Moisés Silva on the Hermeneutical Spiral

revelationandreasonMoisés Silva’s essay in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics offers a somewhat startling thesis: “My theological system should tell me how to exegete.” (86) Many exegetes profess to come to the text sans system, but Silva argues that because this is impossible we might as well be purposeful about the relationship between system and text.

He offers three supporting arguments for his thesis:

  1. Systematic Theology is already a recontextualizing of ancient truths; by its very nature the process of theologizing and preaching moves the text from that ancient context to ours. We might as well be self-conscious about what our context is, including its theological presuppositions. (86)
  2. The whole Bible is, ultimately, the appropriate lens through which to view any part. This is true even outside the Bible, say within the corpus of Aristotle’s works—we examine individual difficult statements in light of everything he wrote. How much more true would this be of a book with an infallible and perfectly self-consistent Author! (87)
  3. We all do this anyway; it is naive to think that one can set aside his presuppositions every time he picks up a Bible. You already in fact do have a system whether you care to call it that or not. Once again, you might as well be self-conscious about it. (88)

I would suggest … that a student who comes to a biblical passage with, say, a dispensationalist background, should attempt to make sense of the text assuming that dispensationalism is correct. I would go so far as to say that, upon encountering a detail that does not seem to fit the dispensationalist scheme, the student should try to “make it fit.” The purpose, of course, is not to mishandle the text, but to become self-conscious about what we all do anyway. The result should be increased sensitivity to those features of the text that disturb our interpretive framework and thus a greater readiness to modify that framework.

Of course, the same might be said of a student who comes to a biblical passage with, say, a covenant-theological background. =)

I still find it methodologically and practically beneficial to read the text closely before I check commentaries. If preaching is truth through personality, I want the truth to affect me (and my presuppositions) immediately—that is, without a go-between. At least that’s a part of the truth. Perhaps the biggest part is actually this: when I read the Scripture text carefully, lots of questions come up about what phrases mean or how they relate. When my own study yields a satisfying answer, the thrill of personal discovery has a way of working that truth into my soul and making me a more convincing exponent of it during preaching. And even if I fail to find a satisfying interpretation of a given phrase, coming to the commentary with questions helps me be a more attentive and effective reader. Jumping right into a commentary without reading the Bible text first often feels like swimming in the deep end in the dark.

Let me try one more metaphor. Silva is saying that there’s no use denying that there’s another side to the hermeneutical spiral—and that you’ll get there in a minute. In other words, reading a particular text (one side of the spiral) will force your mind to access the general categories (the other side) without which the particulars make no sense.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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