Ground Rules of New Testament Interpretation

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 41/1 (fall 1978): 190-201. Used with permission.]

A Review Article

Over the last few years, evangelical scholarly discussion of the nature of biblical trustworthiness and inerrancy has taken on more and more a hermeneutical cast. More people are aware of the insufficiency of a bare subscription to biblical infallibility. Apart from hermeneutical guidelines, “infallibility” can mean too many things. On the right wing of evangelicalism, the blinders of traditionalism, dogmatism, and allegorism sometimes vitiate the apparent power of a firm formal adherence to inerrancy. On the left wing, an elaborate hermeneutical apparatus can so qualify the text in terms of a supposed first-century context, that its ability to criticize modern assumptions is vitiated.

The volume New Testament Interpretation (hereafter NTI), edited by I. Howard Marshall, represents a mature scholarly approach to this issue. NTI consists in a series of eighteen essays, almost all by British conservative evangelical New Testament scholars, covering the major current topics in hermeneutics: presuppositions, critical methods, the practice of exegesis, and the bearing of the text on the modern reader. In the part on critical methods one finds an outstanding summary by Anthony Thiselton of the use of semantics in New Testament interpretation. There are also discussions of historical criticism (asking “what happened?”), source criticism, form criticism, tradition history, and redaction criticism. The part of NTI dealing with the modern reader includes discussions of demythologizing, the new hermeneutic, the authority of the New Testament, and a sample exposition. The contributors exhibit a sustained concern to show

*(Ed.) I. Howard Marshall: New Testament Interpretation; Essays On Principles and Methods. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Exeter: Paternoster, 1977. 406. $12.95.

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both strengths and weaknesses, advantages and dangers of existing hermeneutical approaches and techniques. There is a happy balance between principle and example.

In my opinion, Marshall’s volume contributes in an outstanding way to evangelical hermeneutical discussion. Here is the most sophisticated scholarly treatment I know of, from an evangelical point of view, discussing cutting edges of modern biblical interpretation. The essays do not, of course, break ground in fundamentally new directions. But some essays do introduce one important factor into the evangelical world: a flexibility of questioning in their attitudes toward biblical infallibility. This is nearly always stimulating, sometimes liberating—and sometimes unsound.1 Hence I think that the over-all tendencies exhibited in NTI need careful assessment.

Some of the contributors are to varying degrees “left-wing” evangelicals as far as their attitude to New Testament authority is concerned (e.g., Marshall, Catchpole, Ellis, Martin, Dunn, Goldingay). They have a high view of the over-all trustworthiness of the New Testament, but some uncertainty about just how far one can press on the details. Their approach to the authority and truthfulness of the New Testament is characteristically an inductivistic one. For example, on the surface the Gospels may appear to the modern reader to be claiming to tell “what happened,” but we must approach the question of their genre inductively, perhaps finding that in minor cases there have been theological embellishments to the stories, and that post-resurrection prophetic words of the Spirit have been mixed in with words of the earthly Jesus (p. 339).

“Deductivists,” by contrast, tend to reason outward from their affirmation of inerrancy. I think that this procedure is at root both legitimate and necessary. But the deductivists have a good deal to learn from NTI. Sometimes deduction leads to a wooden

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concept of inerrancy. We can be too sure that we know beforehand the form that biblical truth must take. The questions that NTI raises about Gospel genre, about historicity, and about demythologizing call for serious wrestling.

The essays of NTI proceed, then, with an inductive approach. They critically inspect presuppositions, use care in method, multiply possible answers, weigh probabilities, move tentatively to conclusions. The historical-critical method can be viewed as a special case of this inductive method, applied specifically to the task of reconstructing what happened in the past. Much of this, no doubt, is healthy. But with respect to biblical infallibility it tends to raise all kinds of questions without providing more than very vague answers. To arrive at more positive answers, one needs to reflect critically on some areas where NTI as it stands is weak. Let me single out three or four overlapping problem areas where further reflection is needed.

(a) We need more critical inspection of the historical-critical method. What is “the historical-critical method” (or grammatical-historical method)? Does it have any univocal content, other than the dictum that one must critically doubt any report of the past? To begin with, how does one modify the dictum of critical doubt to make it compatible with biblical teaching about the obligations that we are under when God speaks? Second, how can the historical-critical method achieve any positive results? It can do so, it seems to me, only if one has a positive view of what time, history, and causality are, One’s view of God’s activity in history, his transcendence and immanence, and the historian’s ability or disability to enter into the mind of God, will radically affect one’s results. They will affect both the fine-grained texture and sometimes the major yes-no decisions in the results. This is not, as so many moderns think, a matter of two views: either history is a closed continuum or not, either there are miraculous “interventions” or there are not. Rather, there are a billion different views, one for each view of God’s providence (or its idolatrous substitute). Hence there are a potential billion historical methods.

Some essays perceive that there is a problem here (e.g., references to presuppositions pp. 60-71, 128–29, cf. pp. 290-91). But other essays lapse into rather glib talk about what is and is not “historical” or authentic, what is and is not probable, what is, and is not a suitable explanation (e.g., p. 167).

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(b) We need more overt discussion of the standards and goals for history writing. Ought we in our own writings to describe what happened, or the meaning of what happened, or both? Is there even a difference between an event and its meaning, and if so what? The Gospels themselves describe the life of Christ in a way that makes clear some of the meaning and implications of his life. The historical-critical method is frequently used to “peal off” the interpretive stance of the Gospels. But what is one searching for In this process? Nude events without meaning? But then one will have to reinvest them with fresh meaning to make them intelligible to us. Does such reinvestment (which inevitably takes place when the modern historian sets his pen to the paper) bypass the authority of the Gospels?

I raise these questions particularly with reference to Catchpole’s article on “Tradition History” (pp. 165-80). Catchpole again and again moves from (1) the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ words or the disciples’ words to (2) those words themselves (presumably in Aramaic) to (3) Catchpole’s view of the significance of those words in their original context. Thus, according to Catchpole, (1) the Gospels give us Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20; John 6:69) ; (2) Peter probably said, “You are the Messiah” (What Aramaic expression? ’at hû’ mšîḥā’? Catchpole doesn’t say.); (3) Matthew and Luke have most likely “added phrases which amount to their own commentary on the idea of messiahship.” Their additions are probably not “historical” (p. 167).

Now, I believe that this threefold movement from Gospel to event to interpretation can sometimes allow us to see more meaning in an event than what a simple reading of the Gospels would yield. It can sometimes correct a mistaken reading of the Gospels themselves. But it is another matter to produce a meaning at variance with the Gospels. This is what Catchpole has done by impugning the Gospels’ historicity. A simple alternative is available. All four Gospel accounts of Peter’s words are “historical.” All four give us in Greek what Peter said. None may give what he said verbatim. But all four convey accurately (not exhaustively) the meaning of what he said. The so-called additional phrases of Matthew and Luke are paraphrastic expressions not only of Matthew’s and Luke’s idea of messiahship, but Peter’s. The deviation from a verbatim report does not make them unhistorical any more than it makes Catchpole’s report in English

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unhistorical. Catchpole is unhistorical, not because he interprets the events to us in English, but because he conveys the impression that Matthew and Luke do not tell us accurately what Peter said.

Catchpole creates even more severe problems for himself in declaring that Matt. 18:17 “seems most unlike the historical Jesus.” It “seems to represent a later acceptance of attitudes which Jesus himself resisted” (pp. 167-68). Once again Catchpole is interpreting (step 3) as well as reconstructing (step 2). Supposedly, Jesus not only did not say Matt. 18:17 (step 2), but could not have done so (step 3). Here Catchpole sets his own interpretation in conflict with Matthew’s interpretation. If Matthew’s Gospel is the word of the Spirit of the risen Christ, Catchpole sets himself in conflict with the risen Christ. This is a threat not only to the heart of the Christian faith, but to the possibility of historical reconstruction. Suppose one introduces a distance between the “actual” meaning of the events and their interpretation in the Gospels. The more one does so, the more one derives a wedge between the “historical Jesus” and the Spirit of Jesus testifying in the tradition leading up to the Gospels. The more one drives a wedge between the “historical Jesus” and the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus, the more incalculable the personality of Jesus appears. The more incalculable the personality of Jesus, the less we can predict what he is likely to have said and done. Also, we lose ability to fathom what he meant by what he said and did. The less we can predict, the less ability we have to introduce a distance between the Gospels and the “historical Jesus.” Hence Catchpole’s idea of history-writing appears to be not only anti-Christian but self-defeating.2

(c) We need to eliminate some fog in the discussion of what

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the New Testament says to the modern reader. Four essays of NTI (Dunn, Thiselton, Nixon, Goldingay) devote themselves to the modern reader. But none confronts head-on what I regard as the major difficulty. It is this: when any document (e.g., the Iliad) travels beyond the bounds of its original intended audience, it has pluriform significance. When people “overhear” its message, its bearing or significance for the overhearers does not reside in the document itself. Rather, the document is invested with many different significances by those who overhear. No one of these significances has ontologically privileged status. The significance that an overhearer finds for himself in a document he will find in accordance with standards of importance and value that he himself brings to the document from outside. Of course, the overhearer’s standards may alter in the course of confrontation with the document. But also they may not.3 Demythologization and the new hermeneutic proclaim, of course, that the document must be infested with significance by us. What they do not proclaim so loudly is that, even within the bounds of existentialism or linguistic phenomenology, there are many significances, each at variance with or in contradiction to other possible significances. Rules of interpretation can help us to adjudicate between different constructions of the author’s intention. But, unless they bring in extrinsic values, they cannot adjudicate between possible significances that the author’s words can have for us who are outside the scope of his intention.

The only way out of this pluriformity, I am convinced, is by introducing an author who does address us. Only so can he make unequivocal demands on us. The dual authorship of the Bible must come into view. God writes the Bible to us. He intended to do so when the words were penned (cf. Deut. 31, Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor. 10:11, 1 Pet. 1:12). It is not merely the case that God “can” address its in the Bible (as demythologization or the new hermeneutic might say). He addresses us whether we listen or not. Nor is it merely the case that we hear him as a second voice commenting on the Bible’s statements, as one might receive general revelation in reading Shakespeare.

To be sure, God in addressing us knows that we are in a somewhat different situation than the first hearers. How do we

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deal with this difference? There is a twofold need for theology (God speaking) and historical research (understanding the situations). Moreover, we still cannot evade the challenges raised by the new hermeneutic. How do we attack the prejudices, unconscious as well as conscious, that lead us to distort or silence what God says? But my main point is this. One must reflect theologically about the manner in which God writes the Bible to us in order to titter a single cogent word about what the Bible “says” to the modern reader. The four NTI essays appear to in to brush by this point too quickly.

(d) We need more critical inspection of world views. Several essays remind us at one point or another of how different the first-century world views are from our own. How do we translate the gospel into our cultural situation without adulterating it? Obviously this is an issue both important and sensitive. Up to a point, the essays of Dunn and Goldingay handle the issue sensitively. But in the end, I fear that they give too much the impression that the difference between world views is mostly a neutral diversity, to be bridged by working out cross-cultural equivalents; not a symptom of a sinful deficiency on the part of the modern West to be bridged by redemptive reformation of both individual and culture.4

Doubtless there are any number of innocent examples of neutral diversity to be bridged. The modern reader is unfamiliar with Ancient Near Eastern marriage customs, Roman courts, covenant-making. Therefore one explains these customs and illustrates with modern analogues.

But there are limits. Some Greeks thought that bodily resurrection was an absurdity (Acts 17:32, 1 Cor. 1:23), and some of the modern West think that demons and the ascension of Christ are absurdities (pp. 359-60). Must weassume that the problem is at root one of finding the right cross-cultural equivalent in order to make the Bible intelligible? Where do we have firm ground for deciding what is culturally relative form and what is indispensable content?

Let us take sacrificial language as an example. Dunn rightly observes that blood sacrifice is “distasteful to modern sensibili-

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ties” (p. 300). Goldingay conducts us through a stimulating and perceptive struggle with how to bring the sacrificial language of 1 Pet. 3:18 home to modern hearers (pp. 358-59). In the end Goldingay does unpack it in a way that would make it much more rationally sensible to the typical modern intellectual. He speaks of God “absorbing its [sin’s] force in himself and thus dissolving it” (p. 359). But this endpoint, by its very transparent abstract rationality, is in danger of becoming tame and gutless. Surely there are more vigorous pictures: The Tale of Two Cities; the soldier dying to save his comrades; Gandalf remaining behind to rescue his friends from the Balrog inLord of the Rings; animal sacrifice (!). Most of us have never seen an animal sacrifice, but we have all too little trouble understanding what it means. It is irrational, it is bloody, it is cruel, it is ghastly, it is primitive—and we are prissy. The ultimate horror for us is no longer sin and the wrath of God, but the requirement of blood, suffering, and offense to our “sensibilities.” Intolerable arrogance! I could wish that in the two essays there were more criticism of this Western smugness.

An even more complex issue is that of cosmology, demons, extravagant imagery (e.g., Revelation), and the modes of God’s action in history. As in the case of sacrifice, I think that the answer must be twofold. (1) Make every effort to “translate” the biblical language into not one but many metaphors intelligible to your audience. (2) Recognize that your “translation” will be broken, incomplete, inadequate—virtually false—as long as you do not deal somewhere along the line with the hidden sinful points of resistance to the old metaphors. One such point of resistance is the idolatrously exclusive hold that the mechanistic metaphors of Newtonian scientistic cosmology have over the average academic mind. In general, performing our task is not a matter of negotiating some delicate, precarious compromise between strategies (1) and (2), but of exploiting both strategies to the hilt.

Finally, (e) we need discussion of a wider range of hermeneutical topics. The limits of hermeneutical topics discussed in NTI tend to be the limits set by the practice of main-stream contemporary New Testament scholars. NTIreckons little with topics like interpretation in contemporary non-Western settings, the nature and effects of sin in interpretation, prayer in interpretation, responsibilities in interpretation in the light of the Day of

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Judgment, the work of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, the present Lordship of Christ over all interpretation, and the obligations imposed on us by the fact that God speaks in human language.5

It is possible that these topics were left out because they were thought to belong more in the domain of systematic theology. But their omission also reveals, I suspect, something about the categories of sin, judgment, the work of the Holy Spirit, prayer, etc. Many of these categories are alien to the twentieth-century intelligentsia of the West. These categories do not vitally inform the typical exegete’s self-concept unless they are demythologized. Discussion of hermeneutical issues among the twentieth-century intelligentsia therefore tends to be immanentistic. It must avoid overt appeal to categories whose “mythological” status is in doubt. Of course, there is much to be learned by dialogue with modern scholarship. NTI is naturally eager to participate in that dialogue. My quarrel, therefore, is not with NTI but with the world of biblical scholarship. Such scholarship currently generates an “immanentistic” hermeneutical atmosphere dangerous to breathe. This atmosphere can stifle theocentric faith. Lack of sufficient reflection on and appreciation of the work of the triune God in inspiration and interpretation tends to produce a black attitude. The sense of awe, fear, joy, and adoration in hearing God are displaced by a sea of probabilistic weighing. No doubt we must wrestle again and again to really hear what God is saying. The probabilistic weighing has its role. But equally we must hear what God is saying.6

In the final analysis, maybe I am touching here on the central weakness of the vague view of biblical authority espoused by some scholars. The weakness is this: they do not hear God clearly enough.

The “model” biblical scholar, let us say, “lives” in the world of contemporary biblical scholarship. As such he shares assumptions with that “world”: some good assumptions, some not so good. He prizes inductivism with its attempt to let the text speak for itself in its own historical context. The historical dis-

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tance between the text and us prohibits a naive appeal to biblical authority or inerrancy. The message of the Bible is heard only at the far end of a long tunnel of historical interpretation and transformation.

But if in the end the text is also allowed to interpret him, as NTI desires (p. 313), strange things can happen. He finds himself believing in the present reign of Christ and the central affirmations of the Bible. He finds himself moving farther and farther away from a conventional twentieth-century humanistic closed universe world view. He has more and more doubts about the typical philosophical-historiographical assumptions of modern critics. He finds that the Bible becomes more and more intelligible and clear, the voice of the modern critics less and less. In fact, he finds that he needs to “interpret” the modern world of scholarship because of his own cultural, philosophical, epistemological, and historiographical distance from it. He can find an intelligible interpretation of this modern world of scholarship only by reading the Bible. He then interprets by viewing the modern scholars in the light of biblical anthropology (sin, righteousness, and judgment), and by viewing modern culture as a whole in the light of a biblical world view (creation; consummation by a new heavens and earth; God’s speech, his rule, his presence, his law, his redemption in Jesus Christ).

The Bible is, to be sure, still not clear at every point. But, after continued study, reflection, and prayer, he realizes that it is clear enough. It is clear enough to make him aware that what the Bible says in all its details, it says in the untrammeled triune voice of his living and omniscient Savior and Lord.7 It is clear enough to make him aware that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord (Isa. 6:3; Ps. 19; 104; 148).. The whole earth speaks in confirmation of the veracity of God’s written word (Ps. 19). This is so even though, following the pattern of Jesus, he is sometimes called to trust God’s word in a situation of darkness (e.g., Isa. 50:10) and intellectual pain (e.g., Ps. 22:1 ; Hab. 1 ; Job) with regard to his understanding of the present moment.

Moreover, our scholar is still able to affirm some of the con-

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cerns of NTI. He realizes that he indeed hears God’s voice in a different social context from the original audience, just as the psalmist of Ps. 119 heard the Mosaic law. He indeed hears the Old Testament in a different redemptive-historical context than did the Israelites, just as the first-century church did. But the fullness of God’s speaking in Christ illumines the earlier speech and the variant social contexts. God’s speaking has a fullness destined to subdue and fill all nations with its glory, truth, and power.

Indeed, the Gospel records do not dissolve their diversity into an undifferentiated unity. Rather, because they speak with the voice of God about the center of history, they become in that diversity the definitive paradigm on which our modern view of history writing is to be modeled. The message of the Bible to the modern West with its world views is, clearly, “surrender or perish.”

Therefore, our “model” scholar becomes aware that he cannot possibly understand the twentieth-century scholar intelligently, perceptively, historically, and critically unless he proceeds by hermeneutical techniques. He can hear the authentic voice of the modern scholar only through a long “tunnel” of interpretation. He must take into account the oddly blind modern world view, which presupposes that God’s voice is muffled or absent.

In short, he becomes a fundamentalist. Along with J. I. Packer and others, I do not think that this necessarily means giving up the valid aspects of earlier insights. But it may well mean that he returns to the old verities and certainties which he thought he had left behind with his hermeneutical childhood. Sophisticated multiple suggestions and probabilities came in to replace the old simplicities. But that sophistication, in the light of the end, is seen to be vain.

What is the point of my story of the hypothetical modern scholar? I want to indicate the primary way by which we may arrive at more firm convictions on inerrancy. We may do so by heeding what the Bible says, not simply figuring out what it says.

To those of us who are “fundamentalists” in Packer’s sense, the new hermeneutic has something yet to say. We are not called upon merely to blast away at left-wing evangelicals or the modernists from our impregnable strongholds of inerrancy, as if we

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ourselves were gods, or as if our own understanding of Scripture were already perfect. So far as possible, we are to address these men where they are, even if it be at the end of a long tunnel of interpretive transformation. One thing of which they are not sufficiently aware is that interpretive tunnels can be constructed in more than one direction. If they allow themselves to interpret the Bible, they must also allow us to use the Bible to interpret them and their interpretation.

Westminster Theological Seminary,
Philadelphia, Pa.

1 I have expressed myself briefly elsewhere on what I regard to be impermissible flexibility in one’s notion of infallibility (“Problems for Limited Inerrancy,” JETS 18 (1975), 93–104). I think it is more profitable in this review to consider the general directions of NTI than to attempt refutations point by point of a few objectionable results. Evangelicals know (though reminders are sometimes necessary) that harmonization and strict views of inerrancy are possible (NTI, p. 136). The question that some essays of NTI raise is whether such strict views are plausible enough.

2. A person in Catchpole’s position could, of course, escape these odious deductions by denying the key premise. Namely, he could deny that Matthew’s Gospel gives us the words of the Spirit, except perhaps in some muffled and indirect way. But the cost is very high. Either NT books are put on a lower level of inspiration than the OT, or both are degraded, contrary to the OT’s explicit claims and Jesus’ own convictions. Moreover, there is then little in the way of principle to prevent one from wondering whether the same “muffling” of the Spirit may be at work even when the earthly Jesus speaks. His speaking in the Spirit, like that of the prophets, takes into account his humanity. The outcome of this type of reasoning is not new. It leads only to the oldest of all questions, “Has God said … ?” (Gen. 3:1).

3 For a fuller defense of these claims, see Eric D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976).

4 This is a matter of degree. For example, Goldingay rightly insist that NT eschatological emphasis must be retained even though it unpalatable to modern man (p. 354).

5 Nixon’s essay on “The Authority of the New Testament” touches on the matter of God’s speaking (pp. 336-37), but more could be said.

6 The new hermeneutic, while subject to other difficulties, shows awareness of this problem.

7 Thisleton envisions this possibility when he pictures listening to the voice of God and self-conscious testing of one’s hermeneutic as going on simultaneously (p. 323).


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