By Chris Reeves
(Note: This article was taken from material in a larger outline entitled “Out With the Old and In With the New: The Cry of the New Hermeneutic” by the same author. This thirty page outline has many useful quotes and references about the New Hermeneutics, a refutation of each of the main points of the New Hermeneutics and a large bibliography. This outline can be ordered from Truth Bookstore.)
Over the past ten to fifteen years we have seen a new theory being promoted among some of our brethren regarding the study and interpretation of the Bible. This theory has been called the “New Hermeneutics” (hereafter, NH). Hermeneutics is a big word but it simply means “interpretation.” Hermeneutics is the process of interpreting the Scriptures. According to the NH, the old way of interpreting God’s word must be abandoned for a new and improved method of Bible interpretation. What is the “old way” or the “old hermeneutic”? For starters, NH advocates say that using commands, examples and necessary inference to establish Bible authority is an old, man-made tradition dating back to the days of Alexander Campbell and this method must go. In addition to this, NH advocates want to abandon any method of Bible interpretation that seeks to find a pattern of truth in a fixed body of first century teach- ing (the New Testament), in order to apply that pattern of truth to the 20th century church. In short, we are told by these NH advocates that we should abandon any rational, “systematized” method of Bible study for an “existential” (emotional) experience with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. A good example of the current and typical NH approach to a study of God’s word is found in an article by John Allen Chalk entitled, “My Life with the Bible: A Meditation on Hermeneutics” (Wineskins, January/February 1994, 20). In this article he writes:
As a child the Bible was a gargantuan intellectual challenge grasped only by the Olympian personalities who came to my little country church and were entertained and hosted by my family. The Bible in those days was a battleground site, a textbook, an anthology of proof texts, understood correctly by a few, misunderstood by most (especially outsiders). The Bible in those days could be contained in a syllogism or a series of syllogisms by which all arguments could be won and all disputes settled quickly and cleanly.
As a young preacher and throughout my full-time ministry years the Bible for me changed slowly through painfully intense study from a sermon text source to a variegated but coherent guide for God-given life shaped by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and actualized in the personal presence of the Holy Spirit. This was a private, intimate, and often troubling journey about which I could say nothing that would belie my confident pulpit pronouncements. In these years I discovered a personal walk with God centered in daily devotional Bible study (as opposed to technical Bible study for sermons and classes which I was compelled to pursue). The controversy in Churches of Christ over the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit erupted in the 1960s just as I emerged from several years of personal search through the Bible for authentic spiritual and moral power. This quest inescapably led me to a new existential decision about Jesus as the living Word of God and a new personal relationship with God’s Holy Spirit.
The Scriptures must be interpreted (Neh.8:8; Luke24:27, 45). The question is, “Which hermeneutic will we use to interpret the Scriptures?” The one set forth by Jesus and the New Testament church, or the NH set forth by some our brethren in recent years? Instead of looking to a NH to interpret God’s word, why not look to the New Testament? What does the New Testament itself say concerning the proper use of Scripture? We should let the New Testament determine how we ought to interpret the Scriptures. There is much to be said against the NH. (See the thirty page outline mentioned above, or the article entitled, “The New Hermeneutic,” Guardian of Truth, October, 6, 1994.) Since this special issue of Truth Magazine is devoted to the topic of how to study the Bible, this article will focus on the New Testament Bible study methods that NH brethren want to abandon. Not only can we learn something about the NH, but we can also learn how to study the Bible along the way by looking at some New Testament examples of Bible study. The best manual on hermeneutics is the New Testament itself.
NH advocates want to abandon the use of the New Testament as a pattern or blueprint. They say that the New Testament was never intended by God to be a “pattern” or “blueprint” that we must follow today. They do not believe the Bible is “propositional revelation” (revelation that sets forth a definite, certain statement of truth that must be understood and obeyed), and they say we should not study the Bible to find truths to obey. They claim that “pattern theology” or “pattern hermeneutics” is an invention of the 19th century church. The New Testament on the other hand teaches us that we must follow it as a pattern. Paul wrote to Timothy and said, “Hold the pattern of sound words which thou hast heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). When each New Testament Christian began his new life in Christ, he first obeyed the “form (pattern) of teaching” (Rom. 6:17) found in the gospel, and then he continued on by following the pattern of the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) and the teaching of Christ (2 John 9). A good Bible study method begins with the approach that the New Testament is a pattern for my life and I’m going to search out what that pattern is, follow it and hold it fast.
NH advocates want to abandon the practice of establishing Bible authority by the use of direct statements (or commands), approved examples, or necessary inference. The NH advocates tell us that the “tri-fold hermeneutics” (command, example, inference) is a man-made tradition of the last century and it should be rejected. They claimed that the New Testament does not teach us anything today by apostolic examples or necessary inferences. These examples and inferences are not binding today — explicit statements alone are authoritative. Christ alone is our example. “We are Christo-centric!”, they say. We are told to go to the gospels for our examples, not to Acts or the Epistles. The topic of how to establish Bible authority is covered elsewhere in this issue but a couple of observations are in order here. First, God is the one who has used these three methods throughout time to teach his will. Looking for direct statements, examples, and inferences did not originate in the last century. Long before the 1900s God was using these three methods to teach his will. God teaches by means of these three methods and man learns God’s will by studying what God has said directly, what he has implied (inferences) or by his approved examples.
Second, learning God’s will in this way is not a man- made tradition. We have divine approval from God for this method because this is the very method used by Jesus and the New Testament church. I encourage you to study the following passages and others like them and see how authority for a practice is established by this method: direct statements (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; 15:1-9; 19:16-23; 22:34-40; 28:18-20; John 12:28; 14:15; 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Pet. 3:1-2; and 1 John 2:3-5); approved examples (John 13:15; Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 4:6, 16-17; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:5-7; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; 1 Tim. 1:16; 2 Tim. 3:10,14; Heb. 13:7); and implication/inference (Matt. 12:23-47; 16:5-12; 22:23-33, 41-46; Luke 4:25-30; 1 Cor. 1:13; Heb. 4:6-9; 7:1-17). In one passage alone (Acts 15), we find Christians learning God’s authoritative answer to the question over circumcision by Peter’s implications (vv. 7-11), Paul’s examples (v. 12) and James’ direct statements from the prophets (vv. 13-19). New Testament Christians followed the direct statements, approved examples, and implications given to them by God. We should do the same if we want to truly be New Testament Christians! We should study our Bibles looking for God’s will found in direct statements, indirect statements (implications/inferences), and approved examples.
NH advocates want to abandon making the silence of God prohibitive. The Scriptures teach that if God is silent on a matter, we are not allowed to act in that area; that is, his silence prohibits us from acting. But NH advocates say that when God is silent we have permission to act. They say that God did not intentionally remain silent. God simply didn’t get around to talking about various things in the Bible, therefore, God gives us the freedom to do those things that he did not talk about. However, many times in Scripture we are told that we are to act by the word of God, not by the silence of God. Paul said, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Think about it. There is no “hearing” in silence; no “word of God” in silence; hence, no “faith” in silence. When men act upon the silence of God, they are not acting by faith! Silence does not express God’s authority or God’s approval. We cannot determine what God wants for us by what God does not say. Study the context of the following passages which teach that God’s people are not to act if God is silent: Exodus 14:13-14; Leviticus 10:1-3; 24:12; Numbers 9:8; 15:34; 20:8,11; 1 Samuel 13:12; 1 Chronicles 13:1-14; 15:13; 2 Chronicles 26:18; Jeremiah 19:5; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Acts 15:24; Galatians 1:6-9; Hebrews 1:5, 13; 7:11-14; 2 John 9-11. When we study God’s word we need to spend our time studying his word, not his silence. We engage in “Bible study,” not “silence study.”
NH advocates want to abandon the use of the New Testament as a book of case law or as a constitution. These advocates believe that the New Testament is not a book of law, but rather a collection of “love letters.” These casual love letters “dashed off by an apostle to a church” were not meant to be used as law for a rigid guideline, but they should be viewed more as good “take-it-or-leave-it” suggestions for modern man. The New Testament does not so teach. It does not claim to be a collection of “love letters.” The New Testament is the “new covenant” law of God (Jer. 31:31-33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16), the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:22; Gal. 6:2) and the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25; 2:8, 12). Remember on Pentecost (Acts 2), it was “the law” of Jehovah that went forth from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:1-3). And keep in mind that if there is no “law,” there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 1 John 3:4). The New Testament is our law book. Just as we would sit down and study various laws to see how we must live in our community (traffic laws, tax laws, zoning laws, etc.), so we must sit down to a study of God’s word looking for the laws by which he governs every aspect of our life (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
NH advocates want to abandon the use of deductive reasoning and logic when trying to learn God’s will. Again, their argument is that our current hermeneutic is a man-made tradition carried over from the “Restoration Movement” of the last century. They say we use deductive reasoning and logic today to study the Bible because Alexander Campbell and others were fond of this method. According to them, anyone today using reason and logic in their study of God’s word is a member of the “Rationalist / Inductive School.” They say that emotion, not reason, is what is important in Bible study. But what does the New Testament say? First, let’s define a few terms (all definitions are taken from the Webster’s New World Dictionary). Don’t be scared by the words being used here. “Reason” simply means “the ability to think, form judgments, draw conclusions, etc.” “Logic” is the use of “correct reasoning.” “Deduction” means “the act or process of deducing; reasoning from a known principle to an unknown, from general to the specific, or from a premise to a logical conclusion.” “Rational” means “of, based on, or derived from reasoning.” “Inductive” means “reasoning from particular facts or individual cases to a general conclusion; the conclusion reached by such reasoning.” We must remember that God has given each of us mental capabilities and he expects us to use them. These varied mental capabilities, in part, are what separate us from the animal kingdom.
When we search the Scriptures we find that God approves of, and demands the use of reasoning in the teaching and learning of his word (Isa. 1:18; 41:21; 1 Cor. 10:15; Rom. 12:1 (KJV); 1 Pet. 3:15). Jesus (Matt. 22:15-46), Philip (Acts 8:35), Paul (Acts 17:2-3, 17; 18:4, 19; 24:25; 26:24-25; Rom. 2:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:12-19), Apollos (Acts 18:28) and the author of Hebrews (3:4; 7:1-17) all used reasoning, logic, rationality, deduction, and induction to teach God’s word. We should use the same mental powers to study it. Take for example the need to become a Christian. The whole question of becoming a Christian involves rationality, reasoning, logic, deduction and induction. No- where in the Bible does my name, “Chris Reeves,” appear. No verse in the whole Bible says something like, “Chris Reeves do this . . .” How then do I know that any part of the New Testament gospel is for me, “Chris Reeves,” if my name is nowhere mentioned? Very simple. I conclude that I too, must become a Christian by reading the facts, principles, cases, and examples found in Scripture. Yes, emotion is important in our Christianity, but so also is a rational sound mind. God expects both (2 Tim. 1:7). A very important study method that must be used each time we sit down to study God’s word is the “inductive method.” First, gather all the Bible information on a topic (observation). Second, learn what that information means (interpretation). Third, draw a conclusion about that information (deduction/induction). Finally, obey what that information teaches (application).
NH advocates want to abandon any claim to know the truth. We cannot know the truth or have the truth, they say. The wholeness of truth lies beyond the grasp of the human mind, and they say that “truth” is not fixed, but ever-changing. They conclude that since we cannot know everything, we cannot know anything for certain. The Bible teaches differently. We can know the truth (Prov. 23:23; 1 Tim. 4:3; 2 Tim. 1:12; Heb. 10:26; 1 John 2:21; 5:18-20; 2 John 1). Jesus said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). God’s word is truth (John 17:17; 1 Thess. 2:13). The truth can be heard (Eph. 1:3), obeyed (1 Pet. 1:22) and followed (2 John 4). The church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We must defend the truth (Jude 3; 1 Pet. 3:15) and speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). If we do not know the truth, we will be punished (2 Thess. 1:8). We do not know all there is to know, but what God has revealed to us is truth, and we can know it and respond to it (Deut. 29:29). While it is true that many do not know the truth in the Bible, it is not because the truth is unattainable. It is because these people do not love the truth (2 Thess. 2:10), nor do they want the truth (2 Tim. 3:1-7). When we study the Bible we should study to find God’s truth, and then apply that truth to our lives to make us better people. Bible study is not to be purely academic. It is supposed to be practical.
NH advocates want to abandon the approach that all Scriptures are equally important. NH advocates criticize us for having a “flat” Bible where all truths are held equally important. NH advocates talk about the “core gospel,” the “fundamentals of the faith” or the “seven essential items of Christian faith” (as per Eph. 4:4-6). Misusing Matthew
23:23, NH advocates say that there are “weightier” matters of the gospel upon which we all must agree (like the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ), and the “less weightier” matters of doctrine are mere opinions upon which we all agree to disagree (like the work, worship, and organization of the local church). This is similar to the “gospel-doctrine distinction” made by some brethren a few years ago. Of course, the NH advocates cannot tell us exactly what the “core gospel” is. They have been adding to it and taking from it for years, and they cannot agree among themselves what it should include. The truth is that all of God’s word is equally important and all of it must be used as a basis of fellowship (2 John 9-11). “All things” that Christ has commanded must be observed (Matt. 28:20; cf. Acts 3:22). “All Scripture” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and “all wisdom” (Col. 1:28) is necessary to make us complete. When you study your New Testament, don’t study looking for what is and is not essential, picking and choosing what you think is important and is not important.
“Out with the old and in with the new” is the cry of the NH. But for those of us who are interested in pleasing God, let us be content to use the Scriptures in the way that Jesus and the New Testament church used them. We do not need a NH. We need the hermeneutic of Jesus and the New Testament church. Let us not abandon what is clearly established in God’s word. Let us study the Bible to (1) examine the pattern and hold it fast, (2) receive our authority from God’s direct statements, implications and approved examples, (3) hear what God says, not what he does not say, (4) learn the law of Christ and abide by it, (5) draw conclusions about what God wants for our lives today, (6) hear, understand and obey God’s truth, and (7) find and obey all things that God requires for our lives as Christians. I appeal to all brethren to follow the example of Jesus and the New Testament church, as they seek to study the Bible and handle accurately the word of truth today.