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Hermeneutics and Modernism

(Originally Published 1990)

The first time I heard anyone who professed to be a Gospel preacher advocate the new hermeneutic method was in the exchange between liberal (some ultra-liberal) and conservative brethren in Nashville in December, 1988. After the first ultra-liberal speaker had finished, I met one of the speakers who was going to speak on the liberal side and asked: Where did you all get that man? His response was: "Frank, that was rank Modernism." One of the speakers said the first century Christians could not have looked upon apostolic teaching as a pattern because the New Testament canon was not accepted until the fourth century. Another said we should study the life of Jesus and do what we feel He would do in a situation. 

I went home and got out my "Modernism - Trojan Horse in the Church," written by James D. Bales in 1971. It amazed me that the "new" part of "hermeneutics" was basically the same old arguments that James Bales was answering against Modernists in the church back then. Certainly, the two positions are not identical, but the end result - denying the New Testament as an objective pattern for God's people is identical. The Modernistic approach ended with those who advocated it leaving the New Testament pattern and joining denominationalism, which the New Testament identifies as a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). It does not take a prophet to foresee that the same end will come to those today who are embittered toward the New Testament as a pattern.

I am going to quote extensively from James Bales' book, and it will be obvious that you can change a few words and have the same arguments for and against the new hermeneutics philosophy. He said: "One liberal said: 'We must avoid the proof-text mentality in which statements of Paul addressed to a specific historical situation, are erroneously transformed into absolute statements valid for all times and appropriate for every circumstance…'"

"To this we reply: First, if texts do not prove anything for us today, it is futile to appeal to the Bible at all. If its text is not related to our times, and valid for our times, the Bible must be abandoned as God's revelation to man and as our authority. Second, care must be exercised that a passage not be taken out of context and used to prove something which is not taught by the passage. Third, even when a specific local situation is being dealt with, it is important for us to accept and to utilize the principle which Paul applied to a specific situation" (p. 106).

"One of the signs of error and confusion which can lead into modernism or other types of error, is the charge of 'legalism' when someone insists on teaching people to do what Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20)…These confused individuals, however, do not abandon law. They firmly believe and may even fiercely proclaim, 'Thou shalt not be a legalist. It is wrong to be a Pharisee!'…One is not being a legalist in maintaining that we are in some sense under law to Christ. There are commandments which we are to keep (Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 9:21; Heb. 8:10)" (p.112).

"There is a love of novelty which pants as it pursues the latest fad in theological circles. They are like those in Athens who 'spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing' (Acts 17:21). They want both to be different and on the frontier of what they consider to be the intellectual boundaries of the day. As Reuel Lemmons put it, in speaking of some being attracted to neo-orthodoxy, 'It's popular because it is something different from the centuries old fundamentalism; we are suckers for something new and different. We do not want to 'parrot the party line.' We want to know what it is to be 'free.' We want to 'cast off restraints' so we become suckers for neo-orthodoxy'" (p. 141). Does that sound familiar in the voices, and writings, of new hermeneutics advocates?

"What is called 'new' may be a new revival of an old error. Although there are new fads and wrinkles there are, basically speaking, few new errors. Even the modern errors in modernism are the results, as a general rule, of applications of old errors" (p. 145). "Many people assume that there is some sort of inevitable evolutionary process which is carrying man upward and onward. Therefore, the old is out of date or false and the new is relevant and true. These people overlook several facts. First that truth is not tarnished with the passage of time, and error is not turned into truth just because is it a new error.

Second, the new errors are usually not new errors, but new revivals of old errors. They may be dressed in some different verbiage but their nature has not been changed" (p. 149).

In the chapter entitled "Are Liberals the Only Scholars?" he said: "It is true that there is certainly a need for more scholarship amongst brethren. We must not put a kind of premium on ignorance. But scholarship is not to be equated with liberalism. If one cannot be a scholar without being a liberal, there is no place in the New Testament church for scholars. On the other hand, there is no place for the New Testament church itself if modernism is right" (p. 186). I would say the same is true of the new hermeneutics philosophy. If the New Testament is not a pattern, there can be no New Testament church, and history shows that when men give up the pattern they take up denominationalism and build by their own patterns. 

A former college room-mate of mine, who later went to Harding College, has been caught up in the new hermeneutics, and in February of this year, he responded to a message I sent him with these words: "I can't believe you're still hung up on that 'pattern' nonsense! No, there is nothing wrong with instrumental music in worship (the N.T. is silent on the subject), observing the Eucharist once a month, or teaching the doctrine of salvation by faith only - depending on what one means by faith. And I'm quite sure there are good Christians who are members of that Baptist Church of Christ." I wonder what present advocates of new hermeneutics among brethren would say to my friend, and why? The fact is, they have no hermeneutical principle by which they can say anything he believes is wrong. If so, what are they and how do they apply to his statements? They have accepted the cultural hermeneutic of our age which says whatever a person sincerely believes to be true is truth for him and this makes him free from legalism and able to fully develop spiritually!

In his conclusion, Bales talked about people criticizing "the traditional song-prayer-sermon-invitational service." He accurately said: "It should be obvious that it is not just traditional, but is scriptural to sing, pray, teach, give and observe the Lord's supper in the assembly on the Lord's day…However, we should not be deceived. When 'renewalists' (he named one) speak of breaking with the past in so far as the 'worship hour' is concerned, they are out to change far more than the 'worship hour.' The influences of society, or some segment of society, rather than the influence of Scripture constitutes the decisive influence with this type of 'renewalist.'" (pg. 226,227).

When men are more impressed with the scholarship of the world than with the ancient order of the New Testament, they endanger their own souls and the souls of others. The canon of Scripture did not become authoritative in the fourth century (as advocated in the Nashville meeting in 1988), but what the apostles bound and loosed on earth was what God had bound and loosed in heaven and constituted a pattern before it was ever written. People knew the pattern on how to be saved before the book of Acts was written, and they knew when to observe the Lord's supper before Acts 20 was written. God's word was a pattern when it was spoken and we have that same message preserved for us in written form (1 Pet. 1:23-25). The principles of Bible interpretation did not begin with Francis Bacon (as so-called scholars argue), but has always been God's way of communicating with men. Jesus used precept, example, necessary inference and generic and specific authority in answering the question about divorce in Matthew 19. The apostles used precept, example and necessary inference in revealing God's will on whether Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15). When men lose their respect for what the apostles bound and loosed, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, they are following the wisdom of men, not the wisdom of God. It reminds me of a ship in a swift stream that has lost its rudder and has no paddle. It may drift safely for a little while because it had been guided into safe waters, but the end will not be pretty.

(Originally Published 1990)