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,
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"
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
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
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.
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
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