by Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986): 241-279. Used with permission.]
What is the relation between God and the human authors of the Bible? Does God’s meaning at every point coincide with the intention of the human author? Can we use the same procedures of interpretation as we would with a noninspired book?
Even if we hold an orthodox, “high” view of inspiration, the answer to these questions is not easy. Many, of course, would deny that God is the author of the Bible in any straightforward way. They argue that the books of the Bible are to be interpreted as so many human writings, subject to the errors, distortions, and moral failures of human beings everywhere else.1
If, however, we believe in the testimony of Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the OT, we know that books of the Bible are both God’s word and the word of the human authors. The exact historical, psychological, and spiritual processes involved in the production of individual books of the Bible may, of course, have varied from book to book. In many cases we simply do not have much firm information about these processes. In all cases, however, the result was that the literary product (specifically, the autograph) was both what God says and what the human author says (see, e.g., Deut 5:22-33, Acts 1:16, 2 Pet 1:21).2
Suppose, then, that we confine ourselves to people who hold to this classic doctrine of inspiration. We still do not have agreement about the relation of God’s meaning to the meaning of the human author. A recent article by Darrell Bock3 delineates no less than four distinct approaches among evangelicals. The specific issue which Bock discusses is the question of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament. Does the New Testament use of Old Testament texts sometimes imply that God meant more than what the human author thought of? Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. says no, while S. Lewis Johnson, James I. Packer, and Elliott Johnson say yes.4 Bruce K. Waltke introduces still a third approach emphasizing the canon as the final context for interpretation. A fourth approach, represented by E. Earle Ellis, Richard Longenecker, and Walter Dunnett, emphasizes the close relation between apostolic hermeneutics and Jewish hermeneutics of the first century.5
Admittedly the New Testament use of the Old Testament has some complexities of its own. We cannot here look at all of the ways in which the NT makes use of the OT. Instead, we will concentrate on the problem of dual authorship, a problem touching on our understanding of the entire Bible, rather than on the NT or OT specifically.
1. Divine meaning and human meaning
Disagreements in interpretation arise from differing views of the relation of divine and human authorship. The chief question is this: what is the relationship between what God says to us through the text and what the human author says? Let us consider two simple alternatives. First, we could take the view that the meaning of the divine author has little or nothing to do with the meaning of the human author. For instance, according to an allegorical approach, commonly associated with Origen,6 whenever the “literal” meaning is unworthy of God, it is to be rejected. And even when the “literal” meaning is unobjectionable, the heart of the matter is often to be found in another level of meaning, a “spiritual” or allegorical meaning. If we were to take such a view, we could argue that the spiritual or allegorical meaning is part of the divine meaning in the text. But the human author was not aware of it.
The difficulties with this view are obvious. When we detach the divine meaning from the human author, the text itself no longer exercises effective control over what meanings we derive from it. The decisive factor in what we find God to be saying is derived from our allegorical scheme and our preconceptions about what is “worthy” of God. We can read in what we afterwards read out. God’s Lordship over us through his word is in practice denied.
When we see the dangers of this view, we naturally become sympathetic with the opposite alternative. In this case, we say that what God says is simply what the human author says: no more, no less.7 Sometimes, of course, there may be difficulties in determining what a particular human author says at a particular point. Moreover, sometimes what authors say may be not perfectly precise. Sometimes they may choose to be ambiguous or to hint at implications without blurting them out. But the difficulties here are the same difficulties that confront us with all interpretation of human language. Such difficulties have never prevented us from understanding one another sufficiently to carry on. The divine authorship of the Bible does not alter our procedure at all.
I am sympathetic with this view. With some qualifications it can serve us well: much better, certainly, than the procedure of unbridled allegorization. However, there are several nuances and complexities about interpretation that this view does not handle well.
First of all, and perhaps most obviously, this view, at least as described so far, does not tell us enough about how the Bible speaks to our situation and applies to ourselves.8 Some of the human authors of the Bible were, perhaps, consciously “writing for posterity,” but most, at least, were writing primarily to their contemporaries. They did not write with us directly in view. Nor did they foresee all our circumstances and needs. We can stilloverhear what they said to people in their own time, but that is not the same as hearing them speak to us. How do we know what they want us to do with their words, if they did not have us in mind?
A popular solution to this difficulty is to invoke E. D. Hirsch’s distinction between “meaning” and “significance.”9 “Meaning,” in Hirsch’s view, is what the human author expressed, including what is expressed tacitly, allusively, or indirectly. It includes what can legitimately be inferred. “Significance” is a relation that we as readers draw between what is said and our own (or others’) situation. Interpretation of a biblical passage, narrowly speaking, determines the meaning of the human author. Application involves the exploration of the significance for us of that one meaning, and action in accordance with it.
Let us take as an example Mal 3:8-12. Malachi here instructs his readers that they have robbed God in tithes and offerings, and that they are to bring the tithes to the temple storehouse, as Moses commanded. Both the general principle of not robbing God and the specific application to keep the law of tithes are part of the “meaning.” Malachi did not have our modern situations immediately in view. Nevertheless, modern readers are to apply Malachi’s meaning to themselves. In a comprehensive way, they are to devote all their lives and substance to the Lord, and specifically they are liberally to give a portion (some would say, at least 1/10th) of their gains to the church and Christian causes. These applications are “significances,” based on a relation between Malachi’s meaning and the modern situation.
So far this is reasonable. But there is a difficulty. “Significance” is here understood as any kind of relation that readers perceive between their own situations and the passage. There are many possible “significances,” even for a single reader. There are many possible applications. What then distinguishes a good from a bad application of a passage of the Bible? Is it up to the reader’s wim? In cases when we read Shakespeare, Camus, or some other human writer, we may derive “lessons” from what we read, and apply things to ourselves. But, as Hirsch and other theorists in his camp assert, it is we as readers who decide how to do this, based on our own framework or values.10 To be sure, even a human writer may want to challenge our values. But we treat that challenge as simply a challenge from another human being, fallible like ourselves.
In the case of the Bible it is different. Precisely because it has divine authority, and for no other reason, we must allow it to challenge and reform even our most cherished assumptions and values. But how do we do this? We listen to the human author of, say, Malachi. But he speaks to the Jewish audience of his day, not to us. Hypothetically, therefore, modern readers might evade applying Malachi 3:8-12 to themselves by any of several strategies. (1) God’s intention is simply Malachi’s intention: that Malachi’s Jewish readers repent concerning their attitude and practice in tithing. There is no implication for us. (2) God intends us to understand that we ought not to rob God, but this applies simply to our general attitude toward possessions, since there is no longer a temple in the Old Testament sense. (3) God intends us to understand that if we are remiss in our financial obligations in our day, he will send a prophet to let us know about it.
Note that these construals do not dispute the “meaning” of Malachi 3:8-12 in a Hirschian sense. They dispute only the applications (“significances”). There are several possible replies. For one thing, we could argue that the the rest of Scripture, and the New Testament in particular, shows that we are to give proportionally (1 Cor 16:1-4), and that in various other ways we are to be good stewards of God’s gifts. That is not disputed. The question is whether Malachi shows us such applications.
Second, we may say that, in the light of the rest of the Bible, we know that God intends us to apply Malachi to our proportional giving. But if we say that God intends(!) each valid application of Malachi, then in an ordinary sense each valid application is part of God’s meaning (=intention), even if it was not immediately in the view of the human author of Malachi. This seems to break down the idea that there is an absolute, pureequation between divine intention and human author’s meaning. Divine intention includes more, inasmuch as God is aware of the all the future applications.
Third, we may say that even though the human author did not have all the applications in mind, they are part of his “unconscious intention.”11 That is, the (valid) applications are the “kind of thing he had in mind.” Once Malachi saw our circumstances, he would acknowledge the legitimacy of our applications. This is quite reasonable. But there are still some complexities. (1) Some people, with a very narrow conception of “meaning,” might object that this breaks down the initial distinction between meaning and significance. I do not think that this is so, but it is sometimes hard to know where the exact line is drawn between “meaning” and “significance.” (2) We still need to discuss what guidelines to use in drawing applications. How do we go about determining what Malachi would say were he confronted by a situation very different from any that he confronted in his own lifetime? We have only his text to go by. Or do we have also the rest of the biblical canon, which expresses thoughts consonant with Malachi’s? But appealing to the rest of the canon as revealing the mind of God takes us beyond the mind of Malachi, unless we say that all this is in his “unconscious intention.” (3) Even if Malachi were acquainted with our situation, he would never be as well acquainted with it as God is. Moreover, there is an undeniable difference between God’s understanding of the text and Malachi’s, since God is conscious of those aspects of Malachi’s intention which are unconscious to Malachi himself.
What are we to do with these difficulties? I think it indicates that when we come to the point of application, we must somewhere along the way appeal directly to God’s knowledge, authority, and presence. Otherwise, we are simply “overhearing” a human voice from long ago, a voice to which we may respond in whatever way suits our own value system. To be sure, the idea of simply equating divine and human meaning in the Bible is a useful one. It directs us away from the arbitrariness of an allegorical system. But when we use this idea in order simply to stick to human meaning, arbitrariness can still exist in the area of the application. No technical rigidity in our theory of meaning will, by itself, allow us to escape this easily, because there are an indefinite number of applications, and many of them are not directly anticipated in the text of Scripture.
I propose, then, to deal with this area of application. I count as “applications” both effects in the cognitive field (e.g., concluding mentally, “I ought to have a practice of giving to my church”) and effects in the field of overt action (e.g., putting money in the collection plate). “Application” in this sense includes all inferences about the meaning of a biblical text. Such inferences are always applications in the cognitive field. For example, to conclude that Malachi teaches tithing (inference about meaning) is simultaneously to come to believe that “Malachi teaches tithing” (a cognitive effect in the reasoner).
With this in mind, the central question confronting us is, “What applications of a biblical passage does God approve?” To answer this, we have to look at some characteristics of communication through language.
2. Interpreting human discourse
Let us first consider communication from one human being to another. Person A speaks discourse D to person B. Now, given almost any fixed sequence of words (D), we can plausibly interpret them in several different conflicting ways. We can do this by imagining different contexts in which they are spoken or written. “The door is open” can easily be intended to imply, “Please shut it,” or “Get out,” or “That is the cause of the draft,” or “Someone was careless.” Or it may simply convey a bit of information. To understand what another human being A is saying, in the discourse D, is not simply to explore the range of all possible interpretations of a sequence of words. Rather, it is to understand what the speaker as a person is saying. We do this using clues given by the situation and by what we know of the person. We must pay attention to the author and to the situation as well as to the exact choice of words.
Moreover, many different things are happening in an act of communication. For one thing, speakers make assertions about the world. They formulate hypotheses, they express assumptions, and otherwise make reference to the world. Let us call this the “referential” aspect of communication. But referring to the world is not all that speakers do. They may also be trying to bring about actions or changes of attitude on the part of their hearers. They are trying to achieve some practical result. Let us call this the “conative” aspect of communication. Next, whether they want to or not, speakers inevitably tell their hearers something about themselves and their own attitudes. Let us call this the “expressive” aspect of communication. In fact, Roman Jakobson, in analyzing communicative acts, defines no less than six planes or aspects of communication.12 For our purposes, we may restrict ourselves to three prominent aspects: referential, conative, and expressive.
Note that most of the time a speaker is not doing only one of these. In fact, any of the three indirectly implies the others. Facts about the speaker’s attitudes (expressive) are also one kind of fact about the world (referential). And facts about the speaker’s goals or attempts to change the hearer (conative) are also one kind of fact about the world (referential). Conversely, any of statements about the world (referential) simultaneously give information about what a speaker believes (expressive) and what the speaker wants others to believe (conative).
3. Interpreting divine speech
Now consider what is involved in interpreting speech from God to a human being. I have in mind instances such as God’s speeches to Abraham (e.g., Gen 12:1-3, 15:1-21, 17:1-21) and God’s pronouncements from Mt. Sinai to the people of Israel (Exod 20:2-17). Of course, these speeches (or portions or condensations of them) are later on recorded in written form by human authors writing the books of the Bible. But for the moment let us concentrate on the original oral communication. This is useful, because no human being mediates these original acts of communication. In these cases, does interpretation proceed in the same way as with human speech? In a fundamental sense it does. For one thing, the speeches come in a human language (in this case Hebrew). They are sometimes directly compared with speech from one human being to another (Exod 20:19). The audiences are expected to proceed in a way similar to what they do with speech from a human being. They interpret what God says in terms of the situation in which he speaks (Exod 20:2, 20:18,22), and in terms of what they already know about God and his purposes (Exod 20:2, 20:11). But here lies the decisive difference, of course. The people are listening to God. Using the “same” interpretive process that we use with human speech is precisely what causes us to acknowledge the profound difference and uniqueness of divine speech–for God is unique.
Now consider what it means to know that God is speaking. We earlier observed that a discourse detached from any author and any situation could mean any number of things. Moreover, if we attribute a discourse to a different author or a different situation than the real one, we will often find that we interpret the same sequence of words in a different fashion. For example, if we think that the wording of Col 1:15 is a writing of Arius, we will interpret it differently than if we think it is a writing of the Apostle Paul.
Likewise, if we think that the wording of God’s speech at Mt. Sinai is spoken by someone else, or if we have mistaken conceptions about God, this will more or less seriously affect our interpretation of the speech. What is authoritative about God’s speech at Mt. Sinai? Divine authority does not attach to whatever meaning other people may attach to the words. They may even choose to speak the same sequence of words as in Exod 20:2-17, yet mean something different. In this sense, we may freely admit that many “meanings” can be attached to these same words. But that is not the issue. Rather, divine authority belongs to what God is saying. What is crucial is what God means. To find this out, we must interpret the words in accordance with what we know about God, just as we would take into account what we know of human authors when we interpret what they say.
But, someone may say, this is circular. How can we know God except by what he says and does? And how can we properly understand what he says and does unless we already know him? Well, how do we come to know another human being? In both cases there is a certain “theoretical” circularity. But in fact, it is more like a spiral, because earlier incorrect impressions may be corrected in the process of seeing and hearing more from a person.
In addition, we may say something about the application of God’s words. God expects his words to be applied in many situations throughout history. He binds us to obey, not only what he says in the most direct way (“meaning”), but what he implies (“application”). Each valid application is something that God intended from the beginning, and as such has his sanction. Divine authority attaches not only to what he says most directly, but to what he implies. It attaches to the applications.
Of course, we must be careful. We may be wrong when we extend our inferences too far. We must respect the fact that our inferences are not infallible. Where we are not sure, or where good reasons exist on the other side, we must beware of insisting that our interpretation must be obeyed. But if it turns out that we did understand the implications and applications correctly, then we know that those applications also had divine sanction and authority.
This means, then, that we do not need a rigid, precise distinction between meaning and application, in the case of God’s speech. To be sure, some things are said directly (“meaning”), and some things are left to be inferred in the light of seeing a relation between what is said and our situation (“significance”, “application”). But the distinction, as far as I can see, is a relative one. It is a distinction between what is said more or less directly, and between what needs more or less reckoning with a larger situation in order to be inferred.
The usual way of distinguishing between meaning and application is to say that meaning has to do with what the text itself says (in itself), whereas application has to do with a relation between the text and the reader’s situation. But we have already seen that, in general, we cannot properly assess “meaning” even in the narrowest possible sense apart from attention to the author’s situation. This situation includes the hearers. All assessment of an author’s expressed meaning must reckon with the intended hearers and their situation. In the case of divine speech, all future hearers are included, hence all their situations are included. Therefore, focus on what the text says most directly and obviously, and focus on what it is seen to say in the light of relation to a situation, are both a matter of degree.
Next, we may observe that God’s speeches include referential, expressive, and conative aspects. God’s speeches make assertions about the world and about ethical standards for our lives (the referential aspect). Secondly, we meet God when we hear him speaking (the expressive aspect). And thirdly, we are affected and transformed by what we hear (the conative aspect). God’s word may empower us to do good, but it may also harden our hearts when we are rebellious.
These three aspects of God’s communication are not so many isolated pieces. Rather, they are involved in one another. In fact, each one can serve as a perspective on the whole of God’s communication.
First of all, all of God’s speech is referential in character. In all of what God says, he is bringing us to know him and his world. For knowledge includes not just information (knowing that), but skills in living (knowing how) and personal communion with God (knowing a person).
Second, in all of what God says, we meet him: he “expresses” himself. God is present with his word.
Third, in all of what God says, he affects us (“conatively”) for good or ill, for blessing or for cursing (e.g., 2 Cor 2:15-16).
These three aspects of God’s speech are expressions of his knowledge (referential), his presence (expressive), and his active power (conative). These are nothing less than attributes of God. It is no wonder that we find these features in all that God says.
4. Divine speech as propositional and personal
We may already draw some conclusions with respect to modern views of revelation. Neo-orthodoxy and other modernist views of divine revelation typically argue that revelation is personal encounter and therefore not propositional. But these are not exclusive alternatives. Human communication in general is simultaneously both. That is, it simultaneously possesses a referential and an expressive aspect. To be sure, one or other aspect may be more prominent and more utilized at one time, but each tacitly implies the others. Moreover, to know a person always involves knowing true statements about the person, though it means also more than this. If the supposed “encounter” with the divine is indeed “personal,” it will inevitably be propositional as well. When I say that communication is “propositional,” I do not of course mean that it must be a logical treatise. I mean only that communication conveys information about states of affairs in the world. One may infer from it that certain statements about the world are true.
In our claims about divine speech we do not rely only on general arguments based on the nature of human communication. The reader of Scripture over and over again finds accounts of divine communication that involve both propositional statements and personal presence of God. (Exodus 20 may serve as well as many other examples.).
But there are lessons here also for evangelicals. Evangelicals have sometimes rebounded against modernist views into an opposite extreme. In describing biblical interpretation, they have sometimes minimized the aspect of personal encounter and divine power to transform us . There is no need to do this. The issue with modernism is rather what sort of divine encounter and personal transformation we are talking about: is it contentless, or does it accompany what is being said (referentially and propositionally) about the world?
Moreover, there may be a tiny grain of truth in the slanders from modernists about evangelicals “idolizing” the pages of the Bible. We say that divine speech is “propositional.” To begin with, we mean only that God makes true statements referring to the world. That is correct. But then, later on, we may come to mean something else. We think that we can isolate that referential and assertive character of what God is saying into gem-like, precise, syllogistic nuggets which can be manipulated and controlled by us, from then on, without further reflection on God’s presence and power at work in what we originally heard. The “proposition,” now isolated from the presence of God, can become the excuse for evading God and trying to lord it over and rationally master the truth which we have isolated. And then we have become subtly idolatrous, because we aspire to be lords over God’s word.
I do not mean to bar us from reasoning from Scripture. We must do this in order to struggle responsibly to apply the Bible to ourselves. We must take seriously its implications as well as what is said most directly. What I have in mind is this. Even with the discourses from human beings, it would be unfair not to take into account what we know of their character, their views and their aspirations when we draw out the implications of an individual sentence. A statement with no explicit qualifications, and with no explicit directions as to the way in which we are to draw implications, may nevertheless not be completely universal. It may not have all the implications that we think. A larger knowledge of the author forms one kind of guide to the drawing of implications. At least this much is true with respect to the situation where God is the author.
5. Speech with two authors
So far we have discussed speech with a single author. But of course the Bible as we have it is a product of both the divine author and various human authors. How do we deal with this situation?
Well, the Bible makes it very clear that what God says does not cease to be what God says just because a human intermediary is introduced (Deut 5:22-33). After all, it is God who chose the human intermediary and who fashioned his personality (Ps 139:13-16). Hence everything that we have said about divine speech, such as God’s speeches to Abraham, applies also to God’s speeches through human spokesmen. In particular, it applies to all of the Bible, as the written word of God.
Conversely, what human beings say to us does not cease to be what they say when they become spokesmen of God. Hence, it would appear, everything that we have said about human communication applies to all of the Bible, as the writings of men.
But now we have a complex situation. For we have just argued that interpretation of a piece of writing interprets the words in the light of what is known of the author and his situation. If the same words happen to be said by two authors, there are two separate interpretations. The interpretations may have very similar results, or they may not, depending on the differences between the two authors and the way in which those differences mesh with the wording of the text. But, in principle, there may be differences, even if only very subtle differences of nuances.
Hence it would seem to be the case that we have two separate interpretations of any particular biblical text. The first interpretation sees the words entirely in the light of the human author, his characteristics, his knowledge, his social status. The second sees the same words entirely in the light of the divine author, his characteristics, his knowledge, his status. In general, the results of these two interpretations will differ.
But couldn’t we still stick to a single interpretation? Couldn’t we say that interpretation in the light of the human author is all that we need? Then, after we complete the interpretation, we assert that the product is, pure and simple, what God says.
Well, that still leaves us with the earlier problems about applications. But in addition to this, there are now several further objections. First, the strongest starting point of the “single interpretation” approach is its insistence on the importance of grammatical-historical exegesis. But it has now ended by hedging on one of the principles of grammatical-historical exegesis, namely the principle of taking into account the person of the author. When we come to interpreting the Bible, we must pay attention to who God is.
Secondly, this view seems dangerously akin to the neo-orthodox view that when God speaks, his attributes of majesty are somehow wholly hidden under human words. That is why the neo-orthodox think that they need not reckon with the divine attributes when they subject Scripture to the historical-critical method. As evangelicals, we do not want to use the antisupernaturalist assumptions of historical-critical method. We will not do that when it comes to miracles described in the Bible. But are we going to do it when we deal with the actual reading of the Bible?
Third, we must remember that God’s speech involves his presence and power as well as propositional affirmations. At the beginning of interpretation we cannot arbitrarily eliminate the power and presence of God in his word, in order to tack them on only at the end. That automatically distorts what is happening in biblical communication from God. Hence it is asking for skewed results at the end.
Fourth, this procedure virtually demands that, at the first stage, we not reckon with the fact that God is who he is in his speaking to us. We must put wholly into the background that he is speaking to us. We must simply and exclusively concentrate on the human author. But how can we not reckon with all that we know of God as we hear what he says? This seems to be at odds with the innate impulse of biblical piety.
But there may still be a way to save this “single interpretation” approach. Namely, we can claim that God in his freedom decided to “limit” what he said to the human side. Namely, God decided to say simply what we arrive at through the intepretation of biblical passages when treated as though simply human.
This is a valiant effort. It is close to the truth. But, myself, I think that it will not work. First, it is difficult to see how one can justify this from Scripture. Deut 5:22-33 is a natural passage with which to begin. It describes the nature of God’s communication through Moses. Since later Scripture builds on Moses, Deut 5:22-33 indirectly illuminates the nature of all God’s later communication through human beings. Now Deut 5:22-33 starts first with divine communication. The human instrument is taken up into the divine message, rather than the divine message being “trimmed down” to suit the human instrument. If we were willing to use the analogy with the person and natures of Christ, we could say that Deut 5:22-33 is analogous to the Chalcedonian view (human nature taken up into the divine person), whereas the “single interpretation” approach is analogous to a kenotic view (divine person “losing” some attributes for the sake of assuming human nature).
Second, I find it psychologically impossible to maintain the experience of God’s power and presence on the one hand, and on the other to exclude all reckoning with them when we come to assessing the referential aspect of biblical communication. It is not so easy thus to separate the referential from the expressive and the conative aspects of communication. God speaks to us as whole people. Moreover, if one could separate them, one would have arrived back at an essentially neo-orthodox dichotomy between propositional content and personal encounter.
Third, I think that scholarly hesitation about emphasizing God’s role in authorship, though understandable, is groundless. Perhaps some scholars are influenced by the modernist atmosphere. Since modernists disbelieve in divine authorship, naturally their hermeneutical approach will demand its exclusion. We may unknowingly have absorbed some of this atmosphere.
But scholars have another cause for hesitation. Mention of God’s role easily leads to de-historicizing the message of the Bible. Readers reason to themselves that since God wrote the book, and since God is not subject to the limitations of knowledge of any historical period, he can be expected to write to all historical periods equally. Hence the historical circumstances in which the Bible appeared are irrelevant. The Bible is just like a book dropped directly from heaven.
Against this argument we may point to Exodus 20. There God speaks without a human intermediary. But his speech is not simply a speech “for posterity.” It is a speech directly to specific people in specific circumstances (Exod 20:2,12), people subject to specific temptations (Exod 20:17). The most important factor leading to a historically-rooted message is not the human intermediary (though this further emphasizes it), but the fact that God chooses to speak to people where they are. He can do so fluently because he is competent in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and is master of all the customs of each culture into which he chooses to speak. Over against this, the de-historicizing approach not only neglects human intermediaries. It unwittingly denies God’s linguistic and cultural competence!
Hence, I conclude, the confinement to purely human meaning is not correct. But if this is not the answer, what is? If we do not collapse the two interpretations into one, do they simply exist side by side, with no necessary relation to one another? This would result in reproducing the problems of the old allegorical approach.
6. Personal communion of authors
The Bible itself shows the way to a more satisfactory resolution of the difficulty. In the Bible itself, the two authors, human and divine, do not simply stand side by side. Rather, each points to the other and affirms the presence and operation of the other.
First, God himself points out the importance of the human authors. For example, when God establishes Moses as the regular channel for conveying his word to the people of Israel, he makes it clear that Moses, not merely God, is to be active in teaching the people (Deut 5:31, 6:1). Similarly, the commissioning of prophets in the OT often includes a mention of their own active role, not only in speaking God’s word to the people, but in actively absorbing it (Ezek 2:8-3:3, Dan 10:1-21, Jer 23:18). This is still more clear in the case of Paul’s writings, where his own personality is so actively involved. Now, what happens when we pay careful attention to God as the divine author? We find that we must pay attention to what he says about the role of the human authors. Sometimes he directly affirms the significance of their involvement; sometimes this is only implied. But whichever is the case, it means that God himself requires us to interpret the words of Scripture against the background of what we know about the human author. We cannot simply ignore the human author, when we concentrate on what God is saying.
Conversely, the human authors of the Bible indicate that they intend us to interpret their words as not merely words that they speak as ordinary persons. For example, the book of Isaiah claims to be a message from God, not jus the personal thoughts of Isaiah. Isaiah reinforces this by using the phrase, “Thus says the Lord.” What is the effect of a phrase like this? Would the inhabitants of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time say, “Now we must interpret what our friend Isaiah is saying simply in terms of everything we know about him: his relations with his family, his opinions about agriculture and politics, and so on.” Certainly not! When Isaiah says, “Thus says the Lord,” it is no doubt still Isaiah who is speaking. But Isaiah himself, by using these words, has told people to create a certain distance between himself, merely viewed as a private individual, and what the Lord has commissioned him to convey. In addition to this, consider what happens when Isaiah makes detailed predictions about the distant future. If the hearers treat him simply as a private human being, they would say, “Well, we know Isaiah, and we know the limits of his knowledge of the future. So, because of what we know about him, it is obvious that he is simply expressing his dreams or making artistically interesting guesses.” Again, such a reaction misunderstands Isaiah’s claims.
We may try to focus as much as possible on Isaiah as a human author. The more carefully we do our job, the more we will realize that he is not just any human author. He is one through whom God speaks. His own intentions are that we should reckon with this. It is not a denial of human authorship, but an affirmation of it, when we pay attention to God speaking. In particular, in the case of predictions, we pay attention to all that we know of God, God’s knowledge of the future, the wisdom of his plan, and the righteousness of his intentions. This is in accord with Isaiah’s intention, not contrary to it. In fact, we might say that Isaiah’s intention was that we should understand whatever God intended by his words.13 Hence there is a unity of meaning and a unity of application here. We do not have two diverse meanings, Isaiah’s and God’s, simply placed side by side with no relation to one another.
But the matter is complex. What we have here is a situation of personal communion between God and prophet. Each person affirms the significance of the other’s presence for proper interpretation. On the one hand, God has formed the personality of the prophet, has spoken to him in the heavenly counsel (Jer 23:18), has brought him into inner sympathy with the thrust of his message. What the prophet says using his own particular idiom fits exactly what God decided to say. On the other hand, the prophet affirms that what God is saying is true even where the prophet cannot see all its implications.
This situation therefore leaves open the question of how far a prophet understood God’s words at any particular point. The Bible affirms the prophets’ inner participation in the message. In addition extraordinary psychological experiences were sometimes involved. Because of this, it would be presumptuous to limit dogmatically a prophet’s understanding to what is “ordinarily” possible. On the other hand, it seems to me equally presumptuous to insist that at every point there must be complete understanding on the part of the prophet. Particularly this is so for cases of visionary material (Daniel 7,10, Zechariah 1-6, Rev 4:1-22:5) or historical records of divine speech (e.g. the Gospel records of Jesus’ parables). Why should we have to say, in the face of Dan 7:16, Zech 4:4-5, Rev 7:14, and the like, that the prophets came to understand everything that there was to understand, by the time that they wrote their visions down? Isn’t it enough to stick with what is clear? It is clear that the prophet faithfully recorded what he saw and heard. He intended that we should understand from it whatever there is to understand when we treat it as a vision from God. Similarly, there is no need to insist that Luke understood all the ramifications of each of Jesus’ parables. He may have, but then again he may not have. The results for our interpretation of the parables in the Gospel of Luke will be the same.
I have spoken primarily about the role of prophets in speaking the word of God. But, of course, prophecy is not the only form in which the Bible is written. The different genres of biblical writings, prophecy, law, history, wisdom, song, each call for different nuances in our approach. The relation between divine and human participation in the writing is not always exactly the same.14
For instance, consider the case of Mosaic law. The background of the meeting at Mt. Sinai forms a framework for Moses’s later writings, and leads us to reckon more directly with the divine source of the law. On the other hand, Moses’s close communion with God (Num 12:6-8) hints at his inner understanding of the law.
In the case of prophecy, narrowly speaking, the prophet’s pronouncement “Thus says the Lord,” and the predictive elements in his message, frequently have the effect of highlighting the distinction between the prophet as mere human being and the prophet as channel for the Lord’s message. The prophet himself steps into the background, as it were, in order to put all the emphasis on God’s speaking. In visionary experiences this may be all the more the case, inasmuch as it is often not clear how much the prophet understands.
With the psalms and the New Testament epistles, on the other hand, the human author and his understanding come much more to the front. The apostle Paul does not continually say, “Thus says the Lord.” That is not because he has no divine message. Rather, it is (largely) because he has so thoroughly absorbed the message into his own person. He has “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16,13), as a man indwelt by the Spirit.15
Here we confront still another complexity. What is human nature, and what does it mean to analyze a passage as the expression of a human author? If the human author is Paul, that means Paul filled with the Holy Spirit. We are not dealing with “bare” human nature (as if human beings ever existed outside of a relationship to God of one kind or another). We are already dealing with the divine, namely the Holy Spirit. Paul as a human being may not be immediately, analytically self-conscious of all the implications of what he is saying. But people always know more and imply more than what they are perfectly self-conscious of. How far does this “more” extend? We are dealing with a person restored in the image of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, having the mind of Christ. There are incalculable depths here. We cannot calculate the limits of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of Christ. Neither can we perform a perfect analytical separation of our knowledge from our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.
7. Christological fulness in interpretation
The complexities that we meet here are only a shadow of the greatest complexity of all: the speeches of the incarnate Christ. Here God is speaking, not through a mere human being distinct from God, but in his own person. The eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, speaks. Hence we must interpret what he says in the light of all that we know of God the author. At the same time a man speaks, Jesus of Nazareth. With respect to his human nature, he has limited knowledge (Luke 2:52). Hence we must interpret what he says in the light of all that we know of Jesus of Nazareth in his humanity.
This is a permanent mystery! Yet we know that we do not have two antithetical interpretations, one for the human nature speaking and one for the divine nature speaking. We know that there is a unity, based on the unity of the one person of Christ. However, it is possible, with respect to his human nature, that Jesus Christ is not exhaustively self-conscious of all the ramifications, nuances, and implications of what he says. He nevertheless does take responsibility for those ramifications, as does any other human speaker. As the divine Son, Jesus Christ does know all things, including all ramifications, applications, etc., of his speech. There is a distinction here, but nevertheless no disharmony.
In addition to this, we may say that Jesus in his human nature was especially endowed with the Spirit to perform his prophetic work, as planned by God the Father (Luke 4:18-19, 3:22). When we interpret his speech, we should take into account that the Holy Spirit speaks through him. Thus, we are saying that we must take into account the ultimately Trinitarian character of revelation, as well as the unique fulness of the Spirit’s endowment in Christ’s Messianic calling.
In short, when we interpret Christ’s speech, we interpret it (as we do all speech) in the light of the author. That is, we interpret it as the speech of the divine Son. But Christ says that the Father speaks through him (John 14:10, 12:48-50). Hence it is the speech of the Father. Since the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus to equip him for his Messianic work, we also conclude that it is the speech of the Spirit. And of course it is the speech of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Each of these aspects of interpretation is in harmony with the ohters. But they are distinct, at least in nuance!
What we meet in Christ is verbal communication undergirded by a communion and fellowship of understanding. In Christ’s being there is no pure mathematical identity of divine persons or identity of two natures, but harmony. The result is that there is no pure mathematical identity in the interpretive product. That is, we cannot in a pure way analyze simply what the words mean as (for instance) proceeding from the human nature of Christ, and then say that precisely that, no more, no less, is the exhaustive interpretation of his words.
The case of divine speech through apostles and prophets is, of course, secondary, but none the less analogous. The revelation of Jesus Christ is the pinnacle (Heb 1:1-3). All other revelations through prophets and apostles are secondary to this supreme revelation. There is ultimately no other way to gain deeper insight into the secondary than through the pinnacle. Hence we cannot expect to collapse the richness of divine presence into a mathematical point, when we are dealing with the words of the Bible.
8. Progressive understanding
A further complication arises because the many human authors of the Bible write over a long period of time. None of the human authors except the very last can survey the entire product in order to arrive at an interpretation of the whole.
Once again, we may throw light on the situation by starting with a simpler case. Suppose that we have a single uninspired human author speaking or writing to a single audience over a period of time. Even if we are dealing with only a single long oral discourse, the discourse is spread out in time. Individual statements and individual paragraphs near the beginning of the discourse are understood first, then those near the end. Moreover, an audience is in a better position to draw more inferences from earlier parts of a discourse once they have reached the end. Typically, all the parts of a discourse qualify and color each other. We understand more by reading the whole than we do from reading any one part, or even from all the parts separately. The effect is somewhat like the effect of different parts of an artist’s picture. If we just attend to small bits of paint within the picture, one by one, we may miss many implications of the whole. The “meaning” of the picture does not reside merely in a mechanical, mathematical sum of the blobs of paint. Rather, it arises from the joint effect of the individual pieces. Their joint effect arises from the relations between the pieces. Likewise, the import of an author’s discourse arises partly from the reinforcements, qualifications, tensions, complementations, and other relations between the individual words and sentences, as well as from the effects of each sentence “in itself.”
The over-all effect of this is that an audience may understand what the first part of a discourse means, and then have that understanding modified and deepened by the last of the discourse.
Now consider a particular example of two people in communication over a long period of time. Suppose a father teaches his young son to sing “Jesus loves me.” Later on, he tells the story of the life of Christ from a children’s Bible story book. Still later, he explains how the Old Testament sacrificial system depicted aspects of Christ’s purpose in dying for us. Finally, the son becomes an adult and does extended Bible study for himself. Suppose then that the son remembers how his father taught him “Jesus loves me.” He asks, “What was my father saying in telling me the words of the song?” At the time, did I understand what he was saying? The answer may well be yes. The son understood what the father expected that he would have the capacity to understand at that point. But the father knew as well that the child’s initial understanding was not the end point. The father intended that the earlier words should be recalled later. He intended that the son should understand his father’s mind better and better by comparing those earlier words with later words that the father would share.
Now, suppose that there was no misunderstanding, no misjudgement at any point. There is still more than one level of understanding of the father’s words. There is what one may understand on the basis of those words more or less by themselves, when not supplemented by further words, and when seen as words adapted to the capacity of the young child. And there is what one may understand on the basis of comparing and relating those words to many later words (and actions) of the father. The first of these understandings is a legitimate one, an understanding not to be underestimated. As long as the child has only those words of the father, and not all the later history, it would be unfair of him to build up an exact, elaborate analysis of all the ramified implications of the statements. But once the father has said a lot more, it throws more light on what the father intended all along that those words should do: they should contribute along with many other words to form and engender an enormously rich understanding of Christ’s love, an understanding capable of being evoked and alluded to by the words of the song.
The complexity arises, as before, from the dynamic and relational character of communicative meaning. The understanding we achieve from listening arises not only from individual words or sentences in the discourse but from the complex relations that they have to one another and to the larger situation, including what we know of the author himself. In particular, the song, “Jesus loves me,” conveys meaning not simply in virtue of the internal arrangement of the words, but also in virtue of the context of who is saying it, what else is being said by way of explanation, and so on. True, there is something like a “common core” of meaning shared by all or nearly all uses of the song. But the implications that we may see around that common core may differ. (Imagine the song being used by a liberal who believes that in fact Jesus is merely human, and therefore still dead. In his mouth, the song is only a metaphorical expression of an ideal of human love.)
9. Progressive revelation
Now we are ready to raise the crucial question: does something analogous to this happen with God’s communication to his people over the period of time from Adam onwards? Is God like a human father speaking to his child?
The basic answer is obviously yes. But, for those who do not think it is so obvious, we can supply reasons.
(1) Israel is called God’s son (Exod 4:22, Deut 8:5), and Paul explicitly likens the OT period to the time when a child is still a minor (Gal 4:3-4). These passages are not directly discussing the question of biblical interpretation, but they are nevertheless suggestive.
(2) From very early in the history of the human race God indicates in his speeches to us that more is to come. History and the promises of God are forward-looking. The story is yet to be completed. It is altogether natural to construe this as implying that earlier promissory statements of God may be more deeply understood once the promises begin to be fulfilled, and especially when they are completely fulfilled. Similar reflections evidently apply even to the hope we now have as Christians (1 Cor 13:12).
(3) In at least a few cases, within the pages of the OT, we find prophecies whose fulfillments take unexpected form. One of the most striking is Jacob’s prophecy about the dispersion of Simeon and Levi (Gen 49:7b).16 If we attend only to the immediate context (49:7a), we are bound to conclude that God undertakes to disgrace both tribes by giving them no connected spot of settlement. The actual fulfillment is therefore quite surprising in the case of Levi. But it is not out of accord with God’s character of turning cursings into blessings. What we know about him includes his right to exceed our expectations. This whole affair is more easily understood when we take into account the fact that Gen 49:7 is not an isolated word of God, but part of a long history of God’s communications, yet to be completed. We cannot expect to draw all our conclusions until we have heard the whole.
In short, God’s actual ways of bringing fulfillments may vary. Some of them may be straightforward, others may be surprising. This is true just as it is true that an author may continue a discourse in a straightforward way, or in a surprising way that causes us to reassess the exact point of the first part of what he says.
(4) The symbolic aspects of OT institutions proclaim their own inadequacy (Heb 10:1, 4). They are not only analogous to the final revelation of God, but at some points disanalogous (Heb 10:4). Suppose that people stand in the OT situation, trying to understand what is symbolized. They will inevitably continue with some questions unanswered until they are able to relate what is said and done earlier to what God does at the coming of Christ. Until the point of completion, the interpretation must remain open-ended (but not contentless).
(5) Likewise, the speech of God is not complete until the coming of Christ (Heb 1:1-3). We must, as it were, hear the end of the discourse before we are in a position to weigh the total context in terms of which we may achieve the most profound understanding of each part of the discourse.
I conclude, then, that any particular passage of the Bible is to be read in three progressively larger contexts, as follows.
(a) Any passage is to be read in the context of the particular book of the Bible in which it appears, and in the context of the human author and historical circumstances of the book. God speaks truly to the people in particular times and circumstances.
(b) Any passage is to be read in the context of the total canon of Scripture available up to that point in time.17 The people originally addressed by God must take into account that God’s speech does not start with them, but presupposes and builds on previous utterances of God.
(c) Any passage is to be read in the context of the entire Bible (the completed canon). God intended from the beginning that his later words should build on and enrich earlier words, so that in some sense the whole of the Bible represents one long, complex process of communication from one author.
For example, Ezekiel 34 is to be understood (a) in terms of the immediate context of the book of Ezekiel and the historical circumstances in which the book first appeared; (b) in terms of its continuation of the word of God recorded in the law of Moses and the pre-exilic prophets; (c) in terms of what we can understand in the light of the whole completed Bible, including the New Testament.18
In addition to these three analyses of the passage we may, in more fine-grained reflection, distinguish still other possibilities. In principle, we may ask what the passage contributes at any point during the progressive additions to canon through further revelation. For example, Bruce K. Waltke argues that in the case of the psalms (and presumably many other OT books), it is illuminating to ask about their meaning at the time when the OT canon was complete but before the dawn of the NT era.19 This is still another approach alongside all the rest. For simplicity we confine the subsequent discussion to the approaches (a), (b), and (c).
As we have said again and again, what we understand from a passage depends not only on the sequence of words of the passage, but the context in which it occurs. Hence the three readings (a), (b), and (c) can, in principle, lead to three different results. Some people might want to speak of three meanings. Meaning (a) would be the meaning obtained from focusing the most on the human author and his circumstances. Meaning (c) would be the meaning obtained from focusing the most on the divine author and all that we know about him from the whole of the Bible.
However, for most purposes I myself would prefer to avoid calling these three results three “meanings.” To do that suggests that three unrelated and perhaps even contradictory things are being said. But these three approaches are complementary, not contradictory. The difference between these three approaches is quite like the difference between reading one chapter of a book and reading the whole of the book. After taking into account the whole book, we understand the one chapter as well as the whole book more deeply. But it does not mean that our understanding of the one chapter by itself was incorrect. Remember again the example of “Jesus loves me.”
10. Psalm 22:12-18 as an example
To see how this works, let us consider Ps 22:12-18. Let us begin with approach (a), focusing on the human author. The passage speaks of the distress of a person who trusts in God (22:2-5,8-10), but is nevertheless abandoned to his enemies. In a series of shifting metaphors the psalmist compares his suffering to being surrounded by bulls (22:12-13), to being sick or weak in body through emotional distress (22:14-15), to being caught by ravening dogs (22:16), to being treated virtually like a carcass (22:17-18).20 The psalmist’s words evidently spring from his own experience of a situation of abandonment.
We encounter a special complexity in the case of psalms. The actual author (David, according to the title of Psalm 22)21 and the collector or collectors who under inspiration included Psalm 22 in the larger collection both have a role. The psalm receives a new setting when it is included in the Book of Psalms. This provides a new context for interpretation. In my opinion, it means that the collector invites us to see Psalm 22 not simply as the experience of an individual at one time, but a typical or model experience with which the whole congregation of Israel is to identify as they sing and meditate on the psalm.22 Hence, in the context of the Book of Psalms (the context with divine authority), we compare this psalm of lament and praise (22:25-31) with other psalms. We understand that there is a general pattern of suffering, trust, vindication, and praise that is to characterize the people of Israel.
Now we move to approach (b). We consider Psalm 22 in the light of the entire canon of Scripture given up until the time when the Book of Psalms was compiled. But there is some problem with this. The Book of Psalms may have been compiled in stages (e.g., many scholars think that Book 1, Psalms 1-41, may have been gathered into a single collection before some of the other psalms had been written). Whatever the details, we do not know exactly when the compilation took place. Hence we do not know exactly what other canonical books had already been written.
We may still proceed in a general way. We read Psalm 22 in the light of the promise to David (2 Sam 7:8-16), and its relation to the earlier promises through Abraham and Moses. Then we understand that the people of Israel are represented preeminently by a king in the line of David. The deficiencies and failures of David’s immediate descendents also point to the need for a perfect, righteous king who will truly establish David’s line for ever. Old Testament prophecies make it progressively clear that the hopes centered in David’s line will ultimately be fulfilled in a single great descendent, the Branch (Isa 11:1ff, Zech 6:12, Isa 9:6-7). The experiences of suffering, trust, and vindication expressed in Psalm 22 and other psalms we expect to be fulfilled in a climactic way in a messianic figure, the Branch who is the kingly Davidic representative of all Israel.23
What the messianic mediator will be like becomes progressively revealed in the course of the Old Testament. Yet it is never made very clear just how the experience of the Messiah ties in with Psalm 22 in detail. We know that Psalm 22 is related to the prophetic passages, but just how is not so clear.
Finally, let us proceed to approach (c). Let us consider Psalm 22 in the light of the completed canon. In this light, we know that Christ has come to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15), to fulfill all God’s promises (2 Cor 1:20, Rom 15:8, Luke 24:45-48). We know too that Christ used the opening words of Psalm 22 when he was on the cross (Matt 27:46). This already suggests that he is in a brief way indicating the relevance of the wholepsalm to himself. If we remain in doubt, other New Testament passages assure us that that is indeed the case (Matt 27:35, John 19:24, Heb 2:12).
We proceed, then, to read through Psalm 22 afresh. We compare it with the accounts of the crucifixion in the New Testament, and with New Testament theology explaining the significance of Christ’s death. We see that in 22:12-18 Christ describes his own distress, and in 22:25-31 he expresses the “fruit of the travail of his soul” (Isa 53:11), the benefits that will follow. In particular, certain details in the psalm which appeared to besimply metaphorical in the original OT context strike home with particular vividness (22:16,18).24
11. What is “in” a verse
Now let us ask, “What is the correct understanding of what God is saying in a verse like Ps 22:16, 22:18, or 22:1?” Is it the understanding that we gain from approach (a), or the understanding that we gain from approach (c)? The answer, I think, is both. If we simply confine ourselves to approach (a), or even to approach (b), we neglect what can be learned by reading the whole of the Bible as the word of the single divine author. On the other hand, if we simply confine ourselves to approach (c), we neglect the fact that God’s revelation was progressive. We need to remember that God was interested in edifying people in OT times. Moreover, what he made clear and what he did not make so clear are both of interest to us, because they show us the ways in which our own understanding agrees with and sometimes exceeds previous understanding, due to the progress in revelation and the progress in the execution of God’s redemptive program.
Moreover, certain dangers arise if we simply confine ourselves to approach (a) or to approach (c). If we neglect approach (a), we miss the advantage of having the control of a rigorous attention to the historical particulars associated with each text of the Bible. Then we run the danger that our systematic understanding of the Bible as a whole, or our subjective hunches, will simply dictate what any particular text means.
On the other hand, if we neglect approach (c), we miss the advantage of having the rest of the Bible to control the inferences that we may draw in the direction of applications. Perhaps we may refuse to apply the text at all, saying to ourselves, “It was just written for those people back there.” Or we may apply it woodenly, not reckoning with the way in which it is qualified by the larger purposes of God. We miss the Christocentric character of the Bible, proclaimed in Luke 24:45-48. We refuse to see the particulars in the light of the whole, and so we may repeat an error of the Pharisees, who meticulously attended to detail, but neglected “justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42).
But how can these approaches be combined? They combine in a way analogous to the way in which a human son combined earlier and later understandings of “Jesus loves me.” There is a complex interplay.
But I think that we can be more precise. There are several legitimate ways of organizing our research. In a typical case of scholarly research, we may begin with approach (a) as a control. For Psalm 22, we focus narrowly on the original historical context, and what is known within that context. We do grammatical-historical exegesis as the foundation for all later systematizing reflection. We try to avoid simply “reading in” our total knowledge of Scripture, or else we lose the opportunity for the Bible to criticize our views. As a second, later step, we relate Psalm 22 to earlier canonical books and finally to the New Testament. Whatever we find at this stage must harmonize with the results of approach (a). But we come to “extra” insights and deeper understanding as we relate Psalm 22 to the NT. These extra things are not “in” Psalm 22 in itself. They are not somehow mystically hidden in the psalm, so that someone with some esoteric key to interpretation could have come up with them just by reading the psalm in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Psalm 22 in itself gives us only what we get from approach (a). The extra things arise from the relations that Psalm 22 has with earlier canonical books (approach (b)), with the NT, and with the events of Christ’s death. These relations, established by God, provide the basis for our proceeding another stage forward in understanding.
Hence, we are not talking about some purely subjective process of letting one’s imagination run wild. Nor are we talking about a traditional Roman Catholic view of authority, where church tradition provides extra input with divine authority to enrich biblical understanding.25 Rather, the “extra” understanding comes from the biblical canon itself, taken as a whole.
But now suppose we consider the case of nonscholars and laypeople. Suppose that we are not scholars ourselves, but that we have been Christians for many years. Suppose that through the aid of the Holy Spirit we have been growing spiritually and studying the Bible diligently for the whole time. From our pastors and from other scholarly sources we have gained some knowledge of OT and NT times, but not elaborate knowledge. But we have gained a thorough knowledge of the Bible as a whole. Much of this knowledge might be called unconscious or subconscious knowledge. Especially when it is a matter of large themes of the Bible, we may not be able to say clearly what we know, and exactly what texts of the Bible have given us our knowledge.
When we read Psalm 22, we read it against the background of all that unconscious knowledge of biblical truths. When we see the opening words of 22:1, we naturally assume that the psalm speaks of Christ’s suffering. We read the rest of the psalm as a psalm about Christ. In each verse we see Christ’s love, his suffering, his rejection by his enemies.
The results we gain may be very similar to the results gained by scholars who go through all the distinct “steps.” But scholars know that their understanding arises from the relations of Psalm 22 to the rest of the Bible. They self-consciously distinguish between what arises from the psalm viewed more or less in itself, and what arises from other passages of the Bible as they illumine the significance of the psalm. Laypeople may have the same “results,” but without being able to say exactly what all the stages were by which they could logically come to those results.
The psychological perception of what is “in” the text of Psalm 22 may also be different. Lay readers are not consciously aware of the immense and important role played by our general knowledge of the rest of the Bible. Hence it seems that all the depth of insight that laypeople receive as they read Psalm 22 comes from Psalm 22. It is all “in” the psalm. By contrast, the scholar knows where things come from, and prefers to speaking of the depth of insight as arising from the relations between many, many individual texts of the whole Bible, as these are brought into relation to Psalm 22 in a systematizing process.
But now consider once more the central question: what is God saying in Psalm 22? Well, he is saying what he said to the original OT readers of the psalm. He speaks the truth to them. Hence, scholars are correct in taking care to distinguish what comes from the psalm itself and what comes from the psalm seen in the light of the whole Bible.
But God also intends that we should read Psalm 22 in the light of the rest of what he says. Scholars are correct in going on to a second stage in which they relate the psalm to the whole Bible. And laypeople are correct when they do the same thing. Of course, we must suppose that the laypeople are sober, godly readers, well versed in the Scripture. Then, as they read Psalm 22, all the depth that they receive is a depth that God intends them to receive. God is saying all that richness to them as they read. But that means that their psychological and spiritual perception is correct. All that richness is “in” the psalm as a speech that God is speaking to them now.
Hence, I believe that we are confronted with an extremely complex and rich process of communication from God. The scholarly psychological process of making the distinctions is important as a check and refinement of laypeople’s understanding. But that lay understanding, at its best, is not to be despised. We are not to be elitists who insist that everyone become a self-conscious scholar in reading the Bible. Laypeople have a correct perception, even psychologically, of what God intends a passage like Psalm 22 to say. God does say more, now, through that passage, than he said to the OT readers. The “more” arises from the stage of fuller revelation, and consequent fuller illumination of the Holy Spirit, in which we live.
All this is true without any need to postulate an extra, “mystical” sense. That is, we do not postulate an extra meaning which we can uncover only by using some esoteric hermeneutical method. Rather, our understanding is analogous to the way that a son’s understanding of “Jesus loves me” arises and grows. At the end of a long period of reading and digesting a rich communication, we see each particular part of the communication through eyes of knowledge that have been enlightened by the whole. Through that enlightenment, each part of the whole is rich.
What relation does all this have to the discussions of sensus plenior?26 Raymond E. Brown’s dissertation defines sensus plenior as follows:
The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation.27
My distinction between the intention of the human author and divine intention, as well as my discussion of the role of later revelation, shows affinities with this definition. But I am also concerned to distinguish, from a scholarly point of view, between what is “in” the passage and what arises from comparison of the passage with later revelation. This shows affinities with the rejection of sensus plenior by John P. Weisengoff.28 Weisengoff rejects sensus plenior precisely in order to protect the idea that the added knowledge comes from the new revelation.29 In fact, the situation is complex enough to include the major concerns of both points of view.30
12. NT interpretation of the OT
Our reflections up to this point also throw light on some of the problems arising from NT interpretation of the OT.31 I would claim that the NT authors characteristically do not aim merely at grammatical-historical exegesis of the OT. If we expect this of them, we expect something too narrow and something with too exclusively a scholarly interest. The NT authors are not scholars but church leaders. They are interested in showing how OT passages apply to the church and to the NT situation. Hence, when they discuss an OT text, they consider it in the light of the rest of the OT, in the light of the events of salvation that God has accomplished in Christ, and in the light of the teaching of Jesus himself during his earthly life. They bring all this knowledge to bear on their situation, in the light of all that they know about that situation. In this process they are not concerned, as scholars would be, to distinguish with nicety all the various sources that contribute to their understanding. Both they and their readers typically presuppose the context of later revelation. Hence, what they say using an OT passage may not always be based on the OT text alone, but on relations that the text has with this greater context. There is nothing odd about this process, any more than there is anything odd about laypeople who read Psalm 22 in the light of their knowledge of the whole of Scripture.
13. Scholarly use of grammatical-historical exegesis
In conclusion, let us ask what implications we may draw concerning scholarly grammatical-historical exegesis. By grammatical-historical exegesis I mean an approach like approach (a), which self-consciously focuses on each biblical book as a product of a human author, in a particular historical setting. On the positive side, we have seen that grammatical-historical exegesis has an important illumining role. Several points can be mentioned.
(1) In writing the Bible God spoke to people in human language, in human situations, through human authors. God himself in the Bible indicates that we should pay attention to these human factors in order to understand what he is saying and doing.
(2) On a practical level, grammatical-historical exegesis serves to warn the church against being swallowed up by traditionalism, in which people merely read in a system of understanding which afterwards is read out. It alerts us to nuances in meaning that we otherwise overlook or even misread.
(3) It serves to sensitize us to the genuinely progressive character of revelation. God did not say everything all at once. We understand him better the more we appreciate the wisdom involved in the partial and preliminary character of what came earlier (Heb 1:1).
On the other hand, grammatical-historical exegesis is not all that there is to responsible biblical interpretation. Again, we can summarize the results in several points.
(1) If grammatical-historical exegesis pretends to pay attention to the human author alone, it distorts the nature of the human author’s intention. Whether or not they were perfectly self-conscious about it, the human authors intended that their words should be received as words of the Spirit.
(2) God’s meets us and speaks to us in power as we read the Bible. God’s power and presence must be taken into account from the beginning, just as we take into account all that characterizes a human author of any human text. We cannot, with perfect precision, analytically isolate God’s propositional content from his personal communion. To attempt to perform grammatical-historical exegesis by such an isolating procedure is impious.
(3) It is legitimate to explore the relations between what God says in all the parts of the Bible. When we perform such a synthesis, what we conclude may go beyond what we could derive from any one text in isolation. Yet it should not be in tension with the results of a narrow grammatical-historical exegesis. (Of course, sometimes because of the limitations of our knowledge we may find no way to resolve all tensions.)
(4) We are not to despise laypeople’s understanding of the Bible. We are not to reject it just because on the surface it appears to “read in” too much. Of course, laypeople may sometimes have overworked imaginations. But sometimes their conclusions may be the result of a synthesis of Bible knowledge due to the work of the Holy Spirit. Scholars cannot reject such a possibility without having achieved a profound synthetic and even practical knowledge of the Bible for themselves.
(5) When later human writers of Scripture interpret earlier parts of Scripture, they typically do so without making fine scholarly distinctions concerning the basis of their knowledge. Hence we ought not to require them to confine themselves to a narrow grammatical-historical exegesis. In many respects their interpretations may be similar to valid uses of Scripture by nonscholars today.
(6) God intends that the Bible’s words should be applied in people’s lives today. In complex personal, social and political situations, we may not always be sure what the correct applications are. But applications genuinely in accord with God’s word are part of God’s intention. Hence, in a broad sense, they are part of what God is saying to us through the Bible as a whole. God continues to speak today. When we read the Bible aware that it is God’s word, we understand that he is speaking to us now. We are constrained to obey, to rejoice in him, and to worship.
1 E.g., James Barr, The Bible in the Modern World (London: SCM, 1973); idem, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia:Westminster, 1980); idem, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983); may be taken as representative of one form of this view. Barr along with many interpreters in the historical-critical tradition wants to retain a diffuse authority for the Bible. Theologians are still called upon to reflect upon the Bible, and say what they think the implications are for our doctrine. But this is not to say that they treat the Bible as what God says.
A more conservative Barthian view, or a “canonical” approach like that of Brevard Childs (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scriputre [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979]), would leave more room for a distinctively “theological” interpretation based on historical-critical interpretation or along side of it. But such approaches, in my opinion, still compromise divine authorship and authority by allowing errors in the propositional content of Scripture. See, e.g., John M. Frame, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974) 159-77.
2 I am aware that almost any biblical passage one could cite concerning inspiration has been disputed by deniers of inerrancy. Moreover, with few exceptions the direct statements about inspiration refer primarily to the OT (or parts of it) rather than to the NT. Hence some additional arguments are needed. But it is outside the scope of this article to deal with such disputations.
6 Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961) 191-98. But see R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture (London: SCM, 1959), for a more positive appreciation of Origen.
7 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. might seem to be a representative of this “single-meaning” approach, by virtue of his strong statements in favor of the single meaning of biblical texts (“Legitimate Hermeneutics,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 125, 127; idem, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981] 47). But Kaiser’s position contains much more besides this. He provides detailed instructions for treating the question of applying the Bible to the present day (ibid. 34, 149-63). And he advises us, when interpreting a passage, to take into account “antecedent Scripture”: books of the Bible composed before the composition of the passage in question (ibid. 131-47). This is not merely a way of saying that we should understand general historical and literary backgrounds of the passage. We must do that with any kind of text whatsoever. But, in addition, in the case of Scripture we should also devote particular attention to those texts which have the same divine author (ibid. 133-34). Finally, Kaiser acknowledges the need for systematic theology, integrating the teaching of the whole Bible (ibid. 161). This presupposes the value of viewing the whole of Scripture as the product of a single divine author.
Hence Kaiser is concerned to protect the value of historical backgrounds and progressive revelation, rather than to deny the value of looking at the whole of the canon at some later stage of synthesis.
9 Eric D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven/London: Yale University, 1967); idem, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976); cf. Emilio Betti, Die Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften (Tübingen: Mohr, 1962); Charles Altieri, Act & Quality: A Theory of Literary Meaning and Humanistic Understanding (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1981) 97-159; Kaiser,Exegetical Theology 32.
12 Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960) 350-77. Cf. Vern S. Poythress, “A Framework for Discourse Analysis: The Components of a Discourse, from a Tagmemic Viewpoint,” Semiotica 38-3/4 (1982) 277-98.
13 See, e.g., Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979) 246: “In prophecy what the symbol intends is identical with what God, for whom the prophet speaks, intends. This may enter the prophet’s own horizon only partially and imperfectly.”
14 Abraham Kuyper notices some of these differences, and argues for a division into the categories of lyric, chokmatic, prophetic, and apostolic inspiration (Principles of Sacred Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968] 520-544, the section on “The Forms of Inspiration”).
15 See Peter R. Jones, The Apostle Paul: A Second Moses according to II Corinthians 2:14-4:7 (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University; Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1974); idem, “The Apostle Paul: Second Moses to the New Covenant Community: A Study in Pauline Apostolic Authority,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974) 219-44.
18 My approach is virtually identical with that of Bruce K. Waltke, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms,” in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, ed. John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg (Chicago: Moody, 1981) 3-18. My arguments rest more on the general features of communication, whereas Waltke’s arguments rely more on the concrete texture of OT revelation. Hence the two articles should be seen as complementary. See also William Sanford LaSor, “The Sensus Plenior and Biblical Interpretation,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation, ed. W. Ward Gasque and William Sanford LaSor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 260-77; Douglas Moo, “The Problem of Sensus Plenior,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986).
20 See Charles A. Briggs and Emilie G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1906) I 196-97; A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms I 190-91; Derek Kidner,Psalms 1-72 (London: InterVarsity, 1973) 107-8; Joseph A. Alexander, The Psalms (reprinted from 1864 ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955) 101-3. Commentators have some disagreements over the details of the picture, particularly over the interpretation of vs. 16, “they have pierced my hands and feet.” But it is clear that in the original context the speech is dominated by metaphorical comparisons between the psalmist’s enemies and fierce animals.
24 See Kidner, Psalms 1-72 107: “While verses 14, 15, taken alone, could describe merely a desperate illness, the context is of collective animosity and the symptoms could be those of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion; in fact verses 16-18 had to wait for that event to unfold their meaning with any clarity.” Many commentators in the classical historical-critical tradition, by contrast, refuse in principle to let the NT cast further light on the implications of the verses, because they do not allow the principle of unified divine authorship to exercise an influence on interpretation.
25 My views have certain affinities with the idea of sensus plenior. See Raymond E. Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture (Baltimore, MD: St. Mary’s University, 1955). But Roman Catholic discussions ofsensus plenior sometimes appear to be interested in including church tradition, not simply the biblical canon, in their reckoning. For instance, Brown mentions that sensus plenior may be needed to account for the dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption of Mary (ibid. 74; see also Raymond E. Brown, “The Sensus Plenior in the Last Ten Years,” CBQ 25  272). And his full definition of sensus plenior seems to leave an opening for the entrance of later church tradition. He speaks of studying biblical texts “in the light of further revelation [later canonical books] or development in the understanding of revelation” (Brown, The Sensus Pleniorof Sacred Scripture 92). The last phrase, “development in the understanding of revelation,” might mean only that we should pay attention to the achievements and opinions of previous generations. But that is true of any scholarly investigation of any subject. Hence the phrase seems superfluous unless it implies a greater role for tradition than what Protestants would grant.
26 Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture; idem, “The History and Development of the Theory of a Sensus Plenior,” CBQ 15 (1953) 141-62; idem, “The Sensus Plenior in the Last Ten Years,” 262-85; James M. Robinson, “Scripture and Theological Method: A Protestant Study in Sensus Plenior,” CBQ 27 (1965) 6-27; LaSor, “The Sensus Plenior and Biblical Interpretation.”