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NT 993 Hermeneutical Foundations

Vern Sheridan Poythress, spring, 2017

Course Syllabus

  1. Introduction

    1. Methods and purpose

      1. Here is the catalog description: Purpose: to evaluate and reform views on foundational issues in hermeneutics. Topics covered include the role of hermeneutics; the nature of meaning; divine authorship; grammatical-historical method; the problem of historical relativity; problems of circularity; incompleteness, probability; and the work of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics.

      2. This course contains various topics in the foundations of hermeneutics. We concentrate mainly on three areas, presuppositions (part II), meaning (part III), and part-and-whole (part IV). Each of these areas will be covered by assigned readings and classroom lectures. Seminar presentations may touch on one or more of the areas at once.

      3. Purpose: evaluate and reform views on foundational issues of hermeneutics.

      4. In the nature of the case, since we are working more on the borders of knowledge, there will be some loose ends in the organizational structure.

      5. The value of the course

        1. Much of the course is concerned with more theoretical issues; there may not be a lot of practical nuts-and-bolts type of discussion.

        2. We will learn something about how to think about hermeneutical and philosophical issues, so that you will be better equipped to meet new issues which none of us can now anticipate.

        3. We will be meditating on the wisdom of God in the structuring of the hermeneutical process. We want to understand the complexity of his ways in creating and providentially sustaining human beings.

        4. The course contributes to the learning goals set out in the catalog for the Ph.D. program, as follows:

(1) Demonstrate a breadth of knowledge in the chosen field of study and cognate fields. [for this course, knowledge of issues in hermeneutical foundations.]

(2) Demonstrate the ability to engage in original research and produce a piece of original work which contributes to the student’s chosen discipline. [through the required paper.]

(3) Demonstrate a sense of and commitment to the vocation of theological education. [issues treated in this course impinge on students that you will teach.]

(4) Demonstrate, in addition to the Greek and Hebrew prerequisites, a working knowledge of two modern languages to assist the student in scholarly competence and research. [in your paper, utilize Greek and Hebrew where appropriate, and resources in French and German where appropriate.]


      1. Office hours

Office hours will be announced in class. I can be contacted by email ( or phone (work 215-572-3820; home 215-885-7785). 
      1. Extra discussion sessions

For the sake of allowing further opportunity for interaction, there will be three optional discussion sessions, in addition to the regular class meetings.

    1. Reading

Readings with an asterisk should be read first for a general orientation. Then follow up with as many others as you have time for. Readings in brackets are optional.
      1. Presuppositions

Read Packer, then Van Til, then Berger-Luckmann. Become familiar with Frame.

Week one: Packer, Van Til, Frame.

Week two: Berger-Luckmann.
Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

[Braaten, Carl E. History and Hermeneutics. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966. Pp. 130-49.]

Frame, John M. Perspectives on the Word of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990. See the material on normative, existential, and situational perspectives on pp. 37-56.

Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987.

Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Word of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010.

[Gaffin, Richard B. “Contemporary Hermeneutics and the Study of the New Testament,” WTJ 31 (1968-69) 129-44.

*Packer, James I. “Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics,” in Scripture and Truth, 325-356.

Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974. Chaps. 6-12.

Van Til, Cornelius. Why I Believe in God. Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education of the OPC. N.d.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of ‘Aesthetic’ Theology,” Trinity Journal 8 NS (1987) 25-56.

      1. Meaning

        1. Authorial intention. Week 3.

[Lundin, Roger, Anthony C. Thiselton, and Clarence Walhout. The Responsibility of Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

*Hirsch, Eric Donald. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale, 1967.

Ellis, John M. The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis. Berkeley: University of California, 1974. Pp. 104-154, with special attention to pp. 124-133.

Hoy, David Couzens. The Critical Circle: Literature, History, and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Pp. 11-40.

[Juhl, P. D. Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1980.]

        1. Gadamer and the hermeneutical tradition in continental philosophy. Week 4.

*Hoy, David. The Critical Circle. Pp. 41-72, 101-130. All of Hoy is relevant.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard, 1980. Pp. vii, 1-17, 303-371.

*Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1979. Pp. 315-389.

Scholes, Robert. Semiotics and Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. Pp. 6-16.

        1. More complex expositions of Gadamer’s concerns

[Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Seabury, 1975.]

[Thiselton, Anthony. The Two Horizons. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.]

        1. My response. Week 5.

[Poythress, Vern S. God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1999).]

*Poythress, Vern S. “God’s Lordship in Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 50 (1988) 27-64.

Poythress, Vern S. “Christ the Only Savior of Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal, 50 (1988) 305-321.

      1. Divine authorship, canon, sensus plenior, and use of the OT in the NT. Week 7.

*Bock, Darrell. “Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New,” Bibliotheca Sacra 142 (1985) 209-223.

Oss, Douglas A. “Canon as Context: The Function of Sensus Plenior in Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Grace Theological Journal 9:1 (1988) 105-127.

Poythress, Vern S. “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986) 241-279.

    1. Grading

You are to give a seminar presentation and write one major paper on any topic touching the foundations of hermeneutics. The paper is due May 12, 2017, at 4:30 p.m. (Note that this is not the time given in the Westminster Catalog as the final limit for papers.) Most of your topics will relate more closely to some one of the three major areas of the course, namely presuppositions, meaning, and divine authorship.

I recommend seizing for discussion one point in the apologetic/hermeneutical area, systematic theology, biblical theology, or exegesis. You may examine a single biblical text, a doctrinal issue, a biblical theme within a single book or the whole Bible, or one of the positions in philosophical hermeneutics (e.g., Hirsch, Gadamer, Habermas, Wittgenstein, Fish, Iser, Derrida). Critically analyze your issue, explore it as a problem, or attempt to see all truth in the light of it. I expect all your presentations and papers not only to represent competent scholarly work on the chosen topic, but to show some decisive influence from hermeneutical self-consciousness, that is, consciousness of the bearing of presuppositions (including hermeneutical circles), meaning, part-and-whole, and/or the interface of theology with exegesis.

Don’t merely muster facts or survey the past, but make a distinctive contribution of your own. I do not require exhaustive bibliographies, but you might find it useful to prepare a selective bibliography in connection with your seminar presentation, and to distribute copies at the beginning of your presentation. I desire clarity, cogency, and profundity.

Doug Oss and Eddie Johnston have written papers that have now been published (see bibliography). Some other sample topics:

      1. Critical analyses of hermeneutical thinkers and schools.

        1. Liberationist

“Interpretation of the Exodus in Liberation Theology,” “An Evaluation of Jorge Pixley’s Liberation Theology,” “The Liberation Christology of Leonardo Boff,” "A Critical Analysis of Minjung Theology: Discussion of its Hermeneutical Foundations."
        1. Feminist

“Reader Preunderstanding in Feminist and Womanist Interpretation,” “The Feminist Theology of Phyllis Trible: Description and Analysis,” "The Hermeneutics of Depatriarchalization,"
        1. Habermas.

“Jürgen Habermas and Presuppositional Apologetics,”
        1. Contextualization.

“The Hermeneutical Framework of Charles Kraft’s Dynamic Equivalence Model,” "A Balance between Antithesis and Synthesis in Contextualization of Biblical Message in Chinese Culture,"
        1. Hirsch.

“Meaning, Significance and Application: A Critique of Hirsch,”
        1. Gadamer.
          "Counseling as a Hermeneutical Activity: Appropriating Hans-Georg Gadamer's Notion of Understanding," "Gadamer and Biblical Hermeneutics."

        2. Fish. “Jonah as a Test Case for Assessing the Role of Interpretive Communities,” "'Fish'-y Business: Presuppositions, Propositional Truth, and Eschatology in a Pluralistic Age,"

        3. Deconstruction

“Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction: Multiperspectivalism Gone to Seed,” "Deconstruction of Genesis 1:1-3:24: A Case for a Deconstructive Reading in Biblical Criticism," "Theistic versus Anti-theistic Perspectival Theories: Tagmemics, the Van Til School, and Nietzsche,"
        1. Other.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses and Biblical Interpretation,” “Hermeneutics in the Context of Pluralism: An Analysis of the Work of David Tracy,” “Scientific Revolutions & Christian Conversion: A Comparison of Thomas Kuhn with the Reformed Doctrine of Salvation,” "Hermeneutics of Howard C. Kee," "Incredulity Toward Modernity: Hermeneutical Implications in the Work of John Franke," "A Study and Critique of Ecology and Norman C. Habel's Ecological Hermeneutics: Genesis 1:26-28 as a Test Case,"
      1. Critical analyses of biblical interpreters.

“Frame and Van Til on Analogical Knowledge,” “Looking at the Hermeneutics of a Covenant Theologian: A Review of O. P. Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants,” “An Analysis of John Elliott’s Sociological Approach to I Peter for the Evangelical Interpreter,” “Some Hermeneutical Considerations of Walter Kaiser,” “The Doctrine of Assurance as Articulated and Defended by Zane C. Hodges: Some Hermeneutical Reflections,” “Jay Adams’ Biblical Basis for Habituation: A Case Study of the Hermeneutical Spiral,” "Clarity and Continuity in Kingdom Theology: Some Hermeneutical Issues in Alva J. McClain's The Greatness of the Kingdom," "A Critical Analysis of the Hermeneutical Methods of James B. Jordan," "The 'Boundary-Markers' of the NPP: The Hermeneutics of the New Perspective on Paul with Special Reference to 'The Works of the Law,'" "Hermeneutics of Joel Osteen,"
      1. Global issues in biblical interpretation.

“Meaning in the New Testament” [relevance of OT background], “The ‘Analogy of Faith’ and Exegetical Methodology,” “Evangelical Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation [Recent Developments in Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology],” “Hermeneutics, Application Process, and Old Testament Narrative,” “Limitations of Narrative Criticism Methodology for Biblical Studies,” “The Use of the ‘Implied Reader’ Concept in the Interpretation of Narrative Texts,” “Sensus Plenior and the Single-Meaning Hermeneutic,” “The Nature and Normativity of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament: An Analysis of Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period,” “Hermeneutics and Outlines of Books of the Bible,” "The Implications of Van Til's 'Limiting Concepts' on Biblical Hermeneutics: General and Special Revelation as a Test Case," "Paul's Doctrine of Justification in Light of the Old Testament," "Literary Allusion: A Hermemeutical Problem of Theory and Definition in Biblical Studies,"
      1. Issues in systematic theology.

“The Place of Scripture in the Christian Case on Abortion” [interaction of exegesis, systematics, and general revelation], “Law Ethics vs. Freedom Ethics: Hermeneutics and the Unity of Scripture” [interaction with Jacques Ellul], “Hermeneutical Foundations and Perspectives on Infant Baptism,” "Is That What the Priesthood of All Believers Means? Some Hermeneutical Considerations of Doug Pagitt's Interpretation of the Doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers as it Pertains to Pastoral Preaching,"
      1. Book-sized focus.

“Interpreting Canticles,” “How to Read Proverbs: A Search for the Proper Place of Proverbs in Old Testament Theology,” “The Hermeneutical Issues Involved in the Use of the Comparative Method in Wisdom Literature,” “Theonomy and Paul’s Understanding of the Law according to the Book of Acts—An Analysis of the Effects of Theological Paradigms in Biblical Exegesis,” “Reading Ecclesiastes in the Light of the Hermeneutics of E. D. Hirsch and Hans-Georg Gadamer,” “The Hermeneutic Foundation of Bultmann: His Interpretation of Christology of John,” “How to Interpret the Confessions of Jeremiah,” "The Historical Reconstruction of the Johannine Community: An Epistemological Evaluation of J. Louis Martyn's 'Two-Level' Reading of the Fourth Gospel,"
      1. Passages.

“Motive, Method, and Model: Galatians 4:21-31 and Hermeneutics,” “Non-Literal Language, Symbolism, Typology, and the Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” “Interpretation of 2 Cor 3: The Relation of Old and New Covenants and the ‘Veil,’ ” “Jonathan Edwards vs. John Taylor on Romans 5:12,” “Interpretive Issues in Daniel 11,” “Born of Water and Spirit—Is John 3:5 Sacramental?” “Some Thoughts on Language, Meaning, and Genesis 1,” “The Identification of the Harlot City of Revelation 17-18 with Jerusalem in Recent Reconstructionist and Restorationist Interpretations of the Apocalypse,” “Folklore and Creation: The Approach of Susan Niditch to Gen 1-3,” “Interpretation of Ps 8: Rabbinic and Christological Approaches,” “Lot as Hero in 2 Peter: Later Depictions of Old Testament Figures,” " 'And the Word Became Flesh ...': John 1:14-18 and its Implications for Old Testament Interpretation," "Why Sodom and Gomorrah Were Destroyed: What Does the Biblical Text Say to Us?" "A Hirschian Approach to Matthew 5:21-22, Followed by a Discussion of the Merits and Deficiencies in Hirsch's Approach to Meaning," "Evangelical Blind Spots? Analysis and a Test Case in Exodus 24-25," "The Identity of the 'I' in Romans 7:14-25: Identity Impasse or Symphonic Opportunity?"
      1. Other

“The Meaning of ‘Messiah’: Recent Interpretations and Their Hermeneutical Method,”

Because of the way in which the fundamental issues of hermeneutics arise in this course, matters of contextualization and the relation of biblical truth to various cultures of the world are within the scope of the paper topics.

If you have trouble finding a topic or have doubts whether a desired topic is suitable, come see me and I can probably give immediate approval or disapproval or suggestions for fiddling with a topic to make it interact more closely with the concerns of the course.

Please include your mailbox number with your name on the paper.

In accordance with the guidelines for the honor system at Westminster Theological Seminary, you are asked to write out and sign this pledge at the end of the paper: “I understand and have not violated the Seminary’s position on plagiarism.” Many of you are already careful in this area, but some, particularly those coming from educational systems in other countries, may have to learn new habits. If you are not sure about this, consult the statement on plagiarism at and my course syllabus for NT 123. If necessary, talk to students who have experience with these standards already. A paper guilty of plagiarism will receive a grade of F.

Before Mar. 13, please submit to me (either in class or in my WTS mailbox) a 3 X 5 card with (a) your name, (b) the course number (NT 993), and (c) a tentative topic for your seminar presentation and paper. On the basis of these cards I will inform you (at the first class meeting after Mar. 13) of the time for your seminar presentation. If at a later time you wish to change topics radically, please inform me.

I would like to encourage class interaction in the form of questions, comments, and discussion. Such interaction is appropriate during the lecture part of the course, but even more so for the seminar presentations. For the sake of objectivity, as well as because not all types of people are equally comfortable in “volunteering” comments and discussion, I do not propose to use this participation as a weighty element in the final grade. However, I reserve the right to use my impressions of classroom participation to decide boundary-line cases in grading.

    1. Background

      1. I expect people in this course to have familiarity with several broad areas that tend to be presupposed in a good deal of the discussion. If you do not have much background in most of these areas, maybe you shouldn’t be taking the course yet. Or if you do take the course nonetheless, you will be expected to remedy the lack early on in the course by doing extra reading.

      2. Apologetics

Be familiar with the general thinking of Van Til in apologetics and the way that Frame has developed applications of Van Til more directly in the area of systematic theology. Have some acquaintance with the Reformed world and life view.
      1. Systematic theology

I would like you to be familiar with the contents of Reformed theology as presented (say) in Louis Berkhof, or at the least, the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
      1. Be familiar with Frame’s work on the doctrine of the word of God and epistemology (knowledge of God).

      2. Biblical theology

Know about the centrality of Christ in Scripture, inspiration, redemptive history, and the basic role of language in interpretation (contents of NT 123).

    1. Grading guidelines

Here are criteria for grading.
A An outstanding and thoughtful piece of work, showing evidence of superior research, judiciously weighing alternative interpretations, presenting evidence and arguments, and discussing contexts appropriately and thoroughly. The student has shown insights which are well-supported by cogent and profound arguments.

B A standard, good piece of work which fulfills the assignment and shows a good grasp of the basic principles. There is substantial evidence of ability to do research on the topic, analyze, weigh options, present evidence, and utilize skills and ideas developed in the course.

C This work is satisfactory but is lacking in a significant area and does not show a grasp of some basic principles.

D There are serious problems with this work, though it is still passable. It represents a poor performance in comprehending the topic and meeting the requirements in analyzing it in context; it only meets the minimal standard of the professor.

F This work is unacceptable and fails to meet the requirements of the assignment.
In addition, I have found helpful John Frame's triad of criteria: cogency, clarity, and profundity.

  1. Presuppositions in hermeneutics

    1. General goals

    2. The general problem posed by background influences on interpretation.

    3. Particular examples of problems

      1. Rom 7:14-25.

      2. Postmillennialism

      3. Baptism

      4. Pentecostalism.

      5. Arminianism.

    4. A survey and classification of various limitations on human knowledge in interpretation

    5. Theory of epistemological limits

    6. The question of cultural relativity (and contextualization of theology)

    7. Options in the history of apologetics

    8. Some examples of problems in church history

  1. The nature of meaning

    1. The difficulty of delineating the boundaries of meaning in interpretation

      1. An example: Ps 69:21 (MT 69:22)

      2. Types of questions that this example raises.

      3. Larger issues

        1. The nature of OT fulfillment in the NT and beyond

          1. Mal 4:5 vs. Matt 11:10-15
          2. Acts 2:16-24 vs. Joel 2:28-32
          3. Heb 8:8-13 and 10:16-18
          4. Isa 65:17-25 and Zech 14 as fulfilled now or in the future.
        2. The use of charismatic exegesis and prophecy in the present day.

        3. The involvement of the authority of the church in connection with sensus plenior.

        4. Do we delay application until a second stage, after propositional content in determined by a supposedly neutral scientific exegesis?

      4. Need for a rich view of language and communication in dealing with biblical texts.

        1. Understanding as knowing the mind of the human author: Paul in Romans 1-8. (note Hirsch)

        2. Understanding as knowing the content of a text: anonymous writings like Hebrews and Judges. (note new criticism)

        3. Understanding as personal appropriation: the psalms. (note Fish)

        4. Communication as statement of propositional truths: Paul’s letters. (note Hirsch)

        5. Communication as transformation of the reader: (note Gadamer)

          1. Reformation of the reader: 2 Sam 12 and Jesus’ parables.
          2. Sifting readers: Mark 4:3-20.
          3. Involvement in a story (biblical narrative).
          4. Communication as self-expression: Psalm 6. (note romantic hermeneutics)

      1. The difficulties of evangelicals.

    1. Need for biblically based metaphysics

      1. The Bible attacks the idea of self-sufficient substance in Acts 17:28; Col 1:17; and Heb 1:3.

      2. Thinking in terms of underlying essences or substances, whose nature would just be there like brute fact, goes back to Aristotle with the idea of substance as eternal and uncreated. Hence we suspect that all such thinking is infected with denial of creation.

      3. Van Til and others show that sin can infect us subtly, unconsciously, and socially. What we have received from Christian teachers is not immune, because they too are fallen.

      4. Van Til argues that facts and knowledge are radically influenced by religious worship.

    1. The beginnings of biblically based metaphysics

      1. See Poythress, “The Supremacy of God in Interpretation,” for fuller development.

      2. Origins

      3. The question of author, text, and reader.

      4. The question of communication as informative, conative, and expressive.

      5. The question of narrow sense and larger significance (or application).

      6. Idolatry corrupts our understanding in these matters, because the true God is no longer worshiped. Typically, we exalt one element at the expense of others.

    1. Definitions of meaning.

      1. Frame’s list of theories of meaning

      2. My response

      3. Ways in which there is some validity in all of these for human speech.

      4. Ways in which the above analyses are valid for divine communication.

    1. Preliminary critical analyses of three views of meaning

      1. Analysis of later Wittgenstein’s view of meaning: pragmatic meaning against the context of “form of life”

        1. Not a comprehensive analysis, for which I am not prepared

        2. Summary

        3. What does Van Tilian analysis say?

      2. Analysis of Gadamer’s view of meaning: the arising of meaning in the fusion of historic horizons

        1. Summary

        2. Van Tilian analysis

      3. Analysis of Betti, Hirsch, and Altieri’s view of meaning: the replication of a rule-based type

        1. Summary

        2. Van Tilian analysis

    2. Resolving the difficulties in an enrichment

      1. Developing a theory of meaning

        1. It is hard to do this without begging questions or without immediately orienting oneself to trying to enter the current debate, and possibly getting caught in some of its problematics.

        2. One crucial question is the area of background framework.

        3. What aspect of communication will one focus on?

      2. A Christian approach to a theory of meaning

        1. Looking at divine meaning

        2. The tabernacle as illustration of these three

        3. Enlargements of meaning taking into account impact and significance

          1. “meaning” is static, propositional truth (e.g., tabernacle says that God is present by sacrifice overcoming sin).
          2. “impact” is dynamic development in actually communicating truth via the discourse. There is progressive absorption. The word of God comes with power to transform. For example, the insufficiency of animal sacrifice may dawn only gradually.

Note cases of “double-take.” Jer 13:12. The “righteous” in Luke 15:7. Perhaps progressive revision in one’s ideas about the fulfillment of prophecies.

Note also the difference:

“He is sincere.”

“Doubtless he is sincere.”

          1. “significance” is the relation to other things. The tabernacle is related to heaven, Edem, the consummation (Rev 22:1ff), the temple of Solomon. Applications consist in relating it to ourselves. “Do not steal” applies to the particular case of cheating on income tax, even though income tax was not immediately in view.
      1. God’s speech

      2. God as affirmer of human meaning

      3. A construal of Hirsch (following Juhl)

      4. A construal of Gadamer, Fish, and Wittgenstein

      5. Overview

  1. Biblical meaning

    1. Issues to bear in mind concerning human authorship

    2. Dual authorship (divine and human)

    3. More precise formulation

    4. Examples

    5. Historicity of meaning

  1. Exploring implications and ramifications of these foundations

    1. Applications to particular texts

    2. Some crucial doctrines developed with a view to their contribution to interpretation

      1. The doctrine of God

      2. The doctrine of man

      3. The doctrine of language

    3. Apologetics in interpretation (worldviews)

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