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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 14: Notes by a Theologian on Biblical Hermeneutics

In the March, 1958, issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature appeared four articles on the question of hermeneutics written by biblical scholars James Muilenburg, J. Coert Rylaarsdam, Krister Stendahl, and G. Ernest Wright, the last named being, however, only indirectly concerned with hermeneutics. Stendahl suggested that, as far as hermeneutics goes, the "principles belong to the discipline of theology, not to biblical studies as such." As a theologian, I shall limit my discussion to constructive comments.


Although the purpose of this chapter is centered in its third section, the level of total context, there should be no bypassing or short-cutting of either the level of fact or the level of the principles of interpretation. At one time the question of fact seemed relatively simple. A primary scholar in the field of the history of religions, for instance, once said in conversation that "he worshiped at no altar except the holy altar of fact." And fact he defined as "actual archeological evidence," like monuments or physical objects used by the people under study. In a letter to the author, a prominent American physicist writes that all facts "have in them elements which are essentially pre-assumptions; i.e. there are no ‘pure facts’ in the old sense. For some ‘facts’ the observational elements are relatively weaker, and the presuppositional elements relatively stronger, than for others. In some the presuppositional elements are relatively unimportant while for others they are almost decisive." He even goes so far as to call attention to the danger of "the assumption, rarely explicitly stated that the laws of nature are independent of time, i.e. the same in the past as in the present, and therefore essentially unchanging." Careful science, he contends, is at best only some three hundred years old. We need to be warned at this point! Nevertheless, we should be under tutelage to all objective evidence and, without placing blind trust in the scientific method, we have to assume, I believe, the general reliability of such means, for instance, as the carbon test for dating material. Fact should be at least one stubborn pole aiding exegesis within the principles of interpretation.

Obviously, manuscripts and tradition are far removed from primary fact. Even so, they must be accepted and used if there is to be any exegesis, however thin and tenuous the result. In addition to all the cautions and precautions which are demanded by the next level of approach, there are original factual risks connected with the handling of any manuscript. Although it may be established that the manuscript itself is genuine, questions remain as to the bias, the competence, and the position for observation on the part of the writer. At best, in all areas of remote historical investigation we have only a thin, subjective strand, a hair-thin thread binding us to an unimaginable wealth of past events and attitudes. Even so, such evidence can be indicative of the happenings and feelings of an age.

When several manuscripts relating to the same period are available, the problem of the correct interpretation of words and symbols increases. If we interpret words according to their usage contemporary with the period of the manuscript itself, we become guilty of the reductionist fallacy, or we may read too much into the manuscript, whereas if we do not make use of contemporary meanings at all we may become involved in the falsification of the past in terms of our own age or of some other age.

The discussion of adequate exegesis is not the purpose of this chapter, however, for that would involve all the internal problems of interpretation and all possible techniques for checking the meaning of any manuscript in the light of external aids. The reason for mentioning manuscript problems here is to affirm, for common understanding, the need for the maximum regard for fact insofar as this can be had at all, with no illusions or pretensions regarding the possibility of arriving at any objective portrait of the past as such.

Furthermore, tradition as history is at once subjective and objective. Any one piece of tradition is historically so vague and unestablished that it is practically worthless. Occasionally its information might provide a clue to other evidence and thus play its part in the interpretation of history. On the other hand, when there is a strong tradition available, it might constitute an informative continuum of consolidated material as a broad history of background. As almost a history of history it can become objectively weighty. In the case of biblical hermeneutics I take it that apart from the oral tradition and certain Jewish and other background material, tradition is not a major factor.


When we move up to the level of the principles of interpretation, the correct rendering of historical data becomes severely difficult. The levels of the data to be interpreted and that of interpretation or of the interpreter cannot be isolated, of course, except for analytical purposes. All knowledge is had within a synthesis of subject and object which cannot be torn asunder without some violence to itself. Modern theories of knowledge, beyond mere linguistic analysis, stress the creative or distorting involvement of the knower in his knowledge. The more personal and valueweighted the object of inquiry, the more important becomes the personal angle of vision. Some have gone so far as to declare that all such knowledge is through and through subjective and altogether relative. If this be the case, the personal angle of vision becomes mere preference or bias. Others have at least so minimized the objective element in the fields of value or of the interpretation of faith-judgments that all possibility of reliable common knowledge is precluded. At best what is known, within these theories of knowledge, are concrete events, separate facts, plus severely limited relationships. For knowledge, history can then have neither universals of meaning nor ultimates of purpose. Such an understanding of the knowledge situation makes mincemeat, of course, of most biblical scholarship.

Add to that the Christian understanding of the sinfulness of man --within which man distorts by his rebelliously and faithlessly warped vision whatever affects the basic meaning of his life, all judgments upon him, and the nature of his salvation -- and the plight of the biblical interpreter becomes hopeless in the sense of any adequate dealing with the heart of the biblical message. The limitations of the field, the finiteness of man, and man’s sinful drive to distort combine to draw the curtain between the interpreter and all meaningful history, including, of course, biblical interpretation.

Another blow to the aspirant to objective biblical interpretation is the obvious presence of divergent assumptions on the part of the various schools of biblical interpretation. Both the nature and the perspectives of these schools are complex and hard to determine. For one thing, there is a natural progression of attention from one item to another in the process of scholarship. Only thus are the separate items developed and given their chance to throw light or context on the larger body of material. This is the positive side of the question. The negative side is devious and treacherous. Within the scholar’s drive for professional recognition, even legitimate scholarly creativity usually receives distortion of emphasis. No field of scholarship, moreover, is devoid of compelling personalities who distort knowledge and who help pervert less forceful and often less competent colleagues in the discipline. But the most determinative side of this situation is the psychological need of the professionals in the subject to say something new. There is an ennui in teaching and a constant longing for creative relief. Accordingly, the new scholarly insight often comes with more emotional impact than with intellectual conviction. Under these circumstances, the primacy of the prophets in the Old Testament eventually becomes an old story, while the prominent role of the cultus is new and exciting. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has released research from the continual commitment to well-traveled roads.

Particularly welcome to one drive in human nature is overagainstness. The Hebrew and the Greek views of time are consequently distorted or oversimplified, not alone because of ignorance but because of the in-group psychology which variously affects the different interpreters. In addition to this temptation, there is the overagainstness of one school of interpretation to another. Entwined within the whole problem of interpretation, moreover, is the emotional continuum of conflict and approval among primary personalities with regard to each other and to their followers; and among the disciples with regard to conflict and approval. Thus the drive and drift of interpretation is due both to the nature of creative progression and to the emotional entanglements of professional life itself, whatever be the relation between the need for the new as such and the temptations and sins of overagainstness. And through the whole process, besides, lurk the pitfalls of human creatureliness.

In addition to the personal and the professional angles of vision there are the general presuppositions of an age, so presuppositional, or perhaps post suppositional, that neither the individual interpreter nor the schools are aware of them. Paul Tillich has told us of the general kairos of an age from which it is almost impossible to stand apart. More than we know, the age in which we live predetermines by its very nature not only the questions we ask of history but the way in which we put our problems. Only a few great spirits can either undercut the general assumptions to see the deeper continuities of history before the age or sense and help bring in the questions of a new age. But whether these exceptional interpreters be Schlegel’s "retrospective prophets" or Nietzsche’s prophets "born posthumously," they are not and cannot be understood from within the dominant assumptions and attitudes of the age. They are therefore generally ignored or rejected, but always more the former than the latter. Since they do not seem relevant, they seem unimportant. A safe and cautious generalization is, then, that the more popular or even the more dominant in scholarly circles the point of view is, the stronger is the likelihood that it is the fullest expression of the particular questions of the age. The deeper unity of the continuum of interpretation usually lies buried by the age or else speaks a quietly strong but unheeded voice into the clamor of contemporary interpretation.

There are three sources for corrections of these three kinds of distortion: the personal, the professional, and the cultural. The personal bias due to sin can be mitigated by the effective life of worship. The prayer of a surrendered life to God’s will for the common good is the strongest antidote to personal ambition and to the distortion of vision that comes from sin. Forgiveness, trust, and concern for truth are engendered and obtained by the right relation to God. For most interpreters at least, this medicine is at best only a partial remedy, but to whatever extent it is received, it is important. Even the self-knowledge that is afforded is corrective of distorting prejudice. In the second place, there is recourse to diligent, open-ended study of contemporaries. All differing from other competent and dedicated scholars ought to hurt. All argumentation of overagainstness widens the distance between the interpreter and the adequacy of interpretation. The humble wrestling with divergent positions can deliver a scholar from the complacency, premature certainty, and insecure aggression of the personally ambitious and partially oriented interpreter.

Third, the history of interpretation can help correct not only the personal imitation of vision and not only the false importance of a professional school or position, but also the cultural presuppositions that are most difficult to penetrate. More and more I am convinced of the need to listen to the long history of a subject in order to see the narrowness of one’s selection of items for emphasis and the ease with which distortion of combination can be made. When life before God in humble worship, when life before our fellow scholars in diligent learning, and when life before the long, twisted ribbon of the past in patient tracing, are simultaneously accepted and pursued, there is available a genuine measure of deliverance from the prejudice of personal factors, the bias of professional belonging, and the presuppositions of the age. There is thus hope within the high hopelessness of rigid and committed scholarship, even within the field of the principles of interpretation which affect exegesis.


The third level, that of total context, is of special concern to the theologian. There is, however, a new understanding of the importance of context in the fields of knowledge generally. When physics passed from thinking in terms of isolated particles to field physics, when biology accepted more of the organismic approach, and when the insights of Gestalt psychology were appropriated, a new understanding arose not only of the importance of pattern for interpretation but of the impact of the whole on the parts. In philosophy, the struggle has been largely between the powerful new proposal of organismic philosophy by men like Alfred North Whitehead and the attempt to rule out as meaningless any recourse to the whole, as in most of linguistic analysis.

But both verification philosophy and usage philosophy have been backing away from the extremes of logical positivism into a more constructive confrontation of issues. Although theology itself has suffered in some quarters from a relapse into an extreme nominalist position, the attempt to deal only with concrete particulars, this trend is so contrary to its own nature and function that it is more a sign of borrowing from contemporary philosophy than of a healthy condition. Theology’s the interpretation of all of life in the light of God.

I think it is correct to say, in any case, that most theologians now see the inescapable nature of some governing context, of some presupposition for thought, of some stance for seeing, of some position for perspective. In any case, since I have undertaken the responsibility of making these comments on hermeneutics from the point of view of theology, I confess that I am constrained and convinced by the fact that there is no presuppositionless reasoning, that we have to have some context for thought, some configuration of interpretation, and that such a context affects our total understanding as well as our view of the parts.

The Christian faith should use history for its foundation. The Bible records this history. Only by the use of history can the Christian interpreter avoid the danger of a speculative transcendence. Revelational supernaturalism is vulnerable unless it centers in history. Otherwise, philosophy can show that we use terms either univocally or equivocally. In the former case, using language in the ordinary sense of terms, we never get beyond what we know in this world. In the latter case, using terms to mean something other than what we know, we are still left ignorant of the other world. When we start with history, however, there is no such problem How we then arrive at adequate transcendence, without which there is no Christian faith, we shall consider later. But even while starting with the Bible we should remember that the Bible centers in the Christ. The Scriptures at their height and in their basic direction tell of him. To this claim all true Christian history of interpretation attests.

By starting with Christ as Christian context we avoid the danger of an arbitrarily selected history. Christ as the center alone provides the context for Christian interpretation. Therefore, no Christian interpreter can go to the Bible aright without going through Christ. Christ is the Event-meaning who is agape. The personal Event is primary. The meaning derives from this Event of Christ, the truth known through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. Objectively and subjectively, historically and personally, the criteria for Christian faith are thus provided from within the faith itself. Christ as context claims unequivocally to be God’s final and full truth. In his life we see light. From him all true understanding proceeds because all knowledge is made obedient to him, or put into its true context apart from which it neither is as it is nor is known as it is.

Up to this point, the biblical scholar can proceed from within the presuppositions of his own field. Since, moreover, he has to have some dominant stance, the Christian perspective should be openly acknowledged as necessary for Christian interpretation. There is no Christian exegesis without Christian principles of interpretation. Such a context, although it cannot or may not be meaningful outside of faith, nevertheless provides a unity of discourse for Christian communication.

The real question of ultimates, of the legitimacy of the position for truth, lies beyond this point of analysis. The final problem is whether this Christian context is optional as one way among others to look at the world, whether it is necessary as ultimate truth, or whether there is some other real and relevant choice. The first two I cannot accept. The first would imply a complete relativity, at least of knowledge, and a complete arbitrariness of choice of context. The Christian faith itself, on the contrary, claims to be universal both in reality and in truth. It claims that all ultimate reality and knowledge so center in God that in some sense men are responsible for not knowing as well as for not obeying, or perhaps more accurately, for not obeying and knowing him. The second position would involve either the falsity or the forfeiting of man’s freedom. The Christian context cannot be necessary as ultimate truth for man’s knowledge or else man would not have to be justified by faith in knowledge as well as in life. There would then be no freedom not to believe. In such a case, knowledge could be coerced and faith not free. We turn therefore to another choice which I believe is both real and relevant.

In the final analysis, since there is no presuppositionless reasoning and since no ultimate presupposition can be proved, the Christian context is and remains a faith-stance. Ultimately we all live not by sight but by faith. Nevertheless, this faith-stance is not arbitrary, both because there is no other perspective which more fully accounts for what we know and because the Christian context affords a maximum of coherent organization of our total experience and knowledge. Moreover, for reasons soon to be offered, it cannot be said that every ultimate context determines the criteria by which its adequacy and that of all others are measured and that therefore every context turns out to be best merely for its own world of organization and explanation. For the same reason Ruth Benedict is wrong when she says that every absolute is the defensive and aggressive rationalization of an in-group which has no validity beyond the group.

At least the positive affirmations about to be given are true for those who accept the legitimacy of any knowledge and the desirability of life as such, understood at its best. The reason such positive statements will be made with conviction is that human nature and history come together in the realm of need, while need points organically to its source and fulfillment. Obviously, within human history and cosmic process we cannot have proof from the proximate to the ultimate, a logical inadequacy, but we can have reliable pointings in the direction of the solutions which endorse the truth of the Christian context and claim. Thus we are left with faith requiring commitment and study. Only the final consummation, however, can validate the Christian claim.

Man’s deepest needs come from his total situation within the world, and they reflect the nature of the reality which has produced him. If man’s basic need for creative life and for community, center in Christ’s kind of love, the love that God prepared for with power in the Old Testament, and revealed by his own enmanment, or becoming man, in Jesus Christ, then that need indicates the heart of reality. If human history finds its meaning in the fostering and fulfillment of a certain kind of community, the inclusive, creative community of concern which is the true nature of the Christian Church, then history helps authenticate the Christian revelation. If nature discloses a relation between the kind of predictability and precariousness which are the conditions for human initiative, responsibility, and growth while also allowing for the constant need for faith, nature strengthens the case for the Christian context.

If moral and natural evil yield significant meaning most fully within the context of the Cross of Christ, then one of man’s deepest needs to know, to believe, and to overcome indicates the centrality of the Christian context. Obviously there is no place here for a lifetime of investigation along these lines, but the Christian context has captured my mind by its adequacy to minister to the facts of experience, history, nature, and evil. Such seeing may, of course, be convincingly meaningful only within the gift and power of faith; it may presuppose commitment, but it offers the kind of organization and explanation of experience that can also be meaningfully offered to others for conviction and conversion as well as for study and growth. Thus the Christian faith is and remains a posture of faith, even while it also secondarily offers both a unity of discourse and a context for communication. Humanity is collectively related through basic need with regard to both history and nature to its common origin, point of reference, and power for fulfillment.

Possibly we can point out or at least hint at the way from the foundation of the Christian context in history, in the Bible centering in Christ, to the classical biblical and Christian transcendence. The first is the way of protology: The history of creation, life itself, the preparations for Christ in experience and history, and finally Christ, cannot be adequately accounted for either by a reductionistic naturalism or by considering our present world to be ultimate. Since we must have some context, configuration, or presupposition, a transcendent ground of creation is the least arbitrary explanation of these beginnings and developments. In the second place, the Christian context provides the kind of organismic potential for human nature, history, and nature itself which best organizes and explains these even while transcending immeasurably the actual world we know. The love of Christ both indicates that all things consist in him and also goes beyond present actuality as an ideal, a potential, and a locus for the solution of our needs.

In the third place, Christ as agape most severely shows what is wrong with us, judges us, and affords power for forgiveness and transformation. Thus there is an existential transcendence as well as the transcendence of protology and of organismic requirements. Fourth, the main transcendence of the Christian context over our actual historic and cosmic situation is the eschatological. We live mostly in the world of not yet. Christ as the end and ending shall draw all men unto himself. The end of history is present in its midst, promising and pointing to its fulfillment. Even these embryonic suggestions may show how we can start within history, with the Incarnation at center, thus both avoiding the problems of speculative transcendence and arriving at real reasons for an adequate, classical Christian transcendence.

In this chapter we can do little more than propose that the Christian principles of biblical interpretation which are presupposed by exegesis center in Christ as the context for the total task. Historical scholarship and textual exegesis have their own distinctive tasks up to the proper limit of the efficacy of their methods. But since no part is ever separate from, nor without influence from, the total context, there must be a constant checking back and forth from fact to faith and from faith to fact, each illuminating and correcting the other. The more the interpretation enters the realm of meaning, the more necessary it is to be both critically competent in technique and competently critical of one’s own assumptions and attitudes. Since, however, the Christian context is one of Christ as concern, under the Holy Spirit as truth, the more the interpreter commits himself and lives his faith, the less biased he will be and the more ready for objective seeing, especially for self-correction. The total task is difficult and dangerous, probably far beyond the awareness of most interpreters, but, within the resources of historic data and of personal preparation and discipline, there is yet some real ground for confidence that the task not only is worth attempting but can be done with some sense of objectivity and real community of seeing. Such long labor of biblical interpretation is invaluable for the Church and for the believer as well as for the theologian.

Possibly the main contribution of the theologian to the total work of biblical interpretation can be his seeing that the selection of Christ, the revelation of God as universal love, creative, redemptive, and fulfilling, although a stance of faith, is not arbitrary, but instead meets strikingly man’s common need for the fulfillment of experience, for meaning in history, and for the interpretation of nature with reference to both experience and history. Thus the Christian context is not arbitrary either in its selection from within the Bible and Christian history or with reference to ascertainable truth. In Christ as context, criterion, and dynamic for faith, center the principles of biblical interpretation.

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