Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Four

(Posted by Paige Britton)

In case you want to catch up, here’s where we’ve been so far with this ongoing review:

An introduction to John Sailhamer is here

Notes about Sailhamer’s Introduction are here

A sketch of Chapter One (“The Nature & Goal of OT Theology”) is here

Chapter Two: Finding the Author’s Verbal Meaning

In order to prepare us for his intensely “text-immanent” approach to determining the meaning of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer spends considerable time in this chapter tracing the history of biblical interpretation from Augustine to the present. His point is that, thanks to Augustine’s distinction between the words (verba) of Scripture and the things (res) to which those words point, the church has ended up (in several different ways) going astray from the words and concentrating on the “things” – especially, in the case of evangelicalism, historical events. More on this below.

Again in this chapter, Sailhamer is quite clear that he believes the Scriptures were verbally inspired by God – hence his desire to pay close attention to the very words of the biblical texts. He would like to invite other believers to do this, too, but first he needs to convince them that they are generally working with an interpretive model that values the inspired words only as a means to get beyond the text to the historical events the words refer to. Sailhamer writes,

Simply put, if the words of the Bible are inspired, their meaning is of central importance. This puts the emphasis in the right place: on the meaning of the words as a part of the language of the Bible. To ask why the author wrote the Pentateuch is a valid historical question, but that question should not be construed as an answer to the question of the meaning of the Pentateuch. One finds the meaning and message of the Pentateuch not in asking why it was written or how, but in asking what was written as the book itself. (73f., my emphasis)

Here’s a quick summary (the speed-set version) of how Augustine’s view of words and things “played itself out fully in medieval biblical interpretation and provided the foundation of most modern ‘historical’ approaches to the Bible”(77):

Beginning with Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, many Christian thinkers began to prize what they called the “spiritual sense,” rather than the “literal sense,” of the biblical texts. That is to say, in order to understand the words, they appealed more and more to what the words stood for (i.e., the theological realities beyond the text). This was especially true when reading OT passages:

Reading the Bible (OT) came to be a process of watching for the things that words pointed to. This meant, if need be, that the meaning of Scripture could, as easily as not, be investigated apart from the meaning of the words of Scripture. (80)

Having loosened their interpretive moorings from the words of the Bible itself, “Augustine, and those who followed in his steps, turned increasingly to the authority of the church” as the final arbiter of the spiritual meaning of the biblical texts (80). Enter the Tradition! …And that about covers the Middle Ages.

Although the Reformation brought renewed attention to the original languages and a rejection of extrabiblical Tradition, a second wave of post-textual thinking was waiting just around the corner, this time in the area of biblical history. With the Enlightenment came biblical realism and historicism, often without any entailments of spiritual meaning at all: “biblical words pointed to real events in history (biblical realism), not to spiritual truth as such” (81).

In reaction, evangelicals in the 18th and 19th centuries, who naturally wanted to preserve the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy, began increasingly to look beyond the text to affirm the biblical realities that had played out in history, paying less attention to the way those realities were recorded by the biblical authors. In other words, the Bible came (by Charles Hodge’s time) to be regarded as

a brute fact containing many smaller facts, all in need of brilliant explanation…The validity of one’s explanation rests not on how well it explains the text, but on how well it explains the facts that come incrementally out of the text as bits and pieces of unassembled history. (98)

Thus evangelicals have come to know about historical realities through a text, but the text is really only valued as a witness to those historical events (and as a historical event itself!) rather than as a made thing, crafted in a certain way to convey an author’s mind.

John Sailhamer hopes to call believing readers’ attention back to the text as text. “My purpose,” he writes,

is to argue that if evangelicalism is to remain true to its rich biblical heritage, the goal of an evangelical biblical theology must be refocused on the meaning of the Scriptures themselves (sola Scriptura). What do the words of Scripture tell us about the “things” to which they point? I am not suggesting that the Scriptures are not about real things. I believe that they are. What I am suggesting is that the theological meaning of the Scriptures lies in the meaning of its words as parts of sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts. (87)

…So, you who have read this far, what do you think of Sailhamer’s evaluation of evangelical biblical interpretation as having moved beyond the text of Scripture, in that it is more concerned with historical realities described by the inspired text than with the words and literary structure of the text itself? Is this a valid insight? Is it a significant one?


  1. Cris Dickason said,

    February 28, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Timely Post! Although this is dealing with interpretation of the text, might it not also apply to translating the text? Why change the subject, well, I’m on a small committee (I’m Presbyterian) to make recommendations for new pew Bibles. The 2010/2011 NIV is due out tomorrow (March, 2011). Our current fleet of NIV (1984) is showing signs of physical aging. We have basically decided not to buy a cache of ’84 NIVs and sit pat. I think it’s down to either NIV 2010 or ESV.

    Back to Sailhammer: word vs thing, sounds like translation theories-essentially literal vs dynamic equivalent or functional equivalent. Word-for-Word vs. thought-for-thought. So I’m not sure I follow Sailhammer’s argument that somehow by time of C Hodge we have everything as brute facts and they have somehow become more interested in the facts than the text. Sailhammer may be correct in summarizing the Medieval period – taken as a whole. There was a period where a few guys in one monastery/region were pretty historical-grammatical, not allegorical. Wrote a paper on them but, that was so many years ago it might have been the middle ages too!

    Word vs. thing – also reminds one of sacramental discussions Sign and thing signified. I claim dibs on the title: Inspiration and Sacramentation: Evangelicals and the Place of the OT. And dibs on origin of the phrase: “the sacramental model of inspiration.”


  2. paigebritton said,

    February 28, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Hey, Cris,
    Just for fun (and to keep this post in the eye of the public for maybe a few more minutes :), here’s the context of that quote about “brute facts,” which may clarify Sailhamer’s ideas for you a bit. He’s discussing the 19th century fascination with the biblical events recorded in Scripture as real history, so that the task of the theologian became the task of the historian:

    Theologians…were required to be historians and to interpret the text not in terms of an authorial will lying behind a compositional, or literary, strategy of verbal meaning, but as a sequence of ordinary historical events…whose meaning could be unlocked only by a commitment to the historical method. (97)

    Although Charles Hodge of Princeton was not, strictly speaking, a biblical theologian, he established the proper method of biblical theology for most evangelicals of the 19th c. and even the twentieth. For Hodge, the starting point of a biblical theology is the collection and observation of all the ‘facts’ of Scripture, followed by a complete description and explanation of every part. The Bible (OT) and all of its historical bits and pieces are to be approached as a huge unknown in need of a scientific explanation. Only one who could grasp the whole and therefore assign meaning to each of the parts need apply for the job of a biblical theologian. According to Hodge,

    The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches…The duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to him. These facts are all in the Bible. (from Systematic Theology)

    This quotation makes clear that the theologian was not being assigned the task of discovering the biblical authors’ meaning or the literary arguments of the various authors of the Bible. There is no notion of a textual or compositional strategy to be uncovered by the reader. The Bible is approached as a brute fact…etc. (97f.)

    Anyway, you can see what Sailhamer values!


  3. Cris Dickason said,

    March 1, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Paige: OK I can see what Sailhammer’s driving at. I had forgotten that aspect of Hodge. While I see myself firmly in the (Old) Princeton/(Old) WTS line (Old OPC?), I am not necessarily or automatically a Charles Hodge disciple.

    What’s a little disappointing to me in this block from Sailhammer is his use of the phrase “biblical theology.” Since “biblical theology” has come to be synonymous with “redemptive historical” theology, due in large part to that Princetonian, G Vos, I wish Sailhammer (and others) would speak of scriptural theology.

    Of course Charles Hodge “was not, strictly speaking, a biblical theologian” because that discipline was not off the ground yet. It’s a historical mistake to speak of Hodge as “biblical theologian” even to say he’s not one. That would be like faulting U.S. Grant for poor use of air power in the Civil War. Hodge was a systematic theologian and that shows in the cited statement. Hodge want to build up a systematic representation of what scripture teaches, so for him it’s the field of facts, just as the natural and physical sciences have their fields of “facts” to sort through, classify, arrange into order (teaching).

    I think he’s using Hodge as a easy quote, but he’s really comparing apples to oranges because it’s a comparison of systematics to exegetical concerns. In exegesis, interpretation (and preaching!), Old Princeton did not ignore the text for the facts behind the texts.

  4. paigebritton said,

    March 1, 2011 at 6:45 am

    Oh, you’re tough.

    I think he is describing what he sees as an almost infectious mentality about Scripture amongst evangelicals, which, in his view, neglects the authors’ intentional crafting of texts in favor of the events those texts describe. Hodge still has to exegete to get at his systematics, and Sailhamer wants to pin him with a certain kind of approach that is, at best, incomplete for either task. For S., it’s not a matter of just gathering up the brute facts (either for the task of exegesis or for the task of systematics); it’s a matter of also paying close attention to the way those facts are presented by the authors.

    Hodge is certainly an easy target for Sailhamer’s criticism, with his self-consciously scientific approach to the biblical text — in this he was a man of his times, wouldn’t you say?

    Actually, Sailhamer is quite complimentary about the way most of the Reformed, especially Calvin and some just after him, handled the biblical text as text. He’s writing for a general evangelical audience, and trying to show them their own faces in a mirror — not necessarily the Reformed, though.

  5. jedpaschall said,

    March 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm


    A couple of impressions here:

    To ask why the author wrote the Pentateuch is a valid historical question, but that question should not be construed as an answer to the question of the meaning of the Pentateuch. One finds the meaning and message of the Pentateuch not in asking why it was written or how, but in asking what was written as the book itself. (73f., my emphasis)

    I see what he is driving at. But I wouldn’t drive such a prominent wedge between the issues as he does. I think he is right to insist that we come to understand what the Pentateuch means from it’s words. But, from obtaining understanding about the meaning, moving on to inquire about the purpose for which the Pentateuch was written seems appropriate. In order to be thorough, I think conservative theologians need to answer these sort of questions, even if only because so many outside the conservative camp are answering the question in such a manner that undermines the authority of the text. I also notice the tendency for non-Reformed scholars(in the confessional sense) to hone in on what the text says in its own context to such an acute degree, that they are disinclined to allow scripture to interpret scripture. Do you see Sailhamer doing this or not?

    However, with that said, if I understand you correctly there is most certainly a tendency among evangelicals to forgo what the text is driving at in order to focus on ancillary or contemporary questions – e.g. the days of creation, global vs. local flood, dating the exodus, proving Mosaic authorship, etc. This happens to varying degrees, and it does truly take the focus off of authorial intent and what the text is actually saying.

    So inasmuch as Sailhamer calls for taking what the text actually communicates seriously, I applaud him. To the degree that he thinks that reducing biblical theology to a descriptive task is desirable, I’d have to disagree. It seems like he is doing the opposite by dealing with questions about the nature of authorship in the Pentateuch as a major feature of the book, so I am not sure how consistent he is to his own point, which I think is a good thing.

  6. paigebritton said,

    March 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm


    I think you have described a balanced approach there. You might say that Sailhamer is trying to offer a corrective to what he perceives to be a trend away from attention to the authorially structured text (and towards all of those issues that you named, for example) — but of course every corrective move is always in danger of becoming an overcorrection. I don’t find his approach ultimately reductionist, but because his intent is on correcting the balance in the direction of the text, this book is certainly focused on one side of the scale rather than the other.

    As for Scripture interpreting Scripture, he does this just beautifully — prophets reading Pentateuch, Paul reading prophets and Pentateuch, etc. It’s a major part of his presentation, because if he can show evidence that the prophets and NT writers read in the Pentateuch what he perceives in the Pentateuch, he has surely strengthened his position.

    Thanks for your good thoughts and questions!

  7. paigebritton said,

    March 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    In case any of you Sailhamer fans missed this leg of the review, I’m going to keep flagging it this week for the “recent comments” list.

  8. April 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm


    We also see in otherwise very solid evangelical churches today a tendency to adopt the “words and things” hermeneutic when preaching from OT narrative. For example, a preacher will read in Genesis 24 about Abraham sending his servant to find Isaac a bride and preach a sermon on the sovereignty of God and evangelism, seeing the narrative as ultimately pointing to a reality outside of the text, namely Christian evangelism. In this case historical events are not so much the focus of the preach’s attention as much as his own systematic theology, i.e. he makes these “words” in Genesis 24 refer to certain “things” outside the text, in this case a certain topic of systematic theology which he would like to preach on. At this point he has abandoned any clear sense of the meaning of this text within the framework of the Pentateuch as a whole. The pastor controls the meaning of the passage by connecting Abraham’s servant’s experience to an individual believer’s experience today in evangelism in light of God’s sovereignty in salvation. At this point, any real concern for the author’s use of sentences and paragraphs and texts has been abandoned in my opinion. This example is actually from my own experience hearing this sermon at a church I went to.

    Your thoughts?

    Joe Justiss

  9. paigebritton said,

    April 25, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Hi, Joe!

    Interesting point! It’s not quite allegory — it’s more like taking the notion of typology and running with it. And yes, it is another way that the ‘words’ and the ‘things’ get mixed up in our thinking.

    I appreciate the work being done over at Beginning with Moses (, which is a great resource for pastors who haven’t already been trained to think in a properly biblical-theological way, following the lines laid down for us in the NT and also respecting the immediate and larger contexts of a particular text.

    Great to hear from you!

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