Don Carson on Learning How to Interpret the Bible

Modern Reformation have made available a good article by Don Carson, research professor of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, on the discipline of interpreting the Bible:

“Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over interpretation, not just over interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half-century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics itself, than in the Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. Ironically, there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t.

The fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations, but there is no escape from interpretation.”

Carson offers some guidelines for resolving difficult interpretive issues:

(1) As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

(2) Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.

(3) Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

(4) Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

(5) Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive and pastoral errors will inevitably ensue.

(6) The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between Biblical times and our own day.

Read the whole thing here. You will need to become a subscriber to read back issues of the magazine, and this article by Carson will no longer be viewable after the close of the month. For further work by Carson on Biblical exegesis, check out his excellent Exegetical Fallacies. It is a must-have for serious students of the Bible.

(HT: Jonny King)

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