Theological Hermeneutics II – Scripture and Human Language

Scripture comes to us as human literature. It is written by humans for humans in human language. Whatever it communicates, then, it communicates through the medium of finite, limiting, bounded human language. In this context, I raise only three points in this post. Much more, of course, could be said, but these points are significant for future posts on the hermeneutical task.

Analogous Knowledge of God

We are not reading God-speech but reading what God says to us through human language. God has accomodated himself to the limits of human language in talking about himself in much the same way that we accomodate ourselves to three year olds–but with an infinite difference, of course. 

This means that Scripture participates in analogous rather than univocal or equivocal language about God. When we say “God is love,” we do not understand “love” with a one-to-one correspondance to the mind of God. The divine understanding of love is far beyond the limitations of our finitude. Our language about God is not univocal–it is not equivalent to what God thinks; we don’t comprehend “love” in the depth that God himself does.  But neither is our language about God equivocal so that there is no connection between our knowledge and God’s knowledge. An equivocal knowledge of God would be wholly experientially-based rather than cognitive and it disconnects us from knowing anything about God.

Shooting the horns of the dilemma–and this is a common tactic in both Thomist and Reformed theology, our knowledge of God is analogous.  We are not devoid of knowledge of God as if we can only existentially experience him (equivocal) but neither is our knowledge equivalent to God’s knowledge of himself (univocal).  Instead, our knowledge of God is historically conditioned but authentically communicative. We know about God by his entrance into history and his accomodative communication with us. We know what love is by God’s act in Jesus (entrance into history) and his intepretation of that act in human language suited to our finite capacities (Scripture). This means that our cognitive knowledge about God is not only shaped by historical conditionedness but is located within the framework of the narrative of God’s history with human beings as recorded in Scripture.

One significant implication of this point is that we should not expect rational precision in our understanding of God when we read Scripture. Analogy does not have the function of complete, exact and correspondant communication. Instead, it has a preformative function. It gives enough understanding to enable performance, that is, to live God’s intent for us and participate in the drama. The goal is not knowledge per se, but embodiment. The goal is not propositional communication per se, but participation in the story of God so that we become the images (icons) of God in the world. Exactitude or precision becomes a red herring and diverts us from the real goal of analogous understanding–to become what God intended us to be as his created images in creation.

Human Hermeneutics

What we read we must read according to the standards of human communication, not God-speech. We humans cannot read God-speech but we can read God’s communication to us through human words. Consquently, we must read the Bible as is–as it is given to us, as it presents itself to us.

This entails that we read the text within the frame of the literary genre in which it is communicated.  This means that we cannot impose on the text a meaning that is not suitable, contextual or appropriate to the genre, language and context–literary, historical and cultural–in which the text appears.

Consequently, the faithful reading of Scripture means that we read it as is. We read it according to the specific genre in which the text is offered. We read Psalms as poetry, Chronicles as history, Revelation as apocalyptic, Paul’s epistles as letters, etc. The importance of this point lies not only in good exegesis, but it is also lies in the tendency to override the specific genre with a broader one. Some turn a letter into a legal brief, a historical narrative into a legal precedent, or an apocalyptic text into a legal reading of history (as in the historical-continuous interpretation offered by John T. Hinds in the Gospel Advocate commentary).

For example, if we adopt a constitutional model for the New Testament, we not only impose a foreign literary and legal genre upon the text in an ahistorical fashion but we override the actual genre in which the books of the New Testament are given to us and thereby undermine the intent of the text. The constitutional reading then forces texts to read differently than they were intended to be read by the authors themselves. This, in effect, undermines the authority of the text because it substitutes a foreign literary model for the ones which the New Testament documents actually are! It forces the text to function in a way and to say something that they were never intended to do or say.

Metanarrative Unity

If the humanity of Scripture is visible in its language, genre, authors, etc., the word of God is visible in the unity of the metanarrative. This unity must not dictate to the humanity of Scripture (e.g., its own phenomenological diversity) or override the situatedness of Scripture (e.g., the variety of genre) since this is the reality of Scripture’s givenness.

Yet, the unity is present in the witness to the movement of the story of God through the unfolding history of God with humanity. The unity of Scripture is rooted in the identity of God, the divine goal/intent for creation and the mode of embodying/investing that identity in the people of God.

I call this unity the metanarrative of Scripture. It is not meta in the sense that it is beyond or above Scripture, but it is meta in the sense that it is embedded, assumed and explored throughout the story told in the various genres of the text in their various redemptive-historical settings (e.g., patriarchs sojourning, Israel in Egypt, Israel in Palestine, Israel in exile, letters to missional communities in Galatia, etc.).

This unity is not a temple constructed out of isolated data within the text. Rather, the text itself is the temple to be explored, imbibed, and ultimately embodied in our own stories as we learn to participate in the story of God. The metanarrative–as witnessed to, interpreted and applied within the text of Scripture–becomes our narrative.

The divine message of Scripture is its witness to the mighty acts of God, the interpretation of those acts and the application of their meaning to humans seeking to participate in the story of God.   (More on this point in my next post in this series.)

6 Responses to “Theological Hermeneutics II – Scripture and Human Language”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I understand the need to read scripture within its intended historical and genre context. And I also agree that there is a meta-narrative to scripture. But what about a theological context. It seems as though Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus all read scripture within a theological context, the “Rule(s) of Faith.” And it was these rule(s) to which they made their appeals (not scripture itself) against heresy. Another words, the rules of faith and not scripture constituted the apostolic tradition.


    Once the bells began to ring in terms of reading scripture within its context and not treating scripture (especially the NT) as a flat, constitutional law document, I found the entire case the CoC has made against Instrumental Music (IM) to be wanting. In fact, I no longer have any objections to IM (even though I do agree that a capella worship has historical precedence in the apostolic church). The more I learn and grow in the faith, the more absurd I find the notion that IM has become our defining issue, especially when there are far more critical issues that are given far more treatment within scripture (e.g., treatment of the poor). I spent two years on the north side of Memphis trying to minister to the poor within the confines of a congregation that gave two rips about the poor but would fall on a sword to defend their a capella tradition. I am not trying to suggest that we add instruments to worship and I certainly understand why some have strong convictions against IM, but I believe any practical construction of a theological hermeneutic must begin correcting the inbalance we have on what is a big scriptural issue and what is not.

    I am raising this because I will be participating in a serminar (by invitation) on the issue of IM and whether or not adherents of the a capella tradition should withdraw fellowship from those who worship with instruments (most of the participants will come from a slightly more conservative approach than I come from). So this issue as it relates to the discussion of hermenuetics has been on my mind lately.

    I apologize if I have rubbed anyone’s nerve to harshly.


  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    The relation of Scripture, tradition and the Rule of Faith is an important topic. I will have something to say about that in future posts. So, I will leave it alone till then. Yet, it is an important topic to consider, especially how we should or should not construe or embrace sola Scriptura. I would quibble with your formulation but not the substance. 🙂

  3.   richard constant Says:

    how sad a topic
    a split on how to gloryfy god. althought rex when you have a runaway tank going down a hill into a city if you change the direction a little at a time you might just miss the town.

    it is shameful to use a law of liberity and recconcilliation as one to use, to say i am better than you because i don’t were bells on my wrist.

    good luck i do hope you know that your too teach that god does not mind diversisity of faithfulness
    with in the primiterss of love

    rich in ca.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Mark Powell really challenges his HUGSR students to think about the relationship of scripture and tradition (as in the Rules of Faith) and the relationship to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It is a big subject. I actually wrote a paper on the Rules of Faith for Historical Theology A and received an “A” grade… yet I still feel like like a guppie level swimmer (YMCA beginning swim level) trying to swim the English Channel. So what about my formulation? 🙂


  5.   richard constant Says:

    Form and function of the assembly to form and function of the Lord’s table of form and function of New Testament Scripture according to the conventional wisdom is so messed up its unreal as far as I’m concerned, necessary inference be spoken of as having a building it takes away money should be used to help widows and orphans.
    Rex there are so many things that are so messed up with the church when looking at the true it hermeneutic Scripture which teaches self-sacrifice for the love of God and to do right by your neighbor. Love my brother is where their weak point is for everyone’s weak point is it seems to be mostly a self-serving of convenience and justification of that convenience because there are cultural differentiation and everything then becomes okay within the realm of the cultural differentiation.
    To me it gets back to an agenda and the agenda goes back to health ethics and morals the moral ethic is to love your brother as yourself which is the imperative.
    The ethic is how you put that into practice was God’s Word which becomes the indicative.
    So what we have is indicative as taking the place of the imperative instead of the imperative subjecting the indicative hopefully this helps I know John Mark can help you.
    He’s got it all down to a tee for the most part love and blessings first times always the hardest time my brother got there and give it your best shot be kind and loving and faithful give glory to Christ doing a humble way and you will have no regrets.
    Blessings to you and to your word through our Lord to the glory of God.
    Rich in California

  6.   Matthew Says:

    I did a little hermeneutics today on my blog, not as rich as your stuff, but I have a different audience on my blog. Love to hear your thoughts on it.


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