Truth And Fullness Of Meaning: Fullness Versus Reductionist Semantics In Biblical Interpretation -- By: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 67:2 (Fall 2005)
Article: Truth And Fullness Of Meaning: Fullness Versus Reductionist Semantics In Biblical Interpretation
Author: Vern Sheridan Poythress


Truth And Fullness Of Meaning:
Fullness Versus Reductionist Semantics
In Biblical Interpretation

Vern Sheridan Poythress

Vern S. Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 56th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, San Antonio, Tex., 18 November 2004.

The last three centuries have put orthodox interpreters under pressure to show rigor and objectivity in biblical interpretation. We experience such pressure from Roman Catholic interpretation, from historical-critical interpretation, from wildly subjective and fanciful readings of the Bible, and—not least—from comparisons with the rigor, objectivity, and exactitude in modern science. But often rigor increases only by subtly ignoring or minimizing messy complexities. So let us think about complexity and richness in meaning.

Divine meaning, the meaning of God the primary author, is particularly complex,1 but complexities abound even at the level of human authors and human readers. Theologians know that some of the main topics of Scripture display rich meaning. Think of the biblical material concerning the nature of God, the image of God, sin, Christology and eschatology Think also of various literary phenomena such metaphor, narrative, and poetry. Think of the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling readers to appropriate the message of Scripture. All of these point to mystery, complexity, and ultimately uncontrollable richness. In contrast to this richness, exegesis in its technical forms faces some reductionistic temptations.

I. The Nature of Language

We may conveniently focus on the whole area of the nature of language. What view do we hold about the nature of language? What is the nature of meaning in language? Do we allow richness here or not? Our assumptions about language will clearly influence our approach to word meanings, sentence meanings, exegesis, and Bible translation. If we have an impoverished view of language, we are likely to have an impoverished view of the Bible as well. For example, if we think

that language is designed only to communicate literal propositions, we will probably end up minimizing the functions of metaphor and allusions. If we think that language is designed only to talk about this world, we will be suspicious of God-talk as an allegedly improper use.

Our challenges increase because of some unhealthy pressures deriving from the surrounding culture. To begin with, evolutionary modes of thinking would like to trace la...

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