Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 1. Intro.

by | Mar 1, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Introduction: Christian hermeneutics includes a study of those interpreters and schools of interpretation in the Christian theological tradition who, in fact, may not be Christian in the soteriological sense. This field of study usually starts with the second century A.D. and carries on into the present era. In our study of Christian hermeneutics, we will select some highlights along the historical continuum to introduce students to the main practitioners and interpretive schools. We will concentrate on the Apostolic Fathers/Patristics, the schools of Alexandria and Antioch, the four-fold method (quadriga) of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Reformed orthodox of the post-Reformation era, the Enlightenment, nineteenth-century Germany, Princeton Seminary prior to and including Geerhardus Vos, and briefly look at the end of the twentieth century. This will give us a wide-ranging look at the key players and key movements.

It is of interest to note that, at least in the past, historical Christian interpretive methods have received a highly negative assessment from conservative Evangelicals. Patristic methods, for example, have been down-played as models for us to emulate. In the words of C. S. Lewis, a sort of “chronological snobbery” seems to be part of the reason for this. The Middle Ages are viewed as casting a dark shadow over the church in terms of hermeneutical method (and just about everything else). Though all agree that the Reformers got back to the Bible, their immediate successors, the post-Reformation Protestant Scholastics, so the theory goes, supposedly left the Bible and substituted it with a neo-Aristotilian, Confessional/Dogmatic Scholasticism that utilized careless proof-texting, an ad nauseam hyper-syllogistic form of argumentation, and left the Christocentric hermeneutical emphasis of Calvin. Some even view the post-Reformation Protestant Scholastics as precursors of the rationalistic Enlightenment.[1]

This highly negative assessment of the history of Christian interpretive method has been challenged and is slowly being qualified and modified in our day.[2] Granted, no one is so naive to assert that all interpretive methods throughout the history of the church are equally valid or that there are no bad examples. What is being recognized, however, is that we have much to learn from the history of Christian hermeneutics and we need to sit humbly at the feet of those who have gone before us and carefully listen.

As will be noted below, the Enlightenment caused a revolution in hermeneutical theory. It sought to make hermeneutics an objective science and effectively took God out of the hermeneutical equation. The meaning of biblical texts was limited to what the interpreter thought the human author (or editors) intended. In the name of objectifying hermeneutics, a subjective principle was smuggled into Evangelicalism as a cure-all for interpretive conclusions. Human authorial intent became the goal and end-all of biblical interpretation. However, in order to determine human authorial intent, interpreters became dependent upon background sources, which are neither infallible, nor objective. Pre-Enlightenment/pre-critical interpreters did not limit the meaning of texts to the human author. Human authorial intent as the end-all of interpretation is a post-Enlightenment phenomenon and, in essence, has caused several generations of Evangelical interpreters to shun pre-critical hermeneutical practitioners as worthy examples of biblical interpretation. As Moises Silva says, “…the popular assumption [is] that the Christian church, through most of its history, has misread the Bible.”[3] Our brief survey will attempt to show that a more positive assessment is warranted.

[1] Cf. Richard C. Barcellos, The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology: Geerhardus Vos and John Owen – Their Methods of and Contributions to the Articulation of Redemptive History (Owensboro, KY: RBAP, 2010), 53-107.

[2] See the relevant discussions in Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, Moises Silva, “Has the Church Misread the Bible?,” Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim and Richard C. Barcellos, The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology, specifically, 66-78.

[3] Silva, “Has the Church Misread the Bible?,” 33. Cf. 34-37 for Silva’s discussion of F. W. Farrar’s negative assessment of most of the church’s interpretive history. Cf. David C. Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 95-109, for Steinmetz’s discussion of “Calvin and Isaiah” in the context of the history pre-critical exegesis. Steinmetz takes Farrar to task (esp. pp. 95 and 107).

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