Elliot Johnson’s book, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Academie, 1990), is a frigid text. There is no Spirit, no warmth, no piety—only the cold technician fretting over his syllogisms. Johnson says nothing other authors have not said better, clearer, more succinctly. A few examples will suffice.

Single, Unified Meaning

Johnson declares a text has a “single, unified meaning.”[1] He quotes J.I. Packer, who likens the interplay of divine and human authorship to the incarnation.[2] He rejects sensus plenior[3] (contra. Thomas[4]). The human author expresses the divine author’s single meaning—even if the human author is unaware of a deeper meaning.

Thomas rightly throws in the towel and admits there are many instances where the New Testament author “goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense in using a passage.”[5] However, Johnson seeks refuge in exegesis to justify “trouble passages.”[6] He writes: “… the shared single meaning of the text is the basis of and has control over any related fuller sense and reference.”[7]

This is unsatisfactory. Paul applied quotations from Hosea, out of context, to make a case for Gentile inclusion (Rom 9:25-26; cf. Hos 2:23, 1:10)—a technique which contradicts Johnson’s thesis.[8]

The “Meaning” of a Text

Here we have the great divide. What does a text “mean”? Johnson says significance is from the interpreter’s point of view based on his needs, while meaning is the Author’s perspective.[9] Significance is true if the interpreter has reasoned in a valid fashion, from the meaning, to derive application.[10] “[T]he message of the author/Author should determine the limits in the content of the principles to be applied.”[11]

Where is the Spirit? He does not seem to  exist in Johnson’s world[12]—even when referenced, He is merely depicted as a tool in service of rationalism.[13] Donald Bloesch suggests a better way: a distinction between (1) historical, and (2) revelatory meaning in a text—the Spirit brings significance of the text to bear on us in a personal way.[14] Scripture is the vehicle or channel thru which God speaks, by the Spirit[15]—reading Scripture by faith is a truth event.[16] For Johnson, however, meaning and significance are merely logical, rational—can it be critically defended?[17]

He speculates about probability determinations to validate meaning. In contrast, the Scripture suggests illumination is necessary (Ps 119:18; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.21)—a concept that has always been distasteful to rationalists,[18] which they give it lip-service or not.

Four Normative Acts

Regarding application, Johnson declares “a textual message may be applied in and to the extent that it expresses aspects of God’s normative acts toward the accomplishment of his purposes …”[19] These “normative acts” are (1) tragedy, (2) judgment, (3) salvation, and (4) blessing. “Based on these normative aspects, the textual message now continues to speak.”[20] He provides no justification for these categories, which are as shapeless as Jello. Ascension Sunday is five days hence—where would such a sermon application fit into this artificial rubric?


There is a horrid artifact from 1976 by Tim and Beverly LeHaye titled The Act of Marriage[21]—a Christian sex manual, complete with anatomical charts. It describes in mortifying detail the mechanics of intercourse on the wedding night, with topic headers like “the great unveiling,” “foreplay,” and “culmination.” It distills a very personal act into a series of prescribed moves. One imagines the unfortunate couple lying together, the book open before them like an illicit IKEA manual.

My point is that this is not lovemaking, and Johnson’s book is not hermeneutics. It’s mechanical. It’s cold. It has no heart. The Spirit has flown.  

This is an unhelpful text. Any alternative would be more useful.

[1] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1990), p. 52. 

[2] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 52.

[3] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 32.

[4] Robert Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), pp. 241—253. 

[5] Ibid, p. 241. 

[6] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 53; cf. Parts 2-3. For a more modern attempt to do the same, see Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018). 

[7] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 53. Emphasis added. 

[8] Alva McClain’s argument that the object of Paul’s quotations at Romans 9:25-26 referred to Jews is unpersuasive (The Gospel of God’s Grace (reprint; Winona Lake: BMH, 2010), p. 183). See (1) John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 38, and (2) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 612-614.   

[9] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 228.

[10] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 228.

[11] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 237.

[12] Indeed, according to the index, Johnson only discusses illumination by the Spirit four times in this text, and each instance is pro forma.

[13] “As a believer can know that I know through Spirit-directed consistency of thought in interpretation,” (p. 284). The Spirit exists to ensure we think logically. There is no direction, here. No guidance. Johnson actually dares to suggest God must limit Himself to our forms of hermeneutical logic if He wishes to communicate to us (Expository Hermeneutics, p. 55). As Inspector Gadget used to say, “Wowzers!”

[14] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 188-192. See also the discussion by Henry Virkler and Karelynne Ayayo, Hermeneutics, 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), pp. 27-29.

[15] “This object is the not the text in and of itself but the text as an instrument of the Spirit, in whose hands it becomes a mirror of the divine wisdom,” (Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 178).

[16] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, pp. 48-50. Millard Erickson suggests something similar, while issuing caveats against a neo-orthodox view of Scripture (Christian Theology, 3rd, pp. 220-222).

[17] Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 274. 

[18] Johnson would likely agree with Hodge that the Spirit is merely a guide to the text. “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).

[19] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 216.

[20] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 217.

[21] Tim and Beverly LeHaye, The Act of Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976; Kindle ed.). 

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