Re: historically informed interpretation (way too longish?)

Randy Leedy (
Fri, 20 Dec 1996 14:49:11 -0500

A new book has come across my desk at the very moment when its
subject matter is being discussed on this list. The book is RIGHTLY
essays on the subject by a variety of evangelical authors, edited by
Roy Zuck and published by Kregel, 1996. All the essays are reprinted
from previously published material.

One of two essays by Walter Kaiser (it was published as an article in
Christianity Today, 5 Oct. 1979) is particularly germane. He mentions
and critiques the views of Gadamer (cited approvingly by Edward Hobbs
and neatly distilled by Carl Conrad, apparently held as well by Ken
Litwak). Kaiser points out the difference between the MEANING an
author intended as he wrote the text and the SIGNIFICANCE that
meaning has for the reader. Notice the crucial assumption that the
meaning IS transferable from author to reader, even though
significance, due to factors inherent in cultural change, may not be.

To add my own comments to the thread, if meaning is not transferable
across cultural gaps, then I seriously question whether it is
transferable across the smaller gaps that separate even individuals
within a single culture. There is no difference in principle between
these two kinds of gaps; it is simply a difference in degree. And if
we cannot communicate with other individuals within our own culture,
surely we must conclude that communication itself is impossible.

Some, of course, may wish to maintain precisely that, and they are no
doubt correct if by "communication" they mean a perfect transference
of thought with no gaps or misapprehensions. But the impossibility of
perfect communication does not equate with the impossibility of
communication at all. Surely we may accept it as a given that
ADEQUATE communication is possible between individuals; that is, that
you and I may express ourselves to one another sufficiently well to
accomplish the purposes we entertain toward one another. If this were
not the case, then why even bother with a discussion list such as
this one? Of course we do fail to communicate adequately from time to
time, but in nearly every case we could make up the lack if we had
opportunity and inclination to work a little harder at it. Only when
the differences between us are extraordinarily great do we utterly
fail to communicate with one another. Even then I suspect that the
impossibility is not inherent but rather results from our giving up
trying. I would, however, maintain that setting one's will in
rebellion to God does prevent adequate communication from God to that
person, as Jesus said, quoting Isaiah, "They shall certainly see and
not perceive; they shall certainly hear and not understand," because
of their rebellious hearts.

I suppose it is obvious to all that this issue is theologically
crucial. In private correspondence earlier this year, Carl Conrad and
I kept butting heads over what we can know and what we cannot. I
suspect that this difference in epistemology, which directly relates
to our differences hermeneutically, is the watershed point from which
his and my theological positions take their initial direction and
develop in a generally predictable way.

Carl will speak for himself if he cares to do so, but I believe there
are, as in most fields, two opposite errors to avoid: 1) claiming
knowledge beyond what God has revealed, and 2) disclaiming knowledge
within what God has revealed. (Note Deut. 29:29 "The secret things
belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed
belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the
words of this law.")

Perhaps we would all agree with this in theory but would differ in
the practice of ascertaining just what God has revealed. At any rate,
any of our list members for whom this thread may be covering new
territory should be aware that it will be very difficult for someone
to maintain a firm evangelical commitment to the whole Bible as our
only reliable guide to faith and practice without holding to the
adequacy of human language as a vehicle for communicating meaning
objectively. The field in which we especially enjoy freedom to
explore and to innovate is that of relating the SIGNIFICANCE of the
Bible's meaning to our own situation. A commitment to singleness of
authorial intent regarding meaning is the only possible anchor to
guarantee the legitimacy of our explorations regarding significance.
Some disclaim any need for such a guarantee; if the plain sense of
the Book we're studying proves a reliable guide, the day will come
when that view will change.

I may not have opportunity for at least several days to respond to
any discussion this post may generate. I hope I have expressed myself
well enough to minimize the need for clarification. One reason this
post is so long is that I thought it might be best to spill my guts
all at once and be done with it, rather than to drag it out over
several posts. I hope this approach yields a net decrease in

In Love to God and Neighbor,
Randy Leedy
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC