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Vern Poythress on the Different Approaches to Scripture

In his book God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, Vern Poythress gives a helpful and humorous scripting of the different sort of approaches people make with regard to understanding the Scriptures. The conversation unravels as follows:

Herman Hermeneut: Can we come up with a “how-to” list for interpreting the Bible?

Dottie Doctrinalist: That’s definitely useful, provided it is based solidly on the Bible.

Oliver Objectivist: We certainly need such a list, in order to be rigorously objective in our interpretation, and to eliminate subjective biases.

Peter Pietist: I’m not so sure. Won’t a method interfere with my personal communion with the Lord?

Laura Liturgist: I’m just as uneasy as Peter. Does “method” mean something purely academic? Or would it include participation in worship?

Missy Missiologist: I can see both advantages and disadvantages. We certainly need to take steps in order to make sure we are not blinded by the blind spots of the culture in which we were raised. But we need to be careful. Our focus on method can introduce a Western bias. The idea of having a technique or assembly-line process for producing the right meaning seems natural within an industrialized society, where we pursue technique.

Poythress concludes the chapter by laying out 3 steps that he believes are indespensible in coming to the right interpretation of a passage of Scripture:

Step 1. Original time and context.

a. Understand the person who is God’s spokesman (for example, Micah the prophet) (personal).

b. Understand the text itself (normative).

c. Understand the situation of the times and the situation of audience (situational).

d. Understand the total import of God’s speaking to the people through his spokesman.

Step 2. Transmission and its context.

a. Understand the persons who engage in transmission: official tradition bearers, and more broadly the people belonging to God.

b. Understand the transmission of the text and its message (normative). Both text criticism and the history of interpretation are involved.

c. Understand the situation of transmission. Understand narrowly the concerns of scribes and broadly God’s plan for history.

d. Understand the total import of God’s speaking to the whole church through the Scripture.

(1) Understand with different foci.

(a) Understand later use of the passage (exegetical focus).

(b) Understand how the passage fits into growing revelation (biblical theology).

(c) Understand how the passage fits into an entire body of teaching on various topics and issues (systematic theology and practical life).

(2) Understanding Christocentrically.

(a) How does Christ fulfill the word of the passage, by climaxing its truths, and embodying its wisdom, righteousness, and holiness?

(b) How does Christ fulfill the facts of the passage, by fulfilling its promises and predictions and bringing to climax the historical struggle with which the passage interfaces?

(c) How does Christ fulfill the personal aspect of communication (the prophet as mediator)?

Step 3. Modern context.

a. Understand what God is saying now through the text and its larger biblical theological and systematic theological context.

b. Understand your situation, as controlled by God.

c. Understand your gifts and capabilities and those of other speakers or hearers with whom you are communicating.

d. Understand the total import of God’s call to you as speaker and/or hearer.


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