Modern Linguistics Versus Traditional Hermeneutics

January 30, 2019 - An analysis of the similarities and differences between modern linguistics and traditional, grammatical-historical hermeneutics.

This is probably one of the most interesting articles I have read so far on the subject of hermeneutics primarily because I find myself in the middle; at times, I agree with the assertions of the traditional hermeneutic against the modern linguist and other times I agree with the assertions of the modern linguist against traditional hermeneutics. Below are a few thoughts on the article. Each one of them could be its own blog post, but this will have to suffice for now:

  • There are no citations of scripture to support “traditional hermeneutics”. I don’t fault the author too harshly for this as the purpose is to compare different hermeneutic models, not establish the basis for one of the models. I do find it odd, however, that a theological position which supposedly has scripture as its epistemological foundation never cites scripture in support of its position. The author cites Milton S. Terry’s Biblical Hermeneutics1 nine times to substantiate the claims of the traditional hermeneutic, but never scripture. That being said, I have not yet read Biblical Hermeneutics and it is likely that it cites copious amounts of scripture (I certainly hope it does).
  • In discussing the use of etymology (a use which traditional hermeneutics uses heavily and modern linguistics downplays), the author claims:

“To atone for that missing intuition, an interpreter must reconstruct the history in order to appreciate what was subconsciously available for an ancient culture and therefore an implied element in his usage of a given word. This is the only way modern man has to “get into the minds” of the ancients and so better understand their intentions in the choice of words. Without knowing how word meanings have developed, the understanding of an exegete is impoverished.”

I disagree with this position for at least two reasons. First, there are a number of words whose meanings are different or more than its history or component words2 (e.g. “butterfly” or “διεχειρίσασθε” (from Acts 5:30)). We cannot always assume that etymology or the sub-words that make up a word provide an accurate understanding of the word. Language is simply not that precise and ordered. Second, the view of traditional hermeneutics described above does not sufficiently take into account the dynamic nature of language and meaning. Language changes and words that used to mean one thing may now primarily refer to something very different. The history of a word may be helpful in understanding its meaning in a Biblical context, but it may also be misleading. Language is simply not that static.

  • The last thing I’ll note here is there is an apparent contradiction in this article on the nature of the language in the Bible. The author, in arguing that the same rules that apply to modern languages may not apply to the Bible argues:

“Furthermore, even if the same linguistic principles [as those applied to modern languages] are applicable to ancient languages, who would dare to say that words written by divine inspiration would show the same redundancy that allegedly characterizes modern communication? To be sure, God used normal human language when He inspired the Bible, but the ultimately divine origin of that language certainly puts it into a unique category.”

But when faced with the argument that human languages frequently use sentences and phrases with “different vocabulary without a difference in meaning”, the author responds with:

“NT writers in general did not concern themselves with stylistic matters such as avoiding repetition. Their language was the language of the man on the street, not of the classical poet or author who sought to entertain his readers with clever stylistic maneuvers.”

I find this to be a confusing and problematic response for a number of reasons, but notice that the author is at one point arguing that “the ultimately divine origin of that language certainly puts it into a unique category” but later argues “[t]heir language was the language of the man on the street”. I think this can be explained, I’m just pointing out that this appears contradictory and this appears to be an argument of convenience where the nature of a scripture is a chameleon which can be emphasized and accentuated in a way that fits just about any position I would like to defend.

You can learn more here:

  • Article
  • Hermeneutics
  • Robert L. Thomas
  • TMSJ
  • Language
  • Modern Linguistics