Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Plain and Simple Hermeneutic for Scripture (Verum Sensum Scripturae)

Before the Reformation, most biblical interpreters assumed that Old Testament stories had more than one meaning. Rabbinic exegesis insisted that every text held multiple meanings. Philo’s uninhibited use of allegorical methods continued momentum toward these methods of interpretation.

In opposition to these ancient forms, other interpreters have viewed Scripture as univalent: a text has only one meaning—that which was intended by the original human author. A univalent view parallels much of our daily experience. More often than not, we assume that our statements have the one meaning we intend them to have. An example may help.

As Joey went out to play, his mother called, “I’d like for you to put on your shoes.” He heard her but went out barefoot anyway. When Joey came in, his mother stopped him at the door. “I thought I told you to put on your shoes!” she explained. Joey responded indignantly, “No you didn’t. You said you’d like for me to put on my shoes.”

Joey focused on his mother’s words and interpreted them within the framework of his own desires. Technically he was right; she said she would like for him to put on shoes. The words themselves did not rule out Joey’s interpretation. But his mother insisted that her intentions specified the meaning of the statement.

As previously stated, before the Reformation interpreters held to multiple meanings in Old Testament stories, many of which were not accessible through ordinary reading. So interpreters needed special spiritual enlightenment. The Roman church said God granted special illumination to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Understanding Scripture was the prerogative of an enlightened priesthood.

In response to these developments, the Reformers prized the sensus literalis as the norm for all interpretation. As Calvin put it in his comments on Galatians 4:22, “The true meaning of Scripture (verum sensum scripturae) is the natural and simple one.”

The normativity of the one plain sense of Scripture has remained central to major Protestant works on interpretation. This view was codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The full sense of every biblical text “is not manifold, but one.”

Belief in the univalence of each text is so widespread among modern evangelicals that it appears in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics. It reads, “We affirm that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite, and fixed.”

In line with the Reformation’s focus on the plain sense, most evangelicals today view meaning as univalent. Every passage has one meaning. In this outlook, the goal of exegetical investigation is to discover the single author-intended meaning.