tentative hermeneutical principles

George Murphy (gmurphy@raex.com)
Sun, 15 Aug 1999 14:35:19 -0400

Glenn Morton asked - nay, demanded - that I state some hermeneutical principles.
What he has in mind, I think, is "principles to determine whether or not events
described in the Bible really happened." Biblical hermeneutics must be broader than
that because the fundamental question is how we are ito interpret Scripture in all its
parts, historical or not, in an appropriate theological fashion. Still, I hope that
what I'm going to set out here, more or less off the top of my head, helps to address
the issues which Glenn is concerned about. (N.B. These are tentative statements, not -
except for the first - "Here I stand" pronouncements.)
1) The central and unifying theme of Scripture is Christ. We have not
penetrated to the heart of a biblical text until we have seen its connection with this
center. This corresponds in a way to the "rule of faith" of the ancient church.
2) The Bible is to be studied like other ancient texts, subject to Point 1.
(I.e., "the historical critical method" is appropriate to it.)
3) On 1 hand, the subjection of 2 to 1 must be noted. A critical approach
which concludes that Scripture has no central theme, or that its theme is something
other than Christ, is therefore invalid.
4) On the other hand, a rejection of 2 seriously compromises belief in the
Incarnation (and thus 1) for it amounts to a claim that the Incarnation and the history
of Israel of which it is a part is not accessible to ordinary historical study, and thus
took place in some realm of "sacred history" which is not that of the real world.
5) Reading the Bible like other ancient texts is not equivalent to adoption of
a world view which rules out miracles, but the notion that the more miracles we can
accept the better should be resisted.
6) If the term "inerrancy" is to be used it must not be taken to mean that all
of Scripture is true _as accurate historical narrative_. Acceptance of the truth &
authority of Scripture does not determine the various types of literature to be found
7) Some important criteria which help to determine whether or not a text is
"historical" - i.e., a narrative of events as they actually happened - are:
a. Comparison of parallel or corresponding accounts within Scripture itself
(e.g., the two Genesis creation accounts or the gospels). I.e., internal evidence is to
be considered.
b. Comparison with evidence from extremal sources - geology, archaeology,
extra-biblical texts.
c. Study of the literary genre of the text.
8) The fact that an account of historical events has been edited with
theological intent does not make it simply non-historical or render it false as long as
its intent is understood. But it does mean that care is needed in using such texts to
reconstruct a course of historical events.
9) Scripture contains many different literary types which are not always in
one-to-one correspondence with different degrees of historical accuracy. The fact that
a text has the form of a straightforward narrative (e.g., Luke 15:11-32) does not ensure
that the events "actually happened", and the fact that a text is poetry (e.g., Judges 5)
does not invalidate it as an historical source.
10) Imaginative reconstructions of "might have been" events or sequences of
events to give historical content to texts or to "harmonize" apparently discordant
passages should be recognized for what they are.
11) In the course of the history of Israel and the early church, old traditions
and texts were invested with new meaning. In particular, the Old Testament is
interpreted christologically even though the Old Testament writers probably did not have
such meanings in mind. (E.g., Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15.) Thus appeals to a "single
primary sense" of Scripture or to the "original intent" of its writers are too narrow.
12) While analysis is needed for the proper understanding of Scripture, it is
also necessary that the parts eventually be put back together & Scripture be viewed as a
unity (which returns us to point 1).

George L. Murphy