Position Paper on Hermeneutics

Originally drafted April 21, 2021 and last tended May 16, 2023 by Matt McElwee.
(See Revision History).

  • Accuracy:

    On reread after having posted this, I find myself disagreeing with my approach to inspiration in general. While I broadly agree with the "transitive property" approach when it comes to canonicity, I find myself dubious about denying the inspiration of a given text simply because it is not in the canon.

  • Certainty:

    highly likely

  • Completeness:


  • Mental Effort:

    This was one of the culminating efforts of a hermeneutics class and my undergrad in general. It seeks to synthesize roughly 3 years of personal and academic study on Biblical interpretation.

I originally composed this as part of Ray Lubeck's Hermeneutics course at Multnomah University. The effort was to synthesize an undergrad's – and more particularly: semester's – worth of thought and study in the area of Biblical interpretation. The position paper was modeled after the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, with a series of affirmations, denials, and general suggestions.

  1. I affirm a singular canon of authoritative Scripture, composed of two collections: the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.
  2. I affirm that the contents of the Hebrew Bible are the 39 books (by the Christian counting), which exclude those books called deuterocanonical. While those Second Temple writings may serve as examples of faith and provide insight into first century Jewish thought, they are neither authoritative with respect to doctrine nor inspired by the Holy Spirit.1 Furthermore, they need not be read in order to interpret meaning of any Biblical text.2
  3. I deny that the quotation of any Second Temple literature becomes inspired by virtue of its quotation in Scripture. Rather, its quotation in the context of that Scriptural text is inspired, truthful, and authoritative.
  4. I affirm that this canon, as delivered in its final form, reflects the full intentionality and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
  5. I suggest that the proper ordering of the Hebrew canon is in the traditional Tanak ordering. In this way we may more appropriately practice Biblical theology across the canon in the order practiced by Jesus, at the very least, if not fully intended by the Holy Spirit and the redactors.3
  6. I affirm that the writings of Scripture are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are a cooperative project between God and humanity to convey God’s revelation. While limited, a helpful metaphor for understanding this unified project may be found in the confession of the Church that Christ is both God and Man. We neither can confound his nature nor divide his personhood. Similarly, the Church confesses Christ as having two wills, one Divine and one human, yet both operated in full cooperation with one another, never being coerced or held hostage by one or the other. In a similar fashion, we may understand the cooperation of the Spirit and the human authors.
  7. I deny that Scripture was mere dictation by the Holy Spirit or any other divine being, or that the human writers were in an ecstatic state when much of Scripture was written.
  8. I deny that the human authors were themselves inspired, nor did they become inspired through their participation in the writing of Scripture. Similarly, we may not define any later discoveries, though authorship be verified, as having been inspired through the transitive property.4
  9. While authors are not themselves inspired, this does not diminish the offices under which many of the writers or contributors operated under. The writing prophets, for example, may have performed signs and speeches through the power of the Holy Spirit which have not been recorded. These would have been authoritative for the community to which they were performed and indeed a means of revelation, but having not been included in Scripture, would not fit this definition of inspired nor canonical.
  10. I affirm that redaction was performed to produce the final form of the Hebrew Bible. This process was guided by the Holy Spirit and produced a thoughtfully arranged canon full of intertextual markers and allusions.
  11. I affirm that the Scriptures are a unified story which leads to Jesus. A proper hermeneutic is one that reads all of Scripture through this metanarrative.
  12. I affirm that the Holy Spirit is the primary and normative means by which the meaning of Scripture is revealed to the reader.
  13. I deny that mastery of Biblical languages is necessary to properly interpret the meaning of Scripture.
  14. I affirm that that the role of Biblical translators and Biblical scholars is both necessary and helpful in the Christian community and that the work they perform is normatively guided by the Holy Spirit.
  15. I affirm that hermeneutics and exegesis may be performed either in the original languages or in the native language of the interpreter to similar effect. As all translation must necessarily include an interpretive element in order to perform a gloss, the interpreter is merely adding to their own interpretive efforts work that has been performed by English translators.
  16. I affirm that word studies, performed by clergy and well-trained lay people, are beneficial primarily for identifying intertextual markers across the canon and may occasionally provide deep discovery.5 However, word studies are not a necessary process in normative interpretation to uncover the meaning of the authors.6
  17. I deny that technical historical knowledge of the Ancient Near East, Second Temple Judaism, first century Palestine, or the Greco-Roman world is necessary for proper interpretation of Scripture.
  18. I deny that knowledge of Second Temple texts or theology subvert or provide meaning to the New Testament epistles.
  19. I affirm that Second Temple texts or theology may subvert or deconstruct meanings which have been read into New Testament texts over the course of Church history. I write especially here of the New Perspectives movement, especially Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, which at its best seeks to unwind some notions of “law” and “works” in the New Testament from mid-16th century critiques of Medieval Catholic theology and practice.
  20. I affirm that there are many such tools, often historiographical, which help us disentangle preconceived notions of the text. The aim here is not to use history to interpret or uncover meaning, rather to prevent us from coming to the text with an agenda.
  21. I deny that Sitz im Leben provides any benefit toward determining the meaning of the text.
  22. I affirm that we are best suited to uncovering a human author’s meaning – which will always be in concord with the Holy Spirit’s meaning – not through historical analysis, but through canonical analysis. An author is understood best through his own corpus, not through his cultural context.7
  23. I deny that Sitz im Leben, nor indeed historical criticism, is useful or helpful in any case to derive meaning in the Hebrew Bible and that as a tool for analysis may be unhelpful and provide anachronisms.8 This is due primarily to the anonymity of most of the Hebrew authors involved and due as well to the post-exilic redaction process. As many hands worked to craft the final shape of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are left with cases where a single text may have been worked on over hundreds of years spanning what is naturally many cultures and life settings.
  24. I deny that the purpose of either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament is to convey historic events in the sense anticipated by modern readers. The discipline of history has taken on new meaning beyond the 18th century. As such, to anticipate year-by-year, beat-by-beat, chronological recounting of events is both anachronistic and unhelpful.
  25. I deny that every event needs to have happened as written in order for the Scriptures to be truthful, authoritative, and inspired.
  26. I affirm that where the meaning of the text – identified through genre, canonical placement, and Christological impact – is indeed meant to convey purposeful, historic recounting, that we are right to interpret and defend its historicity.9
  27. I deny, in the strongest of terms possible, that a “literal” or “historic” or “factual”10 interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is necessary for affirming the truthfulness, authority, or inspiration of those texts or of Scripture as a whole. Furthermore, to use a particular dating scheme appropriated through calculations across the canon from genealogies as a means of demonstrating the age of the Earth and to then insist that such a dating scheme is necessary to affirm the truthfulness, authority, or inspiration of Scripture is not only anachronistic but is deeply harmful.
  28. I deny that scientific claims may undermine the truth of Scripture. Rather the science may be incorrect or not fully formed, the meaning of a particular text may not have claims about natural order in mind, or the text speaks to a miraculous event that was singular in human history and so could not be verifiable through scientific means.
  29. I deny that genealogies are a vector by which claims to errancy may be made of Scripture, as the meaning to which they normatively communicate is not one of timelines or dates.
  30. I affirm that the Scriptures contain a diverse set of genres. Meaning then is communicated through the normative and appropriate methods and forms of the genre in use. Determining meaning then must always take firm consideration of genre.
  31. I affirm that some genres may lend themselves to metaphor or parable in ways that do not undermine the truthfulness, authority, or inspiration of Scripture. However, care must be taken to not overextend what we believe – or indeed wish – to be metaphorical.
  32. I deny that we may ever call metaphorical or figurative what is explicitly confessed as having been a real event, either by the text itself or by any of the Creeds.
  33. I affirm that primary sources outside of Scripture may at times help us locate the genre of texts which have historically been troublesome for interpreters. Two such issues would be that of the genre of Genesis 1-3 as well as the genre of the war texts in the first half of Joshua. Through texts which are contemporary with the “troublesome” Scriptures we may realize we have previously located a text in the wrong genre or discover a new genre altogether. We may then set aside the extrabiblical texts in order to allow the text to speak to its own meaning now that genre is identified.11
  34. I nevertheless deny that this process is necessary in all (or even most) cases for proper interpretation. Rather, it may only serve to limit the scope of meaning, not to derive meaning.
  35. Interpretation is best aided by the litany of historical interpretations of the Scriptures by both Jewish and Christian theologians, clergy, and interpreters. While we would give the greatest weight to Christian interpreters, we may also find our views checked by Second Temple or even Medieval Jewish thought, which helps us to avoid leaps in interpretation. The history of Christian interpretation, especially those things belonging to ecumenical canons, councils, and creeds, are steady guides to ensure we remain within orthodoxy. We should not be eager to innovate.
  36. I suggest that Scriptural interpretation is best begun in a multi-staged contextual process, beginning with textual context, canonical context, Biblical historiographic context, and finally Christological context.
  37. In textual context we look at the immediate context of the text: the paragraph, pericope, or strophe given the genre. Depending on genre we might then extend our contextual frame to include the larger scope to which that unit belongs.
  38. In the case of poetry, we ought in most cases to extend our interpretive frame to the entire poem, never settling for strophe or colon alone.
  39. In the case of narrative or discourse we may well be able to stay in the context of the pericope or paragraph, respectively, however we shouldn’t be afraid to look at the broader work to see how the thoughts in that unit may have been built to or may later be built upon.
  40. In canonical context, we look to the relation of the text in question against the rest of the canon. How might this text link back to other sections or narratives in the canon? What narratives might this poem or discourse be referencing?
  41. Similarly, remembering that the Bible was compiled by editors, we are given intentional foreshadowing of things to come. We must determine what elements of the text we are interpreting may point forward to events to come within the rest of the canon.
  42. Canonical context becomes important later in the process as well, as we must ensure that any interpretation we derive can be traced logically throughout the canon. Any deviation must cause us to humbly rework our assumptions.
  43. In Biblical historiographic context, we look to the way in which the text we are evaluating fits into the historical model of the history the text is presenting. Here we must take care to note that this has an eye to the historical developments presented in the Scriptures, not to any outside timelines. In this way, we remain firmly fixed in the text, while being able to place prophets and kings against their contemporaries across many books in the canon.12
  44. I deny that the above is possible or appropriate in every case. In some cases, we may not, through internal markers, be able to place a given text within the broader history the Bible has presented. At the point that we must go beyond the Bible to place a text in history, we have likely extended beyond what is useful to discern the meaning of the text.
  45. Finally, in Christological context, we look to see how the text we are interpreting may be viewed against the larger narrative of Christ and redemption.
  46. I affirm that this context is not monolithic, and may be viewed in light of covenants, kingdoms, priesthoods, and prophecies, among others.
  47. I deny that any context beyond the text of Scripture is normatively necessary to rightly interpret the meaning of the text. This is to speak of the cultural context of the authors (as spelled out in #23) as well as the modern reader’s cultural context. We must never read our present culture into the text itself.
  48. I deny that the Hebrew Bible ought to be in any way “unhitched” from Christian thought or preaching. The work of interpretation ought in most cases to begin in Genesis and work through the entirety of the canon.
  49. I affirm that Christians ought to read, interpret, and apply the text of the Hebrew Bible just as much as the text of the New Testament.
  50. I affirm that there are many Biblical teachings and commands which are universally mandated for the Jew and for the Christian. While the purpose or obedience to these instructions may not be mandated for salvation or under a later covenant, they nevertheless reveal the heart, character, and morality of God.
  51. I deny that Jesus has rendered the instructions of the torah or the admonitions of the prophets obsolete. Rather, Jesus as the perfect covenant partner fulfills the covenant by perfect obedience to letter and meaning.
  52. I affirm that the preaching of the whole of Scripture is a mandated and normative practice of the Church. Furthermore, the regular public reading of the Scriptures is useful for the formation of the faithful.
  53. I affirm that clergy and lay have the ability to interpret the text, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, without a need – in nearly all cases – to ever leave the text.


  1. My view on this is shifting and I am becoming open to a view that would see the Deuterocanon being a Divine-human partnership but not necessarily authoritative in terms of doctrine. It is likely that this point will shift in future iterations as I do more work in this area.

  2. Robert Snow presents an interesting scenario through which some Second Temple literature (namely some Enochic texts) provide additional validation for interpreting Daniel 7. Snow is hardly a consensus view however, given Smith-Christopher's seminal text The Religion of the Landless which denies Antiochene persecution at the forefront of Daniel 7.

  3. I would add, though not directly germane to hermeneutics, that, in my opinion, this is the best ordering for a first-time Bible reader and has significant pedagogical value.

  4. I think this is far more complex now (8 months hence) to be overly simplistic, perhaps even reductive. The precise nature of inspiration – a Divine-human partnership expressed in written form – need not relegate itself to the canon. I think we may readily call the canon closed while not limiting inspiration.

  5. A compelling example of this is the name “Hagar” in Genesis. An English reading of Genesis 16 would still communicate the same meaning intended by the Holy Spirit and the human authors: Abram and Sarai abused their slave girl in an attempt to accomplish יהוה’s covenant through their own devices. Yet יהוה sees the girl and promises a great nation from her seed.

    However, in doing a word study of the Hebrew word ger (immigrant or alien), which is often included in what Tim Keller calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” you would find that Hagar’s name literally means “the immigrant” (ha ger). Given יהוה’s great care for the immigrant throughout Scripture, we see doubly the sins of Abram here. However, this only adds weight to the meaning already clearly communicated in the text.

  6. I would like to hedge this a little bit. I think this is true of the Biblical text because of the text we have received. I would not take 20 or 21 to be universally true of all texts. But with regard to the Biblical texts, the Holy Spirit did not leave us with a collection of prose discourse and poetry. We are presented with the necessary “historical” texts as well. The so-called sitz im leben of the prophets could be said to have been given in Kings (or in Jeremiah’s case, his own book). The Apostles have their so-called sitz im leben given in the Gospels and Acts. Therefore, I would affirm that the Holy Spirit has given us what is necessary in this arena in the canon itself.

  7. I'm not all the way convinced of this. I think the documentary hypothesis, for example, might give a great deal of nuance and thought to general interpretation when well thought of. When documentary hypothesis is applied through an antisemitic or anti-Catholic frame, it is naturally unhelpful in all the ways outlined above. However, when you consider the NT authors' interaction with the authorial traditions which the documentary hypothesis proposes you find a deep well of meaning and consideration.

  8. This would include the Incarnation, miracles of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the ascension. It should be noted that this is speaking of these events specifically. We may ardently defend the historicity of the resurrection while denying that the Gospel writers be bound to our modern sensibilities of communicating historical events, as John places the Last Supper at a different date than do the synoptic writers.

  9. Words which here are virtually devoid of meaning in this context.

  10. I am personally indebted in these two areas to the work of John H. Walton.

  11. I think it helpful to note that while I tend to think this is helpful, I am not advocating for slicing and dicing the canon. While I have respect for the scholars and thinkers who have arranged so-called “chronological Bibles,” I think they only add to a growing problem of Biblical illiteracy in American culture which rips texts bleeding from their canonical context.