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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Philosophical Hermeneutics

In the Protestant context, evangelical Christianity has been infused by fundamentalist ways of thinking. But it would be remiss to end this essay without noting moves by evangelicals to employ hermeneutical methods which are in principle antithetical to fundamentalism, methods which challenge a ‘back to the Bible’ primitivism and naïveté. Since the 1970s, evangelicals have taken some things on board from phenomenological hermeneutics (The Nottingham Statement, printed in Stott 1977; The Willowbank Report 1978). Phenomenological hermeneutics operates with the philosophical conviction that all phenomena, including texts, attain the meaning we attribute to them, and that readers interpret texts and the whole of life according to the contexts in which they are phenomenologically situated. Such theory undermines fundamentalist assumptions, and some evangelicals reject it precisely on the grounds that it turns the sure foundation of Scripture into the ‘texture of quicksand’, and makes truth ‘dissolv[e] in the mists of post-modernity’ (Carson 1996: 92, 91). Others claim to have moved away from fundamentalist positions when they have taken modern hermeneutical questions seriously (France 1991). Evangelical engagement with hermeneutics brings into focus concerns at the heart of biblical fundamentalism, particularly the desire to determine the meaning of biblical passages, and shows how difficult it can be even to want fully to relinquish a fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture (Harris 1998a: 278–312).

The popular British evangelical theologian John Stott has promoted and popularized the hermeneutical theory that Anthony Thiselton introduced to evangelicals. Thiselton, a British philosophical theologian, criticizes a ‘theological conservatism’ which ‘simply assumes no difference between a “common sense” interpretive tradition and what the text itself says’ (Thiselton 1985: 80–1). He also rejects the classic evangelical process of grammatico-historical exegesis, which implies that individual words are the primary bearers of meaning. He promotes a speech-act model which regards language uses as acts which have effects (1980: 129, 436; 1985: 100, 107–13; 1992: 16 f.). In this he has been influenced by J. L. Austin and by Wittgenstein's emphasis upon language as forming ‘part of an activity’ in public interaction. He thus emphasizes the functional alongside the cognitive aspect of the biblical writings: ‘acts of blessing, acts of forgiveness, acts of pronouncing judgment, acts of repentance’, and so on (1992: 17–18). Speech acts occur at the point of interrelation between the situation addressed by the biblical writer and the situation of the modern reader. They lead us to take into account feelings and attitudes, and not just the communication of thought.

Thiselton encourages evangelicals to think not in terms of a biblical message neatly packaged, but of the biblical impact in real life. He warns them not to assume that the meaning of Scripture is self-evident (1977: 92). The problem, as he describes it, is ‘that of how the text of the Bible, written in the ancient world, can so speak to the modern hearer that it engages with his own situation and horizons without doing violence to its original purpose’ (1977: 92). His solution is a combination of ‘distancing’ and ‘fusion’: distancing the assumptions of one's own background whilst reading the text, but allowing a fusion in which one listens to the text and allows it to speak. Failure to distance one's own assumptions will result in seeing the text ‘through the spectacles’ of one's own tradition (1977: 104).

John Stott takes Thiselton's emphasis on the fusion of the horizons and places it alongside E. D. Hirsch's dictum, ‘a text means what its author meant’ (Stott 1982: 221, 186). He tells evangelicals that it is an ‘illusion that we come to the biblical text as innocent, objective, impartial, culture-free investigators’ (1982: 185). However, his commitment to Hirsch, which is shared by other evangelical theologians and exegetes (e.g. Henry 1979b; Kaiser 1979; and see Boone 1989 for an analysis of fundamentalism in light of the hermeneutics of Hirsch), leads him to believe that one can discern the meaning of the text independently of the process of fusion between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the interpreter. Hirsch distinguishes between meaning and significance, according to which meaning lies in the author's intended sense and significance lies in the present application. He regards discernment of meaning as a process ‘separate and distinct’ from relating the text to a present situation (Hirsch 1967: 255–6). Thiselton insists, by contrast, that our questions and reformulated questions have a bearing on our apprehension of the text's meaning. Stott leans more towards Hirsch, and resists rendering meaning as unstable as Thiselton's hermeneutics imply. He attempts to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy at the level of meaning, and confines insights from hermeneutical philosophy to the level of significance or application. This move, made in numerous evangelical publications (cf. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics 1982; Packer 1984; Geisler 1984), in fact nullifies any appeal to phenomenological hermeneutics, and again reveals the tenacity of a fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture.

Few evangelical apologists have engaged hermeneutical philosophy in a way that seriously challenges fundamentalist assumptions. Some have worried that the principle of authorial intention opens ‘the door wide to a kind of psychological second-guessing as replacing a sober analysis of the text’ (Nicole 1983: 206), and so wish to revert to a grammatico-historical approach that seeks to be more objective (R. K. Johnson 1988: 60). Of those who have endorsed authorial intention, some have done so because they believe that it embodies the Reformation insistence that Scripture be interpreted literally rather than allegorically (Packer 1990: 49), or because appeals to authorial intention can be made in defence of inerrancy. For example, if numerical or scientific precision were not the author's primary intention, then numerical or scientific imprecision would not count against the inerrancy of a text. There is deep reluctance to see meaning itself as affected by hermeneutics. Timothy Ward (2002), writing as an academic rather than a popular theologian, has attempted to combine a speech-act theory with Warfield's doctrine of Scripture, but where tensions arise, he upholds Warfield's approach, and hence a commitment to fixed, inerrant meaning. Kevin J. Vanhoozer makes a more significant move, disputing the epistemological concern to determine the meaning of a text, but at the same time protecting the divinely authored meaning from the shifting sands of hermeneutics (Vanhoozer 2002: 286, 276).

Vanhoozer is an evangelical postmodern theologian. He interprets postmodernism as ‘messianic’, meaning that it is ‘open to the coming of the other and the different’, and, for this reason, he insists that faith, not reason, is ‘endemic to the postmodern condition’ (2003: 18). Hermeneutically, he develops a speech-act model whilst also following Hirsch's distinction between meaning and application (1998; 2002: 127–203, 275–308). He holds that ‘the Bible may be significant in different ways to different readers who nevertheless agree that there is a single meaning in the text’ (1998: 424). He introduces an eschatological dimension to the discernment of meaning, and so holds that while a text has a single meaning, our grasp of that meaning is partial and its significance incomplete (Vanhoozer 1998: 429–30). We have to wait rather than bring the final interpretive solution to a premature conclusion. Vanhoozer thereby challenges fundamentalist claims to be in possession of the truth, but he rejects the possibility of multiple meanings.

His resistance to a multiplicity of meanings is surprising, given that Vanhoozer operates with a theory of meaning as communicative act. He is interested in the efficacy of Scripture, meaning its power to produce effects (Vanhoozer 1998: 424–7), rather than the sufficiency of Scripture in giving us evidence or reasons. If meaning is related to efficacy, it is not obvious that it need be singular and unattained, rather than plural and differently attained as befits the circumstances. Vanhoozer's commitment to a single meaning reflects an ongoing fundamentalist-like anxiety about shifting ground. At the same time, his emphases on discernment, moral and spiritual formation, and the authority of the Holy Spirit are undermining of fundamentalist rationalism. He favours the term ‘discernment’ over ‘deduction’ and ‘induction’ for the processes involved in reading Scripture and practising theology. He tries to discern meaning through a process of ‘theological interpretation’ that is ‘formed, informed and reformed by Christian doctrine’ (2002: 286), and holds that proper discernment depends on readers developing interpretive virtues, for which the Christian community is formative. Hermeneutics, he believes, should socialize people into the Body of Christ, not aim to determine the meaning of the text or author as part of an epistemological project. Understanding requires not only reason but repentance, not only scholarship but faith (where faith means something other than rational assent to evidence) (Vanhoozer 1998: 430). He criticizes fundamentalists for assuming that one can extract the truth from Scripture without the hard discipline of living in the Christian community, and without effective acknowledgement of the role of the Holy Spirit. He agrees with the new-evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm, who argued in the 1950s that fundamentalism displays an ‘abbreviated Protestant principle’ (1957: 29)—‘abbreviated’, because its understanding of Scripture interpreting Scripture relegates the Holy Spirit to the margins. This aspect of his critique is helpful for identifying the idolatrous nature of fundamentalism. Through marginalizing the Holy Spirit, fundamentalism becomes bibliolatry—a religion of the Book—and fundamentalists come to equate the meaning of the text with their own reading of it. In a more faithful Reformed theology, ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ means that God the Holy Spirit, speaking in and through Scripture, interprets Scripture. God the Holy Spirit is free and cannot be fixed.

Vanhoozer responds to fundamentalism by offering the conditions for a differently constructed theology, in which the threefold God is the ground of faith and Scripture, and the Spirit speaks through Scripture to make it efficacious. On a fundamentalist rendering, by contrast, Scripture is the ground of faith, meaning that it is the basis upon which we know anything about God, and the threefold God inspires and interprets Scripture in order to insure the sufficiency of the evidence it contains.

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