Can the Grammatical-Historical Method of Interpretation Determine Christian Orthodoxy?

Introduction

In a previous post I argued that Norman Geisler’s inclusion of the Grammatical-Historical Method [GHM] of interpretation in his “Logical Method” for discovering Christian orthodoxy was problematic. Here I will expand on this issue, for it is often at this stage that related debates get hung up.

This is not a critique of the GHM itself. As far as hermeneutics go, it’s a sound method – especially when combined with good theology and philosophy. Further, while I concur with Geisler that  Sola Scriptura requires a proper interpretive method, I will argue that it is asking too much of the GHM to name it as the hermeneutical solution to Geisler’s system. Thus, it is also insufficient as a ground for discovering the essentials of Christianity.

While this may only seem like a semantical or practical issue to be worked on among academics, the problem is seriously detrimental to Geisler’s thesis – as well as those who attempt to put it into practice.

Sola Scriptura’s Hermeneutic Requirement

While Sola Scriptura is a fine theological principle, it becomes practically unhelpful once one attempts to use it in to solve doctrinal issues because it is not itself a hermeneutical system. Thus, interpretive coherence must be grounded elsewhere. This should be obvious, but the question then becomes which ground will suffice. Two major views are represented below.

Reformed scholar Keith Mathison writes,

“All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone” (“Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes“).

Mathison also says,

“One of the most obvious facts facing any intelligent person who has been a Christian for more than a few days is the reality of multitudes of conflicting interpretations of Scripture. . . . hermeneutical chaos” [The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 274-275].

Mathison concludes that while “it is the Scripture and Scripture alone that is the standard norm . . . if Scripture is not interpreted correctly within its proper context, it ceases to function properly as a standard. . . . It is therefore to the Church that we must turn for the true interpretation of the Scripture” [The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 259, 262, 270].

Geisler disagrees. He concurs with the Anabaptist position that “tradition (including early Fathers, Creeds, and Councils) can be held as having value without being held as authoritative” [Norman Geisler, "A Critical Review of The Shape of Sola Scriptura" Christian Apologetic Journal Vol 4, no. 1 (2005): 120].  Scripture remains the ultimate theological authority, but the interpretive authority remains (practically speaking) with the interpreter.

This is why Geisler posits the GHM as another “meta-essential.” Without an authority that can judge between interpretations, the Bible itself would not be able function in its authoritative role. While Mathison and others find this authority in the Church, Geisler and others would see this as undermining  Sola Scriptura. Thus, an authoritative hermeneutic is posited.

This solution looks good on paper, for requiring the GHM might save Sola Scriptura from its difficulties as an essential by removing it from the interpretive equation. If, however, the GHM is truly limited to historical and grammatical considerations it will not do the necessary work. This is because there is far more to interpretation than the two principles of grammar and history. Worse, even these two principles are often reduced to one: taking the text “literally.”

The Reality of the “Grammatical-Historical” Method

Does the GHM = Literal Interpretation?

Although he refers to it often, Geisler rarely states exactly what he means by “grammatical-historical” method in his articles. However, Geisler discusses the GHM in volume 1 of his Systematic Theology, and in his comments on the ICBI Geisler wrote that, “the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed” [SOURCE].

This seems to be a good one-line description. The problem is that the GHM is often simply equated with taking the text “literally.” For example, in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), it is stated that,

“WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. WE DENY the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.” [SOURCE, italicized emphasis mine]

Obviously making “literal,” “normal,” and “grammatical-historical” equivalent could easily cause confusion, as either grammatical or historical considerations can easily move the interpreter off a literal understanding of a text. Unfortunately Geisler often makes the same equivocation.

For example, when he was writing against Hank Hanegraaf’s book, The Last Disciple, Geisler wrote: “the literal (historical-grammatical) method of interpretation is the correct one. We do not agree, however, as to who is more consistent in their use of this method. Dispensationalists see an inconsistency in the anti-futurist method since many predictions in Matthew 24-25 and Revelation 6-18 were not fulfilled in A.D. 70 – at least not literally” (underlined emphasis mine).

Now, Geisler writes in his commentary on the The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics:

“The literal sense of Scripture is strongly affirmed here. To be sure the English word literal carries some problematic connotations with it. Hence the words normal and grammatical-historical are used to explain what is meant. The literal sense is also designated by the more descriptive title grammatical-historical sense. This means the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.”

Is the GHM a Qualified Literalism?

These qualifications to “literal” are helpful, but they are not enough. The fact is there are numerous issues connected with hermeneutics besides grammar and historical/cultural usage. Here are some statements from Geisler that show this to be the case:

“A close examination of Scripture reveals that the scientific (factual) and spiritual truths of Scripture are often inseparable.”  (SOURCE)

  • So we need to include scientific knowledge as well.

“Forgetting the humanity of Scripture can lead to falsely impugning its integrity by expecting a level of expression higher than that which is customary to a human document.” (SOURCE)

  • Where do we find the correct level of expression for this literary form? Is this standard stated in the text?

“The Bible is written for the common person of every generation, and it therefore uses common, everyday language. The use of observational, nonscientific language is not unscientific, it is merely prescientific. The Scriptures were written in ancient times by ancient standards, and it would be anachronistic to superimpose modern scientific standards upon them.” (SOURCE)

  • So we need to know something of the culture and not just the words it used.
  • Further, where do the biblical writers state that “the common person of every generation” is their intended audience?
  • And even if the original audience would have understood the text a certain way, how do we know they were correct? They are not infallible, remember. In fact Scripture itself includes several examples of the original recipients being wrong.

It is not a mistake for a biblical writer to use a figure of speech, but it is a mistake for a reader to take a figure of speech literally. Obviously when the Bible speaks of the believer resting under the shadow of God’s “wings” (see Ps. 36:7) it does not mean that God is a feathered bird. When the Bible says God “awakes” (see Ps. 44:23), as though he were sleeping, it means God is roused to action.” (SOURCE)

  • Why are these examples “obvious“? What is it in the grammar or historical understanding of these passages that tells us that?

“Like other literature, the Bible often uses generalizations. The book of Proverbs has many of these.. . . Proverbs are wisdom (general guides), not law (universally binding imperatives). When the Bible declares ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:45, NASB), then there are no exceptions. Holiness, goodness, love, truth, and justice are rooted in the very nature of an unchanging God.”  (SOURCE)

  • So knowledge of God’s nature is also a requirement. (But how would that help with other sayings that are not expressing theological principles concerning deity?)

Now I realize that few who affirm the GHM would be naive enough to think that it is really limiting hermeneutics to these two considerations alone. Thus, when interpretations clash because of one of the many other elements in interpretation, simply citing the GHM will not solve the disagreements.

I would guess that most of the above are fairly non-controversial claims – perhaps even self-evident. What this shows, however, is that it is is dubious to call a system the “Grammatical-Historical” Method when it is really (at least) the “Grammatical-Historical-Scientific-Cultural-Literary-Philosophical-Theological” Method! Sneaking these additional considerations into the GHM is how Geisler gets away with making it appear to be a straightforward process.

Perhaps the only conclusion that can be legitimately inferred so far is that the method should be renamed (the GHSCLPT?). But, as I will argue below, whatever the method is called, and however it is qualified, renaming would not seem to solve the practical problem of inconsistent interpretations.

General Evidence of the GHM’s Difficulties

Does the GHM Resolve Doctrinal Disputes?

The most obvious evidence of the GHM’s problematic  nature is the amount of disagreement to be found among those who espouse it. This is evidenced by the proliferation of “debate style” publications pitting scholars against one another – often (but not always) including those espousing adherence to the GHM  (and, usually, Sola Scriptura as well). If adherence these principles were sufficient for proving doctrinal truths, one would not expect so much disagreement (my explanation for why this is the case is reflected in my article Sola Scriptura: Death by 1000 (or 10) Qualifications).

Further, these differences are not just over non-essential doctrines. There are multi-view books on Justification, Sanctification, and Salvation itself. Further, there are also multi-view books on doctrines often considered non-essential by evangelicals, but which should be considered essential doctrinal issues given Geisler’s definition because some groups see them as salvific: Baptism, Communion, etc. Finally, there are also multi-view books on theological subjects that Geisler has historically identified as being tests for hermeneutical soundness: the Rapture, Millennium, and the book of Revelation views to name just a few.

Now, it may be the case that every author in disagreement with Geisler is not following the GHM as he should, but that is not what is generally claimed by the authors themselves, nor has such a thing been proven.

Does the GHM Guarantee Doctrinal Conclusions?

One of the more ironic evidences of this problem comes from the fact that two of the most influential hermeneutics books  affirming the GHM were written by Milton Terry and Bernard Ramm. These books have been cited as exemplars of the GHM (e.g., Terry’s book was used as a textbook at Dallas Theological Seminary, and Robert Thomas cites both books approvingly in Evangelical Hermeneutics - see esp. chapters 3 and 6 notes). The reason for the irony is that Milton Terry is a preterist and  Bernard Ramm is amillennial – two positions schools like DTS and scholars like Thomas and Geisler attack for not following the GHM! (For details see my article The Hermeneutics of Eschatology: Preterism and Dispensationalism Compared).

Now, if the GHM can be believed, expounded upon, and taught by scholars with radically divergent views, how can it be trusted to deliver the consistent results required by a standard? Perhaps one could reply that only one person (Geisler, for example) is using the GHM consistently – but that would be very difficult to argue without begging the question. Further, hermeneutical inconsistency can also be found in Geisler’s own work.

Geislerian Evidence of the GHM’s Difficulties

Does the GHM Solve the Abortion Debate?

A good example of the apparent insufficiency of the GHM is Geisler’s handling of the abortion issue. In his 1971 book, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Geisler argued that,

“The one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. . . . [because] an unborn baby is not fully human . . . (Ex. 21:22)” (p. 218).

Geisler went on to argue that abortion is not murder because life itself has not started and because the embryo is only potentially (or, in some cases “sub-“) human (p. 219). Geisler also considered babies born of incest to be an instance of the “flowering” of evil (p. 223). Geisler concluded, therefore, that abortion was justifiable for several reasons (therapeutic, eugenic, incestual, etc.).

Geisler published another ethics book in 1989 – in part because of his “shift of viewpoint from earlier works on such issues as abortion” (p. 13). In this version, Geisler reversed most of what he wrote about abortion in 1971. For example, while in 1971 Geisler based nearly his entire argument for abortion on Exodus 21:22, in 1989 he said,

“Exodus 21[:22-23] does not teach that a fetus is a potential person. Neither can this be legitimately inferred from the passage” (p. 145).

Geisler then went on to arguebased on Exodus 21, that the embryo is a human  (p. 148). A similar interpretive switch was made in his use of Psalm 139 (p. 219 [1971] cf. p. 143, 148 [1989]).

Now, while Geisler should be commended for admitting his error – the relevant question here is: Upon what basis did his viewpoint shift? Did Geisler switch hermeneutics?  He does not indicate that this is the case. It seems more likely that he switched views for some other reason (philosophical? scientific? – see p. 149) and then read his new view into the biblical text. This is not a criticism – for doing so is normal and expected. But it does show that there are far more considerations to interpretation than grammar and history. This should be admitted, and, once admitted, the additional considerations should themselves be argued.

Does the GHM Avoid “Spiritualizing”?

Another example of Geisler’s questionable hermeneutic method shows up in his handling of the Roman Catholic view of Jn. 6 and the nature of the communion meal (cf. Mt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). In Jn. 6 Jesus says, “This is my body . . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”

The Roman Catholic view of this passage is based on literal interpretation. They believe that Jesus is referring to the Eucharist (or communion meal), and that in eating of it one is literally consuming the flesh of Jesus (i.e., “transubstantiation” or, at the very least, the real presence). Geisler’s view is that these passages do not warrant a literal understanding of Jesus’s words, and therefore that communion can be thought of as a merely symbolic memorial meal. In his response Geisler says, “Jesus’ words need not be taken in the literal sense of ingesting his actual physical body and blood. Jesus often spoke in metaphors and figures of speech. (E.g., John 10:9; 15:1)” [Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, 261-62].

Now, the problem here is not Geisler’s conclusion – it is that there is nothing in the GHM as defined by Geisler that would lead him to his conclusion. Geisler writes in Conviction Without Compromise that “a text should be taken figuratively 1) when it is obviously figurative . . . 2) when the text itself authorizes the figurative sense . . . or 3) when a literal interpretation would contradict other truths inside or outside the Bible. . .” (p. 197). Do these added considerations help the GHM?

Certainly the grammar of the passage does not indicate that this is not a literal statement, nor does the context of the passage necessarily indicate that this not literal (note: John 10:9 and 15:1 are different speeches). The text does not authorize taking the passage figuratively by calling out the fact that it is figurative, and taking the passage literally does not contradict other Scriptural truths. Further, the context is ambiguous at best concerning symbolism – some parts of the chapter might seem to be clearly symbolic, but what about verse 51? Apparently, then, Geisler thinks the figurative sense of this verse is simply “obvious.” And that’s fine as far as it goes, for metaphors are recognized as such without textual warrant all the time. But whatever reason Geisler has for thinking this is “obviously figurative” (philosophy? theology?), it does not come from simply applying the GHM.

Further, nothing in the historical interpretation of the passage indicates that it was not taken literally. In fact, this is one of the rare instances in which we do know how the original recipients understood the words (made clear by the reactions of the disciples and Jesus’s reaction to them). Further a survey of the early Church’s view of the eucharist will show that taking communion to be merely symbolic (Geisler’s view) was not seriously put forth until about 1,500 years later. Once again this shows that there are more considerations to be made when interpreting the Bible than grammar and historical usage (Geisler’s arguments can be seen in chapter 13 of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals).

What is ironic is that interpreters are often accused (allegedly based on the GHM) of “spiritualizing the text” when they do not see, say, Rev. 20 as speaking of a literal, physical, thousand-year millennial kingdom, or who do not see Mt. 24 as asserting that the moon will literally turn into blood after the tribulation period. Here, the GHM is implicitly made equivalent to taking a passage literally. It seems, therefore, that Geisler could be accused of “spiritualizing” the text of John 6!

Finally, it is important to note here that that this example does not simply reflect a debate over a secondary issue. It meets Geisler’s qualifications for being an essential Christian doctrine because Jesus connects “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” to eternal life in Jn. 6:54 (just as He connects “belief” to eternal life a few verses earlier).  Thus, the GHM, functioning as an “essential of essentials,” should be able to decisively resolve the debate by itself.

Conclusion

Again, this article is neither an attack on Sola Scriptura nor the GHM per se. I affirm that Scripture is the ultimate authority for faith and practices, and that it should be understood as it was intended to be understood by its original recipients (a phrase often used to describe the desired outcome of the GHM). Rather, this article was written to show that the hermeneutical requirements demanded, and described, by Geisler are not found in the method he proposes. This is a big problem for Geisler’s test for orthodoxy. Sola Scriptura is a principle that requires a hermeneutic, but the GHM seems to fail to deliver consistent interpretations. And this is the very thing Geisler’s “hermeneutic essential” is supposed to deliver. Thus, it also fails as an essential-discovering principle.

Although I doubt any serious thinker takes the GHM as limited to a two-principled approach, even if Geisler did stipulate all of the qualifications that would be required to ground his theology and ethics, the new method would open up so many interpretive possibilities that Geisler’s conclusions would no longer be secure. And if he qualified his qualifications to the point where they guaranteed his conclusions, it would be difficult to avoid charges of being ad hoc or merely circular. In any case, many higher level arguments (philosophical, theological, scientific, etc.) would need to be brought forth to justify such a system (once it is acknowledged), and these, too, would have to be proven (outside of Scripture) in order to guarantee that they do not derail the basic GHM. Usually, however, the GHM is simply referenced as the ground for a contrary position and left at that (or combined with dire predictions of a slippery slope into heresy).

What is more, even if the GHM guaranteed consistent interpretations, this would not be equivalent to a guarantee of their accuracy. Further, since the Bible does not itself list the essentials of christian doctrine, even if the GHM did guarantee accuracy, it could only succeed in making a list of true doctrines – not distinguish which were essential.

So you see, it’s just not that simple!

Since the rest of Geisler’s method could not guarantee consistent results (see original post), it seems there is little help for it. Given the fact that Geisler has a reputation for categorizing interpretive differences as equivalent to (or leading to) denials of essential doctrines, this is a major problem for those who follow his thinking.

4 thoughts on “Can the Grammatical-Historical Method of Interpretation Determine Christian Orthodoxy?

  1. So, do you ever critique anyone else other than Norman Geisler in your blogs? I hope you don’t make a career out of the montra of “I really don’t like Norman Geisler!” That’s a pretty sad way to live your life… but from your blogs it seems like that’s all you do.

  2. I hardly see how three articles (one of them a two-parter) out of the last twenty (or the last 200 if you count them all) is a career. Further, my “liking” of Geisler has nothing to do with it – I am not sure what would make you say something like that. Where do I indicate any dislike for him? Heck I called William Lane Craig a heretic and I love that guy (and, interestingly, no one said a word about that). Rather, my recent focus on his work over the last few months has been born out of some issues that have arisen among my students and colleagues. From comments you have made in other posts you seem to be mysteriously aware of the inner workings of my school – so I am sure you can imagine that Geisler’s influence (for good or bad) is still strong in some quarters, and I think some of his weaker work needs to be addressed.

  3. Pingback: Determining Orthodoxy | Tiber Treading

  4. Pingback: Tiber Treading No More | Soul Device

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