PAPER NO. 15
HERMENEUTICS: PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION
Applied to General Revelation and to Scripture
Part I: Hermeneutics: Interpretation in General
Thinking is Presuppositional: we think of the less basic in light of the more basic; if there is agreement on the more basic, there can be agreement on the less basic.
Presupposition is the set of basic beliefs we use to interpret (give meaning to) our experience.
- Basic belief in General Revelation (GR) is Philosophical Foundation (PF).
- Basic belief in Special Revelation (SR) is Theological Foundation (TF).
- Basic belief in Historic Christianity (HC), summed up in Church Creeds and Confessions, is Historical Foundation (HF).
There are two sets of basic beliefs in GR:
- In epistemology: basic things (about God and man and good and evil) are clear to reason (the Principle of Clarity – PC) vs. basic things are not clear (skepticism and fideism).
- In metaphysics: only some is eternal (theism) vs. all or none is eternal (non-theism).
- In ethics: the good is the end in itself (teleology), not virtue (which is the means to the good) or happiness (which is the effect of possessing what is the good) vs. virtue is the good (deontology) or happiness is the good (hedonism).
The two sets of beliefs are contradictories; they cannot both be true and they cannot both be false. One must be true and the other must therefore be false.
- We are more or less conscious and consistent in holding our basic beliefs (unbelief remains in the believer and belief remains in the unbeliever). We should be more conscious and consistent. The degree of one’s consciousness and consistency in basic belief depends on one’s personality focus (intellectual, emotional or practical), one’s intellectual background (developmental factors) and one’s spiritual mood (existential consistency).
- History is an outworking of the conflict in basic beliefs in each and among all. In theodicy, every degree of admixture of belief and unbelief comes to expression in world history and in Church history. Internal and external challenges to belief are trials of faith to become more conscious and consistent in one’s faith.
- Unbelief leads to (intellectual) meaninglessness, boredom (with all excess of lawlessness) and guilt (covered over by self-deception and self-justification). Belief leads to meaningfulness (ever increasing meaning), fruitfulness, unity and fullness. Only cultures that retain meaning can last. Since (in redemption) some culture will last, then belief will overcome unbelief.
- Because unbelief remains in the believer, divisions in the Church are to be expected; in the autonomy of unbelief each goes his own way.
- Discipleship (teaching to observe all of God’s will) is the means to overcome divisions; the Church is to make disciples (not merely make converts).
- Laying foundation from GR, SR and HC is necessary and sufficient for discipleship to attain maturity, fruitfulness, unity and fullness (Hebrews 6; Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 1-3).
Part II: Hermeneutics: Interpretation from Philosophical Foundation
- Epistemology: PF must show the clarity of GR beginning with epistemology.
Epistemology begins with Common Ground (CG), which concludes with PC: the basic things about God and man (metaphysics) and good and evil (ethics) are clear to reason (epistemology).
- Clarity (PC) is opposed to all recurring forms of skepticism and fideism.
- Clarity of GR (cGR) is necessary and sufficient for inexcusability of unbelief.
Clarity begins with the self-evident:
- It is self-evident that we are thinking beings and that the three acts of thought are concept, judgment and argument. (To doubt the existence of the self and of the external world is initially self-referentially absurd and ultimately logically absurd.)
- It is self-evident that reason in itself (vs. reason in its various uses) is the laws of thought: the laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle.
- It is self-evident that man has sense impressions (through the five senses); that the senses are not (the source of the three acts of) reason; that man is a rational animal; that (since man is created by God) man is the image of God.
- It is self-evident that reason as the laws of thought is most basic and is the test for meaning; that reason alone is self-attesting; that reason therefore is authoritative (if there is no meaning there can be no truth).
- It is self-evident that man should act according to his nature as a rational being; that he should be committed to reason; that he should have integrity—a concern for consistency in thought and action.
Clarity (as reason and integrity) leads to Rational Presuppositionalism (RP), which is the use of reason as the test for meaning of basic beliefs. RP thinks of the less basic in light of the more basic; if there is agreement on the more basic, there can (will) be agreement on the less basic.
- RP is an application of critical thinking to basic beliefs in GR, beginning first with (1) epistemology, then (2) metaphysics and then (3) ethics.
- RP, as applied to SR, is contextualism. There are several layers of context: from cGR, to Biblical Foundation (creation–fall–redemption in Genesis 1-3), through redemptive history in the Biblical narrative, to the book, chapter, verse and word.
- RP differs from empiricism (all knowledge is from experience: common sense, intuition, testimony, science). RP maintains that no experience is meaningful without interpretation in light of one’s basic beliefs.
- RP differs from rationalism. A set of beliefs is not a system of beliefs ordered from more to less basic; the formative, interpretive or constructive use of reason is not the critical use of reason.
- RP differs from fideistic presuppositionalism, which affirms circularity in the relation of God and reason. Reason alone is self-attesting and is the most basic form of the Word of God to man (John 1:4).
- RP differs from Reformed Epistemology (RE). The logically basic (for all) is not the properly basic (for me). The logically basic is clear to reason; the properly basic may lack or lose warrant, leaving it defeasible.
- RP in hermeneutics is not literalism that fails to notice multiple layers of context in understanding the meaning of Scripture grasped by good and necessary consequences.
- RP is not allegoricalism that uses foreign or unwarranted (gnostic) assumptions rather than cGR to interpret Scripture.
- RP is not post-modern (or ancient) skepticism/relativism/multiculturalism, which ends with asserting a pluralism of meta-narratives (that is, assuming that all is interpretation). Basic beliefs can and should be tested for meaning by RP in order to see cGR.
- RP leads to the Principle of Clarity (PC), which asserts cGR.
PC argues to cGR in three steps: (1) that some things are clear (vs. nothing is clear), (2) that the basic things are clear (based on RP), (3) that the basic things (which are about God and man and good and evil) are (in principle) clear to reason.
- Reason, Integrity, RP and PC (together, and in that order) constitute Common Ground (CG), the necessary condition for all thought and discourse (see Paper No. 2).
- PC, which asserts cGR, requires a demonstration (proof) of cGR.
- Understanding cGR (the Philosophical Foundation) is necessary to understand cSR (the Theological Foundation).
- Metaphysics and Ethics: PF must show cGR in metaphysics and ethics.
- PF must show that only some is eternal (God the Creator) vs. all forms of non-theism (all is eternal: material monism, spiritual monism, dualism; and none is eternal: process philosophy—Western and Eastern) (see Paper No. 3 and further analysis in the book Philosophical Foundation – PF).
- PF must show the moral law is clear, comprehensive and critical (see Paper No. 9, No. 10 and PF).
- PF must answer the Problem of Evil; it must show the reality of moral evil and natural evil, and the relation between the two—how natural evil (on all) is due to moral evil (from one)—how the act of one affects all—the Fall (see Paper No. 7).
- PF must show the requirement for SR as Redemptive Revelation to show the divine justice and mercy (theism vs. deism) (see Paper No. 12).
- PF shows Creation, Fall and the necessity for SR (CFR). PF does not show the specific content, but only the formal content required of SR.
- Only what is consistent with CFR in PF can qualify as SR.
- Only Genesis 1-3 is consistent with CFR, therefore only Genesis 1-3 qualifies as SR (Paper No. 11).
- Only what is consistent with the Theological Foundation of SR (CFR in Genesis 1-3) can be added to SR.
- PF (through Philosophical Theology) must show the full extent of SR (see Ten Steps from GR to SR—Paper No. 11).
Part III: Hermeneutics: Interpretation from Theological Foundation
- The Logos as reason and GR show the need for the Logos in SR, and SR shows the reality of the Logos incarnate.
- The Logos incarnate in Jesus Christ shows Christian theism vs. all non-Christian interpretations of theism.
- Understanding PF in cGR is necessary to understand TF in cSR.
- Divisions in understanding cSR show failure to agree on cGR.
- Divisions within Christian theism show lack in having the foundation from cGR, from cSR and from HC (Hebrews 6; Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 1-3).
- Divisions in the doctrine of Creation in SR (creation vs. evolution) are rooted in not understanding PF in cGR.
- Divisions in the doctrine of the Fall (the origin of evil) are rooted in not understanding the doctrine of Creation.
- Divisions in the doctrine of Redemption (the curse and the promise and justification and sanctification) are rooted in not understanding the more basic doctrines of the Fall and Creation.
- Divisions in understanding what comes after TF in Genesis 1-3, from the rest of the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation, are rooted in not understanding CFR in Genesis 1-3 and the unfolding of the curse and the promise in redemptive history.
- In summary: theological differences in the history of Christianity can be resolved by thinking of the less basic in light of the more basic, that is, by critically examining assumptions, which is Rational Presuppositionalism.
Part IV: Hermeneutics: Interpretation from Historical Foundation
- Historic Christianity (HC) is the work of the Holy Spirit sent by Christ to lead the Church into all truth (see Paper No. 16).
- Disputes that persist are due either to insufficient attention to HC, or show the need for a deeper understanding of uncritically held assumptions (that is, for Philosophical Theology), or reveal challenges made more acute in the current context of the age-long spiritual war between belief and unbelief.
- Divisions within Christianity arise from holding to Church Creeds and Confessions more or less consciously and consistently. The latest and most conscious and consistent development of these Creeds came to expression in The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1648 (see Paper No. 16 and No. 17).
- Significant departure from the Creeds (beginning with the earliest) is a departure from HC, the holy, catholic and apostolic faith. The Holy Spirit continues to lead the Church into all truth through deeper challenges of the modern era (since 1648). This requires deepening the foundation from GR, SR and HC.
Among continuing disputes, previously addressed in Church Councils, are:
- The necessity of sacraments for salvation (vs. Hebrew literalism, addressed in the Council of Jerusalem, A.D. 51).
- The reality and significance of the Incarnation (vs. Greek gnostic dualism, addressed in the Apostles’ Creed, ca. A.D. 180).
- The nature of unity and diversity in the Triune God (addressed in the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325).
- Confirmation of the canon of Scripture (addressed in the Council of Carthage, A.D. 397).
- Christ is fully God and fully man (addressed in the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451).
- Pelagian and semi-Pelagian Free Will vs. Predestination and Grace (addressed in the Council of Orange, A.D. 529).
Part V: Hermeneutics: Interpretation and Deepening the Foundation for Unity of the Faith
- Current Challenges
Some external challenges to Christianity have become acute and the need for a more definitive response, consistent with GR, SR and HC, has become pressing. Among them are:
- Faith vs. Reason and Science vs. Scripture. An adequate response must be based on the clarity of general revelation, which is clear to reason.
- Secularism (focus on this life) vs. Heaven (focus on the afterlife, either as Edenic hedonism or beatific mysticism). An adequate response must be focused on the good as the knowledge of God through the work of dominion, given to mankind from the beginning.
- Religion as private vs. religiously neutral public life (the naked public square). An adequate response must distinguish revealed religion found in SR from natural religion found in GR and inescapably held by all in some form or other. What is clear to reason from GR should be common to all in public life (see Paper No. 20).
- Post-modern pluralism/inclusivism vs. Christian exclusivism. An adequate response must reckon with man’s basic and therefore critical need for meaning, found only in the worldview and culture of creation–fall–redemption. To include all in the inevitable nihilism of post-modern skepticism is not the blessing sought by all mankind. Man does not live by bread alone.
- Current Focus Needed
- Christianity has not yet had much discussion about the good, which is the chief end of man, the central question of man’s purpose in life. Its default position has been the goal of heaven, from remnants of the dualism of Plato and Aristotle, brought into Christianity through Augustine and Aquinas. A little leaven has leavened the whole lump. Is there hope this will change? The need for change in the Church in light of the state of the world has become urgent (Matthew 5:13).
- The RP hermeneutic establishes and builds on the foundation from cGR, cSR and HC. cGR affirms that the good for man as a rational being is the use of his reason to the fullest, which is to know the Logos revealed in the creation. cSR in the first book of Genesis (1-3) affirms that man is made in the image of God, to know God, through the work of dominion, which will be completed as signified in the Sabbath. In the last book of Revelation, the consummation of history is revealed in a sevenfold vision of the spiritual war, which is age-long and agonizing, and in which good overcomes evil. HC in The Westminster Standards affirms the doxological focus: man’s chief end is to glorify God (SCQ 1) in all that by which he makes himself known (SCQ 101), in all his works of creation and providence (WCF 4.1; 5.1) (see Paper No. 16).
The foundation from GR, SR and HC affirms the same outcome: the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). The Logos is the fullness of the Word of God who makes God known. Understanding the Logos is the source of hermeneutical and functional unity in each person and among all persons. RP seeks to deepen the philosophical, theological and historical foundation for the knowledge of God.