The Next Heresy

At critical times in church history, God has assembled His people to identify and repudiate the devil's latest doctrinal innovations. Acts 15 reports the first defining moment of this kind, when the church separated itself from Judaizers. There were many other defining moments during the early centuries of the church and again during the Reformation. The last, I believe, was almost a hundred years ago, when a wide range of Christian leaders contributed articles to the volumes known as The Fundamentals, which gave fundamentalism its name (1). These volumes affirmed true Christianity in distinction from the liberal and modernist counterfeit. Another minor defining moment occurred about thirty years ago when, partly through the influence of Harold Lindsell, many evangelical bodies declared inerrancy to be essential (2). (Fundamentalists were spared this moment because they had never admitted deniers of inerrancy to their ranks.)

We seem to be on the threshold of another defining moment. This time, the issue will be hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is that branch of Biblical studies which some of its practitioners style "the science of interpretation." Its pretense to be science has won it an undue measure of influence in the church, and this influence has not been helpful. Wherever the church is firmly committed to inerrancy, the devil has been using the latest fashions in hermeneutics to lure people into positions I can only describe as forms of intellectual schizophrenia—positions which say in essence that the Bible is true because we must believe it is true, but true only because it does not mean what it says. With respect to a wide range of issues, this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sort of hermeneutics has found ways of manipulating Scripture to suit contemporary thought.

Legitimate Hermeneutics

The following are some of the hermeneutical rules that have long been recognized as valid and necessary. Each demands that the interpretation of a text agree with an objective determinant of meaning.

Authorial intent. No reader has the right to impose his own ideas on the text. The only true meaning is what the author himself intended. This rule was first devised to combat allegorizing and other fanciful modes of interpretation which obscured rather than elucidated the sense of Scripture.

The single sense. The basic meaning of a passage is the single sense evident to any reader who allows the words their ordinary meanings and who expects the grammar and syntax to shape and combine these meanings in a normal fashion. We need not await a mystical revelation of a truer sense dependent on allusions hidden to ordinary readers, the numerical values of letters, esoteric definitions, or other mumbo jumbo. No spiritual application, typological analysis, or theology derived from the text is legitimate unless it is faithful to this single sense. In other words, no larger meaning may be construed which distorts what the words actually say.

This rule was first devised to combat medieval systems of interpretation which, upon dissection of a text, often found meanings that were alien to the natural meaning. The same rule remains valuable today as a check against any effort to treat Scripture as an occult writing. Yet the rule should not be applied indiscriminately, without recognition that Biblical writers may sometimes propound a riddle or engage in word play. In either instance the words may bear more than one basic meaning.

Context. The context of a passage may supply clues to the correct interpretation. Such clues may even clarify a passage that otherwise would be obscure. Many heretical doctrines violate this rule. For example, the Catholic teaching that Peter was the first pope appeals to Matthew 16:18. But in context, the rock is not Peter, but Christ.

The teaching of Scripture elsewhere. With regard to many passages that would be otherwise be obscure, Scripture illuminates itself. In general, the New Testament explains the Old. Without the New, we could not be confident that the Old contains types and allegories, and we would scarcely know how to interpret them.

A type is a person or event that pictures a person or event in the future. The New Testament informs us that Melchizedek is a type of Christ (Heb. 6:20-7:3). That Joshua the high priest is a symbol of the Branch—that is, Christ—is made plain even in the Old Testament (Zech. 3:8; "wondered at" can be translated "of symbol"), but only from the perspective of the New Testament do we understand the significance of his name, Joshua (that is, Jesus). The New Testament teaches that the rites of Mosaic religion furnish types of Christ's redemptive work (Heb. 9:8-9).

A factual account in which each element represents something beyond itself is a common species of allegory. Israel's escape from Egypt is an allegory of Christian experience (1 Cor. 10:1-6), and the struggle within Abraham's family between Hagar and Sarah is an allegory of the conflict between law and grace (Gal. 4:21-31). Another type of allegory hides spiritual truth in a plain statement about something else. Paul encourages us to see allegories in minor provisions of the Mosaic law (1 Cor. 9:9-10).

The literal sense. The Bible is to be taken literally unless it is using symbols or a figure of speech.

A figure of speech is an expression implying an idea other than what is actually stated. The most common kind of figure in Scripture is the metaphor, backbone of Hebrew poetry. No less than six metaphors occur in a single verse (Psa, 18:2). A metaphor speaks of an equivalence when there is no more than a resemblance. God is not a high tower; He merely in some ways resembles one.

Probably the clearest example of symbolism in Scripture is the mysterious drama in Revelation 12:1-6. Another clear example is the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23).

Illegitimate Hermeneutics

Fallacy: The possible sense of a passage is limited by the knowledge and capacity of the human author. An important corollary follows from restricting the sense to the author's own conceptions. According to Henry Krabbendam, "The recognition of the historical unfolding process ensures that the meaning of any biblical text will be established in the light of previous Scripture" (4). That he means "previous Scripture alone" is implied by his later assertion that "the meaning of the biblical text is determined by that text as addressed to and understood by its original audience" (5). According to Walter Kaiser, "The reader will notice that we have deliberately avoided all references to using later texts, such as the NT in order to interpret the OT . . . . We reject the all-too-prevalent practice of using the NT fulfillment as an 'open sesame' for OT predictions" (6).

Reply: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16). Although each text is stamped by the personality and style of the human author, the meaning transcends his finite limitations, for he is merely God's mouthpiece. God is the author we need to consider when we apply the rule of authorial intent. God was able to lead the human author to write about doctrine beyond his understanding and about future events beyond his historical imagination. One outstanding example is Isaiah's ability to name Cyrus as the deliverer of Israel (Isa. 44:28; 45:1).

It is true that a text generally conveys truth in language understandable to the original readers, familiar only with prior revelation. Yet a text may also convey truth intelligible only in the light of later revelation. It has always seemed obvious to believers that the New Testament offers itself as the interpreter of the Old. Without the New Testament, what sense could anyone make of Moses' lifting up the pole in the wilderness or of numerous other pictures of Christ and His redemptive work?

Fallacy: The literal meaning of the text is the only meaning. In other words, the single sense permitted by the ordinary meanings of words must always be understood literally.

Reply: While no hermeneutical scholar would purge all larger meanings from the Bible (for example, it is obvious from the context that the beasts in Dan. 7:1-8 signify something beyond themselves), students too often come away from rudimentary instruction in hermeneutics with the idea that no text has any significance beyond the literal meaning. Writers on hermeneutics do little to dispel this confusion. Indeed, they augment this confusion in two ways:

  1. They are in the habit of inveighing against multiple meanings. Often quoted are the following words attributed to that giant among the Puritans, John Owen, "If the Scripture has more than one meaning, it has no meaning at all." But anyone misled by this quotation to think that Owen was on the side of modern hermeneutics should look at his introduction to James Durham's commentary on the Song of Solomon. Like Durham, Owen regards the Song as an allegory depicting the love between Christ and His Church. "The more general persuasion of learned men is, that the whole is one holy declaration of that mystically spiritual communion, that is between the great Bridegroom and his Spouse, the Lord Christ and his church . . . ; so the safe rules of attending to the true meaning of the original words, the context of the discourse, the nature of the allegorical expressions . . . , the analogy of faith, by collation with other scriptures, and the experience of believers in common, will through the supply and assistance of the Spirit . . . lead humble and believing enquirers, into such acquaintance with the mind of God, in the several particulars of it, as may tend to their own, and others', edification" (7).
  2. Some writers mask their acceptance of multiple meanings by treating any larger meaning found in the text as a component of the single sense. Kaiser's handling of prophecy furnishes an example of this procedure: "God gave the prophets . . . a vision . . . of the future in which the recipient saw as intimate parts of one meaning the word for his own historical day with its needs . . . and that word for the future" (8). Yet the meaning of any abstract idea is componential. Also, any set of meanings can be synthesized into a new meaning. Therefore, the question as to the number of meanings in any expression of language is ultimately, pardon the expression, meaningless. There are as many meanings as we wish, depending on how finely we divide them or how completely we join them. This plasticity in the number of meanings wherever we look is responsible for the two main tendencies of philosophy—monism (the belief that all reality is essentially one thing) and positivism (the belief that we can have certain knowledge of nothing save fragmentary sense data). Either brand of philosophy is false, of course, because meaning is not the same as reality. I can think of two trees as of one kind, but still there are in reality two trees. I can think of one tree in terms of its many constituent parts, but still there is in reality only one tree.

A student indoctrinated in the idea that Scripture has only a single sense is likely to be prejudiced against the discovery of larger meanings. These are often seen as reading too much into the text. But the same God who wrote the Bible also packed many of the key numerical concepts of mathematics into the small equation e (exp iπ) = -1 and all the design specifications of the human body into a single molecule of DNA.

Fallacy: Hermeneutics is a science. Elliott E. Johnson says, "Hermeneutics is frequently defined as the science of textual interpretation of the Bible" (9). "This science is called 'hermeneutics,'" according to Krabbendam (10). Bernard Ramm offers a more modest definition. "Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation" (11).

Reply: No accepted definition of science can be stretched so far as to cover any form of Bible study. Interpreting the Bible according to a set of rules is less similar to science than to baking a cake with the help of a recipe or to filling out an income tax form. The motive behind the claim that hermeneutics is a science is probably twofold: to steal a little luster from true science, and to bolster the pretense that the results of hermeneutics are as assured as the results of true science.

Yet no man-made system of Biblical interpretation can guarantee access to the mind of God. If it could, then any unregenerate reader would be able to understand Scripture as well as any believer. But Scripture must be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:10-16). Enthusiasts for hermeneutics nevertheless claim, "It must be conceded that an ignorant Christian is no match for a learned unbeliever" (12). The best way to rebut this view is to consider specific doctrines. How many well-tutored but unbelieving Bible students can find the Trinity in the Bible? For that matter, how many can find the full deity of Christ or the Millennium?

Having masqueraded as science, modern hermeneutics uses its stolen prestige for no good. It undermines the basis of important Bible doctrines, mutes the supernatural in Bible prophecy, attacks the accuracy of Bible history, revises Bible ethics, and tightly fetters the application of practical Bible teaching.


  1. R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon, et al., eds., The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, 4 vols. (Los Angeles: Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1917; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988).
  2. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).
  3. Henry Krabbendam, "Scripture Twisting," in The Agony of Deceit, ed. Michael Horton (Chicago: Moody Press, ?), 70.
  4. Ibid., 75.
  5. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 70.
  6. John Owen, "To the Christian Reader," in An Exposition of the Song of Solomon, by James Durham (repr., Minneapolis, Minn.: Klock and Klock Christian Publishers, 1981), 21-22.
  7. Kaiser, 29.
  8. Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 8.
  9. Krabbendam, 63.
  10. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1970), 1.
  11. Bernard L. Ramm, "Biblical Interpretation," in Hermeneutics, by Bernard Ramm et al. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987), 18.