Cold as Ice …

Cold as Ice …

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.). 

Against Idle Speculation

expertSometimes, bible commentators can wander off into idle speculation. Because they’re well-educated, we often give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they’ve studied the text longer than we have, so we shouldn’t dismiss what they have to say.

Yeah, but . . .

We should still use our common sense. I have a good example. In the Book of Revelation (a book which is not nearly so difficult as we make it out to be), we read this harsh message from Jesus to the Christian congregation in the city of Laodicea:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).

There are two common interpretations:

  1. Jesus is criticizing them for their apathy. They aren’t “on fire” for God (i.e. “hot”). They aren’t outright disobedient, either (i.e. “cold”). Their collective attitude is . . . meh. They’re apathetic, indifferent slugs who sit on their couches, too lazy to be obedient or blatantly disobedient. Or . . .
  2. The cold and hot water are both good, and Jesus is unhappy that they aren’t either of them, or both. Instead, they’re “neither cold nor hot,” and thus disgusting. This interpretation is based on the fact that the city of Laodicea drew its hot water supply from the nearby city of Hierapolis, and its cold water from Colossae.[1] It assumes John had this in mind, and was drawing a parallel.

There are several problems with the second interpretation, but I’ll focus on one – it is based entirely on assumptions which are not verifiable. It sounds like a learned, scholarly answer, doesn’t? It’s based on “background knowledge” of the contemporary situation. It sounds good. Is it? I don’t think so. This isn’t the way people write or talk in the real world.

The curious case of the Madagascar scholar

I’ll prove to you how backward this kind of interpretative method can be.[2] Pretend that, today, I write this sentence on a piece of paper:

“Fed up with my son’s filthy room, I have decided to cleanse it of all Legos, NERF bullets and cars until they learn the error of their ways! They may cry and complain, but I shall let the chips fall where they may!”

Six hundred years go by. The United States is long gone. The most powerful nation in the world is the country of Madagascar. A team of archaeologists, working in what used to be known as the Pacific Northwest, unearth the ruins of a beautiful home and, inside, they find that piece of paper, miraculously preserved.

Excited beyond words at this critical find, the archaeologists scan this precious find and send it electronically back home, to the most learned and scholarly English-language expert in the world. You see, English has been a dead language since the early part of the 21st century, when America’s impetuous and maniacal president triggered a nuclear war that destroyed his country and the whole of Western civilization. This means my paper is an important find, and our English-language expert is eager to get to it.

After laboring for two years, he releases a synopsis of his findings:

As is well-known, early 21st century America was obsessed with food. Available data suggests many Americans were overweight or obese by this period of time. It is unlikely, therefore, that the author chose the words “fed up” by accident. This was possibly an unconscious reference to the unhealthy American culture, which he appropriated in an odd way to refer to his feelings for his son’s room.

Fragments from several religious volumes (Christian in nature) were found in the same house as this note, which have striking significance for his use of the adjective “filthy” to refer to his son’s room. The word can simply mean “dirty,” but the religious bent of the author suggests a deeper meaning. As is well known, the Christian religion has a long tradition of referring to unclean or morally impure things as “filthy.” This indicates the author’s problem with the room was not so much “untidiness,” as “moral unsuitability.” What this moral defect was, we cannot say. Perhaps the son was failing in some dire Christian duty, in which case the adjective “filthy” is more about moral failure than a simple “dirty room.” Note also the use of the world “cleanse,” which is also pregnant with Christian religious implications. Likewise, the phrase “error of his ways” also carries religious overtones, and may be a free paraphrase from a religious text.

Hopefully, you can see how stupid this kind of reasoning is. This is all idiotic. You might have even laughed a time or two. But, how often have you read bible commentary writers doing the very same thing? As the poet Robert Plant said, “it really makes me wonder . . .”

But, our Madagascar scholar isn’t done yet. Here is the crux of it:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this find is the phrase “I shall let the chips fall where they may.” Extensive archaeological monographs have shown this region, now a vast nuclear-scarred wasteland, used to be known as the “Pacific Northwest,” and was renowned for lush vegetation and large amounts of trees.

No doubt, the author had this in mind as he penned these words. Perhaps, from his home, he looked out at the vast forest surrounding his abode, and penned these words as he watched lumberjacks cutting down trees. Immersed as he was in this kind of environment, it is folly to assume he was not influenced by it.

We conclude the author deliberately used this idiom as a result of his context. In this analogy, the son is the lumberjack, and the “chips” which fall are the result of the son’s actions. These should be morally suitable “chips,” but they are not. So, the father (our author) has decided to let the “chips fall where they may,” and let the son suffer the consequences of his own action.

It is evident that background knowledge of a culture provides critical context for interpretation, none more so than in this case.

Back to reality

The example is over. What do you think about our scholar’s learned and amazing comments about the “chips?” What do you think about his assumption that I was influenced by my context when I wrote, “I shall let the chips fall where they may?”

Our Madagascar scholar might suspect this, but he’ll never actually know. But he’s banking on it, isn’t he? When you look at everything he wrote (above), is any of it actually true?

Nope. None of it. Think about that when you read a bible commentary that veers off into speculation, or listen to a preacher who engages in flights of fancy.

So, what was Jesus referring to in Revelation 3:15-16? You figure it out! But, remember this – those who prefer the second interpretation might be doing the very same thing our Madagascar scholar did . . .


[1] For a representative example of this interpretation, see Leon Morris, Revelation, in TNTC, vol. 20, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 84.

[2] I was inspired to make this example by a similar one from Moises Silva, God, Language and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 11-14