Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical and Biblical Interpretation

Article by   March 2007

Introduction

Graeme Goldsworthy's most recent publication, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, works to apply biblical theology to the discipline of hermeneutics with the goal of arriving at a biblical, theistic, and presuppositional approach to interpreting the Bible. After a brief introduction, the book is presented in three parts followed by an epilogue, bibliography, index of names, and index of Scripture references. By way of brief introduction and personal commentary, if you are tired of the perplexing neutrality of most books on hermeneutics, then you may be pleasantly surprised by the clear, confessional, Christ-exalting treatment of this topic by Goldsworthy. Since this reviewer is enthusiastic about the book, the goal of this review will be to let Goldsworthy speak for himself in the context of summary and explanation.

In the introduction, the author sets before his readers the basic goal of the book, the basic goal of hermeneutics, the author's own expression concerning a center for biblical theology, and the essential epistemological state required for "gospel-centred" hermeneutics. With regard to the major underlying goal of the entire volume, Goldsworthy states that he hopes "to commend the much neglected role of biblical theology to hermeneutical practice . . . [and] to show how the method of biblical theology provides a basic tool in any biblical research, and how it functions as the matrix for understanding the relatedness of the whole Bible to the person and work of Jesus" (15, italics mine). In the statement of his goal, we can discern the author's concern both for the unity of the Bible and the source of that unity as it applies to biblical interpretation. It should be noted that this is a bold statement in the context of the preceding centuries of higher-critical presuppositions, especially as it relates to Old Testament studies, that work to discern the pieces without regard for (and oftentimes in denial of) the essential unity of the Bible.

In the statement of his goal (see above), the author alludes to what he considers to be the center of biblical theology and, therefore, the unifying principle of Scripture. For Goldsworthy, this center is the "person and work of Jesus." As such, he argues from a trinitarian perspective that "Our knowing God [the Father] centres on Jesus, the Word of God who has come in the flesh, and on the Bible, the Spirit-inspired, written word of God that is the true testimony to this incarnate word" (16). Hermeneutics is, therefore, the work of interpretation that aims at "a right understanding of what God says to us in his word" (16). It is, in other words, "concerned with the practical application of Scripture alone" (49). It is not insignificant that Goldsworthy also argues from the presuppositional perspective that the word of God cannot be properly interpreted unless the interpreter is first justified. That is to say, one cannot properly interpret the Bible as good news unless he or she has first been converted and so, "Our ability to interpret Scripture must be saved, justified and sanctified through the gospel" (16). "Hermeneutical conversion takes place when one becomes a believer. The Bible will never be the same again to us because we, as believers, have made a quantum shift from unbelief and the rejection of God's word to faith and trust in that word, and submission to it" (18). And finally, "If Christ truly is our Lord and Saviour, then he is the Lord and Saviour of our hermeneutics" (19).

Part I: Evangelical Prolegomena to Hermeneutics (chapters 1-4)

The first major section of the book is styled as a "prolegomena" or introduction to the discipline of biblical interpretation. According to Goldsworthy, "The purpose of Part I is to consider the grounds and basic assumptions, along with their justification, of evangelical belief and biblical interpretation" (21). From one perspective, this is perhaps the most important section in the book. If the reader does not appreciate the presuppositional stance outlined by Goldsworthy in these first few chapters, then it is likely that the remaining material presented in Parts II and III will not be as significant in terms of how it may shape one's hermeneutical presuppositions and methods. For this reason, in this review, Part I will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Goldsworthy is unashamedly presupposition in his approach to biblical interpretation. In fact, he argues that "Neutrality and complete objectivity are the presuppositional myths of the modern secular outlook, and they are also the assumptions, sometimes unexamined, of many Christian thinkers" (21). As noted above, Goldsworthy's presuppositional stance is rooted in biblical theology and the center of his biblical theology is Jesus. It is the person and work of Jesus that, for Goldsworthy, is able to unify and comprehend the diversity found in Scripture. This presuppositional element is so central to the work of the book that it is restated dozens of times in a variety of forms, as here, where it is stated that, "Evangelicals have always believed that, although there is great diversity in the Bible, there is a discernible and essential unity to its message. At the heart of evangelicalism is the belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation to mankind of God's mind, and the defining act of human history. The person and work of Jesus provide us with a single focal point for understanding reality" (21, italics mine). In other words, hermeneutics is the collision of exegesis and biblical theology in a presuppositional spiral.

In chapter 1, descriptions and definitions of hermeneutics are set forth in a more formal manner. According to the author, "Hermeneutics is about communication, meaning and understanding" (24) and "The function of hermeneutics could be stated as the attempt to bridge the gap between the text inside its world and the readers/hearers inside their world" (27). Additionally, in this first chapter, Goldsworthy proceeds to detail a number of the various gaps that exist between the Bible and its reader: language, culture, history, literature, textual (text criticism), intended (original) audience (pp. 28-30). The remainder of the chapter deals with issues related to the communication process: the communicator, the communication, the receiver. In the end, Goldsworthy wants his readers to be aware of the theological dimensions of hermeneutics for Christians. The communicator is God [the Father] and the communication is both the written word, the Bible, and the incarnate word, Jesus Christ. The receivers and proclaimers of this communication are his covenant people. At the end of chapter 1 (pages 37-38), there are three helpful charts that summarize issues related to hermeneutics in the categories of (1) communicator, (2) communication, and (3) receivers and proclaimers. It is worth noting that in the Bible section under communication, Goldsworthy lists 10 items, a number of which are related to his underlying concern for the relevance of biblical theology in hermeneutics: 1. What is the Bible?, 2. How was it produced?, 7. What is its unity and central message?, 9. What are its canonical limits?

In chapter 2, Goldsworthy details the presuppositions that support his hermeneutics in the context of concerns related to our postmodern culture. By way of summary, Goldsworthy notes that in our postmodern culture, the locus of authority and thus interpretation has shifted from the author (communicator) and the text (communication) to the audience (receiver). Thus, "Confidence in rationality is gone and the metanarrative (the big picture of a unified reality) is rejected . . . The author and the text cease to me the creators of meaning and it is left to the reader to create the meaning in the text" (40). It is tempting to say more here given the significance of this statement and the influence of this reality on the American evangelical church. Given the scope of this review, however, it is perhaps best to refrain and move on to the presuppositions outlined by Goldsworthy.

The definition of a presupposition used in this book is borrowed from John Frame (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987, 45). As such, "A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence" (39). Goldsworthy formulates his presuppositions with reference to the reformation doctrines of sola (meaning "alone" in Latin). There are four presuppositions of this type outlined in this chapter:

· "The principle of 'grace alone' points us to the ontological priority of God" (47).

· "The principle of 'Christ alone' points us to the soteriological and hermeneutical priority of the gospel of Christ" (48).

· "The principle of 'Scripture alone' points us to the phenomenological and material priority of Scripture" (49).

· "The principle of 'faith alone' points us to the ontological inability of the sinner and the epistemological priority of the Holy Spirit." (50).

Perhaps the most provocative statement in this chapter appears in the context of the discussion of Christ alone as one of the four main hermeneutical presuppositions. Though a bit long, it is worth including in this review since it represents such an important component of Goldsworthy's thought in this book. It is stated that, "If the biblical story is true, Christ is the only saviour for humankind and there is room for no other way to God. If the story is true, Jesus Christ is the interpretative key to every fact in the universe and, of course, the Bible is one such fact. He is thus the hermeneutic principle that applies first to the Bible as the ground for understanding, and also to the whole of reality. Interpreting reality correctly is a by-product of salvation. Thus we must assert that the person and work of Jesus Christ are foundational for evangelical hermeneutics . . . Christ interprets all facts, since all things were created in him, through him and for him (Col. 1:16). As the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), Christ mediates the ultimate truth about God in all things and thus about the meaning of the Bible" (48).

According to the statement included in the paragraph above, Christ is not only the presuppositional and hermeneutical key for a proper understanding of the Bible, but for all of reality. In this book, the presupposition of Christ alone is applied to hermeneutics through the lens of biblical theology. However, according to Goldsworthy's statement above, this same presuppositional center would apply to apologetics, missions, work, raising children, and spending money. As it applies specifically to hermeneutics, however, "How can we unpack the notion that the gospel is the power of God for hermeneutical salvation? What are the hermeneutics of Christ? The question may be stated as the relationship of the three major dimensions of communication to Jesus Christ. According to the gospel the real link between the communicator, the message and the receivers is the incarnated God/Man, thus: Jesus is God, the infallible communicator; Jesus is the Word, the infallible message; Jesus is the God/Man, the infallible receiver" (56). At this point, the presuppositional agenda (and center) set forth in the book should be crystal clear. It is, once again, the application of Christology to hermeneutics through biblical theology.

In chapter 3, Goldsworthy continues to develop the issue of the significance of Christ alone as a evangelical presupposition for hermeneutics. As the title of this volume suggests, hermeneutics of this sort are characterized as Gospel-Centered with the person and work of Christ at that center. At this point it will be important to include the author's definition of the Gospel. According to Goldsworthy, "The gospel is the event (or the proclamation of that event) of Jesus Christ that begins with his incarnation and earthy life, and concludes with his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. This historical event is interpreted by God as his preordained programme for the salvation of the world" (58). Conversely, "If something is not what God did in and through the historical Jesus two thousand years ago, it is not the gospel. Thus Christians cannot 'live the gospel', as they are so often exhorted to do. They can only believe it, proclaim it and seek to live consistently with it. Only Jesus lived (and died) the gospel. It is a once-for-all finished and perfect event done for us by another" (59). This last statement is important because it begins to speak with reference to the significance of our own hermeneutical presuppositions and how those emerge in our preaching and teaching. It also begins to highlight the necessity for the second part of this book where a history of interpretation is undertaken.

For Goldsworthy, the fact that Christ is the mediator means that the gospel is the hermeneutical norm of Scripture. Thus, "Interpreting the Bible by the Gospel involves the conscious decision to work at the relationships of all parts of the Bible to the gospel" (62) and "the ultimate interpretation of the meaning of everything is found only in Christ. This includes every text of the Bible" (63, italics mine). These statements derive from Goldsworthy's interpretation of texts such as Luke 24:25-27, 44, and John 5:39.

In the final chapter of Part I (chapter 4), Goldsworthy sketches a brief biblical theology of interpretation. Since Christ is the hermeneutical center of the Bible, the next logical question is how do all the various biblical parts relate to Christ? How do the parts relate to the whole? For Goldsworthy, the discipline of biblical theology is specially suited to answering this question and, in this chapter, he sets out to present this unity through the canon. If, for Goldsworthy, Christ is the hermeneutical center of biblical theology, then redemptive (or salvation) history is the framework within which this reality is expressed. As such, beginning with Genesis 1-3, continuing though Revelation, and including the Pentateuch, wisdom, the prophets, the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles, the gospel-centered approach is applied to the various genres and sections of the Christian canon. It should be noted that, in the opinion of this reviewer, this is perhaps the least developed chapter in the book, especially with regard to the discussion of redemptive history as it relates to the formation and the final form of the canon. If the locus of meaning is the text, then the text sets forth, shapes, and uses redemptive history. The final form of the canon should control our approach to redemptive history.

Part II: Challenges to Evangelical Hermeneutics (chapters 5-12)

Following the prolegomena of Part I, Part II provides the reader with a brief history of interpretation from the early church (Alexander and Antioch) to modern evangelicalism. The trajectory of this survey also includes the medieval church, Roman Catholicism (including Thomas Aquinas), the enlightenment and liberalism (including Schleiermacher), and certain modern hermeneutical influences such as philosophical hermeneutics, historical criticism, and literary criticism. The presentation of data acknowledges its dependence upon secondary literature. Additionally, this survey is intentionally focused to "concentrate on the evidence for the invasion of non-biblical philosophical frameworks into the interpretative process" (91). Perhaps the most interesting chapter, from the perspective of the modern reader, would be chapter 12, the eclipse of the gospel in evangelicalism. In this chapter, Goldsworthy provides an interesting assessment of the hermeneutical problems that exist in the modern evangelical church, perhaps the primary audience of a book like this. For this reason, it is an important chapter for readers, especially for those who preach and teach in the church, to consider.

One of the themes that Goldsworthy traces through this section of the book (it appears in the other two sections as well) is that of the moralistic or exemplary use of the Bible, especially the Old Testament (No one would deny that there are moral, ethical, and exemplary portions and uses of the Bible. Here, the author is simply speaking about the moralistic or exemplary misuse of texts without hermeneutical sensitivity). Back in Part I, Goldsworthy noted that one of the first misuses of the Gospel as the hermeneutical center of the Bible is the confusion between the Gospel itself and the so-called "fruit" of the Gospel. For example, he states, "When we confuse the fruit of the gospel in the Christian life for the gospel itself, hermeneutical confusion in introduced. The focus easily turns to the life of the believer and the experience of the Christian life. These can then become the norms by which Scripture is interpreted. Instead of interpreting our experience by the word, we start to interpret the word by our experience" (59). And so, early on in a treatment of the sub-apostolic age (92-94), Goldsworthy observes "that very early in Christian history there occurred a concentration on the exemplary and ethical Christ, rather than on the substitutionary and redemptive Christ. This slippage anticipates the reversal of the roles of justification and sanctification in medieval Catholicism" (92-93). Additionally, this same observation may help us to understand the origin of the so-called new perspective on Paul as well as a number of other common misuses of the Old Testament in the modern evangelical church.

Part III: Reconstructing Evangelical Hermeneutics (chapters 13-19)

In this final section, Part III (chapters 13-19), the question is asked, "what," therefore, "can be the shape of contemporary evangelical hermeneutics?" (181) given certain biblical theological presuppositions and the numerous problems arising from understanding the complexity of interpretation from church history. Goldsworthy expresses concern for "our ability to argue the case for Christianity rationally in a postmodern world" (181-182) and that we become "sensitive to the pitfalls and errors of biblical interpretation into which we have fallen, so that we may seek to reform our ways" (182). As such, Goldsworthy works to develop how gospel-centered hermeneutics integrates with the literary, historical, and theological dimensions of the text through a contemporary re-evaluation of the reformation principles of interpretation (described above, and again below).

First, in chapter 13, Goldsworthy works to re-articulate the significance of presuppositionalism (as found in Augustine, Anselm, and the Reformers) as opposed to fideism (resulting in mysticism or existential theology) and empiricism (resulting in evidentialism and higher-critical skepticism). He also argues for the humanistic principle of ad fontes (translated "to the source" from Latin) which becomes the reformational principle sola scriptura (translated "scripture alone" from Latin). In this context, four hermeneutical principles are set forth (see page 185, constituting a summary derived from Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 74-81). These four principles are: (1) the sole content of Scripture is Christ and this constitutes the unity of Scripture; (2) Scripture authenticates itself and is thus the sole authority for faith and life; (3) Scripture interprets itself and provides its own meaning; and (4) Christ is Lord of the Scripture.

In chapter 14, the literary dimension of the Bible (including linguistics, speech-act theory, and double-agency discourse) is discussed in the context of gospel-centered hermeneutics. Ultimately, according to Goldsworthy, the "whole canon of Scripture" (200) provides the literary context for each individual unit of text and this reality suggests the importance of the metanarrative, or overarching narrative plot, to provide hermeneutical controls in interpretation. The significance of the combination of the (final form?) of the canon and redemptive history in the context of hermeneutics was discussed back in chapter 4. And, as before, the relationship between these two important hermeneutical concepts requires further attention.

In chapter 15, Goldsworthy works to provide readers with a theology of history. Given the current climate in Old Testament studies regarding the nature and scope of historiography and even the definition of history, this is not an easy task. In light of this context, Goldsworthy states that, "An evangelical philosophy of history is a theology of history" (218, italics mine) and, according to the author, such a theology must begin with the gospel. A number of the more important elements for a gospel-centered theology of history as presented in this chapter include:

· The gospel event is both the high-point and the end-point of biblical history, not the mid-point (221). Later, he states, "The end of history is the cross" but "The cross is also the beginning of a new history" (228).

· "History cannot be understood without God's word to interpret it . . . There are no wordless events in revelation" (222).

· "Redemption is in the event by which God reconstructs an acceptable human history while judging the unacceptable. The doctrine of justification by faith involves the substitution of God's righteous history in Christ for our fallen and condemned histories of rebellion" (223).

· "God's plan from all eternity was the new creation and a people created and redeemed in Christ. The blueprint of creation and all of history is the gospel" (223).

This chapter concludes with a number of helpful guidelines for the evangelical preacher, especially as it relates to our understanding of the purpose and use of biblical narrative. The reader is encouraged to carefully consider the admonitions contained in those few pages.

Chapters 16 and 17 deal with the theological dimensions associated with gospel-centered hermeneutics. Chapter 16 treats the relationship(s) between the Old and New Testaments and Chapter 17 deals with the relationship between the disciplines of biblical and systematic theology as it applies to hermeneutics. With regard to the latter, the relationship exists within the context of the hermeneutical spiral. Thus, "It is not possible to do biblical theology without first having some pre-understanding of the Bible which amounts to the doctrine of scripture" (259).

Chapter 16 is perhaps one of the most important chapters in the book. It deals with understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments as the key to a proper biblical theology which, in turn, is the key to a proper biblical hermeneutic. According to Goldsworthy, the unity of the Bible is rooted in the so-called metanarrative, or single overarching story that spans both testaments, from creation in the Old Testament to new creation in the New Testament (234-237). This line of unity is further strengthened by the central point in that line, Jesus Christ as the hermeneutical center (237-242; referring to John 5:39, for example). Finally, Goldsworthy identifies typology as the method for understanding the diversity and controlling our understanding of the unity of the biblical canon (242-257). He states, "The key to this comprehensive typological interpretation is not ingenuity or wild imagination, but the controlled analysis of the theological significance of the texts in the Old Testament, and the clarifying of their significance in light of the corresponding theological function of Christ and his gospel. One important implication of this perspective is that it emphasizes that the primary application of all texts is in Christ, not in us or in something else" (256-257).

Chapter 18 covers the topic of the gospel and contextualization, the bridging of the cultural gap between the author and the original audience and our current cultural context. In this chapter, Goldsworthy constructs a biblical theology of contextualization (see 285-286 for a summary) and then spends a significant portion of the chapter discussing how contextualization relates to modern Bible translation, both dynamic and formal equivalency (288-295). In the end, Goldsworthy argues for formal equivalency as the preferred form of translation technique.

Finally, in chapter 19, Goldsworthy summarizes what he considers to be the hermeneutics of Christ. "He is set forth as the Word of God, the truth, and the final interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures" (296). Thus, the goal of redemptive or salvation history is the gospel. "The ministry of Jesus the fulfiller has immense hermeneutical significance, since it draws together all the variety of themes and events in the Old Testament that foreshadow the fullness of God's purposes" (303). The implicit force of this statement is that we will ultimately preach and teach in the same way that we theologically and hermeneutically approach the text. In other words, this "hermeneutical significance" appears, for good or ill, in our preaching and teaching. He states, for example, that "The hermeneutics of the cross are the hermeneutics of repentance and submission to the crucified Lord. Any attempt to reduce the message of the Bible to morality and the mere imitation of Jesus ignores the centrality of the cross. Yet this moralizing is where so much evangelical application of the Old Testament texts leads us. The work of Christ should be the magnet that draws our interpretative applications of all texts to the gospel" (304).

Summary

The contribution of Goldsworthy in this volume is the application of biblical theology to hermeneutics. As the title suggests, the center of biblical theology is identified as the person and work of Jesus Christ presented to us as the gospel event in Scripture. The diversity of Scripture, particularly the challenge of the relationship between the two testaments, is unified by this gospel, controlled by redemptive history, and understood typologically. The author also argues that the premodern principles of the reformers stand firm, especially as it applies to the doctrine of Scripture.

This reviewer enthusiastically recommends Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics for both personal and classroom use. Note, however, that it is not a book best handled with casual reading. Rather, it is the type of book that must be approached with a certain level of hermeneutical angst and a willingness to perceive one's own hermeneutical shortcomings. It is also the type of book that should be read more than once, perhaps annually for a decade or so. I conclude by expressing my sincere thanks and gratitude to the author for all of his hard work for our benefit.

Graeme Goldworthy / Downers Grove: IVP, 2007

Review by Miles Van Pelt, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS

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