Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 3 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

The Challenge to Literal Interpretation

One major problem in a discussion of literal interpretation is that people, not God, often end up being at the center of the discussion. Little is to be gained if we focus on man. It has been said that “small minds talk about people, and great minds talk about ideas.” One tool of liberalism is to argue that, if you challenge a person’s views, you are degrading that person. Even when we consider a person, or a group of people, who hold a particular position, we do not, and should not, degrade their character. If a person’s use of concepts indicates a lack of integrity, then that rises from the discussion of their ideas. People are not the enemy; error is. This issue, however, is one of the reasons people are opposed to identifying error.

When man is at the center of our thinking, we tend to chastise anyone who dares to be dogmatic about theology. Some would refer to people as “having another interpretation or point of view.” We are reminded of our need to respect others’ personal views. However when God is at the center, our concern is with what He has said and what He thinks. This is exactly why we need a Biblical hermeneutic.

Clarification and Consideration

Who is right? Which movement has the valid point of view? The answer is - none of them. God alone is perfect, and His truth is everlasting. That means our goal is to remain as close as we can to God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.

The next problem has to do with what people claim. Many in our theological realm would claim to follow the same rules of interpretation we have outlined; they just retain the right to define them differently. That is the first step away from revelation.

It is of little consequence that well known theologians may claim to hold to the literal system of interpretation. It is their product that will tell the real story. If five of these intellectuals go to the Scripture and come away with different interpretations, there is something we can know for sure: all of them may be wrong, but only one can be right. There is only one right interpretation - the one God has given. How did the others end up with error? The answer is simple. Either they failed to use the rules that rise directly from the Bible, or else they misused them.

There is often a great deal of difference between what people state and what they demonstrate. What we say we believe has to be proven, or demonstrated. Mere words are extremely hollow. For someone to claim to hold the same rules of interpretation, then to demonstrate otherwise is suspect. Take, for example, the atheist. I have met only a handful of people who actually say, “There is no God”; they are stated atheists. On the other hand, the majority of people I meet live as if there is no God; they are atheists by demonstration. We are what we hold in our hearts. This is exactly what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God” (Psalm 53:1) So, we see that it is of little consequence for someone to claim to use the rules that rise from the Bible.

It should also be observed that most interpreters will use some portion of some of the rules, but that does not necessarily mean they are loyal to the whole set of guidelines. Our goal is not to see if we can be faithful to God’s hermeneutical instructions part of the time. If God is the center of our discipline, then it will not matter to us if someone is sincere and thinks he is right, or if he’s just doing the best he can. The fact that all men are imperfect is a given. To focus on God is to emphasize His infallibility rather than man’s fallibility.

There has to be a reason why men are so intent on protecting themselves. We do not know all there is to know about the Bible, and we never will, at least not this side of heaven. There are some things God simply has not meant for us to know. There are some passages the interpretation of which will never be known, and we have no right to force those passages. The interpreter should not be insulted that God has not told him everything.

A Bad Habit

Many Scripture texts are cloudy, but many are exceedingly clear. The clear ones establish the heart of Christian theology; in those essential areas, the Bible is very transparent. If this were not true, there could be no assurance of the salvation God has provided in Christ. We rejoice, therefore, in the things we know dogmatically, and we are willing to leave the others to our sovereign God.

Many contemporary theological theories take advantage of this point; that is, they practice using cloudy passages to confuse the clear ones. They waste valuable energy in building sandcastles on ifs, ands, and buts of a dislocated passage. This also happens with those who isolate the grammatical rule and construct theological error built on pronouns. We expect to use the clear passages to open doors to the cloudy.

Another bad habit you will observe in your reading is what appears to be a deliberate attempt to confuse people. The Reformed system does this by stating a multitude of suppositions and then drawing a conclusion that does not exist in any one of them, or in the totality of them. My advice to students is to learn to identify the old tool of liberalism quickly – complicating for the purpose of confusing. In our study of God’s truth, our goal should be to simplify in order to clarify. In study, and in ministry, this will make the interpreter effective.

False Charges

The literal system of interpretation revealed in Scripture has often been attacked. This system gives clear and concise answers from the text. It guards against theological error. Not only has literal interpretation been mischaracterized and falsely defined, it has been wrongly identified.

The Biblical system of interpretation has been accused of being too rigid, inflexible, and fixed. David Turner refers to it as “a wooden approach”.[1] He also states that it “tends to put the question of interpretation too simply.”[2] This illustrates exactly the point I just made about the irritation of theologians with simplicity. Turner goes on to criticize literal interpretation as “hyperliteral.”[3] On the other hand, those who have chosen the literal base of interpretation see the allegorical base as plastic, moveable, and pliable.

There is further complaint, this time about the approach we use. If hermeneutics is a science, or an art, then we would expect it to be exact as long as the rules are properly used. That is disturbing to those who have chosen the allegorical base. Their argument is that it cannot be that dependable, given the fallibility of man. The discussion, however, is not about man; it is about God. The question is, “Are these really God’s rules, and can we know what God’s rules are”? What is actually happening here is that God - not man - is being challenged.

The Biblical hermeneutic is like a mathematical system. The proper use of numbers results in the same answer over and over again. If there is an error, it can be blamed on the person using the system. What the allegorical base folks would do is to try to blame the mathematical system. That, in essence, is the fallacious argument being used by those who desire to weaken a literal approach. The proper use of God’s rules will repeatedly give us the same answer. If there is error in the conclusion, we should blame man rather than the hermeneutical system. Therefore, it is true that, if interpreters obeyed the rules, they would all come to the same theological conclusions. Our presuppositions and faulty conclusions would all be eliminated by obedience to God’s careful plan for interpretation.


The grammatical, contextual, historical, and literal rules of interpretation rise directly from the Scripture. If they are ignored, disobeyed, or corrupted, the conclusion itself will be erroneous. The reader will observe how this plays out in the following segments. The Reformed system rises from forces external to the Scripture, or a mixture of human reason and Bible texts.

One more important comparison must be made between literal and non-literal/allegorical methods. The centerpiece of Biblical interpretation, herein described, is the glory of God. That places God exactly where He ought to be. The centerpiece of all other approaches to interpretation is man. Our peers who hold to Reformed and Covenant positions would disagree. They seem to argue from the point that they have some part in everything. They do indeed hold to the importance of the glory of God, so that is not the question. Is the glory of God, however, really the centerpiece of their theology, writing, and preaching?

Their view appears to be that the glory of God comes through the redemptive plan. That is why one is overcome by the constant references to redemptive theology, redemptive history, and a particular theory of soteriology. As marvelous and powerful as this area of theology is, it represents only a portion of the reasons why the glory of God should be the centerpiece. While this may be misunderstood by some, it should be noted that God would still be worthy of glory had there been no plan for redemption. We would do well to avoid suppositions like this one but such a suggestion has the desired shock value.

To illustrate this concept, we need to make it clear that all interpreters use some literal interpretation and some allegory. The problem has to do with which base the person chooses. The base of literal interpretation goes to the text expecting it to be literal unless the text tells them that it is allegory; it begins with a literal view. The contrasting view actually begins with an allegorical perspective, which will be demonstrated repeatedly in this article.

[1] Blaising, Craig A. Darrell L. Bock. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1992. 276.
[2] Ibid., p. 276
[3] Ibid., p. 277