by Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10/1 (spring 2006), 96-98. Used with permission.]
Our hermeneutics must be Trinitarian because God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, is Trinitarian. When we interpret either the words of God or the works of God, we need to take into account who he is. Everything we know about him, including his Trinitarian character, potentially influences our understanding of his words and his works. Moreover, when people introduce erroneous conceptions of God, whether deistic, pantheistic, unitarian, or modalistic, those errors will inevitably affect interpretation of the meaning of God’s words and works, because meaning is influenced by one’s conception of authorship. The effects may often be subtle, but may sometimes also be dramatic.
One of the more obvious effects arises through differences in people’s ideas of rationality. Typically people who reject the Trinity do so on account of its alleged irrationality, and substitute for it a rationalistic conception of God, tailored to the expectations of fallen man. Man’s fallen reason becomes the measure of what God can or cannot be. And then, of course, one can expect human reason to lord it over the interpretation of the words and works of God as well.
By contrast, in Trinitarian theology we confess both the incomprehensibility of God, due to his infinity, and his knowability due to his revelation of himself both in Scripture and in the world (Romans 1:18-23). This signals both the accessibility of truth and the incomprehensibility of the totality of truth, and prepares the way for approaching interpretation in a rational, but not rationalistic, way.
The significance of Trinity is particularly notable in redemption. God the Father sovereignly controls the events of history and the events in individual lives that lead to individual and corporate salvation. God the Son accomplishes salvation, reconciliation, and cleansing from sin in the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection. God the Spirit applies the redemption to individuals and groups through his coming to indwell us. Of course all three Persons are involved in all three of these areas; but each Person has his own role.
These redemptive acts each have implications for hermeneutics. The control of the Father over history includes his control over the words that he gives to man, either by direct divine voice as at Mount Sinai, or through human prophets like Moses and Isaiah. God’s control needs to be kept in mind in our reception of the Bible, because otherwise we may come to treat the Bible in practice as a merely human product, or a product where God is “doing the best he can” with partially uncooperative human beings. Genuine human agency in writing Scripture does not imply independence from God or reduction of the control of God, any more than the genuine agency of the Son implies his independence from the Father.
Second, consider the role of the Son. Because of human sin, we are separated from God and would die if we stood in his presence (remember Exod. 33:20). But receiving the word of God involves receiving his presence. We would die reading Scripture except for the mediation of the Son. Through Son we receive knowledge of God without dying.
Third, consider the role of the Spirit. The Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The promise in John 16 focuses on the special role of the Spirit after Pentecost, and perhaps also applies in a special way to the apostles. But the principle concerning the Spirit’s guidance generalizes to cover the whole work of the Spirit in illumination. Only the person whose heart is molded by the Spirit and attuned to the Spirit can understand the things of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16). Spirituality is necessary for understanding the teaching of the Bible, as saints throughout the ages have known. And this spirituality is not just some vague sensitivity to religious phenomena, but a spiritual knowledge of divine things such as only the Holy Spirit can give. Modern scholars under the pressure of rationalism are prone to forget this role of the Spirit.
Space is too short to do more than touch on two other areas in hermeneutics.
First, the roles of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in Trinitarian redemption suggest analogous roles in God’s verbal communication. God the Father is not only in control of history, but in control of his word that goes forth from his mouth. He is the author of Scripture. God the Son, as the Word of God (John 1:1), can be closely associated with the content spoken by the Father, which then leads to the meaning-content of the biblical text. And God the Spirit stands with the human reader in interpreting the textual message (“whatever hehears he will speak,” John 16:13).
Accordingly, the Father can be associated with the role of the author, the Son with the role of the text or discourse, and the Spirit with the role of the reader. That does not make human readers infallible, but for those in union with Christ the Spirit comes as an infallible divine reader who guides the human reader.
The pattern of author, discourse, and reader can be generalized even beyond the bounds of Scripture. While we affirm that Scripture, and not other writings, is the infallible word of God, we can also see that the Trinitarian being of God, as Father, Son, and Spirit, is the ultimate archetype behind all human communication as authors send discourses to readers. The unity and diversity within the Trinity are the archetype for understanding the ectypal unity-in-diversity in author, discourse, and reader. Accordingly, we are encouraged to avoid both the unitarian error, which would collapse all complexity in human communication into a single block of meaning, with no remaining differentiation; and to avoid the polytheistic error of multiplying meanings chaotically, such as what takes place when human readers are seen as lords (gods!) of meaning.
Second, human language originates as a gift of God in creation, rather than being the product merely of a gradual naturalistic ascent of man from the slime. In fact, the description of the Second Person of the Trinity as the Word (John 1:1), as well as the conversation between the Father and the Son in a passage like John 17, indicate that human language is what it is against the background of divine language in the mystery of intra-Trinitarian communication. Reductionistic approaches to language must accordingly be critically evaluated. And we are invited to see that the obvious meanings that even a casual reader of Scripture can perceive open the door to the infinity of the mind of God, and the infinity of meaning in intra-Trinitarian communication. The category of mystery accordingly belongs to meaning and to hermeneutical reflections on meaning.
John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987).
Vern S. Poythress, “God’s Lordship in Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 50/1 (1988) 27-64. Available at <https://frame-poythress.org/poythress_articles/1988GodsLordship.htm>.
Vern S. Poythress, “Christ the Only Savior of Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 50/2 (1988) 305-321. Available at <https://frame-poythress.org/poythress_articles/1988Christ.htm>.
Vern S. Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1999).