Serial Choice? Hermeneutics and a High View of the Bible"
September 30, 2013
The grocery store cereal aisle has become a common metaphor for distinguishing the West from the rest of the world, and rightly so. Just after we moved to Eastern Europe years ago, my family and I began the hunt for cereal in our city. In due course, we found three cereal options. Yes, three. First we were disappointed, then resentful. Really? Only Honey Nut Cheerios, off-brand corn flakes and Muesli?
Yet our internal pushbacks did not last for long. Oh, not because our (children's?) yearning for Cocoa Puffs and Tony the Tiger got completely snuffed, but something even more satisfying and freeing took over. Limitation birthed newfound freedom, a liberty far preferable to our former cornflake cornucopia. We discovered the clarity and joy of simplicity. No longer was the cereal aisle an enemy of contentment, but in its simplicity we discovered a peaceful, non-confusing, isle of contentment.
When we returned for visits to the United States, we found ourselves simply undone, even freshly disgusted by the cereal attack. Too many choices. Rainbow-colored boxes of all sizes--complete with nutritional charts, cartoons, crossword puzzles, and chances for free vacations at Disneyworld--launched their crusade against our souls. Which cereal should we buy? Whose label do we trust anyway? Who can possibly decide which cereal is the legitimate breakfast of champions?
A message lies behind the plethora of choices. It is actually quite simple. Cereal choice is completely up to me. I really am Cap'n Crunch. I am Count Chocula.
Yet there is a problem. So is everyone else. And who decides when each member of the family reigns as King Kellogg and leads as General Mills? Family feuds can even erupt over which flavor of Cheerios to buy. War ensues and, in the end, no one finally wins the Lucky Charm.
Cereal choice produces cereal chaos, because serial choice produces serial chaos. Despite the relentless rhetoric to the contrary, unlimited choice does not free us; it binds us. Autonomy at work does not bless, it curses. To put it more contextually, the unalienable rights of Americans are not the unalienable truths of Scripture.
In a manner combating the "cereal aisle" of contemporary thought, Scripture puts us in a distinct place, and it is not a place of autonomy or sovereignty. We are created, not Creator. We are servants, not masters. We are stewards, not owners. We are dependents, not independents. We are the children, not the Father.
These categorical truths, which dominate the pages of the Scripture, must take their rightful place in our study of it. We are recipients of Scripture's meaning, not creators of it.
Historic categories of the doctrine of Scripture include authority, sufficiency, necessity, and perspicuity (clarity). Many in recent years have argued that the real battle for the Bible is more about its sufficiency than its authority. With thanks to Kantian thought construction which deems the Bible irrelevant to science and many other fields, surely biblical sufficiency needs fresh and ongoing address.
Yet today something even more basic than biblical sufficiency suffers. The Bible's sufficiency, necessity, clarity and even authority as commonly expressed, do not get to the bottom of the current crisis of confidence in Scripture.
In a 1975 visiting lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, James I. Packer addressed the formulation of a faithful and useful doctrine of Scripture for the coming ages. Contending that the bifurcation of biblical and theological disciplines had practically ripped Scripture's essence from its interpretation, he insightfully (even prophetically) argued for integration.
As he imagined it, the way forward in a positive articulation of the doctrine of Scripture was to draw our doctrine of Scripture explicitly together with hermeneutical method. I think he nailed it. What Scripture is must determine what we do with it. In addition, who we are (dependent creatures, children) must determine how we treat the Word of God.
The virtually ubiquitous contemporary alternative - a doctrine of Scripture divorced from the implications of that doctrine - has effectively neutered orthodox claims about the Bible. Some former evangelicals, to be sure, have openly abandoned biblical inspiration and inerrancy.
Other evangelicals profess a "high view" of Scripture, but their "high view" floats lightly above their exegesis, never touching down on the ground of actual interpretation. When what we claim about Scripture disengages from what we do with it, our high view of Holy Scripture becomes a wholly irrelevant view. Confession of biblical inspiration loses all clout, all meaning.
As it is, contemporary infatuation with choice dominates biblical interpretation. "Ours, it is fair to say, is a 'hyperhermeneutical' age. Most readers do not need to be reminded how in recent decades issues of interpretation have burgeoned in an overwhelming, almost unbelievable fashion and taken on unprecedented dimensions." (1) The field of biblical studies has become its own "cereal aisle," with the hermeneutical options menu claiming a life of its own.
The options now come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. After all, not everyone has the same tastes, likes and goals. The selection aisle is wide and long; the options seem endless. But one thing remains constant. You get to choose. You pick your hermeneutical box or boxes.
Resulting problems abound. As D. A. Carson has pointed out, "it cannot follow that every reading is equally valuable or valid, for some of the interpretations are mutually exclusive. The tragedy is that many modern 'readings' of Scripture go beyond inadvertent bias to a self-conscious adoption of a grid fundamentally at odds with the text--all in the name of the polyvalence of the text and under the authority of the new hermeneutic." (2) Despite Carson's and others' well-articulated protests, we have seen little relenting in the creation and advocacy of new interpretive approaches.
Scholars present their new versions of the so-called "new" hermeneutic, and seek to defend the value, usefulness, and appropriateness of their interpretive approaches. In many cases, unrelenting diversity of readers, cultures, languages, traditions, and religions drives the method, making interpretation a relativized constellation of relativistic factors.
In some cases, the hermeneutic chosen simply can advance our own agenda (e.g., feminist, gay, liberation . . . the list could go on), ensuring that the Bible delivers us to our desired destination. In other cases, our methods reflect our lack of methodological self-consciousness and we adopt simply what comes naturally (the new hermeneutic usefully corrects us here, calling us to greater methodological self-consciousness).
We have not stopped to think about what we are actually doing. We carry on an interpretive method without sufficient consideration of what Scripture says about it. With interpretive negotiability corresponding to the choice between Kix and Raisin Bran, we pick our hermeneutic according to our own tastes, circumstances, and goals.
The problem thus prevails. Whether willful or blind, autonomy is still autonomy. And interpretive autonomy and biblical authority remain enduring enemies.
Calvin complained, "In our own day there are many who, in order to display their acuteness in handling the word of God, allow themselves to sport with it in the manner as if it were profane philosophy." (3) Five hundred years later, it is not uncommon to hear someone sporting with the Bible: "I'm testing this out" or "I'm playing with this idea" or "I'm enjoying this hermeneutical approach." WWCS? What would Calvin say?
Much more importantly, what does God say about such contemporary self-determined approaches to interpreting his Word?
Following Packer's counsel, we must allow the authority of Scripture to exercise its Spirit-given interpretive weight. We must rely upon the functioning authority of Scripture for our interpretation of it. As dependent children, creatures made in God's image called to receive God's Word as stewards, we must remember hermeneutical method is not autonomous turf. Exercise of an interpretive method is matter of faith and obedience to the God who has spoken. Bible study is an act of stewardship, of worship.
Where do we turn? Away from such "cereal aisle" mentality. Navigation out of the current hermeneutical chaos will come only by a functional trust in Scripture's authority - studying in a manner that derives what Scripture is. God has spoken and done so without stuttering. He has given the Church, in the canon of Scripture, what we need "for life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3). His Spirit guides the Church to understand what he intends for us (1 Cor. 2:12-16).
There is surely risk here in over-simplification, and let it not be said that biblical interpretation is easy or formulaic. Nor let it ever be said that the work in linguistics, history, language, and other biblically informing fields need be trashed or dismissed. But children of the heavenly Father will always ask what he means in a less clear text on the basis of what he has said clearly elsewhere. Stewards of the divine Word will suffer long to avoid speculation for the sake of submission. How?
Echoing the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.9), John Murray wrote, "The infallible rule of the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself. But there is no infallible interpretation of that rule and hence there has never been complete agreement in the church respecting every detail of interpretation and application." (4) Murray was hardly naïve. A rigorous exegete, he knew that the self-interpreting authority of Scripture does not answer every hermeneutical question. He argued for "limitation and restriction," but did so with an eye towards the Church's shared understanding of Scripture as expressed in confessions like Westminster.
Historic confessions and creeds protect the Church from foolish "cereal aisle" autonomy. The Spirit who authored Scripture has through the years drawn the Church to understand it, and the great Church confessions greatly aid us in employing faithful hermeneutics. We are not advocating a paper pope, but a biblically grounded confidence in the historic analogy of faith. God is able to reveal clearly in his Word precisely what he wishes - not only to this generation, but consistently over the entire life of the Church.
Sadly, biblical interpretation has lost these confessional moorings. Assumed serial choice has produced serial chaos in biblical interpretation, and the drifting effects have been disastrous. The growing quantity of interpretive options works in inverse proportion to the Church's confidence in Scripture. Functional autonomy in biblical interpretation has birthed theological anarchy, and God's Word viewed according to self-selected interpretive paradigms appears elusive, messy, and even downright impossible. Uncertainty survives as the only certainty.(5)
That God is the Author of Scripture (2 Pet 1:19-21; 2 Tim 3:16) is the game changer. As the Word of God, Scripture renders clear and certain boundaries for our belief and confession, and also necessarily for our interpretive method. Paul urges Timothy to be a student of Scripture who "correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). Not every question will be answered in the same way, but the chaos of comprehensive uncertainty evaporates when the Church submits to what "the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:29), truth preserved and proclaimed through the ages.
Contemporary debates on divine accommodation in revelation, the relationship between history and theology (e.g., historical Adam), the locus of meaning (author and/or reader), the New Testament's use of the Old, and all the other live (and sometimes deadening!) debates in the academy and the Church drive us to a foundational focus: the functional authority of God's Word for its understanding. Future expressions of the nature of Scripture must manifest divine authority by concrete, clarifying, consistent, and confidence-evoking implementation of that authority.
Accordingly, we would do well to heed the words of Geerhardus Vos, who warned against hollow claims to biblical authority: "When once the sense of allegiance to the Word of God as the only authoritative rule of faith has become weakened, or, while still recognized in theory has ceased to be a living force in the minds of believers, then the hope of a return to the truth once forsaken is reduced to a minimum." (6)
Many find themselves reduced to that minimum. When our hermeneutical method suffers the "cereal aisle" syndrome, we find ourselves in hope-defying darkness. The only way out of the dark is the guiding light of a functioning trust in God's Word, where divine authority defines interpretation in a manner consistent with the illumining work of the Spirit over the history of the Church.
Scripture's authority functions or it is no authority at all. To uphold our high view of Scripture, our hermeneutics must show it. Consciously. Consistently. Redundantly. Reverently.
Dr. David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Bryn Mawr, PA.
Editors' Note: This article is an unedited and longer version of "Cereal-Aisle Hermeneutics" which originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition blog and is used by permission.
1. Richard Gaffin, "Speech and the Image of God: Biblical Reflections on Language and Its Uses," in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine; edited by David Van Drunen; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2004, 191.
2. D. A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2010), 101.
3. John Calvin, The First Epistle to Timothy, Calvin's Commentaries Vol. 21; Grand Rapids, Baker: 1989, 14.
4. John Murray, The Claims of Truth, vol. 1, 4 vols.; Collected Writings of John Murray; Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976, 283.
5. The subtle and damaging effects of this relativizing approach to missiological hermeneutics have been profound. See, for example, David B. Garner, "High Stakes: Insider Movements and the Gospel," Themelios 37.2 (July 2012):
6. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1980), 412.