermeneutics is an essential tool—rather, the essential tool—which leads to one’s theology. And correct hermeneutics is essential for correct theology. It all boils down to that.
I am convinced that in order to understand God’s revealed will in Scripture, a consistent “literal” hermeneutic is the best method to apply. That is, for Christians to grow in their awareness of the God of the Bible, they must employ a consistent reading to gain proficiency in Scripture’s meaning. With a view toward the Bible’s history, literature, and theology, Scripture’s grammatical and historical contexts are to be maintained for the reader to reproduce that single, authorial-intended meaning. Indeed, this is the goal of the literal method: discerning what the Author/author of Scripture intended. This goal remains the same regardless of the Bible’s various literary genres. There is an actual intended meaning behind every statement, song, or figure. The literal method is driven to discern that meaning. Only then can responsible application follow.
However, a few things are presupposed in these convictions. They include the purpose of language, the meaning of meaning, and the importance of a correct doctrine of Scripture.
A philosophy of language for hermeneutics
Any hermeneutical method assumes certain beliefs about language. Deep down at its most hidden level, one’s hermeneutics is a fleshing out of the question, What is the purpose of language? That simple query keeps debates thriving between philosophers and linguists. As it relates to hermeneutics, however, I would state that the purpose of language is for meaningful communication. That is, logical and sincere communication—between God and man, man and God, and man and man.
This may be demonstrated biblically by going back to the origin of language in the opening lines of Genesis. There, Scripture reveals the phenomenon of speech with the very first spoken words ever recorded: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (1:3). A literal command and literal obedience. The narrative then unfolds with meaningful communication between personal beings as God spoke to Adam who then spoke to Eve. Clear authorial meaning was assumed each time. It would be Satan who would introduce the first-ever distortion to meaningful, literal communication. Recall his disastrous question to Eve in 3:1: “Did God really (אַף) say (i.e., mean)…?” With that single entry of language-violation, the world plummeted into a state of turmoil which will exist until the restoration of all things. Language as meaningful communication presupposes that God is logical and orderly (1 Cor 14:33), and so must our communication be.
The meaning of “meaning” for hermeneutics
As biblical hermeneutics is concerned with written literature (not oral speech), a text’s meaning must be discernable. But, like probing the purpose of language, most readers assume a standard understanding for language’s “meaning.” Some argue that meaning is inherent in the text as text. That is, the text is an autonomous entity to itself, and meaning is sourced in the linguistic symbols and syntax (or words and sentences) apart from the person who wrote them.2 Others place meaning in how the text affects its reader. In other words, meaning is to be found not in the text itself or the author behind the text, but how the reader responds to the text.3 Contrary to these approaches, I argue that authorial intent is the meaning of “meaning.”
Every human who wishes to be understood by other humans intends or wills a meaning in their message. All meaningful communication is predicated upon the speaker or writer intending to express their meaning to others. Literary theorist E. D. Hirsch made an indisputable observation: “All forms of written interpretation and all interpretive goals that transcend private experience require that some author’s meaning be both determinate and reproducible.”4 Hirsch’s remark follows the triadic universal sequence of one person communicating to another: author–message–recipient. In written form, an author “determines” a meaning in his message, and the reader “reproduces” (interprets) that same meaning. That this is the default position of all human communication serves to prove its legitimacy when discerning “meaning” in biblical hermeneutics.
Notably, the Bible itself seems to expect its readers to understand its authorial meaning. This is seen with introductory formulae, such as “The says the Lord” (over four hundred times, in fact); “Have you not read?” (Matt 19:4); “As it is written” (Acts 15:15); and, “As Scripture says” (Rom 10:11). There is also an ethical component that often gets overlooked in these discussions. To violate this principle of authorial meaning is to violate the “golden rule” of interpretation—to treat others as we would like to be treated. In other words, to neglect the author’s intention (i.e., authorial meaning) is to disrespect the author.
The necessity of bibliology for hermeneutics
In his final book, Francis Schaeffer cautioned Christians about abandoning a high, authoritative view of Scripture. For Schaeffer, one’s view of the Bible marks the watershed between Christian and non-Christian thought. Decrying what he foresaw as a “great evangelical disaster,” he compelled believers never to abandon submission to Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, and authority. “Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world,” contended Schaeffer. “The first direction in which we must face is to say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not.”5 Schaeffer’s “watershed” is critical. There are multiple implications stemming from believing (or not believing) that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, infallible, sufficient, and authoritative. Such comprises a standard evangelical bibliology.
As evangelicals understand it, the Bible is not just any type of literature. It is the only literature in the world that is θεόπνευστος or “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16), and thus inerrant. Moreover, it has dual authorship: divine and human. Peter stated that men wrote Scripture as they were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). As such, the Bible is both the word of God and the word of man. As Jesus—the living Word—is both human and divine, the Bible—the written Word—is both human and divine. These dual natures are complementary, not contradictory. Jesus shared the same intention as the Father (John 5:19). Likewise, the human author(s) shared the same intention as the divine Author (1 Cor 2:12–13). In other words, there is a shared meaning between them. Such a belief about the nature of Scripture will embolden the Christian reader’s confidence: there really is a single authorial meaning in Scripture, and they really can understand that meaning.
The clarity of Scripture and consistent literal hermeneutics
As its most basic definition, the Bible is the written revelation of God. It has been revealed to us, not concealed. This implies that the Bible can and should be understood at some level. But understanding God’s revealed will in Scripture demands a consistent hermeneutic. This is the only way Scripture can be “perspicuous”—clear. Hermeneutical methods steeped in allegory, excessive typology, or even “Christoclusivity” (my cute re-labeling of Christocentrism) will, in fact, not be so clear. They each allow for multiple, unrelated meanings in a text. Contrarily, it is a consistent literal method that best lends itself to the Protestant doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity.
Consistency is the key, and a reliable system of interpretation is one that not only approaches the Scriptures with belief in its divine origin, but is also, as Elliot Johnson argues, “developed through a system of consistent, reasoned principles.”6 Such an approach is demanded by the clarity of Scripture. That is to say, claiming the Bible is clear or understandable is to depend on a consistent method of interpretation that justifies the claim. While there will always be passages in Scripture that are clearer than others, a consistent interpretive method will guard the Bible reader from arbitrarily choosing different readings whenever challenged.
Back to the beginning
Let’s circle back to where we started. As I see it, the most consistent biblical hermeneutic that is founded on reasoned principles is the literal method. A technical expression is the literal, grammatical–historical hermeneutical method. Non-technical ways to explain it are the plain sense, clear sense, natural sense (etc.) of Scripture.
The literal method of interpretation is built around two main components: grammar and history (hence, grammatical–historical). For each passage examined, both the grammar of the text (semantics and syntax) and the facts of history (historical context and factual historical hindsight) are surveyed at the discourse and sentence level. From these two components follows application(s) and/or implication(s)—or in the broader sense, theology.
With a keen eye toward the text’s history, literature, and theology filtered through the process of observation, interpretation, and application, the passage’s grammar and history are exegeted in order to reach one main goal: the Author/author’s single-intended meaning. This literal, grammatical–historical method should be consistently applied from Genesis to Revelation because the goal is always the same: discerning the single-intended meaning regardless of the genre. This results in orthodox Christian doctrine. Indeed, everything boils down to hermeneutics.
This article is revised and adapted from Cory M. Marsh, A Primer on Biblical Literacy (SCS Press, 2022). Used with permission.
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- J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and Inerrancy,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E. R. Greehan (Philipsburg: P&R, 1980), 141.
- Though the origin of this approach is disputed, its modern form can be traced to the formalist linguistic tradition pioneered by Noam Chomsky in the mid twentieth century. Chomsky believed in and taught an autonomous grammar inherent in all humans that followed universal linguistic principles, though he did not source “meaning” in these universal language principles. Chomsky’s ideas, many of which were directly challenged, began multiple linguistic offshoots, including certain cognitive linguistics schools that do source meaning in texts apart from their author(s). A helpful survey of these movements is Stanley E. Porter, “Linguistic Schools,” in Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate, ed. by David Alan Black and Benjamin L. Merkle (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 11–36, esp. 20–35.
- Technically, this approach is termed “reader-response criticism.” A useful introduction with critique can be found in Leland Ryken, “Literary Criticism and the Bible: Some Fallacies,” in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, ed. by Kenneth R. R. Gross Louis, James S. Ackerman, and Thayer S. Warshaw (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974), 24–40.
- E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 27.
- Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester: Crossway, 1984), 51.
- Elliot E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 21.