God’s Gift of Language: Hermeneutical Confidence for Exegesis and Systematics

In his contribution to the festschrift for Robert B. Strimple, Richard Gaffin makes some excellent remarks concerning the importance of having a God-centered view of language in biblical interpretation. In a time when the perspicuity of Scripture is under attack by deconstructionists and all other deniers of sola scriptura, his reminder of the Holy Spirit’s work is an able answer to the “crisis of uncertainty” many find themselves in today.

Ours, it is fair to say, is a “hyperhermeneutical” age. Most readers do not need to be reminded how in recent decades issues of interpretation have burgeoned in an overwhelming, almost unbelievable fashion and taken on unprecedented dimensions. Projects for construing texts have become paradigms for constructing, or deconstructing, reality as a whole. But the net result of this intensive expenditure of hermeneutical energy is a crisis in hermeneutics, an increasing hermeneutical despair.

I do not for a moment want to deny or even ignore the genuine problems, the real difficulties that come into view here, like the kinds of issues that sometimes confront even the biblical interpretation on which the vitality of systematic theology depends. But it is crucial to recognize what, as much as anything, is at the root of our contemporary hermeneutical malaise. That is the illusion that human language and all our other imaging capacities are self-generated and self-evolving.

Thus, we must be insistent that human language is not ultimately a human invention, but God’s gift, a gift reflective of his own capacities as the Giver. That recognition engenders confidence, a confidence that needs to be focused negatively as well as positively. Our language is not innately ambiguous. Human language does not inherently veil and confuse as it seeks to communicate and disclose meaning. It does not inevitably create a distortion of the subject matter about which it speaks. Human language is not an intrinsically inadequate medium for communicating, for conveying meaning. Certainly our language, as we have seen, can confuse, veil, and distort. But this, we must remember, is directly attributable to our sin, to our varied misuse and deliberate abuse of language, not to any functional defect in our language itself.

Renewing conformity to the image of Christ brings healing and hope for the hermeneutical process and for release from the vicious cycles of postmodernity briefly noted above. The promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit, as “the Spirit of truth,” “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13) carries a guarantee that “the problem of hermeneutics” will not so engulf the church as to produce a crisis of uncertainty. This promise made to the apostles (15:26-27) and so, through them as its foundation (Eph. 2:20), to the church in all ages, is fulfilled in the Spirit’s own, properly authorial “speaking in the Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.10; see 1:4: “the author thereof”) and his subsequent ever-attendant and efficacious witness in the church and within believers to the truth of Scripture….

Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “Speech and the Image of God: Biblical Reflections on Language and Its Uses,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries (ed., VanDrunen; P&R Publishing, 2004), pgs. 191-92. (Bold emphasis added.)

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


2 comments on “God’s Gift of Language: Hermeneutical Confidence for Exegesis and Systematics

  1. Nevada says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I agree and disagree with Gaffin. On the one hand, I don’t think the problem of language that post-modernists like Derrida are really getting at is necessarily deliberate misuse, the noetic effects of sin, etc. My sense is that much of what they are talking about should be placed in the category of finitude and the human inability to be omniscient–i.e., because we cannot recreate “exactly” the mental processes and contexts of an author and the text and because we do not have the author “present” to explain any misconstruals, writing by its very structure and nature has a porous quality to it. Its very genius can be its downfall–i.e., its ability to allow the author to write something and be “absent” when it is read creates the conditions for potential misunderstanding (cf. e.g., the inability to exactly recreate “tone” in writing — it can be difficult at times to tell if an author is being ironic, etc.). That, if I am understanding him correctly (via James KA Smith — who complains that North American literature departments have completely misunderstood Derrida), is Derrida’s point. (I’ve tried reading Derrida myself but lack the necessary background in French philosophy. — Then, of course, there’s also the question of whether Derrida is at times being deliberately opaque so as to make his point! :-) Basically, a healthy form of deconstructionism teaches us to be humble about our reading.

    With that being said, the necessary reality of ambiguity in writing (whether more or less given the specific text in question and its genre properties) does not logically entail an inability to communicate. Our reading/knowing (I think that the problem of reading and knowing are interrelated) is finite and “in via” (on the way). Nonetheless, it is an adequate reading/knowing. While misunderstanding can (and does) occur, it doesn’t have to “always” happen. Some texts really are “clearer” than others. All of that is to say “Yes” to Gaffin that we cannot become agnostic (or hyper-hermeneutical) about the ability to communicate (as some sophomoric versions of wannabe post-modernism might suggest).


    • Thanks for the comment, brother. My hunch is that the “distance” of the author – as you described unable to provide clarification in person – is entailed in Gaffin’s line “I do not for a moment want to deny or even ignore the genuine problems, the real difficulties that come into view here, like the kinds of issues that sometimes confront even the biblical interpretation on which the vitality of systematic theology depends.” I suppose this illustrates your very point, though – Gaffin isn’t sitting right here and able to provide that very clarification!

      (Incidentally, I remember reading Derrida’s response to John Searle and by the end was amused and disgusted all at once. His deconstruction of Searle’s words to him were such a forced misreading of Searle’s clear illocutionary intent. It made me think that the only way to deconstruct a text well was to deliberately misconstrue what one knows is being said!)

      But I do think that Gaffin’s words about the Holy Spirit ground us here and dramatically shrink that distance between author and reader. They help us to see that we are indeed enabled to rightly understand what God is conveying with the words of the Biblical text. I remember being in conversations with Roman Catholics a few years ago who were complaining about the lack of certainty that they had from Sola Scriptura. I was floored, however, how low of a view of the Holy Spirit they had. There was no place in their quest for certainty for the Spirit to adequately guide them into all the truth that was necessary.



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