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)