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EXEGESIS > Principles of Hermeneutics > Principles 12-14     


There must be a sympathetic appreciation for the historic testimony of the Church.

Each interpreter operates with freedom and responsibility, and each interpreter is committed ultimately to Scripture alone; however, no interpreter interprets in isolation. It would be foolish and prideful to formulate a theology without consulting those who have gone before. Antiquity does not guarantee accuracy, and tradition is not necessarily equated with Truth. But antiquity and tradition can serve to hinder a theologian from concocting theological aberrations. Earlier thinkers are not to be worshipped, but they are to be consulted.

Consider the possibility of a deeper meaning or a fuller sense
in addition to the natural meaning of a passage.

Historically this is referred to as sensus plenior and has been debated for centuries (note the word “consider” in the principle).

At issue is whether there is one meaning or a double meaning in a particular text. For instance, do some Old Testament passages have a deeper significance than was apparent to the writer, a writer who may even have thought that what he was writing applied only to his time. He may have known that it did have meaning for his day but did not know that it also had meaning for a later day.

A case in point is Isaiah. Did Isaiah 7:14 apply only to Isaiah’s day, or did it speak uniquely of the day of Christ, or did the verse speak to both the time of Isaiah and the time of Christ? Another example also comes from the Old Testament. Did “seed” in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, and 24:7 have reference to Abraham’s children only, or to Christ only (Gal. 3:16), or to Christ and a meaning to Abraham in his day, and also a meaning for all believers (Gal. 3:29)?  

Is it possible for Scripture to have a meaning for the believer today in addition to the natural meaning as understood by the writer when he wrote? Does the Scripture come to have a modern meaning, a very personal meaning, as the Spirit teaches the believer? Does the wrestling of Jacob with the “Man” have a meaning for me even though I was not part of the original historical event?

Those who reject sensus plenior fear that its acceptance will allow a subjectivism into interpretation that will detract from and ultimately eat up grammatical-historical or natural interpretation. This is a legitimate concern.

Those who accept it feel that it is proper, especially since there are passages that seem to justify its inclusion as a sound hermeneutical principle. First Peter 1:10-12 affirms that the prophets sought to understand what was predicted thought them, and Daniel 8:27 and 12:28 indicate that Daniel did not understand all the writings that he wrote. 

Perhaps the best approach is to accept it only when later revelations provide justification for it in reference to earlier revelations, or when the plenary sense is consistent with and not contrary to the natural sense. But to outright reject the possibility of sensus plenior seems to limit the use of the Scriptures by the Spirit in the life of the believer today, whereby He  leads the believer into the fuller implications of a text in light of the total context, that is, the Canon that is available today.

Is it best to understand the issue in terms of original meaning and multiple applications in the present day that are proper and consistent with the Text? Or is it best to attribute to the Word of God a living and dynamic reality because of the living and dynamic reality of God Himself? This acceptance understands that God’s Word reflects and is consistent with God, and, therefore, accepts the fact that there are multiple meanings to each Text and we will never know it all? It is the Spirit who teaches.

Any treatise must continually be evaluated by the Scriptures
and must faithfully represent them.

All compositions of theology are contingent; none are normative. Each must be judged and critiqued by the very Book that each theology seeks to explain and make understandable. The Bible judges theologies, but no theology judges the Bible (see: Theology and the Bible).

All theological statements must be true to the Scriptures, and in order to do this the theological statements must come from the Scriptures and be reflective of the Scriptures. Because a theology is to be consistent with Scripture, it is not dependent upon man-made philosophical frameworks and passing speculative thought. Every effort must be made to use Scriptural categories, rather than conforming Biblical teaching to the mold of the philosopher’s thought or to current scientific concepts. A theology should be Scriptural not modern, for what is modern today is not modern tomorrow. Much needless controversy has been caused by theologians speculating about points on which the Scriptures have not spoken or by attempting to mold the Scriptures to current thought patterns or academic concerns.

Multiple theologies appear (Romanism, Calvinism, Arminianism, Dispensationalism, and Pentecostalism, to name a few) because each believer thinks and writes from his own understanding. Grace brings one to an experience of Truth (see: Significance of Truth), but the experience or exposure to Truth is through a mind that has not yet been made perfect; therefore, each experience of the Truth is tainted by human depravity. Thus, no human reflection on the Truth one has come to know is infallible. All expressions of the Truth are flawed at some point; so, no theological work is ever definitive or final, simply because it is a human product.

Variations in theologies are not a reflection upon the Truth that is studied but upon the believers doing the study. It goes without saying that only one theology can be true! For this reason every theology must be judged by Scripture and continually evaluated in light of the Scriptures themselves. Individual formulations of theology must be measured by the light of the Truth of the Divine Revelation. Barth stated: “Dogmatics measures the Church’s proclamation by the standard of the Holy Scripture,” and “we cannot pursue dogmatics without this standard being kept in sight” (Dogmatics in Outline, 14); he further cautioned: “Should a dogmatics lose sight of this standard, it would be an irrelevant dogmatics” (12). Every statement about Scripture must be judged by Scripture.

Admittedly, every exegete brings to his study his own peculiar viewpoint, which to a greater or lesser degree affects his understanding of Scripture and his final interpretation. Pinnock has stated: “All interpretation is socially located, individually skewed and ecclesiastically and theologically conditioned” (Tracking the Maze, x-xi). With this reality constantly in mind, the Biblical theologian must strive humbly to let Scripture speak, a task more easily attempted than attained. Any theology, therefore, is ultimately a personal interpretation; and for this reason it must constantly be judged by Scripture. All theologies and interpretations must be subjected to Biblical validation, and the united Scriptures comprise the basis for that validation.

“A true theology thinks over again God’s thoughts and brings them into God’s order” (Strong, ST, 2). But no theological statement is to be given the same reception as the Scriptures. This posture does not even overlook essential doctrines that have had a consensus interpretation throughout Christian history. Both the ancient formulas and the modern confessional statements stand under the spotlight of the Scriptures; they are judged by the Scriptures, not the Scriptures by them. Truth is the ultimate guide.

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