The author is formerly a lecturer in Old Testament, biblical theology, and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College, Sydney. The book grows out of his classroom teaching of evangelical hermeneutics to fourth-year undergraduates. His goals are threefold, which correspond to the three parts of the book. In Part I, he explores the foundations and presuppositions of evangelical belief, especially as it applies to the interpretation of the biblical text. In Part II, he surveys hermeneutical developments from early Christianity to today. In Part III, he lays out his plan for reconstructing a “truly evangelical, gospel-centered hermeneutics.” (15)
This book is clearly written by an evangelical for evangelicals. And therein lays its limited usefulness for anyone not identified with that tradition. For Goldsworthy, hermeneutical principles that are grounded in the gospel inevitably coincide with evangelical and Reformed Christianity. So, for example, the presuppositions necessary for a gospel-centered hermeneutic happen to be the four “solas” of the Reformation—grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, and faith alone, and these four principles represent for Goldsworthy a recovery of the “pure doctrines of the apostolic gospel.” (46)
The lengthiest section of the book, Part II, surveys challenges to evangelical hermeneutics, that is, “alien influences that have affected biblical interpretation from sub-apostolic times to the present.” (87) Each of the 8 chapters in this section begins with the title “The Eclipse of the Gospel in . . .”, followed by a specific “alien influence” that is exposed. The author sets out to focus on “the major philosophical influences that have impinged negatively on Christian biblical interpretation in certain periods of the church’s history.” (90) The various “eclipses” of the gospel are found in the early church, the medieval church, Roman Catholicism, liberalism, philosophical hermeneutics, historical criticism, literary criticism, and evangelicalism.
Predictably, the culprit responsible for the eclipse of the gospel in the early church is the use of allegory, along with a focus on “the exemplary and ethical Christ, rather than on the substitutionary and redemptive Christ.” (92) For Goldsworthy, what emerges from the early church is “the invasion of nonbiblical philosophical frameworks” (91), producing “the deleterious effects of Greek philosophy” (99) that “laid the foundations for . . . Roman Catholic interpretation.” (100)
The chapter on the eclipse of the gospel in the medieval church surveys, in 8 pages, hermeneutics from Augustine to Aquinas. The author’s assessment of this period is that hermeneutics was “seriously compromised” because it had become “so intertwined with unbiblical philosophical categories.” (108) For example, Goldsworthy is critical of Augustine’s use of the rule of faith in his exegetical work. He describes this as exegesis “controlled by already formulated doctrines” and as a way of subordinating the meaning of Scripture to the teaching authority of the church. (102) In a later chapter he returns to this theme, describing the rule of faith as a dogmatic framework that Scripture must fit into. (118) The author does not entertain the possibility that the rule of faith was not an arbitrary dogmatic formula foreign to the gospel, but rather emerged out of the gospel itself, as written, taught, and lived by the early Christians.
According to Goldsworthy, the eclipse of the gospel by the Roman Catholic Church is rooted in the nature/grace distinction, producing a body of dogma that is “aberrant” in content. “This dialectic allows for the synergism of cooperating grace that in turn leads to the whole structure of merits, invocation of saints, Mariology, purgatory and the upside-down relationship of justification and sanctification.” (118) Subsequent chapters in Part II deal with the eclipse of the gospel in liberalism (the transcendent is lost in the immanent), philosophical hermeneutics (the loss of objective meaning in postmodern hermeneutical theorists), historical criticism (humanistic presuppositions in methodology), literary criticism (methods that focus on the text [structuralism] or the reader [reader-response] rather than the author), and evangelicalism (quietism, dispensationalism, legalism, subjectivism).
Part III is a reconstruction of evangelical hermeneutics. The opening chapter of this section is again a defense of Reformation theology as the foundation for authentic hermeneutics. Calvin “demolishes” the Thomistic system of nature plus grace. (186) Calvin’s principle of the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit” is the authenticator of the authority of Scripture, not the Church or rational proofs (188). The perspicuity of Scripture assures one of avoiding “the totalitarianism of Rome.”(198). These and other “gospel” principles are strongly asserted as hermeneutical keys, though never demonstrated as such.
Goldsworthy does present some helpful and balanced suggestions for hermeneutics, particularly when he writes of the need to do hermeneutics in the context of biblical theology as a whole. The problem that Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics presents to the non-evangelical reader is the notion that principles widely agreed upon are somehow exclusively evangelical. For example, inspiration and unity of Scripture is a fundamental belief about the Bible held by Roman Catholics and Orthodox, not just evangelicals. Moreover, “The Hermeneutics of Christ,” the final chapter of the book, is not conterminous with Reformation foundations and presuppositions. In fact, ironically his model for understanding the hermeneutics of Christ, the unity/distinction of the two natures of Christ, is rooted in the formula of Chalcedon, not in the Reformation.
Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics will be praised by evangelicals but likely ignored by others.