The New Hermeneutic

By Chris Reeves

(Note: This material was taken from a larger outline entitled Out With the Old and In With the New: The Cry of the New Hermeneutic by the same author. This thirty page outline has many useful quotes and references about the New Hermeneutic, a refutation of each of the main points of the New Hermeneutic and a large bibliography. This outline can be ordered from the Guardian of Truth Bookstore.)

Like the Athenians of Paul’s day, many religious people throughout time, and some Christians recently, have been fascinated “to tell or hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21), as if that new thing were better or truer than the old things. For example, from the 3rd through the 6th centuries A.D., there was NeoPlatonism. Later among the denominations there have been such movements as New Divinity, NeoThomism, NeoOrthodoxy, NeoPentecostalism, NeoEvangelicalism, New Morality (Situation Ethics) and New Age. In my lifetime there have been several new religious trends among certain brethren such as NeoCalvinism, the New Unity Movement, and now, the New Hermeneutic.

“New” is not wrong if it comes as a result of God’s planning (Rom.6:4; 2 Cor.5:17; Heb. 8:8; Rev. 21:1,2). There is a time and place for new things in God’s plan. “New” is wrong, however, if it comes as a result of man’s planning. Someone has said, “If it is new, it is not true. If it is true, it is not new.” The apostle Paul said the same thing in other words long ago (Gal.1:610). “Old” is not always bad as some brethren today would have us believe, especially if the “old” is the “old paths” of God’s word (Jer.6:16).

Background to the New Hermeneutic Issue

The New Hermeneutic (hereafter, “NH”) that is discussed in this article is the NH advanced by some of our brethren in churches of Christ. There is another NH among the denominations. There are, however, similarities between the two, especially in the area of existential thought. The NH problem is prominent among the “institutional” churches of Christ, but it has affected some “non-institutional” churches as well (for example, Charles Holt’s group and The Examiner); and for this reason we need to learn about it and combat it.

Certain “institutional” brethren (preachers, and Bible professors at some schools operated by brethren) who claim that they are part of a “Scholarship Movement,” began calling for a NH in the late 1980s, and they continue that call at the present. They continue the process of tearing down the “Old Hermeneutic” – a process which began in the late 1960s with Thomas H. Olbricht, Restoration Quarterly, and Mission Journal. Much of the writing of these brethren has parroted the earlier works of Olbricht (Bible professor at Pepperdine University), and the more recent works of C. Leonard Allen (Bible professor at Abilene Christian University). According to the so called “Scholarship Movement,” our current hermeneutic (the “Old Hermeneutic” of command, example, and necessary inference) must be abandoned and replaced with a NH because they claim our current hermeneutic is a manmade tradition taken from the 19th century. The NH advocates have not reached a consensus as to what the NH ought to be, but they are all in agreement that the “Old Hermeneutic” must go. “Out with the old and in with the new” is the cry of the NH.

A brief critique of the NH position is in order here. First, the NH advocates make several presuppositions; their main presupposition being the dating of what they call the “Old Hermeneutic.” They assume that the “Old Hermeneutic” is a manmade tradition given to us by Alexander Campbell that dates back to the last century. This date, however, is far too late. The use of command, example and necessary inference to establish Bible authority was not given to us by Alexander Campbell in the 19th century, but by Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists in the 1st century. What the NH advocates want to abandon are in fact principles that are clearly established in Scripture and were used by Jesus and the 1st century church. Second, the principles of inductive reasoning that we use to interpret the Scriptures were not given to us by Alexander Campbell as the NH advocates assume, but by God.

Why a New Hermeneutic?

Some of our brethren have a “hidden agenda.” They have developed a NH so they don’t have to be limited in their religious practices. They have changed their hermeneutic in order to support their change in practice.

For example, some of our brethren want all marriages and divorces to be right and they allow polygamy. They want “grace only salvation.” They believe baptism to be nonessential for salvation and baptism can include sprinkling and pouring. They want the unimmersed to be recognized as “Christians.” They want to have instrumental music, women preachers and women elders. They want a more emotional worship service in the assembly with “spontaneous” worship and celebration (this includes solos and choirs, “special music,” written prayers, shouting, dancing, applause, cheering, personal testimonials or “witnessing,” “sin confessing,” “children’s church” or “junior worship,” and theatrical performances). They allow only one elder over a local church. They want to leave off the practice of taking the Lord’s supper every Sunday. They want to change the elements of the Lord’s supper from the fruit of the vine and unleavened bread to something else. They want to use the local church treasury to support literacy programs, soup kitchens, drug rehabilitation programs, homes for the homeless and prison outreach programs. They want to stop identifying the church of God with the kingdom of God; the church is now, the kingdom is yet future, they say. Other NH brethren defend homosexuality, promote the A.D. 70 theory (Jesus’ second coming was in A.D. 70), and deny that the wicked will suffer endless torment in a place called Hell.

Some of the NH brethren want unity and fellowship with other religious bodies (unity with all professing “Christians” or “believers” in the denominations). Others want to meet what they call the needs and problems of Christians in the 20th century. They also want to prepare the church to meet the so called needs and problems of Christians in the 21st century. These needs and problems are in reality wants, and their NH allows them to have what they want. “Will worship” (Col. 2:23), or worshipping the way you want, is running rampant among the NH brethren. They want change; not just in the area of expediencies, but change in what the Bible teaches.

The NH is soul damning. It needs to be exposed, rebuked and rejected! The NH is simply old modernism. It undermines Bible authority, making the Bible little more than a book of suggestions. More and more members of the church are losing their confidence in the reliability, accuracy and authority of the Bible. A few brethren today now hold to the theory of Theistic Evolution, the Documentary Hypothesis, and various types of Form Criticism. The virgin birth of Christ is even questioned by some.

Rush Limbaugh said, “Any time you see the adjective `new’ employed – be it in politics, religion, or commerce – assume that the label is mere smoke and mirrors, calculated to obscure the fact that there is nothing `new’ about what is being described. Rather, it is the same old stuff simply repackaged” (See, I Told You So, 34). (This quote was brought to my attention by Forrest D. Moyer, `New’ – But the Same Old Stuff,” Gospel Anchor, March,1994.) What Rush Limbaugh said about politics, religion and commerce is certainly true about what is talking place among some churches of Christ. We are hearing a lot these days about a “new” hermeneutic. But there is nothing “new” about the NH. The NH is simply the old rejection of divine authority contained in the Scriptures repackaged in order to introduce what man wants today. The NH is no more than a smoke screen for unauthorized practices.

Hermeneutics Defined

Our English word “hermeneutics” means “the science of interpretation” (Webster, 680). According to D.R. Dungan, hermeneutics “is derived from the Greek Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the interpreter of Jupiter .. . Sacred hermeneutics is the science of interpreting the Scriptures” (1). Biblical hermeneutics, therefore, is the process of interpreting the Scriptures in such a way as to find the original meaning of the text. The goal of hermeneutics is to remove the distance or differences between the author (of Bible times) and the reader (in the 20th century). G.H. Schodde said, “The moment the Bible student has in his own mind what was in the mind of the author or authors of Biblical books when these were written, he has interpreted the thought of Scripture” (1489). Biblical hermeneutics deals with the way we interpret (understand) and apply the Scripture. What, then, is the NH? A new method of interpreting and applying the Scriptures. What the new method or methods should be has not been agreed upon by the NH advocates.

What Is the Issue Over Hermeneutics?

The issue is not “Do we need a hermeneutic?” We know that the Scriptures must be interpreted. God communicated his will to us in words (Heb. 1:12; 1 Cor. 2:12f; Eph. 3:1 f). The understanding of these words is possible only by the interpretation of those words. Interpreting the Scriptures is a Bible practice (Neh. 8:8; Lk. 4:1721; Matt. 9:13; Lk. 24:1335,44f; Acts 8:30f). Interpreting the Scriptures is necessary for the understanding of the Scriptures, and the understanding of the Scriptures is necessary for our salvation.

The issue is “Which hermeneutic will we use?” The one set forth by Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists, or the various ones set forth by some of our brethren in recent years? Instead of looking to a so called “Restoration Movement Hermeneutic” (another name for the “Old Hermeneutic”) or a “New Hermeneutic” for an answer, why not let the NT solve the issue? What does the Bible say concerning the proper interpretation of Scripture? Let the NT determine how we ought to interpret the Scriptures.

Some Practices That Must Be Abandoned

According the New Hermeneutic Advocates

Since the “Old Hermeneutic” is believed by the NH advocates to be a faulty, manmade tradition of the 19th century, they feel it must be abandoned. What are some of’ the practices that we must leave behind according to the NH position?

I. Using the NT as a pattern or blueprint. According to some NH advocates the NT is not a pattern or blueprint that must be followed. C. Leonard Allen writes:

First, there is the simple and observable fact that, throughout Churches of Christ, many people are questioning and sometimes rejecting the traditional doctrinal system that for several generations gave Churches of Christ their distinctive identity. Acts and the Epistles as architectural “blueprint,” as a rigid “pattern,” as a collection of case law – these images and the interpretive method they support are steadily declining (The Cruciform Church, 19).

2. Establishing Bible authority by the use of apostolic examples or necessary inference. According to some NH advocates, the NT does not teach us by apostolic examples or necessary inferences. Christ alone is our model for teaching. Rubel Shelly and Randall J. Harris write:

Our hermeneutic is therefore theological and Christocentric. . . Our beginning point is the general principle of Christ centeredness, Christ centricity (The Second Incarnation, 28). Remember that everything about the church must pass the “Jesus test” to be trustworthy … (Ibid., 232).

3. Making the silence of God prohibitive. According to some NH advocates, when God is silent, that does not mean we cannot act, it means we can go ahead and do what we want. Woody Woodrow writes:

If the thesis of this paper is correct, namely, that the New Testament is not an exclusive pattern, or does not contain an exhaustive number of ways one may worship and serve God, then items which are not mentioned in this regard (expressions about which the Scripture is “silent”) are not necessarily excluded. . . In short, the silence of Scripture has no different function from silence in normal human discourse and should not be assigned prohibitive force solely on the basis of a presupposed exhaustive blueprint (The Silence of the Scriptures and Restoration Movement, 3839).

Possibly the most widely accepted view among certain frontrunners in Dallas, Fort Worth, Abilene, Nashville, San Antonio, and Searcy is that the scripture is not a constitution or code book, as envisioned by the old hermeneutic, but is a love letter from God. There is much merit in both the rejection of the former model, and the parameters of the new (Hermeneutics: The Beginning Point, 6).

 4. Using the NT as a book of case law. According to some NH advocates we should not view the NT as a book of case law, or a constitution, but rather as a collection of “love letters.” Thomas H. Olbricht said:

5. Using reason and logic (or “inductive reasoning”) when trying to learn God’s will. According to some NH advocates, we are not to use deductive reasoning and logic to learn God’s will (that is, we are not to look for Bible “facts”) because the use of such is a manmade tradition which came to us from the Age of Enlightenment and the Restoration preachers. C. Leonard Allen writes:

The Enlightenment also exerted a profound influence on our understanding of the Bible. Many members of Churches of Christ today, while certainly viewing the Bible as divinely inspired, still think the Bible essentially a book of good common sense or even sound psychological theory. . . What is the source for this peculiar understanding of the Bible? Again, we turn to the early age of Enlightenment. Our forefathers in the faith – men like Campbell, Tolbert Fanning, Moses Lard, and J.W. McGarvey – adopted a way of reading the Bible called the “inductive method” … The Bible in this view, was a grand collection of individual “facts” . . . With such a method, its proponents thought, the Bible required little interpretation. One simply gathered and set forth the “facts” … This way of reading the Bible became a powerful tradition among Churches of Christ … Today many in Churches of Christ have moved away from this way of reading the Bible (The Worldly Church, 6063).

6. Claiming to know the truth. According to some NH advocates we should not claim to know the truth. Richard T. Hughes said:

… truth in its fullness and wholeness lies always beyond the grasp of the human mind. The search for truth, therefore, is a continuous, never-ending search, and becomes the urgent task of each new generation. Faith, therefore, is not knowledge at all, but rather trust in God in spite of our lack of knowledge. . . The word of God … was far too large to be encapsulated by the wisdom of men (The Idea of a Christian University, 67; quoted by H.A. Dobbs, “What’s Wrong? – Part 4,” Firm Foundation, April, 1991).

New Hermeneutic Proposals

Let us turn our attention now to some of the many NH proposals that have been made in recent years. NH advocates are in agreement that the “Old Hermeneutic” must go, but they have not reached a consensus as to what is to be offered in its place. Thomas Olbricht said, “The proposals by scholars are legion, but no consensus has emerged” (Hermeneutics: The Beginning Point, 7). Most of the NH proposals that have been made in recent years have come from the annual Christian Scholars Conference hosted by universities operated by our brethren. NH proposals have also been made by C. Leonard Allen in The Cruciform Church, and Rubel Shelly and Randall J. Harris in The Second Incarnation. Various ones writing in Restoration Quarterly, Image and Wineskins have also made NH proposals in recent years. The NH proposals, and there are many, arise from what some scholars feel is needed among the brotherhood. The NH proposals are supposed to meet these needs. What are some of the needs and proposals of the NH advocates?

1.The need for a greater focus on God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. According to some NH advocates the “Old Hermeneutic” does not cause us to focus on God, Christ and Holy Spirit like we should do. Thomas H. Olbricht said:

The command example necessary inference hermeneutic focuses on the rules (that is, rules of logic), and the results, rather than on the actions of God. It gets the cart before the horse. We are committed to the book of God, but not for its own sake, but to the God of the book. The old hermeneutic may help us discover what Christ did, or what we should do in the concrete. But why not begin with the actions of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. . . The action of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit is the center of the Scriptures. . . A Biblical hermeneutic therefore starts from God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, and ends up by setting forth guidelines by which scripture provides humankind with the manner of acting within specific contexts so as to be Godlike (Hermeneutics: The Beginning Point, 1112).

2. The need to view Scripture as narrative. According to some NH advocates the “Old Hermeneutic” does not cause us to view Scripture as narrative as we should do. Michael Casey said:

Narrative is also an important literary form found in scripture. It occurs more often than commands. As the most prominent literary form of scripture, it then should be appropriate to propose the metaphor of scripture is story and the Church as a story formed community as the basis of a new hermeneutic for the restoration tradition (Scripture As Narrative and The Church A Story Form Community: A Proposal For a New Restoration Hermeneutic, 15).

3. The need to maintain our theological identity. According to some NH advocates the “Old Hermeneutic” does not cause us to focus on our theological identity, namely the Lord’s supper, as we should do. Allan J. McNicol said:

In this paper we have concentrated on . . . the Lord’s Supper. We have shown how Paul used the tradition about it operative in the early church as a hermeneutical tool to address problems in the local church. We should do the same (Theological Method On the Bible Among Churches of Christ: A Proposal, 2122).

4. The need to read the Bible like Jesus. According to some NH advocates the “Old Hermeneutic” does not cause us to read the Bible like Jesus as we should do. Gary Collier said:

So, not only is Jesus the authoritative interpreter for his church, his church is to follow his lead! … Jesus draws us to interpret the instructions of God in the brighter light of the desires of God’s heart: justice, mercy, faith, righteousness, love. The argument here is not that Jesus provides us with a new (or old) method of interpretation, but rather a perspective from which to view people in relation to God’s law . . . in Matt.12:114, Jesus shows that the real issue of Biblical hermeneutics goes beyond mere methods in deciphering a book, to an understanding of the desire of God for people. . . This is the starting point from which we must discuss specific methods (Bringing the Word to Life – Part II: The Scholarship Movement, 2627).

Evaluation of the New Hermeneutic

What about what the NH advocates want to abandon? It is obvious that our NH brethren do the very things they condemn. They practice the same things they want us to abandon. For example, they want us to abandon the NT pattern, apostolic examples, necessary inference, reason and logic, but they use patterns, examples, inferences, reason and logic to build their NH. The NH brethren remind me of the Jews of Paul’s day: “Thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” (Rom.2:21) What do the NH advocates offer in return? Many of them are offering pluralism, subjectivism, existentialism, agnosticism, relativism, ecumenism, antinomianism, humanism and traditionalism. “Change” and “freedom” are two words that summarize the beliefs of the NH. What the NH brethren are offering is very attractive to some, but destructive to the soul. They remind me of the false teachers of Paul’s day: “promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption. . .” (2 Pet.2: 19). The NH offers a “hidden agenda.” Beware of anyone who wants to use the Scriptures in some way other than the way Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists used the Scriptures. Their interest is not so much with a proper use of Scripture, as it is with promoting and defending their current practices. They need to promote their practices in a respectable way in order that the brotherhood won’t be alarmed, so they invent a NH which will give them the sophisticated, Biblical (?) sanction they need. They know that the hermeneutic of Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists will not support their current practices, so they have abandoned it for a NH. Let us be content to use the Scriptures in the way Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists used them. We do not need a NH. We need the hermeneutic of Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists. Let us not abandon what is clearly established in God’s word. Let us hold fast the pattern of sound words as Paul directed, allow God to teach us the way he wants to teach us (via direct statements, examples, and implications), remain silent when God is silent, obey the law of Christ, reason from the Scriptures as Paul and others did, and let us know the truth and obey the truth.

What about the many NH proposals? While some of what the NH advocates are saying about Bible study is good and worthy of our attention, much of what they are saying about Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) is absolutely false. The NH proposals are not the result of thorough Bible study; rather they are the result of: (1) a reactionary attitude toward certain Bible principles which are clearly established in Scripture; (2) reading the scholarly works of liberal theologians; and (3) an overreaction to certain abuses of Bible study among brethren. The NH proposals sound good to the ear. They contain some Scripture but the Scriptures used are either taken out of context, or singled out and separated from the rest of Scripture to establish a particular point. Who gives these men the authority to have these needs and make these proposals? Are we to accept these needs and proposals just because the men who offer them are church of Christ scholars? No. If these needs and proposals are based upon the text of Scripture then we must accept them; if not, then we must reject them. We are not obligated to accept them just because they are offered by scholars. The NH is simply old modernism. These men cast doubt upon the Scriptures and do not define their terms. They are modernist sin the making, and they have only begun to deny the Scriptures. If a NH is needed today to properly understand and apply God’s message, then everyone who has lived before and died without the NH, died without properly understanding and applying God’s message.

Do we need a so called “Restoration Hermeneutic”? No. Do we need the contemporary NH proposals of the “Scholarship Movement”? No. We need the hermeneutic of Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists. I appeal to all brethren to follow the example of Jesus, the apostles and NT evangelists, as they seek to handle accurately the word of truth today.

Works Cited

Allen, C. Leonard. The Cruciform Church. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1990.

. The Worldly Church. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1991.

Casey, Michael. “Scripture As Narrative and the Church a Story Form Community: A Proposal For a New Restoration Hermeneutic.” Christian Scholars Conference, Pepperdine University, 1989.

Collier, Gary. “Bringing the Word to Life – Part II: The Scholarship Movement.” Christian Scholars Conference, Pepperdine University, 1988.

Dungan, D.R. Hermeneutics: A Textbook. Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Co., n.d.

Hughes, Richard T. “The Idea of a Christian University.” Christian Scholars Conference, Pepperdine University, 1986.

Limbaugh, Rush. See, I Told You So. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1993.

McNicol, Allan J. “Theological Method on the Bible Among Churches of Christ: A Proposal.” Christian Scholars Conference, Pepperdine University, 1989.

Olbricht, Thomas H. “Hermeneutics: The Beginning Point.” Christian Scholars Conference, Pepperdine University, 1989.

Schodde, G.H. “Interpretation.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939.

Shelly, Rubel and Randall J. Harris. The Second Incarnation: A Theology for the 21st Century Church. West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co., 1992.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.

New York, NY: The World Publishing Co., 1963.

Woodrow, Woody. “The Silence of the Scriptures and Restoration Movement.” Restoration Quarterly, Vol.28, No.1, 1986.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 19, p. 21-25
October 6, 1994