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    The Reformers’ Hermeneutic: Grammatical, Historical, and Christ-Centered

    It is widely recognized that the formal principle underlying the Reformation was nothing other than sola scriptura: the reformers’ diehard commitment to the other great solas was an effect arising from their desire to be guided by scriptures alone. The exegesis and interpretation of the bible was the one great means by which the war against Roman corruption was waged; which is almost the same thing as saying that the battle was basically a hermeneutical struggle. In light of these observations, one could say that the key event marking the beginning of the Reformation occurred, not in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg; but two years prior to that, when he rejected Origin’s four-layered hermeneutic in favor of what he called the grammatical-historical sense. This one interpretive decision was the seed-idea from which would soon spring up all the fruits of the most massive recovery of doctrinal purity in the history of the Church. We would do well to learn from this: our ongoing struggle to be always reforming, always contending for the faith which was once delivered to the saints, is essentially a process of bringing every doctrine under the scrutiny of scripture. And in order to have the confidence that we are doing so legitimately, we must give much effort to being hermeneutically sound. Hermeneutics is the battlefield on which the war is won or lost.

    If it is indeed the case that the recovery of a grammatical-historical hermeneutic was the formal principle underlying the Reformation, then we ought to be highly interested in what exactly Luther (and the other Reformers) intended by the expression. If Luther’s hermeneutic was so effective in preserving the purity of the gospel in his day, then we may, with some reason, assume that it would benefit us in the gospel-battles of our day. Most, if not all, evangelicals today would certainly affirm that they are laboring with the grammatical-historical hermeneutic of the Reformation – but do they mean by this term everything that Luther meant by it? In many cases, one would have to assume that they do not; because it is often the case that a basically un-Christian reading of much of the Old Testament in particular is supported by means of a “literal,” grammatical, historical hermeneutic. For Luther, the grammatical-historical hermeneutic was simply the interpretation of scripture that “drives home Christ.” As he once expressed it, “He who would read the Bible must simply take heed that he does not err, for the Scripture may permit itself to be stretched and led, but let no one lead it according to his own inclinations but let him lead it to its source, that is, the cross of Christ. Then he will surely strike the center.” To read the scriptures with a grammatical-historical sense is nothing other than to read them with Christ at the center.

    What exactly do I mean when I say that many evangelicals demonstrate “a basically un-Christian reading of much of the Old Testament”? Simply put, I mean they employ a hermeneutic that does not have as its goal to trace every verse to its ultimate reference point: the cross of Christ. All of creation, history, and reality was designed for the purpose of the unveiling and glorification of the triune God, by means of the work of redemption accomplished by the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The bible is simply the book that tells us how to see Christ and his cross at the center of everything. It tells us who God is by showing us the person and work of Christ, who alone reveals the invisible God. If we do not intentionally ask ourselves, “How may I see Christ more clearly by this passage,” in our reading of every verse of scripture, then we are not operating under the guidance of Luther’s grammatical-historical hermeneutic. If we would follow in the steps of the reformers, we must realize that a literal reading of scriptures does not mean a naturalistic reading. A naturalistic reading says that the full extent of meaning in the account of Moses’ striking the rock is apprehended in understanding the historical event. The literal reading, in the Christ-centered sense of the Reformation, recognizes that this historical account is meaningless to us until we understand how the God of history was using it to reveal Christ to his people. The naturalistic reading of the Song of Solomon is content with the observation that it speaks of the marital-bliss of Solomon and his wife; the literal reading of the reformers recognizes that it has ultimately to do with the marital bliss between Christ and his bride, the Church. And so we could continue, citing example after example from the Old Testament.

    But how was it that this shift came about in the commonly perceived meaning of the term “historical-grammatical sense” from the reformers’ day to our own? In a word, the rise of academic liberalism. The reformers were contending for the truth in a society in which the supernatural world was as definitely accepted as the natural world. They had no need to demonstrate that the Bible was a spiritual book, given by God to teach us spiritual truths, that is, truths about Christ and the cross – everyone accepted that much. They were contending instead with a hermeneutic that essentially allowed one to draw from any text whatever spiritual significance he liked – if he had the authority of the Church behind him. But the Enlightenment so radically changed the face of society, that it was soon thereafter no longer sufficient to speak of a “literal” hermeneutic: one also had to make clear that this literal hermeneutic had as its object a thoroughly spiritual and Christ-centered corpus of writings. The basic intent of the liberal theologians subsequent to the Enlightenment was to downplay the supernatural; hence, their reading of the scriptures emphasized the human authors and human historical settings entirely apart from the God who was governing all. And, although the thoroughgoing naturalism of the liberals was soundly defeated by many evangelical scholars, some of its emphases seem to have seeped into the very idea of a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, where they continue to exert a deadening influence on much of evangelical scholarship even today. Three specific ways in which, I would contend, the modern conception of a literal hermeneutic has been colored by the Enlightenment, are, first, the maximized emphasis on the human authors of scriptures (together with the corresponding de-emphasis of the divine author); second, the naturalizing of the hermeneutic, so that it intends to discover what a natural man, upon an acquaintance with the natural setting, would immediately understand about a text; and third, the resultant fragmentation of the bible, so that it reads less like one unified, coherent story about a promised Redeemer and how he actually came in human history and accomplished his work – and more like a handful of loosely related sacred documents, with various purposes, intentions, and themes.

    Our task as modern reformers has much to do with the recovery of the Christ-centered element of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. If we would let our sola scriptura lead us to solus christus, then we must be willing to battle against the modern corruption of one of the reformers’ most precious legacies – a literal hermeneutic. To that end, I would submit the following six reasons why any hermeneutic which does not see Christ at the center of every verse of scripture does not do justice to the Reformed worldview.

    1. A naturalistic hermeneutic effectively denies God’s ultimate authorship of the bible, by giving practical precedence to human authorial intent.

    2. A naturalistic hermeneutic undercuts the typological significance which often inheres in the one story that God is telling in the bible (see Galatians 4:21-31, for example).

    3. A naturalistic hermeneutic does not allow for Paul’s assertion that a natural man cannot know the spiritual things which the Holy Spirit teaches in the bible – that is, the things about Jesus Christ and him crucified (I Corinthians 2).

    4. A naturalistic hermeneutic is at odds with the clear example of the New Testament authors and apostles as they interpret the Old Testament (cf. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, Paul’s interpretations in Romans 4 and Galatians 4, James’ citing of Amos 9 during the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, the various Old Testament usages in Hebrews, etc.).

    5. A naturalistic hermeneutic disallows a full-orbed operation of the analogy of faith principle of the Reformation, by its insistence that every text demands a reading “on its own terms”.

    6. A naturalistic hermeneutic does not allow for everything to have its ultimate reference point in Christ, and is in direct opposition to Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:16-18, and Christ’s own teachings in John 5:39, Luke 24:25-27.

    Posted by Nathan on March 23, 2006 09:14 PM


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    When God dragged me kicking and screaming into Reformed Theology (just kidding, I came hungrily) I read Owen, Bunyan, Luther and Calvin as much as I could. It really struck me how their intrepretation of the Old Testament was obviously from a hermeneutic that was vastly different from what I had become used to in my Arminian/Dispensational past.

    For instance, in The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan would refer to Old Testement Saints the same way he referred to New Testament Saints. There was no distiction. That was a very "new" concept for me. At the time I began to think that I had stumbled upon a concept that was revolutionary.

    That is so humorous to me now. However, This hermeneutic has been sorely lacking for that last century at least.

    This is very good post Nathan. The interpretation of scripture should be through the hermeneutic that is Cross/Christ centered.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

    Thank you Nathan for the excellent contribution. There is a profundity in your words that strike me with great clarity. I deeply appreciate your Christ-driven hermeneutic and look forward to your continued posts.

    By way of introduction, Nathan Pitchford, the author of this piece, is the newest contributor to the Reformation Theology blog. Welcome ... click on his name in the upper lefthand corner if you wish to know more about him and his writings. Knowing his love and zeal for the Lord I have no doubt we will be seeing many more excellent posts in the future.

    Hi Nathan,

    Just also wanted to join John H. in welcoming you to the team. I very much enjoyed your article and look forward to your further contributions on the site.

    Every blessing,

    John Samson


    Great post. The term "naturalistic hermeneutic" seems to sum up the modern application of grammatical-historical literal interpretation of Scripture. Whether or not people accept full-blown dispensationalism, this hermeneutic coupled with the influence of dispensationalism leads many Christians to practically deny the OT any authority over their lives. Any reference to or appeal to the OT falls on deaf ears. Evangelicalism has sadly ripped the Bible in half. The OT is largely used as a book of examples, proverbs, and principles which help you know how to live life, while the NT is used to teach the gospel and its doctrinal truths. Yet the evangelism done in the first 100 years (or more) after Christ was all based in the OT. It was the rule and authority--the standard for faith and practice of the early church. The New Testament appeals to OT events and quotes in almost every chapter! Yet we are smugly content with our NT, and can do without the OT.

    This topic deserves attention in the church today, I thank you Nathan for doing needed work in this field.

    Thanks everyone for the warm welcome. This site has always been a source of encouragement and edification for me. By God's grace, I hope to give back some of what I have gained -- to join together with you all in lifting up the name of Christ.

    I completely understand where you're coming from. My story is very similar. I remember the day when, still a Dispensationalist, I read The Glory of Christ by John Owen, and was amazed at how he dealt with the Old Testament. I wondered if anyone else in the history of the church had ever pointed so clearly to Christ from the Old Testament scriptures. As you say, that is humorous to me now.

    Blessings in Christ.

    Ah,yes. I too was mired in the Arminian/Dispensational theological swamp. Some New Testament uses of the Old Testament sounded so wrong to me back then, that I actually questioned whether or not the Apostle's were making valid interpretations! Praise God for His mercy and grace in opening my eyes to my errors.

    One comment on your last point about "A naturalistic hermeneutic does not allow for everything to have its ultimate reference point in Christ..." I would posit that it is not simply a hermeneutical failing, but is also much of contemporary Evangelicalism. Many churches' ministries are rooted in man and "relevancy" rather than centered upon Christ and His glory. It's a great thing to see believers interested once again in the Faith's rich history and ready to learn from those who went before us.

    God bless

    Does anyone know in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, if the verb "to come" being in the present-participle denotes a present reality with on-going effects?


    I would suggest that the present participle "coming" intends a future wrath for this reason: the very idea of the verb "to come" is a futuristic idea. If a verb without any futuristic connotations showed up as a present participle, we might (given the context) think of the action as currently in progress. But if something is currently in the state of "coming," in our idiomatic way of expression, we would probably understand this to mean that it is not here yet, but it certainly will be here in the future. I think the participle underscores the certainty that God's wrath will be poured out in full measure someday. But I don't think the present participle necessarily indicates that this is happening now. Right now, his wrath is in such a state of being that it certainly and emphatically will be here in full force at some point in the future.

    That's how I read it, at any rate. I do think that the Greek verb "erchomai" has much the same range of idiomatic connotation as our own verb "to come".

    Great article Nathan. Thank you.

    I did want to comment regarding the "Arminian/Dispensational" statements. It seems some of you learned a much different dispensationalism than I ever learned. I am still a dispensationalist (and soteriologically Calvinistic) and I have never heard a teaching that says Old Testament saints were saved any other way than by faith alone.

    What dispensationalist teachers taught that?


    Hi Brian,

    I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to -- where above does anyone specifically say that Disp. teaches that the OT saints are saved in some other way? Some of the older Disp...s did teach that, the more recent ones all try to distance themselves from that idea -- but even if we grant that they're entirely orthodox in that one regard, that doesn't mean that Dispensationalism doesn't retain many other problems.

    Basically, I think the classic Disp. position on the whole point is that the OT saints were saved by faith alone, but by faith in the revelation peculiar to their era, which did not always include personal belief in a coming Messiah to be a substitute for sins. So, while they do teach faith alone, it is a faith divorced from Christ alone, and hence a kierkegaardian sort of abstract faith that it in reality just a work. Noah wasn't saved by believing it would rain -- he was saved by faith in the promised Seed. Job was saved by looking ahead to his Redeemer who would rise again. And so on. Classic Dispensationalists (e.g. Ryrie) would typically deny this -- which is, in my estimation, a very serious error.

    Then, the whole two-gospels-in-the-nt idea (as taught, e.g., by Renald Showers) demands a different way of salvation for the Jews in Jesus' day, as a logical consequence -- but that's another topic.

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