I believe that definitions and the meaning of words are important.1 In the future, I intend to more thoroughly define and defend my hermeneutic (and define what I mean by ‘normal, literal, and grammatical’), but for now, I am just going to take for granted that my audience understands what I mean when I say “normal, literal, and grammatical hermeneutic”. For the rest of this blog post, I will use the acronym NLG to represent a normal, literal, and grammatical hermeneutic.
To defend my use of an NLG hermeneutic, I am going to ask three questions:
- Is there any historical basis for holding to an NLG hermeneutic?
- Is the NLG hermeneutic a valid hermeneutic?
- Is the NLG hermeneutic the valid hermeneutic?
Is There Historical Basis for the NLG Hermeneutic?
Has anyone in the history of the church ever held to or defended an NLG hermeneutic? Is there any historical basis for the NLG hermeneutic or is this view simply a product of recent invention?
Yes, there is historical basis for this view. In the early church, there was a school of interpretation centered in Antioch which interpreted the Bible using an NLG hermeneutic:
“The school of Antioch insisted on the historical reality of the biblical revelation. They were unwilling to lose it in a world of symbols and shadows. They were more Aristotelian than Platonist. Where the Alexandrines use the word theory as equivalent to allegorical interpretation, the Antiochene exegetes use it for a sense of scripture higher or deeper than the literal or historical meaning, but firmly based on the letter. This understanding does not deny the literal meaning of scripture but is grounded on it, as an image is based on the thing represented and points towards it. Both image and thing are comprehensible at the same time. There is no hidden meaning which only a Gnostic can comprehend. John Chrysostom observes that ‘everywhere in scripture there is this law, that when it allegorizes, it also gives the explanation of the allegory.'"2
As you can see from the preceding quote, many from the Antiochene school of interpretation (as opposed to the Alexandrian school of interpretation) also used other hermeneutic tools on top of the NLG hermeneutic, but any subsequent understandings of the text were based on the literal meaning of the text. The members of this school of thought include Theophilus of Antioch (??? - c. 183-5 AD)3, John Chrysostom (c. 349 - 407 AD - as quoted in the preceding quote), Theodore of Mopsuestia (350 - 428 AD)4, and even later church leaders like Isho’dad (??? - 852 AD)5.
Later, Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274 AD) argued for the supremacy of the literal meaning of the text over all other interpretations created what has been described as “theology’s declaration of independence from the allegorical method."6 For example, Aquinas says:
“The multiplicity of these senses [of interpretation] does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things; but because the things signified by the words can themselves be types of other things. Thus in holy scripture no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one-the literal-from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says. Nevertheless, nothing of holy scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the scripture in its literal sense."7
Therefore, I conclude that there is historical basis for using the NLG hermeneutic. Whether or not this hermeneutic is valid is our next question, but it does have historical basis and is not an invention of recent philosophy.
Is NLG Hermeneutic Valid?
Now that we have established the existence of the NLG hermeneutic in history, let us consider whether or not it is valid. I argue that the NLG hermeneutic is valid primarily because of the nature of language.8 I think that language has meaning which it can communicate in a comprehensible manner. Because of these two assertions, I think that the NLG hermeneutic is an appropriate way to approach a text which has meaning ‘embedded’ in it. Simply put, I believe an NLG hermeneutic is valid because language works and because of the way it works. If you affirm that language works, I believe you have to also affirm the NLG hermeneutic. There may be other hermeneutics which can also be used ‘on top’ of the NLG hermeneutic, but certainly the NLG hermeneutic must be used and must be the foundation. If there are other hermeneutics to be used when reading scripture, I think we must heed Thomas Aquinas when he said that “nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the scripture in its literal sense”9.
Is NLG Hermeneutic the Exclusively Valid?
If the NLG hermeneutic has historical roots and is valid, the next question becomes whether or not it is the valid hermeneutic; whether or not other hermeneutics can be used ‘on top’ of an NLG hermeneutic. The best support I can come up with for the exclusivity of the NLG hermeneutic is from examining scripture’s use of itself. When the New Testament authors and Jesus Himself quote the Old Testament, the vast majority of the time they are using the NLG hermeneutic. There are only a few instances where the NLG hermeneutic might not have been used (e.g. Galatians 4). Based on this observation, I conclude that the NLG hermeneutic should be the primary hermeneutic we use. At the time of writing, however, I do not have a good argument why the NLG hermeneutic is the valid hermeneutic and that no other hermeneutics should be used on top of it.
In the future, I hope to further investigate the hermeneutic used by the authors of scripture to see if they really are using any hermeneutic other than the NLG hermeneutic. There are books on the subject and one recent work named “The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers”10 that I would like to read and investigate. If you have any thoughts on the subject, please let me know!