"...but try the spirits whether they are of God..." (1 Jno. 4:1)


Volume One, Number Two Spring 1991


The New Hermeneutics

Dub McClish

"Hermeneutics" is a word created from the name of Hermes, a god of Greek mythology, who served as interpreter of the other gods, especially Jupiter. Thus, "hermeneutics" refers to the science of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics are of ultimate importance -- one's understanding of the Bible can be no better than his hermeneutics. The restoration of the church of Christ was accomplished by applying correct Biblical hermeneutics. The purity and identity of the church can be maintained only through continued application of correct hermeneutics.

We all habitually (and without having to think about it) use several correct principles of hermeneutics each time we read the Bible. When we recognize a passage to be figurative rather than literal, when we take note of who is writing or speaking and who is being addressed, and when we distinguish between Old Testament and New Testament law, we are using sound hermeneutics.

For several years there have been a few voices of radical liberalism among us which have steadily denied some of the most basic principles of correct Biblical Hermeneutics (e.g. Carl Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, et al.). In more recent years a younger generation of brethren has arisen that has been influenced both by the spirit of hyper-tolerance which now dominates society and by the poisonous principles of the liberals of the past generation.

The younger liberals have especially developed a fixation on unity with the denominations, beginning with the Independent Christian Church. Since 1984, annual meetings between men in the two groups have been taking place. With but few exceptions, the participants from the churches of Christ have been those who have a history of doctrinal softness and compromise, if not outright apostasy.

Out of this background (and in order to hasten their union and fellowship agenda), these liberal brethren have adopted an entirely new approach to various words, passages, and principles of interpretation of Scriptures. Hence, we refer to the "new hermeneutics." (Actually, when analyzed, the "new hermeneutics" are hardly more than the "old hermeneutics" of a century ago that caused the Christian Church to apostatize from the Truth in the first place.) By listing and briefly discussing some of the principal points of this hermeneutical perversion we shall be able to see clearly the direction of movement; This we plan to do in this and in the essay to follow.

A significant element of the new hermeneutics is a novel view of fellowship. Ketcherside and Garrett have long advocated an erroneous distinction between "gospel" and "doctrine" (i.e., the "gospel" consists only of such basics as the death, burial, and resurrection, while "doctrine" consists of all other matters [e.g., worship, the nature of the kingdom, morals, etc.]). They then insist that only the "gospel" (not doctrine" at all) is the only basis for fellowship. This approach places such issues as worship, with mechanical instruments and premillennialism in the realm of human preference. It also implies that we are in fellowship with practically all who claim to believe in Christ, regardless of how heretical their views are on a hundred subjects. This fatally erroneous hermeneutic has been aptly called (by Ketcherside himself) "unity in diversity."

The latest version of this view (fathered by Rubel Shelly) contends that there are two "levels" or spheres" of fellowship. Shelly's scheme (which he calls "fellowship without compromiser) distinguishes between "big 'F'" fellowship add "little 'f'" fellowship. According to him, one has only Fellowship (not fellowship) with all those who (in this view) have "obeyed the gospel." However, he has both Fellowship and fellowship with those who have "obeyed the gospel" and who agree with him on doctrinal matters. Since the "big 'F'" "level" of fellowship implies no endorsement of doctrine (according to Shelly), we can thus have Fellowship with those who use the instrument, advocate Premillennialism, and such like, without endorsing their errors. He calls this his "doctrine of limited fellowship." Notice that Shelly's "big 'F'" is tantamount to the Ketcherside/Garrett "fellowship based on gospel," and his "little 'f'" equals their contention that doctrine does not determine fellowship.

The malignant consequences of this hermeneutic are many. It demands acceptance of almost every form of doctrinal error (from foot washing to counting beads) as mere matters of indifference. Ultimately, it demands acceptance of the "pious unimmersed," as long as they believe in Christ. This monstrous concept born of the need for some device to allow those enthralled with their error (particularly the Independent Christian Church) to be granted "fellowship" without having to give up their errors. Of course, the New Testament knows nothing of a distinction between "gospel" and "doctrine" nor of "levels" of fellowship. One is either in fellowship with God and his fellow man or he is not in fellowship with them (2 Corinthians 6:12; Ephesians 5:11; 1 John 1.7; et al.).

Those who divided the church over a century ago by forcing in the missionary society and the instrument had to deny the significance of Scriptural silence concerning both. Now some of our brethren are carelessly doing the same thing in a new move for union with the Independent Christian Church. We expect those in the ICC to try to negate the force of Scriptural silence, be we do not expect our own brethren to surrender it as casually as some are!

"Where the scripture are silent we are silent," more than any other one principle, has been responsible for the restoration and maintenance of New Testament Christianity. Through the same "breech in the dam" of Scriptural authority that is made for instrumental music (because it is not "explicitly condemned in the Bible"), others have not been brought in countless other innovations. It would be interesting to hear a debate between a it's-not-condemned-in-the-Bible instrumentalists and one who contends for milk and cornbread on the Lord's table!

Respect for the silence of Scripture, involving the "law of inclusion and exclusion," is rooted in Scripture itself. Simply put, when God specifies what He wants man to do or how He wants man to do a certain thing, He simultaneously includes what He wants and implicitly excludes every other thing in that class. We naturally and unconsciously use this principle every day.

When a song leader says, "Please turn to number 100," he implicitly excludes every other song by including the song specified. Noah respected this principle, using only gopher wood in building the ark, although there was no explicit prohibition of other woods (Genesis 6:14, 22). Nadab and Abihu did not respect God's silence and God consumed them for offering a strange fire, not because it was explicitly forbidden, but fire "...which he [God] commanded them not" (Leviticus 10:1)

Inspired men lived by this principle. There was no authority to bind circumcision because inspired men were silent concerning it (Acts 15:24). No angel was a son of God because He was totally silent concerning angelic sonship (Hebrews 1:5, 13). Christ could not be a priest in Israel (Hebrews 8 41, because He was of Judah, "...as to which tribe Moses spake nothing {emp., DM] concerning priests (Hebrews 7:14). If inspired writers used this principle to interpret Scripture, then so must we. A renewal of strong emphasis on the validity of this principle is greatly needed!

Romans 14:1-3 discusses "weaker" and "stronger" brethren and the forbearance that should exist between them. Some of our own preachers are now saying that this passage applies to the issue of using instruments in worship and to our relationship with the Independent Christian Church. Larry James, preacher for the Richardson East Church of Christ, Richardson, Texas, likely spoke for several others when he wrote:

"The whole discussion [with ICC men] called to mind Paul's advice to the weak and the strong in fellowship (1 Cor. 8, 10; Rom. 14-15). Implicit in our dialogue was the realization that our division in the past has been over an issue of opinion, not of revelation. From my perspective in a non-instrumental congregation, it seems that I stand in the camp of the weaker brethren. I was made glad...at the generosity and maturity of my stronger brethren from the Independent Christian Church."

Even a neophyte in the Scriptures should be able to perceive that Paul was not discussing matters of obligation (such as how to worship acceptably or the action or purpose of baptism, etc.) in Romans 14. He was discussing matters of option or indifference (eating meat and herbs as opposed to eating only herbs, and esteeming days differently [Romans 14:2, 5, 15]). God cares not whether we eat meat or herbs (l Corinthians 8:8) nor whether we esteem days differently (Romans 14:5,6), as long as we do not judge or condemn those who differ from our practice (Romans 14 4) and do not destroy one another by insisting on our way (Romans 14:13, 14, 20-21). Such forbearance is to apply to all matters of option.

If we insert instrumental music into Romans 14, to be consistent, ought we not also to insert women preachers, missionary societies, non-congregational singing, premillennial views, acceptance of unscriptural baptism, and all of the other errors of the ICC? In fact, why not throw in the multiplied hundreds of erroneous doctrines and practices of Protestantism and Catholicism as well? To consider those who can tolerate (yea, even revel in) error as spiritually "stronger and those who refused to become enmeshed in such errors as "weaker" is absolutely grotesque hermeneutics! Let it be clearly stated that in matters of obligation (which most certainly describes what Christ teaches about worship [John 4:24]), there is to be no forbearance extended to those who deviate from the inspired pattern (I John 1:6-7; 2 John 9).


CHALLENGE is published quarterly by Challenge Publications.
Jerry D. McDonald, Editor; Michael P. Hughes, Associate Editor.


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