Review of Virkler on Hermeneutics

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 44/1 (spring 1982): 143-146. Used with permission.]

Henry A. Virkler: Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981. 255. $12.95.


In his book Hermeneutics, Henry Virkler, assistant professor of psychology at the Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta, has given us an excellent popularization of Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.’s hermeneutical theory and its applications. The book contains a very useful balance between (a) theoretical discussion of hermeneutical and doctrinal issues on the one hand, and (b) helpful suggestions and bibliography with respect to nuts-and-bolts of exegesis on the other hand. This book always takes thought for the reader’s needs. Each chapter is clearly organized; each has summaries at the beginning and end, bibliographies for further reading, and stimulating exercises and questions for the reader to work out on his own on the basis of the chapter. Virkler is writing mostly for laymen, and so he gives them advice about how to make the best of things even with little or no first-hand knowledge of Hebrew and Greek (cf. pp. 101-104).

On its own level, as a popularization, the book does an excellent job. But a full assessment must take into account Kaiser’s hermeneutical theory, which forms its backbone. Virkler shows the strengths that one associates with Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology1 There is the same clear, attractive organization of procedures, both historical, grammatical, theological, and pastoral. There is the same commitment to inerrancy and


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meticulous care in dealing with Scripture. Virkler spends more time than does Kaiser in presenting and explaining alternative approaches. The lay reader is made aware of variety of opinion on several issues: inspiration of the Bible (pp. 31-45), the question of meaning and sensus plenior (pp. 22-27), continuity and discontinuity in redemptive history (dispensationalism and covenant theology, pp. 117-156), interpretation of prophecy and types (pp. 183-209). Virkler argues vigorously for inerrancy. But on the other issues, even though his own sympathies are clearly with Kaiser, he invites the reader to investigate and decide for himself.

Virkler’s book is subject to a few weaknesses found in Kaiser’s hermeneutical theory. At the root of Kaiser’s theory is a distinction between meaning and application, taken over from E. D. Hirsch’s distinction between meaning and significance.2 Meaning is to be equated with the intention of the human author. The meaning of a given text is singlefold, but applications can be many.

As a rough and ready distinction, this can be useful. But when one attempts to press for precision, problems appear. For instance, what is and is not included in authorial intention? E. D. Hirsch has an extended theory attempting to develop a univocal concept of authorial intention (including “unconscious intention”). Kaiser (and Virkler?) doesn’t agree with this theory as a whole, but doesn’t say much about an alternative.3 So the concept of authorial intention is left vague.

As a result there is considerable latitude in how one might use the concepts of meaning and application in any particular case in exegesis. The statement that the meaning is singlefold is, perhaps, true simply by definition, and doesn’t exclude all sorts of internal complexities in this “singleness.” Prophecy and typology are cases in point (Virkler, 183–190, 199–201). Or if the complexities and multiplicities are too great, one may relabel them “applications” instead of “meaning.” This is in part merely a debate about terminology. It’s hard to debate such an issue without looking at the results.

I would say that the results are basically good, but unfortunately one-sided. There are two areas where one-sidedness shows up. First, the message of the Bible is treated as information. Now I agree that it is that. But it is not only that. The Bible certainly provides plenty of information,


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divinely authenticated information. But it is also transforming power (e.g., Rom 1:16). The reader meets God. Perhaps a sharp distinction between meaning and application need not lead to one-sidedness about this. But in this case it has led to one-sidedness. In Kaiser’s theory, meaning is thought of in such a way that it is primarily, perhaps even exclusively, propositional, informational. Meaning is exactly reproducible independent of the particularities of any human being. Application comes afterwards. Information first (meaning), then power in transforming our lives (application). Well, this does approximate how understanding sometimes takes place psychologically. But isn’t this too inorganic a conception of the working of God’s word?4

A second area where I believe that there is one-sidedness is in an unconscious preference for exemplary sermons on narrative texts. When Kaiser and Virkler employ their procedures for “principlizing” narrative texts, the result is that the texts become illustrations of general theological and moral principles. Even though Kaiser and Virkler vigorously affirm interest in redemptive history (e.g., Virkler, 117–156), their understanding of the organic development of God’s purposes of redemption almost drops out of the picture when they undertake to apply historical narrative to the people of God today. Some interaction with Greidanus’ work on redemptive-historical preaching might serve to break up the one-sidedly exemplary tendency.5

I wonder whether this one-sidedness is not also connected with the purely static conception of meaning in Kaiser. The static perspective puts a premium on finding something in the text that is “timeless,” a timeless theological or moral principle.6 It tends not to encourage one to put preaching emphasis on the way in which the text addressed once-and-for-all a particular people at a particular point in God’s program never to be repeated. Such uniqueness is not photographically reproducible in us, and so (it might be supposed) must not be part of the “meaning.”

In sum, the theoretical underpinnings of Virkler’s book do result in>

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some one-sidedness. But the book has much to recommend it for its pedagogical strengths.

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary

1 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981).

2 Ibid., 31-34. Cf. Eric D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University, 1967); idem, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976).

3 Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 33-34.

4 Kaiser and Virkler don’t penetrate far enough to get into serious difficulty. But difficulties do await them. Suppose one has come to think of the Bible as at root rational information. Can one succeed in articulating how power is added at a second stage, without seeming to make this power into an antithetical pole of irrationality?

5 Cf. Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts (Toronto: Wedge, 1970).

6 “Timeless” is Kaiser’s own word, in Toward an Exegetical Theology, 152, 236; cf. 158, 245.


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