The Humbling of Hermeneutics (The Reformation and the Modern World Term Paper)

[A term paper I wrote for my course The Reformation and the Modern World at Davenant Hall. This version does not include citations: for those get the PDF here.]


“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”1 Since Luther emerged onto the medieval scene as a lightning bolt from heaven, the nature of the resulting blaze has been a matter of significant confusion. Was this a healthy cleansing fire, clearing the deadwood to strengthen the forest, or was it a consuming wildfire, destroying the good along with the bad?2 While this debate has made its way over a great deal of rather diverse territory, one locus which has received (at least over the long term) less excited attention than others while nonetheless being of great importance is the relationship between hermeneutics and doctrine.

That the Reformers sought a return to the priority of the literal sense of Scripture is widely known and discussed. As Luther said, the words of Scripture are “to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.” However, what sometimes receives less attention is the shift this insistence on the literal sense encouraged in the interpretation of the literal sense itself. If the primary battleground for doctrine must be the literal sense of Scripture, then the stakes for rightly interpreting the literal sense are high indeed.

What has followed since the Reformation, as shall be examined henceforth, is a process of revision in the literal interpretation of Scripture, which seems to specifically have been moving in a direction of increasing modesty. Where, for example, even the Church Fathers might have placed great importance on a particular text as an unequivcal proof of Christ’s deity, later Reformed exegetes as Calvin were sometimes more prone to read it in a more limited frame to be making a less theologically loaded point, though of course without denying the theology of Christ’s deity. Since Calvin’s day this “trend” has seemed only to have grown in force, with newer authors like N. T. Wright and Andrew Perriman as representative examples. A growing number of texts which have classically been employed to make very strong doctrinal claims are being reevaluated to play a more chastened role.

With the biblical foundations of major doctrines like the deity of Christ shifting under the Protestant’s feet, however, a degree of uncertainty tends to result. As the hermeneutics change and important texts no longer play the same role in supporting these doctrines, the doctrine themselves might come into doubt. Thus among certain circles of biblical scholarship today, even when the participants all claim faith in Christ, views such as unitarianism, adoptionism, annihilationism, and others which were formerly quite taboo have gained visible traction.

The great question for Protestants, then, is what to make of these developments. There can be no doubt that the shift of burden to the literal sense of Scripture has produced a slow-churning revolution toward hermeneutical modesty (or is it timidity) that shifts the textual foundations of several important doctrines, and the task as Protestants from here on out is to understand this shift, verify its utility, and reckon with the ultimate matter of whether and how it can preserve the orthodox faith of the Church. To address this, then, it will first be necessary to survey the problem of doctrine and its relation to Scripture.

The Problem of Doctrine

The practical problem of how to generate doctrinal definition from Scripture has been with the Church from the beginning. Indeed, even in Jesus’ own ministry, He had to engage with issues downstream from this topic.3 As is well-known, the Church Fathers beyond the time of the Apostles made extensive use of figural and allegorical readings in their attempt to make sense of the Old Testament in light of Christ. The status of such readings for establishing true doctrine, however, was not initially a high priority. For the greatest polemics, clear, literal statements were often the most useful.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the use of allegorical interpretations of Scripture expanded so that they sometimes played important roles in the development, or perhaps at least the public justification, of new doctrinal formulations. A classic example of this is present in Pope Boniface VIII’s bull, Unam sanctam:

We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: “Behold, here are two swords” [Lk. 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly, the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: “Put up thy sword into thy scabbard” [Mt. 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church.

That this interpretation goes far beyond anything which might be inferred from even the most generous treatment of the literal, or natural, sense of Jesus’ statement and yet served to prop up one of the most outlandish claims of the papacy for itself highlights the extent to which the problem was really there, however it might need to be solved.

The Ascent of the Literal

It was this runaway tendency which the Reformers protested in their reaffirmation of the primacy of the literal reading of Scripture. To quote Luther again, in a little more detail:

[N]o violence is to be done to the words of God, whether by man or angel. But they are to be retained in their simplest meaning wherever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of all the Scriptures. Thus Origen was repudiated, in ancient times, because he despised the grammatical sense and turned the trees, and all things else written concerning Paradise, into allegories. For it might be concluded from this that God did not create trees.

This feature of the Protestant approach to Scripture would be shared broadly by the movement, though there were differences between those who would say that only the literal sense is can be considered a true meaning of the text and those who would allow the other senses but restrict the establishment of doctrine to the literal sense. Interestingly, this more modest latter approach was apparently sufficiently compelling as to bring forth a concession from a key early opponent of the Reformation, Robert Bellarmine, who stated he and the Reformers agreed that “effective arguments should be sought only from the literal sense. For it is certain that the sense which is derived immediately from the words is the sense of the Holy Spirit.”

Reckoning with Context

With the turn to the literal sense of Scripture as the primary locus of doctrinal debate and formulation, it was almost inevitable that the question of what precisely the literal meaning of Scripture is would take on greater urgency. That the literal sense is the hardest to properly ascertain was commonly understood since the beginning. For example, Augustine spoke of his attempt to exposit the literal meaning of Genesis as a “laborious and difficult task” and that he collapsed under its weight. Likewise, Bellarmine said of the literal sense that there “can often be doubts” since wording can be ambiguous and it can be unclear whether certain statements properly use figures of speech or not.

To focus on the literal sense of Scripture for the establishment of doctrine, then, was for Protestantism to take up a monumental and highly hazardous task. To correctly return to the sources and interpret them according to their natural sense is often far from straightforward, and by accepting this challenge, the Reformers entered a world of great change. Interpretation could no longer run wherever the imagination led, whether the imagination was justified in taking certain paths or not. There would need to be discipline and an appeal only to that which is demonstrably in accord with the proper signification of biblical statements.

The fruit of this can be seen in a number of contexts. For example, in the very beginning of the Reformation there was a renewed interest in the original biblical languages. Zwingli, when discussing Christian education, noted that the most profitable study is that of the Word of God, and the student can perform this “more skillfully and advantageously” by “understanding Greek and Hebrew.”  More recently, the last several decades have seen an explosion of interest in the historical understanding of Second Temple Judaism, in which the New Testament emerged.4 A similar explosion has also taken place with respect to the older Ancient Near East, with works such as The Lost World of Genesis One5 and many others popularizing the findings for an average Protestant audience.

Sola Scriptura and the Chief Traditions

The effects of this tectonic shift on Protestant theology, even though the Reformation is now 500 years old, are still not entirely clear. For the first generation Reformers, the chief goal was to reform the Church against some more recent innovations. Calvin called it a calumny to suggest they were in opposition to the Church Fathers and said that if the contest were decided on their authority, “the better part of the victory would be ours.”

Despite this, later exegetes have often wondered whether the Reformers indeed reevaluated their doctrines radically enough in light of the new formal committment to sola Scriptura. This was a commonplace of the Anabaptists from the beginning, and similar charges continue to this day from a variety of quarters. Some ancient heresies have also revived with this as their justification. During and shortly after the Reformation, Arianism, modalism, Socinianism, and other heresies sprung up each with the claim to represent the pure teaching of rightly interpreted Scripture, now freed from Catholic traditions.

The challenges along these lines have been manifold. For example, many biblical scholars now contend that the Jews in the Old Testament had little or no concept of the afterlife and that the New Testament only changes this with the addition of a general resurrection rather than the immediate placement of the soul into heaven or hell after death. Similarly, many of the texts which have traditionally been used to prove, or at least defend, the deity of Christ have been reinterpreted to much less dogmatic ends. One of most influential contemporary examples of this kind of chastened Christological exegesis is N. T. Wright, about whom more will be said later on. Another movement which has gained traction over recent decades is preterism in its various forms, all united by the understanding of some texts traditionally understood as grand predictions of massive end-of-the-world events in terms of something more mundane such as the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 and/or the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity under Constantine and Theodosius (Wright is again relevant here, along with Gentry and Andrew Perriman, who will be discussed more later as well).

What many of these developments have in common is a kind of chastening of hermeneutics. Where former exegetes might have taken many passages as strong proofs of heavy doctrines, the overall tendency since the Reformation has been to limit the scope of the claims being made about most particular texts. To emphasize the literal sense as the source of doctrine is to emphasize the original context for understanding the text, and to do this seems to involve scaling back the engagement with the more fully developed doctrines of later Christendom. Whether this is necessary and truly a problem are key questions, but in order to advance on those, it will be helpful first to briefly survey some concrete examples of the shifts in exegesis we have been discussing. While the following selection is in some key ways insufficient, it should nonetheless be useful to illustrate the main themes under consideration.

A Sampling through History

In order to illustrate the developments in biblical hermeneutics in question, it will be helpful to provide some examples of specific interpreters before and after the Reformation actually handling specific texts. These will not focus all on the same exact text, for sheer limitation of resources, but they will each address similar concerns relating similar texts to the key doctrine of the deity of Christ.

Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria, serving in the fifth century as one of the most important defenders of orthodoxy against the Nestorian heresy, was naturally especially interested in matters of Christology in his reading of Scripture. This interest appears, for example, in his commentary on John 17:21-22. In that famous text, Jesus prays for His people, asking “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” and “that they may be one, as we are one.”

To Cyril, such affirmations in this passage were a clear reference to Jesus’ essential deity. When Christ prays that believers may be one as He and the Father are one, Cyril says that the bond of love among them is to “resemble the features of the natural and essential unity that exists between the Father and the Son.” He proceeds to exposit the similarities and differences in the three types of unity (Father-Son, God-believer, believer-believer), and he even takes up the task of refuting the use of this analogy of unity to support the “crazy theory” that the Son and the Father do not have a “natural identity and consequent unity.” Beyond this, he goes on to discuss Eucharistic unity and what might be described as the Church’s corporate theosis.

While it would be difficult to provide much direct evidence here, this kind of exegesis is fairly representative of the Church Fathers. Many, perhaps most, of them handle many parts of the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, most of all the Gospel of John, in a very similar way. There is, however, a difference to be found moving forward to the Reformation and the next interpreter to examine, John Calvin.


John Calvin commented extensively on the Scriptures, and indeed his commentaries cover a very significant portion of the Bible. As one of the early Reformers, he was a humanist and participated in the broader ad fontes movement. In his commentaries, as with much of his theology, there is a discernable aversion to speculation and anything overly grandiose. In the text cited just above, John 17:21-22, Calvin comments precisely in the way we have been considering, with attention not only to the literal sense in the abstract but especially to the strictly probable literal sense when taking the passage’s context fully into account:

Again, it ought to be understood, that, in every instance in which Christ declares, in this chapter, that he is one with the Father, he does not speak simply of his Divine essence, but that he is called one as regards his mediatorial office, and in so far as he is our Head. Many of the fathers, no doubt, interpreted these words as meaning, absolutely, that Christ is one with the Father, because he is the eternal God. But their dispute with the Arians led them to seize on detached passages, and to torture them out of their natural meaning, in order to employ them against their antagonists.

From there Calvin explains that the object of Christ was not to “rais[e] our minds to a mere speculation about his hidden Divinity” but rather to make a point about Christ as the one Mediator. He is the one who is fully united to the Father even in His humanity, not in that respect by essence but by being filled with all the glories and graces belonging to God’s image, which He thus shares with His people as one body. For Calvin, then, the intercessory and ecclesiological context of Christ’s request limits the horizon of probable meaning to that of His mediatorial office, which involves His deity without necessarily making it what the text is properly and intentionally about. It still seems possible for someone to appeal to this text with a broader constellation of biblical evidence to discuss the deity of Christ, but the old patristic focus on it as directly about the deity of Christ has been largely displaced.


In tracing the further affects of the Reformation on hermeneutics, it seems quite necessary to include in the analysis N. T. Wright, known for precisely the kinds of moves under consideration. Wright has been known to invoke “Ad fontes” himself and has expended significant effort as a historian coming to grips with the historical and cultural context of the New Testament. Unfortunately, Wright’s most in-depth handling of these matters does not cover the text used so far, since in Jesus and the Victory of God, the meatiest of his dealings with the Gospels, John was simply omitted altogether.

This lack, however, can be made up for by Wright’s extensive explicit address on the subject of hermeneutics itself. An example from a popular work illustrates well the shift under discussion:

[W]e must avoid jumping to the conclusion...that Jesus was doing things that “proved his divinity”—or that the main point he was trying to get across was that he was the “son of God” in the sense of the second person of the Trinity… Jesus’s powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity.”

This emphasis is precisely as has been described above. The goal is to pierce the world of the original inspired writer and understand what he was actually trying to say on his own terms. Thus Wright ends up rather consistently redirecting that which we might take to be about Jesus’ deity to ends which he argues are more in line which the concerns of the biblical authors. He makes similar moves with eschatological texts, pulling back from Left Behind futurism, or even the more traditional versions, to focus on the events which seem more probably the focus of the New Testament in its original context. Whether he succeeds at this, and whether this approach does damage to traditional doctrinal formulations, is still hard to say here.


For one more example, take Andrew Perriman, who is not of much repute but does have a notable following and, more importantly, seems to push the extreme edges of the “hermeneutical chastening” development. Perriman is ruthlessly devoted to what he calls the “narrative-historical method” of interpretation, which more or less tries to do what has been described above, but with a special emphasis on the question of story: What was the story, or broader narrative, in which the biblical authors saw themselves as participants? His unyielding application of this method yields results which push this Protestant reformation of hermeneutics to the limits, raising the question, “How far is too far before the biblical basis of key doctrines simply vanishes?”

Perriman’s method is consistent and systematic across the whole of the New Testament, so it will be difficult to highlight the intensity of his approach with but one example, but the attempt shall commence anyway. In a blog post on Mark 12:35-37, Perriman challenges the view that Jesus applied a prosopological exegesis in the text in question. Contra the Church Fathers and many modern exegetes, Perriman insists that Jesus was not presenting the quote from Psalm 100 as an argument for His own pre-existence. Instead, he claims:

What is at issue here, I think, is not whether the Christ would be either a son of David or David’s lord but how or on what basis Jesus would be a son of David. The word translated “how” in verse 37 is pothen, which means “from where.” Jesus does not deny that the Christ would be a son of David but he draws attention to the fact that the Christ would be a son of David in such a way that David had to address him prophetically as “my Lord.”

The explanation is immediately apparent. Jesus would be the Christ, the Lord seated at the right hand of God, by virtue of his resurrection from the dead. His rule or kingdom, therefore, would be more exalted than that of David, and it would last for ever. That is why David must call him “my Lord.”

This method, when applied to the New Testament consistently, is a substantial change from the old patristic approach, which focused much more on such texts like this as key proofs for the deity of Christ against the heretics. Perhaps the Fathers themselves would be wary of this approach as perhaps too risky and unable to sustain orthodoxy, but Perriman at least attempts to reassure his readers: “I affirm the theological conclusions of the church fathers, but the New Testament should be allowed to speak for itself.”

Moving Forward

Having surveyed some (admittedly highly selective) examples across time pointing toward the trajectory under review, it remains to take a step back and evaluate what all this means. Did the Reformers fundamentally err? Is this shift in hermeneutics a necessary and inevitable part of the turn toward the literal sense of Scripture? If it is, is the whole project bad?

Ultimately, these questions will need to be answered with an unyielding defense of the Reformation on this point. It is not, of course, necessary to say that everything the Reformers have done or said regarding biblical exegesis is sound, but there is a fundamental need to grant the principle which energizes this movement toward a more modest hermeneutic and a more complex relationship of exegesis to doctrine. If salvation is to be genuinely by grace and through faith without dependence on a human hierarchy, then sola Scriptura must remain. If sola Scriptura is to be preserved, then properly the literal sense will have to be able to bear the weight of the essential dogmatic structures the Church needs to live with. Finally, if the literal sense of Scripture needs to bear that kind of weight, then in principle it must be permitted to rigorously examine and reevaluate all matters of language, history, and context which could possibly impinge on the literal meaning in order to find truth and correct errors as much as possible, even if the errors are longstanding ones.

A Doctrine of Tradition

What, then, does this do to the traditions of the Church? The exact relationship to every kind of tradition is probably not of the greatest importance, but some matters most certainly are. The teachings of the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and of the Chalcedonian definition deal closely with who it is that we worship, and how/whether this adorable God should be identified with Jesus Christ. Are these not at risk when all of the texts on which these doctrines were originally founded are “up for grabs?” If exegetes continue to chasten the claims about individual texts, will the dogmatic judgments not finally lose all of their textual grounds? Indeed, some are already concerned that the work of people like Wright and Perriman already have gone too far down such a dangerous path.

While the risks are real in a sense, there is no need to despair if, as the Reformers did, new scholars and preachers genuinely believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ is risen, then He has the victory and all power in heaven and on earth. However far future hermeneutical developments might veer from the traditional, faith in that same Christ, the same God, and His promises to His people can remain. Having confidence in this creates the space to trust that paying careful attention to the proper context and original meaning of the Scriptures will in fact not overthrow the most important doctrines. They might indeed trigger some reorganization and perhaps even revision to a limited degree, but the fundamental confession of the Church throughout all ages really can remain.

The phrase “saving the appearances,” used by Lewis and Barfield, may be of some use here. The appearances, the phenomena men actually experience, can be “saved,” i.e. accounted for, by a number of possible theories which may or may not be true. A theory is useful so long as it does indeed save the appearances, so that it does provide a coherent and plausible account of all the phenomena which assert themselves as deserving of recognition. The Church might speak likewise of “saving the confession.” Though it may be necessary from time to time to rework, even drastically, the mapping of Scripture to her confession, and perhaps even overhaul the exposition of that confession, what the Church has always confessed can be safely assumed as a faithful description of the real phenomena from God to which she has always been exposed. This can suffice to ground the Church in her work in time until the day comes when full knowlege arrives and her confession is fully unveiled for all that it is in the vision of God. In such a way she can be free to be modest, slow, and reserved in the process of exegesis in patience and hope.

Theses on Humbler Hermeneutics

With this tentative outline for how to navigate the demands of rigorous and responsibly humble hermeneutics, a few practical theses may also be in order as a conclusion. These are not meant to be exhaustive, perfect, or perhaps even of much value at all to any real persons as opposed to imaginary students, but perhaps they point in something near the right direction:

  1. If the Church has traditionally viewed a particular text as supporting a particular doctrine, especially if it is an important one, the traditional use deserves at least the benefit of the doubt. Often what appears at a glance to be a tenuous inference may look different after further consideration.
  2. The biblical interpreter need not be especially afraid of scaling back the claims of certain texts when the doctrine it seemed to support has a diverse constellation of specific texts and general biblical phenomena behind it (e.g. the doctrine of Christ’s deity relies on so much in Scripture that very few possible moves could seriously hurt it).
  3. Typology and the extended senses of Scripture may not be sound grounds on which to construct doctrine, but they can helpfully reinforce it and may sometimes contribute especially in this way when specific texts move to other locations.
  4. If after consistent efforts at careful exegesis a particular traditional doctrine really does seem to be in peril, it is very possible, on the one hand, that some basic error has been spread out into the reading of all the doctrine’s supporting texts and removing this error would secure the doctrine once more, or perhaps the doctrine might indeed be faulty.

Given sola Scriptura, the possibility of important doctrinal revisions following from improved exegesis can never be ruled out. Even then, however, the confession of the Church is probably pointing at something true, so care must be taken to “save the confession” if the doctrine involved does in fact impinge clearly on the basic elements of that confession.

In the final analysis, it is unlikely that these theses themselves are even “new.” It seems rather than Protestant exegetes have been using principles along these lines all along. The turn to the literal and the focus on doing what it takes to find out what that really is, even at the expense of a confusing relationship to existing doctrine, are key components to the practical exercise of sola Scriptura. It may be that this humbles and limits what we can use individual verses and passages to prove, but the gain will be greater insight into and fidelity toward God’s very own Word.

1. Psalm 11:3 NRSV. 2. Or, perhaps more likely, a combination of both? 3. See, for example, His proof of the Resurrection from Exodus 3:6 in Matthew 22:32. 4. Much of this was sparked by E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress Press, 1977). 5. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, (IVP Academic, 2010).