Friday, January 6, 2012

Surface-Level & Face-Value Interpretation

What’s the difference between a face-value and a surface-level interpretation of Scripture? These two terms are being used fairly regularly in eschatological interpretations. Mind you, their application appears be somewhat elastic and dependent upon which scriptures they’re applied to, and what outcomes the interpreter/critic is looking for.

Consider Rev 6:7-8. I would take the view that a face-value interpretation of this means one quarter of a segment will actually die of the four judgments. Moreover, I think this clearly demonstrates God’s wrath in action given that Christ releases the seal.

Not so says the person who thinks this is a surface-level interpretation of the text. He’ll point out that the verse only tells us “authority” is given to kill that number. Why the 4th horseman mightn’t exercise this authority to its fullest extent and how this number might relate to God’s wrath are questions that defy compelling answers. Of course, that view is expedient if your eschatological model needs a semblance of peace somewhere later in the 70th week (ignoring the 2nd seal).

I’ve seen similar departures from face-value readings to “deeper level” ones of other texts like John 14:2-3 and Rev 13:16-18 (there are others). For example, in the former the Father’s house is somewhere other than heaven and in the latter the Mark of the beast is actually “Bismillah” or “in the name of Allah”.

This brings me to the topic of hermeneutics. I was reading through The Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism by Robert L Thomas and it struck me why so many people may be identifying with PD. It allows them more flexibility in determining what a Scripture might be saying. Better yet they have more flexibility in making a set Scripture say something other than a face-value understanding, especially in using the NT to re-interpret the OT.

Perhaps I’m being too simplistic? Yet consider the following from Robert Thomas’ essay:

“Recent additions that differentiate the hermeneutics of PD from traditional dispensational hermeneutics include rhetorical and literary matters, the history of interpretation, the matter of tradition, and the historical context of the interpreter. The method advocates consideration of the problem of historical distance between the text and the interpreter, the role of the interpreter’s preunderstanding, and methodological applications of the hermeneutical spiral. In fact, Blaising and Bock in at least one place call the approach by the name “historical-grammatical-literary-theological,” which, of course, is more sophisticated and therefore quite different from simple grammatical-historical hermeneutics. It emphasizes the subjective element in its reasoning and hence is more provisional in its conclusions."

Later he clarifies this a little bit further:

“One principle that conspicuously distinguishes the two systems of interpretation relates to the role of the interpreter. Traditionally, the interpreter has sought to suppress any of his own viewpoints regarding what he thinks the passage should mean so as to allow the exegetical evidence from the passage under investigation to speak for itself.”

And note this:

“The hermeneutics of PD are a bold contrast to this principle of seeking objectivity through repression of one’s biases. Its relevant principle advocates the inclusion of one’s preunderstanding in the interpretive process as a starting point. Leaders in the movement pointedly advocate allowing one’s biblical theology and other elements of preunderstanding to influence interpretive conclusions.”

If Dr Thomas has presented the PD case accurately (he cites sources) I can see why that movement is gaining ground. To be fair, one should read the entire article and then see if there have been any PD objections or responses to it.

See also:

Paul Henebury - Progressive Dispensationalism and Normative Dispensationalism: Separate Hermeneutical Assumptions

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