In my last letter I began a discussion with you concerning the so-called “New Hermeneutics” and its relationship to preaching. We really only began to discuss this matter, and so I want to carry on this discussion now.
I do not want to prolong this letter or series of letters indefinitely; nor do I want to enter into a detailed discussion of this whole matter in our correspondence. This is a very complicated and involved subject; and, if one would examine the question thoroughly, it is also a highly technical subject besides.
As you know, the main idea of the New Hermeneutics is the defense of a new and different method of interpretation of Scripture than that method which was set forth by the Reformers of the 16th century, and which was held to be the proper method by the Church of Christ since that time to the present.
It seems quite natural to ask the question: Why is a new method of interpretation being set forth and defended? Why do some believe that the principles of the interpretation of Scripture set forth by the Reformers are no longer valid in our day? Why must we make alterations and modifications in Hermeneutics if the principles which the Church has maintained for a long time have always worked so well?
This is not such an easy question to answer. The, difficulty of answering it is mainly because there are so many different answers which can be given. And there can be so many different answers given because there are so many different approaches made by the proponents of the New Hermeneutics. Because those who defend this new approach to the interpretation of Scripture differ so, greatly from each other, their reasons for adopting a new approach differ also. But I do think it is important for you to know some of these reasons anyway.
One reason for this new approach is the influence of modem rationalistic philosophy. I think I mentioned this to you already in my last letter. But the destructive and unbelieving higher criticism of the 18th and 19th centuries was directly the result of rationalistic philosophy of modem times. I do not want to trace this all here, for this will carry us too far away from our main concern. I only want to point out that the New Hermeneutics is also under the same influence. If you are interested further in this subject, I suggest you read C. Van Til’s new book, “The New Hermeneutics,” a book published recently by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing. He shows unmistakably the relationship between the two. The point, however, which is worth noticing is that the New Hermeneutics is fundamentally rationalistic. In this respect it differs radically and basically from the historic Reformation approach which is the approach of faith.
Another reason why some think a new Hermeneutics is necessary is because of recent developments in the fields of the natural sciences. The assumption is, of course, that studies in the natural sciences have proved conclusively that the universe is very old and that, in some form or another, it came into being by processes of evolution. I do not think it is important to go into this matter in detail either. This has been repeatedly discussed and is still being discussed in the ecclesiastical press. Again, if you are interested in pursuing this matter further, I highly recommend the material which is being published by the Creation Research Society. While I do not go along with their approach in every respect, they have done an immense amount of excellent work in showing that the natural sciences do not support evolutionism at all; They have also done a lot of work in showing that all the discoveries of the natural sciences are easily (and even better) explained from the viewpoint of creation and a universal flood as Scripture describes them. What is interesting though, is the fact that those who defend the New Hermeneutics are motivated, whether they will admit it or not, by a desire to make the Scriptures harmonize with the findings of science. But if, you want to do this, you cannot take many passages in Scripture (especially Genesis 1-7) literally. It is exactly this which will force you to adopt a new method of interpretation, for one of the principles of the Hermeneutics of the Reformation is exactly that the literal sense of Scripture is the correct one unless the passage itself indicates that another sense is intended (as, e.g., in the visions of John recorded in the book of Revelation).
Another reason why the New Hermeneutics has been proposed is what I would like to call a certain embarrassment with simple faith. This should have, I think, a little more explanation. You see, what has happened over the years is that destructive higher criticism has made fierce attacks against the Scriptures in an open attempt to destroy them. The people of God have never failed to answer these attacks, but they have always based their answers solidly upon the. Scriptures themselves. They have insisted that they stand by faith upon the Word of God as God’s Word. But wicked and unbelieving higher criticism has never been satisfied with this answer. Higher critics have come up with all sorts of “problems” which are supposedly to be found in Scripture, and all sorts of “problems” about the relation between the teachings of Scripture and the findings of the natural sciences, and have demanded answers to these problems. Now this demand for answers is not, in itself, bad. But, though the believer has put forth every effort to answer them, he has always insisted that the answers must be found within the framework of a deep and unwavering faith in the Scriptures as the Word of God. This, the believer has insisted, is my starting point, my unswerving loyalty, my basic presupposition, my firm conviction—whether the problems can be solved or not. But the higher critic has scoffed at this. And in his mockery, he has charged the defender of the Scriptures with being “unscholarly.” It seems as if there is no single charge which hurts some people more than the charge of being unscholarly. This really stings. And the higher critics know this. But the point is that those who were deeply hurt by this sort of criticism determined to show that they are, after all, scholarly. And, in their eagerness to show how scholarly they really are, they engage in discussions with the higher critics on their own ground. These men, attempting to defend the Scriptures, but wanting so desperately to be scholarly, adopt the fundamental principles of the higher critics in their defense of the truth. I mean by this, fundamentally, that these men who are attempting to defend the Scriptures on the grounds of the higher critics, themselves adopt what is nothing else but arationalistic approach to Scripture. The higher critics attack Scripture on rational grounds; the defenders of the truth of Scripture are going to defend Scripture on rational grounds. But to do this, they abandon the approach of faith—unless also faith can be rationally demonstrated. If you ever do this, you cannot long endure. You have really lost the battle. If you let the enemy choose the battleground and let the enemy make the choice of weapons, you can never hope to prevail.
So, you see, this is another reason why there is today something like the New Hermeneutics. For the New Hermeneutics is a rational approach to the Word of God.
I might mention, somewhat parenthetically, that there are many examples of books by “conservative” scholars which do this. I am at the moment reading a book by the great scholar F.F. Bruce which is entitled, “The New Testament Documents; Are They Reliable?” In this book Bruce finally answers the question in his title, “Yes, they are reliable.” But the thrust of his whole book is that they can be proved to be reliable by rational argument and by a careful examination of the evidence. While I do not know whether Bruce is a proponent of the New Hermeneutics, I do know that it is exactly this approach which will lead to the New Hermeneutics inevitably. And this is true because the basic starting point of all these views is the starting point of reason. If you do not differ from the unbelieving higher critic in your basic starting point, how do you expect to maintain a correct Scriptural position over against those who are seeking to destroy Scripture? If you do have such expectations, they are bound to be disappointed. A rationalistic approach leads to the New Hermeneutics; of that there can be no question.
And so we come to the real issue here. How does one come to Scripture? That is the question. Does one come to Scripture believing by faith that it is the Word of God? Or does one come to Scripture to investigate whether there is sufficient evidence that we may pass judgment on Scripture that it is, in the light of all the evidence gathered, indeed reliable?
Let’s try to put the question a bit more clearly. How do we know that the Scripture is the infallibly inspired record of the Word of God? What reason do we have to say this? The Reformers said: We believe this. The New Hermeneutics says: We must keep an open mind on the question. We shall examine the evidence—literary and historical. We shall gather all the evidence for and against and weigh the evidence as one would in a court of law. And we shall see which way the evidence points. Maybe we shall conclude that Scripture is infallibly inspired. Maybe we shall conclude, on the basis of evidence, that Scripture is authoritative. But it is just possible that the evidence will point us to a partial inspiration of Scripture; maybe we will be shown that Scripture is authoritative only in certain areas, but not when it discusses scientific and historical data; maybe the evidence will show us that Scripture’s inspiration must be re-defined. But whatever the outcome, let us, by all means, keep an open mind until we can submit all the evidence to careful analysis and detailed scrutiny. We must by all means be scholarly.
Now, (and this shall have to be by way of conclusion in this letter), if this is really the issue—if the issue is really between the rationalistic approach to Scripture and the approach of faith, then it is also clear that the issue is really a spiritual issue. It is not only an intellectual problem. It is not an issue which can only be described in theological terms. It is, very profoundly, aspiritual issue. Finally, it is an issue between faith and unbelief. (I do not want you to interpret this remark as meaning that every proponent of the New Hermeneutics is an unbeliever. That is not my conviction, nor is that any business of ours to discuss.) But the fact of the matter is, nevertheless, that the issue is spiritual and ethical. It involves the approach of the believer which is the approach of faith vs. the approach of reason which is the approach of unbelief. And the approach of reason is the approach of unbelief simply because man’s reason, divorced from faith, unenlightened by faith, is reason which is wholly darkened by sin and which is wholly given over to the lie. If you set reason over against faith, you give to reason an autonomous role. But autonomous reason is unbelieving reason. And its product will be the lie.
Well, I shall have to stop here. I hope that you will let me know your reactions to these things. We shall, the Lord willing, pick up the discussion in a later letter.
Fraternally in Christ,
P.S. There is one point which shall have to be added, although we will hopefully get at this matter later. The point I have in mind is that this whole question is extremely practical as far as the life of the child of God is concerned. Whether you like to or not, you shall have to acquaint your sheep with these issues. And you shall have to get them to understand the tremendous importance of these things. They are matters of life and death to the sheep. Be sure therefore, that you address yourself to these problems in your contacts with the congregation.