Interpreting Creation, Part 4: Hermeneutical Principles

Interpreting Creation, Part 4: Hermeneutical Principles

We affirm the harmony of special with general revelation and therefore of biblical teaching with the facts of nature

Both friends and adversaries raise questions about Reasons To Believe’s apologetics methods and hermeneutical principles. This five-part series has been intended to address those questions.

In part 1, I reviewed the different apologetics methods Christian leaders use and explained why I believe all these methods need to be fully integrated in apologetics and evangelism ministries. In part 2, I described four different classes of models used for dealing with science-faith issues and explained which one we employ at Reasons To Believe (RTB) and why. In part 3, I reviewed the origin, history, and impact of the biblical testing method. I also elucidated how our RTB scholar team uses this method to build our testable biblical creation model.

In the remaining two posts I will describe 16 hermeneutical (interpretive) principles we use at RTB to deal with science-faith issues and how we use those principles to build upon and test our biblical creation model.

1. Perspicuity Hermeneutic. There are two foundational principles that produce the framework for the perspicuity (clarity) hermeneutic. The first states that the Bible is clear in its communication. That is, when it comes to the matters the Bible is most concerned to communicate—especially those pertaining to salvation and an eternal relationship with the Creator—it is not ambiguous, incomplete, or in any way esoteric in its communication. Any reader intent on receiving and submitting to biblical instruction will experience no difficulty in understanding what the biblical texts are saying on these topics.

The second principle instructs Bible-readers to use the perspicuous (clear) parts of the Bible to guide their understanding of the less descriptive, more peripheral, and, therefore, less clearly communicated passages. Christians have long practiced the perspicuity hermeneutic and placed it within some creedal statements, at least as it pertains to the Bible.1 However, the Belgic Confession’s two books doctrine (article 2, founded on Psalm 19) implies that the same principle applies to God’s revelation in nature. Thus, RTB employs the perspicuity hermeneutic in both our theological and scientific research.

RTB also follows the lead of articles 20 and 21 of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI):

We affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations.
We deny that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.

We affirm the harmony of special with general revelation and therefore of biblical teaching with the facts of nature.
We deny that any genuine scientific facts are inconsistent with the true meaning of any passage of Scripture.   

In other words, for some subjects the Bible offers greater completeness and clarity than does nature’s record, while for other subjects, nature will provide the greater completeness and clarity.

Because both the Bible and nature are revelations from God, for whom it is impossible to lie or deceive, they are each totally reliable and trustworthy. Neither the book of Romans nor the book of Hebrews holds priority over the other because both are the perfect Word of God; likewise neither the book of nature nor the book of Scripture holds supremacy over the other because both are the perfect revelation from God. (This conclusion in no way challenges sola Scriptura. In stating that the Bible is the only authoritative revelation from God, the framers of sola Scriptura understood that authority demands direct, rather than indirect, communication from a person, or, to put it another way, propositional verbal communication.) 

Though both “books” are perfect revelations from God, they do sometimes address different topics and provide different content. Consequently, there will situations where Scripture will clarify what the record of nature teaches, and at times the facts of nature will clarify what the Bible teaches.

The ICBI spent 10 years researching and articulating the hermeneutical principles undergirding the doctrine of biblical inspiration. During that time, the ICBI published two lengthy books2 that carefully define what biblical inerrancy is and is not, as well as describe and defend the hermeneutics of biblical inerrancy. RTB agrees with and endorses all the affirmation and denial statements published in those two books. 

2. Simplicity Hermeneutic. This interpretative principle is similar to the perspicuity hermeneutic. It states that complex, intellectually challenging, and frequently disputed issues are to be interpreted in the light of more relevant issues that are simple, well understood, and beyond reasonable dispute or debate.

3. Larger Context Hermeneutic. This interpretative principle is a corollary to the previous two. The larger context for any subject in either Scripture or nature should serve as a guide and boundary conditions for research into the finer details and sub-disciplines. Take, for example, God’s descriptions of the leviathan and behemoth in Job 40–41. In the larger context of Job 38–42, the passages in question can be interpreted in terms of the challenge of taming a proud, rebellious human heart.

4. Language Scope Hermeneutic. The original languages used in the recording of Scripture include Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Except for a few chapters in Daniel and Ezra and a single sentence in Jeremiah recorded in Aramaic, the Old Testament is written in ancient Hebrew. The entire New Testament is written in koine Greek.

Like all languages, each biblical language possesses strengths and weaknesses. Given that God chose communicate special revelation through these languages, we would expect Him to inspire the Bible authors to take full advantage of each language’s strengths and to minimize or compensate for weaknesses. Thus, better interpretations will be those that most correctly take into account the scope of each biblical language.

This hermeneutical principle applies in a similar way to the different scientific disciplines. Each area of scientific study has its research strengths and weaknesses. The best interpretations of nature will be those that perform well in taking into account the specific strengths and weakness of each discipline or sub-discipline.

5. Didactic Hermeneutic. Certain portions of Scripture are primarily didactic; that is, their primary intent is to provide instruction. Such instruction typically includes teaching about doctrines, God’s attributes and character, God’s plans and directives, Christian living, building relationships with God and others, and fulfilling God’s commands.

Didactic Scripture is written in both prose and poetry. While it is more challenging to compose didactic poetry in the English language, biblical Hebrew is well suited for it. For example, the poetry portions of Isaiah contain the most explicit and complete instructive teaching on the doctrine of the trinity in the Old Testament. Consequently, RTB scholars give equal weight to prosaic and poetic didactic biblical texts. For interpretative purposes, neither biblical poetry nor biblical prose is considered to have priority over the other.

Texts that describe narrative, provide illustrations and examples, tell parables, give metaphors, and list genealogies complement the instructive passages. The didactic hermeneutic declares that all such texts must be consistent with and interpreted in the light of the didactic parts of the Bible. Concerning creation theology, Reasons To Believe’s position is that didactic creation texts hold the keys to correct interpretation of the narrative creation accounts.

6. Multi-purpose Hermeneutic. The English language Bible contains just under 800,000 words. Given everything it is intended to communicate, Scripture is remarkably compact. The multi-purpose hermeneutic recognizes the Bible’s brevity demands that virtually every chapter and verse serve myriad communicative purposes. Therefore, Reasons To Believe scholars are never satisfied with gleaning just one message or conclusion from a biblical text. In our biblical studies we expect to uncover many different themes, messages, exhortations, and conclusions from a single chapter, even from a single paragraph.

This multi-purpose communication is especially evident in the biblical creation texts. Genesis 1, for example, is not just a chronology of physical creation events. It also:

  • Deals with how, when, and why God creates
  • Speaks to both the extent and the duration of God’s creative activity on Earth
  • Addresses the nature of God—His transcendence, His immanence, and especially His triunity of persons and essence
  • Functions as a polemic against the Near and Middle-Eastern creation myths prevalent in Abraham’s and Moses’ eras
  • May reflect upon the heavenly creation
  • Addresses humanity’s responsibility before God to populate the planet and manage all its resources responsibly
  • Establishes the principle of the Sabbath
  • Lays out a hierarchy of three different kinds of life on Earth (physical, “soulish,” and spiritual)
  • Illustrates the biblical testing method (a.k.a. the scientific method)

In all likelihood, the human investigator can draw out even more from the few words recorded in Genesis 1. Who knows how much more the Creator intends to reveal to us through His holy Word in Genesis 1?

There is a widespread fear in the church today of reading so much content and instruction from the pages of the Bible that we will face difficulty in defending it from secular critique. Such fear has spawned a minimalist hermeneutic, an interpretation of the Bible that seeks to draw out from Scripture as little content and instruction as possible. Among other dilemmas, this hermeneutic ends up portraying God as a Being who veils, rather than reveals, Himself to humanity.

Especially with respect to the biblical creation texts, the multi-purpose hermeneutic challenges us to be men and women of courage and students of the Word. We are to be ready at all times in all circumstances to give reasons for our faith in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior.3 The multi-purpose revelation of Scripture provides Christian apologists with many more opportunities to share their faith and many more prospects to research and develop new reasons to believe.

In promoting a multi-purpose hermeneutic, there will always be the risk of reading more into the biblical text than the text actually warrants. However, it is better to overreach once in awhile and humbly pull back than to never explore the frontiers of biblical revelation and discover what new things God wants us to learn, understand, and apply.

Next week I’ll conclude this series with another 10 hermeneutical principles.

  1. An example is The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter I, part VII.
  2. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, eds., Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Academie Books, 1984); Kenneth S. Kantzer, ed., Applying the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Academie Books, 1987).
  3. 1 Peter 3:15.