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Proposals for a "New Hermeneutic"

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

This is the last in a series of seven articles on the "hermeneutical crisis" now threatening conservative churches of Christ. Thomas Olbricht reports that "according to current prognosis, the churches of Christ are entering a 'hermeneutical crisis"' (CSC, 1989). A year later Randy Fenter sounded the alarm that a "hermeneutical fire storm is raging through the brotherhood" (Image, 1990). Denny Boultinghouse sees the controversy in a different light. He wrote that the controversy between the "old hermeneutic" versus the "new hermeneutic" brethren has become so controversial that they are finding it "difficult to carry on a cool-headed discussion about the matter" (Image, 1990).

To what extent is the foregoing a correct assessment of a troubled brotherhood? I would say that the rank and file members of the churches of Christ have heard little such talk if any. Few read Image magazine and hardly any have attended a Christian Scholarship Conference. I undertook the task to read all the CSC papers to get at the bottom of this so-called "hermeneutical crisis." I have set forth the facts in chronological order to tell the story as it was told. I will gladly correct any error of fact. My editorial opinions are entirely my own.

I do not accept that a model of the "old hermeneutic" now or ever has existed. To be sure, there are hermeneutical rules and principles for interpreting scripture. The "trifold" formula of "command, example, and inference" are of ancient origin, beginning with Ezra and continuing today. It would not be possible to understand scripture without these three movements. What if suddenly the courts were called upon to abandon the "trifold" formula of "the law, precedents, and the opinion of the court"? You must imagine this because it will never happen. The critics of this "old hermeneutic" inject still another dimension into the rubric. They allege that the New Testament is taken as a code of laws. I do not think so and know of no biblically informed brother who does.

If the search for a "new hermeneutic" to replace the old one goes on, it is being kept a secret. Ron Highfield tells us that "we don't need to invent a new hermeneutic.' It already exists and has for years" (CSC, 1990). Russ Didrey thinks otherwise, stating the fact that no "discernible plan for a 'new hermeneutic' is ever outlined" (Restoration Quarterly, 1988).

The "old hermeneutic" was concocted by a liberal element in the church of Christ. Biology students brought a mounted insect glued with parts of different insects and called upon the professor to identify the specimen. He pronounced it a "humbug." I have a question: Why are such a few of our brethren so obsessed with the consuming desire to divide the churches of Christ?

Proposals for a "New Hermeneutical" Model

Thomas Olbricht took the lead to propose the need for a replacement of the "old hermeneutic." At the very moment of his proposal, he begins "to hedge" in his options: "We are not so much in a hermeneutical as in a theological method or authority crisis" (CSC, 1989). Alan McNicol concurs with the assessment: "In my view, it is not a hermeneutical but a theological method that stands at the root of the problem" (CSC, 1989).

Michael Casey sets forth his proposal for a specific methodology for a "new hermeneutic." The deponents for a "new hermeneutic" share a commonalty of agreement in their rejection of the "old hermeneutic." Casey explains: "I want to propose a 'new hermeneutic' that grows out of a critique of the 'old hermeneutic' of command, approved example, and necessary inference." Casey alleges that, "The church is a story-formed community or a community of character that lives by the story of Christ and the early church. That story has been given to all Christians to live by" (CSC, 1989). And so it is that "life is a tale that is told," as poetically phrased by David and prosaically stated by William Faulkner that "life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

Ron Highfield thinks little of Casey's new model: "Unfortunately, Casey's proposal is more suggestive than practical, for he never really tells how it works" (CSC, 1990). Olbricht offers the advice that Casey "needs to work out a story-telling hermeneutic that can set the parameters of the life and faith of the believing community" (CSC, 1989).

Thomas Olbricht submits his proposal that he says is endorsed by front runners in Nashville and other places: "Scripture is not a constitution or code book as envisioned by the 'old hermeneutic' but is a love letter from God." And he adds: "I believe that God's relentless love for mankind made in his image is the beginning point for the story and its form" (CSC, 1989). Philip Slate sees it differently: "I have heard no real evidence for the assertion that the New Testament is a love letter rather than a constitution" (Image, 1991).

The story-telling proposal of Casey is very "old shoe." Its classic form is phrased in the Graf-Wallhausen Hypothesis that the Bible is an accretion of Jewish stories, myths, legends, and ancient law codes. The name of Rudolph Bultmann comes strongly to mind; he said that "the true story of the gospel lies buried under strata of myths, legends, and folkways." In what essentials does Casey's story-telling model differ?

An antecedent of Olbricht's agape is strangely like the agape theology of Scandinavia's most prominent modem theologian, Anders Nygren. He is the author of the book, Agape and Eros, which sets the standard for agape theology in this century. We solicit Casey and Olbricht to bring us up to date on the accumulative "story-telling" and agape theology since the era of Bultmann and Nygren.

Bill R. Swetmon would set up a model for a "new hermeneutic" with the most venerable of patterns. He begins by telling us there has been a tendency in our movement to almost totally ignore the historical approach to literature. "Rather we have approached the scripture as an arrangement of inspired propositions (proof texts)." Swetmon states his intent: "In this article I should like to set forth a method of hermeneutic that has been almost totally overlooked by many of us" (Image, 1989). What does he mean when he speaks of the "historical method in hermeneutics"?

Swetmon is actually saying that most of us have little awareness of the fields of lower criticism and higher criticism. In the centuries-old translations of the scripture, we start with the Septuagint (250 B.C.) and the monumental translations since. We have the language scholars in mind in the field of lower criticism. In the field of higher criticism, we have in mind the biblical historians and archaeologists who recover ancient civilization from dead languages and artifacts, each with its own story to tell. We all use and have boundless respect for such "world class" scholars and their books and dictionaries. I have seen the Rosetta stone and a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The secular world of academia is just as thrilled with each new discovery as any biblical scholar. We think Swetmon has done poorly on this one.

Michael Moss joins the chorus of the critics of the "old hermeneutic." He needs to explain such statements, and he can afford to do no less: "This author has a real distaste for imposing a system on the Bible," and "strict pattern theology must be abandoned." And this one-"no longer can one simply argue that the New Testament church did it this way." Moss suggests that the books of Luke and Paul were occasional documents written in a time for a particular audience which may or may not have a current relevance. And what are we to make of this statement: "One must reject a rigid theology which simply transplants religious and cultural forms from "he first century to the modem era" (CSC, 1989)? This is not the place to set up a critique of Moss's 1989 CSC paper.

Randall Harris presented in 1989 a CSC paper in which he advocated a "hermeneutic of suspicion." The paper was not included in the 1989 CSC collection which was made available to the public. However, Thomas Burch wrote a digest and assessment of the 1989 papers, including the one by Harris.

Harris is reported to have said that we should adopt a "hermeneutic of suspicion" since no one in this world can know the will of God perfectly (Image, 1990). We would petition Harris to make public his paper that he may not be misunderstood and that we may in turn understand.

Summary Statements

The foregoing comprise only a small portion of the numerous articles and papers on the "hermeneutical crisis." All who pretend to a credible level of scholarship must keep in mind that the playing fields of academia are level. A player had best know his opposition by name and number. For the past twenty years, liberal brethren in our brotherhood have drunk deeply from the fountains of liberal theologies. They have largely gone unchallenged and have tended to view their critics with "learned" disdain. This has changed.

There are those who consider it impolite to call names and address issues. In a paraphrase of Job, "we know that you know, and we were not born yesterday." We say to such brethren that we believe that a part of your agenda is to mislead churches into your yet undefined "New Age" church. You will succeed in part, and some memberships will innocently follow your theological "pied-piping." The bells are tolling, and they are tolling for you. School is in session, and we have the single-minded purpose to educate the brethren by quoting what you say. We trust in their intelligence to understand what you mean by what you say.

My Proposals for the "New Hermeneutic"

First, defuse the explosive "hermeneutical crisis," quench the raging "fire storm," and lower the rhetoric to accommodate "cool-headed" discussions. This can easily be accomplished by eliminating all the theological "gobbledygook" and returning to basic Bible doctrines. This "old way" will be as refreshing as this morning's sunrise and as old as time itself.

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Published November 1992