I made mention in a previous article of the fact that this rubric ought to be as practical as possible so that it can be of benefit to all our readers. A theoretical discussion of the various branches of Practical Theology would not be of as much interest to all our readers as a more practical discussion of the matters related to this subject might be.
In casting about for a format for these articles which would emphasize the practical aspect of the subject, it came to me that the best vehicle for attaining this goal would be a series of letters written to an imaginary minister of an imaginary congregation; or letters written to the congregation itself; or letters written to some imaginary member or office bearer in the congregation. This idea is certainly not original. Charles Spurgeon already used this type of format, although in a slightly different form. And others have done the same.
Nevertheless, the format commends itself for different reasons. In the first place, it tends to keep the discussion on a more informal level; and, in this way, it tends to preserve the practical emphasis which is so important in the treatment of this subject. In the second place, it will, hopefully, assist in bringing the discussion as close as possible to the problems of pastoral and congregational life within the church of Christ. And this was the original purpose of such a rubric when the idea was proposed at last summer’s staff meeting. In the third place, it will give me more freedom to wander about in the whole field without limiting myself to any one given subject. Matters can be treated as they arise. One need not be too concerned about a systematic, logical and continuing treatment of individual subjects. One can roam rather freely and discuss matters of importance as these matters appear. Finally, this format will introduce into the rubric a personal element which will hopefully inspire more reader response so that the column is shared with you all.
Let us then call our imaginary pastor, “Timothy” and include in these columns, “Letters to Timothy.” If the time comes to write to an imaginary congregation, or to imaginary members of a congregation, we shall find other names and other titles.
It was good to hear that you successfully completed your classical exams and are now an ordained minister of the Word and Sacraments. Now begins the work towards which you have aimed your life and bent your efforts for many years. No doubt, there is also in your heart a deep sense of gratitude to God for bringing you on this long journey to become a shepherd of a flock in Christ’s sheepfold. There were many barriers along the way, obstacles to overcome, difficulties to face. There were, I know, many times of discouragement, and you would be an exception to the rule if there not many moments when you really doubted whether God had called you to the work of the ministry. But the Lord opened the way each step of the path you walked, and brought you to your goal. No doubt, you yourself are amazed, now that you can look back, how the Lord, in many wonderful ways, made it possible for you to continue your work, and how He led you step by step to your destination.
I suppose that you have begun your work with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly a sense of elation. How could it really be any different? You have struggled to attain this goal; you have prayed often that the Lord would bring you to the point where you can actually begin the work of the ministry. You have held this goal before your mind and heart for more years than you yourself know. And now your prayers are answered and your life’s work lies before you. The years of preparation are over, and the actual task to which you have been called now begins. But, on the other hand, there is also, I am sure, a certain sense of wonderment and awe, of trepidation not unmixed with fear. It is only when you are at last in the parsonage and begin to perform the work of shepherd that some of the heaviness of your responsibilities comes upon you. The fact that you are a mouthpiece of Christ, an ambassador of the gospel of our King, one to whom is entrusted the feeding of the souls of the precious elect of God, suddenly fills you with a measure of fear as you stand before the task to which you are called.
Do not mistrust this feeling. I hope that it remains with you all your life. It is only this sense of wonder and fear at the awesomeness of the task which will lead you to seek your strength and help only from Him Who has appointed you to this position in His Church.
While perhaps we can discuss some of these things in another letter, for there are many things to write in this connection, nevertheless, you have asked for some guidance in the matter of preaching. And it might be well to shelve our present discussion for a little while to turn to this matter.
The fact that you inquire concerning the whole subject of preaching is interesting. You have had your Homiletics course in seminary, and you have mastered, in so far as that is possible in school, the mechanics of exegesis and sermon making. It is not concerning these things which you inquire. Your question, I take it, arises out of another situation. You have learned rather quickly that mastering theory in school is one thing—of no little importance, of course. But the matter of putting theory into practice is quite another. You will find that this is true in all aspects of your work. I suppose, in a way, I am interpreting your request. But I take you to mean that you are anxious to know something about the more practical aspects of preaching. And this is indeed something worth talking about.
Although it may seem that I am starting rather far distant from the subject of preaching, I think nevertheless, that this is important if we are to put preaching, from a practical point of view, in its proper perspective. I want to talk for a bit about the relation between preaching and what is called in our day, the New Hermeneutics.
There will not be sufficient room in this letter to complete our discussion of the subject; so please wait for a further letter or two to finish the matter. In the meantime you can write with any questions you may have and perhaps steer the discussion in different channels.
Admittedly, I have a personal reason for discussing this matter first. I was asked to give a Reformation Day lecture on the subject of the New Hermeneutics. And, while I could not discuss in that lecture the relationship between the New Hermeneutics in preaching, I felt all along in the lecture that this was a subject worth some discussion.
There is no doubt about it that the New Hermeneutics has all kinds of implications for preaching. You recall from your school days that when we worked together in Hermeneutics class we discussed at length the principles of the interpretation of Scripture—and this is really what Hermeneutics is all about. You will recall that we talked about the fact that your study of the principles of Biblical interpretation was directly related to your calling to preach the gospel. It stands to reason therefore, that the two are closely connected to each other. This is not only true from a theoretical point of view, but from a very practical point of view as well.
When mention is made of the New Hermeneutics, (and there is a lot of talk about this in the air nowadays), it is not always so very clear exactly what people mean by this. This confusion is due to the fact that there is such a great variety of opinion among those who promote this so-called New Hermeneutics. There are almost as many differences of methods of interpretation as there are interpreters. Each one who takes upon himself the task of constructing a different Hermeneutics has his own idea as to how this ought to be done. This, in itself, is worthy of special notice. There is something instructive in this, for it gives evidence of the fact that once one has abandoned the tried and true paths, it is sort of like “every man for himself.” And this already puts a big question mark behind all these attempts.
Nevertheless, the term New Hermeneutics is, from one point of view, a fitting description of what is going on in the field of Biblical interpretation; and, from another point of view, it is a misnomer. It is a misnomer first of all, because what is meant by the name New Hermeneutics is really not new at all. The New Hermeneutics has striking resemblances to what has been going on in the field of higher and destructive criticism for a couple of centuries already. These resemblances have to do not only with the views which are held by the proponents of these New Hermeneutics—the views are the same in some respects of those of the higher critics from way back in the 18th century; but the resemblances are especially striking in the way both the higher critics and the proponents of the New Hermeneutics approach Scripture. That is, both approach Scripture from arationalistic viewpoint. And I mean this to be in distinction from the approach of faith. But I shall try to say a little bit more about this later on. So the New Hermeneutics is not really new, but very, very old.
Nevertheless, from another viewpoint it is new. And it’s new because it is only within the last twenty or thirty years that this Hermeneutics has been found within the Reformed Churches. At the time of the Reformation, certain basic and fundamental principles of Scriptural interpretation were set down which the Reformers maintained over against Rome. And while there have been, over the years, some development and systematization of these views, nevertheless, the Reformed Churches have been faithful to these principles. Higher Criticism arose out of rationalistic philosophy which had its roots not in the Reformation, but in the Renaissance. It is true that this rationalism and Higher Criticism infected the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries. But when our fathers led many people of God out of the old State Church in 1834, the Church returned to the principles of the Reformation also in this matter of Biblical interpretation. And the church has, on the whole, remained faithful to these principles. Even when there were many doctrinal controversies of many different kinds, the opposing parties were, on the whole, not divided on questions of Hermeneutics. And if there were men who departed from these principles of the Reformers, (such as Geelkerken in the Netherlands, and Jansen in America) they were deposed from office.
But now things are different. Within the Reformed Churches there is a new approach; not new in the sense of being something different from Higher Criticism, but new in the sense that the principles of Higher Criticism are rapidly creeping into Reformed circles and winning the day. This is new.
But I see I must end this letter. We shall have to continue our discussion next time. In the meantime, I suggest you read H. Boer’s articles in the Reformed Journal on this subject. He has just started a series on the matter. He is going to defend, he says, a genuine and Scriptural “Biblical criticism.”
We shall see.
With Christian greetings,