Beyond Chicago – finding a better evangelical hermeneutic


In a previous post, I looked at how the inerrancy debate within evangelicalism has resulted in a number of options for positioning oneself vis–à–vis the historicity of the biblical texts (total inerrancy, limited inerrancy, total falliblity). None of these options are satisfactory, not for the dogmatic theologian at least, and surely not for anyone who has serious misgivings with the apologetic and rationalist orientation of post-fundamentalist evangelicalism that emerged after WW2. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in particular, has held some significant influence within the movement, even referenced by ETS for prospective members.

The Chicago Statement has a number of praiseworthy qualifications, related to genre analysis for example, but it is hopelessly inadequate as a guide for theological engagement with Scripture. As should be obvious, the apostolic use of the Old Testament would fail miserably if tested by the Chicago strictures. Moreover, the patristic reading of Scripture, from Irenaeus to Origen to Augustine and adopted throughout the Middles Ages, is not exactly compliant with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet, this dogmatic, typological, and often allegorical hermeneutic among the early fathers is what underwrote the development of trinitarian and christological orthodoxy. (If this were not a blog and if I had more time on my hands, I might try to demonstrate this, but I’m running with it for now!)

The ressourcement movement in Roman Catholic scholarship of the 20th century is one place where evangelical Protestants might take some cues, without buying the “sacramental tapestry” wholesale. Henri de Lubac’s multi-volume study of medieval exegesis, for example, is a rigorous and thorough apologetic for the patristic-medieval hermeneutic. Kyle Anderson, in his review on Amazon, says it well:

Lubac’s work is satisfying on three fronts: 1) for those convinced of the benefits of allegory–it provides a historical basis for such practice, 2) for those opposed–it provides a background for understanding your perceived opponent. And “perceived” is significant. Nowhere does Lubac discount the historical. In fact, he argues that the historical provides the foundation for the allegorical. This emerges directly out of Lubac’s sacramental ontology of the materialist world, and 3) for those seeking an intellectually honest alternative to the historical-critical methodology of the 20th century. Lubac offers a possible reading of Scripture that is historically honest and grounded but seeks to read Scripture in a broader context that is made alive through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, yes, historicity is vital, and Chicago/ETS is rightly concerned about reducing canonical authority to the subjective criteria that dominated liberal Protestantism (and a fair amount of neo-orthodoxy as well). Yet, historicity is made impossible when founded upon the “authorial intention” of the human author, not the least because such intentions are frequently elusive and imprecise. In a dogmatic framing for exegesis, by contrast, the “authorial intent” is primarily that of the divine author — the God who superintended over the entire canonical process. As such, historicity should be articulated as a dogmatic determinant, with theological ratiocination — an internal “theo-logic” if you will, which guides us in discerning the parameters of Eden’s historicity.

There is my positive statement, which I will surely work and re-work over the years to come. As I look on the evangelical horizon, there are some signs of hope among those wanting to push the boundaries of “inerrancy” — Kevin Vanhoozer most notably, for which he has been criticized by guardians of Chicago (Norman Geisler, for example, in his most recent book, Defending Inerrancy). One of Vanhoozer’s doctoral students, Timothy Ward, has written an excellent and very accessible defense of a more theological approach to biblical inspiration: Words of Life. Also, John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is a refreshing and heartening introduction to the dogmatic framework in which the Bible exists for the church.


Image: “Saint Augustine” by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) [wikipedia commons]



  1. In terms of Vanhoozer, you should also see his essay “Scripture and Hermeneutics” in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology. He wrestles some with inerrancy and I found it helpful

    • Thanks, Jordan, for the recommendation. I was not aware of that essay — I’ll be sure to check our seminary library for it.

      • If you want, email me, my name (at) Gmail and I can send you a scanned version to save you some time

  2. I appreciate this short article. I think the evangelical aversion to typological/ allegorical approach to text is under written by fundamentalist fears of subjectivity. This results in a truncated reading of the text.

    I read Vanhoozer’s First Theology years ago to help me engage the text more theologically after a stint in a public university where the self was seen as the primary hermeneutical starting point. I was confused about how to read the text well as an evangelical. The language of innerrancy was and i think often still is, stilted, confusing and misleading. Clearly, many of us need better methods for approaching the text.

    I would appreciate if you have the time to write a little more on the dogmatic, typological, and often allegorical hermeneutic used by the early fathers. I would also be interested in your assessment of Hans Frei.

    • Thanks, James. Frei is enormously gifted — especially as an interpreter of other theologians — but I have some reservations about postliberal hermeneutics. I still think the old questions about historicity, just as the old questions about metaphysics, are important, which seem to be too easily elided by postliberals. Admittedly, my reading knowledge of Frei is limited, so I will have to reserve any serious judgments until I have responsibly dealt with his work.

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