THE NEW HERMENEUTIC:

A SIGN OF APOSTASY?

Two important steps are involved in Bible study. The first step is to discover what the original author actually intended to say to the readers of his day. This process is called exegesis and is fundamental to the task of effective Bible study.

A second step in good Bible study is to apply the original biblical message to our day. This step is called "hermeneutics," a word which comes from the Greek language and means "interpretation" or "explanation" (Gingrich and Danker, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 1983). Because of the nature of the Bible as God's revelation, we are not satisfied with a system of study that only establishes the original meaning of a biblical text. We want to know what that original message says to us in the 1990s.

Until recently, there was a large consensus among Bible scholars within churches of Christ that we could make application of the ancient message to our day through the use of (1) divine commands, (2) approved apostolic examples and (3) necessary inferences.

Thomas Campbell mentioned two of these in "The Declaration and Address" (1809) when he said, "Nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament church; either in express terms or by approved precedent."

These three approaches to biblical application (direct commands, approved apostolic examples, necessary inferences) have been used by us, however, not because of our Restoration heritage as such but because we believe they follow the model employed by Jesus when applying inspired teachings from the Old Testament to his own time and circumstances. Jesus, for example, used the direct command as a basis for authority in Matthew 15 when he condemned the Pharisees and teachers of the law for "break (ing) the command of God for the sake of your tradition" (v. 3). God's command should be final, but the religious leaders of the day nullified the command in order to obey their own idea of what the command should have said. This is a game that enemies of God have always played.

Again, Jesus used the approved example as a basis for authority in Matthew 12 when he defended his disciples for picking some grain to eat on the Sabbath. He referred to the example of David and his companions who ate consecrated bread to relieve their hunger when normally that bread would have been reserved strictly for the priests (v.4). He showed by this approved example that Sabbath laws were never intended to harm people, but rather to help them. The lesson, from the standpoint of hermeneutics, is that people who read the Scriptures should learn not only from the direct commands God gives but also from the examples in real life that God approves.

Finally, Jesus used the necessary inference as a basis for establishing the resurrection of the dead in Matthew 22 and said that if the Sadducees had paid attention to the tense of a verb spoken nearly 2,000 years earlier, they would have known that there was life after death. Readers of the Scriptures were supposed to know by necessary inference, Jesus said, that since God said, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (v. 32), there is life after death because "He is not the God of the dead but of the living."

While we have stood on solid biblical precedent in the use of these three approaches to applying the Scriptures to our day, careful scholars have been keenly aware that the direct command-approved apostolic example-necessary inference approach is a shorthand version of our hermeneutic. No knowledgeable scholar among us ever assumed that these three approaches stated the entire story of biblical interpretation or hermeneutics.

Common sense and logic, for example, have been assumed as necessary in the "divine command-approved apostolic example-necessary inference" hermeneutic. With common sense and logic as undergirding, we have been able to sort out the commands or examples that apply to our age from those that do not speak specifically to our time. Although the direct command "come before winter" (2 Timothy 4.21) was spoken by the apostle Paul, common sense tells us that this command does not apply literally to us. We do not literally obey the direct command to "greet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16.16), but we in America obey the spirit of that command when we greet one another by shaking hands or by embracing.

We could all wish, at times, for a hermeneutic that would answer every question so clearly that common sense and logic would not be necessary. This approach expects too much, however. Even Paul and his companions had to use logic and common sense to interpret the Macedonian call (Acts 16.10). We should not be surprised, then, to find that logic and common sense are a necessary part of our hermeneutic. In spite of some difficulties in the hermeneutic used by Jesus, we have been able to restore New Testament Christianity to an amazing degree in the 20th century by using his hermeneutic in our own situation.

Confirmation of this fact can be seen in the work of scholars from other religious groups who study historical New Testament Christianity. Again and again, they come to conclusions virtually identical to ours as they describe - free of their denominations' particular biases - the beliefs and practices of the first-century church. They do not always practice their findings because they are contrary to the official teachings of the constituencies. But that they are able to restore, at least in their minds, the early church's beliefs and practices and that those beliefs and practices largely match our own attempts at restoration is significant and reassures us that we have not missed the truth.

Like many others in churches of Christ, I have traveled a great deal and have discussed the Scriptures with leaders of numerous religious groups. I have never found a single group as close to restoring the teachings and practices of the original church described in the New Testament as I believe churches of Christ to be. We owe much to those before us who dared to face the hostility of sectarian leaders and often the loss of family ties in order to throw off traditional religious ideas and courageously return to the New Testament for their guide in all religious matters.

Sadly, there is a strong move afoot in the brotherhood today to throw out Jesus' approach to Scriptures as outlined above. This thrust in our brotherhood has been labeled "the new hermeneutic." Although we all agree that fine-tuning of our hermeneutic is necessary and good, it is my conviction that scrapping the hermeneutic used by Jesus - and consequently by us - and replacing it with a "new hermeneutic" can lead the church to apostasy. The rest of this article will deal with some of the concepts that I believe are inherent and inherently dangerous within the new hermeneutic.

First, advocates of the new hermeneutic believe that there is no divine standard for determining the hermeneutic we should use. While they probably would not go so far as to say that one hermeneutic is as good as another, they do not believe we should claim our hermeneutic as the right one or the best one. This position, of course, sets us adrift because - even if we all acknowledge the Bible as our authority - we have no sure way to access that authority and put it into use today.

Every man's opinion on a biblical text becomes as valid as the next one's. Such an approach to Scripture is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because it is totally out of harmony with the way Jesus and other inspired men viewed God's written revelation. Ultimately, we must turn to the way Jesus and other inspired people used the Scriptures to discover what hermeneutic we should use for accessing biblical authority. Do we want to know how to apply the ancient text to our day? Let us imitate Jesus and the apostles. If we follow their example, our hermeneutic is firmly rooted in divine precedent and is not just a system we picked from a grab bag.

Second, the new hermeneutic questions the idea that restoring the New Testament church is even desirable. Advocates sometimes say, "Which church are you trying to restore? Jerusalem? Corinth? Laodicea?" They obviously have missed the point. Restoration thinkers have never insisted on totally restoring a particular local church of the first century, but rather the church as it existed in the mind of God and was revealed through the Holy Spirit to inspired men. It is the church as it was in the mind of God that provides the pattern we must restore. To give up on the idea of restoring the church as it was in the mind of God is to invite each group to develop its own ideas of worship, church organization, the plan of salvation and morality. Why? Because there is no pattern to follow.

Third, some new hermeneutic advocates teach that since we are saved by grace, God does not care whether we follow the pattern of the New Testament church even if it can be discovered. So what if the first century did not use instrumental music, but some people do today? It does not matter, they reason, because we are saved by grace. Not surprisingly, this approach to the Scriptures is also bringing about a weakening of belief concerning the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins. I recently heard of a group preparing to break away from a local church of Christ. The group was not able to accomplish its desire to become an independent group because the dissidents could not agree on what to teach about the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins!

Fourth, some new hermeneutic advocates are convinced that the New Testament is so full of first-century culture that we cannot take the New Testament teachings at face value but must cleanse them of cultural overtones. All of us would agree that some injunctions of the New Testament have their base in particular cultural situations (such as the "holy kiss" previously mentioned) but that does not justify us in dismissing any injunction we dislike as a cultural one. The teaching in 1 Timothy 2 about the silence women are to keep in the assembly is a case in point. Some in the church are saying that Paul's teaching there is based strictly on the cultural role of woman in first-century society.

Is it not interesting, though, that the controversy surrounding the woman's role in the church today is manifesting itself exactly at the time when the feminist movement is making its demands upon us? It appears to me that we are in much greater danger of apostasy by accommodating New Testament teachings to modern culture than we are by insisting on the silence of woman in the assembly - not because of first-century cultural demands, but rather because of what the Holy Spirit says is the reason for that silence: the relationship of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (v. 13). First-century culture is not the issue in 1 Timothy 2.

Finally, the new hermeneutic undermines the concept that the Scriptures are the authoritative Word of God. Some tell us that the Gospels are more important than the Epistles. Some tell us that the Epistles, for example, are not an authoritative "constitution" to be obeyed, but rather a group of "love letters" or "casual letters" written by concerned writers to their Christian friends. There are some logical conclusions that spring from these concepts. Let me mention two.

First, some affirm the words of Jesus are more important than Paul's or Peter's. With that false idea in mind, it is quite easy to do away with Paul's teaching concerning church music, the qualifications of elders, the role of women in the church, or the purpose and action of baptism and focus exclusively on the red letters of the Gospels.

Second, if the Epistles are only love letters, we would not - indeed should not - go there to discover what God's final will is concerning marriage and divorce, our relationship to civil government, the plan of salvation, or a pattern for moral living. In other words, when we take an approach to the New Testament that considers a big part of it just to be some casual thoughts from an old friend, we end up with a quaint book from ancient times that has some material in it that is worthy of our consideration, but is certainly not very binding on us today. That concept of the Epistles does not square either with the promise of Jesus (John 16.13) or the teaching of the apostles (1 Corinthians 14.37).

Let us be alert to the preaching and teaching we are hearing today. Let us go beyond whether the speaker is handsome and intelligent, young or old, published or unpublished and listen to what he is saying. If we do not take responsibility of our own souls and do our own Bible study, we and our children will be swept away from our biblical roots.

- Dr. Howard W. Norton

Gospel Advocate, February 1992

 

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