Here is a general definition of this hermeneutical method, taken from Wikipedia:
The historical-grammatical method, also referred to as grammatico-historical or grammatical-critical, is a component of Biblical hermeneutics that strives to find the intended original meaning in the text. This original intended meaning of the text is drawn out through examination of the passage in light of the grammatical and syntactical aspects, the historical background, the literary genre as well as theological (canonical) considerations. The historical-grammatical method distinguishes between the one original meaning and the significance of the text. The significance of the text includes the ensuing use of the text or application.
As I review that definition I see a lot of good things. However, there are also some major problems as far as I'm concerned. The biggest problem is the role that history and historical reconstructions typically play in the interpretive process. More specifically, I'm concerned with the role that extra-biblical literature and information play in ensuring a correct interpretation. Too often these things are treated as the hermeneutical keys, which serve to unlock the meaning of the passage for us.
This is standard fare in our churches and Christian writings, from evangelical to emergent. It usually plays out this way:
- We are reading a particular passage; say, John 2:1-11.
- We then make some effort to locate the passage within its historical context.
- If we’re less sophisticated, we’ll look for all kinds of historical background information about Cana in Galilee, or about Jewish weddings, or about ancient wine. Armed with this material, we’ll see the real significance of what Jesus was doing. This is the most innocuous way to go about historical interpretation.
- If we’re a little more sophisticated (and educated) we’ll go this route: we will dig deep into history and try to find out who wrote John (John, right?) and then we’ll look in commentaries at all the high-falutin’ information on the audience John wrote the book to. Then, armed with all this information about the original author and the original audience, we’ll find that the meaning of the passage is related to some dispute or issue in the early church.
- Now, armed with our interpretation that has been based on our historical reconstruction, we must, as Bible-believing Christians, move to some sort of doctrinal teaching, application, etc. So, we do one or more of the following:
- We develop principles from the story that are “timeless” and we teach these as doctrinal points.
- We find in our own context parallel situations to our own lives and then we make application based on the commonalities we have with the original participants or the original audience.
- We determine that there is no parallel situation in our own lives and so we either a) allegorize to find meaning or b) let the text lie dormant.
Now, admittedly, none of this sounds too bad. And not all of it is bad. But my problem is this: the more one anchors meaning to an original context constructed through historical information, the more one will run into some serious hermeneutical, theological, and pastoral problems. Those who adhere to this method often take Scripture very, very, very seriously and are trying to be faithful servants of the Word. Ironically, however, they encroach upon some very important doctrines as they do so! Namely, they violate the doctrines of the inspiration and perspicuity of Scripture.
- Inspiration:Adherents don’t deny the inspiration of Scripture; far from it! However, the focus in a historical method of interpretation is almost entirely on the human author and his intent. Then we smuggle the inspiration through the back door, after we’ve interpreted the text. Inspiration, then, basically comes to be a doctrine which tells us that we must appropriate this human text. I believe, rather, that we should be aware of the doctrine of inspiration from the beginning of the interpretive process. We can’t take the human author out of the picture, but we have to remember that we are dealing here with the verbi divini. Both the human author and the original audience are dead and gone, the divine author is eternally self-existent
- Perspicuity: This doctrine broadly states that Scripture is clear and intelligible. That is, with the twin-aid of Scripture and the Spirit, we interpret and appropriate Scripture. What can happen with a historical approach is that we find it necessary to have a plethora of sources to simply interpret Scripture. For example, N.T. Wright needs the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a myriad of other writings to interpret Jesus. And everyone (except John Piper maybe) loves N.T. Wright precisely because his interpretations are fresh and insightful. However, we should beware of what we are saying when we endorse Wright’s interpretation of Scripture. He is essentially telling us that without these extra-biblical documents we cannot have a full-orbed understanding of Jesus or his significance. DID YOU HEAR THAT?! It is necessary to have certain non-scriptural information to interpret or understand Scripture? This is troubling: we are saying that historical documents are necessary to illuminate Scripture. Umm, last time I checked, Scripture and the Spirit are those things that are to illuminate all else! … This also presents the problem that we have once again taken the Scriptures out of the hands of the common person, so that now, to understand Scripture, you’ve got to head to the library of ancient documents, or at least buy Wright’s latest book.
So, if the historical-grammatical method is in need of being re-worked, what am I proposing? I have for some time been under the conviction that we’ve got to come to a much more theological reading of Scripture, one less dependent on general hermeneutical theory and definitely less dependent on extra-biblical historical information. In this method of interpretation, we would adhere to the following stringencies:
- Extra-biblical sources should not be used to develop an interpretation that cannot be ascertained solely by use of the canon.
- Historical reconstructions (for say, an epistle) should only be used when these reconstructions are drawn from the text itself or from the larger canonical context.
- We should dispel the notion that exegesis precedes theology; theology will always influence and undergird our exegesis. Exegesis can explode our theology at points where the tension becomes too much to bear, but exegesis of a text cannot go on without theology.
- Our emphasis in our doctrine of Scripture and in our hermeneutical approach should be on the fact that we are dealing with God’s Word. Mediated through man, yes, but ultimately God’s. This will help us remember that we are not simply hearing what God said to those in the past, but that God is, through the Word-Spirit interplay, addressing us today.
If you’re still reading, I’d love to hear your feedback on this.
What dangers do you see in what I’m proposing? What implications would this proposal entail? I know, for instance, that all this talk of the “New Pauline Perspective” and even the debate over gender roles in the church would have to be reframed….Thanks for weighing in.
***Just a Note: I'm not at all saying that Scripture isn't historical (in the vein of, say, Bultmann). I'm aiming at the use of extra-biblical historical information in interpretation.