The quote from Hodge and Warfield resonates with me:
"There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed.
We often tend to confuse literalness with inerrancy, and it is somewhat surprising to some that a symbolic interpretation can be inerrant in its message. Due to the baggage associated with inerrancy, I tend to shy away from the use of the word, and like a number of others would affirm the bible is “perfect according to its purpose” instead.
You shall understand, therefore, that the Scripture has but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, the anchor that never fails, which if you cling to it, you can never err or go out of the way. And if you leave the literal sense, you cannot but go out of the way.
Nevertheless, the Scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but what the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifies, is always the literal sense, which you must seek out diligently.
Reminds me of the meme about the 3rd Law of Theology in the humor thread: For every theologian, there is and equal and opposite theologian. Tyndale has a good point in that you have to start with what you see on paper.
The big problem with literalness that I struggle with understanding is determining what is literal. The change in language over the centuries, the problems with translating ancient language into modern prose, even the theological bias of the various versions and translations make it almost impossible to actually know what is literal, unless fluent in the original language, and even then that is probably impossible with ancient languages, which puts the very concept of a literal reading in jeopardy.
Tyndale should have told Paul before he ran off the rails in Galatians 4 and 1 Cor. 9:
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. 24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.
I would say “difficult”, rather than “impossible.” That’s why the Lord instituted a teaching office in the church: one clearly literal passage is in James, where he writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers…”
The fact is that Scripture is what it is, and Tyndale is quite right about the various genres. So one way or another, we have to get over it or deny that the Lord provided the Scriptures for us.
"To appeal to inspiration as somehow ‘allowing’ the NT writers to do something no one else is allowed to do seems odd in the face of the fact that the apostles were simply interpreting the way their contemporaries did. They did not simply claim the blanket authority of inspiration; they argued their case (e.g. Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 13 both argue that Ps 16 refers not to David but to Christ because David died). What did make them different from their contemporaries was that their hermeneutic is consistently focused on Christ (F. F. Bruce, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls ), and derivatively on Christ’s people the church (R. Hays, Echoes of Scripture ).
The whole essay is worth reading, but here are a few selections to discuss:
"What ties all these viewpoints together, liberal and conservative, is the simple assumption that grammatical-historical exegesis alone is legitimate for the present-day Christian interpreter, and that true interpretation of the meaning of a text is, unless over-ridden by mysterious divine inspiration, completely constrained by grammatical-historical principles.
"I challenge this, not on post-modernist grounds or by appealing to some recent subjectivist literary theory, but on biblical and theological grounds.
"Grammatical-historical exegesis is only a very limited method, which doesn’t always get us where we need to be, because grammatical-historical interpretation is strictly interested only in what may be derived from original historical human meaning.
"The idea of a singular, methodologically isolatable and static historical meaning that we humans can precisely define is an illusory modernist pipe-dream. Meaning is always dynamic and personal. (By “personal” I mean “involving relationships between persons,” not “individualistic,” and certainly not “subjectivistic.”) But even if one could isolate a static and impersonal meaning to the biblical text, the grammatical-historical method alone would still be inadequate.
"Grammatical-historical method does not, and by its very nature cannot, deal with the special hermeneutical considerations of a divine text…
“Pure” grammatical-historical method in Old Testament study does not give us the gospel. When we try to read the Old Testament from the vantage point of its original context we find hints at the gospel, and we find principles about the nature of God and man that imply the gospel, and we find prophetic expectations of a gospel, but one cannot really see the gospel itself until one gets to the New Testament (cf. Heb 11:39-40). But then we are, after the fact, able to see how the Old Testament is as a whole, moving toward the gospel. A second reading, a re-reading of the Old Testament from the standpoint of knowing its eventuation in Christ, manifests what God was doing all along.
"The apostles regard the Old Testament as containing something that was hidden, something that is only now revealed. I think we can illustrate this, as others have done, by pointing to some similarities of the story of the Bible to a mystery story.
"A “first reading” is characterized by uncertainty, wondering what it’s all about, and how it’s going to conclude. There are clues, many of them ambiguous, which result sometimes in “false” leads (e.g. the notion that attempting to obey the law leads to life). The surprise ending is then really a surprise, but once a reader gets to the end, the story holds together. One can then see how the clues were really all there, but they didn’t make sense until the ending pulled it together.
“Just as a good mystery writer knows the solution to the puzzle even as he lays out the material, so the Bible’s divine Author knew the end of the story before he set out the process of revealing the story in time. I vigorously and whole-heartedly believe that Jesus was absolutely correct when he told the disciples in Luke 24 that the Old Testament was about him, his death and resurrection, and the offer of the gospel to the nations. And from our post-resurrection perspective, we can see it. But I have difficulty in seeing how one can aver that an ordinary time-bound human, believer though he be, could have seen it prior to the event. Where, in a strictly grammatical-historically understood Old Testament, is the death and resurrection of Messiah? Jesus and Paul and Peter all say that Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just predicted but lies at the core of the meaning of the Old Testament, yet not a single Old Testament passage, when viewed strictly from its ostensive grammatical-historically determinable meaning, unambiguously states that the messiah will die and rise three days later. We can only see it after the fact. A genuine “first reading” of the story allows for a surprise element. Or as Paul calls it, a mystery which is now revealed.”
McCartney’s view is controversial, of course. Greg Beale, for example, is among those who say that NT writers were indeed drawing out meanings already inherent in the OT authorial intention, though going beyond them. For example, there is a great difference in how one sees Matthean or Pauline interpretations if one considers that an OT writer was not simply focused on the Hebrew cult, but on its inherent failure and the necessity for a coming Christ. In that case, the NT interpretations become a lot more “objective” - and that is, after all, quite consistent with the “literal meaning” of 1 Pet 1:10-12.
Tyndale was writing against a background where exegesis became the servant of existing Church doctrine - if a Scripture could be allegorized according to the doctrine of the reign of Mary as heaven’s queen, that was biblical teaching.
Phil’s original point was about Scripture being “perfect according to its purpose,” and whilst it sounds good to say it was intended to point to Jesus and cut to any interpretation that does that, we are in danger of imposing our Jesus on the text, rather than learning from the authors (by which I mean both the inspired author and the inspiring Spirit).
True, we have to deal with a living word and a living Christ - but also with dying interpreters. It would be churlish to deny that the guy who is powerfully struck by a verse in Scripture and takes it as a call to ministry might have been truly addressed through it by God, but equally to shy away from there being any “public meaning” is more likely to lead to downgrading of Scripture’s authority (compared to, say, science, where “you know where you are.”)
There has always been, right from Apostolic times, a belief that there is sound teaching, and unsound teaching.
Why not give the inerrantists what they are really asking for: how the Bible instructs and informs three cultural colossuses, science, history, and geography? Of course the answer isn’t a literalist screed, but it isn’t a dithering about separate non-overlapping magisteriums either.
McCartney mostly interacts with Beale and Longenecker in the essay. He agrees with Beale that “if we believe God is the ultimate author of the whole of scripture, then the context of Christian interpretation ought to be the whole Bible, not just the immediate historical context of any particular text’s original author and audience. We are dealing with the intention of the divine Author as well as that of the human author, and though these will overlap they need not be identical. Indeed we would not expect a human author to exhaustively understand the implications of his divinely inspired words.”
An example of this would be Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy (7:14). By the strict grammatical-historical rules of interpreting the OT, the historical context and audience would limit the meaning of the passage to a young woman whose child will serve as a sign to Ahaz. We may ask, what was the authorial intent? Was Isaiah speaking only to Ahaz, or did he understand the full christological implications of his words? It seems highly unlikely (to say the least) that Isaiah was thinking of the Christ when he spoke these words. He was addressing the current political situation. The NT authors, in retrospect, were able to see the full implications of Isaiah’s prophecy, but only in the light of Christ.
The question for us is this: Are we limited to the grammatical-historical method, or are we able to interpret the OT as the apostles did? As both Beale and McCartney agree, this christocentric way of reading the OT “is itself derived from the teaching of Jesus, who appears to be the fountainhead of this whole messianic way of reading the Old Testament.”
On this point, McCartney goes on to say, “If we do not adopt the viewpoint of Jesus and the apostles that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament, that Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises, that Christ is the true Israel, true Son of God, that the meaning of the biblical texts for the present-day people of God has to do with our relation to God in Christ, then how can our interpretation be deemed in any sense Christian?”
To me, none of this is controversial. It seems a matter of common sense, actually.
As you mention, Tyndale was writing against a background of medieval interpretation, which as a matter of rule sought four senses (or interpretations) in every passage of Scripture. The Reformers over-reacted by asserting that “the full sense of any Scripture is not manifold, but one,” to borrow the wording of the Westminster Confession, repeating after Tyndale.
The problem is, in order to make that assertion work, the “literal sense” must be expanded to contain proverbs, poetry, parables, allegories, riddles, etc., which makes the category of “literal” essentially meaningless. (Sort of like most definitions of inerrancy, with their multitude of qualifications and quibbles.) Tell me, what does a literal interpretation of poetry look like? Or a literal interpretation of apocalypse? Along the same lines, I’ve heard Middleton describe his grammatical-historical interpretation of Genesis 1 as “literal,” simply because he defines the “literal interpretation” as how the original audience would have understood the author’s meaning. (In his defense, he distinguishes this from the “literalist” interpretation, which is the “plain meaning” of the text in modern English translation.) These days, when you say the “literal sense,” what almost everyone hears is the “plain meaning” sense that AiG promotes, but that is not the sense in which Tyndale and modern expositors use the term.
In a chapter on the interpretation of Scripture in his book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, J.I. Packer describes the “literal interpretation” of Scripture as essentially the modern grammatical-historical method: “Scripture yields two basic principles for its own interpretation. The first is that the proper, natural sense of each passage (i.e., the intended sense of the writer) is to be taken as fundamental; the meaning of texts in their own contexts, and for their original readers, is the necessary starting-point for enquiry into their wider significance. In other words, Scripture statements must be interpreted in the light of the rules of grammar and discourse on the one hand, and of their own place in history on the other.”
This is basically the same understanding of “literal” that Middleton explained, but it is not at all what most people think when they hear that term. That is why I spoke up. The Tyndale quote implies to most people that the “plain meaning” of the text in English translation is the primary and only sense, which is simply wrong. The actual “literal sense,” which Tyndale, Middleton, Walton, and Packer all would agree upon, is the result of grammatical-historical exegesis.
What McCartney is suggesting (and I am in agreement), is that grammatical-historical is not sufficient.
What if portions of Scripture reflect what the Church was doing at the time but people don’t want to acknowledge that?
For example: all the ancient churches teach that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ, not merely symbols or a memorial only. The latter is something from the Reformation and not even all Protestants agree with that. If Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10 that we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, does this not reflect what the practice and teaching was at that time?
To say that there is only one meaning leaves unclear who decides what that meaning is. Inerrancy doesn’t enter into it.
As an aside, my spell check here didn’t recognize the word “inerrancy.”