Essays Hermeneutical Considerations

Is the Puritan Hermeneutic Adequate?

At this point in my studies I have the uneasy sensation that I have read more generalizations about the Puritans, than Puritans themselves. I suppose I have one distinction, in that I have read Cotton Mather’s book on natural philosophy. I also have the disagreeable feeling that perhaps my condition is rather more common than it should be: that too many of us have read more secondary literature than we have bothered to read source material. And this is a problem, because even good secondary literature (which can easily be a very small proportion of the secondary literature available) is rarely as good as the source –perhaps the most frequent type of occurrence comes in situations where something like Dryden’s Absalom and Achithophel provides the occasion for Dr. Johnson’s criticism of it in his Life of Dryden; that is to say, in cases where the criticism is rather more felicitous than the work criticized.

In order to this inquiry, however, I am afraid that I must base myself upon a generalization, in this case from J.I Packer’s article “The Puritans as Interpreters of Scripture”, to be found in Puritan Papers, volume 1, 1956-1959, pp.191-201.

Packer summarizes the Puritan approach by listing two presuppositions, and six rules.

The first presupposition is that the Bible is the word of God, with the several implications of that position. The second is that Scripture teaches us what to believe about God, and what God demands that we do (at this point Packer quotes WSC Q&A3).

Now follow six rules, in a series of couplets:

1. Interpret Scripture literally and grammatically (where he quotes the fine line from Durham “there is a great difference between an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and an interpretation of allegorical Scripture”).

2. Interpret Scripture consistently and harmonistically. Under this heading Packer gives a worthy quotation from Bridge:

You know how it was with Moses, when he saw two men fighting, one an Egyptian, and another an Israelite, he killed the Egyptian; but when he saw two Hebrews fighting, now, saith he, I will go and reconcile them, for they are brethren; why so, but because he was a good man, and gracious? So also it is with a gracious heart; when he sees the Scripture fighting with an Egyptian, an heathen author, or apocryphal, he comes and kills the heathen … the Egyptian, or the apocrypha; but when he sees two Scriptures at variance (in view, though in truth not), Oh, saith he, these are brethren, and they may be reconciled, I will labour all I can to reconcile them; but when a man shall take every advantage of seeming difference in Scripture, to say, Do ye see what contradictions there are in this book, and not labour to reconcile them; what doth this argue but that the corruption of a man’s nature is boiled up to an unknown malice against the word of the Lord; take heed therefore of that.

3. Interpret Scripture doctrinally and theocentrically. Scripture is didactic: and one of the fundamental thing it teaches is that God, and not we, are ultimate.

4. Interpret Scripture Christologically and evangelically. Here Packer gives Isaac Ambrose’s 8-point list of how Scripture is about Christ, which mentions types, covenant, promises, sacraments, genealogies, chronologies, law and gospel.

5. Interpret Scripture experimentally and practically. Scripture speaks to our experience and to our doing. [While on this subject, it should be noted that although it is possible to elevate this particular couplet (or part of it) above all other elements of Scripture, that we must not over-react and despise it: when all is said and done, would you draw your ideas of experience and duty from any other source? -RZ]

6. Interpret Scripture with a faithful and realistic application. In preaching the relevance of Scripture must be demonstrated and used.

And to bring these elements into the realm of one’s own Bible study, Packer lists these six questions:

1. What do these words actually mean?

2. What light do other Scriptures throw in this text? Where and how does it fit into the total Biblical revelation?

3. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?

4. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?

5. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?

6. How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation? To what present human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?

Now my own opinion is that those 6 couplets are pretty good, although 5 and 6 do seem to overlap to some extent. But it does seem necessary to add yet one more:

7. Interpret Scripture covenantally and eschatologically. I suppose there can be little doubt that with the first adverb in that couplet the Puritans would whole-heartedly agree: think of the massive quantities of treatises devoted precisely to the theme of the covenant of grace. As for the second, I am not so sure of the Puritan response. But I think that when you ask, “How is this part of Scripture contributory to the plan of God to manifest His sons and redeem creation?” — I say, when that question is raised, the answer necessarily involves the covenant, and at least begins to tell you what stage of the process that text is in. Which brings it back of course, to the point of interpreting Scripture consistently and harmonistically: of interpreting Scripture as a whole.

God has made a covenant, with a definite end in view: in order to understand His revelation, it is certainly at least desirable to keep this in mind. And so Packer’s summary of the Puritan hermeneutic may well function to aid us toward the better understanding of Scripture; but I think we are well served to add the final couplet, if not to our account of the Puritan hermeneutic itself, at least to our adaptation of it for our own use.

2 replies on “Is the Puritan Hermeneutic Adequate?”

Having outgrown the imperative to distrust anyone over 30, I now distrust anyone who hasn’t been dead at least 300 years.

But some Puritans assuredly are better than others.

No doubt. But I distrust anyone who didn’t die 400 years ago at the age of 29!

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