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Towards an Evangelical Hermeneutic:

A Critique of the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics (1982)

Teleioteti - Resources for Christian Discipleship

Vancouver, BC, Canada

By J. Alexander Rutherford

December 5, 2016

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“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to

now? Where ַare we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And

backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down?” cried

Nietzsche’s madman, proclaiming the result of god’s death. 1 Similar words would be fitting on

the lips of a reader caught in the contemporary hermeneutical maze, a situation all the more dire

for the Christian, whose worldview is to be grounded in a text. To chart a way through this maze,

ICBI drafted The Chicago Statement of Biblical Hermeneutics. 2 In this paper, the author will

engage with these articles to show where the statement makes positive contributions to a viable

Evangelical hermeneutic and where its formulations need to be refined. The criteria here for a

viable hermeneutic are internal coherence, consistency with the Bible’s worldview and expressed

naturederived from its explicit and implicit teachingand the incorporation of extra-biblical

insights consistent with the previous criteria. 3 To do this, we will engage with the majority of the

articles in CSBH 4 as they concern the nature of truth, meaning, and method in Biblical

interpretation.

Considering, first, CSBH’s statements about truth, various articles give as the goal of

hermeneutics the apprehension and application of the single meaning of each Biblical text; 5 this

1 The Gay Science in Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Modern Library ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 120.

2 Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, eds., “Appendix A: The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). Hereafter, CSBH.

3 This is a spiral, for any such hermeneutic will be continually refined by the Scriptures whose interpretation it regulates.

4 Three articles—XXII, XXIII, XXV (addressing Genesis’ historicity, the clarity of Scripture’s redemptive message, and preaching)will be excepted: they involve the application of CSBH’s broader principles and an adequate discussion is beyond this paper’s scope.

5 “CSBH,” IX. Cf. Norman L. Geisler, “Appendix B: Explaining Hermeneutics: A Commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics Articles of Affirmation and Denial,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 892.

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single meaning is the propositional truth presented by the text, 6 which corresponds to reality, to

historical fact, and is never false. 7 Furthermore, this truth coheres with the rest of Scripture and

all truth found elsewhere. 8 In this, CSBH does an admirable job upholding, in accord with

Summit I, 9 Scripture’s own testimony to its inerrancy (validity of every truth claim).

This position seeks to uphold Scripture’s authority over all life and truth, 10 countering

various modern criticisms. Against higher criticisms such as those of Wellhausen and Noth, 11 it

rejects any method that would “question the truth or integrity of the writer’s expressed meaning”

and affirms Scripture’s unity. 12 Against methods identifying meaning with Scriptures ‘deep

structures13 or the interpretive task’s object with an original oral tradition, 14 they affirm that

truth claims are to be associated with the text’s expressed meaning. 15 Lastly, against positions

identifying Scripture’s authority with less than the whole, 16 CSBH identifies the authority of the

whole inerrant Scripture as God’s. 17 The present author believes that these are positive

6 CSBH,VIVII, XIXII.

7 Ibid., VI, XIV, II, XX.

8 Ibid., IV, XVII, XIXII, XX.

9 “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (ICBI, n.d.), accessed April 16, 2014,

http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf.

10 Cf. “CSBH,” I-II, VI, XX-XXII.

11 Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (reprint of the 1885 ed.; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994); Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (trans. of the 1943 book; Sheffield: JSOT, 1981).

12 “CSBH,XVI, XVII, XX.

13 As with strong forms of Structuralism; cf. Daniel Patte, What Is Structural Exegesis? (Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1976), 1415, 17; Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 159162.

14 Herman Gunkel, Genesis (trans. of the 1910 ed.; Macon: Mercer University, 1997), XXVIIXXVIII, XXIX, XLIII.

15 “CSBH,” VII, XV.

16 E.g., Margaret A. Farley, “Feminist Consciousness and the Interpretation of Scripture,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1985), 4243; Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, “Feminist Uses of Biblical Materials,” in ibid., 64.

17 Articles I-II, passim.

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contributions, consistent with Scripture’s expressed nature as aptly defended in many recent

works. 18

Despite this strength, CSBH’s focus on meaning as the single propositional truth of

biblical texts and its formulation of ‘truth’ are unsatisfactory. 19 The first point will be addressed

below; here we will address the location of and formulations regarding truth. In the affirmation

of article VII, it is said that “the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and

fixed.” 20 However, the extent of “each biblical text” is undefined and an attempt to define it is

problematic. If “each biblical text” is defined at a book level, then John’s Gospel would have a

single meaning such as “The works of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospel of John are presented

to elicit a response of faith” (cf. John 20:30-31). Yet this is clearly not the case, for each

recorded work presents another propositionJesus Christ healed a specific person at a specific

time in a specific place. Even at the sentence level, multiple propositions are implied. “Bob is

red,” a simple predication, implies various propositions in context; e.g., “‘red’ is a metonymy for

anger,” “Bob is angry,” “Bob is the subject of the verb ‘is,’” and “‘is’ is a copula.Every implied

proposition must be true for the explicit proposition “Bob is red” to obtain, so they are all

propositional meanings of the sentencethey were intended, in some way, by the author. At

which textual level, then, is the single meaning to be found? The suggestion of this author,

considered below, is to recognize propositional truths as one aspect of the texts meaning.

Regarding the third point, the nature of truth, CSBH’s proposal needs improvement.

According to article VI, “a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually.” Scripture’s

18 E.g., D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds., Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992); John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010).

19 This assumes ‘proposition’ to be equivalent to Feinberg’s ‘statement,’ a declarative sentence. John S Feinberg, “Truth: Relationship of Theories of Truth to Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 56.

20 Emphasis added.

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truth claims, then, are true on this basis. The problem is that texts do not represent matters “as

they actually are,” as bare “facts” or uninterpreted reality. 21 Texts encode an interpretation of an

object (e.g., event): they present a perspective on an object but not the object as it exists outside

the textdetails are necessarily left out and meaning is adduced from the relationship of the

object to something else. 22 A step forward could be made by saying that a statement is true if it

represents an appropriate interpretation of reality, though this still leaves a lot unsaid. These

questions concerning truth lead naturally to the question of meaning.

Considering, second, CSBH’s statements regarding meaning, its articles teach that each

biblical text expresses a single, definite, fixed meaning that is propositional, determined by the

author, and to be separated from a text’s many applications and implications. 23 With these

statements, CSBH attempts to guard Scripture against those methodologies that would undermine

the fixity and objectivity of meaning. The relevant articles directly reject higher criticism and, by

identifying meaning as singular and fixed in the text, both deconstructionism and milder reader-

response criticisms. 24

Despite its admirable goal, this author finds CSBH’s proposal untenable: the

identification of ‘meaning’ with propositional truth and its discovery and application the goal of

hermeneutics 25 neglects the form and function of Scripture as we have it and employs an

unsustainable view of ‘meaning.Firstly, regarding its nature, Scripture is not, for all its truth

21 Cf. Feinberg, “Truth,” 7–8.

22 Cf. Long; Frame makes this point in various ways while proposing his compelling epistemology rooted in the Biblical worldview. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987), 2829, 7173, 99100, 123168; V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation v. 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 5887.

23 “CSBH,” VI-VII, IX, XV, XVIIXVIII. Cf. Geisler, “Appendix,” 894.

24 “CSBH,” VI–VII; Geisler, “Appendix,” 892–893, 898. Cf. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstructionism:

Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1982), 31, 35-38, 8183.

25 Cf. “CSBH,” IX.

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claims, merely didactic literaturein form or in function. CSBH acknowledges this when it

affirms that Scripture communicates “through a wide variety of literary forms” and the need for

“awareness of [Scripture’s] literary categories, formal and stylistic.26 Now, it is the case that all

textual communication implies propositional statements. At minimum, the relations between

words can be propositionally stated and these propositions must be true for the meaning

associated with these relations to obtain. Furthermore, it is not only declarative statements that

communicate propositions: consider that commands carry the implicit proposition, this act

commanded ought to be done.” That is, in a command, the oughtness of an action in a

circumstance is asserted, oughtness that can be measured as right or wrong (ethically true or

false) by a relevant standard. 27 Yet to state the proposition implied is not to give the meaning of

such a command: that would miss the purpose and nature of the text. The proposition is part of

the meaning of “you must not kill” but is not the whole meaning. To reduce literature to the sum

of its propositions, to make this its singular meaning, is to do to literature what Plato did to the

world of matter, strip it of any meaning apart from the universals behind it. For example, the

prayer of Hab. 3 fails to perform its function if reduced to propositions: it is no longer

profoundly shocking for Habakkuk to use the language of God’s actions in Josh. 10:12-14 for the

Chaldeans as they invade the Promised Land (Hab. 3:11), the full import of which relies on

poetic effect, intertextuality, textual context, and its purpose which are not conveyed by the

single propositional meaning, “the celestial bodies illuminate God’s weapons” (cf. MT).

CSBH, secondly, artificially identifies one aspect of meaning and excludes the other ways

texts meanfrom the single, definite, fixed meaning. In common usage, argues Frame, to

understand meaning is to know application: someone could not be said to know what “you shall

26 “CSBH,” X, XIII.

27 Cf. Frame, Doctrine of Knowledge, 6264.

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not murder” meant if they were unable to identify when it applied. If they failed to see that the

murder of a bank teller breaks this commandment, we would hardly credit them with grasping

the meaning. 28 Identifying meaning with application affirms, to some extent, the insight of

poststructuralism that the reader contributes to reading and meaning. 29 But meaning here is not

indefinite or merely subjective: there are right and wrong uses of the text, as determined by the

text in its context, and God knows every possible right use. Propositional truth is not, then, the

single fixed meaning, but a specific meaning—or an ‘application’—of the text: the text is used to

assert a fact.

Furthermore, by defining meaning as the propositional truth in “each biblical text,” CSBH

postulates as normative an intermediary between the text and our application of it. 30 In

philosophical terms, the particular, for CSBH, is not normative for application: it is necessary

only for discovering the universal communicated through it. Frame has convincingly argued that

it is detrimental to identify one meaning of the textits propositional contentas normative and

all else as application. “Instead of increasing the objectivity of our knowledge,” Frame perceives,

“such an intermediary is a subjective construct that inevitably clouds our understanding of the

text itself.” 31 That is, by making this one application normative for other applications, we

measure our use of Scripture not by what God has given us but by our fallible and singular

application of it. It is beyond the scope of this paper to formulate a way forward from here, but

such a position will acknowledge the role of the reader in meaning while maintaining the text’s

normativity.

28 Ibid., 67, 9398.

29 Culler, Deconstructionism.

30 Frame, Doctrine of Knowledge, 98.

31 Ibid., 98.

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Considering, third, CSBH’s statements concerning hermeneutical method, we will focus

on how the articles address the presuppositions of exegesis and the practice of exegesis. Firstly,

CSBH insists that interpreters must approach Scripture on its own presuppositions. 32 Some of

these presuppositions, as expounded in other articles, are the text’s unity, truthfulness and

inerrancy, and authority. 33 That the entire Bible is Christ-centred and that the Bible is its own

best interpreter must also be presupposed. 34 Secondly, in the exegesis of Scripture, the

grammatical-historical method, with lower criticism and considerations of form and genre, is to

be used to ascertain a text’s single meaning. 35 Whether a teaching is culturally bound or

universal is to be adduced from Scripture’s statements. 36

CSBH offers presuppositions that appear to this author to be consistent with Scripture 37

and lays out valuable parameters for exegesis. In acknowledging the necessity of form and genre

criticism, CSBH takes the best insights from rhetorical criticism, 38 structural exegesis, and form

criticism while rejecting their extremes (see above). Though it does not explicitly address literary

criticism, CSBH’s interest in the expressed meaning of the text is compatible with text centred

literary exegeses, such as that proposed by Alter. 39 CSBH’s affirmations that the whole of

Scripture is coherent and rightly interprets itself gives a role to the whole of Scripture in

interpreting the parts (analogia scriptura) but does not give the literary form of the canonical

text such a role. Childs argues compellingly that this final form is a greater interpretive context

32 “CSBH,” IV, XIX.

33 Ibid., XVIXVIII, II, XIV, I.

34 Ibid., III, XVII-XVIII; Geisler, “Appendix,” 890–891.

35 Ibid., 15.

36 Ibid., XVI, X, XIII, VIII.

37 Cf. ft. 17

38 Muilenburg’s emphasis on the ‘how’ of the text helps to understand ‘expressed meaning.’ James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969): 118; Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method and the Book of Jonah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994): 25-52.

39 Cf. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

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in the consideration of the meaning of biblical texts. 40 Because we have received Scripture in this

form, a Christian hermeneutic should consider the literary placement of the final form in the

interpretive task.

Making way for further consideration of the reader’s role in exegesis, Myers (and others)

has drawn attention to the impact different ‘reading positions’ have on the reader’s perception of

the text. 41 CSBH is right in insisting that we must approach the text on its own presuppositions

excluding many reading positionsbut the value of the differing experiences Christians will

bring to the Bible should also be acknowledged. These differing experiences will illumine textual

features that may be obscured by another’s experiences: the poor may be more attentive to those

texts rebuking the rich and identifying with those suffering. In this, differing perspectives are

helpful, as long as they are ever refined by the text and don’t become Procrustean beds.

Therefore, there is value in further considering the reader’s role in exegesis (Provan,

“Structuralist and Postructuralist Criticism”).CSBH is, then, moving in the right direction when it

affirms that the lay reader is not dependent on scholars for understanding: 42 though scholarly

work provides a necessary perspective on the text and is invaluable in its work making the text

accessible, 43 lay readers may still contribute greatly through their unique perspective.

This paper has argued that CSBH makes many positive contributions towards a viable

Evangelical hermeneutic but is wanting in several key areas. In the areas of truth and meaning,

CSBH appropriately stresses the authority, truthfulness, and possibility of understanding

40 Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 75-79.

41 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis,

1988), 57.

42 “CSBH,” XXIV; Geisler, “Appendix,” 904.

43 “CSBH,” XXIV.

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Scripture but, in doing so, presents truth and meaning in an untenable manner that unduly

restricts the voice of the very texts they are trying to uphold. In method, CSBH is unduly

dismissive of the positive contributions made by reader-response criticism.

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