Theology in 3D

Beware of Hermeneutical Priestcraft

Layton Talbert | October 18, 2019

Does God intend the Scripture to be understandable and accessible only to seasoned, sophisticated theologians? Or did God intend to communicate in such a way that the average Corinthian, Ephesian, Belgian or Appalachian would readily be able to understand his meaning?

Now, is there greater theological depth than is readily understood by the average or untaught reader? Unquestionably. Augustine’s hoary old chestnut about wading children and swimming elephants comes to mind. But the ever-present danger for the trained theologian is to make the interpretation of Scripture—especially when it comes to repeated statements and promises addressed to the unsophisticated, average majority—so specialized and so elite that only the expert interpreter can really understand and interpret God’s words correctly.

Biblical truth is far more complex and multilayered than it may appear on the surface. But if we take seriously the Reformation rediscovery of the perspicuity of Scripture—breaking the Romanist monopoly as its only authorized interpreter—the idea that repeated, inspired language would create in the unconditioned reader the exact opposite impression from the “actual” meaning seems difficult to defend. Our interpretations can err in two directions: (1) oversimplification fails to take careful notice of content or context; (2) oversophistication is so technically nuanced that no one would ever have figured it out without us.

Vern Poythress argues in a similar vein:

God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon…. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge…. Hence, the ordinary, humble readers of the Bible do all right. Paradoxically, scholars and would-be scholars can easily get into trouble by overestimating the degree of technical or pedantic precision in the Bible. They will then fall into mistakes that an ordinary reader of the Bible would not make (Symphonic Theology, 69-70). 

The revelation of the infinite God deserves the highest level of scholarship we can possibly bring to the task of understanding it; and in the end, it will outstrip even that. But biblical scholarship, as essential and valuable as it is, may be infected with an exclusive elitism that shuts out the kind of “average” readers to whom Mark and Paul and Peter and John first addressed the given revelation of an infinite God. And it should be axiomatic that an infinite God has no difficulty uncovering his mind and purposes to the average, the unconditioned, and the uninitiated through the language he has chosen to use.

The greatest tools for interpretation and understanding are (1) an observant, contextual reading of Scripture, and (2) simple faith in its content and expression (what God says and how he chose to say it). The simplest reader may possess these, and the most sophisticated biblical scholar may misplace them—or worse, come to disdain them—among all the other specialized interpretational instruments at his disposal.

Theologians are not the superiors and overlords of the ignorant masses of average readers, with unbridled academic liberty. As Spirit-gifted (1 Cor 12:8) and Christ-given (Eph 4:11) teachers of God’s truth, we are above all servants of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:12-13). Consequently, our positions, how we express them, and their ramifications, matter to the health of the body of Christ and, therefore, to its Head to whom we are ultimately accountable.

One response to “Beware of Hermeneutical Priestcraft”

  1. You begin with three questions, the answers to which are no, yes, and yes, respectively.

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