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)