Pontificating with Packer again..this time about Hermeneutics

J I Packer: The Centrality of Hermeneutics Today, in Eds: D A Carson & John D Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth,  1983,1992

Some gems from Packer’s controversial article which are even more relevant in 2017 when so many are denying any authority whatsoever to the Bible.

p325: Quoting Carl Henry: The key intellectual issue for the ‘80s, as I see it , will still be the persistent problem of authority . It will concern especially the problem of hermeneutics.

Quoting Karl Barth: ..every theology stands or falls as a hermeneutic and every hermeneutic stands or falls as a theology…

A summary of the last hundred years in theology:

Before Barth: inspiration  eg Hodge, Warfield, Sanday, Orr, Forsyth.

During Barth’s heyday: revelation   eg J Baillie, H R Niebuhr, C S Lewis

Since Barth: interpretation.  (beginning with Bultmann in the 1940s). e.g. Bonhoeffer, Kasemann,  Vermes, Leon Morris, Caird, Stott,  Stephen Neill, Schaeffer, Barr, Pannenburg, Kung, Thielicke, Macquarie,John Bright, Howard Marshall, Richardson,Tracy, Childs, McGrath, Elizabeth Johnson,.Pinnock, Barnett

[Since 2000?] authority?] e.g. Rahner, Newbigin, Dunn,  N T Wright, Carson, Crossan, Borg, Lindbeck, Piper, Adam, Grudem, Moo, Rohr, Bell, Vanhoozer, Carson, Moltmann,Yancey, Keller, Bird, Volf, Hauervaus, Thiselton, Baulkham, Noll.

Honouring the Bible as embodying what God said to mankind long ago while failing to listen to it as God’s word to us in the present will not do. (Barth).

p326:  …there can surely be no question that [Barth] was right to make central  the Bible’s instrumental function of mediating God’s revealed mind to each generation of the church.

For evangelicals biblical authority does in fact mean Scripture communicating instruction from God about belief and behaviour, the way of faith and obedience, and the life of worship and witness…..Evangelicals have been fighting not just for orthodoxy, but for religion; not just for purity of confession, but for fulness of faith and life; not just for God’s truth, but for the godliness that is a response to it. [although]  the self-consciously embattled stance of the fundamentalist controversy has often obscured the pastoral and doxological motivation of its testimony and literature e.g. the Harold Lindsell type of approach. fn. 8 p412]

p326-7 …the heritage of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism, Lutheran and Reformed, with its characteristic if questionable stress on epistemological certainty as the basis of authority and on conceptual clarity as the basis of epistemological certainty, has had its effect in shaping evangelical responses to the anti-intellectual subjectivism of liberals and existentialists, making it seem on occasion that an intellectual orthodoxy was all that Evangelicals cared about. But today’s evangelicalism was not nurtured in last-century pietism for nothing, and the concern for godliness has always been there…

p327 the concern continues and this is why Evangelicals continue to spend their strength contending for the authority of an infallible Bible as a basic principle of Christianity. [so e.g. Montgomery, Boice, Geisler, Packer, Grudem ..fn 10 p412]

p327 By evangelicalism I mean that multi denominational Protestant constituency within the world-wide church that combines acknowledgement of the trustworthiness, sufficiency, and divine authority of the Bible with adherence to the New Testament  account of the Gospel of Christ and the way of faith in Him.

This is not to say that Evangelicals hesitate to acknowledge biblical imagery, symbols, parables, and other pictorial literary forms for what they are: in fact, they do not so hesitate, but equally they do not allow themselves to forget that these literary forms are communicating thoughts, and the thoughts …are set before Bible readers by God Himself.

Evangelicalism recognizes too that God’s revealed and universally valid teaching in Scripture, given as it was over many centuries in a slowly but surely changing Near Eastern cultural milieu, has to be unshelled from the local particularities in which we find it embedded in order that it may be reapplied today in terms of our own culture…but, evangelicalism rejects on principle all forms of dogmatic theological relativism, as the fruit of the fundamental mistake of not taking biblical instruction, as such, to be the Word of God.

p328  Yet while this theology is confessed and taught catechetically as if it were fixed, and irreformable, Evangelicals know that it remains open to testing, correction,  and augmentation in the light of those Scriptures whose message it seeks to focus…and there are today many specific issues on which, despite their unity of method and approach, Evangelicals are far from being at one.

p328-9  Sometimes, however, the perception that Evangelicals have no perfectly unified answers to some questions of truth and duty is alleged to show….that, as liberal theology has long maintained, the method of appeal and submission to Scripture, no matter how carefully pursued, is intrinsically unable to produce certainty, because either, it is thought..

– there is an ultimate pluralism in biblical teaching  e.g. Dunn, Barr, Kelsey.

– it is really impossible for us to enter into and identify with the thoughts of people belonging to a past so remote from us as is the biblical period e.g. Nineham

– modern insight into the hermeneutical process shows that different things are conveyed to different people by the same texts, depending on where those people are coming from and what experience and questions they bring with them. e.g. Wink, Funk, Crossan.

` – a combination of the above.

p329-331  Ought we then to conclude that when the Reformers affirmed the intrinsic clarity of Scripture in presenting its central message, they were wrong and that the many millions who down the centuries have lived and died by the light of what they took to be divinely taught certainties were self-deceived? Must we say that no such certainties are available to us, nor ever were to anyone?

Packer answers this question which he thinks is gratuitous, by first offering four ameliorating analyses against what could be called a triumphalist infallibllity position and offers a reply to each analysis..these analyses are:

i) differences of conceptual resource and verbal expression do in fact mark one biblical writer from another revealing differences in background, brains, and breadth of experience but it has yet to be proved that things said in different ways at different times by different people are necessarily inconsistent with each other in substantive meaning….plurality in presentation does not ..involve pluralism in substance …[as illustrated, for example, by e.g.. Hoskins and Davey: The Riddle of the New Testament, 1931 and Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 1965] fn19, p414.

ii) …different people in different situations find the same Scripture passage bringing illumination from God in different ways and with different specific messages…..eg …the many different human contexts in which down the centuries Psalm 23 will have brought reassurance from God. But it has yet to be shown that the historico-theological meaning of each text that is applied for reassurance and guidance today does not continue to be identical. Some, to be sure, with Karl Barth, deny that Scripture offers general principles of truth for specific application…applications vary with situations but (so it is claimed) the core truths about God’s work ..and ways that each biblical book teaches, and that God Himself thereby teaches, remain both constant..and permanently accessible to the careful exegete…[On the other hand]..Barth’s approach to exegesis, which appears to build on God’s freedom to “say” different things to different people at different times out of the same words of human witness to Him, has naturally and inevitably led to what Kelsey calls “the unprecedented theological pluralism marking the neo-orthodox era.”  [David H. Kelsey: The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology, 1975,p163] fn21,(p415 in the Packer article.)

iii) …there are in Scripture many points of exegetical dateline which a confident choice between competing options is almost if not quite impossible…[eg whether Genesis 1 is to be read as a literal 6 day creation, allegorical science…as a quasi-liturgical celebration of the fact and quality of creation…etc….But it has yet to be shown that the theological content of this or any other part of Scripture as instruction to us from God about Himself and his relation to people and things is in any way rendered uncertain by the existence of more than one possibility of interpretation here and there.  In fn 22,  p414. Packer notes Luther’s response to Erasmus’ generalization that Scripture contains obscurities: “I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due…to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture…if words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another…I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness”. (The Bondage of the Will, 1957).  Packer continues…One can master the argument of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”  and still be unsure of the precise meaning of occasional sentences in it; and similarly with the Bible. 

iv)  …the cultural trappings of the urbanised, technological West of today are very different from those of the rural and pastoral Near East in the two millennia before Christ and also from the Hellenistic towns in the first century A.D. —the worlds from which came our Old and New Testaments respectively….noting the distance between their worlds and ours with regard to manners, customs, expectations, and assumptions  about life is very necessary in interpreting Scripture….It has yet, however, to be shown that the differences are so radical as to make Bible people and their writings unintelligible to us.

p331-2  Packer responds to the view that C20th positivist culture…with anti supernatural, anti miraculous  presuppositions…cannot see much of Biblical theism as making sense. His response is…one of the jobs the Bible does is to challenge and undercut  “modern” positivistic deism, panentheism,  and atheism, just as it challenged and undercut the then ‘modern’ polytheistic paganism of the Greco-Roman world in the first Christian centuries.

Packer further argues against the sociological view represented by e.g. NIneham that empathy and understanding of the New Testament community (let alone Old Testament believers) )… is for the most part impossible today by demonstrating that in fact we do read the ancient classics today and gain much for our own day and lives. e.g. when we read Catullus’s experience or eros (to say nothing of that celebrated in Canticles!), with Aeschylus’ vision of celestial nemesis for human hubris, with Sophocles cosmic pessimism, with Homer’s celebrations of heroism and fidelity …If we can learn from these texts, why cannot we learn from the Bible?

pp 332 -344 is a relatively detailed account of the definition and history of Biblical hermeneutics. Some salient points are as follows:

  1. p332 Definition: hermeneutics is the theory of biblical interpretation or (putting it the other way round) the study of how the Bible speaks to us (from God, as Christians believe). Literary interpretation ..can be defined as the way of reading documents that shows their relevance for the reader.

ii) p333 …biblical interpretation has always been conceived as the way of reading the historic Scriptures —-a way that makes plain God’s message being conveyed through them to Christians and the church. But as soon as it is asked what that message is, how it is related to the biblical text, and how people ever come to understand it, the ways divide. Hence the current tensions and uncertainties about hermeneutics…

iii)  Before the nineteenth century no significant Christian thinkers questioned that Scripture is essentially a corpus of God-given instructions relating to Jesus Christ, and all interpretation proceeded on this basis. [including Bernard of Clairvaux’s allegorising of Canticles in the manner of Origen, and Calvin’s practice of a posteriori historico-theological commentaries which were criticised as Judaic rather than Christian..]

iv)  “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek word ἑρμηνευω = hermeneuo = to interpret/vergablize/translate/explain.

v)  Kant’s rationalistic dismissal of the idea of God-given instruction,  [was] followed by Schleiermacher’s [influential] reconceiving of theology…as …human religious documents …as so many items in the ongoing flow of mankind’s religious history. 

vi) p334  Packer does not totally dismiss this idea …it shows the danger of citing proof texts without exegeting them in their context to make sure they do in fact prove the point at issue….[it also in the C20th] shows the danger in the evangelical habit, now some decades old, of describing God’s revelation as essentially propositional [in response to the claim of ]Emil Brunner and others that revelation is essentially not propositional but personal. The habit is dangerous however, because revelation is (not less than, but) much more than propositional. It is in fact best, because truest, to agree with Brunner that revelation is indeed essentially personal, and then go on to say that this is why it is and had to be propositional: no person can make himself known to another without telling him things, and the God of Scripture does in fact appear as one who tells people things constantly. To set propositional and personal revelation in opposition to each other is therefore to enmesh oneself in a patently false antithesis.

vii) p335 God’s revelation was and is His personal self-disclosure, to which the only proper response is faith, worship, and obedience. Revelation is essentially God revealing God…

viii) …the New Testament writers again and again cite [Old Testament] material, whatever its literary genre, as God’s direct speech, substantively, as is He were the historian, teacher or poet, just as they cite prophetic oracles as God’s direct speech. Their view of the entire Old Testament clearly was that, as B. B. Warfield echoing Augustine put it, what Scripture says God says.

ix) p336 It is high time that awareness of the text as God here and now addressing us, its latter-day readers, and teaching us from it, challenging us by law, and gospel, promise and command, gift and claim, should once more come to inform professional  biblical studies in the church.

x) …we may well applaud Schleiermacher  for underlining [the] importance [of God’s personal revelation.. [nevertheless] ..Schleiermacher’s God stirs our feelings but does not tell us things…He read Scripture, dogma and theology as religious feeling evocatively verbalised, just as his English contemporary and fellow-romantic William Wordsworth, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, asked that his poetry be read as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” As a romantic valuing sensitivity of response to actual and potential experiences above all, and committed to vindicate religious awareness as part of the good life, Schleiermacher the theologian naturally drew from the world of art and aesthetics, and equally turned his back on models from the worlds of philosophy and law, where the conveying of public facts, arguments and lines of thought is the essence of the communicative project.

xi) p337 Evangelicals, whose belief that Scripture is God’s message Kant and his successors did not destroy, continue to think of hermeneutics essentially as it was thought of in the seventeenth century…[that] ..understanding of what Scripture means when applied to us, — that is of what God in Scripture is saying to and about us — comes only through the work of the sovereign Holy Spirit , who alone enables us to apprehend what God is and what we are in His eyes… therefore unanimity is always in principle possible…

xii) p337-8 ..to the mixed multitude of Schliermacher’s spiritual children, however, hermeneutics means the study of an intrinsically enigmatic process whereby two separate-seeming things happen together…we enter empathetically ..into the personal experience of the Bible writers..most notably Jesus himself ..despite the cultural gap between Him and us which..makes it impossible to endorse all his recorded beliefs…as a model of basic ethico-religious attitudes….this means that each of the personal understandings that purport to have been sparked off by the biblical text is more or less arbitrary…e.g. the reconstructed gnosticism of Paul Tillich (Christ as ‘new being’),,, the modified deism of Maurice Wiles (God is perceived in values)…the dynamic unitarianism of Geoffrey Lampe…the dualistic existentialism of Bultmann;…the process theology of John Cobb et al…Fuchs,  for whom “almost everything in the New Testament can be translated into a call to love”  (fn 43) … It is plain that an endless succession of diverging personal theologies is unavoidable once the acknowledgement of Scripture teaching as revealed truth is given up.

xiii)  p338-9  For both evangelical and Schleiermacherian hermeneutics, however, a major insight is focused by what Gadamer, following Heidegger, says of horizons.  [Gadamer: Truth and Method, pp217ff; Thiselton: The Two Horizons, pp149-68; 303-10.]  The insight is that at the heart of the hermeneutical process there is between the text and the interpreter a kind of interaction in which their respective panoramic views of things, angled and limited as these are, “engage” or “intersect” — in other words, appear as challenging each other in some way.  What this means is that as the student questions the text he becomes aware that the text is also questioning him, showing him an alternative to what he took for granted, forcing him to rethink at a fundamental level and make fresh decisions as to how he will act henceforth, now that he has realised that some do, and he himself could, approach things differently.  Every interpreter needs to realise that he himself stands in a given historical context and tradition, just as his text does, and that only as he becomes aware of this can he avoid reading into the text assumptions from his own background that would deafen him to what the text itself has to say to him.

xiv) p339.  Packer compares this process of the rethinking of the reader of the text to the impact of Jesus’ parables on his hearers. At the conclusion of many of his parables his hearers realised that the meaning of Jesus’s words was not what they were thinking all along but rather the words were directed to them personally in a new way….serious interpretation of anything, secular or sacred, involves dialoguing with and being vulnerable to the text, laying oneself and one’s present ideas open to it and being willing to be startled  and to alter one’s view if what comes from the text seems to so require.  

xv) pp339-340 Important too is Gadamer’s insistence that “distancing” must precede “fusing” of horizons; that is, that we must become aware of the differences between the culture and thought-background out of which the words of the text come and that of our own thought and speech. [The naïveté that] consists of treating people and words from the past as if they belonged to the present, thus making it impossible to see them in their own world and have our own horizons extended or redrawn by the impact of what they actually meant.

xvi) p340  In welcoming the insights that the current preoccupation with hermeneutics has yielded, [the ‘new hermeneutic’] it is important not to lose sight of the fact that “Scripture” is a word that to most of today’s hermeneutical pioneers means something quite different from what it means to Evangelicals who gratefully learn from them.

 xvii) [The “new hermeneutic” ] builds on the ontology [the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being] of the later Heidegger. [An Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven, Yale, 1959  University Press;] (fn49).  On this view, the manner in which language yields understanding is not by directing our attention to objects (what semantic theory nowadays calls ‘referents’) in the way that mankind  always thought. Understanding comes, rather , out of the heart or womb of language itself, and becomes ours through  letting language, from within language, speak to us. [Heidegger: On the Way to Language, New York, Harper & Rowe, 1966 p85] (fn50). For Heidegger, an antitheisitic ex-Jesuit seminarian, self -disclosing being (Sein) —that is, being that consists precisely of what occurs in the event of self-disclosure — is the final reality, and it is known as such in the “primal thinking” and “primary speech” of “authentic” individuals. By this Heidegger means the sort of thought and speech found in poets, mystics, and Zen Buddhists. [fn.51 ..Heidegger was particularly influenced by Sophocles, the poet Holderlin and the mystic Meister Eckhart.]

 xviii) pp340 -341: The message of such utterance is apparently received by a kind of divination, as one realises that in the words one is hearing being itself is ‘addressing me”.”  According to Packer, Heidegger personalizes being as a speaker busy in self-disclosure, to whose voice we must open ourselves….Heidegger’s influence, to the point of guruhood, on young metaphysical nihilists longing for cosmic disclosures has been very great. [eg D T Suzuki]. In this regard Packer cites Alan Richardson: “What Heidegger in fact does is to provide modern man with a secular parody of the Christian religion. Instead of God he speaks of being; instead of a  revelation through the word of God he gives us disclosure of being through the voice of being. Instead of faith we have primal thinking.  Instead of Christ we read of man as “‘he shepherd of being.’  Instead of a once-for-all victory over sin and death there is the individually repeated salvation from the dread of of nothingness and from the futility of secondary thinking and inauthentic existence. Instead of the community of the redeemed there is a gnostic collection of individual primal thinkers….[A Richardson: Religion in Contemporary Debate, pp86-7] (fn.53).

xix)  pp341-4  Packer proceeds to analyse the influence of Heidggerian/existentialist terminology in the theology of Ebeling and Fuchs. Packer notes that Fuchs and Ebeling, like Bultmann, view preaching as the paradigm situation in which the word-event happens, and for them as for him the essence of it, when it does happen, is not (receiving instruction from God, but,) …the birth of a new “self-understanding”  (Selbstverständnis) — that is, a new way of relating to one’s personal world. (p341).

Packer suggests that supporters of the new hermeneutic are arbitrary in their choosing and removing of parts of the Bible relevant to their determination of the true nature of Christianity. Fuchs thus sentences himself, as P J Achtemeier puts it, to defend a view of faith based on some portions of the New Testament from a view of faith based on other portions of the New Testament. (p342)

Packer further notes  that the new self-understanding will emerge as the text is cut loose from the restraints of objective historical exegesis and thereby fully freed to interpret its interpreters. The snag in this, however, is that it sets us off and running along a path of fundamentally uncontrolled religious mysticism, in which, as it seems, almost anything could bring almost anything to speech. [p343].

Packer highlights the Marcion-like conclusion to this form of “pick and choose from the parts of the Bible you accept” when he notes that Fuchs, for example will not accept any clear cut definition of the content of faith and in particular regards as not significant for the determining the nature of Christianity..Paul’s letters, Hebrews, John’s Gospel, and  1 John. [p344]

Packer highlights the danger of making the “language-event” the criterion of truth, quoting J C Weber: in what way can we know that language does not bring to expression illusion, falsehood, or even chaos? If the criterion of truth is only in the language-event itself, how can the language-event be safeguarded against delusion, mockery, or utter triviality?…psychological illusionism. [J C Weber: “Language-Event and Christian Faith”, Theology Today, 21, 1965].

Packer concludes: The new hermeneutic is the end of the Schleiermacherian road….logically, the new hermeneutic is relativism; philosophically, it is irrationalism; psychologically, it is freedom to follow unfettered religious fancy; theologically, it is unitarianism….we leave it and move on. (p344)

pp345-348: In this section Packer seeks to define Evangelical Hermeneutics.  Evangelical hermeneutics involves:

  1. Exegesis: …bringing out of the text all that it contains of the thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, and so forth —in short, the whole expressed mind — of the human writer…the “literal” sense, as opposed to the allegorical senses beloved of mediaeval exegetes….this exegetical process assumes the full humanity of the inspired writings. In addition Evangelical exegesis has always been …what Barth called theological and Brevard S Childs calls canonical exegesis…that is, not to read into biblical texts what is not there but …from an angle of vision which is faith in the Bible’s God.

2.   Synthesis:..gathering up and surveying in historically integrated form the

fruits of exegesis…biblical theology…exposition…a synthetic process that   

that..assumes the organic character of Scripture.

3.   Application: How does do these words from God apply to Christian

believers today?… Applicatory reasoning assumes the consistency of           

God and the essential identity of human nature and need form one age to 

      another…particulars of God’s dealings recorded in the Old Testament     

      have universal significance as paradigms for divine action under New 

      New Testament conditions….compared with Gadamer’s ..distancing and      

      fusing of horizons …of historically separate worlds of human thought.

Packer believes Ebeling summarises Luther correctly when he writes: According to Luther, the word of God always comes as adversarius noster, our adversary. It does not simply confirm and strengthen us in what we think we are, and in what we wish to be taken for…This is the way, the only way, in which the word draws us into concord and peace with God. (p346)

Packer notes that …most evangelical textbooks on interpreting Scripture say little of nothing about the Holy Spirit, Scripture’s ultimate author, as the great hermeneut who by leading and enlightening us in the work of exegesis, synthesis and application, actually interprets the Word in our minds and to our hearts. The omission unhappily allows evangelical rationality in interpretation to look like a viciously self-reliant rationalism. (p347)

pp348 -354 In this section Packer discusses the issues surrounding the authority of the Bible including interpretation, infallibility, innerrancy and the concept of “Holy Scripture.”  Packer depends evangelical hermeneutics on the basis that it is a hermeneutical spiral….our exegesis, synthesis, and application …is determined by an overall theology, a theology that in turn rests on and supports itself by exegesis, synthesis and application. Packer believes the spiral avoids the criticism of evangelical theology that it is a vicious circular argument because within a “spiral” …it is always possible for dialogue and critical questioning to develop between what in the text does not easily fit in with our presuppositions and those presuppositions themselves, and for both our interpretation and our presuppositions to be modified as a result.  (p348). The evangelical’s overall view of Christian truth and of the way to approach the Bible..[has been gained]..from the creeds, confessions, preaching and corporate life of the church and from his own earlier ventures in exegesis and theology. (p348-9)

p349  If at any stage what appears to emerge from the texts appears to challenge [the evangelical exegete’s] personal pre-understanding and/or call into question the tradition that was his personal springboard, he lets dialogue between the appearances develop…thus he moves to and fro within the hermeneutical spiral. In the important fn 79 (p.418), Noting the above process, Packer therefore defends e.g. the freedom and integrity of Calvin’s exegesis…Owen’s stress on the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit as teacher and the inexhaustible riches of the scriptural revelation of God that seekers are enabled to understand….and e.g. the faith and honesty of men like B B Warfield.. whose early C20th theology, for example, accommodated Darwinian evolution…and once said that he subscribed to the Westminster Confession not because he could make the Bible teach it, but because he could not make the Bible teach anything else.

…At no point does [the evangelical exegete] decline to accept challenges to his present view of things, but at every point he meets them by renewed theological exegesis of relevant passages in the light of the questions that have been asked….But in idea, at least, there are no a prioris in an Evangelical’s theology, and nothing in it is “already accepted” in the sense of not being open to the possibility of evangelical challenge and biblical assessment — not even his view of Scripture. [see Packer: Jerusalem and Athens, pp146-7.]

pp349-354 In this section Packer deals directly with the issues of interpretation, infallibility, and innerrancy.

the evangelical doctrine of Scripture …binds us, first, to the grammatico-historical method in exegesis, second to the principle of harmony in synthesis, and, third, to the principle of universalisation in application. (p.349)

 

..The grammatico-historical [and literary analytical?] method of approaching [Biblical] texts is dictated not merely by common sense, but by the doctrine of inspiration….for [the writers’] thought and speech about God constitute God’s own self-testimony…though God might have more to say to each of us from each text than its human writer had in mind, God’s meaning is never less than his. What he meant, God meant….so the first task is always to get into the writer’s mind by grammatico-historical exegesis of the most thoroughgoing and disciplined kind, using all the tools provided by linguistic, historical, logical, and semantic [and literary?] study for this purpose.  (p350)

the principle of harmony  [the “analogy Scripturae”] is also dictated by the doctrine of inspiration [in that]

i) Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture…Scripture scripturae interpres…

         ii) ..Scripture should not be set against Scripture cf Anglican article XX ..which forbids the church to “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

         iii) ..what appears to be secondary, incidental, and obscure in Scripture should be viewed in the light of what appears to be primary, central and plain. (p.350)

..The principle of universality in application follows from the unchangeable consistency of the God whose particular words and deeds Scripture records…Barth’s denial of revealed general principles is ultimately unconvincing, if only because in his own preaching he implicitly assumes them.  (pp350-1)

p351:  Shibboleths – test words indicating identity and allegiance…are always suspect as obstacles to real thought, which indeed they can easily become. “Infallible” and “inerrant” as descriptions of the Bible function as shibboleths in some circles and so come under this suspicion in others. Individual definitions of both terms — minimising, maximising, and depreciating — are not lacking; it would be idle and irresponsible to speak as if there were always clarity here.  ……[in general] …they will be seen to be valuable verbal shorthand for conveying a fully biblical notion — namely, the total truth and trustworthiness of biblical affirmations and directives… 

In my view the lack of clarity and consistency by evangelical theologians in their use of both of these non-Biblical terms renders them unhelpful in the process of exegesis because of the lack of clarity in their use which Packer already owns in the quotation above. We should stick to the Bible’s own phrase of “inspiration” which is experienced frequently when folk of all sorts read the Bible carefully and thoughtfully.

pp352-3 …from the first it was expected, and rightly, that the doctrinal and ethical tradition stemming from he apostles — a tradition that the bishops were set to guard and the ecumenical creeds came to enshrine,— would prove on examination to be, so far as it went, true exposition of that which was central in the two Testaments….Sripture is in tradition and tradition is in Scripture…During the Reformation when ..tradition and interpretation had gone radically wrong, the shock to Western Christianity  was traumatic. In some Protestant bodies this trauma left behind it a neurotic fixation, as traumas tend to do — in this case, a fixed habit of suspecting that all tradition …is always likely to be wrong…and one can point today to such groups whose interpretive style, though disciplined and conscientious, is narrow, shallow, naïve, lacking in roots, and wooden to a fault, for want of encounter with the theological and expository wisdom on nineteen Christian centuries.

Church tradition…should not, indeed, be treated as at any point infallible, any more than our own ventures in biblical understanding should be, but rather as the product of honest scholarly endeavour for which the Spirit’s aid was sought…..Much of today’s biblical studying exposition, even thought conducted according to the three interpretative principles stated above, suffers through what C S Lewis somewhere called “chronological snobbery,” the supposition that what is the most recent will always be wisest and best. 

Karl Barth characterized the tradition crystallised in creeds and confessions as a preliminary exposition of Scripture. [Church Dogmatics, I.ii, 620-60). p353

In summary, Packer argues against :

  1. theologians that either ignore or discount a biblical doctrine of scripture, claiming that the Scripture only unevenly and fallibly testifies to God (e.g. James Barr);
  2. post-Vatican 11 Roman Catholic biblical work, that regard only that in Scripture which is necessary to salvation as having been infallibly and inerrantly delivered.
  3. views that treat the body of canonical Scriptures as in their totality inconsistent, incoherent, or unintelligible and create a canon within the canon. e.g. Käsemann, Nineham.

Invalid hermeneutical conceptions that Packer objects to include

  1. views that separate God’s communication from the writer’s own expressed meaning and message
  2. views that regard God’s communication through Scripture …as noncogitive..conveying nothing that can be called factual..eg Schleiermacher, Bultmann et al
  3. views that assume that the way to understand the biblical message is to go behind the text to its supposed sources
  4. views that hold the events and circumstances may allow, indeed require, us to reorder the biblical message around  a different centre from that on which the New Testament focuses, namely knowing Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin and spiritual death. e.g. liberation theology.

pp354-356 PROSPECTS: 

For the future, Packer suggested (1980)  that the following debates will continue:

– the Christomonistic emphasis in Barthian theology whereby all truth about creation or the created order is swallowed up into the doctrine of Christ, and conceptions of election, reprobation, and redemption are formed that appear systematically to distort the plain sense of Scripture.

  • Bultmann’s demythologising of Scripture project
  • Process theology
  • Various types of liberation theologies
  • general humanities theories of hermeneutics..existentialist, linguistic, uncontrolled subjectivity…It is hoped that Christian scholars, with their theological interest in the text-interpreter relation, will increasingly join in this wider debate.
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