I think we can probably wind up our discussion of the New Hermeneutics in this letter. We have a number of loose ends to tie up and I want to make some comments yet about the relationship between the New Hermeneutics and the preaching.
We were talking last time about the relationship between faith and proof—especially as this is related to our fundamental belief in the Bible as the infallibly inspired Word of God. And there is one more point which, I think, ought to be made in this connection. You brought the matter up yourself, and it gives me the occasion to write a little bit about it.
I made the point that faith needs no proof. This lies in the nature of faith as the means which puts the believer in living contact with Christ and with spiritual truths. The question which you, with some justification, raise, is: Is there not a time when proof, however, is important and necessary? Do not we, e.g., make an effort to prove the truths which we confess from the Scriptures? Are not we required, in Dogmatics; e.g., to memorize a large number of “proof” texts? And when we have our oral exams before the Synod, do not our interrogators bear down on proof texts with a great deal of zeal? And even more than this, is there not some sense of the word in which we even speak of the importance of “proof” for the truth that Scripture is the Word of God? In his first epistle, I Peter 3:15, Peter speaks of the necessity for the believer of always .being ready to give an “apology” to the one asking him a reason for the hope that is within him. Does not this imply that his answer must be intelligent, reasonably constructed, laid out carefully as a defense of the faith? And does not all this imply that he makes an effort to “prove” his position?
This is an important point, and we ought to examine the matter for a few moments.
The whole question, I think, comes down to the matter of what one means by “proof.” Proof certainly has an important place in our defense of the faith. We must use proof when we are teaching in Catechism or even preaching from the pulpit. We must be very sure that all that we say is carefully proved by the Scriptures. We must be very sure that those who are being instructed are shown clearly that the truth is indeed set forth in the Word of God. We “prove” what we say by an appeal to the Scriptures.
This is even true of our apologetics when we debate the truth with those who differ from us on what they believe. The final court of appeal is the Scriptures. And we must always appeal to the Scriptures in support of our argument. This is so obvious it hardly needs stating. But what I mean to say is that here we have a legitimate use of proof. We must believe only that which the Scriptures teach, and we must defend our position exclusively on the basis of the Word of God.
This same thing holds true in our conversation with unbelievers. We are called to witness to the truth in the whole of our walk. When Peter writes in I Peter 3:15: “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear,” he certainly is presupposing that unbelievers, who observe our walk and notice that it is principally different from the walk of wicked men, ask us the reason for this. They inquire concerning this. And we must be ready to give an intelligent and careful defense of our hope. This means that we must be ready to justify our conduct with proof that this is the way one ought always to walk.
But here we come to the real crux of the matter. The only proof we have is, once again, the Scriptures. When we give a defense of our hope to the unbeliever, we must do this by pointing him to the Scriptures as the only authority of our faith and our life. We have no other proof than the Word of God. But we always face the possibility that our questioner will not accept the Scriptures as the Word of God. He might say to us that while he acknowledges that what we say is indeed what the Bible says, nevertheless he does not believe that the Bible is what we claim it to be. What are we to do then? Again, the only thing we can do is show him from the Bible itself that the Bible is what it claims to be. Our proof is once more limited to Scripture. Again, we have no other “proof’ than that.
Hence, most basically, there is no possibility of debate with anyone on any question of the truth apart from the Scriptures. If one will not accept the Scriptures as the basis for debating questions concerning the truth, that is the end of argumentation. There is no other appeal and no more point in prolonging the debate.
Proof within that framework is valid and indeed necessary. Proof beyond the Scriptures is impossible. The only proof is appeal to the Scriptures. Outside the Scriptures there is no proof.
And all this implies the presence or absence of faith. And that faith is, above all,, faith in the Word of God as God’s record of His own revelation. If a man has faith, he will accept the Scriptures as God’s Word. If he does not have faith he will repudiate the Scriptures. And no amount of “proof” will ever bring faith into his heart. All the arguments in the world will never suffice. “They have, Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
It is here where we must part ways with the New Hermeneutics. The New Hermeneutics takes a rationalistic approach to the Scriptures. It may all have started out “innocently” enough. Perhaps one only wanted to demonstrate in some kind of rational way that the Scriptures are the Word of God. But if that rational proof carries one away from the testimony of the Scriptures itself, then it will amount to nothing. But this approach is exactly filled with all kinds of dangers. If one’s approach is, in this way, rationalistic, then one’s approach to the whole of Scripture is rationalistic. But Scripture can only be the object of faith. It will not be amenable to the manipulations of the rationalists. Scripture is a unique book, also in this sense. For if one comes to Scripture in faith, then one bows before the sole authority of Scripture and subjects himself to what the Scriptures speak. Then this wonderful book opens itself to him who comes in faith. It speaks. It speaks in all its power and beauty, in all its saving glory and blessed truth. But when one takes the Scriptures in his hands to manipulate them according to the standards of his own reason, then Scripture becomes a terrible book. It slams its door shut in the face of the one who comes in this way. It speaks nothing any more—except words of wrath and the curse. It is, to use Luther’s expression, a closed book.
So it is that, in the hands of those who profess the New Hermeneutics, Scripture can be made to say whatever they wish it to say. It becomes only an instrument to assist them in propagating their own pet ideas. It is manipulated, twisted, turned, forced out of shape, a useless book of no value to anyone. But Peter speaks of the fact that unlearned and unstable men wrest the Scriptures unto their own destruction. (II Peter 3:16)
So we come to the matter of preaching. And this is what concerns you chiefly. I do not now refer to the preaching only as you climb the pulpit on Sunday; but I refer to your whole calling to preach the Word in all your work as shepherd under Christ in the congregation. You bring that Word as you so well know, in Catechism classes, when you visit new parents, at the side of sick beds, in the cemetery, when wandering sheep must be brought back to the fold. In all these circumstances, you must remember that you must speak with authority. That is, you can never say: “I am of this opinion”; or, “I think this is probably the wise thing to do”; or, “I suggest that you remember this as something which may be of help to you.'” All you can say is, “Thus saith the Lord.”
You must speak with authority. You know, of course, that the very fact that you are an officebearer in the church of Christ gives you authority. It is in the nature of an office to possess authority. You come to your sheep with the authority of the office you hold. But the simple fact is that you have authority as an officebearer only when you come with the Word. Your authority, even as an officebearer, is the authority of the Word. It is the authority of Christ and of God because it is the authority of God’s Word through Christ. Leave that Word behind you in your study, let it sit on your shelf, and assume the role of advisor, psychologist, marriage counselor, probation officer, or whatever, and you can no longer speak with authority.
But you come with the authority of the Word only when that Word is authoritative. And that Word is authoritative only when it is the infallibly inspired Word of God written in the Scriptures.
I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis once said to a group of higher critics: “A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia—which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes—if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two affects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he called Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same. An experienced clergyman told me that most liberal priests, faced with this problem, have recalled from its grave the late medieval conception of two truths: a picture-truth which can be preached to the people, and an esoteric truth for use among the clergy. I shouldn’t think you will enjoy this conception much when you have to put it into practice. I’m sure if I have to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn’t exactly—only in some Pickwickian sense—believe them myself, I’d find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar.”
With Christian love,