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Science and Hermeneutics

Science and Hermeneutics

by Vern S. Poythress

Poythress gives an explanation of the conflicts that often arise between science and the interpretation of Scripture. This analysis will help students of the Bible appreciate the origin and nature of interpretive disputes, aid students in developing exegetical skills, and allow students to examine opposing views.


Poythress gives an explanation of the conflicts that often arise between science and the interpretation of Scripture. This analysis will help students of the Bible appreciate the origin and nature of interpretive disputes, aid students in developing exegetical skills, and allow students to examine opposing views.

Product Details

Publication date:
Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation Series, #6
Product dimensions:
5.66(w) x 8.72(h) x 0.52(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Science and Hermeneutics

Implications of Scientific Method for Biblical Interpretation
By Vern S. Poythress


Copyright © 1988 Zondervan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-40971-3

Chapter One


Science has proved remarkably successful as a technique for enhancing our knowledge of the natural world. Can we also learn something from science about how to enhance our knowledge of the Bible?


One way of following science is to try to make our study of the Bible "scientific." Would such an approach mean simply that we study the Bible more intensively, more painstakingly? Would it mean that we supply ourselves with all the aids and all the information about the Bible that we can gather? Such steps are obviously useful. They are what we might do with respect to any subject about which we were intensely interested. But such steps by themselves would make us scientific only in a very loose sense. What else might we do? Should we study the Bible "objectively," without ever asking how it affects our own lives personally? But such study would disastrously ignore the Bible's concern to be a means for our spiritual communion with God. If the Bible is God's Word, can it ever be subject to scientific investigation in quite the same way as we would investigate an animal or a plant?

These questions are obviously important, but we cannot explore them all. Questions about whether theology should be scientific will be covered in more detail in another volume in this series on hermeneutics. In this volume, we will explore whether the growth of knowledge in science can tell us something about how knowledge grows in biblical interpretation and in theology.

What is scientific method? Does it guarantee a cumulative growth of knowledge? Until recently, people commonly thought that scientific knowledge increased by the smooth addition of one fact to another, the smooth refinement of an existing theory, or the smooth extension of a theory to cover new data. By analogy, ought we to expect knowledge of the Bible to progress by accumulation? Can we devise a method that will provide such progress? Or is such progress illusory even in science? Are we to expect occasional "revolutions" in biblical interpretation analogous to the revolutions in scientific theory that are investigated in some of the recent trends in the history and philosophy of science? What part do underlying hermeneutical or philosophical frameworks play in influencing the results of biblical interpretation?

To answer these questions, we will have to look in some detail at theories concerned with the nature and history of scientific knowledge (chapters 2 and 3). But first, let us start with an actual example of biblical interpretation, namely, the interpretation of Romans 7. Because this passage has proved to be a difficult and controversial passage, it effectively illustrates some of the problems.


How do we understand Romans 7, a passage that many have found some difficulty in grasping? What kind of experience is being described in verses 7-13 and above all in verses 14-25? And who is the "I" about whom the passage speaks? Is Paul describing his own experience or an experience typical of a whole class of people?

Through most of church history there have been disagreements over Romans 7. Most interpreters have thought that Paul was describing his own experience. The use of the pronoun "I" naturally suggests this. But interpreters have also sensed that Paul's discussion here has a broader bearing. Paul would not have written at such length if he had not thought that, in some respects, his experience was typical. It was intended to illustrate something relevant for the Roman Christians' understanding of themselves, of sin, of the law, and so on.

We cannot hope to survey all the options for interpretation that have been suggested. For the purpose of illustration, it is enough for us to concentrate on the interpretations that see Romans 7:14-25 as an example of a general pattern applicable to a whole class of people. Perhaps these verses derived from Paul's personal experience, but it is not essential for us that they did. The crucial question is, What is this passage an example of? What class of people does it apply to? Does the "I" in Romans 7:14-25 stand for a believer or an unbeliever, a regenerate person or one who is unregenerate? Augustine and his followers, including Calvin, Luther, and most of the Protestant Reformation, thought that Paul was describing the conflict with sin that characterizes the life of a regenerate person, a true believer. Pelagius and some Arminians thought that this passage depicts a typical unregenerate person, or unbeliever.

A third alternative is available. Some people have seen in this passage a description of people who are regenerate but not mature, people who have not yet come into a position of triumph and victory over sin. This interpretation often goes together with a "second blessing" theology, according to which sanctification, or "victory over sin," comes as a separate work of the Holy Spirit, brought about by a second step of faith. There are two kinds of Christians-those who are in the state of full sanctification and victory over sin and those who are not. Christians who do not have this victory over sin are a kind of third category intermediate between unregenerate people and ideal Christians.

How do we decide a conflict in interpretation like this one? At first glance, it might seem that we decide simply by looking at the passage and seeing which interpretation actually fits. Which interpretation is consistent with all the facts of the passage? All three interpretations above, however, claim to be consistent with the passage; all three claim to account for all the words and sentences in the passage.

As a next step, then, we might begin to weigh strengths and weaknesses of the three interpretations. The view that Paul is describing the experience not of an unbeliever but of a typical believer has in its favor the fact that the description of the "inner man" and the "mind" in verses 22-23, 25 appears to harmonize with Paul's statements elsewhere about Christians (e.g., Rom. 8:6; 1 Cor. 2:10), but not with his statements about non-Christians (e.g., Rom. 8:7; Eph. 4:17-18). These same facts are a problem, however, for the second interpretation.

But there are some facts on the other side. The view that the passage refers to unregenerate persons has in its favor the correspondence between Romans 7:14-15 and Paul's descriptions elsewhere of non-Christians as slaves of sin (e.g., 6:20). Romans 7:14-15 does not match Paul's descriptions of Christian freedom (e.g., 6:22; 8:4). These facts are difficult for the first interpretation to explain.


Excerpted from Science and Hermeneutics by Vern S. Poythress Copyright © 1988 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Dr. Vern Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; DTh, University of Stellenbach, 1981) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition to numerous journal articles and essays, he is author of many books including Symphonic Theology, Understanding Dispensationalists, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, The Returning King, and The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy.

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