Comment on Anthony C. Thiselton, “Speaking and Hearing”

by John M. Frame

Associate Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology

Westminster Theological Seminary in California


So great is my respect for Dr. Thiselton that, although I have some problems and questions about his paper, I assume that he has, most likely, already thought about them, even responded to them elsewhere in his writings. If in this paper he has not entirely anticipated my questions, doubtless that has been due to sound priority judgments on his part. Nevertheless, my assignment is to stimulate discussion; thus I must pose the questions I have, for what they may be worth. My doing this need not, however, be construed as any criticism of the paper, which I found helpful and which, after all, may have said everything that ought to have been said on its topics, granted the constraints of space.

My first concern is with Thiselton’s warning against the danger of allowing our “lives to be shaped and directed in accordance with certain prescribed patterns of action sanctified solely on the basis of certain interpretations of the biblical material which were equated, in turn, with God’s own command” (p. 2, emphasis his). (Cf. the remarks on p. 3 about “elevating merely human claims to authority to the status of the divine.”) Intuitively I sympathize with this exhortation. Though I have some questions about his slavery example, I could mention others, the most famous being the church’s condemnation of Galileo. The danger of equating the word with our interpretations seems like such an obvious one. Why, then, is this error so often made?

Well, when I urge upon others my “interpretation” of Scripture, I am necessarily claiming that that interpretation is right, that what it says, Scripture says. Thus preachers stand behind pulpits and proclaim their interpretations of Scripture, prefacing those with “Thus saith the Lord.” We teach them to do this at evangelical theological seminaries.

Thus, though there is a sense in which we may not equate our interpretations with Scripture, there is also a sense in which we cannot avoid doing so. All of us must do this: the defenders of slavery, the opponents of Galileo, but also Luther and Calvin and Thiselton and all of us as we set forth exegesis, sermons or doctrine. There is certainly precedent for this practice in the New Testament use of the Old. The apostles were not at all hesitant to equate their interpretations of Scripture with Scripture’s own teaching (cf. Acts 1:16, 18:28, Rom. 1:2, 11:2, etc.).

This is not to deny that the text is distinct from our interpretations; surely it is. But clearly the text/interpretation distinction should not be taken to imply that we may compare each of our interpretations with a totally uninterpreted text, a “brute fact,” as it were. When I “compare my interpretations with Scripture itself,” I am comparing them with a Scripture which has been translated, edited, studied, expounded by many generations of Christians, and about which I myself have done much thinking and have developed many opinions. Thus  “comparing my interpretations with Scripture,” can also be described as comparing some of my interpretations with others– comparing, perhaps, my more problematic or uncertain interpretations with my more settled ones. “Scripture” here, then, denotes interpretations, just as in some contexts (as we have seen) “interpretations” can be equated with Scripture.

I do not believe that these observations consign us to skepticism about the word of God. To say that “Scripture” and “interpretation” are in some contexts interchangeable is not to say that all interpretations are equally legitimate. We can and must distinguish, as Thiselton emphasizes (p. 8), between responsible and irresponsible ways of interpreting Scripture. And we have assurance (ultimately a revealed assurance) that responsible interpretations will yield God’s truth, even though they cannot reach the bedrock of a “brute fact” Scripture.

In search of principles for such responsible interpretation, I quite agree with Thiselton’s advice about the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and the “category of interest” (p. 2). We all (political left as well as political right, incidentally) need to be more aware of our fallibility as interpreters and of the various psychological and sociological factors which sometimes influence our formulations. Particularly, we often need to be more critical of our interpretative traditions (pp. 9-10) which we tend to have an “interest” in preserving. (This warning bears not only upon traditions derived from conservative theology, but also upon those of current academic fashion.) Significant interests of this sort do provide ground for “suspicion.” However, we should keep in mind that the presence of an interest does not prove the falsity of an interpretation. (As Thiselton points out on p. 2, some kinds of interests, e.g. the Johannine praxis, have positive hermeneutical value.) Nor does our inability to demonstrate the influence of an interest prove the truth of an interpretation. Relating truth too closely to psychological and sociological factors puts us in danger of genetic fallacies.

And, indeed, it is possible to be too suspicious. The most serious problem I have with this paper is that one could come away from it thinking that exegesis is an impossibly difficult job: so many “interests” to be assessed (pp. 2-3), so many levels of meaning, so many kinds of study to do (p.5), so many factors in communication to be accounted for (pp. 6-8), so many differences between the ancient world and our own (pp. 6, 8). Thiselton compounds this problem by polemicizing against claims to an “obvious,” “common-sense,” or “natural” interpretation (pp. 3, 6, 7). He does not deny that there may be some “obvious” interpretations of Scripture, but his approach to this issue is so negative that one is left in doubt as to whether in practice he would allow any claims to “obvious” or “natural” interpretations, and what basis he would have for allowing these.

But is there not still something to be said for the reformation doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, I, vii)? I do not get the impression that the apostle Paul went through all these hermeneutical steps before claiming “Scripture says.” Are there not at least some truths that can be gleaned right from the surface of Scripture? Does “the Lord is my shepherd” really need manifold academic unpacking before it can speak to the believing heart? “Jesus is Lord”: is that not an obviousteaching of Scripture, one which underlies all the rest?

If there are no “obvious” teachings, then we may be in real trouble. The progress of knowledge is a movement from what is better known to what is less so. But if nothing is (relatively) obvious, where can we start? And if we cannot start, how can weprogress? This is not only a practical question, but also a question of Christian epistemology. A Christian is one who seeks to “do all to the glory of God,” (I Cor. 10:31) and to “make every thought captive to Christ” (II Cor. 10:5). Therefore, to the Christian, the first question of epistemology is, “How can my quest for knowledge be faithful to God?” A Christian exegete, therefore, is obligated to carry out his hermeneutical work in obedience to the revelation he has already understood. But if all Scripture is hermeneutically problematic, requiring many layers of technical analysis before it is usable, then how could we ever obtain that Christian pre-understanding required to do our exegesis to the glory of God?

The claim to “obviousness” can be abused, of course. The Westminster Confession denies that everything in Scripture is “equally plain,” thus anticipating and refuting some such abuses. But if there is a danger of preachers absolutizing their ecclesial authority (p. 3), similarly there is a danger of scholars donning the priestly vestments! We ought never to give the impression that Scripture is unintelligible until filtered through the apparatus of academic hermeneutics. The absolutization of “the findings of modern scholarship” has been every bit as common, and quite a bit more dangerous, than the absolutization of mere pastoral or ecclesial authority. I say “more dangerous,” because scholars have been more influential than pastors over the past 250 years, and because most of the worst ideas in modern theology have come from academics.

So, while we want to guard against abuses of pastoral authority, we do not want to fall into the opposite trap of abusing the prestige of scholarship. And one of the best protections against that trap is the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

None of this should be taken to mean that I would banish talk of “levels of meaning” (p. 5), diversities in hermeneutical operations (p. 5), or different elements of communication (pp. 7-8). All of these are very interesting and useful. Thiselton’s distinction between going “behind,” “in front of,” and “within the canonical form of” the text is interestingly paralleled in R. Pratt, “Pictures, Windows and Mirrors in Old Testament Exegesis,”1 Thiselton suggests that the third approach is rich enough somehow to include the other two; I would like to hear him expound that idea at greater length, with its implications as he sees them. (I suspect myself that each of these could include the other two, so that the three are “perspectivally” related.)

Thiselton’s remarks about the importance of the hearer’s horizon (pp. 6-7) are helpful, though again I think here he is too hard on claims to “obvious” meaning. Such considerations lie behind my earlier objections to the notion of Scripture as “brute fact.” Again, however, Thiselton seems to think (or does he?) that we can somehow rid ourselves of or “relativize” all our preunderstandings. How can this be done if the reader-hearer’s horizon is as important as he says it is? If meaning presupposes our expectations, how can meaning function if (per impossibile, I think) we approach a text without any expectations at all? Would that not be the error of the “passive mind” concept which Thiselton criticizes on pp. 7-8?

The “action model” discussed on p. 8 seems to me very fruitful, especially when, as in this paper, the normative issues (“responsible” action) are brought forward. I would enjoy hearing more about how the normative question (how ought we to act) is resolved in a hermeneutical context. I would suspect that this discussion will lead us into a consideration of those religious-ethical presuppositions which must inform exegesis itself, the standards and criteria which must inform the exegete. For Christians, this quest will lead us again into the issue which I raised earlier, the question of how we can best be faithful to God in the work of interpretation.

Thus, in speaking a word or two for the clarity of Scripture, I am not suggesting that the issues Thiselton raises are unimportant or uninteresting. Certainly we should certainly, as he asks, renounce any reduction of Scripture to a “flat landscape” (p. 4). We should renounce this, not because it is the modern thing to do (Luther and Calvin can also be cited as opponents of “flat landscape” exegesis), but because historical and functional diversity is the very nature of God’s precious word, to which we must obediently respond if we are to be faithful. But a recognition of this richness and variety is not open only to academic hermeneuts. One who simply confesses Christ as lord, as an “obvious” application of Scripture, has already grasped a wonderful richness- the one in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. At this simple level, he sees much mystery, much unity in diversity. The work of the scholar is not to rebuke that simplicity, but as a servant to help the simple believer to see that richness more clearly and live it more fully.


1 Westminster Theological Journal XLV, 1 (Spring, 1983), 156-67). Cf. my forthcoming Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.


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