Why Expository Preaching Matters! (7)

The origin of Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutics

Don Green

Many conservative commentators would agree on the centrality of grammatical-historical hermeneutics, even if they differed on the definition of that term. This paper is designed to explore the historical roots of that system of interpretation.

According to Ramm, “The literal method of interpreting the Bible is to accept as basic the literal rendering of the sentences unless by virtue of the sentence or phrase or clause within the sentence this is not possible.”[1]  The heart of literal interpretation is that “we should be satisfied with the literal meaning of a text unless very substantial reasons can be given for advancing beyond the literal meaning, and when canons of control are supplied.”[2]   Its fundamental principle is “to gather from the Scriptures themselves the precise meaning which the writers intended to convey.”[3]

The rise of this method of interpretation can be traced to Ezra during the Babylonian exile. He had “set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). He expounded the Scriptures to give the sense so that the people could understand the reading (cf. Nehemiah 8:8). The formal exposition of the Scriptures can therefore be dated to Ezra’s time.[4]

The Palestinian Jews who followed Ezra developed some principles of exegesis which remain valid today. Those principles included the importance of understanding words and sentences in their context, comparing Scripture with Scripture, giving preference to clear passages over obscure ones if they deal with the same subject matter, and paying close attention to spelling, grammar, and figures of speech.[5]

Unfortunately, this system developed into a hyperliteralism that found meaning in the individual letters and extracted new meanings from old words. They also strayed into finding multiple meanings in the same text. The rabbis used these principles to develop the rabbinic system of exegesis with the fantastic interpretations which followed.[6]

The next recognized group practicing grammatical-historical exegesis was the Syrian School of Antioch.  Men such as Lucian, Dorotheus, Diodorus, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Chrysostom can be found in this tradition. The Syrian school resisted Origen’s allegorical method and took a “stout stand” for literal historical exegesis.[7]  These students were unwilling to lose the historical reality of the Scriptures in a world of symbols and shadows,[8] and wherever possible, adopted an historical interpretation of the text.[9]  Chrysostom said, “Everywhere in scripture there is this law, that when it allegorizes, it also gives the explanation of the allegory.”[10]  The Syrians insisted that the meaning of the Bible was its historical and grammatical meaning, and interpretations must so be justified.

The Syrian school influenced Jerome and medieval exegesis, and found expression in the hermeneutics of the Reformers.[11] One writer said of Jerome, “As a commentator, Jerome deserves less honor than as a translator, so hasty his comments generally are, and so frequently consisting of fragments gathered from previous writers.  His merit however is — and this was by no means a common one in his day — that he generally aims to give the literal sense of the passages in question.”[12]

The medieval period was marked by a strong and literal school in the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris.  Men such as Hugo of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, and Andrew of St. Victor were marked by a literalism consistent with grammatical-historical exegesis. They insisted that the mystical or spiritual sense could not be truly known until the Bible had been literally interpreted. This emphasis on the literal carried over into an emphasis on syntax, grammar, and meaning.[13]

The tradition of the Syrian school became the essential hermeneutical theory of the Reformers.  As is well known, there were many historical factors which contributed to the Reformation.  One of the factors pertinent to the present discussion was the renewed emphasis on the study of original languages.  This paved the way for a renewed emphasis on the grammatical side of exegesis.

Luther’s own interpretive principles incorporated that emphasis. Among other things, he grounded his preaching on the literal word and accepted the primacy of the original languages.[14]  He rejected allegory in principle, even though he sometimes resorted to it in practice.  Luther believed that the interpreter must give attention to grammar, manners and customs, and the content of the passage.[15]  To Luther, a historical understanding of the author and of his times is essential to the exegete.[16]

If Luther provided the breakthrough to Protestant hermeneutics, Calvin exemplified it with his touch of genius.[17]  Terry writes, “His commentaries, while not altogether free from blemishes, exhibit a happy exegetical tact, a ready grasp of the more obvious meaning of words, and an admirable regard to the context, scope, and plan of the author.”[18] Calvin held so strongly to this system of interpretation that he called allegorization “satanic” because it led men away from the truth.[19]

In his survey of the history of grammatical-historical exegesis, Ramm concludes, “The spirit and the rules of the Reformers became the guiding principles of Protestant orthodox interpretation. To name the scholars who followed in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin would be to name most of the great exegetes from Reformation times until now.”[20]

Terry notes that the spirit of religious inquiry sparked by the Reformation continued with unabated vigor in the seventeenth century.[21]  This led to an exaggerated desire for liberty of thought and speech, eventually culminating in controversy and political revolution.  However, that became the means to develop a more thorough investigation of the historical beginnings of Christianity, and a more exact and scientific interpretation of its sacred books.[22]

That influence spread into the eighteenth century, when the foundations of exact grammatical-historical interpretation were more fully laid, even in the wake of different philosophical approaches fueled by the writings of Kant.[23]  By the nineteenth century, Terry could write, “The great body of evangelical expositors is united on the fundamental principles of interpretation.”[24]

Today, it is unlikely that Terry would make such an optimistic assertion. The traditional view of hermeneutics has been seriously questioned by the mingling of postmodernism, hermeneutics and philosophy, cultural relativity, genre override, and modern linguistics.  The principles which were assumed in Terry’s day are now available at substantial discount. It remains for a new generation of Christians to recapture the ground that has been lost.

[1] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d rev. ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970) 45.

[2] Ibid, 45.

[3] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.) 173.

[4] Ramm, 45-46; Terry, 604.

[5] Ramm, 46-47.

[6] Ibid, 47-48.

[7] Ibid, 49.

[8] Robert M. Grant and David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1984) 66.

[9] David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) 103.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ramm, 49.

[12] Terry, 656.

[13] Ramm, 51.

[14] Ibid, 54.

[15] Ibid, 54-55.

[16] Grant and Tracy, 94.

[17] Ramm, 57.

[18] Terry, 677,

[19] Ramm, 58.

[20] Ramm, 59.

[21] Terry, 683.

[22] Ibid, 694.

[23] Ibid, 695-712.

[24] Ibid, 737.


(Re-Posted from: Truth Community Blog, Don Green, Aug. 28, 2013)

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