What Does God Say through Human Authors

What Does God Say through Human Authors?1

by Vern Sheridan Poythress


[Published in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate. Ed. Harvie M. Conn. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988. Pp. 81-99. An earlier, more extensive discussion is found in “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986) 241-79. The publisher has required the inclusion of the following statement:

Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright ©1988. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.]


What is the relation between God and the human authors of the Bible?  Does God’s meaning at every point coincide with the intention of the human author?  Can we use the same procedures of interpretation as we would with a noninspired book?  A recent article by Darrell Bock delineates no less than four distinct approaches among evangelicals.2  The specific issue that Bock discusses is the question of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament.  Does the New Testament use of Old Testament texts sometimes imply that God meant more than what the human author thought of?  Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., says no, while S. Lewis Johnson, James I. Packer, and Elliott Johnson say yes.3  Bruce K. Waltke introduces still a third approach, emphasizing the canon as the final context for interpretation.  A fourth approach, represented by E. Earle Ellis, Richard Longenecker, and Walter Dunnett, emphasizes the close relation between apostolic hermeneutics and Jewish hermeneutics of the first century.  Thus it appears that even among evangelicals there are disagreements concerning the relationship between the divine and human meanings of a biblical text.  We will concentrate on this problem of dual authorship, rather than on the question of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.


Situations with One and with Two Authors

Let us begin with the simple situation of a single human author.  When we read a letter from a friend, we read it using our previous knowledge of the friend and our previous knowledge of earlier correspondence.  A postcard with only the words “Success at last” may have very different implications, depending on who sent it and under what circumstances.  Correct interpretation certainly depends on our paying attention to the wording of the letter, but we also must bear in mind what we know of the author and the circumstances.

Now what may we say about a particular book of the Bible, such as Amos?  God commissions Amos to prophesy.  There are two authors, God and Amos.  The Bible makes it very clear that what God says does not cease to be what God says just because a human intermediary is introduced (Deut. 5:22-33).  After all, it is God who chose the human intermediary and who fashioned his personality (Ps 139:13-16).  Hence in interpreting the Book of Amos, we must bear in mind what we know about God as the divine author.

Conversely, what human beings say to us does not cease to be what they say when they become spokesmen of God.  Hence, it would appear, we must interpret the Book of Amos also as Amos’s words.

But now we have a complex situation.  For we have just argued that interpretation of a piece of writing must consider the words in the light of what is known of the author and the situation.  If the same words happen to be said by two authors, there are two separate interpretations.  The interpretations may have very similar results, or they may not, depending on the differences between the two authors and the way in which those differences mesh with the wording of the text.  But, in principle, there may be differences, even if only very subtle differences in nuances.

Hence it would seem to be the case that we have two separate interpretations of any particular biblical text.  The first interpretation sees the words entirely in the light of the human author–his characteristics, his knowledge, his social status.  The second sees the same words entirely in the light of the divine author–his characteristics, his knowledge, his status.  In principle, the results of these two interpretations may differ.  We cannot simply and automatically collapse the two interpretations into one.  Any such move would overlook the basic principle that words have to be interpreted in the light of their author.

What does this imply?  Do we conclude that the two interpretations simply exist side by side, with no necessary relation to one another?  Might they even contradict one another?  If so, it introduces the danger that we could attribute to God something entirely unrelated to the meaning of the human author.  And then, what would keep us from arbitrarily twisting a text?

The Bible itself shows the way to a more satisfactory resolution of the difficulty.  In the Bible, the human and divine authors do not simply stand side by side.  Rather, each points to the other and affirms the presence and operation of the other.

First, God himself points out the importance of the human authors.  For example, when God establishes Moses as the regular channel for conveying his Word to the people of Israel, he makes it clear that Moses is to be active in teaching the people (Deut. 5:31, 6:1).  Similarly, the commissioning of prophets in the Old Testament often includes a mention of their own active role, not only in speaking God’s Word to the people, but in actively absorbing it (Ezek. 2:8-3:3, Dan. 10; Jer. 23:18).  This is still more clear in the case of Paul’s writings, where his own personality is so actively involved.  Now, what happens when we pay careful attention to God as the divine author?  We find that we must pay attention to what he says about the role of the human authors.  Sometimes he directly affirms the significance of their involvement; sometimes this affirmation is only implied.  But whichever is the case, God himself requires us to interpret the words of Scripture against the background of what we know about the human author.  We cannot simply ignore the human author and try to concentrate only on what God is saying.

Conversely, the human authors of the Bible indicate that they intend us to interpret their words as not merely words that they speak as ordinary persons.  For example, the Book of Isaiah explicitly indicates that it is a message from God, not just the personal thoughts of Isaiah (1:1; 2:1).  Isaiah reinforces this point by using the phrase “thus says the Lord.”  What is the effect of a phrase like this one?  Would the inhabitants of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time say, “Now we must interpret what our friend Isaiah is saying simply in terms of everything we know about him: his relations with his family, his opinions about agriculture and politics, and so on.”  Certainly not.  When Isaiah says, “Thus says the Lord,” it is no doubt still Isaiah who is speaking.  But Isaiah himself, by using these words, has told people to create a certain distance between himself, merely viewed as a private individual, and what the Lord has commissioned him to convey.  In addition, consider what happens when Isaiah makes detailed predictions about the distant future.  If the hearers treat him simply as a private human being, they would say, “Well, we know Isaiah, and we know the limits of his knowledge of the future.  So, because of what we know about him, it is obvious that he is simply expressing his hopes or making artistically interesting guesses.”  Again, such a reaction misunderstands Isaiah’s claims.

We may try to focus as much as possible on Isaiah as a human author.  The more carefully we do our job, the more we will realize that he is not just any human author.  He is one through whom God speaks.  He himself intends us to reckon with this dimension.  It is not a denial of human authorship, but an affirmation of it, when we pay attention to God speaking.  In particular, in the case of predictions, we pay attention to all that we know of God, God’s knowledge of the future, the wisdom of his plan, and the righteousness of his intentions.  This procedure is in accord with Isaiah’s intention, not contrary to it.  In fact, we might say that Isaiah intended that we should understand whatever God intended by Isaiah’s words.4  Hence there is a unity of meaning and a unity of application here.  We do not have two diverse meanings, Isaiah’s and God’s, simply placed side by side with no relation to one another.

But the matter is complex.  We have here a situation of personal communion between God and prophet.  Each person affirms the significance of the other’s presence for proper interpretation.  On the one hand, God has formed the personality of the prophet, has spoken to him in the heavenly council (Jer 23:18), has brought him into inner sympathy with the thrust of his message.  What the prophet says using his own particular idiom fits exactly what God decided to say.  On the other hand, the prophet affirms that what God is saying is true, even where the prophet cannot see all its implications.

This situation therefore leaves open the question of how far a prophet understood God’s words at any particular point.  The Bible affirms the prophets’ inner participation in the message.  In addition, extraordinary psychological experiences were sometimes involved.  It would therefore be presumptuous to limit dogmatically a prophet’s understanding to what is “ordinarily” possible.  On the other hand, it seems to me equally presumptuous to insist that at every point there must be complete understanding on the part of the prophet.  Particularly this is so for cases of visionary material (Dan. 7;10; Zech. 1-6, Rev. 4:1-22:5) or historical records of divine speech (e.g., the Gospel records of Jesus’ parables).  Why should we have to say, in the face of Daniel 7:16, Zechariah 4:4-5, Revelation 7:14, and the like, that the prophets came to understand everything that there was to understand, by the time that they wrote their visions down?  Is it not enough to stick with what is clear?  It is clear that the prophet faithfully recorded what he saw and heard.  He intended that we should understand from it whatever there is to understand when we treat it as a vision from God.  Similarly, there is no need to insist that Luke understood all the ramifications of each of Jesus’ parables.  He may or may not have.  The results for our interpretation of the parables in the Gospel of Luke will be the same.

I have spoken primarily about the role of prophets in speaking the Word of God.  But, of course, prophecy is not the only form in which the Bible is written.  The different genres of biblical writings–prophecy, law, history, wisdom, song–each call for different nuances in our approach.  The relation between divine and human participation in the writing is not always exactly the same.5

For instance, consider the case of Mosaic law.  The background of the meeting at Mount Sinai forms a framework for Moses’ later writings and leads us to reckon more directly with the divine source of the Law.  On the other hand, Moses’ close communion with God (Num. 12:6-8) hints at his inner understanding of the Law.

In the case of prophecy, narrowly speaking, the prophet’s pronouncement “thus says the Lord” and the predictive elements in his message frequently have the effect of highlighting the distinction between the prophet as mere human being and the prophet as channel for the Lord’s message.  The prophet himself steps into the background, as it were, in order to put all the emphasis on God’s speaking.  In visionary experiences this may be all the more the case, inasmuch as it is often not clear how much the prophet understands.

With the psalms and the New Testament epistles, on the other hand, the human author and his understanding come much more to the fore.  Paul does not continually say, “Thus says the Lord.”  That is not because he has no divine message.  Rather, it is (largely) because he has so thoroughly absorbed the message into his own person.  He has “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:13, 16), as a man indwelt by the Spirit.6

Here we confront still another complexity.  What is human nature, and what does it mean to analyze a biblical passage as the expression of a human author?  If the human author is Paul, that means Paul filled with the Holy Spirit.  We are not dealing with “bare” human nature (as if human beings ever existed outside of a relationship to God of one kind or another).  We are already dealing with the divine, namely, the Holy Spirit.  Paul as a human being may not be immediately, analytically self-conscious of all the implications of what he is saying.  But people always know more and imply more than what they are perfectly self-conscious of.  How far does this “more” extend?  We are dealing with a person restored in the image of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, having the mind of Christ.  There are incalculable depths here.  We cannot calculate the limits of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of Christ.  Neither can we perform a perfect analytical separation of our knowledge from our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.


Christological Fulness in Interpretation

The complexities that we meet here are only a shadow of the greatest complexity of all: the speeches of the incarnate Christ.  Here God is speaking, not through a mere human being distinct from God, but in his own person.  The eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, speaks.  Hence we must interpret what he says in the light of all that we know of God the author.  At the same time, a man speaks–Jesus of Nazareth.  With respect to his human nature, he has limited knowledge (note Luke 2:52).  Hence we must interpret what he says in the light of all that we know of Jesus of Nazareth in his humanity.

This is a permanent mystery.  Yet we know that we do not have two antithetical interpretations, one for the human nature speaking and one for the divine nature speaking.  We know that there is a unity, based on the unity of the one person of Christ.  However, it is possible, with respect to his human nature, that Jesus Christ is not exhaustively self-conscious of all the ramifications, nuances, and implications of what he says.  He nevertheless does take responsibility for those ramifications, as does any other human speaker.  As the divine Son, Jesus Christ does know all things, including all ramifications, applications, and so forth, of his speech.  There is a distinction here, but nevertheless no disharmony.

Furthermore, we may say that Jesus in his human nature was especially endowed with the Spirit to perform his prophetic work, as planned by God the Father (Luke 3:22; 4:18-19).  When we interpret his speech, we should take into account that the Holy Spirit speaks through him.  Thus, we are saying that we must take into account the ultimately trinitarian character of revelation,7, as well as the unique fulness of the Spirit’s endowment in Christ’s messianic calling.

In short, when we interpret Christ’s speech, we interpret it (as we do all speech) in the light of the author.  That is, we interpret it as the speech of the divine Son.  But Christ says that the Father speaks through him (John 12:48-50; 14:10).  Hence it is the speech of the Father.  Since the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus to equip him for his messianic work, we also conclude that it is the speech of the Spirit.  And of course it is the speech of the man Jesus of Nazareth.  Each of these aspects of interpretation is in harmony with the others.  But they are distinct, at least in nuance.

In Christ, we meet verbal communication undergirded by a communion and fellowship of understanding.  In Christ’s being there is no pure mathematical identity of divine persons or identity of two natures, but harmony.  The result is that there is no pure mathematical identity in the interpretive product.  That is, we cannot in a pure way analyze simply what the words mean as (for instance) proceeding from the human nature of Christ, and then say that our results precisely and exhaustively interpret his words.

The case of divine speech through apostles and prophets is, of course, secondary, but none the less analogous.  The revelation of Jesus Christ is the pinnacle (Heb. 1:1-3).  All other revelations through prophets and apostles are secondary to this supreme revelation.  There is ultimately no other way to gain deeper insight into the secondary than through the pinnacle.  Hence we cannot expect to collapse the richness of divine presence into a mathematical point, when we are dealing with the words of the Bible.


Progressive Revelation

A further complication arises because the many human authors of the Bible write over a long period of time.  None of the human authors except the very last can survey the entire product in order to arrive at an interpretation of the whole.

Once again, we may throw light on the situation by starting with a simpler case.  Suppose that we have a single uninspired human author speaking or writing to a single audience over a period of time.  Even if we are dealing with only a single long oral discourse, the discourse is spread out in time.  Individual statements and individual paragraphs near the beginning of the discourse are understood first, then those near the end.  Moreover, an audience is in a better position to draw more inferences from earlier parts of a discourse once they have reached the end.  Typically, all the parts of a discourse qualify and color each other.  We understand more by reading the whole than we do from reading any one part, or even from all the parts separately.  The effect is somewhat like the effect of different parts of an artist’s picture.  If we just attend to small bits of paint within the picture, one by one, we may miss many implications of the whole.  The “meaning” of the picture does not reside merely in a mechanical, mathematical sum of the blobs of paint.  Rather, it arises from the joint effect of the individual pieces.  Their joint effect arises from the relations between the pieces.  Likewise, the import of an author’s discourse arises partly from the reinforcements, qualifications, tensions, complementations, and other relations between the individual words and sentences, as well as from the effects of each individual sentence.  The over-all effect of this process is that an audience may understand what the first part of a discourse means and then have that understanding modified and deepened by the last of the discourse.

Now consider a particular example of two people communicating over a long period of time.  Suppose a father teaches his young son to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”  Later on, he tells the story of the life of Christ from a children’s Bible storybook.  Still later, he explains how the Old Testament sacrificial system depicted aspects of Christ’s purpose in dying for us.  Finally, the son becomes an adult and does extended Bible study for himself.  Suppose then that the son remembers how his father taught him “Jesus Loves Me.”  He asks, “What was my father saying in telling me the words of the song?  At the time, did I understand what he was saying?”  The answer may well be yes.  The son understood what the father expected that he would have the capacity to understand at that point.  But the father knew as well that the child’s initial understanding was not the end point.  The father intended that the earlier words should be recalled later.  He intended that the son should understand his father’s mind better and better by comparing those earlier words with later words that the father would share.

Now, suppose that there was no misunderstanding or no misjudgment at any point.  There is still more than one level of understanding of the father’s words.  There is what one may understand on the basis of those words more or less by themselves, when not supplemented by further words, and when seen as words adapted to the capacity of the young child.  And there is what one may understand on the basis of comparing and relating those words to many later words (and actions) of the father.  The first of these understandings is a legitimate one, an understanding not to be underestimated.  As long as the child has only those words of the father, and not all the later history, it would be unfair of him to build up an exact, elaborate analysis of all the ramified implications of the statements.  But once the father has said a lot more, it throws more light on what the father intended all along that those words should do: they should contribute along with many other words to form and engender an enormously rich understanding of Christ’s love, an understanding capable of being evoked and alluded to by the words of the song.

The complexity arises, as before, from the dynamic and relational character of communicative meaning.  The understanding we achieve from listening arises not only from individual words or sentences in the discourse but from the complex relations that they have to one another and to the larger situation, including what we know of the author himself.  In particular, the song “Jesus Loves Me” conveys meaning not simply in virtue of the internal arrangement of the words but also in virtue of the context of who is saying it, what else is being said by way of explanation, and so on.  There is indeed something like a “common core” of meaning shared by all or nearly all uses of the song.  But the implications that we may see around that common core may differ.  Imagine the song being used by a liberal who believes that in fact Jesus is merely human and therefore still dead.  In his mouth, the song is only a metaphorical expression of an ideal of human love.

Now we are ready to raise the crucial question: Does something analogous to this to this father-son communication happen with God’s communication to his people over the period of time from Adam onwards?  Is God like a human father speaking to his child?  The basic answer is obviously yes.  Those who do not think it is so obvious should consider the following.

First, Israel is called God’s son (Exod. 4:22, Deut. 8:5), and Paul explicitly likens the Old Testament period to the time when a child is still a minor (Gal. 4:3-4).  These passages are not directly discussing the question of biblical interpretation, but they are nevertheless suggestive.

Second, from very early in the history of the human race, God indicates that more is to come.  History and the promises of God are forward looking.  The story is yet to be completed.  It is altogether natural to construe this feature as implying that earlier promissory statements of God may be more deeply understood once the promises begin to be fulfilled, and especially when they are completely fulfilled.  Similar reflections evidently apply even to the hope we now have as Christians (1 Cor. 13:12).

Third, in at least a few cases in the Old Testament, we find prophecies whose fulfillments take unexpected form.  One of the most striking is Jacob’s prophecy about the dispersion of Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:7b).8  If we attend only to the immediate context (v. 7a), we are bound to conclude that God undertakes to disgrace both tribes by giving them no connected spot of settlement.  The actual fulfillment is therefore quite surprising in the case of Levi.  But it is not out of accord with God’s character of turning cursings into blessings.  What we know about him includes his right to exceed our expectations.  This whole affair is more easily understood when we take into account the fact that Genesis 49:7 is not an isolated word of God but part of a long history of God’s communications, yet to be completed.  We cannot expect to draw all our conclusions until we have heard the whole.

In short, God’s actual ways of bringing fulfillments may vary.  Some of them may be straightforward, others quite surprising.  An author likewise may continue a discourse in a straightforward way, or in a surprising way that causes us to reassess the exact point of the first part of what he says.

Fourth, the symbolic aspects of Old Testament institutions proclaim their own inadequacy (Heb. 10:1, 4).  They are not only analogous to the final revelation of God, but at some points disanalogous (v. 4).  Suppose that people stand in the Old Testament situation, trying to understand what is symbolized.  They will inevitably continue with some questions unanswered until they are able to relate what is said and done earlier to what God does at the coming of Christ.  Until the point of completion, the interpretation must remain open ended (but not without content).

Fifth, the speech of God is not complete until the coming of Christ (Heb. 1:1-3).  We must, as it were, hear the end of the discourse before we are in a position to weigh the total context, in terms of which we may achieve the most profound understanding of each part of the discourse.

I conclude, then, that any particular passage of the Bible is to be read in three progressively larger contexts, as follows:

1.  Any passage is to be read in the context of the particular book of the Bible in which it appears, that is, in the context of the human author and historical circumstances of the book.  God speaks truly to the people in particular times and circumstances.

2.  Any passage is to be read in the context of the total canon of Scripture available up to that point in time.9  The people originally addressed by God must take into account that God’s speech does not start with them but presupposes and builds on previous utterances of God.

3.  Any passage is to be read in the context of the entire Bible (the completed canon).  God intended from the beginning that his later words should build on and enrich earlier words, so that in some sense the whole of the Bible represents one long, complex process of communication from one author.

For example, Ezekiel 34 is to be understood (1) in terms of the immediate context of the Book of Ezekiel and the historical circumstances in which the book first appeared; (2) in terms of its continuation of the Word of God recorded in the law of Moses and the preexilic prophets; (3) in terms of what we can understand in the light of the whole completed Bible, including the New Testament.10

In addition to these three analyses of the passage, we may, in more fine-grained reflection, distinguish still other possibilities.  In principle, we may ask what the passage contributes at any point during the progressive additions to canon through further revelation.  For example, Bruce K. Waltke argues that, in the case of the Book of Psalms (and presumably many other Old Testament books), it is illuminating to ask about its meaning at the time when the Old Testament canon was complete but before the dawn of the New Testament era.11  This is still another approach alongside all the rest.  For simplicity we confine the subsequent discussion to the three contexts distinguished here.

As we have stressed, our understanding of a passage depends not only on the sequence of words of the passage but on the context in which it occurs.  Hence consideration of the three contexts can, in principle, lead to three different results.  Some people might want to speak of three meanings.  One meaning would be the meaning obtained from focusing primarily on the human author and his circumstances.  Another meaning would derive from focusing on what is known about all the divine author’s utterances up until the time in which he causes the particular passage to be written.  The final meaning would obtain from focusing primarily on the divine author and all that we know about him from the whole of the Bible.

However, for most purposes I would prefer to avoid calling these three results three “meanings.”  Otherwise we might suggest that three unrelated and perhaps even contradictory things are being said.  But these three approaches are complementary, not contradictory.  The difference between these three approaches is quite like the difference between reading one chapter of a book and reading the whole of the book.  After taking into account the whole book, we understand the one chapter as well as the whole book more deeply.  But it does not mean that our understanding of the one chapter by itself was incorrect.  Remember again the example of a child’s understanding of “Jesus Loves Me.”


Psalm 22:12-18

Consider these three contexts in our understanding of Psalm 22:12-18.  In the first approach, we focus on the human author.  The passage speaks of the distress of a person who trusts in God (note vv. 2-5, 8-10) but who is nevertheless abandoned to his enemies.  In a series of shifting metaphors the psalmist compares his suffering to being surrounded by bulls and lions (vv. 12-13), to being sick or weak in body through emotional distress (vv. 14-15), to being caught by ravening dogs (v. 16), and to being treated virtually like a carcass (vv. 17-18).12  The psalmist’s words evidently spring from his own experience of a situation of abandonment.

We encounter a special complexity in the case of Psalms.  The actual author (David, according to the title of Psalm 22)13 and the collector or collectors who under inspiration included Psalm 22 in the larger collection both have a role.  The psalm receives a new setting when it is included in the Book of Psalms.  This setting provides a new context for interpretation.  In my opinion, it means that the collector invites us to see Psalm 22 not simply as the experience of an individual at one time but as a typical or model experience with which the whole congregation of Israel is to identify as they sing and meditate on the psalm.14  Hence, in the context of the Book of Psalms (the context with divine authority), we compare this psalm of lament and praise (see vv. 25-31) with other psalms.  We understand that there is a general pattern of suffering, trust, vindication, and praise that is to characterize the people of Israel.

Now we move to the second approach, considering Psalm 22 in the light of the entire canon of Scripture given up until the time when the Book of Psalms was compiled.  But there is some problem with this.  The Book of Psalms may have been compiled in stages (e.g., many scholars think that Book 1, Psalms 1-41, may have been gathered into a single collection before some of the other psalms had been written).  Whatever the details, we do not know exactly when the compilation took place.  Hence we do not know exactly what other canonical books had already been written.

We may still proceed in a general way.  We read Psalm 22 in the light of the promise to David (2 Sam. 7:8-16) and its relation to the earlier promises through Abraham and Moses.  Then we understand that the people of Israel are represented preeminently by a king in the line of David.  The deficiencies and failures of David’s immediate descendants also point to the need for a perfect, righteous king who will truly establish David’s line forever.  Old Testament prophecies make it progressively clear that the hopes centered in David’s line will ultimately be fulfilled in a single great descendant, the Branch (Isa. 11:1-5, Zech. 6:12; see also Isa. 9:6-7).  The experiences of suffering, trust, and vindication expressed in Psalm 22 and other psalms we expect to be fulfilled in a climactic way in a messianic figure, the Branch, who is the kingly Davidic representative of all Israel.15

What the messianic mediator will be like becomes progressively revealed in the course of the Old Testament.  Yet, it is never made very clear just how the experience of the Messiah ties in with Psalm 22 in detail.  We know that Psalm 22 is related to the prophetic passages, but just how is not so clear.

Finally, let us consider Psalm 22 in the light of the completed canon.  In this light, we know that Christ has come to fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15), to fulfill all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20, Rom. 15:8, Luke 24:45-48).  We know too that Christ used the opening words of Psalm 22 when he was on the cross (Matt. 27:46).  This reference suggests that he is indicating the relevance of the whole psalm to himself.  If we remain in doubt, other New Testament passages assure us that that is indeed the case (Matt. 27:35; John 19:24; Heb. 2:12).

We proceed, then, to read through Psalm 22 afresh.  We compare it with the accounts of the crucifixion in the New Testament and with New Testament theology explaining the significance of Christ’s death.  We see that verses 12-18 Christ describes his own distress, and in verses 25-31 he expresses the “fruit of the travail of his soul” (Isa. 53:11), or the benefits that will follow.  In particular, certain details in the psalm which appeared to be simply metaphorical in the original Old Testament context strike home with particular vividness (Ps 22:16, 18).16


What Is “in” a Verse

Now let us ask, “What is the correct understanding of what God is saying in verses like Psalm 22:1, 16, 18?”  Is it the understanding that we gain from the first approach, or the understanding that we gain in considering the context of the whole Bible?  The answer, I think, is both.  If we simply confine ourselves to the immediate context, or even to the canon up through Psalms, we neglect what can be learned by reading the whole of the Bible as the Word of the single divine author.  On the other hand, if we simply confine ourselves to this third approach, we neglect the fact that God’s revelation was progressive.  We need to remember that God was interested in edifying people in Old Testament times.  Moreover, what he made clear and what he did not make so clear are both of interest to us because they show us the ways in which our own understanding agrees with and sometimes exceeds previous understanding, due to the progress in revelation and the progress in the execution of God’s redemptive program.

Moreover, certain dangers arise if we simply confine ourselves to only one approach.  If we neglect the first approach, we miss the advantage of having the control of a rigorous attention to the historical particulars associated with each text of the Bible.  Then we run the danger that our systematic understanding of the Bible as a whole, or our subjective hunches, will simply dictate what any particular text means.

On the other hand, if we neglect the third approach, we miss the advantage of having the rest of the Bible to control the inferences that we may draw in applying a particular text.  Perhaps we may refuse to apply the text at all, saying to ourselves, “It was just written for those people back there.”  Or we may apply it woodenly, not reckoning with the way in which it is qualified by the larger purposes of God.  We may miss the Christocentric character of the Bible, proclaimed in Luke 24:45-48.  We could refuse to see the particulars in the light of the whole and thus repeat an error of the Pharisees, who meticulously attended to detail but neglected “justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42).

These approaches combine in a way analogous to the way in which a human son combines earlier and later understandings of “Jesus Loves Me.”  There is a complex interplay.

But I think that we can be more precise.  There are several legitimate ways of organizing our research.  In a typical case of scholarly research, we may begin with the first approach as a control.  For Psalm 22, we focus narrowly on the original historical context and what is known within that context.  We do grammatical-historical exegesis as the foundation for all later systematizing reflection.  We try to avoid simply “reading in” our total knowledge of Scripture, or else we lose the opportunity for the Bible to criticize our views.  As a second, later step, we relate Psalm 22 to earlier canonical books and finally to the New Testament.  Whatever we find at this stage must harmonize with the results of the first approach.  But we come to additional insights and deeper understanding as we relate Psalm 22 to the New Testament.  These extra things are not “in” Psalm 22 in itself.  They are not somehow mystically hidden in the psalm, so that someone with some esoteric key to interpretation could have come up with them just by reading the psalm in isolation from the rest of the Bible.  Psalm 22 in itself gives us only what we get from the first approach.  The additional understandings arise from the relations that Psalm 22 has with earlier canonical books, with the New Testament, and with the events of Christ’s death.  These relations, established by God, provide the basis for our advancing in understanding.

Suppose, now, that we are not scholars ourselves, but that we have been Christians for many years.  Suppose that, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, we have been growing spiritually and studying the Bible diligently for the whole time.  From our pastors and from other scholarly sources we have gained some knowledge of Old and New Testament times, but not elaborate knowledge.  But we have gained a thorough knowledge of the Bible as a whole.  Much of this knowledge might be called unconscious or subconscious knowledge.  Especially when it is a matter of large themes of the Bible, we may not be able to say clearly what we know or exactly what texts of the Bible have given us our knowledge.

When we read Psalm 22, we read it against the background of all that unconscious knowledge of biblical truths.  When we see the opening words in verse 1, we naturally assume that the psalm speaks of Christ’s suffering.  We read the rest of the psalm as a psalm about Christ.  In each verse we see Christ’s love, his suffering, and his rejection by his enemies.

The results we gain may be very similar to the results gained by scholars who go through all the distinct “steps.”  But scholars know that their understanding arises from the relations of Psalm 22 to the rest of the Bible.  They self-consciously distinguish between what arises from the psalm viewed more or less in itself and what arises from other passages of the Bible as they illumine the significance of the psalm.  Laypeople may have the same results, but without being able to say exactly what all the stages were by which they could logically come to those results.

The psychological perception of what is “in” the text of Psalm 22 may also be different.  Lay readers are not consciously aware of the immense and important role played by our general knowledge of the rest of the Bible.  Hence it seems that all the depth of insight that laypeople receive as they read Psalm 22 comes from the psalm itself.  It is all “in” the psalm.  By contrast, the scholar knows where things come from and prefers to speak of the depth of insight as arising from the relations between many, many individual texts of the whole Bible, as these are brought systematically into relation to Psalm 22.

But now consider once more the central question: What is God saying in Psalm 22?  He is saying what he said to the original Old Testament readers of the psalm.  He speaks the truth to them.  Hence, scholars are correct in taking care to distinguish what comes from the psalm itself and what comes from the psalm seen in the light of the whole Bible.

But God also intends that we should read Psalm 22 in the light of the rest of what he says.  Scholars are correct in going on to a second stage, in which they relate the psalm to the whole Bible.  And laypeople are correct when they do the same thing.  Of course, we must suppose that the laypeople are sober, godly readers, well versed in the Scripture.  Then, as they read Psalm 22, all the depth that they receive is a depth that God intends them to receive.  God is saying all that richness to them as they read.  But that means that their psychological and spiritual perception is correct.  All that richness is “in” the psalm as a speech that God is speaking to them now.

Hence, I believe that we are confronted with an extremely complex and rich process of communication from God.  The scholarly psychological process of making the distinctions is important as a check and refinement of laypeople’s understanding.  But that lay understanding, at its best, is not to be despised.  We are not to be elitists who insist that everyone become a self-conscious scholar in reading the Bible.  Laypeople have a correct perception, even psychologically, of what God intends a passage like Psalm 22 to say.  God does say more, now, through that passage, than he said to the Old Testament readers.  The “more” arises from our present stage of fuller revelation and consequent fuller illumination of the Holy Spirit.

In this entire process, we have no need to postulate an extra, “mystical” sense.  That is, we do not postulate an extra meaning which we can uncover only by using some esoteric hermeneutical method.  Rather, our understanding is analogous to the way that a son’s understanding of “Jesus Loves Me” arises and grows.  At the end of a long period of reading and digesting a rich communication, we see each particular part of the communication through eyes of knowledge that have been enlightened by the whole.  Through that enlightenment, each part of the whole is rich.

Our reflections up to this point also throw light on some of the problems arising from New Testament interpretation of  the Old.17  I would claim that the New Testament authors characteristically do not aim merely at grammatical-historical exegesis of the Old Testament.  If we expect this of them, we expect something too narrow and pedantic.  The New Testament authors are not scholars but church leaders.  They are interested in showing how Old Testament passages apply to the church and to their present situation.  Hence, when they discuss an Old Testament text, they consider it in the light of the rest of the Old Testament, the events of salvation that God has accomplished in Christ, and the teaching of Jesus himself during his earthly life.  They bring all this knowledge to bear on their situation, in the light of all that they know about that situation.  In this process they are not concerned, as scholars would be, to distinguish with nicety all the various sources that contribute to their understanding.  Both they and their readers typically presuppose the context of later revelation.  Hence, what they say using an Old Testament passage may not always be based on the text alone but may exploit relations that the text has with this greater context.  There is nothing odd about this process, any more than there is anything odd about laypeople who read Psalm 22 in the light of their knowledge of the whole of Scripture.


Scholarly Use of Grammatical-Historical Exegesis

In conclusion, let us ask what implications we may draw concerning scholarly grammatical-historical exegesis, that is, an approach like the first one, which self-consciously focuses on each biblical book as a product of a human author, in a particular historical setting.  On the positive side, we have seen that grammatical-historical exegesis has an important illumining role.  Several points can be mentioned.

First, in writing the Bible, God spoke to people in human language, in human situations, through human authors.  God himself in the Bible indicates that we should pay attention to these human factors in order to understand what he is saying and doing.

Second, on a practical level, grammatical-historical exegesis serves to warn the church against being swallowed up by traditionalism, in which people merely read in a system of understanding that afterward is read out.  It alerts us to nuances in meaning that we otherwise overlook or even misread.

Third, it serves to sensitize us to the genuinely progressive character of revelation.  God did not say everything all at once.  We understand him better the more we appreciate the wisdom involved in the partial and preliminary character of what came earlier (Heb. 1:1).

On the other hand, responsible biblical interpretation includes more than grammatical-historical exegesis.  First, if grammatical-historical exegesis pretends to pay attention to the human author alone, it distorts the nature of the human author’s intention.  Whether or not they were perfectly self-conscious about it, the human authors intended that their words should be received as the words of the Spirit.

Second, it is legitimate to explore the relations between what God says in all the parts of the Bible.  When we perform such a synthesis, what we conclude may go beyond what we could derive from any one text in isolation.  Yet, it should not be in tension with the results of a narrow grammatical-historical exegesis.  Of course, sometimes because of the limitations of our knowledge, we may find no way to resolve all tensions.

Third, we are not to despise laypeople’s understanding of the Bible.  We are not to reject it just because on the surface it appears to “read in” too much.  Of course, laypeople may sometimes have overworked imaginations.  But sometimes their conclusions may be the result of a synthesis of Bible knowledge due to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Scholars cannot reject such a possibility without having achieved a profound synthetic and even practical knowledge of the Bible for themselves.

Finally, when later human writers of Scripture interpret earlier parts of Scripture, they typically do so without making fine scholarly distinctions concerning the basis of their knowledge.  Hence we ought not to require them to confine themselves to a narrow grammatical-historical exegesis.  In many respects their interpretations may be similar to valid uses of Scripture by nonscholars today.



1 This chapter is a condensation of “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986): 241-79.  Readers interested in a fuller exposition of my view should consult this article.

2 Darrell Bock, “Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New,” Bibliotheca Sacra 142 (1985): 209-23.

 Elliott Johnson, however, wishes to express this “more” as more references (“references plenior”), not as more sense (“sensus plenior”).

4 See, e.g., Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979), p. 246: “In prophecy what the symbol intends is identical with what God, for whom the prophet speaks, intends.  This may enter the prophet’s own horizon only partially and imperfectly.”

5 Abraham Kuyper notices some of these differences and argues for a division into the categories of lyric, chokmatic (i.e., wisdom), prophetic, and apostolic inspiration (Principles of Sacred Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968], pp. 520-544, the section entitled “The Forms of Inspiration”).

6 See Peter R. Jones, “The Apostle Paul: A Second Moses according to II Corinthians 2:14-4:7,” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1974); idem, “The Apostle Paul: Second Moses to the New Covenant Community, a Study in Pauline Apostolic Authority,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), pp. 219-44.

7 See Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), pp. 47-51.

8 Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1945), p. 30.

9 This point is rightly emphasized in Kaiser, Exegetical Theology, pp. 79-83.

10 My approach is virtually identical with that of Bruce K. Waltke, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms,” in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, ed. John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg (Chicago: Moody, 1981), pp. 3-18.  My arguments rest more on the general features of communication, whereas Waltke’s arguments rely more on the concrete texture of Old Testament revelation.  Hence the two articles should be seen as complementary.  See also William Sanford LaSor, “The Sensus Plenior and Biblical Interpretation,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation, ed. W. Ward Gasque and William Sanford LaSor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 260-77.

11 Waltke, “A Canonical Process Approach,” 9.

12 See Charles A. Briggs and Emilie G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms (2 vols.; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1906), 1:196-97; A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms (2 vols.; London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972), 1:190-91; Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (London: Inter-Varsity, 1973), pp. 107-8; Joseph A. Alexander, The Psalms (1864; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), pp. 101-3.  Commentators have some disagreements over the details of the picture, particularly over the interpretation of v. 16, “they have pierced my hands and feet.”  But it is clear that, in the original context, the speech is dominated by metaphorical comparisons between the psalmist’s enemies and fierce animals.

13 We need not at this point discuss whether the superscriptions are inspired.

14 See, e.g., Anderson, Psalms 1:30.

15 See Waltke, “Canonical Process Approach,” pp. 10-14.

16 See Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 107: “While verses 14, 15, taken alone, could describe merely a desperate illness, the context is of collective animosity and the symptoms could be those of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion; in fact verses 16-18 had to wait for that event to unfold their meaning with any clarity.”  Many commentators in the classical historical-critical tradition, by contrast, refuse in principle to let the New Testament cast further light on the implications of the verses because they do not allow the principle of unified divine authorship to exercise an influence on interpretation.

17 Note similar concerns in the discussion of sensus plenior in Raymond E. Brown, “The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture,” Ph.D. diss., St. Mary’s University, 1955, pp. 68-71.


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