The New Hermeneutics

By James L. Sloan

An article by Michael Hall of St. Louis, Mo. is entitled, “Wine and Wineskins,” and is in essence a new interpretation of the teaching of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 9:17: “Neither do men put new wine into old wine-skins: else the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins perish: but they put new wine into fresh wine-skins, and both are preserved.” Mr. Hall’s explanation and application of Jesus’ analogy is set forth in these quotes from his article: “‘The Wine consists of the Good News of God; unchangeable, yet always new, alive, fermenting, and vital. The Wine-skins speak of the container which holds and gives the good news shape in the world. It is man-made and grows old, hence constantly must be reappraised . . . to see if it’s about to split. . . Wine and Wineskines – the good news and church structures, procedures, methods. Is that a new thought category for you? This analogy of Jesus establishes our rationale for constantly re-examining not only what we’re doing, but how we’re doing the things we do. The ever-new Wine of God’s good news demands flexible, malleable and expanding structures. Whenever procedures or traditions become inflexible . . . it’s time to make some changes.” I have several reactions to the above teaching.

1. The context of the verse will not allow us to conclude that Jesus had any such comparison in mind. Hall’s interpretation is indeed a “new thought category” for me and I am persuaded it would be for Jesus as well. The disciples of John came to Jesus and asked why his disciples did not fast often like the Pharisees (v. 14). The Lord’s first answer was that friends of the bridegroom did not mourn until the bridegroom was taken away (v. 15). So, the disciples of Jesus would not fast until he was taken away. He then tells of the new patch on the old garment (v. 16), and then the verse under discussion. All three analogies were prompted by the same question, and are offered as explanations to the querists. H. Leo Boles’ comments are helpful: “. . . this would vindicate his disciples in not following the custom of the Pharisees to fast and impress the lesson that the value of fasting was only when proper occasions demanded it” (Commentary On Matthew, p. 210). Others think that the wine refers to the, Gospel, while the wine-skins refer to the Jewish law. However, there is no supportive evidence to conclude that Jesus had procedures or methods or structures in mind.

2. Such teaching cannot be justified on the basis of extending the application of Jesus’ figure. Legitimate extension of any parabolic or allegorical literature must first be plainly taught as scriptural from other passages. There are a number of passages that obligate us to remain with the Scriptures for our concepts and practices (2 Jn. 9-11; Col. 3:17; 1 Cor. 4:6; etc.). The establishing of biblical authority cannot be done by allegorizing the figurative teaching of Jesus. In this way, the Bible can be used to prove anything. Augustine used the parable of the Good Samaritan to represent the fall of Adam, while others had an entirely different interpretation. Remember that this teaching of Jesus was spoken, not read, and that it was spoken once, and intended to be understood immediately. There certainly was not time for the mental gymnastics that would be required to arrive at the cabalistic conclusions of our contemporary expositors.

3. This interpretation of the wine and wineskins is too subjective. The article does not begin to define for us just what should be included under the wine (Gospel), and what should be considered as wineskins (Methods). Items of worship – which are they? What about mechanical instruments of music? Weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper? Unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice? Sponsoring churches? Church sponsored recreation? On the basis of the evidence given, you could make two lists with the headings of “Wine” and “Wineskins,” and then decide for yourself what should go under each. The distinction then becomes useless and worthless.

4. The article makes new methods and new structures essential to the preservation of the Gospel. Such is unscriptural and anti-scriptural! No emphasis or importance is attached in the New Testament to the methods or procedures that are incidental to the Gospel itself. We are not told, “Now, you be sure and keep up the latest methods.” Mass media approaches, mechanical visual aids, and all other illustrations of 20th Century technology cannot be so tied to the Gospel as to make them essential. Yet, the article says that the Gospel will be “spilt out upon the ground” without the new approaches. I may choose to preach the Gospel over radio and TV as long as no New Testament pattern is violated. Where does the Gospel teach that I must do so?

No wonder those who advocate the activating of the church universal, the institutionalizing of the local church, and the socializing of the work of the church are claiming that they do not need Bible authority. If “Wine and Wineskins” is the best we can do in establishing New Testament authority, I would make that claim too. Such becomes a subtle, blanket justification for any innovation that man can dream.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 9, p. 261
May 4, 1989