Review of Wood on Formation of Christian Understanding

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 44/1 (spring 1982): 140-143. Used with permission.]

Charles M. Wood: The Formation of Christian Understanding: An Essay in Theological Hermeneutics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981. 128. $7.95, paper.


Charles M. Wood has written a clear, sensitive book setting forth a Barthian hermeneutical theory. He wrestles with the question of how the Bible can provide us with knowledge of God. Using insights from the later Wittgenstein, Wood rightly questions whether a dispute over a technical definition of meaning can get to the heart of the complexities. He himself prefers to speak primarily of “understanding” rather than “meaning.” One’s ability to paraphrase or restate “meaning” in some narrow sense is not all that is involved. Surely if we are talking in terms of the goal of knowing God, this is right.

Using the insights of the hermeneutical tradition (Gadamer), Wood recognizes the inevitable role of the interpreter’s own background, culture, and basic commitments in the process of understanding. But at the same time, Wood argues that any such background of the interpreter must itself be open to criticism on the basis of Scripture.

Therefore, I think that evangelicals have much to learn from this book about how not to oversimplify the interpretive process or to sweep under the rug its aspects of circularity. At the same time, the burning question for evangelicals will remain, “What are the Bible’s own claims to authority, and how do we accomplish full submission to those claims?” With regard to such a question, Wood is in a general way in the Barthian camp. The whole Bible is both divine and fully human; but its divinity is in no way immediately accessible. Wood does argue vigorously for the propriety of reading the Bible as canon. For him, that means reading it as the word of God. It means allowing the utterances of the individual parts to interact with one another. But like Brevard Childs, Wood wants this “canonical reading” to be supplementary to, rather than in competition with, a historical-critical reading of the texts. Historical-critical research has shown us that, at times, the different texts “defy harmonization.” It is “logically impossible” to “affirm them all simultaneously” (p. 105).


p. 141

Such an approach, in my opinion, remains burdened with some huge difficulties. How do we exercise hermeneutical control or define what is proper to reading the Bible as canon? To some extent this is a difficulty with any possible approach. But what governs the interpreter when, according to Wood, any particular text of the Bible “can be heard [in this canonical reading] without any prior obligation on the hearer’s part to give assent” (p. 111)? Where is a stable source of authority here? Wood rightly perceives that a short confession like “Jesus is Lord” is not stable enough in its meaning to serve as a touchstone of Christianity, unless it is surrounded by the richer framework of the canon providing us with a story in which this confession makes sense (p. 103). But conversely, the canon as a whole will not offer us a stability in interpretive procedure unless we as interpreters submit to an authority over interpretation. The canon must be an instrument by which we submit to Jesus as Lord.

But now the problem is, we do not really know what submission or Lordship means unless we have words that we unconditionally submit to.1 As evangelicals have never tired of pointing out, Jesus himself will not let us put a distance between himself and his words, by which we say, “Lord, Lord,” but do not do what he says. Doing what he says includes, in this case, believing what he authenticates—the Old Testament, at least. But familiar lines of argument quickly show that the New Testament also possesses the authority of Christ himself.2

Wood introduces the familiar Barthian distinction between Jesus Christ himself, the norm of theology, and the words of Scripture which are “criterion.”3 Of course, the Bible’s purpose is to witness to Christ. But Christ’s Lordship is universal, and includes his authority to witness to Scripture and to condemn the historical-critical movement in its exaltation of autonomous reason.

And autonomous reason is in the end the problem. Wood several times voices the conviction that the historical-critical results have made it impossible to go back to the old way of reading the Bible as canon. But those historical-critical results are the offspring of a deeper principle, Troeltsch’s


p. 142

principle of criticism:4 every testimony from the past must be received critically, and weighed in terms of probability of its truth or falsehood. The principle of criticism, together with the complementary principles of post-Enlightenment historiography, already presupposes the Kantian (and Barthian) tenet that God cannot speak in human language directly into history. Any unconditional submission to a statement in human language is idolatry. This is in direct contradiction not only to the Exodus account of God’s speaking at Sinai, but to Jesus’ claims about his own human words.

The root problem, then, is lack of criticism of criticism. In principle, Wood is aware of this problem. In general terms, speaking of the influence of culture and tradition, he says, “Our complicity in the maintenance of such elements of tradition may block our discernment of the canonical witness with its opposition to them. And that is why the task of critical theological exegesis entails rigorous self-criticism and the criticism of the social, political, and cultural arrangements, perspectives, and values of the interpreter, no less than the critical examination of the text in its whole context” (p. 115). It is well said. We as evangelicals greatly need to apply this exhortation to ourselves. But we can only say to Mr. Wood and those like him that the canonical witness is opposed to the idea of history (a closed continuum) and of criticism (every statement to be heard without obligation to submit absolutely) at the core of the historical-critical approach. Troeltsch already said it before: not only the results, but the presuppositions of the historical-critical method are in opposition to the teachings of the Bible.5 It is no wonder that, examining the Bible in terms of this method, Wood cannot harmonize what he finds in the Bible.

The thought of dismantling the historical-critical method provokes from the supporters of the method a tiresome objection: the only alternative to using the method is an impossible turning-back of the clock, a return to precritical naivete. But in fact there are many alternatives, not merely one or two.6 One of the positive services of hermeneutical theory should be to awaken us to the knowledge that it is most often our own cultural parochialism, not the eternal necessities of human nature or the nature of


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the facts, which seems to shut us up to a dichotomous choice between the autonomous reason of the Enlightenment and an unquestioning submission to church tradition.

It is a shame that such an enlightened book as this should fall short at a crucial point. But this is not the end of the discussion. We may hope that we may all take seriously Wood’s call for criticism of culture and unexamined assumptions. As we bring every thought captive to Christ, there will be repentance, purification, and reformation in corporate knowledge of God.

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary

1 For a more fully developed statement, cf. John M. Frame, “Scripture Speaks for Itself,” in God’s Inerrant Word (ed. John W. Montgomery; Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974) 178–200, especially pp. 181-197.

2 Ibid.

3 Cf. the critique in John M. Frame, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence,” in God’s Inerrant Word, 159-177, especially pp. 164-166, 172–175.

4 Ernst Troeltsch, “Ueber historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie,” Gesammelte Schriften II (2d ed; Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1962) 729–753, especially p. 731.

5 Ibid. Cf. also Van Austin Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (New York: Macmillan, 1966) 5–6.

6 Cf. Vern S. Poythress, “Ground Rules of New Testament Interpretation,” WTJ 41 (1978–79) 192.


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