The Contextual Character of Knowledge

This book (or small library of books!), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) has been a huge help to me in the past four years (as I mentioned here a few years back).  This week, in my studies, I’ve been re-reading book 5 of this tome, Science and Hermeneutics by Vern Poythress (I also just set down his excellent The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses).  Here in chapter nine of Poythress’ contribution, he talks about the lessons we can learn from the fact that all our knowledge is contextual (i.e. theory and presupposition laden).  One specific lesson I appreciated was humility in Christian knowledge, or in my terms, epistemological humility.

“We must remember that, though the Bible is infallible, our own understanding of the Bible is not.  Hence some practice of critical self-doubt, in light of the Bible’s search-light, is in order.  As long as this doubting criticizes ourselves, rather than doubting God or doubting the Bible as God’s Word, we are acting in conformity with Christian standards” (p. 504).

This really has to do with Christian humility: now we see in a mirror dimly and know in part (1 Cor 13.12).  It has to do with pilgrim knowledge: we’re travelers on the way, learning as we go.  The gospel truth is not something we own, possess, or master, but an awesome announcement we trust in and try to live according to (and it keeps changing us!).  We’re pilgrims in via – the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

3 thoughts on “The Contextual Character of Knowledge”

  1. Ah! Poythress on hermeneutics is like a Jackson, MS winter–very enjoyable. That book was excellent, though he did leave questions left unanswered for me such as, “If we buy into Kuhnian thought applied to the hermeneutical task (as Poythress does), what justification can we give to arguing that our interpretation of Scripture is right (as opposed to probable). Note, this is the question he raises in 484, but does he answer it? I don’t find it. He notes that one interpretation is right because he believes in God, but the pink elephant in the room is how can a human have any certainty he is right about what God has said given Kuhnian thought? Silva similarly raises the same question in his first book, pages 82-87 in that volume, but similarly no answer given. This is for me something that MUST be addressed; and I don’t have the answer. There are other related questions such as, how do paradigm shifts (in theology) happen? Are they purely exegetical? etc…


    1. Excellent question, Michael. I suggest you read Poythress’ essay “Christ the Only Savior of Interpretation” which is posted on his website-

      Here is his concluding paragraph which directly answers your questions, both about objective interpretation and the source of the ultimate paradigm shift:

      “Just as there is no metaphysical interpretive standpoint free of the Lordship of God, and just as no moment in interpretation escapes his exhaustive mastery, so no human standpoint is free of the conflict of sin and redemption, and no moment in interpretation escapes the penetrating influence of our relation to Christ’s life, death and resurrection. There is no neutrality. There is no “objectivity” even, in the sense of which Enlightenment rationalism dreams. The only ultimate objectivity is also an exhaustively personal subjectivity, namely the eternal objective fact of intra-Trinitarian communion in truth, power, and personal fellowship. The only finite replicas of such objectivity are never to be found in the realm of the lie (John 8:44), but in the freedom of the sons of God. As we are subjectively indwelt by the the Spirit of truth, we bow before God’s majestic wisdom and drink our fill of the water of life flowing from the throne of the Lamb. Only through this deeply subjective experience do we have unfettered access to objective truth. All interpretation present and future is controlled by these realities.”


  2. I hear you, Michael. I did think the same thing, but wasn’t too troubled by it I suppose. I orginally read Vanhoozer’s “Is There a Meaning in this Text” at the same time as some of Poythress’ chapters, which is possibly why I wasn’t too disturbed.

    And thanks CW for the quote; stop by again sooner than later!



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