Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics J. I. Packer

Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics

J. I. Packer

Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics J. I. Packer pantokrator


When some two thousand English evangelical leaders met in 1977, one session was given to hermeneutics. The preconference paper and the conference presentation were most competently done, yet many saw nothing of importance in the subject, and it became a conference joke to refer to “Herman Eutics” as the latest in a line of esoteric continental theologians. Maybe there are still Evangelicals for whom hermeneutics is a new and uncouth word denoting a latter-day academic triviality. But the theologically informed are likely to agree with Carl F. H. Henry’s judgment: “The key intellectual issue for the ‘80s, as I see it, will still be the persistent problem of authority. It will concern especially the problem of hermeneutics.”1

The truth is that ever since Karl Barth linked his version of Reformation teaching on biblical authority with a method of interpretation that at key points led away from Reformation beliefs, hermeneutics has been the real heart of the ongoing debate about Scripture. Barth was always clear that every theology stands or falls as a hermeneutic and every hermeneutic stands or falls as a theology, but it took others some time to catch up with this insight. In the English-speaking Protestant world the past hundred years appear as three eras of roughly equal length, during which the formal agenda for discussing the Bible has centred successively on inspiration (in the days before Barth),2 revelation (in the heyday of Barth),3 and interpretation (in the years since Barth).4 Hermeneutics embraces this latter theme, integrating it into a theology of divine communication and God-given understanding through an appropriate intellectual process. The present-day awareness that hermeneutics is a matter of central theological importance began with Bultmann and his followers in the 1940s and since then has become steadily more marked in both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholarship.

This concentration on hermeneutics is from at least one standpoint healthy. By focusing on God’s work of communicating with people here and now through the Scriptures it rules out that against which Barth so strongly battled—namely, highlighting the givenness of Scripture in a way that loses sight of its instrumentality. Honoring the Bible as embodying what God said to mankind long ago while failing to listen to it as God’s word to us in the present will not do, said Barth. Whether or not one finds this fault in the writers in whom Barth claimed to detect it (the seventeenth-century Protestant scholastics, for instance), and whether one accepts much or little of Barth’s own account of Scripture,5 there can surely be no question that he was right to make central the Bible’s instrumental function of mediating God’s revealed mind to each generation of the church. Now when Evangelicals have debated inspiration, revelation, and interpretation with exponents of liberalism and neoorthodoxy, they also have shown themselves anxious that Scripture be free to function, both in public worship and in the closet, as the means by which God’s message is heard in pure and undiminished form, and it has been apparent that one main reason why they have joined battle has been their conviction that the positions they oppose would prevent Scripture from doing this. Motivationally, therefore, Barth and mainstream evangelicalism were not far apart, though each censured the other’s views as tending to keep the Bible from so functioning.6 Bultmann, too, shared with Evangelicals a concern that the Word of God be heard today, though Evangelicals have judged that his account of revelation makes this formally impossible.7 So it seems to follow that the current avowed shift of the biblical debate to hermeneutics as its central focus, even if made under the influence of views that Evangelicals do not accept, is a move that Evangelicals can welcome, since it makes explicit their concern that the divine message be heard (something that Evangelicals themselves have not always managed to do) and calls on all parties to the discussion to identify with that concern.

For Evangelicals biblical authority does in fact mean Scripture communicating instruction from God about belief and behavior, the way of faith and obedience, and the life of worship and witness. The avowed rationale of evangelical controversy with liberalism on the one hand and catholicism on the other has always been that disbelief or misbelief of what Scripture actually says blots out some of that knowledge of God’s grace and some of that understanding of His will, which better belief—truer belief, that is, about the Bible and its God—would bring. In other words, Evangelicals have been fighting not just for orthodoxy, but for religion; not just for purity of confession, but for fullness of faith and life; not just for God’s truth as such, but for the godliness that is a response to it. Certainly, much of the recent argument has focused on whether skeptical theories about the origin and nature of biblical books are true and whether skeptical and incoherent exegeses of particular passages are sound, and no doubt some evangelical controversialists have been so bogged down in these debates that they have failed to articulate their concern for biblical godliness. No doubt, too, the heritage of seventeenth-century Protestant scholasticism, Lutheran and Reformed, with its characteristic if questionable stress on epistemological certainty as the basis of authority and on conceptual clarity as the basis of epistemological certainty, has had its effect in shaping evangelical responses to the anti-intellectual subjectivism of liberals and existentialists, making it seem on occasion that an intellectualist orthodoxy was all that Evangelicals cared about. But today’s evangelicalism was not nurtured in last-century pietism for nothing, and the concern for godliness has always been there, whether or not it has always broken surface in debate.8 The least acquaintance with the history of evangelical preaching and organizations for ministry and outreach over the past century shows this.9 The concern continues and this is why Evangelicals continue to spend their strength contending for the authority of an infallible Bible as a basic principle of Christianity.10


I am generalizing in a broad way about evangelicalism; it will be well, I think, at this point to specify precisely what it is that I refer to. By evangelicalism I mean that multidenominational Protestant constituency within the world-wide church that combines acknowledgment of the trustworthiness, sufficiency, and divine authority of the Bible with adherence to the New Testament account of the gospel of Christ and the way of faith in Him. Characteristic of evangelicalism is its claim that the conceptual categories, arguments, and analyses in terms of which biblical authors present to us God, man, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Satan, sin, salvation, the church, and all else on which they give teaching are in truth God-taught and so have abiding validity. This is not to say that Evangelicals hesitate to acknowledge biblical imagery, symbols, parables, and other pictorial literary forms for what they are; in fact, they do not so hesitate;11 but equally they do not allow themselves to forget that these literary forms are communicating thoughts, and the thoughts, whether indicative or imperative, evaluative, evocative, performative, or interrogative, are set before Bible readers by God Himself. Evangelicalism recognizes that all the church’s formulations of God’s truth, being to some extent culturally determined, are bound to lack finality and to need augmenting and qualifying from time to time. Evangelicalism recognizes too that God’s revealed and universally valid teaching in Scripture, given as it was over many centuries in a slowly but surely changing Near Eastern cultural milieu, has to be unshelled from the local particularities in which we find it embedded in order that it may be reapplied today in terms of our own culture. Legal interpretation in a contemporary context of ancient but still binding statutes—for example, the British laws of 1677 and 1781 requiring public observance of the Lord’s Day, or those of 1558 and 1698 forbidding public blasphemy, all of which are still invoked on occasion—present the nearest parallel to this reapplication procedure. But, while seeking to do full justice to both the above insights, evangelicalism rejects on principle all forms of dogmatic theological relativism, as the fruit of the fundamental mistake of not taking biblical instruction, as such, to be the Word of God.12

Evangelicalism’s theology, with all its local and in-house variants, is (at least in intention and idea, if not always in perfect achievement) a body of tenets, attitudes, and approaches drawn from the biblical documents by allowing them to speak for themselves in terms of their own interests, viewpoints, and emphases; in other words, by a method that is thoroughly and consistently a posteriori. The method has been called “grammatico-historical,” as a pointer to the techniques involved; it could equally well be called the a posteriori method, in virtue of its purpose of reading out of Scripture what is there in each author’s expressed meaning and of avoiding reading into it at any point what is not there in that sense. Use of this method over four and a half centuries has produced a relatively stable form of theology that centers on the sovereign, speaking God; the divine, sin-bearing, risen, reigning, returning Christ; the divine forgiveness and reconciliation of sinners through Christ’s cross, and their adoption into God’s family; the work of the Holy Spirit mediating communion with God in Christ by faith through word and sacrament; the spiritual character of the church, as consisting in idea, at any rate, of born-again believers; and unending glory with Christ and His people as every Christian’s sure and certain hope.13 Yet while this theology is confessed and taught catechetically as if it were fixed and irreformable, Evangelicals know that it remains open to testing, correction, and augmentation by the light of those Scriptures whose message it seeks to focus. As a matter of fact, its faithfulness and fullness in spelling out the biblical message are constantly being reviewed and assessed by evangelical theologians,14 and there are today many specific issues on which, despite their unity of method and approach, Evangelicals are far from being at one.


Sometimes, however, the perception that Evangelicals have no perfectly unified answers to some questions of truth and duty is alleged to show, not that some (at least) of our minds are gripped by unbiblical a prioris and distorting influences, or are not well informed about that on which we try to pass biblical judgments,15 but rather, of that, as liberal theology has long maintained, the method of appeal and submission to Scripture, no matter how carefully pursued, is intrinsically unable to produce certainty. Why not? Either (it is thought) because there is an ultimate pluralism in biblical teaching16 or because it is really impossible for us to enter into and identify with the thoughts of people belonging to a past so remote from us as is the biblical period17 or because modern insight into the hermeneutical process shows that different things are conveyed to different people by the same texts, depending on where those people are coming from and what experience and questions they bring with them18 or (of course) for more than one of these reasons, perhaps all three together.

The idea that evangelical disagreements about biblical teaching might reflect some radical obscurity, or outright incoherence, or at least a Delphic sort of ambiguity, running throughout Scripture, cannot but disturb. Ought we then to conclude that when the Reformers affirmed the intrinsic clarity of Scripture in presenting its central message, they were wrong and that the many millions who down the centuries have lived and died by the light of what they took to be divinely taught certainties were self-deceived? Must we say that no such certainties are available to us, nor ever were to anyone? That is what this idea, if accepted, would imply. But the notion is gratuitous, as can be shown in a number of ways.

Granted, to start with, differences of conceptual resource and verbal expression do in fact mark one biblical writer from another, revealing differences in background, brains, and breadth of experience. But it has yet to be proved that things said in different ways at different times by different people are necessarily inconsistent with each other in substantive meaning. The appropriate test here is not whether the same vocabulary is used, but whether the logical and ontological implications of the different statements clash. It is, after all, possible to say the same thing in more than one way. Thus, Paul, John, and the writer to the Hebrews (for example) are three remarkably individual and strong-minded authors, each with his own distinctive way of putting things and not, so far as we can tell, dependent on either of the other two; yet the implications for thought and life of their three presentations of Christ prove to tally exactly. Plurality in presentation does not in this case involve pluralism in substance. The different theological accounts are complementary, not contradictory, and theories that affirm the opposite prove on inspection to be arbitrary and needless. The fashionable notion that different wording must always imply different and incompatible content should therefore be dismissed as a mistake.19

Granted again, different people in different situations find the same Scripture passages bringing them illumination from God in different ways and with different specific messages. (Think, for instance, of the many different human contexts in which down the centuries Psalm 23 will have brought reassurance from God.) But it has yet to be shown that the historico-theological meaning of each text that is applied for reassurance and guidance today does not continue to be identical. Some, to be sure, with Karl Barth, deny that Scripture offers general principles of truth for specific application and think rather in terms of a series of distinct divine “words” emerging from time to time through theological exegesis within the often wide parameters of meaning that texts prove to have when studied in the light of this or that student’s questions, and in terms of canonical Scripture as a whole.20 But Barth’s is not the only possible way to “model” the instrumentality of Scripture as God’s means of communicating with us, and it may not be invoked a priori against the view mentioned earlier, which “models” this instrumentality by reference to the way in which ancient laws continue to be valid and applicable. What this latter view claims is that the historico-theological sense of each text, given and fixed by the thought-flow of which it is part, is illustration or application or apprehension (or, in some cases, misapprehension, recorded as such) of some universal truth about God which, once discerned, must then be reapplied today to yield evaluations and imperatives in our own situation. Applications vary with situations, but (so it is claimed) the core truths about God’s work, will, and ways that each biblical book teaches, and that God Himself thereby teaches, remain both constant in themselves (for God does not change!) and permanently accessible to the careful exegete.

Thus, on this older, currently unfashionable but arguably truer view the manifold applications of the same Scriptures to different people do not in the least imply an ultimate pluralism in their teaching. But Barth’s approach to exegesis, which appears to build on God’s freedom to “say” different things to different people at different times out of the same words of human witness to Him, has naturally and inevitably led to what Kelsey calls “the unprecedented theological pluralism marking the neo-orthodox era.”21 This pluralism is something that, if I am right, future generations will see as the direct result of the hermeneutical Achilles’ heel in Barth’s epoch-making and formally correct reassertion of the authority of the Bible as God’s channel of communication to sinful men.

Third, we may grant at once that there are in Scripture many points of exegetical detail on which a confident choice between competing options is almost if not quite impossible (whether, for instance, we should read Genesis 1 as matter-of-factly informing us that this planet was put into shape in 144 hours, or as allegorical science in which each “day” is a geological epoch, or as a quasi-liturgical celebration of the fact and quality of creation with no chronological and scientific implications at all). But it has yet to be shown that the theological content of this or any other part of Scripture as instruction to us from God about Himself and His relation to people and things is in any way rendered uncertain by the existence of more than one possibility of interpretation here and there.22 One can master the argument of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and still be unsure of the precise meaning of occasional sentences in it; and similarly with the Bible.

In the fourth place, we may also readily grant that the cultural trappings of the urbanized, technologized West of today are very different from those of the rural and pastoral Near East in the two millennia before Christ and also from those of Hellenistic towns in the first century a.d.—the worlds from which came our Old and New Testaments respectively. We grant too—indeed, we insist on our own account—that noting the distance between their worlds and ours with regard to manners, customs, expectations, and assumptions about life is very necessary in interpreting Scripture, just as it is in all study of ancient documents that present to us people of the past. To think of Jesus, or Socrates, or Julius Caesar, or the Buddha as if he were a man of our time and never to ask what was involved for him in being a man of his own time is bound to issue in grotesque misunderstanding.23 There is good reason to inquire, as Dennis Nineham does, how deep, intellectually and emotionally, the convictional and attitudinal differences between people of ancient cultures and those of modern cultures go and to stress the human magnitude of these differences. It has yet, however, to be shown that the differences are so radical as to make Bible people and their writings unintelligible to us. This is what Nineham seems to claim,24 but his claim is surely inadmissible.

Nineham’s writing on this theme is consistently cloudy, for in it Nineham the disciplined and confident historical exegete is constantly at war with Nineham the impressionistic and skeptical theological phenomenologist. However, part of his thought plainly is that as children of a culture of positivist type, with antisupernatural, antimiraculous presuppositions (he would not say prejudices, though others might), we (he means people like himself) cannot see much of biblical theism as “making sense,” that is, seeming to be true. To that it is surely proper to reply that one of the jobs the Bible does is to challenge and undercut “modern” positivistic deism, panentheism, and atheism, just as it challenged and undercut the then “modern” polytheistic paganism of the Greco-Roman world in the first Christian centuries. Presuppositional errors of cultures need to be nailed no less firmly than those of individuals. But it is also part of Nineham’s view that any who suppose themselves to empathize genuinely with Bible folk and to identify with their outlook, struggles, trials, and triumphs are fooling themselves. Across so great a cultural divide as that which separates us from the New Testament community (let alone Old Testament believers), empathy is, so he says, for the most part impossible. We cannot by imagination put ourselves into their shoes; their experience, shaped by their culture, was too far outside ours; we cannot really conceive how they ticked, and when we read what they wrote, we cannot really enter into what they are expressing. This part of Nineham’s thesis seems to be, to speak plainly, nonsense. Not only is there a lack of expert opinion from the field of sociology of knowledge to back it; not only is it incapable in principle of being proved (for there is no way to prove a universal negative); it also strikes at all who have ever claimed to understand any ancient religion or literature, whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, or whatever. For my part, I think it nonsense not only because I have heard and read so much modern material (including some pieces by Nineham!) that seems to me to show real empathy with Bible writers and real understanding of their minds; nor only because I seem to find in myself some small measure of this same empathy and understanding; but also because I seem to myself to empathize in a meaningful way with Catullus’s experience of eros (to say nothing of that celebrated in Canticles!), with Aeschylus’s vision of celestial nemesis for human hubris, with Sophocles’ cosmic pessimism, with Homer’s celebrations of heroism and fidelity, and with much else in classical literature—all of which is older than the New Testament, and none of which would I be able to enter into at all if Nineham’s claim about cultural distance causing unintelligibility were right.

The truth seems to be rather that, as most people have always thought, what is deepest in human experience is also most universal and that such experiences as loving a spouse, admiring a hero, feeling the pity and terror of tragedy, and knowing the unchanging God are among the deepest of all, so that in principle they are the most fully communicable across historical and cultural divides to those who are capable of tuning in to such things (as in every generation everywhere some are and some are not).

I see no reason, then, to entertain Ninehamite skepticism about the possibility of understanding what the Bible writers expressed—that which, on the evangelical view, God is still showing and telling the world through their writings. I see only strong reasons to reject Nineham’s idea as the sort of absurdity that it takes a very clever man to think of.

So we may conclude that such arguments as are currently offered to prove the intrinsic incoherence, ambiguity, or unintelligibility of Scripture, as instruction from God concerning God and life with Him, are very far from successful.25

The contention, however, that the hermeneutical process, as nowadays understood, makes it impossible to draw from Scripture universally valid truths and commands raises more issues than we have yet discussed, and to these we now turn.


What is hermeneutics? Since different hermeneuts today understand what they are doing in different ways (as is natural, since they are often in fact doing different things), only a formal definition can be offered at first. The formal definition is that hermeneutics is the theory of biblical interpretation or (putting it the other way round) the study of the process whereby the Bible speaks to us (from God, as Christians believe). Literary interpretation as such (and the Bible is, of course, literature) can be defined as the way of reading documents that shows their relevance for the reader. In line with this, biblical interpretation has always been conceived as the way of reading the historic Scriptures—a way that makes plain God’s message being conveyed through them to Christians and the church. But as soon as it is asked what that message is, how it is related to the biblical text, and how people ever come to understand it, the ways divide. Hence the current tensions and uncertainties about hermeneutics, which we must now survey.

Before the nineteenth century no significant Christian thinkers questioned that Scripture is essentially a corpus of God-given instruction relating to Jesus Christ, and all interpretation proceeded on this basis. Bernard of Clairvaux’s allegorizing of Canticles in the manner of Origen, and Calvin’s practice of a posteriori historico-theological exegesis on Renaissance lines (so diligent that Old Testament commentaries were criticized as Judaic rather than Christian)26 were at one here. The word hermeneutic(s)—from the Greek hermēneuō, which can mean verbalize, translate, and explain27—entered Protestant theology in the seventeenth century as a label for techniques of what would nowadays be called exegesis and exposition.28 However, Kant’s rationalistic dismissal of the idea of God-given instruction, followed by Schleiermacher’s romantic reconceiving of theology even in the New Testament as a verbal expression of the church’s corporate sense of God-relatedness, changed the scene in a fundamental way. Instead of seeking in Scripture the abiding message of the eternal God, interpreters now practiced reading the biblical books as human religious documents, as so many items in the ongoing flow of mankind’s religious history. Schleiermacher, and Dilthey after him, urged that all literary hermeneutics, biblical interpretation included, is essentially the quest for an imaginative understanding of the author and that along with linguistic and historical knowledge for construing his scripts must go empathy with him, or else understanding is not gained. “Understanding” here, we should note, means something distinct from a logical grasp of the writer’s assertions and their implications; these thinkers viewed it, rather, as a communion of souls across the ages (the very thing that Nineham regards as impossible).29 The assumption was that when you could see how the writer ticked, and in that sense had got inside his experience, the interpretative task was done.

Now this assumption, though mistaken, should not be dismissed as if there was no truth in it at all. Empathy of the described sort is in fact extremely important in exegesis, since the way into the revealed mind of God is via the expressed minds of His human spokesmen and penmen, and feelings, attitudes, and dispositions are as much part of the personal “mind” that each of them expresses as are logical arguments and analyses. The affirmations about God and man made by biblical prophets, apostles, poets, and narrators may be logically detachable from their human and historical context, but to get their full force we have to appreciate them as the compound products of insight and ratiocination—temperamentally, emotionally, and attitudinally conditioned—which humanly speaking they are, and we must elucidate and learn from them accordingly. This is not, of course to deny the revelatory status of what the writers say. What is being affirmed is rather this, that what constitutes God’s revelation is precisely what they themselves mean by their own statements in the total context and flow of their discourse, as distinct from the certainly narrower and perhaps unauthentic, anachronistic meaning that might be inferred from those statements if taken out of that context and set in a new one (say, a collection of texts from all over the Bible on one doctrinal theme). If, for instance, God’s statement through Malachi, “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6), which in context is part of the faithful covenant-keeper’s indignant plea to His inconstant people, were quoted as illustrating classical theism’s developed metaphysical concept of God’s intrinsic immutability, it would be a mistake.

What has been said carries important lessons. First, it shows the danger of citing proof texts without exegeting them in their context to make sure that they do in fact prove the point at issue. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with citing proof texts, indeed everything is right about it, provided that this caveat is observed. Those who criticize and eschew the practice of proof-texting seem to forget that in idea theology is neither more nor less than an analytical and applicatory echo of the given Word of God. But proof texts misapplied because their key words suggest to the student something other than what they mean in their own context are profitless.

Second, what was said shows the danger in the evangelical habit, now some decades old, of describing God’s revelation as essentially propositional. This habit seems to have grown through negating the often-repeated claim of Emil Brunner and others that revelation is essentially not propositional but personal. The habit is dangerous, however, because revelation is (not less than, but) much more than propositional. It is in fact best, because truest, to agree with Brunner that revelation is indeed essentially personal, and then go on to say that this is why it is and had to be propositional: no person can make himself known to another without telling him things, and the God of Scripture does in fact appear as one who tells people things constantly.30 To set propositional and personal revelation in opposition to each other is therefore to enmesh oneself in a patently false antithesis. And then, by accepting the thought that revelation is person-to-person communication (personal self-disclosure in and through the giving of information about oneself), we are enabled to recognize that revelation is embodied not only in propositions relayed by God’s spokesmen on His behalf, but also in the attitudes, wishes, invitations, appeals, and reactions that they expressed by the way they put things. For these, no less than their propositional statements of fact, are revelations of God from God by God—to echo a famous formula of Karl Barth.

So divine revelation should not be thought of as if it were the kind of depersonalized conveying of information that one finds in official memoranda or company reports. Whether operating through verbal utterance, vision, sign, miracle, providence, or any other means, God’s revelation was and is His personal self-disclosure, to which the only proper response is faith, worship, and obedience. Revelation is essentially God revealing God, as was said.

Now, the basic form of God’s self-disclosure, as reported in Scripture, was His direct speech: speech to and through patriarchs and prophets (including apostles), who were no strangers to the prophetic experience of God’s direct speech,31 and supremely from the lips of His incarnate Son. In this direct speech God conveyed not only general truths about His work and will, but also His personal relational involvement in joy or sorrow, love or anger, with those to whom He spoke. When biblical historians and teachers wrote on God’s behalf to edify their readers by instructing them about God’s doings in creation, providence, and grace, and when biblical poets celebrated and responded to the glorious things that they knew about Him, seeking thereby to shape aright the faith, praise, and praying of God’s people, it was of course, speaking grammatically, not God’s direct speech but their own that they put on paper; yet the New Testament writers again and again cite this material, whatever its literary genre, as God’s direct speech substantively, as if He were the historian, teacher, or poet, just as they cite prophetic oracles as God’s direct speech.32 Their view of the entire Old Testament clearly was that, as B.B. Warfield echoing Augustine put it, what Scripture says God says.33 But to take this strand of biblical theology seriously obliges us to treat the writers’ expressed feelings and attitudes to those to or about whom they wrote in God’s name as reflecting God’s own, just as it obliges us to treat their own expressed feelings and attitudes toward God as God-given models of dispositions that He wants us to cultivate, as honoring Him. In the case of the Psalms, at any rate, the worshiping church has always understood this, though the point has not always received clear theological formulation. In truth, however, it is a point that applies to all Scripture, as such.

It is thus a necessary part of the interpreter’s task to understand each human writer’s purpose of correcting and directing his readers as God’s own purpose expressed through him, and to universalize each writer’s attitudes toward the specific people to whom or of whom he writes as indicating God’s own attitudes now as then toward all whose moral and spiritual dispositions correspond with theirs. To do this is simply to practice grammatico-historical interpretation as the great Reformers did, in a manner free from that cultivated detachment that became a cramping convention in academic Bible work, even that of the Reformers’ most faithful heirs, about a century and a half ago. Called, or rather miscalled, “objectivity,” this convention is based on the idea that the natural sciences provide a proper model for all historical and factual inquiry and that students can and should stand apart from all the existential involvements of those they study. To accept this idea (which really has nothing to do with the fact-finding and interpretative techniques of “critical” scholarship as such) is to cast a vote for the professorial ideal that Kierkegaard lampooned and against Kierkegaard’s own ideal of “passion” in the sense of committedness. In fact, the convention of “objectivity” has blighted technical study of Scripture with theological unreality for too long; it is high time that awareness of the text as God here and now addressing us, its latter-day readers, and teaching us from it, challenging us by law and gospel, promise and command, gift and claim, should once more come to inform professional biblical studies in the church. The desire to recover this awareness fuels present-day hermeneutical discussion,34 and we should be glad that it does. But if, as I am arguing, the first step in the actual receiving of God’s instruction in these matters is to comprehend, not just the public facts but also the personal thoughts and feelings concerning them, both evaluative and reactive, that each writer expressed, then some measure of what I have called “empathy” (what Dilthey called Verwandtschaft, “affinity,” and Fuchs refers to as Einverständnis) is certainly needed; and we may well applaud Schleiermacher for underlining its importance.

Unhappily, as has been noted, Schleiermacher predicated this insight on the belief that God’s impact on people does not take the form of cognitive communication. Schleiermacher’s God stirs our feelings but does not tell us things. Schleiermacher conceptualized the impact of biblical and later Christian language on the model of ritual incantation that casts an emotional spell rather than of person-to-person communication that informs. He read Scripture, dogma, and theology as religious feeling evocatively verbalized, just as his English contemporary and fellow-romantic William Wordsworth, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, asked that his poetry be read as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” As a romantic valuing sensitivity of response to actual and potential experiences above all, and committed to vindicate religious awareness as part of the good life, Schleiermacher the theologian naturally drew his hermeneutical model from the world of art and aesthetics, and equally naturally turned his back on models from the worlds of philosophy and law, where the conveying of public facts, arguments, and lines of thought is the essence of the communicative process. In every hermeneutic, the questions, what is being conveyed and how is it being conveyed, are answered together; from this standpoint a hermeneutic is like an ellipse with two foci. For Schleiermacher and those who have followed him, the beginning of the answer to the first question is that biblical material, whatever else it is, is not at any point or in any respect the relaying of divinely uttered instruction, even when its writers think and claim the contrary.35 And most of those who have in our day refocused attention on hermeneutics have done so on the basis of this same denial that Scripture is instruction about God from God, that it is, in other words, the Word of God in the sense in which all Christendom till the nineteenth century thought it was.

We inherit, therefore, a situation in which the phrase “the theory of biblical interpretation” means radically different things to different people.

Evangelicals, whose belief that Scripture is God’s message Kant and his successors did not destroy, continue to think of hermeneutics essentially as it was thought of in the seventeenth century. How was that? It was thought of as the study of rules and procedures that enable us to grasp first of all what Scripture meant as communication from its human writers speaking on God’s behalf to their own envisaged readers, and from that what it means for us—that is, how this instruction in faith, hope, and conduct, viewed as revelation from the unchanging God to all mankind, applies to our own present-day living, and what it tells us of God’s eternal plan, His unchanging Christ, the abiding realities of discipleship and godliness, and the way to assess cultural shifts that make the worlds of biblical experience look different from our own. Understanding of what Scripture means when applied to us—that is, of what God in Scripture is saying to and about us—comes only through the work of the sovereign Holy Spirit, who alone enables us to apprehend what God is and see what we are in His eyes. (This is a different point from that made above: the empathy of which I spoke enables us to grasp what Scripture meant, but it takes the Spirit’s enlightenment to show us what it means.) But this Spirit-given understanding comes by a rational process that can be stated, analyzed, and tested at each point. Therefore unanimity is always in principle possible, and in any age plurality of theological views, however inescapable and indeed stimulating in practice, must be seen as a sign of intellectual and/or spiritual deficiency in some if not all of God’s learning people. All evangelical treatments of the way to gain understanding of Scripture take this general position more or less explicitly.

To the mixed multitude of Schleiermacher’s spiritual children, however, hermeneutics means the study of an intrinsically enigmatic process whereby two separate-seeming things happen together. On the one hand we enter empathetically, so far as we can, into the personal existence of the Bible writers and the characters about whom they tell us, most notably Jesus Himself, who, despite the cultural gap between Him and us, which (so it is alleged) makes it impossible for us to endorse all His recorded beliefs—his view of Scripture, for instance, or of demons—nonetheless has significance for us as a model of basic ethico-religious attitudes.36 On the other hand, a change takes place within us as (to echo some) we come to feel compelling authority in aspects at least of the church’s sense of God and of the lifestyle that Jesus modeled, or (to follow the wording of others) we are met by God who changes our attitudes and commitments, our view of ourselves and of our world. Thus, in one way or another (so it is claimed) understanding dawns for us through the biblical text;37 yet its relation to our understanding of that text, and to the different personal understandings professed by others who follow this same approach, remains forever problematical because of the lack of coherence between the understandings that the text triggers and that which it expresses.

But this means that each of the personal understandings that purport to have been sparked off by the biblical text is more or less arbitrary—unless, indeed, we take refuge in illuminism and claim for each of them the status of a private revelation—an extent to which no theologian in the Schleiermacherian camp, whether old-fashioned liberal, neoorthodox or reconstructed liberal, seems to want to go. And it also follows that an ultimate pluralism of personal understandings is inescapable in principle. This is partly because, as exponents of this viewpoint since Bultmann have insisted, our varied “pre-understandings” (on which see below) program us toward conclusions that are also varied; but more basically it is because, as our analysis above has shown, denial that the biblical text communicates information from God about God leaves us with no objective test for evaluating conclusions save our own capacity to develop them into coherent and more or less comprehensive systems, to be introduced with such words as “I feel,” “it seems to me,” or, more existentially, “my proposal is …” (In fact, the most fitting introduction each time would be “I guess,” for this approach reduces all thinking about God to guesswork in the final analysis.) Examples of such systems are: the reconstructed gnosticism of Paul Tillich, in which religions coalesce and “Christ” is the therapeutic symbol that induces “new being”;38 the modified deism of Maurice Wiles, whose Jesus is human but whose God is perceived in and through values;39 the dynamic unitarianism of Geoffrey Lampe, for whom the incarnation of God is precisely the divine Spirit indwelling a man named Jesus;40 the dualistic existentialism of Bultmann, whose God acts (noncognitively) in the individual’s personal consciousness though not in the public, impersonal world of nature;41 the process theology of John Cobb and others, for whom God is finite love undergoing development.42 More examples could be given. It is plain that an endless succession of diverging personal theologies is unavoidable once the acknowledgment of Scripture teaching as revealed truth is given up.43

For both evangelical and Schleiermacherian hermeneutics, however, a major insight is focused by what Gadamer, following Heidegger, says of horizons.44 The insight is that at the heart of the hermeneutical process there is between the text and the interpreter a kind of interaction in which their respective panoramic views of things, angled and limited as these are, “engage” or “intersect”—in other words, appear as challenging each other in some way. What this means is that as the student questions the text he becomes aware that the text is also questioning him, showing him an alternative to what he took for granted, forcing him to rethink at fundamental level and make fresh decisions as to how he will act henceforth, now that he has realized that some do, and he himself could, approach things differently. Every interpreter needs to realize that he himself stands in a given historical context and tradition, just as his text does, and that only as he becomes aware of this can he avoid reading into the text assumptions from his own background that would deafen him to what the text itself has to say to him.

Exegetes have noted that several of Jesus’ parables have surprise endings that were meant to work in his hearers’ minds like the punch line of jokes, unveiling facts that suddenly put the situation in a new light and call for a fresh assessment, exploding one’s previous view of how things stood.45 A joke that does this perfectly is the following gem, I think from Woody Allen: “My first wife was very neurotic. One day she came into the bathroom when I was in the bath and sank all my boats.” Parables inducing the same sort of “double-take,” a shock of assumptions confounded as new facts about God are revealed, include the Pharisee and the publican (who went home justified!), the laborers in the vineyard (to all of whom the owner was equally generous!), and the two sons (whose father rejoiced more at the return of the scapegrace than at the steadiness of the good guy!).46 The devastating exchange into which Nathan drew David by telling him of the poor man’s ewe lamb (2 Sam. 12:1–10) was a dialogue version of the same communicative device, as is every good preacher’s regular trick of building up with seeming sympathy a description of the intellectual and moral position that his hearers occupy, in order then to fire off texts and arguments that slaughter it. This dénouement technique, as we may call it, is precisely a matter of getting the horizons of speaker and hearers suddenly to intersect in a way that forces on the latter a jolting reassessment of what before seemed clear, familiar, and fixed. It remains a block-busting resource for any communicator who knows how to use it. We thus can see that in focusing the fact that serious interpretation of anything, secular or sacred, involves dialoguing with and being vulnerable to the text, laying oneself and one’s present ideas open to it and being willing to be startled and to alter one’s view if what comes from the text seems so to require, Gadamer and those who follow him make a true and important point.

Important too is Gadamer’s insistence that “distancing” must precede “fusing” of horizons; that is, that we must become aware of the differences between the culture and thought-background out of which the words of the text come and that of our own thought and speech. Only so can we be saved from the particular naïveté that H. J. Cadbury pinpointed when he wrote The Peril of Modernizing Jesus.47 The naïveté consists of treating people and words from the past as if they belonged to the present, thus making it impossible to see them in their own world and have our own horizons extended or redrawn by the impact of what they actually meant. Popular Bible study and preaching easily go astray here—indeed one might almost say inherit a tradition of going astray here—and anyone who highlights the danger deserves our thanks.

Valuable however as these phenomenological (that is, descriptive and elucidatory) comments on the nature of the hermeneutical process are, they do nothing to narrow the theological Grand Canyon that yawns between the evangelical and the Schleiermacherian views of Scripture and hence of the knowledge of God that due interpretation of Scripture gives. In welcoming the insights that the current preoccupation with hermeneutics has yielded, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that “Scripture” is a word that to most of today’s hermeneutical pioneers means something radically different from what it means to Evangelicals who gratefully learn from them.


In our day the Schleiermacherian approach to Scripture, recast by Bultmann in existentialist form, has issued in the so-called “new hermeneutic” of Bultmann’s disciples, Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling.48 Logically and psychologically it appears to be the very end of the Schleiermacherian road, the ne plus ultra of that approach, and as such it merits at least a glance at this stage of our argument.

The first thing to say about it is that it builds on the ontology of the later Heidegger.49 On this view, the manner in which language yields understanding is not by directing our attention to objects (what semantic theory nowadays calls referents) in the way that mankind always thought. Understanding comes, rather, out of the heart or womb of language itself, and becomes ours through “letting language, from within language, speak to us.”50 For Heidegger, an antitheistic ex-Jesuit seminarian, self-disclosing being (Sein)—that is, being that consists precisely of what occurs in the event of its self-disclosure—is the final reality, and it is known and shown as such in the “primal thinking” and “primary speech” of “authentic” individuals. By this Heidegger means the sort of thought and speech found in poets, mystics, and Zen Buddhists,51 people who have become (as he puts it) mouthpieces and guardians of being, through whom being speaks. The message of such utterance is apparently received by a kind of divination, as one realizes that in the words one is hearing being itself is “addressing me.” Hermeneutics is thus the art of entry into the meaning of primary speech. It is remarkable how far Heidegger goes in ascribing ontological status to language as the “house” and “custodian” of being,52 in conceiving of being activistically as event rather than in static terms, and in personalizing being as a speaker busy in self-disclosure, to whose voice we must open ourselves.53 Perhaps this is another case of an odd view that only a very clever person would have been able to think up. Nonetheless, Heidegger’s influence, to the point of guruhood, on young metaphysical nihilists longing for cosmic disclosures has been very great.

But Alan Richardson’s comment is apt:

What Heidegger in fact does is to provide modern man with a secular parody of the Christian religion. Instead of God he speaks of being; instead of a revelation through the word of God he gives us the disclosure of being through the voice of being. Instead of faith we have primal thinking. Instead of Christ we read of man as “the shepherd of being.” Instead of a once-for-all victory over sin and death there is the individually repeated salvation from the dread of nothingness and from the futility of secondary thinking and unauthentic existence. Instead of the community of the redeemed there is a gnostic collection of individual primal thinkers. Instead of the fulfilment of man’s destiny as the goal of history (eschatology) there is only a disclosure or “event” of being.54

It would seem safe to say that Heidegger’s view of being and language, like the secular redemption-stories that Wagner wrote for his operas, would never have seen the light of day had not the author’s imagination been haunted by the Christian faith he denied.

Now what Fuchs and Ebeling do is theologize this Heideggerian ontology, replacing being by God, or rather giving Heidegger’s being the name of God, though otherwise leaving Him (it?) substantially unchanged. God is known, they say, in and by each “word-happening” (Wortgeschehen, Ebeling’s term) or “language-event” (Sprachereignis, Fuchs’s term) that the faith-full speech of the New Testament sparks off in those who read and hear it. Fuchs and Ebeling, like Bultmann, view preaching as the paradigm situation in which the word-event happens, and for them as for him the essence of it, when it does happen, is (not the receiving of instruction from God,55 but) the birth of a new “self-understanding” (Selbstverständnis)—that is, a new way of relating to one’s personal world. In Bultmann this “self-understanding” consisted of freedom from guilt and fear; Fuchs describes it as modeled on the faith of Jesus, by which he means Jesus’ renouncing of all self-assertion and security, His submission to whatever came as coming from God, and His commitment to unqualified love. (Remember, when evaluating Fuchs’s formula, that for him as for Bultmann Jesus is not God; faith is not cognitive, any more than it was for Schleiermacher; and the existentialist equation of individual committedness with authentic existence is axiomatic.) For both Fuchs and Ebeling theology is essentially hermeneutic, a mapping of the process whereby language-events happen and a delineating of the kind of “self-understanding” that results.

Fuchs complicates his picture by modeling the language-event exclusively on the way in which Jesus’ words, especially in His parables, with their unexpected endings, shattered the assumptions of conventional religious persons in the days of His flesh. His development of this, as Thiselton notes, leaves him unable to find “room in his hermeneutic for tradition, the church, or history after the event of the cross”56—or for Jesus’ historical resurrection (in which, as a good Bultmannian, he does not believe anyway). Faith to him is not and cannot be belief in Jesus as divine and risen, in the apostolic gospel as God’s own teaching about Jesus who died and rose, and in the church as “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15); in other words, it cannot be what it is in the epistles.57 Fuchs thus sentences himself, as P. J. Achtemeier puts it, “to defend a view of faith based on some portions of the New Testament from a view of faith based on other portions,”58 and to talk as if the word-event never happens except to folk who are not yet believers or who have lapsed from faith into a formalized, worldly religiosity. This is inept; yet the lopsidedness could perhaps be corrected without the collapse of Fuchs’s whole scheme. But two more damaging questions now arise.

  1. Can the new hermeneutic state the relation between what, on its view, comes to each individual from the biblical text in the language-event, and what the text meant historically—that is, what grammatico-historical exegesis finds in it? It seems not.

Fuchs is emphatic that in the word-event the interpreter is interpreted rather than the text.59 Pinnock does not overstate when he writes that for Fuchs “the text is in motion!… It stands in dynamic, existential relation with its interpreter, and may be interpreted [that is, may strike sparks off him] in the opposite way from that which the writer intended.”60 Fuchs can say this not only because, as a radical historical critic, he holds that some of what the Gospels report about Jesus was misunderstood on the way and hence misrepresented by the evangelists; his more basic thought is that in any case what the writers of Scripture express within their subject-object frame of reference does not relate directly to the impact of Scripture on us in the word-event, where the subject-object frame of reference is transcended. Fuchs evidently wants to ride both horses and have the impact of the text emerge somehow from critical-historical study of it, but his Heideggerian insistence that the word-event is on a different plane from subject-object thinking robs him of the right to affirm that restrictive connection.

It is important to be clear on what Fuchs has got himself into at this point. “Subject-object thinking, they [Heidegger and Fuchs] believe, as well as distancing man from reality also sets in motion a vicious circularity by evaluating one set of human concepts in terms of another.”61 Subject-object thinking, which was Heidegger’s phrase for the “I—it” way of conceptualizing reality that was practiced from Plato on in the West, here means holding to the principle that apprehension of the text’s message—the process that, with Gadamer and the new hermeneuts, we may well call the coming to speech of the reality (Sache)62—occurs within the limits and, one could say, on the rails laid down by what the text “objectively” means. (“Objectively” signifies historically, permanently, and publicly and “means” is a timeless present signifying “meant at and from the time of writing.”) When the new hermeneuts insist that the text is not a passive object, we may agree: the whole New Testament (to look no further) is preaching on paper, written to call forth assent and obedience from all who read it, and in acknowledging it, with the Old Testament, as divinely inspired we recognize that it is not only man’s preaching but God’s also,63 so that as the text’s historical meaning is applied to us God Himself addresses us. Scripture is thus an active object, since God who speaks it—that is, speaks in and through it, saying what it says—is an active subject. But this way of understanding how Scripture speaks God to us is not open to those who have given up belief that what Scripture says, God says, and for whom it has become important to affirm that much of what Scripture says God does not say; and all hermeneuts of Bultmann’s existentialist breed come in this category. They want to stress that God comes to people through Scripture to induce the new self-understanding, and one is glad that they do. But, since they think God is dumb and Scripture is only human witness, culturally determined, how can they give meaning and substance to their own point? Bultmann thought the new self-understanding would come as the New Testament was de- and re-mythologized according to his own announced rules. The snag in that, however, as is well known, was that it meant abandoning at the most crucial points the demonstrable meaning of the New Testament writers. Fuchs thinks the new self-understanding will emerge as the text is cut loose from the restraints of objective historical exegesis and thereby fully freed to interpret its interpreters. The snag in this, however, is that it sets us off and running along a path of fundamentally uncontrolled linguistic mysticism, in which, as it seems, almost anything could bring almost anything to speech. For the restraint of the text as object—i.e., as carrier of the precise meaning that its words are expressing—has been withdrawn, and Fuchs’s own account of what Christian faith is, being no more, in terms of his own theory, than his own personal self-understanding, cannot be determinative for the rest of us. It is evident that Fuchs does not see this, but it is also evident that his account of the language-event as transcending the subject-object way of thinking makes the above conclusion logically inevitable.

It is hard to be enthusiastic about Fuchs’s proposals. Surely it is arbitrary to treat as not significant for determining the nature of Christianity those major parts of the New Testament that consist of rational argument and systematic elucidation of theological concepts, in unambigously subject-object terms (Paul’s letters, Hebrews, John’s Gospel and first Epistle, for starters). Surely it is hazardous to assume that the New Testament interest in conceptualizing the faith was misdirected. Surely it is inadequate to reduce the whole New Testament message to the single formula: cease from self-assertion, practice and love instead.64 By making this reduction, Fuchs in effect lines up with those horrendous preachers who manage to extract the same sermon from every text; but such skill is no more respectable in professors than it is in pulpiteers! And, finally, surely it is a recipe for spiritual disaster to deny that the text’s historical meaning may be invoked to determine the authenticity or otherwise of the particular language-events of which people testify. This brings us to the next question.

  1. Can the new hermeneutic provide any criterion of truth or value for assessing the new self-understanding(s) to which language-events give rise? Again, it seems not.

Remember where Fuchs has placed us. The criteria of correspondence with apostolic teaching in general and the historical sense of the text in particular have been denied us. What is now left? Is the mere fact of being more or less startling to us the criterion whereby new thoughts about ourselves and our lives are to be evaluated? Are we to judge the most startling to be the most authentic, or what? J. C. Weber asks, “In what way can we know that language does not bring to expression illusion, falsehood, or even chaos? If the criterion of truth is only in the language-event itself, how can the language-event be safeguarded against delusion, mockery, or utter triviality? Why cannot the language-event be a disguised event of nothingness?… Fuchs’ ontology is in danger of dissolving into a psychological illusionism”—meaning, presumably, an inducing of the sense that something significant happens when nothing significant happens.65 There seems no counter to this criticism: Fuchs really has left us to sink in the swamps of subjectivist subjectivity, with no available criteria of truth and value at all for the language-events that came our way.

The new hermeneutic is in truth the end of the Schleiermacherian road. Its denial of the reality of revealed truth, linked with its rejection of the subject-object frame of reference for knowledge of God through Scripture, produces a state of affairs beyond which there is nowhere to go. Logically, the new hermeneutic is relativism; philosophically, it is irrationalism; psychologically, it is freedom to follow unfettered religious fancy; theologically, it is unitarianism; religiously, it is uncontrolled individualistic mysticism; structurally, it is all these things not by accident but of necessity. We leave it, and move on.


Over against what has been studied so far I will now offer a fuller evangelical account of the hermeneutical process.66 Based on the beliefs about Scripture that were highlighted in the opening pages of this chapter, evangelical biblical interpretation proceeds by the following three stages: exegesis, synthesis, and application.

Exegesis means bringing out of the text all that it contains of the thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, and so forth—in short, the whole expressed mind—of the human writer. This gives the “literal” sense, in the name of which the Reformers rejected the allegorical senses beloved of medieval exegetes.67 I call it the “natural” or “literary” sense, whereby the exegete seeks to put himself in the writer’s linguistic, cultural, historical, and religious shoes. It has been the historic evangelical method of exegesis, followed with more or less consistency and success since the Reformers’ time. (It is, of course, everybody’s initial method nowadays.) This exegetical process assumes the full humanity of the inspired writings.68

In reaction from exegesis that concerned itself only with biblical events and ideas as parts of the global historical process, the plea is heard today for what Barth called theological and Brevard S. Childs calls canonical exegesis; that is, exegesis that is “churchly” (as opposed to “worldly”) in that it (1) reads all Scripture as witness to the living God and (2) reads each book of Scripture as part of the total canon that bears this witness.69 To practice canonical exegesis, in idea at any rate, is not to read into biblical texts what is not there, but to read them from an angle of vision that enables one to see what is there. This angle of vision is faith in the Bible’s God—something that all the canonical writers shared and out of which they wrote. Evangelical exegesis has always been characteristically canonical in this sense.70

Synthesis here means the process of gathering up and surveying in historically integrated form the fruits of exegesis—a process that is sometimes, from one standpoint and at one level, called “biblical theology” in the classroom and at other times, from another standpoint and at another level, called “exposition” in the pulpit. This synthetic process assumes the organic character of Scripture.

Application means seeking to answer these questions: If God said and did in the circumstances recorded what the text tells us He said and did, what does He say and what is He doing and what will He do to us in our circumstances? If His promise and command then were thus and so, what is His promise and command to us now? Applicatory reasoning assumes the consistency of God and the essential identity of human nature and need from one age to another, along with the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). Its basic thought is that as particulars of God’s dealings recorded in the Old Testament have universal significance as paradigms for divine action under New Testament conditions (for samples of reasoning on this basis, see Rom. 4, 9; 1 Cor. 10:1–12; Gal. 3:6–14; Heb. 3:7–4:10, 10:26–12:29), so recorded particulars of God’s dealings under New Testament conditions have universal significance as paradigms of how He will always now deal with His human creatures. Applicatory reasoning thus leads to Gadamer’s distancing and fusing of horizons on a different level from that which Gadamer himself envisages; where Gadamer speaks of the intersecting of historically separate worlds of human thought, there evangelical application theory posits encounter with the revealed mind of the unchanging God whose thoughts and ways are never like those of fallen mankind in any era at all, and in whose hands each human being must realize that for better or for worse, as his own choice determines, he remains forever.

Ebeling is correct when he writes: “According to Luther, the word of God always comes as adversarius noster, our adversary. It does not simply confirm and strengthen us in what we think we are, and in what we wish to be taken for.… This is the way, the only way, in which the word draws us into concord and peace with God.”71 But this insight does not belong to Ebeling’s new hermeneutic, in which “word of God” is a label for an event in which language impacts us with a creativity that is almost magical72 even though God, being dumb, is never its speaker. Luther’s insight belongs rather to his own hermeneutical world, the world of the old evangelical hermeneutic, where the exegete has constantly to reckon with the uncomfortable truth that what Scripture said about God to men of old times God says about Himself to us today. Law and gospel, promise and command, factual narration, theological generalization and prophetic vision, are all uttered afresh by God to us every time the Bible text faces us—uttered, that is, not in the once-for-all way in which they were uttered to the world when God first gave the text through His human penmen, but uttered in the applicatory sense of which we are now speaking, the sense that is modeled by Luther’s pro me and by those minatory public notices that say, “This means you!” This is the sense that is felt after in the much-discussed Barthian formula that Scripture becomes the Word of God to its readers and hearers. The heart of the hermeneutical problem does not lie in the determining of the historical meaning of each passage (there are now many good commentaries that make that clear); it lies, rather, in seeing how it applies to you, me, and us at the point in history and personal life where we are now. That the application may be traumatic in its reproving and corrective thrust is not in dispute (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17!). My only point against Ebeling—which would certainly have been Luther’s too, had Luther foreseen him—is that it is the present utterance of the living God, and nothing less, that is being applied; this means (putting it the other way around) that the applied teaching of Holy Scripture is in truth the message and instruction of God our Maker.

For two generations Protestant theology, especially that made in German, has focused on the question, How can the language of Scripture communicate the Word of God (whatever that is—views vary) across the cultural and historical gap that separates us from Bible times? Answers have been given in terms of a new word being spoken through the old words and of an existential impact being made by or via them. Nineham, as we saw, has given up the question, thinking that communication that is chronologically transcultural is simply impossible. (Would he say the same of communication that is geographically transcultural? Alas for the Christian missionary enterprise if so.) As a matter of observable fact, all who link the assertion that God genuinely communicates through Scripture with the denial that the written text as such is God’s utterance become incoherent sooner or later. Only the evangelical theory of application remains rationally intelligible to the very end. On that theory, application is the last stage in the temporal process whereby God speaks to each generation and to individuals within each generation: God who gave His Word in the form of the rational narration, exposition, reflection, and devotion that Holy Scripture is, now prompts the making and receiving of rational application of it. This application is the Word of God to you and to me.

Evangelical theology affirms a correlation between the rational process whereby principles, having been established from biblical particulars, are applied to cases and persons, and the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, who enables our sin-darkened minds to draw and accept these correct conclusions as from God. Because correct application is a strictly rational process, most evangelical textbooks on interpreting Scripture say little or nothing about the Holy Spirit, Scripture’s ultimate author, as the great hermeneut who by leading and enlightening us in the work of exegesis, synthesis, and application, actually interprets that Word in our minds and to our hearts.73 The omission unhappily allows evangelical rationality in interpretation to look like a viciously self-reliant rationalism, while by contrast the regular neoorthodox appeal to the Spirit as interpreter (an appeal that appears on analysis to be an illuminist fig leaf donned to conceal disfiguring incoherence and arbitrariness in handling the text) looks like proper humility—and that is ironical indeed, since Evangelicals have in fact more to say than anyone else about the Spirit’s work of enabling us to see, grasp, love, and live by God’s revealed truth, just because they have more to say than anyone else about the spiritually blinding effect of sin on our minds.74 It is to be hoped that future evangelical treatments of biblical interpretation will not fall short here.75 If, as current need requires, they are written as treatments of hermeneutics, covering the whole process whereby we come to understand God’s word to us from the texts through our being made the recipients of His communicative activity, explicit accounts of the Spirit’s witnessing, enlightening, and teaching ministry will have to be given, and the false impression will thereby automatically be corrected.76


What has been said makes it clear that an overall view of biblical authority underlies and controls evangelical interpretation of Scripture. Is this view, in its function as a methodological principle, open to the charge of being an arbitrary and distorting a priori in the way that I have accused some other views of being? I think not, and will try to show the a posteriori nature of this control, as part of the total biblical faith, by adapting the concept of the “hermeneutical circle,” which Bultmann first adapted from Heidegger.77

In the present context I use the phrase “hermeneutical circle” to express the truth (for truth it is) that our exegesis, synthesis, and application is determined by a hermeneutic—that is, a view of the interpretative process—that is determined by an overall theology, a theology that in its turn rests on and supports itself by exegesis, synthesis, and application. Thus defined, the circle is not logically vicious; it is not the circle of presupposing what you ought to prove, but the circle of successive approximation, a basic method in every science. From this standpoint it might be better to speak of the hermeneutical spiral, whereby we rise from a less exact and well-tested understanding to one that is more so. Within the circle, or spiral, two complementary processes take place: one is questioning the text and having one’s questions progressively reshaped by what the text yields; the other is the reciprocal illumination of part by whole and whole by part in one’s repeated traversings of long stretches of language (e.g., Deuteronomy, Romans, John’s Gospel). Both processes are constantly involved in spiraling up to more precise and profound understanding. The point embodied in the circle-image is that we can understand only what in some way latches on to prior knowledge that we bring to it, so that what we bring to it will radically condition our understanding of it. The reason for preferring the spiral-image is that within the circle of presuppositionally conditioned interpretation it is always possible for dialogue and critical questioning to develop between what in the text does not easily or naturally fit in with our presuppositions and those presuppositions themselves, and for both our interpretation and our presuppositions to be modified as a result.

Now the evangelical theologian’s method of seeking understanding is this: First, he goes to the text of Scripture to learn from it the doctrine of Scripture just as he goes to the text of Scripture to learn from it the doctrine of everything else it deals with. At this stage he takes with him as his presupposition, provisionally held (his “pre-understanding,” Bultmann would call it), not, like Bultmann, a Heideggerian anthropology, nor, like Barth, a Christomonist ontology, but an overall view of Christian truth and of the way to approach the Bible—a view that he has gained from the creeds, confessions, preaching, and corporate life of the church and from his own earlier ventures in exegesis and theology. By the light of his pre-understanding he discerns in Scripture material that yields an integrated account of the nature, place, and use of the Bible. From this doctrine of the Bible and its authority he next derives by theological analysis a set of hermeneutical principles; and, armed with these, he returns to the biblical text, to expound and apply its teaching on everything more scientifically than he could do before. If at any stage what appears to emerge from the texts appears to challenge his personal pre-understanding and/or call in question the tradition that was his personal springboard, he lets dialogue between the appearances develop, with the purpose of bringing his present understanding fully into line with biblical teaching once he sees clearly what this is. Thus he moves to and fro within the hermeneutical spiral. If his exegetical procedure is challenged, he defends it from his hermeneutic; if his hermeneutic is challenged, he defends it from his doctrine of biblical authority; if his doctrine of biblical authority is challenged, he defends it from biblical texts by exegesis, synthesis, and application. At no point does he decline to accept challenges to his present view of things, but at every point he meets them by renewed theological exegesis of relevant passages in the light of the questions that have been asked. It has been said that until Schleiermacher “hermeneutics was supposed to support, secure and clarify an already accepted understanding.”78 Whether this was ever really so for evangelical theology is arguable,79 though there is no denying that defensive postures often made it look that way.80 But in idea, at least, there are no a prioris in an Evangelical’s theology, and nothing in it is “already accepted” in the sense of not being open to the possibility of theological challenge and biblical reassessment—not even his view of Scripture.81


What control does the hermeneutic that derives from the evangelical doctrine of Scripture place on one’s interpretative practice? In a word, it binds us, first, to the grammatico-historical method in exegesis, second, to the principle of harmony in synthesis, and, third, to the principle of universalizing in application. Hints about all three have been scattered through this chapter; here I try to draw the threads together and state each point fully.

  1. The grammatico-historical method of approaching texts is dictated not merely by common sense, but by the doctrine of inspiration,82 which tells us that God has put His words into the mouths, and caused them to be written in the writings, of persons whose individuality, as people of their time, was in no way lessened by the fact of their being thus overruled, and who spoke and wrote to be understood by their contemporaries. Since God has effected an identity between their words and His, the way for us to get into His mind, if we may thus phrase it, is via theirs; for their thought and speech about God constitutes God’s own self-testimony. Though God may have more to say to us from each text than its human writer had in mind, God’s meaning is never less than his. What he meant, God meant; and God’s further meaning, as revealed when the text is exegeted in its canonical context, in relation to all that went before and came after, is simply extension, development, and application of what the writer was consciously expressing. So the first task is always to get into the writer’s mind by grammatico-historical exegesis of the most thoroughgoing and disciplined kind, using all the tools provided by linguistic, historical, logical,83 and semantic84 study for the purpose.
  2. Adherence to the principle of harmony is also dictated by the doctrine of inspiration, which tells us that the Scriptures are the products of a single divine mind. This principle branches into three. First, Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture, just as one part of a human teacher’s message may and should be interpreted by appeal to the rest. Scripture scripturae interpres was the Reformers’ slogan on this point. Scripture must be approached as a single organism of instruction, and we must look always for its internal links and topical parallels, which in fact are there in profusion, waiting to be noticed. Second, Scripture should not be set against Scripture. Anglican Article XX forbids the church to “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another,” and the principle applies to the individual expositor too. It is to be expected that the teaching of the God of truth will prove to be consistent with itself, and we should proceed accordingly. Then, third, what appears to be secondary, incidental, and obscure in Scripture should be viewed in the light of what appears to be primary, central, and plain. This principle requires us to echo the main emphases of the New Testament and to develop a christocentric, covenantal. kerygmatic exegesis of both Testaments; also, to keep a sense of proportion regarding what are confessedly minutiae, not letting them overshadow what God has indicated to be the weightier matters. These three principles together constitute what the Reformers called analogia Scripturae, and the analogy of Scripture, which for clarity’s sake I have called the principle of harmony.
  3. The principle of universality in application follows from the unchangeable consistency of the God whose particular words and deeds Scripture records. Since He does not change, devilish self-aggrandizement such as called forth His judicial hatred against Tyre (Ezek. 27–28) and Jerusalem (Isa. 1–5) and Rome (Rev. 17–18) will always and everywhere evoke the same hostility. Since the incarnate Son does not change (cf. Heb. 13:8), the compassion shown to the penitent thief (Luke 23:43) and the Galilean prostitute (Luke 7:36ff.) and doubting Thomas (John 20:27ff.) continues to be there for all who know their need of it. Divine promises given in Scripture to Christians as such will be kept in every case, while the righteousness required of any is required of all; passage of time changes nothing in this regard. Watching how God dealt with people in Bible times, we learn how we may expect Him to deal with us. We see instanced in the particular events of the Bible story the universal principles of God’s will and work, and the essence of our interpretative task is to unshell these from their immediate setting in order to reapply them to our own situations.85 Barth’s denial of revealed general principles is ultimately unconvincing, if only because in his own preaching he implicitly assumes them, as everyone who attempts to preach biblically does and must do. Historical exegesis, as practiced since the mid-nineteenth century, too often shrouds itself in ambiguity here: beliefs expressed in the text are formulated with poker-faced indifference as to whether they indicate what God might say to, think of, and do for us today. By contrast, the “theological” or “canonical” type of exegesis that was practiced more or less skillfully from the patristic period to the nineteenth century and that (thank God) is being cautiously recovered in many quarters today, accepts responsibility for identifying and applying the truth about the living God that Scripture yields. Thus it resolves into preaching, and rightly so. As Luther knew, the best and truest interpretation of “God’s word written” (the phrase comes from Anglican Article XX) is achieved in the preaching of it.86

Shibboleths—test words indicating identity and allegiance (cf. Judg. 12:5–6)—are always suspect as obstacles to real thought, which indeed they can easily become. “Infallible” and “inerrant” as descriptions of the Bible function as shibboleths in some circles and so come under this suspicion in others. Individual definitions of both terms—minimizing, maximizing, and depreciating—are not lacking; it would be idle and irresponsible to speak as if there were always clarity and unanimity here. But if these words are construed, according to standard semantic theory, as carrying the meaning that they bear in general use among those who employ them and that appears, according to standard logical theory, in the expressive and communicative functions they perform, then they will be seen to be valuable verbal shorthand for conveying a fully biblical notion—namely, the total truth and trustworthiness of biblical affirmations and directives, as a consequence of their divine authenticity and as the foundation for their divine authority as revelation from God. They are in fact control words, with a self-involving logic: by affirming biblical infallibility and inerrancy, one commits oneself in advance to receive as God’s instruction and obey as God’s command whatever Scripture is already known to teach and may in the future be shown to teach. They entail no a priori commitments to specific views, whether of the nature of knowledge87 or of the correct exegesis of biblical passages that touch on natural and historical events. They indicate only a commitment to the three interpretative principles set out above. As such, they have their own distinct usefulness.88

It should be added that in the task of interpreting Scripture theologically cognizance of, and encounter with, the historic Christian interpretative tradition, uniform or pluriform as at each point it may be, is of major methodological importance. Since Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been present and active in the church, and part of His ministry has been to teach God’s people to understand the Scriptures and the message they contain (cf. Luke 24:44ff.; 1 Cor. 2:1–16; 2 Cor. 3:14–4:6; 1 Thess. 1:5, cf. 2:13; 1 John 2:20–27, cf. 5:20). That is why from the first it was expected, and rightly, that the doctrinal and ethical tradition stemming from the apostles—a tradition the bishops were set to guard and the ecumenical creeds came to enshrine—would prove on examination to be, so far as it went, true exposition of that which was central in the two Testaments. The medieval faith on this point could be summarized in the neat formula that Scripture is in tradition and tradition is in Scripture,89 even though inroads of aberration had produced at certain points a state of affairs in which this faith could no longer be justified. When the Reformers’ study of the Bible’s literal sense (on which, according to Aquinas, all doctrine should rest) showed that with regard to the economy of grace (the way of salvation and the nature and role of the church) latter-day tradition and interpretation had gone radically wrong, the shock to Western Christendom was traumatic. In some Protestant bodies this trauma left behind it a neurotic fixation, as traumas tend to do—in this case, a fixed habit of suspecting that all tradition in those parts of the church that do not feel like home is always likely to be wrong; and one can point today to such groups whose interpretative style, though disciplined and conscientious, is narrow, shallow, naïve, lacking in roots, and wooden to a fault, for want of encounter with the theological and expository wisdom of nineteen Christian centuries.

The only course that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the church will sanction is to approach Scripture in the light of historic Christian study of it. Church tradition, in the sense of traditio tradita, that which is handed on, should be valued as a venture in biblical understanding by those who went before us, whom the Spirit helped as He helps us. It should not, indeed, be treated as at any point infallible, any more than our own ventures in biblical understanding should be, but rather as the product of honest scholarly endeavor for which the Spirit’s aid was sought. Accordingly, we should expect to find it helpful as a guide, much more right than wrong. As we would think it perverse for a student of Scripture to refuse the help given by contemporary churchly scholarship in written commentaries, theologies, and manuals of various kinds, as well as in oral teaching, so we ought to think it perverse to refuse the help given by the churchly scholarship of the past. The former perversity would at once be diagnosed as that of a conceitedly self-sufficient person who fails to appreciate that the fellowship of the saints is the proper milieu for learning to understand the Bible; the latter perversity should be viewed in the same terms. Much of today’s biblical study and exposition, even though conducted according to the three interpretative principles stated above, suffers through what C. S. Lewis somewhere called “chronological snobbery,” the supposition that what is most recent will always be wisest and best, and that the latest word is nearer to being the last word than any that went before; those under the influence of this assumption do not seriously consult work done prior to our own time, and that is very much to our loss. Karl Barth characterized the tradition crystallized in creeds and confessions as a preliminary exposition of Scripture;90 all Christian tradition should be seen in these terms and put to use in one’s own mental dialogue accordingly. It is when Bible students are open to the Christian heritage of both present and past exposition and open also to the existential questions that arise for them out of the pressures of their times on their lives that interpretation and understanding may become profound, in a way that could not otherwise be.


To pull the threads yet closer together, it will be convenient to give summary answers to two questions, in the light of what has been said.

  1. What conceptions of Scripture are hermeneutically invalid?—that is, unacceptable in the light of a posteriori exegesis of the recorded teaching of biblical authors, and particularly of Christ and the apostles, Christianity’s normative teachers? Some theologians ignore the existence of a biblical doctrine of Scripture, and others, while noticing it, allow themselves to discount it; but it must be insisted that departure from the teaching of Christ and the apostles on this subject is as much a failure of discipleship as such a lapse on any other matter would be. The relevant biblical material cannot be paraded here,91 but the following views may be listed as ruled out by it.
  2. Views, such as those embraced by older generations of liberals and more recently by scholars like James Barr,92 that see Scripture as a pluriform, multilayered testament of religious experience and/or insight, testifying only unevenly and fallibly to the God who was experienced and concerning whom the writers’ convictions, true or false, were formulated.
  3. Views, such as increasingly mark post—Vatican II Roman Catholic biblical work, that regard only that in Scripture which is necessary to salvation as having been infallibly and inerrantly delivered. Roman Catholic scholars who hold these views believe that the rest of Scripture (in the view of many, a very large amount) is every bit as uneven and fallible as liberal Protestants suppose.93
  4. Views that, like those of Käsemann and Nineham, treat the body of canonical Scriptures as in their totality inconsistent, incoherent, or unintelligible; with or without the often-drawn corollary that whatever in Scripture seems significant to us should become our canon within the canon.94
  5. What conceptions of biblical hermeneutics are hermeneutically invalid?—that is, out of line with proper principles of method for understanding Scripture? Variant hermeneutics among would-be theological exegetes in our day have led to widely differing accounts of how Scripture speaks and what it says, as we have already observed. But the following types of view may at once be decisively ruled out:
  6. Views that hold that what God communicates in and through Scripture is something distinct from and perhaps unconnected with the writers’ own expressed meaning and message in each case. All forms of nonliteral interpretation err here.
  7. Views that regard God’s communication through Scripture (if indeed such a thing may be affirmed at all) as noncognitive, in the sense that it conveys nothing that can be called factual information about God Himself. Schleiermacherians ancient and modern, including on this issue Bultmann and the exponents of the new hermeneutic, have gone astray at this point.
  8. Views that assume that the way to understand the biblical message is to go behind the text to its supposed sources and exegete the material in relation to those sources rather than in its present canonical context, that is, as part of a whole book that is part of the whole Bible. Source-critical preoccupations have often led to disruptive exegesis of this kind.
  9. Views that hold that events and circumstances may allow, indeed require, us to reorder the biblical message around a different center from that on which the New Testament focuses, namely knowing Jesus Christ as Savior from sin and spiritual death. Latin American liberation theology, which sees the bringing in of social and economic justice as the essence of what the Bible teaches that God’s work today must be, is an example of this mistake.


It seems that, as was said at the start of this discussion, hermeneutical questions will continue to dominate theological debate in the world church for some time yet. Two considerations make this evident.

First, the most obvious, important, and tense differences between theologians today, the differences that most demand discussion and are, in fact, being most constantly discussed, are largely products of current hermeneutical pluaralism, which is therefore bound to stay central in debates about them. Take, for instance, Barthian theology, with its “Christomonistic” a priori whereby all truth about creation and the created order is swallowed up into the doctrine of Christ, and conceptions of election, reprobation, and redemption are formed that appear systematically to distort the plain sense of Scripture.95 Or take Bultmannian theology, with its a priori that New Testament material that looks like historical testimony must be read as myth objectifying the transformed self-understanding of the writer. Or take process theology, with its a priori that though what biblical writers say of God’s love should be taken as true, what they say of His triunity, eternity, and aseity (life in independence of His creatures) should not.96 Or take the many current types of political theology, of which liberation theologies are only one, with their a priori that the shalom of socio-economic well-being in this world is what the biblical witness to God’s saving work is really all about. It may be safely foretold that discussion of these things in the theological community will not soon expire.

Second, today’s hermeneutical debate in theology is part of a larger debate about general or universal hermeneutics that has come to involve practitioners of the humanities en masse—philosophers, linguists, teachers of literature, lawyers, and historians of ideas among others. This discussion has been in progress on and off, mainly though not exclusively in Germany, ever since Schleiermacher in his character as a theologian of culture described literary interpretation as such as the art of divining and recreating the author’s consciousness. During the past half-century, however, it has been influentially stoked up by the elaborate phenomenological accounts of hermeneutics—that is, of the mental process that genuinely receives what texts and works of art offer—that have been set forth in the writings of the philosophers Heidegger and Gadamer.97 Both authors, in their different ways, tell us that what is offered via texts is not in fact found through any kind of study of the author’s expressed mind (although it is not likely to be found without that study); what is offered is found, rather, in what the text “says” to us in the existential language-event, as the horizons we brought to the text fuse with horizons that emerge from the text itself. This “saying” is the emergence of genuinely new subject-matter, born of interaction between the text and the interpreter’s prior consciousness. We saw earlier how this idea is put to service in the new hermeneutic. Heidegger and Gadamer are open to criticism for the wedge they drive between what the text meant in public, historical terms—that is, what was given in it—and what it says—gives—to its several interpreters in personal encounter. Like their disciples in theology, Fuchs and Ebeling, whom we reviewed earlier, Heidegger and Gadamer set us adrift without chart or compass on a sea of ultimately uncontrolled subjectivity.98 History will probably view this as an unbalanced extreme of reaction against the interpretative objectivism that, starting with Descartes, ignored the individuality of the knowing subject and the heuristic importance of the questions he brings to the texts. What must be said at present, however, is that the flow of ideas from these men about the relation between text (source) and interpreter (the experiencing, knowing subject) has stirred up widespread discussion among scholars whose professions require them to interpret any kind of texts; and this will go on. It is to be hoped that Christian scholars, with their theological interest in the text-interpreter relation, will increasingly join in this wider debate.

Meantime, there is much here to enrich Christian thought on the knowledge of God via holy Scripture through the Spirit’s work as illuminator and interpreter. Any evangelical who thought that after finding the weaknesses of Heidegger, Gadamer, Fuchs, and Ebeling there was no more to be said would be wrong. Maybe, indeed, the hermeneutical debate in theology has only just begun. Time will tell!

1 Carl F. H. Henry, The Christian Century, vol. 47, no. 35 (November 5, 1980), p. 1062.

2 See, for instance, A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Inspiration, ed. R. R. Nicole (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979; reprint of an article published in 1881); B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948; reprints of articles published between 1892 and 1915); W. Sanday, Inspiration (New York: Longmans, Green, 1896); J. Orr, Revelation and Inspiration (London: Duckworth, 1910).

3 See, for instance, the composite volume Revelation, ed. J. Baillie and Hugh Martin (London: Faber, 1937); J. Baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956); H. R. Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941). The energy of Barth’s insistence that God is not knowable apart from revelation brought about this change of focus.

4 See, for instance, J. Smart, The Interpretation of Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961); J. Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967); I. Howard Marshall, ed., New Testament Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); David Stacey, Interpreting the Bible (London: Sheldon, 1976); Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970). The debate arising out of Bultmann’s article of 1941 in which he called for a program of demythologizing served to trigger this development.

5 For a catalog and conspectus of evangelical responses to Barth, see Gregory G. Bolich, Karl Barth and Evangelicalism, especially part 2 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1980). Discriminating analyses of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture are given in Klaas Runia, Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962) and (briefly) by G. W. Bromiley, Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 34–44.

6 See, for instance, Francis Schaeffer’s critique of Barth, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1968), pp. 52ff.; Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.ii (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), pp. 514–26.

7 See, for instance, Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation (Chicago: Moody, 1971), pp. 218ff.; Robert D. Knudsen in Philip E. Hughes, ed., Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), pp. 131–59.

8 The self-consciously embattled stance of the fundamentalist constituency has often obscured the pastoral and doxological motivation of its testimony and literature. Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible and The Bible in the Balance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, 1979) could be cited as cases in point.

9 See, for instance, George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: the Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 43ff., 72–101, and passim; Steven Barabas, So Great Salvation: the History and Message of the Keswick Convention (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1952); Oliver R. Barclay’s history of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot? (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1977). The titles of two of Lindsell’s books are When You Pray and The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

10 See, for instance, John W. Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974); James M. Boice, ed., The Foundation of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979); idem, Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of Its Philosophical Roots (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981); R. R. Nicole and J. R. Michaels, eds., Inerrancy and Common Sense (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), God Has Spoken (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979), Beyond the Battle for the Bible (Westchester: Cornerstone, 1980). The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy exists in order to establish this precise point.

11 See, from among textbooks that Evangelicals treat as standard, Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), pp. 82ff.; Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Wilde, 1956); A. B. Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963); Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1883).

12 Cf. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 1975), p. 275; cf. pp. 290–305; cf. also Gerhard Ebeling in James M. Robinson and John Cobb, eds., The New Hermeneutic (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 107ff. Test questions on the transcultural application of biblical principles would include how far to apply in the modern West the directives that women should pray with their heads covered (1 Cor. 11:5–15), whether we should wash each other’s feet (John 13:14–15), and how far to approve J. B. Phillips’s substitution of a “handshake all round” for the “holy kiss” in his New Testament paraphrase (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14).

13 Cf. J. I. Packer in God’s Inerrant Word, pp. 55ff. Sample systematic theologies by which the claim in the text can be tested are those of John Calvin (1559), J. Wollebius (1626), F. Turretin (1674), Charles Hodge (1872–73), W.G.T. Shedd (1888), A. H. Strong (1907), F. Pieper (1917–24), W. B. Pope (1875), E. A. Litton (1882–92), W. H. Griffith Thomas (1930), H. Bavinck (1895–1901), H. C. Thiessen (1949), and J. O. Buswell (1962–63).

14 See, for example, Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry, eds., Perspectives on Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).

15 Cf. Robert Johnson, Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (Atlanta: John Knox, 1973).

16 J.D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (London: SCM, 1977), leans in this direction; most other writers today go much further, James Barr, for example. See his Old and New in Interpretation (London: SCM, 1966) and The Bible in the Modern World (London: SCM, 1973), with evaluation by Paul Ronald Wells, James Barr and the Bible: Critique of a New Liberalism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed), chapter 4, especially pp. 267–75, and J. I. Packer in God’s Inerrant Word, pp. 58–59. In part 3 of his valuable study, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), David H. Kelsey appears to assume biblical pluralism as axiomatic, a fact that may help to explain how the classic Freudian misprint, “Theology is ‘done’ as one of the activities compromising the life of the Christian community” (p. 212), got past the proofreader’s eye.

17 So Dennis Nineham, most fully in The Use and Abuse of the Bible (London: Macmillan, 1976); criticized by Ronald H. Preston, “Need Dr. Nineham Be So Negative?” Expository Times 90 (June 1979): 275–80, and Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description With Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 52–60, 70–74. Nineham’s scepticism about the possibility of understanding what came from a different culture seems to have sprung directly from his meditations on Troeltsch, but it has evident affinities with the “radical historicism” in literary interpretation against which, along with other underminings of the knowability of authors’ meanings, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., wrote his magisterial Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

18 Those of Jesus’ parables that end startlingly, contradicting the expectations of His hearers (e.g., the publican being justified rather than the Pharisee, Luke 18:14) tend now always to be invoked as paradigms of the encounter with all Scripture, as if the essence of that encounter is not so much the realizing of how permanently given truth applies to one as just the radical changing of one’s mind from whatever one thought about God before. Cf. W. Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973); R. W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic and Word of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966); D. O. Via, Jr., The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967); J. D. Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Anthony Thiselton, “The New Hermeneutic” in New Testament Interpretation, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Exeter: Paternoster, 1977), pp. 320–22.

19 Cf. such samples of unitive biblical theology as E. C. Hoskyns and F. N. Davey, The Riddle of the New Testament (London: Faber, 1931); A. M. Hunter, The Unity of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1943); A. G. Hebert, The Bible From Within (London: Oxford University Press, 1950); Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965); R. A. Ward, The Pattern of Our Salvation (Waco: Word, 1978).

20 On the situational particularity of Berth’s account of God’s command, cf. J. I. Packer in B. N. Kaye and G. J. Wenham, eds., Law, Morality and the Bible (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1978), p. 154. Kelsey acutely describes the way Barth uses biblical narrative to build up his account of God and of Jesus Christ as “rendering an agent” in the way that novelists do by narrating actions that cohere in patterns revealing character (see Uses of Scripture, pp. 39–50). Barth’s methodological commitment to treating the historic canon of Scripture as a theological unity (the commitment producing what he called “theological” and B. S. Childs calls “canonical” exegesis) serves to safeguard the consistency that his rejection of the category of general principles would otherwise endanger.

21 Kelsey, Uses of Scripture, p. 163.

22 Cf. Luther’s response to Erasmus’s generalization that Scripture contains obscurities: “I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due … to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture.… If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another.… I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness” (The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston [Old Tappan, N.J: Revell, 1957], pp. 71–72). See G. C. Berkouwer’s chapter on “Clarity,” in Holy Scripture, trans. Jack B. Rogers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 267–98.

23 H. J. Cadbury illustrates this by citing an absurd account of Jesus as, in effect, a modern American achiever: “Jesus exemplifies all the principles of modern salesmanship. He was, of course, a good mixer. He made contacts easily and was quick to get en rapport with his ‘prospect.’ He appreciated the value of news, and so called his message ‘good news.’ His habit of rising early was indicative of the pressure of the ‘go-getter’ so necessary for a successful career …” (The Peril of Modernizing Jesus [reprint; London: SPCK, 1962] p. 11).

24 See The Use and Abuse of the Bible, especially chapters 1, 5, 10, 11; and the comments of Thiselton, The Two Horizons, pp. 52–60, 70–74.

25 For positive arguments on the possibility of divine communication through Scripture, see J. I. Packer, “The Adequacy of Human Language,” in N. L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy, pp. 197–226.

26 T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (London: SCM, 1971), p. 66: Hunnius spoke disparingingly of Calvinus Judaizans.

27 See James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr., The New Hermeneutic (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 1–7; Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), pp. 12–32; cf. pp. 33–71.

28 The first book to use the word in its title was J. C. Dannhauer’s Hermeneutica Sacra, sive methodus explicandarum Sacrarum Literarum (Strasbourg, 1654). Until Schleiermacher, hermeneutics meant “interpretation of the Scriptures according to either the Roman or the Protestant understanding of dogma” (Alan Richardson, Religion in Contemporary Debate [London: SCM, 1966], p. 90).

29 Alan Richardson summarizes Dilthey’s approach thus: “The historian … can project himself into the experience of others.… Historical understanding means to re-live (nacherleben) the past experience of others and so to make it one’s own” (History Sacred and Profane [London: SCM, 1966], p. 163). Dilthey himself says, “Understanding is a rediscovery of the I in the Thou.… The subject is here one with its object” (quoted from H. A. Hodges, Wilhelm Dilthey: An Introduction [London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, 1944], p. 114). On Schleiermacher’s anticipations of this, see H. Kimmerle, “Hermeneutical Theory or Ontological Hermeneutics,” Journal for Theology and the Church, 4 (1967): 107–21; R. E. Palmer, Hermeneutics, pp. 84–97.

30 See Packer, God Has Spoken, pp. 52–53, 74–80.

31 Acts 9:4ff.; 10:13ff.; 18:9–10 (cf. 12:7ff.); 27:23–24; 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (cf. Revelation 1:17ff. and passim).

32 Cf. Matthew 19:4–5; Acts 4:25ff.; 28:25ff.; Romans 15:3–12; 1 Corinthians 10:6–11; Hebrews 1:5–13; 3:7ff.; 10:15ff.; 12:5–6.

33 Warfield, Inspiration and Authority, pp. 145, 152, 348; Augustine, Confessions, CIII.29.

34 See Thiselton, “The New Hermeneutic,” in New Testament Interpretation, pp. 308–33.

35 As they do; see, for instance, Louis Berkhof, Introduction to Systematic Theology (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), pp. 146–50.

36 This rather unpleasant patronizing of Jesus is logically inseparable from the Schleiermacherian approach, for Jesus’ entire self-understanding and ministry, even His courting of death in Jerusalem, rested on His certainty that the Scriptures were divine instruction (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17–19; 26:53–56; Mark 12:10, 24; Luke 18:31ff.; 22:37; 24:25ff., 44ff.; John 5:39, 45ff.; 10:35), and the Schleiermacherian approach is made possible only by declining to take seriously the obvious implication of Jesus’ certainty for Christian theological method.

37 Cf. Gerhard Ebeling: “The primary phenomenon in the realm of understanding is not understanding OF language, but understanding THROUGH language” (Word and Faith [London: SCM, 1963], p. 318).

38 See P. Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951–63); K. Hamilton, The System and the Gospel: A Critique of Paul Tillich (London, SCM, 1963).

39 See M. Wiles, The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (London: SCM, 1975) and the critique by Paul Wignall in S. W. Sykes, The Integrity of Anglicanism (London: Mowbrays, 1978).

40 See G. W. H. Lampe, God as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977).

41 See Thiselton’s masterly critique, The Two Horizons, pp. 205–92.

42 See Norman Pittenger, “Process Theology,” in A Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson (London: SCM, 1969); the critiques by N. L. Geisler (Tensions in Contemporary Theology, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Alan F. Johnson [Chicago: Moody, 1976], pp. 237–84); Bruce A. Demarest (Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], pp. 15–36).

43 The divergences regularly reflect different forms of reductionist thinking, thus, for example, Fuchs “tends to see the translated message of the New Testament itself in narrowly selective terms. In the end, almost everything in the New Testament can be translated into a call to love …” (Thiselton, in New Testament Interpretation, p. 324).

44 See Gadamer, Truth and Method pp. 217ff.; Thiselton, The Two Horizons, pp. 303–10, cf. pp. 149–68.

45 Cf. note 18 above.

46 Thiselton’s comments on the parable of the Pharisee and the publican illustrate excellently what is involved here at the level of communication (The Two Horizons, pp. 12–16).

47 Cf. note 23 above.

48 See, on this, Thiselton, “The New Hermeneutic,” in New Testament Interpretation, pp. 308–33 and The Two Horizons, pp. 334–35, 342–56; Robinson and Cobb, eds., The New Hermeneutic: P. J. Achtemeier, An Introduction to the New Hermeneutic (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969); Alan Richardson, Religion in Contemporary Debate, pp. 81–101; Cornelius Van Til, The New Hermeneutic (Nutley, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974). The main relevant works by Ebeling in English are Word and Faith and Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language (London: Collins, 1973); those by Fuchs are his essays, “The New Testament and the Hermeneutical Problem in Robinson and Cobb, eds., The New Hermeneutic, pp. 111–45, 232–43 and Studies of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 1964). Fuchs’s Hermeneutik, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1970), remains untranslated, as does Ebeling’s important article “Hermeneutik” in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1959), 3: 242–62.

49 See, on Heidegger, Thiselton, The Two Horizons, pp. 143–204, 327–42; Mazda King, Heidegger’s Philosophy: A Guide to His Basic Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964); John Macquarrie, Martin Heidegger (Richmond: John Knox, 1968); Howard M. Ducharme, Jr., “Mysticism: Heidegger,” in Biblical Errancy, pp. 205–27. Heidegger’s Being and Time, written in 1927, appeared in English in 1962 (Oxford: Blackwell). Important for his later thought are his an Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), On the Way to Language (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), and Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

50 On the Way to Language, p. 85.

51 William Barrett, in the preface to his anthology of D. T. Suzuki’s writings (Suzuki is a leading exponent of Zen Buddhism), tells of a friend of Heidegger’s who once heard him say, “If I understand this man [Suzuki] correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings” (Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki [Garden City: Doubleday, Anchor, 1956], p. xi). Heidegger thought that being “speaks” with great authenticity through poets such as Sophocles and Holderlin (see Thiselton, The Two Horizons, p. 339) and adapted his concept of Gelassenheit (“receptive yieldedness,” Thiselton, The Two Horizons, p. 340; “releasement,” Ducharme, “Mysticism: Heidegger,” p. 219) from Meister Eckhart.

52 Thiselton, The Two Horizons, p. 341

53 It must be realized that the later Heidegger was polemicizing against the traditional Western type of metaphysics with its static concept of being and its objectifying of concepts in a subject-object epistemological frame. He saw his own radical activism (i.e., his view of being’s existence, not as an ultimate reality that is constantly “there” to be grasped, but as consisting entirely in the event of its self-disclosure on each occasion) as “overcoming” metaphysics. See Richardson, Religion in Contemporary Debate, pp. 85–87.

54 Ibid., p. 88.

55 “Fuchs refused to define the content of faith.… He is afraid of the word as convention or as a means of conveying information.… Fuchs carries this so far that revelation, as it were, reveals nothing …” (Amos N. Wilder, “The Word as Address and Meaning,” in Robinson and Cobb, eds., The New Hermeneutic, p. 213). Fuchs follows in Bultmann’s footsteps at this point.

56 New Testament Interpretation, p. 324.

57 Cf. Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), chapter 7, “The Expurgated Scripture,” pp. 130–47. Oden shows the link between the systematic depreciation of the Pastoral and Catholic epistles in the New Testament criticism of such as Bultmann, Käsemann, and Bornkamm and today’s conventional depreciation of the idea of orthodoxy (given truth, right belief, the pattern of sound words), which is so basic to the concept of faith that these letters teach. He rightly diagnoses both depreciations as expressions of the same liberal-existentialist a priori, which appeared most clearly in Bultmann’s work. Fuchs, as one of Bultmann’s epigoni who, like his mentor, doubles in the roles of exegete and theologian, takes this a priori for granted and sees himself as carrying on in hermeneutics where Bultmann left off.

58 Achtemeier, Introduction to the New Hermeneutic, p. 162.

59 “Each science orients itself to its subject matter. In this case [hermeneutics] the subject matter is you yourself, dear reader” (Fuchs, in The New Hermeneutic, p. 141). “In the new hermeneutic … the text, rather than being the object of interpretation, as with Bultmann, becomes an aid in the interpretation of present existence” (John R. Cobb, in Robinson and Cobb, eds., The New Hermeneutic, pp. 229–30).

60 Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, p. 226.

61 Thiselton in New Testament Interpretation, p. 323.

62 Cf. Thiselton, Two Horizons, p. 343.

63 Cf. J. I. Packer, “Preaching as Biblical Interpretation,” in Nicole and Michaels, eds., Inerrancy and Common Sense, pp. 187–203, especially pp. 189–92.

64 Thiselton in New Testament Interpretation, p. 324.

65 J. C. Weber, “Language-Event and Christian Faith,” Theology Today 21 (1965), p.455.

66 Books giving such an account include those listed in note 11 above, plus, at a more popular level, A. M. Stibbs, Understanding God’s Word, rev. D. & G. Wenham (London: Inter-Varsity, 1976), and R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1977). Cf. J. I. Packer as cited, note 63 above, and “Inerrancy and Biblical Authority” in E. R. Geeham, ed., Jerusalem and Athens (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), pp. 141–53. As Henry Krabbendam of Covenant College shows in his excellent unpublished syllabus, “Towards a Biblical Hermeneutics,” ch. III, the Puritan John Owen produced an archetypal and classic account of evangelical hermeneutics, in which the individual’s spiritual understanding of what is given in Scripture is the central notion, as long ago as 1677. This was his Causes, Ways and Means of understanding the Mind of God, as revealed in his Word, with Assurance therein. And a Declaration of the Perspicuity of the Scriptures, with the External Means of the Interpretation of them (W. Goold, ed., Works, vol. 4 [London: Banner of Truth, 1967], Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, pp. 118–234).

67 Cf. T. H. L. Parker, pp. 60–68; R. P. C. Hanson in A. Richardson, ed., A Dictionary of Christian Theology (SCM, 1969), pp. 4–5; Beryl Smalley in ed. G. W. H. Lampe, The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 212–20.

68 The common formula, that the “literal” meaning of Scripture is what the human writer “intended,” opens the door to the idea that what he meant differs from what he actually said, due to his imperfect mastery of the verbal medium. Since that idea is a false trail both as interpretation (cf. J. W. Montgomery on the “intentionalist fallacy,” God’s Inerrant Word, pp. 29–31) and as theology (cf. 2 Peter 1:19–21; Heb. 3:7–11; 10:15–17, et al.), it is better to avoid the formula altogether.

69 On the idea of canonical exegesis, cf. B. S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), pp. 71–83.

70 This can be seen at once by examining the classic expositions of Scripture by Matthew Henry (1708–10) and Thomas Scott (1788–92) and the contemporary New London and Tyndale (Eerdmans) commentary series.

71 Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language, p. 17.

72 On the “magic-word” idea in relation to Scripture, cf. Thiselton, “The Supposed Power of Words in the Biblical Writings,” Journal of Theological Studies 25 (1974): 283–99.

73 In Berkhof’s Principles of Biblical Interpretation, for example, there is not a single reference to the Spirit save in connection with the inspiration of the text (see pp. 41–46).

74 The conservative Reformed theological tradition, from Calvin through Owen and Kuyper to Van Til, has most to say on this subject, and on the enlightening work (the “internal witness”) of the Spirit whereby we are enabled to discern the reality of divine things and the divinity of two fully human realities, Holy Scripture and Jesus of Nazareth. See, for a full exposition, Bernard Ramm, The Witness of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959).

75 After Owen’s Causes, Ways and Means of Understanding the Mind of God.…, the only evangelical treatment known to me that integrates the Spirit’s ministry with the following of interpretative rules is the nontechnical but weighty discussion by Arthur W. Pink, Interpretation of the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972).

76 Cf. Packer, Beyond the Battle for the Bible, pp. 11–36.

77 On Heidegger’s view of the circle, cf. Thiselton, The Two Horizons, pp. 104–5, 166, 196–97. For Bultmann’s view, cf. W. Schmithals, An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1968), pp. 243–48, and Bultmann’s own article, “Is Presuppositionless Exegesis Possible?” in Schubert M. Ogden, ed., Existence and Faith (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961).

78 H. Kimmerle, in Journal for Theology and the Church 4 (1967): 107; cf. Richardson’s remark cited in note 28 above.

79 This conception of hermeneutics as the handmaid of accepted orthodoxy hardly squares with the freedom and integrity of Calvin’s exegesis or with Owen’s stress on the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit as teacher and the inexhaustible riches of the scriptural revelation of God that seekers are enabled to understand. When both these men embrace the principle of harmony (supposing this to be what ἀναλογία τῆς πίστεως in Romans 12:6 signifies: see Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960] I.12–13; Owen, Works IV.198–99), their commitment is to a method, not an orthodoxy as such; and full recognition must be given to the good faith and honesty of men like B. B. Warfield, who once said that he subscribed to the Westminster Confession not because he could make the Bible teach it, but because he could not make the Bible teach anything else.

80 Charles Hodge’s constant claim that what he teaches in a divided Christendom is the “church doctrine” (Systematic Theology, passim) and Warfield’s conservative triumphalism as a debating style are certainly among the evidences for the assertion in the text.

81 Cf. Packer in Jerusalem and Athens, pp. 146–47.

82 Cf. Warfield, Inspiration and Authority, passim.

83 On the logic of the theological language found in Scripture and echoed in the church, cf. Ian T. Ramsey, Religious Language (London: SCM, 1957), Models and Mystery (London: Oxford University Press, 1964); Basil Mitchell, ed., Faith and Logic (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957); Frederick Ferré, Language, Logic and God (London: Collins, 1970); William Hordern, Speaking of God (London: Epworth, 1965); John Macquarrie, God-Talk (London: SCM, 1967).

84 On the semantics of Scripture, see Anthony Thiselton, “Semantics and New Testament Interpretation” in New Testament Interpretation; G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980); James Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

85 Cf. Nicole and Michaels, eds., Inerrancy and Common Sense, pp. 168ff. (Gordon D. Fee), 193ff. (J. I. Packer).

86 For a modern restatement of what is essentially Luther’s position, see Gustav Wingren, The Living Word (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960).

87 Timothy R. Phillips, in “The Argument for Inerrancy; an Analysis” (Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, vol. 31, no. 2 [June 1979], pp. 80–88) maintains that the “true” inerrantist has an a priori commitment to “foundationalism,” that is, a Cartesian view of knowledge as clear and indubitable certainty, linked to a Cartesian insistence that theology must have a foundation that yields this kind of certainty. To set Scripture, as the principium of knowledge, in this frame of reference is to require it on a priori grounds to be epistemologically definitive on every matter of fact to which it refers. That some inerrantists in and since the seventeenth century have embraced this bit of natural theology is evident, but it is also evident that many who affirm the totally error-free character of Scripture have not done so (Kuyper, for instance); so it is misleading, to say the least, for Phillips to describe such a person as “not a true inerrantist” (p. 87, n. 33). Cf. Paul D. Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in N. L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy, pp. 267–304.

88 Cf. J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken, pp. 110–14; idem, Beyond the Battle for the Bible, pp. 37–61.

89 Cf. G. Tavard, Holy Church or Holy Writ? The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation (New York: Harper and Row, 1959).

90 Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.ii, 620–60.

91 See, for presentations of it, Warfield, Inspiration and Authority; J. W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973); idem, “Christ’s View of Scripture,” and Edwin A. Blum, “The Apostles’ View of Scripture” in Inerrancy, pp. 3–36; 39–53; and chapter 1 by Grudem in this volume.

92 Cf. note 16 above.

93 Cf. J. W. Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word, pp. 145ff. (Clark Pinnock) and 263–81 (J. W. Montgomery).

94 Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 84–86; Kelsey, Uses of Scripture, pp. 103–8 and passim.

95 Cf. Colin Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message (London: Inter-Varsity, 1967); G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956).

96 Cf. Bruce Demarest, “Process Trinitarianism,” in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, pp. 15–36. “The God of process theology is shorn not only of personality, but also of aseity, eternity, infinity, omniscience and omnipotence. The process Deity is not the causative agent of creation, nor the sovereign sustainer of the universe, nor the providential protector of human destiny. In short, the God of process theology is not the God of the Bible” (p. 33).

97 For Heidegger’s contribution here, cf. Palmer, Hermeneutics, pp. 155–61; for Gadamer’s, cf. pp. 167–76; and see pp. 237–41.

98 This is shown in Heidegger’s case by Ducharme, in Biblical Errancy, pp. 221–27, and in Gadamer’s by Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, pp. 245–64. Thiselton lets Gadamer down very lightly, saying only, “It may well be that, in contrast to the undue pessimism of the later Heidegger, Gadamer himself is too optimistic about the capacity of language, tradition and temporal distance to filter out what is false and leave only what is true” (The Two Horizons, p. 314). In fact, the verdict seems inescapable.