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Today's Hermeneutical Challenge
The radio speaker that Sunday morning was a successful minister in one of the major Protestant denominations. His text was Acts 5. His topic was 'power.' He spoke eloquently of the many ways in which most of us misuse our authority. Parents abuse their children by their negativism. Government leaders show insensitivity to the pains of those in need. We destroy by our criticism when we should build up with our praise.
As he approached the last part of his radio message, the preacher finally came to his text. In the narrative of Acts he found a dramatic example of the misuse of power. Ananias and Sapphira, weak Christians who had just given in to their temptations, were in need of reassurance and upbuilding. The apostle Peter, in an ugly display of arrogance, abused his authority and denounced their conduct with awful threats. Terror consumed each of them in turn, and they died on the spot under Peter's unbearable invective.
Most readers of this book will no doubt shake their heads in unbelief at such an example of biblical interpretation. But how can we account for it? This preacher was not an ignoramus but a very well-educated minister serving a sophisticated middle-class parish in a Philadelphia suburb. The exegetical tools he was given during his theological training were probably not significantly different from those of most other seminarians. Most disturbing of all, the very process going on in his mind as he arrived at an interpretation of Acts 5 was basically the same process all of us use--not only in interpreting Scripture but also in our understanding of a social conversation, the morning paper, or the evening news.
The history of the Christian church, like the history of society generally, has been characterized by repeated conflicts regarding the interpretation of evidence. Precisely because Christians place enormous significance on the Bible, disagreements regarding biblical evidence can have serious consequences.
In our day, however, 'the hermeneutical issue' has surfaced with a vengeance. Only a generation ago, conservative Christians enjoyed a sense of unity in their interpretation of the Bible. They knew, of course, that differences existed among various denominations and that some of these differences touched on matters of considerable importance, such as the meaning and practice of baptism, the proper understanding of sanctification, expectations regarding the end times, and so on. Relatively few people, however, seemed to appreciate the implications of this state of affairs; and no one was arguing that Evangelicals were faced with a hermeneutical crisis.
There must be some way to account for that period of innocence. Perhaps it is simply that a conservative Methodist could listen to a conservative Baptist and agree with 99 percent of what he or she heard. A sermon on the parable of the Prodigal Son would sound basically the same, whether it came from a Pentecostal evangelist or from a Presbyterian theologian. With so much obvious agreement, who would stop to worry about differences in interpretation?
But things have changed. As many have pointed out, one can no longer assume that an individual who professes an evangelical faith will hold 'the party line' on key social and ethical issues such as capital punishment, abortion, nuclear armament, divorce, premarital sex, or homosexuality.
Contemporary evangelicals are finding it difficult to achieve anything like a consensus on each succeeding theological topic they address. Moreover, they seem stymied in any effort toward unity, unable to agree on a collective interpretive strategy for moving beyond their current impasse.... If evangelicals cannot discover a way to move more effectively toward theological consensus, can they still maintain in good conscience their claim to Biblical authority as a hallmark?
Gone are the days when one could predict where a biblical scholar would come down on the date of the Exodus, the authorship of Isaiah, and comparable critical questions. As if to dramatize the depth of the hermeneutical disarray, conservatives could not even agree on how to handle the publication, in 1982, of a commentary by a prominent evangelical scholar who argued that many events related in the Gospel of Matthew are not to be interpreted as fully historical.
Already in the late 1970s, members of the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy recognized the need to address hermeneutical principles if their claims for biblical authority were to mean anything and, as a result, held the ICBI Summit II in 1982. Sixteen papers, covering a wide range of topics in the area of hermeneutics, were presented and discussed at this meeting and then published in a hefty volume. The participants represented the conservative wing of Evangelicalism and thus from the start agreed on some very basic issues. Moreover, they reached the necessary consensus to produce a significant document, 'The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics.'
And yet all was not well. A reviewer of HIB commented,
'I was left with a nagging question: if, as the participants affirm, the meaning in each biblical text is 'single, definite and fixed' and applies to all cultural contexts, and the Holy Spirit alone enables believers to apply the scripture to their lives, to what purpose are these nine hundred pages of argument?'
Although this objection reveals a failure to grasp the intent of the participants, the Chicago Statement nevertheless makes biblical interpretation sound easier than it often is. The very discussions at the summit show that the participants, when dealing with a number of crucial interpretive issues, found oneness of mind to be a very distant hope indeed.
One attempt to deal with this hermeneutical crisis has been to argue that the doctrine of inerrancy entails certain interpretive positions. In the face of turmoil, this approach is very tempting because it appears to eliminate, with one stroke, a variety of undesirable viewpoints.
Such a move, however, has desperation written all over it, and it undermines the very task of interpretation. The truth of scriptural authority does not automatically tell us what a given passage means: it does assure us that, once we have correctly identified the biblical teaching (in other words, proper interpretation is assumed), that teaching may be trusted unequivocally. At any rate, the very events that have led to the present crisis show rather clearly--unpleasant as this may sound--that a sincere and intelligent commitment to the classical doctrine of biblical inerrancy in no way guarantees that an individual will adopt expected interpretations.