Millard Erickson’s Evangelical Interpretation delineates and interacts with a number of key interpretive issues that are facing the modern evangelical church. He discusses the idea of authorial intent, the role of the Holy Spirit in the interpretive task, the issue of contemporization, the question of whether or not and how church history, theology, and cross-cultural studies can contribute to the hermeneutical task, and the question of how the Church should respond to postmodernism. The book’s goal is to lead the interpreter to better define his or her hermeneutical approach and to think more clearly on the overall trends affecting the interpretive task today.
In Part I of Evangelical Interpretation, Erickson outlines and interacts with the authorial intent position. He uses Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.’s treatment and defense of this position as a prototype of other Evangelical treatments of it, and notes that evangelical proponents of the authorial intent position are indebted to and have made wide use of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s work in this regard (11). Erickson’s strategy is to define the emphases of this position, note the criticisms of this view, show the authorial intent proponents’ response to these criticisms, and then provide his own analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this position.
Simply stated, the authorial intent position holds that any passage has only one meaning, that the meaning is the author’s intention, and that the author’s intention correlates to God’s intention as well (11,13). The overriding goal of the authorial intent position is to combat, or, more precisely, to close the door on potentially subjective, existentialist interpretations of scripture. Erickson notes specifically that this position seeks to correct, presumably among other things, the abuses of Gadamer’s two horizons concept, the Roman Catholic Church’s concept of sensus plenior, allegorical approaches to interpretation, and eschatological interpretations that allow the interpreter to posit meanings apparently not intended by the author (12).
Erickson next outlines four criticisms of this approach. First, there is a problem in the fact that the New Testament writers apparently did not employ such a method in their own approach to the interpretation of Old Testament passages (14). Second, critics note that there is evidence within scripture itself that the Old Testament writers did not always understand themselves what they were writing (15). This, obviously, would create problems with a hermeneutical system that is predicated upon the identification of authorial intent. Third, some critics attack the assumption behind the authorial intent position that the author’s intent and God’s intent are one and the same. They point specifically to the fact that the original authors could not have known our unique situations and the potential implications of their writings on our lives. As such, these critics maintain that proponents of authorial intent have not sufficiently worked through the question of how scripture reflects both divine and human authorship (16-17). Lastly, critics point to the complexity of the concepts of “intention” and “meaning” (17).
Authorial intent proponents respond to these criticisms in a number of ways. They argue, for instance, that prophecies may be said to have multiple fulfillments while still having only one meaning. They challenge the assertion that some biblical writers did not understand what they were writing by pointing out that some passages reveal only authorial uncertainty concerning the times of fulfillment not authorial uncertainty about what they were actually saying (18). Thirdly, authorial intent proponents reassert that God’s intentions cannot differ from the intentions of the author (19).
Erickson spends the remainder of Part I giving his own analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the authorial intent position. Erickson begins by commenting on a semantic problem. He notes that the authorial intent positions argues for a distinction between “meaning” and “significance.” “Meaning,” here, is what the author actually said. Significance refers to the impact of its application today. However, in popular usage, people often use the word “meaningful” in a way that makes it synonymous with the authorial intent position’s word “significance”. However, there is another popular usage of “significant” (i.e., unusual) that varies from the definition of this word used by adherents of the authorial intent position (19-20).
In response to this, Erickson is particularly judicious and careful. He notes that popular usage is a secondary issue in a sense. We must look at what words actually mean, not at how they have come to be defined. On the other hand, Erickson notes the problem in insisting upon one definition of a term that places it at odds with the popular usage of that term. As a result, he argues that a neutral terminology should be sought that will be more conducive to dialogue. (20).
I think that Erickson’s assertion concerning the need for a neutral terminology is wise and, most importantly, possible. His argument that the authorial intent categories of “meaning and significance” be changed to “signification and significance,” and that the word “meaning” be allowed a wider definition in accordance with popular usage is particularly judicious (20). What lends credence to Erickson’s proposition concerning neutral terminology, whether one agrees with his specific proposed categories or not, is the fact that the nature of the vernacular must come to bear on the construction as well as the communication of hermeneutical systems. One may, of course, argue that their terms should be defined in such a way, or that their definitions vie most consistently with proper semantic categories, but, in reality, the inevitability and force of popular semantic variety and dynamics will necessarily place limitations on the applicability of these assertions. Furthermore, if a neutral terminology can be attained, what would be the purpose of sticking doggedly to the categories and definitions you prefer even though those categories are the source of such contention?
Erickson next critiques the use of “intention” by authorial intent proponents. The word is apparently used to refer to an author’s conscious intentions. Erickson points out, however, the human beings often communicate what and when they do not intend to communicate. He refers to Freudian slips, body language, and the occasional experience of communicating more than we thought we had. Erickson notes that the authorial intent position’s understanding of “intention” “appears to be a pre-twentieth-century understanding of psychology. It proceeds as if Freud had never written” (21). He argues that opposing such Freudian understandings of communication is akin to opposing the Copernican revolution. Furthermore, he notes the problem of Hirsch’s treatment of the unconscious communication. Essentially, Hirsch’s defines unconscious communication as intention as long as that unconscious communication is intended and not unintended. Erickson correctly points out that this position creates the dual problem of taking the concept of conscious intention to almost indefinable grounds as well as putting the concept at odds with the seemingly overwhelming evidence that much of our unconscious communication that is elsewhere considered valid is itself unwilled. Finally, Erickson proposes that the concept of conscious intention be jettisoned in favor of an emphasis on what the author “affirms” (23)
In all, I believe that Erickson has hit on something very important here. While his use of hyperbole regarding the certainty of Freudian categories is lamentable and comical (i.e., Freudianism akin to the Copernican revolution) his point is nonetheless correct and important. It would seem nearly impossible to discount cases of unintended unconscious communication. If this is established then seemingly interminable problems arise when one limits the idea of intent to the idea of conscious intention. Halfway efforts to included so-called willed unconscious communication is unacceptable. Thus, as Erickson notes, it is preferable to place the emphasis on the writer’s final product by appealing to the author’s affirmation rather than to place it on the process leading to the final product by appealing to the author’s intention.
Erickson also highlights the inability of authorial intent proponents to construct a viable model whereby modern readers can delineate between the meaning and significance of the text and ultimately arrive at the modern significance of the text for today. He contends that the Hirschian concept of intent, as expressed above, is to blame for this quandary. By defining intent as being only what the author consciously intended to say, authorial intent proponents put a straight-jacket on the text and leave no room for a wider possibility of meanings (26). Erickson’s answer to this is to change the categories of meaning and significance to affirmation and implication. The change from meaning to affirmation is preferable, for reasons noted above.
Erickson goes on to assert that the authorial intent position does not adequately address the complexities of communication. If, for instance, a writer is making an argument, are the assertions leading up to that argument not to be expounded upon simply because they are not the “central meaning”? Furthermore, the single-meaning concept cannot adequately account for the New Testament’s use of Old Testament prophecies. The New Testament writers frequently find in the Old Testament prophecies meanings that were apparently not germane to the original writers (28-29). Most serious of all, however, is Erickson’s contention that the focus of authorial intent proponents leaves very little room for the Holy Spirit. The Bible is treated as if it was written like any secular work (30-31). This is obviously troublesome given the importance of the Spirit’s role recognized in most theories of biblical inspiration.
Ultimately, Erickson’s treatment of the authorial intent position is careful, stringent, and informative. He is sympathetic with the desire to avoid subjectivism in the interpretive task (31). Furthermore, he is somewhat sympathetic with many authorial intent categories insofar as they are defined more precisely than they have traditionally been. His own proposed definitions are wise and would go a long way towards avoiding an oversimplification of complex issues. In all, Erickson’s call for authorial intent proponents to reexamine their treatment of the Holy Spirit is refreshing.
The implications of this discussion bear enormously upon the preaching task. This is due to the fact that the authorial intent position, and the corollary issues Erickson discusses, bear markedly and dramatically upon the preacher’s hermeneutics. A preacher will ideally proclaim what he believes the scriptures say. But what do they say? What do they mean? What do they intend? What principles do they offer? How the preacher defines such terms as “meaning,” “intention,” and “significance” weighs heavily here. Homiletics rises and falls with hermeneutics. I believe that Erickson has constructed a sufficient corrective to many of the weaknesses of the authorial intent position and has therefore aided the preacher in his tasking of understanding and communicating the Bible.
In Part II of the book, Erickson turns his attention to the question of the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. He chooses to do this by interacting with Daniel P. Fuller’s theories in this area. Basically, Fuller distances himself from the classical view of the role of the Spirit’s work in interpretation by noting that the Spirit does not contribute to the exegetical task per se, but only to the reception of the findings of that exegetical task in the believer’s life. Thus, a believing exegete has no advantage over an unbelieving exegete in terms of his or her ability to cognitively understand a passage. The believing exegete, however, through the ministration of the Holy Spirit, will find himself or herself receptive to the exegetical findings and desirous of obeying them. Erickson calls this view “a radically different view of the role of the Holy Spirit” as it stands in opposition to classical exegetical pneumatology (33).
Fuller’s position is like Hirsch’s insofar as both are reacting in fairly extreme ways to the hermeneutical and exegetical fallacies of many in the Church. Hirsch was reacting to the encroachment of subjectivity into the interpretive task through the use of the two horizons concept, reader-response criticism, sensus plenior, allegory, and palsied eschatological exegesis. Fuller is responding and reacting to an exegetical system that ostensibly depends wholly on the Holy Spirit to the complete exclusion of sound exegetical criteria and technical implementation as it was embodied most notably in Origen and the allegory school (34). As with his treatment of Hirsch, Erickson wants to show that Fuller has overreacted by refusing to see a mediating position between his own and that which he is reacting against.
Fuller’s theory leads him to interpret 1 Corinthians 2:13-14 very carefully, for it would seem at first glance that these verses would pose a serious threat to his concept of the role of the Spirit in interpretation. In these verses, Paul writes, “which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (NASB).
He handles these verses by noting that “accept” or “receive” (dechomai) in the beginning of 14 refers not to an intellectual understanding of “the things of the Spirit of God” but a welcoming of that understanding in his life (34). Furthermore, that the unbeliever sees the things of God as “foolishness” means that he refuses to acknowledge their truthfulness not that he is unable of understanding what they are (35). Thus, Fuller hopes to maintain exegetical integrity by showing that the New Testament does not teach that the unbeliever is incapable of understanding scripture. Understanding may be gained by anybody, believer or not, skilled in exegetical techniques. Rather, the New Testament teaches that the unbeliever without the Spirit of God will refuse to acknowledge the truthfulness of the things of God and will subsequently refuse to obey them. Thus, the Spirit’s work in the interpretive task is to grant receptivity to the believer, not to reveal the contents of a passage’s expressions.
Erickson gives a rather thorough evaluation of the assumptions underlying this position. Most are mentioned above in the description of the position itself. Erickson’s evaluation of these assumptions is very good, with one exception. In his fifth comment on the evaluation of Fuller’s assumptions, Erickson notes that Fuller “seems to assume that exegesis is presuppositionless” (39). Erickson goes on to note that the “fact that the unbeliever may come with a very different worldview than does the believer apparently does not affect in any significant way the forger’s understanding of the biblical text” (39).
It most be noted, in all deference to Fuller, that Erickson’s conclusion in this regard is not necessarily true. Erickson earlier acknowledges Fuller’s belief that an unbeliever can come to the signification of a text through the use of sound exegetical skills (36). Certainly these sound exegetical skills would include an evaluation of one’s own presuppositions. It seems to me that in this particular point Erickson has pitched an unnecessary battle. The truthfulness of Erickson’s overall critique of Fuller is neither aided nor hindered by this. Certainly unbelieving exegetes could and, if skilled, do seek to evaluate their presuppositions as any good exegete will. Strictly speaking, however, presuppositions do not bear definitively on the central question of whether or not an unbeliever is capable without the aid of the Holy Spirit to exegete a passage well. Presuppositions affect believers and unbelievers alike. Fuller’s schema does not imply a presuppositionless approach. In this particular criticism, then, Erickson has probably gone on a largely unnecessary offensive.
This criticism not withstanding, Erickson does an admirable job of defining the assumptions undergirding Fuller’s position as well as evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the position. To begin with, Erickson challenges Fuller on his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 2:14. Erickson points out that Fuller’s treatment of dechomai is not necessarily correct. Fuller is correct in asserting that the word carries with it the connotation of approval or accepting, but it could nonetheless mean that the unbeliever does not accept the things of God not because he finds them disagreeable but because he finds them incomprehensible. Erickson notes that this word does not tell us which of these is the case (40). With this, Erickson argues that other passages seem to refute Fuller’s handling of 1 Corinthians 2:14. In particular, he references John 14-16, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, and Matthew 16:17.
I believe that Erickson does a tremendous job in these instances of showing that scripture elsewhere, and probably in 1 Corinthians 2:14 as well, carries the idea of an unbelieving person not being able to fully understand the things of God. His treatment of Matthew 16:17 and Peter’s affirmation of Christ as the Son of God is compelling. Jesus’s response to Peter clearly implies that the Spirit of God gave him some type of cognitive affirmation that an unbeliever would not have had. Thus, in his treatment of this episode as well as Jesus’s teaching on the Holy Spirit in John and the contrast of the believer and unbeliever in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, Erickson has exposed what might, in the final analysis, prove to be the Achilles heel of Fuller’s position, namely the existence of fairly explicit biblical passages that refute its foundational contentions.
Erickson also challenges Fuller on theological grounds. He notes that Fuller’s position does not account for total depravity. Rather, it leaves the mind capable of discerning the things of God. Erickson here coins the rather unique term, “epistemological Palagianism” (45). Erickson notes in response to Fuller that “the mind or reason is negatively affected” by sin (45).
While I agree with Erickson’s contention, it must be pointed out that this argument is on tenuous ground due to the variety of approaches to the concept of total depravity that exist even among those who would all agree with Erickson’s assertion that Fuller’s theory is insufficient. In other words, a classical Arminian would almost certainly agree with the overall thrust of Erickson’s position while not agreeing on the Reformed understanding of total depravity. Thus, it would seem unfortunate to point too stringently to total depravity as a refutation of Fuller, for to do this would isolate many who may not necessarily agree with such an articulation but would agree with the refutation of Fuller in general.
Erickson also accuses Fuller of resorting to faculty psychology and compartmentalizing the nature of man into false categories of intellect, emotions, and will. He does qualify this criticism by noting that this is only implicit in Fuller’s position (45). Against this, Erickson asserts, correctly, a more unified, holistic view of man.
Compellingly, Erickson also asserts that Fuller has essentially overreacted to the extreme views of Origin and others. Put simply, the answer to a system which sees the Holy Spirit as the only means of achieving interpretation is not to construct a system in which the Holy Spirit has no part whatsoever in achieving interpretation. Erickson states that it is possible to find mediating positions in this (48). By rejecting the categories that Fuller has defined as the only options, Erickson points to a major fallacy in his system. I believe that he is absolutely correct in this assertion. Fuller is as extreme as those he would argue against. Both misunderstand the Spirit in the role of interpretation. Some degree of moderation is needed here.
Erickson ends his critique of Fuller by arguing that the Spirit’s role in illumination is to give the believing interpreter insight into the meaning of the text that may not necessarily be revealed through the application of exegetical tools (52). Erickson appears here to be offering his own mediating position. At the risk of oversimplification, he seems to be arguing for what might be called a “pneumatic sixth sense” whereby the interpreter gleams new insights into a text, not at the expense or in violation of a sound exegetical evaluation of a passage, but with and through it. He argues for this even while noting that the core salvific teachings of scripture are readily apparent to the believing or unbelieving exegete and do not depend upon any such deeper perceptions of a text (54).
Erickson has done a tremendous, though occasionally flawed, job of critiquing Fuller and offering his own alternative. Fuller’s position, in the final analysis, leaves too small a role for the Spirit and is fraught with difficulties. Erickson’s position seems to honor Fuller’s desire to combat subjectivism while honoring the role of the Spirit in the interpretive task and avoiding the more damaging pitfalls of Fuller’s position at the same time.
This issue also bears strikingly on the task of preaching. To begin with, it affects to the pastor’s approach to the crafting of sermons. Is he bound to grapple with the text alone? Could his sermon not technically be written by an unbeliever if the Spirit has no cognitive role in exegesis? Or is there more to this? Should the preacher approach the task prayerfully as well as with exegetical caution? The truthfulness or falsity of Fuller’s position would seem to have direct bearing on this. Furthermore, it will have direct bearing on what and how he communicates. Does he communicate with the authority of the Spirit or merely with the authority of the exegete? Is his homiletic pneumatic or not? It would appear that an adherence to Fuller’s position would necessarily relegate the preaching task the dissemination of information and not to the proclamation of revealed truth. Thus, this question is of extreme important to the preacher.
In Part III, Erickson turns his attention to the question of how to apply scripture to the modern day. This issue contains a whole host of unique problems that arise from a conflict between the cultural surroundings of the writings of scripture and the ever changing culture of modern times. Nonetheless, Erickson sees this issue, the issue of contemporization, as “possibly the single most important issue facing evangelical hermeneutics today” (56). This is so because the question of contemporization is a question that bears upon the relevance and applicability of scripture. Erickson sees himself as a “translator”, to use a terms coined by William Hordern, as opposed to a “transformer”. That is, Erickson believes that the truths of Christianity need not be neglected or jettisoned in an attempt to apply them to today (57).
Erickson sets the stage for this discussion by appealing again to the Hirschian categories of “meaning” and “significance”. As he does earlier, Erickson proposes that the categories be redefined as “signification” and “significance” and that both of these terms be placed beneath the more inclusive umbrella term “meaning”. Erickson see “signification” as referring to what the words of a text technically say. “Significance,” in this schema, refers to a reader’s perception of that “signification” (59). The task of contemporization involves seeking to understand the implications of a text for today.
Erickson proceeds to critique a popular hermeneutical approach to contemporization. This “two-step” approach has as its goal (1) the identification of the signification of the text and (2) the application of that signification to present society. Erickson appeals instead to Charles Kraft’s concept of “dynamic equivalence” whereby the hermeneutical approach to contemporization is comprised of (1) the identification of the signification of the text, (2) the identification of the originally intended impact on the original audience, and (3) the application of this significance to the modern day (63-64). Erickson refers to this as “preserving ‘the signification behind the signification’” (64).
The next task, Erickson argues, is to identify the timeless, transcultural principles that may be applied today. Here he proposes his “third step” to the “two-step” approach to contemporization mentioned above. He contends that between the signification of a text and the significance of the text, we should seek to identify the timeless, transcultural principle of the text. This is Erickson’s “third step” (64).
To identify principles, Erickson recommends the rather interesting technique of asking the question “Why?” of any text we encounter. For instance, we might ask of a text, “Why did God do this?” The answer to such questions will generally begin to take on the form of a principle. Interestingly, as Erickson points out, these answers are usually theological in nature. This leads Erickson to expound upon the importance of the discipline of theology in the interpretive task (67-68).
He also argues that the task of arriving at principles will be aided by the process of “decontextualization.” In this process, the specific cultural elements of the original environment in which the text was written are removed. The goal of this is to arrive most nearly as possible to pure principles that are timeless in their scope (69). Along with this, the interpreter should ask if the principle was intended to be universal or is wedded specifically to that particular cultural setting.
Erickson also deals with the question of how to handle supposed contradictions in a text. He notes that contradictions are occasionally actually complementary. Each statement is sometimes commenting on one part of the truth and highlighting some aspect of that part. Second, the statements may in actuality be two different principles. Third, he notes that in some situations more than one principle comes to bear (73-74).
Erickson’s treatment of contemporization bears the markings of care and thoroughness. He does not seek to avoid the difficulties of this process, difficulties which are more than readily apparent to any preacher. Of particular interest is his concept of a “three-step” hermeneutic. Erickson’s argument concerning the importance of identifying the timeless principle of a text is convincing and worthy of serious consideration. Furthermore, his treatment of the importance of theology in the interpretive task is especially poignant. Preachers feel an almost unbearable desirable to be “relevant,” as the term has come to be defined in American cultural. This greatly impacts their choice of reading material. Erickson’s contention that the nature of biblical principles is usually doctrinal highlights rather effectively the importance of pastors spending time in vigorous theological reflection.
Of the first three sections of this book, this section perhaps has the most dramatic implications on the preaching task today. The modern preacher is faced with a weekly, and, often, daily demand to contemporize the scriptures. He is painfully aware of how desperately the people in the pews need a word for today. This means, then, that he is painfully aware of the necessity of proper and careful contemporization.
The beauty of Erickson’s proposals in this regard is that they recognize the importance of this contemporization yet are not willing to sacrifice biblical fidelity in the process of achieving it. Preachers must have the same conviction. Helpfully, Erickson offers the modern preacher a framework by which he may honor both the need for contemporization and the need for biblical fidelity. This framework is practical, cautious, thorough, and likely to push the preacher to a greater study and exposition of the text.
Part IV of Erickson’s study concerns itself with the fallacy of not having “the biblical and practical disciplines” informed by church history, theology, and cross-cultural studies. Erickson’s task is not essentially negative however. On the contrary, after bemoaning the lamentable failure of many to see history, theology, and cross-cultural studies as crucial to the hermeneutical task, he proceeds to lay out the potential contributions that are to be found in each of these disciplines and, particularly, in their impact on the hermeneutical task.
In his treatment of history, Erickson contends that there are five positive contributions that can be made to the hermeneutical task. First, Erickson finds in the study of history a potential safeguard against an unnecessary absolutizing of our own hermeneutical expressions. This safeguard comes to light when we consider the variety of expressions and applications that the Church has made in its hermeneutical endeavors throughout history. In other words, the student of history can have his own hermeneutical applications better informed by considering how the Church has expressed itself regarding any given text over the last twenty centuries (78-79).
Second, history reveals to us how and why the Church arrived at certain hermeneutical expressions by giving us insight into the particular cultural and societal surroundings of that day. This will cause the interpreter to evaluate his or her own cultural surroundings and whether or not they are being influenced unduly by them as well. Third, by showing us the hermeneutical work of various theologians and hermeneuticists in the Church’s history, a study of history can strengthen the interpreter in the art of contextualization. Studying the outcome and approach of many historical figures’ hermeneutics will serve to strengthen the modern interpreter in his own (80-81).
Fourth, the study of history will ideally give the modern interpreter a sense of humility as he or she approaches the hermeneutical task. By simply seeing the wide variety of hermeneutical approaches and conclusions throughout the history of the Church, today’s interpreter will realize that his or her presuppositions, cultural surroundings, and societal makeup are almost certainly impacting his or her own hermeneutical approach as well. Consequently, today’s interpreter will have an added impetus to evaluate more stringently the assumptions undergirding their approach to scripture (81-82).
Fifth, Erickson notes that the potential implications of a modern hermeneutical conclusion may often be seen or informed by the implications of like conclusions drawn throughout history (82). This is an intriguing argument as it establishes an historical criteria for judging the potential validity of one’s interpretation. In this sense, the old maxim concerning the inevitability of those who know no history recommitting old mistakes comes into play (82-82).
It is not surprising, given Erickson’s standing as a theologian, that he spends most of the fourth part of his book on the question of how theology may contribute to the hermeneutical task. To begin with, Erickson points to the doctrinal character of the timeless, transcultural principles which are the goal of the hermeneutical task. Especially given the nature of historical narratives, these principles are theological or doctrinal in their content. Thus a firm grasp and careful theological analysis of a text in order to ascertain the principle within it is crucial to hermeneutics (83-85).
Second, by granting the interpreter a more holistic theological understanding of the implications of their interpretation, theology safeguards the interpreter against taking a contextualized application too far (85-86). Third, a theological analysis of concepts will force the interpreter to evaluate the truthfulness and implications of the concept more thoroughly. It will reveal a deeper meaning and implications of assertions that would be missed if such a theological analysis did not take place (86-87).
Fourth, theology bears upon the hermeneutical task by informing us of the current flows of cultural theological thought that may be affecting and shaping our presuppositions and a priori assumptions (88-89). Fifth, theology will provide a framework in which interpretive methodologies may be evaluated. This might be done by asking of these methodologies questions concerning their theological assumptions, theological weight and gravity, and theological direction (89-90). Sixth, theology provides a doctrinal framework by which the implications of an interpretation may be determined. In this sense, a theological evaluation of the hermeneutical task would entail asking what a particular interpretation means for and in light of other theological assertions of scripture. This would shed further light on the validity or lack thereof of an interpretation (90).
Seventh, theology will help determine the validity of the arguments undergirding a particular hermeneutical approach to a passage. Thus, the argumentation leading up to a conclusion may be evaluated in light of an overall theology of scripture (91-93). Finally, Erickson sees a strength in a theological approach to hermeneutics in that theology will force the interpreter to place his or her conclusions in the broader flow of biblical theology. Thus, any interpretation will be measured against the doctrinal pronouncements of scripture itself and not treated as an independent entity (94-95).
Erickson next considers cross-cultural studies and how they come to bear on hermeneutics. Cross-cultural studies have bearing on the hermeneutical task in that they provide new insights derived from interpreters who are outside of our own particular cultural setting. Erickson wisely cautions against a wholesale, uncritical acceptance of a view simply because it emanates from another cultural situation. Yet, on the other hand, it must be admitted that those outside of our own culture often see new insights by looking at the text from angles that we would not naturally consider (95-96). The second contribution that Erickson sees cross-cultural studies giving to the hermeneutical task is closely related to the first. Cross-cultural studies, merely by virtue of showing us interpretations and presuppositions that differ from our own, cause us to evaluate our own presuppositions and approach to the text (96-97).
Finally, Erickson believes the interpreter will benefit from cross-cultural studies by being shown new questions that can be asked of a text. The questions we naturally ask of a text usually arise from our own life experiences and limited cultural environment. However, when one from another culture asks questions of a text that seem to us to be foreign and unique, we will be forced not only to question the validity of our own questions, but to evaluate the rationale for theirs (97-98). This can only serve to enrich the hermeneutical process.
Erickson’s contentions concerning the usefulness of history, theology, and cross-cultural studies as it pertains to the hermeneutical task if thoughtful and provocative. It is provocative in that it goes against much of “the Bible and me” mentality that seems to be so pervasive in Protestant Evangelical circles. Yet he nowhere uses these disciplines to minimize the importance of scripture. On the contrary, he is arguing that these other disciplines may grant a more well-rounded approach to the task. Thus, the hermeneutical task will be enriched by the application of these often neglected studies.
It must be pointed out that the effectiveness of preaching depends often on the effectiveness of one’s hermeneutics. If bringing history, theology, and cross-cultural studies to bear on the hermeneutical task will aid our interpretation, it will aid our preaching as well. This means that the preacher who hopes to be truly biblical in his homiletic endeavors will seek to be informed by history, theology, and cross-cultural studies. On a practical level, an evaluation of the methodology and preaching of some of the most well loved, well known, and effective preachers will bear the truthfulness of this out. This also means that the preacher’s task involves more than a low view of preaching assumes. It is not enough to approach the scriptures in a surface way. Rather, Erickson makes an extremely valid case that the preacher should approach the text with the aid of these other disciplines as well.
Erickson concludes his book with a discussion of postmodernism, its effects on the interpretive task, and the need for the Church to proactively engage the postmodern culture in which it resides. His language concerning the danger of postmodernism and, particularly, deconstructionism could scarcely be more intense. For instance, Erickson points to deconstructive postmodernism as “the most serious threat to orthodox or evangelical Christianity” today (103). Furthermore, Erickson believes that “the very future of Western culture may depend on the outcome of this struggle” (104). Unfortunately, Erickson is only too right in these dire assertions.
Erickson sees postmodernism as rejecting three major premises shared by premodernism and modernism. The premises are the objectivity of reality, a referential understanding of language, and a belief in the correspondence theory of truth (100). He does not argue that the premodern and modern periods were alike. On the contrary, they were radically different in their particular approaches to these premises, but, nonetheless, they were shared in at least some fashion.
Postmodernism rejects these foundational tenets of modernism. In fact, postmodernism rejects any concept of the objectivity or existence of truth. Furthermore, to the postmodernist, language refers to nothing concrete, but merely to language. Words come to rest in no ultimate port. They are forever in interaction with other words, equally meaningless in any ultimate sense. Thus the interpreter is not bound by any notion of finding a “meaning” of a text. There is no meaning to be found. Interpretation is unendingly fluid and dynamic and serves as an end unto itself (102-103).
Postmodernism is a reaction to the failings of modernism. Specifically, subatomic discoveries have hinted at a randomness in nature and have undermined the modernist conception of universal “fixed patterns.” Second, the atrocities of the twentieth century have been seen as evidence of the moral insufficiency of modernism. Third, postmodernism has rejected the modernist concept of progress. Fourth, it has rejected the modernist idea of the goodness of knowledge (108-110).
Erickson chooses to interact primarily with deconstructionism, though he does not deny the existence of variant strains within postmodernism, a frustratingly elusive term to define. The ravages of postmodernism upon hermeneutics are both disheartening and undeniable. Words have no reference point. They have no meaning. There is no meaning to be had (110-111). The evangelical interpreter finds himself a pilgrim in a strange land.
In response to this, Erickson proposes a number of guidelines for the construction of a postmodern evangelical hermeneutic. I agree with his idea that this is necessary. Importantly, he argues that this hermeneutic must proceed cautiously and critically. There will be moments, in other words, when the evangelical interpreter must simply refute a postmodernism tenet. Otherwise, as Erickson’s proposals reveal, the evangelical interpreter has some room to respond to the particular assumptions of postmodernism. A few of his proposals are evaluated below.
Erickson’s proposal that we reduce the tenets of foundationalism in response to the postmodern rejection of foundationalism is wise but dangerous (114-116). How much are we willing to sacrifice here? I agree that a more careful evaluation of these tenets in accordance with postmodern assumptions will allow us a point of dialogue while not falling into the type of epistemological despair that comprises so much of postmodernism, but it seems that great care should be taken when we essentially concede the inadequacy of certain truth claims in an attempt to establish a point of contact. Erickson’s concern seems primarily relational, and this is admirable. He seems to be saying that such concessions must be made in deference to the potential viability or at least in deference to a serious recognition of postmodern categories, but the tenableness of this assertion still needs to be scrutinized.
His assertion that we speak in terms of concepts and not concrete realities behind words is likewise wise but also in need of a closer examination (118). An appeal to concepts would seem to remove an obstacle in communicating with a postmodern mindset which certainly rejects such notions, but, again, it must be asked what is being sacrificed to do this, what forces are being set in motion by this, and whether or not there are more negative philosophical ramifications that will be gained by this than positive. What is more, the feasibility of such a notion is a serious question. Exactly how does one go about this?
I believe Erickson is right in his belief that we should stress meaningfulness more than meaning, or, at least, that we should keep this postmodern characteristic in mind (119). However, as I am sure Erickson would agree, it must be made clear that meaning is still of paramount importance to the task of hermeneutics. He seems to be saying, however, that the modern interpreter and communicator should seek to communicate signification in ways that will lay emphasis on significance but that will not deny signification.
Erickson’s belief that an individualistic approach to hermeneutics must change in favor of a community approach is absolutely correct (122-123). Not only, as he says, is this due to the wealth of knowledge available to the individual interpreter today, but also to postmodernism’s rejecting of the modernist concept of the worth and value of the individual.
Erickson wisely calls for a reevaluation of the philosophical assumptions undergirding hermeneutics and a renewed emphasis on metahermeneutics (123-124). The evangelical interpreter cannot proceed blindly as if his or her postmodern culture does not simply reject the philosophical underpinnings of his hermeneutical approach. To do so is to severely limit his or her influence as well as his or her own understanding of his or her task. Furthermore, Erickson is correct in his call for a multicultural hermeneutic. Evangelicals have too often rejected the political baggage of multiculturalism while not appreciate the strengths inherent in such a concept.
I would argue that postmodernism is not only the most crucial issue facing the modern interpreter, but it is also the most crucial issue facing the modern preacher as well. Painful experience has shown me that postmodernism does not reside merely in the ivory towers of academia. It has been absorbed, largely through the media and overall flow of cultural thought, by the average person in the pew. This means that the preacher will simply have to reconsider how he communicates. To speak in premodern or modern categories, as if the congregation shares those assumptions, is to fail to be a good steward of the gospel. Truth must always be proclaimed. Concessions of truth cannot be made. However, the form in which truth is conveyed will change with the cultural assumptions of the audience.
Erickson’s proposals for a postmodern evangelical hermeneutic may by and large be applied to the preaching task as well. The modern preacher would be wise to evaluate his sermon along the lines of the proposals Erickson makes. This will mean hard work, some painful changing of the way we have always done it, and a high commitment towards reaching the people in the pews. Furthermore, this will require the preacher to become a student of his congregation. Postmodernism is not a unified coherent concept. Strains of it vary in their numerous and often subtly different emphases. This means that the preacher must know exactly how his people think, what they read, what they assume, what they accept, what they reject, and who they are. To this end, Erickson’s work may be used to great benefit.