Trends in biblical hermeneutics (part 2 of 2)

The words of the psalmist, asking God to open our eyes to the wondrous things in His law (Ps. 119:18), encourage us to adopt a proper understanding of Scripture.

Hans K. LaRondelle, ThD, is professor emeritus of systematic theology, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.


In the last century, many Protestant believers came to recognize that liberal theology had lost the concept of divine revelation in Holy Scripture.1 At the same time, the one-sided view of Protestant orthodoxy that revelation consists exclusively of doctrinal propositions in a verbally inspired Bible was considered equally inadequate. Even Karl Barth’s position that the Bible becomes the Word of God only through faith was, for many, tinged with subjectivism.

In this conflict situation arose a new type of theology of Scripture—evangelicalism that challenged both extremes of scholastic rationalism and liberal subjectivism. Evangelical scholars correlate the Word of Scripture and personal faith in it. The Handbook of Evangelical Theologians2 discusses 33 leading Bible scholars from a variety of Protestant traditions within the modern evangelical movement. Because all do not think alike, some tensions have risen among these evangelicals about different perspectives on the nature of inspiration and its purpose in the Bible. Sometimes theologians shift their own perspective on inspired Scripture after long reflections. The so-called new hermeneutic causes a fundamental change in meaning by acknowledging two dimensions of the problem of understanding: that of the historical context of the text, as well as that of the interpreter. This article will touch briefly upon some of the hermeneutical trends in evangelicalism today.

Variety of inspiration views

Strange as it may seem, evangelicalism fights the perennial battle for the Bible within its own movement.3 On the one hand, there is inerrancy. A passionate plea is made that the Bible in its entirety is verbally inspired, because of the self-testimony of the Scriptures (“Thus says the Lord”) and ultimately on the basis that Jesus used the Scriptures this way (appealing to Deut. 18:18; John 5:46, 47; 6:45; 10:34, 35; 15:25). Subjection to the authority of Christ involves subjection to the authority of Scripture in its totality. The logical conclusion is “the words of Scripture, therefore, are the very words of God.”4 This dogmatic confession motivated the formation of the Evangelical Theological Society (1949), which states as its doctrinal basis: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs.” On the other hand, there is interpretation. M. J. Erickson (1982) states, “In the past few years, the emphasis in the ETS has been shifting from statements about the nature of Scripture (i.e., that it is free from error) to inquire about what it actually says and means.”5 Thus the understanding of Genesis 1–11, on the one hand, is considered as presenting “factual” history; but on the other hand, it may be viewed as a different genre or nature of literature within Scripture.6

In the latter option, Genesis 1 need not be considered without factual error. The task of hermeneutics is no longer simply a set of rules for interpreting Scripture but, “much more broadly,” as involving “the means of bridging the temporal and cultural gap between the biblical situation and time and the one in which we currently find ourselves.”7 Nevertheless, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), a coalition of Christian scholars who believe that a reaffirmation of biblical inerrancy is crucial to the vitality of the Christian church, insists on the dogma of inerrancy. In its published papers of Summit II,8 authors argued that the believer must accept the preunderstanding that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally protected from all errors, because “the Holy Spirit is not time-bounded in His knowledge,” so that “His participation in the production of Scripture as co-author eliminates both willful deception, factual error, and doctrinal error of any kind.”9 It appears that no consensus exists regarding the biblical “inerrancy” among evangelicals.

Millard J. Erickson discusses five different concepts of “inerrancy” before stating his own qualified view: “whatever statements the Bible affirms are fully truthful when they are correctly interpreted in terms of their meaning in their cultural setting and the purpose for which they are written.”10 This carefully adjusts the more lapidary declaration of Francis A. Schaeffer: “The Bible without error in all that it affirms.”11

A problematic parallel

The traditional argument for biblical inerrancy requires special attention: the assumed parallel of Scripture and the divine-human Person of Christ. James Packer uses this argument to support the inerrancy of Scripture even when he admits this can be “only a limited” analogy.12 Nevertheless, he argues, “If the critics believe that Scripture, as a human book, errs, they ought, by force of their own analogy, to believe that Christ, as man, sinned.” He acknowledges that the “limited” parallel is “merely that human as well as divine qualities are to be recognized in Scripture,” which he later describes as “the element of mystery that confronts us in the Scriptures.”13

Other evangelical Bible scholars find, however, that this incarnation model of the mystery of Scripture is inadequate. G. C. Berkouwer brings this incarnation-inscripturation parallel under close scrutiny and finds it wanting, giving three reasons: (1) Scripture never uses the parallel of sinlessness (of Christ) and inerrancy (of Scripture), but rather relates Scripture to the wisdom of salvation (2 Tim. 3:15); (2) Scripture clarifies its own inspiration by pointing to the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21); and (3) it is a “confusing analogy use” and an illegitimate “rationalization.” Thus Berkouwer judges that the search for analogies of the mystery of Scripture is unnecessary and can be misused by human speculation. He warns against both extremes: humanizing Scripture and disconnecting the Word of God from its human form, the “clay jars” (2 Cor. 4:7).14

Donald G. Bloesch presents a more direct recognition of the human aspect of Holy Scripture. He rejects the fundamentalist claim that Scripture contains no discrepancy or flaws measured by modern scientific exactitude because the Spirit of God “accommodated the truth of the Gospel to the mind-set and language of the writers.” “The doctrine or message of Scripture, which alone is infallible and inerrant, is hidden in the historical and cultural witness of the biblical writers.”15

The hermeneutic of dispensationalism tested

The hermeneutical principle of literalism was radically extended to the realm of prophecy by John N. Darby (1800–1882), one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement in England. Axiomatic for his dispensational divisions of biblical history is the thesis that a literal exegesis of the Old Testament prophecies demands an absolutely literal fulfillment.16 This hermeneutic of literalism led him to a separate future hope for Israel outside the church. Dispensationalism implies an ethnic and geographic literalism for all Old Testament prophecies ascribing to the symbolic portrayals of biblical prophecies, viewed as an essential aspect of their “inerrancy,” the exactness of a photographic picture of history in advance.17 This “consistent literalism” for prophetic interpretation is expressed in the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967, rev. ed.). It states that Daniel’s endtime prophecies “overleap” the church age and centuries to concern themselves “only with history as it affects Israel and the Holy land” (Ref. on Dan. 11:36, p. 917).

The dispensational end-time scenario, popularized by the fictional novel series Left Behind, encourages ongoing speculations on how to fit current political events into God’s timetable.18 What troubled evangelical scholars particularly was the self-serving confidence of dispensationalists in their own immediate connection with God, which had led this kind of fundamentalism to its isolation and separation from the historic faith of Protestantism. Many evangelicals repudiated the dispensational doctrines of the unconditional nature of prophecy and its compartmentalizing of the Scriptures that avoids the ethical demands of God’s covenant. This protest led to the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, United States, in 1947. The New Testament scholar George E. Ladd demonstrates that “an evangelical understanding of the Bible as the Word of God written is not per se hostile to a sober criticism; rather an evangelical faith demands a critical methodology in the reconstruction of the historical side of the process of revelation.”19

Relationship between Holy Scripture and Holy Spirit

Already Calvin developed his doctrine of the “Inner Testimony of the Holy Spirit” to explain how faith in Scripture was not a purely rational consent to the reliability of the Bible in an impersonal relation to Scripture. Appealing to Isaiah 59:21, he explained that this “inner testimony of the Spirit” signifies the divine “sealing” of the gospel message in the believer’s heart: “Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, . . . but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.”20 Evangelicals resist, therefore, any claim to a new revelation, one that completes or even supersedes Scripture, as is claimed by various cults and sects. They recognize that Scripture intends to establish a personal relationship between the Revealer God and the believers through the Holy Spirit: a covenant relationship. They acknowledge that this relationship implies “that we listen to and accept the promises and commandments given to the people of that time as given to us. We experience them as liberating and direction-giving for our life today.”21

In this encounter with the God of Scripture, the Holy Spirit assigns to us the content of Scripture and leads us to appropriate to ourselves what is objectively given in Scripture. Jan Veenhof points to the Epistle to the Hebrews that appeals repeatedly to the deposit of revelation in the past and then makes it permanently relevant by stating: “the Spirit says” (Heb. 3:7; 9:8; 10:15). Kenneth S. Kantzer argues that the doctrines of inspiration and revelation need to be complemented by the doctrine of divine illumination: “With the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the simple believer in Christ meets God immediately as the living God speaks to him personally in the pages of the Bible.”22

Shifting emphasis in the theology of Scripture

Evangelical theologians gradually shifted from an abstract theory of divine inspiration to an emphasis on the function of Scripture as to how God relates to sinners through the Holy Spirit. In other words, they turned from a mechanical inspiration theory to that of an “organic” inspiration that recognized more the divine “accommodation” to men and the human mediation and historic, cultural background of each Bible book.23 The authority, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture are now qualified by the specific orientation of Scripture itself: “to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15; cf. Rom. 15:4; Ps. 19:8). Only in the light of faith in Christ will the true understanding of the Scriptures be disclosed (see Luke 24:25–27, 32, 44, 45; Matt. 11:25–27).24 This theological-Christological guideline of the New Testament became the evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture interpretation. The attention is shifting from a focus on the formal authority of Scripture to the redemptive content of Scripture, that is, to a functional thinking of Scripture.

In this respect, Berkouwer developed his method of correlating faith and divine revelation. Faith in the Word of God is true faith only when it will not intend to contribute something but is solely receptive of divine revelation in Scripture.25 In his critique on both Karl Barth and traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, Berkouwer insists that personal faith is of decisive importance for participating in salvation, yet, at the same time, that faith can never constitute grounds for our salvation in Christ.26 This theological correlation method stresses the simplicity of Scripture and the boundaries of what Scripture reveals (appealing to 1 Cor. 4:6). Following his antispeculative guideline, Berkouwer came—to his own surprise—to a fundamental critique on the Calvinistic doctrine of “double” predestination,27 and he was also led to a biblical confirmation of Calvin’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper over and against that of Luther’s.28

Tensions in Creation theology

James Barr spoke of a certain misuse of the Bible in evangelicalism, stating: “The attempt to use the Bible as a final and unmodifiable authority on a scientific problem is a falsification of scripture.”29 The tense relationship of the Bible and scientific history has been called a “crisis in Christian theology.” Some conservative Bible scholars struggled to find some sort of coexistence of faith and science as complementary approaches to the created reality. G. C. Berkouwer was willing to consider the possibility of a certain “clothing” or “imagery” in the Creation narrative of Genesis 1. He recognized that certain aspects of its account could be related to the polemical situation of Israel (against foreign cosmologies).30 He insisted, however, that Scripture should not be explained by external standards.

Adrio König discerns five different creation concepts (of act, conflict, word, origin, birth) side by side in the Old Testament (OT), for the purpose of identifying Israel’s God as the Creator. Characteristic to him is “the enormously great similarity” of these representations “with those of the peoples and religions around Israel.” His basic conclusion is that the OT creation message does not intend to answer the theoretical question of where does everything originate, but the existential question, Are we safe, shall we survive, do we have hope for the future? The biblical Creation message is oriented to the future: “The doctrine of creation has too long made theology a theology of restoration or of conversation, instead of a theology of renewal, a theology of consolation and hope, a theology of the new acts of the mighty Creator-God. The message of creation is, first, that God can do this again, create new things. . . . Secondly: that God can do still more, greater things.”31

Bernard Ramm views Genesis 1–3 as belonging to a poetic genre of literature that weaves history and theology inseparably together. He concludes that Scripture does not teach one particular cosmology, so that it does not compete with modern cosmological explanations of the universe. He accepts the ingenious proposal of Karl Barth, who distinguishes between the Creation account as sacred history (or “sacred saga” as a genre of real history) and modern historical science as profane history, and concludes that both are “true in their own way.”32 Ramm argues, “Both scientists and theologians are to be governed in their methodology strictly by the nature of the subject investigated.”33 Thus, there should not be any conflict between Scripture and natural science, as long as theology and science stay within the limitations of their disciplines.

Other conservative Bible scholars challenge any accommodation idea as operating with a faulty hermeneutic and insist on a simple literal exegesis of Genesis. The main concern of these evangelicals, broadly referred to as “creationists,” is one of hermeneutics: Scripture must interpret itself. This implies that the Genesis account must be understood the same way as the New Testament interprets it, particularly Jesus and Paul, that is, as literal history.34 Noel Weeks argues, “If the accommodation idea is to be allowed in the discussion then it must first be demonstrated that it is itself taught by Scripture.”35 Francis A. Schaeffer emphasizes accordingly that not just Genesis 1–11 are involved, “but the authoritativeness of the New Testament as well, and especially the writings of Paul” (referring to Rom. 5:12–15; 1 Cor. 11:8, 12; 1 Tim. 2:13).36 He calls this “strong view of Scripture” the “watershed of the evangelical world.”37 Clark H. Pinnock points to the fundamental importance of the doctrines of Creation and the Fall, stating: “Hermeneutics collapses if Genesis 1-3 does not describe what happened historically.”38 An accommodation of the creationist worldview to the materialistic worldview of modern science seems therefore implausible.


Our sketch of hermeneutical trends in modern evangelicalism has alerted us to the relevance of the discipline of hermeneutics for the exegesis of Scripture. Ultimately, no particular hermeneutical “method” can guarantee a better understanding of and obedience to Holy Scripture. An openness of heart and searching mind remain essential, as the psalmist kept praying to God: “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18, NRSV).


1 For an excellent historical survey, see chapter 5 of M. D. MacDonald, Theories of Revelation (London: Unwin, 1963)

2 W. A. Elwell, ed., The Handbook of Evangelical Theologians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993).

3 See C. F. H. Henry, “Conflict over Biblical Inerrancy,” in Evangelicals in Search of Identity (Waco: Word, 1973).

4 G. H. Clark, God’s Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics (Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1982), 44.

5 M. J. Erickson, “Biblical Inerrancy: The Last Twenty-five Years,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society [JETS] 25, no. 4 (1982): 387–394; quote on 393.

6 See “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics,” JETS 25, no. 4 (1982): 397–401; articles 13 and 22.

7 Erickson, “Biblical Inerrancy,” 393. He refers to the landmark book of A. C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 10–17. See also Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).

8 E. D. Radmacher and R. D. Preus, eds., Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984).

9 J. S. Feinberg, Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, 15.

10 Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 1:238.

11 Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977).

12 James Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958). See pages 30, 33, 38, and 129.

13 Packer, “Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority,” Themelios (1975): 3–11 (quote from 9).

14 See chapter 7 of G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975). A. A. van Ruler analyzed specifically the “structural differences between the christological and the pneumatological viewpoints.” Theologisch Werk (Nijkerk, Netherlands: Callenbach, 1969), 1:175–190.

15 Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998), 1:67, 65.

16 For an examination of dispensationalism, see W. E. Cox, An Examination of Dispensationalism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963); V. S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).

17 For a critical evaluation of dispensational hermeneutics, see chapters 3, 4, 9 of H. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1983).

18 See the instructive analysis in chapters 2 and 3 of the Lutheran NT scholar Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture
Exposed (New York: Basic books, 2004).

19 George E. Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 215, 233. For a survey of the evangelical repudiation of dispensationalism, see R. Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 76–81.

20 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 1, chapter 9, section 2.

21 See the Reformed theologian J. Veenhof, The Interpretation of Scripture Today (Grand Rapids: Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1985), 6.

22 Kenneth S. Kantzer, The Bible: The Living Word of Revelation, ed. M.C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), 79.

23 This shift to the modern “organic” worldview was introduced by the Dutch Reformed theologians A. Kuyper
and H. Bavinck. See chapter 3 of the Dutch dissertation of J. Veenhof, Revelatie en Inspiratie (Amsterdam: Buyten, 1968); the English summary, 669–678.

24 For an instructive treatise, see H. N. Ridderbos, Het Woord, het Rijk en onze Verlegenheid (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok, 1968). “Feilloosheid, onfeilbaarheid, autoriteit” (57–77).

25 Instructive is G. W. de Jong, De Theologie van Dr. G. C. Berkouwer: Een Strukturele Analyse (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok, 1971).

26 See Berkouwer, “Evaluation,” in The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), part 2.

27 See Berkouwer, Divine Election (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960).

28 Berkouwer, The Sacraments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), chapter 11. For a critical evaluation of Berkouwer’s theology (until 1965), see H. Berkhof, “De Methode van Berkouwer’s Theologie,” in Ex Auditu Verbi: Festschrift for Berkouwer (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok, 1965), 37–55. G. L. Watts offers an instructive survey of Berkouwer’s theology in Handbook of Evangelical Theologians, 193–208.

29 James Barr, Beyond Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 138.

30 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), chapter 10. Compare with G. L. Watts Handbook of Evangelical Theology, 205–206.

31 Adrio König, New and Greater Things: Re-evaluating the Biblical Message on Creation (Pretoria: University of South Africa, 1988), 78.

32 Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 82–87. See chapter 7 for a
clarification of Barth’s defense of the “full theological integrity of Holy Scripture.”

33 Ramm, After Fundamentalism, 154. See also A. E. McGrath, The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998).

34 See Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, 59–61.

35 Noel Weeks, “The Hermeneutical Problem of Genesis 1–11,” Themelios (1978): 12–19 (quote from 19).

36 Schaeffer, No Final Conflict, 33.

37 Ibid., 48.

38 Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation (Chicago: Moody, 1971), 204. See also his treatment of the trustworthiness of Scripture, 203–207. For an illuminating clarification of the scientific, creationist method, see Leonard Brand, Faith, Reason, and Earth History (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1997).


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Hans K. LaRondelle, ThD, is professor emeritus of systematic theology, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 2010

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