Church historian, neo-Calvinism scholar and critic, Paul Dohse, has highlighted the difference between two interpretive approaches to Scripture: the Historical Grammatical approach and the Redemptive Historical Hermeneutic. For a detailed study of these methods, visit Paul’s site at www.paulspassingthoughts.com. Briefly, however, the Redemptive approach is what many neo-Calvinists refer to as the “Cross-centered” interpretation of the Bible. It places all Scripture within the context of the Cross…and truly, this sounds very humble, and deep, and contemplative, and studious, and holy.
Trust me. It isn’t.
The premise of this approach is summarized by the famous phrase (or infamous, if you happen to be a Sovereign Grace Ministries survivor like myself, who was cudgeled with this theology for years in that highly dubious institution) “you must preach the gospel to yourself everyday”. Again, Paul Dohse does an excellent job deconstructing this idea and and exposing it to the wisdom and discernment of the clear light of day, revealing it for the heresy and false teaching that it is.
This hermeneutic, then, demands that the entire Bible be vetted and valued according to the standard of man’s depravity; that man is, at the root of his very being, which thus directly extends the totality of his SELF, morally corrupt and utterly evil. This doctrine–total depravity, regardless of how the Reformed crowed equivocates their position–demands that man’s sin has nothing whatsoever to do with man’s choices, but instead has everything to do with his very existence. His person is not only depraved, but is–more accurately stated–DEPRAVITY itself. As if depravity, which is purely a conceptual abstraction, is a material entity which consumes man and replaces him, physically, as he exists in the universe and before God. As if depravity itself is a thing. Of course the implications for God as man’s Creator according to this idea should terrify those who concede it, for truly it makes God not only the author of evil, but makes evil an infinite moral equivalent of God’s goodness.
But it doesn’t terrify them because the nature of this Redemptive interpretation demands that man deny all his rational faculties and his very reason, and thus, whatever heinous implications it and its conjunctive doctrine have for God are shrugged off as nothing more than yet another example of man’s inherent depraved nature and his inability to apprehend God’s “truth”.
Because of this assumption–man’s complete ontological moral failure–all of the Bible is a narrative concerning what you can’t possibly do and what you can’t possibly understand, and thus, Jesus must do for you. The Bible has nothing of YOU in mind, as if you were in any way sufficient for understanding the gravity of God’s “words”, let alone capable of carrying out His edicts, commandments, moral instructions/imperatives and so forth. In short, the Bible means only “Cross” to you–your failed epistemology notwithstanding–and is thus merely a treatise of…well, God talking about Himself, period. The point is that you, your life and existence, is beside the point. And so the Cross is no longer a symbol of God’s divine love and acceptance of humanity, nor is it regarded as the terrible centerpiece in a glorious act of raw and pure Self-sacrifice for the Creation God loves. No, the Cross, according to the Redemptive Hermeneutic, is useful for nothing more noble than bludgeoning human beings with their own cosmic worthlessness.
The other interpretive method, as I mentioned, is the Historical Grammatical approach. This is an approach which portends to be quite a bit less allegorical/metaphorical than the Redemptive approach. Ostensibly, the grammatical approach is more straight forward; an approach to Scripture which relies upon, as I have heard and read, “a plain reading of the text”. The fundamental assumption of this method, as I have understood it, is that “words mean things”, and that by this very notion man is, by logical extension, capable of apprehending the proper and perfunctory meaning of what he reads; and is further able to efficaciously apply it to his life’s context. The Scripture is not (entirely) allegorical/metaphorical, but is rather more of a literal work…to be interpreted as literal, and not as an arrow, necessarily, perpetually pointing away from man and to Christ’s “finished work”. The “work” of pursuing moral goodness is presumed to be as much man’s responsibility as it is Christ’s. Man is not considered a rank embarrassment to his Creator, but a partner who engages God and apprehends His commands, entreaties, and seeks to apply them. Ostensibly, the Grammatical method assumes that man is not fundamentally flawed metaphysically and epistemologically, and is therefore in a position to apply and understand what he reads in the Bible.
A person who interprets the Bible according to the Grammatical approach, using an adjective I have only recently heard (the last year or so), might be referred to as a “biblicist”; while an employer of the Redemptive approach might be known as…well, a Calvinist. For indeed, the “Cross-centered” approach was certainly John Calvin’s approach, as even a cursory reading of his Institutes of the Christian Religion will reveal. And, to be honest, I submit that all of Reformed orthodoxy presumes a “Cross-centered” hermeneutic. There is no Reformed Christian I have ever met who will concede that man at his root has moral equivalency with God, and this makes them Redemptive users by default (all the grammatical approach people are saying “wait a damn minute…we don’t concede that either”…relax, I’ll be getting to you all). If man is wholly lower than God, morally speaking, then he IS totally depraved. There is no such rational thing as a dichotomy of both GOOD and EVIL which resides at the root singularity of an individual human being. It cannot possibly be. Man is either GOOD or he is EVIL, period. There is no such thing as an in between…unless we choose to define GOOD and EVIL as pure abstractions (which they are), in which case man is at his root physical being, morally innocent, abstracting “good” and “evil” for practical (life and self-affirming) purposes. Which makes Good and Evil purely functions of assumptions which drive actions (which they are). But more on that later.
Now, while I truly do appreciate the ostensible intention of the grammatical interpretive approach, which is to provide a credible rebuttal to the humanity-razing juggernaut of Reformed theology, I must confess that in practical reality I find disturbingly little difference in this approach from the redemptive approach when you get past the “plain meaning” of the grammatical assumption and realize that there is, in fact, no such thing as a “plain” meaning of any text…at least not in the sense that I submit they think it means, which is: that words exist in a vacuum of epistemology and language; that words have meaning outside of the context of a human life now…that is, at the moment the human being is considering them and their implications. Because their implications and their meaning is always going to be first and singularly a function of the individual human agent who is, again, considering them NOW, at the moment that agent exists…which is always NOW. Meaning, you always, inexorably exist now…not before, after, later, or in past; you ARE is an axiomatic metaphysical statement (not to be confused with God’s I AM, which is both a metaphysical statement and a positional statement: CREATOR of THAT which YOU ARE and all you observe) and therefore, the words you consider will always be subject to YOUR present context…words simply cannot exist outside of the context of an individual human being. And that is the reason that there is absolutely no non-contextual, literal, and plain meaning of any text. All text is vetted by the life of the individual human being engaging them at that moment, and no other.
Let me slow it down a bit.
The truth, I submit, behind the phrase “the plain meaning of the text” is that somehow the only real difference between the grammatical approach and the redemptive approach is, well…merely a matter of semantics, so to speak. That is, both actually believe that the Biblical text has a “plain” meaning. They simply disagree about what that plain meaning is. The redemption crowd will claim that the “plain” meaning of the text is an allegory for Christ’s “work” on the Cross (I find that term funny…I have never heard of someone undergoing an execution as “working”), and that to the specially enlightened and called, this is perfunctorily self-evident. They would likely suggest that one could simply realize that, per his or her total depravity, the entire Bible (except for the bits that the Young Earth folks draft into the service of their faux science) is a treatise on man’s categorical need for CROSS because the entire Bible can “plainly” be seen as a divine proclamation of man’s moral bankruptcy, as well as a perpetual cosmic flogging to drive him to his ontological death through visceral pain, shame, suffering, and naked embarrassment.
The grammatical crowd, on the other hand, claims that the “plain” meaning of the text is the text. That the words mean what they mean; and I suppose the point is that interpretation of the text then is not actually necessary. The words speak for themselves, in the scriptural context as well as any other…for the words have a “literal” and a “plain” meaning which is transferable from context to context to context; from time and place to time and place, to this person or that. And thus, since there is no context to consider, it is insinuated that the reader should be able to simply pick up the biblical text and superimpose it upon his or her life with no regard for the historical setting of the bible, the view of the writer, or his or her own life, which again, quite literally and plainly in its own right, is the root of all truth for that individual. The “plain” meaning is a one-size-fits-all approach, with the usual equivocations (when you read the literature) allowing for the inherent logical failures which prove that the exception to the rule means that the rule is utterly irrelevant. Not that that matters. You see, just as with any other scholar trying to defend the holes in his theory by merely adjusting its definition as the criticisms arise, you will find plenty of apologists for this approach who will declare that the “plain” meaning of the text doesn’t actually apply to the parts of the bible which are obviously figurative. Of course, what they either ignore or fail to realize is that “text” is just another term for “words”, and if words have a “plain” and “literal” meaning, which is somehow its root which is removed from context, standing alone in a hermeneutic vacuum, then figurative language is quite impossible. For if Jesus Christ is the Lion of Judah, then the “plain meaning” demands that Jesus walks on four legs and roars. Obviously, this is ludicrous. So what is the reader supposed to make of the phrase “Lion of Judah”? He or she is supposed to apply it to the context of human life and realize the metaphorical meaning of it and the resulting implications and then act accordingly, as the notion serves to perpetuate and affirm his or her individual human existence. Thus, the REAL meaning of words is always contextual…it is, in fact, never “literal”. What they describe as the infinite “plain” meaning is really but one usage of any given term, phrase, or text, depending on, again, context. There is no vacuum of meaning, and thus, no meaning is ever plain. Interpretation of words by individual human beings is always demanded. And this means that words cannot interpret themselves, but require a standard of TRUTH in order that their meaning and value be determined…that is, used in efficacious service to that standard.
The standard of TRUTH, again, is the only rational one we can concede: individual human life. There is no other standard. For any standard ever defined must start with human life. The creator of the standard IS the standard. Man gets to define TRUTH as himself…his life, by pure and rank default, which is his very existence as a conscious self-aware agent. All ideas must affirm him in order to be true. Yes, even God.
And God does affirm, make no mistake. He is the paragon of affirmation. He is the Creator. And if that is not affirming human individual life then really, what the hell is?
(Stay tuned for part two)
7 thoughts on “What is the “Plain Meaning” of Scripture in Light of Man’s Life as the Only Legitimate Standard of TRUTH (part one)”
Ironically it was supposedly Calvin himself who popularized the “Historical Grammatical” approach. What this
What the Historical Grammatical approach supposedly means is to try and understand a text according to grammar and how in the historical context someone in the original audience would have understood it and not to allegorize to make the text mean whatever you want. But this means, ultimately, that if you applied it consistently in the Old Testament you would cease to believe in the New Testament since you would consider almost all of the New Testament writers’ uses of the Old Testament to be invalid since they obviously tend to use mystical and allegorical methods of “interpretation” (if you can even rightly call it that) rather than the Historical Grammatical approach. So what Calvin did with the Historical Grammatical approach was to gut and demolish the Catholic church with it by refusing to acknowledge any of their allegories they needed to keep their doctrines afloat, while nonetheless accepting the allegorizing of Paul and whatever eisogesis he needed to keep Augustinianism alive and well.
One thing we have to keep in mind that we can’t keep in mind because the powers that be are suppressing this information is that the New Testament itself in antiquity was a four volume set.
Volume One: The Gospels. Volume 2: The Pauline Epistles and Hebrews. Volume 3: Acts and the General Epistles. Volume 4: Revelation and some non-canonical works.
And obviously the Old Testament was many more volumes. So the Bible was an encyclopedia set. Could every poor person own a full Bible? No. Even a person of moderate means couldn’t. So God’s message to man must be a BASIC JIST message and not every dotted i and crossed t of the whole Bible or even the whole New Testament. This is what Paul meant by “the letter killeth but the spirit gives life”; that when you think you have to have the whole Bible and understand it all perfectly to be saved then you are dead.
Not only this, but although we have 5000 Greek manuscripts that witness to some part of the New Testament, the majority of them are manuscripts of the gospels because the gospels being the most important were the most copied and the most possessed among commoners. Paul was for specialists, for priests and monks. Common people if they owned any part of the NT at all owned the gospels.
So we must realize that the perfect understanding of Paul’s rigamarole is not necessary to salvation. God never intended for us all to be Pauline scholars. God never intended for us to be enslaved to the text of the Pauline epistles. The gospels are the gospel (duh) and the Pauline epistles are just commentary, just Paul’s opinion, nothing more.
The invention of the printing press has made us religiously stupid. We think of the Bible as a book we can carry around with ease, or even put in our pocket. And we retroject this into antiquity, which taints our theology. Because if we think the Bible has always been a book which is available to all that they can just carry everywhere they go, then we think perfect knowledge of all contents of this “book” is necessary for salvation. But when we realize it was in reality a humongous library too expensive for people to own and too big to carry, this must change our religious presuppositions. How could God be so cruel as to expect the ancient beggar in the street to have a perfect understanding of Paul’s rigamorole from Romans and Galatians? After 2000 years (and 2000 commentaries written on Romans and Galatians each one of those years) still nobody understands Paul’s convoluted crap. So we need to stop taking it seriously.
You make some very good and interesting points…and I just hope people don’t brush off your perspective too quickly without considering carefully what you are saying. I realize you are not a fan of Paul’s…and I can sympathize. He says many things which on their face scream more gnosticism/stoicism to me than Messiah as defined by OT theology. This alone means that Paul needs to be carefully considered, in context; and, as always, with the standard of Human Life as the plumb line which informs our interpretations. If any doctrine appears to contradict the only rational standard of TRUTH available to humanity–our existence, and its perpetuation and affirmation–then it MUST either be re-examined/re-defined, or tossed out. And it doesn’t matter who wrote it. For one thing is true: there is NO man who possesses a special knowledge which is both relevant AND beyond the boundaries of man’s life. There is no Pastor or priest, no scholar, and no writer of any book of Scripture who gets to claim epistemological divinity. If what they preach or write is relevant, it must be understandable to (and REASONABLY argued) everyone. If it is irrelevant to humanity, then…hell, the mystics can claim all the special knowledge they want. It makes no difference to you or I, and it certainly can have no claim over our relationship to our God.
I chose not to reject Paul however, after reading his epistles many times over and thinking long and hard about the points he is so laboriously trying to make to an audience which was undoubtedly drowning in a sea of Greek mythology and irrational Platonist-derived philosophies, para-philosophies, and sub-philosophies.
This may sound convenient, but I think Paul’s perspective is more like my own than people (want to) realize.
“What the Historical Grammatical approach supposedly means is to try and understand a text according to grammar and how in the historical context someone in the original audience would have understood it and not to allegorize to make the text mean whatever you want.”
David…this doesn’t address your comment directly but:
I realize that I am approaching my criticism of the grammatical approach in a much different, much more nuanced way. I will withhold trying to “explain” myself here in this comment…well, I’ll withhold a little. I think most people who read here will understand what I mean. Suffice to say, for now, that I understand that my perspective can get a bit confusing. This has to do in large part with the fact that people struggle to separate what is materially actual from the concepts human beings create to serve their lives. We live in a society that is utterly submerged in Platonist thinking to the point where this Greek’s philosophy and the “forms” he lauds have basically taken on a physicality of their own. Human beings have for years been relegated to the place of the utter antithesis of the “forms”…meaning, we simply accept that human life is somehow an anomaly to “truth” and an affront to the perfect, divine “reality” which controls and governs utterly away from our senses and our minds…and we approach everything from that perspective. At the end of the day, EVERYTHING is real except us. Nothing we do actually has any material relevance…it’s all determined, or part of “God’s all-controlling plan”. People utterly confuse prediction/chance/percentages with causality, and in doing so, freely surrender their own choice and their own ability to create their own reality by their own assumptions, choices, and actions, which are supposed to serve their lives, not be SERVED by them, as if man’s assumptions/concepts have their own existential reality exclusive to man. Instead, we concede defeat the moment we reach the age of “reason” (such an ironic term…their is nothing reasonable about our mass philosophy). We are nothing more than extensions of abstractions which we cannot apprehend because they are existentially outside of us. And yet, they mold us, make us, force us, control us, and condemn us before a God whom, by definition we cannot really know anyway.
Man serves the numbers, mans serves the Bible, man serves the determined future, man serves a God who CONTROLS him and has already declared man’s end before he takes his first breath. As if something can exist BEFORE it exists: a man, a woman, an action, an assumption. How can God declare as IS that which is NOT? How do you predestine that which is categorically nothing at all.
It is a question that has no answer in this universe. And yet, we build whole religions and whole nations and whole oppressive systems upon such an asinine premise. Because “God can do anything” apparently means “God can do nothing”, where “nothing” equals “something”. It is laughably egregious.
And this is, essentially, the singular interpretation with which we approach ANY aspect of life, not to mention interpreting the Bible. What I am trying to say is that when you cut through all the academic bullshit, then you can see that ALL schools of thought, ALL doctrines, ALL theologies (since Plato, with the exception of Christ, I submit) ALL traditions, ALL concepts and abstractions, ALL sciences interpret human existence the same way:
It doesn’t really exist.
And that is why I am and will be an equal opportunity offender when it comes to the matter of my Christian faith. I don’t care for Biblicist interpretations anymore than I care for Calvinist…and I know this offends people, some of whom are my friends. And I don’t really care for the “discernment blogs” who utterly REFUSE to confront oppressive ideas because they WILL not do the requisite amount of intellectual work to make what are quite easily discovered links between ideas and abuse, any more than I care for the neo-Calvinism tyranny-apologists blogs and “authorities”. I have no lack of invective for those who declare that good ideas and a loving theology is more a matter of disposition than it is assumption. As if tyranny is a mood, not a philosophy.
Its not really a rejection of Paul, not a wholesale rejection. Just a cutting down to size. In fact, from my perspective, I question the epistles where Paul describes himself in the opening as “Paul an apostle” but find the ones where he says “Paul and Timotheus, servants of Jesus Christ” to be much more authentic feeling. In those where he is just an evangelist who puts himself on the level of some other evangelists as an equal. Paul wasn’t an apostle in the strictest sense and it seems absurd for him to claim to be. And amazingly his most questionable doctrines are in those epistles where someone has made him claim to be an apostle. It seems to me that if in the opening he says “Paul an apostle” that this is a clue that some later writer has heavily altered the epistle.
Philippians “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi…”
1st Thess. “Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians…”
2nd Thess. “Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians…”
Philemon “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer…”
4 safe epistles only.
Now, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and even 1st and 2nd Timothy, he calls himself an apostle. Notice also Titus ” Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect…” Whenever he calls himself an apostle then “election” sneaks in. Do you see that?
Its not even necessarily that nothing in the books where he calls himself an apostle is any good, nor that he didn’t write any of it, but this is a clue that its been heavily altered and you must be extremely careful.
But I nonetheless agree with you that no author of scripture can get an absolute pass. Evil doctrines cannot be believed no matter where they are.
In fact, I find historically prior to 180 AD the parable of the tares was interpreted as being about Satan corrupting Scripture. Eusebius in his Church History quotes from an Antiocen theologian whose name began with a D (all I remember, Dionysius maybe) who wrote that “it is no wonder the heretics put tares in my epistles since they dare to put tares in the Lord’s Scriptures.” This interpretation of the parable is at odds with the explanation given by Matthew because probably it wasn’t included in Matthew in D’s time, yet by Ireneaus’ time in 180 AD the interpretation has clearly been added to Matthew and it amounts to predestination: God sows his people in the world and the devil sows his people in the word. The tares are now no longer textual corruptions, but people. So Ireneaus considers the heretics themselves not their textual corruptions to be the tares. So then the interpretation of the parable that Matthew gives is itself a tare. And Jesus clearly taught us that the Devil will put tares in the Scriptures which we must avoid, and yet not remove the actual text in case we are not right (so that posterity will have both the wheat and tares in the text, as we have it). We follow the wheat only, but we let the publishers keep publishing the tares. 2nd century non-Caholics attributed to Jesus a saying similar to this: “Be ye wise money-changers, for from all the Scriptures I choose what is good.”