Note: This post, which contains lengthy direct quotes, is published on this blog with the permission of InterVarsity Press, UK.
I recently enjoyed reading Graeme Goldsworthy‘s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006; 341 pp.), which I reviewed for a forthcoming issue of JETS. Cf. Phil Gons’s convenient compilation of links related to the book.
The book’s Table of Contents clearly indicates its logical progression, and this post highlights chapter 12: “The Eclipse of the Gospel in Evangelicalism” (pp. 167–80). The metaphor recognizes “that eclipses are not always total and can even be partial enough to pass unnoticed by all but those trained to look for them” (p. 90). I found chapter 12 to be the most interesting, insightful, convicting, and controversial, and what follows briefly summarizes it.
Introduction: Hermeneutical Perfectionism (pp. 167–68)
Evangelicalism has been guilty of eclipsing the gospel with “hermeneutical perfectionism.”
“Hermeneutical perfectionism is something that is tempting to all of us who believe that truth is knowable. Those who adopt a thought-out and definite position on any matter will have the conviction that they are right. No one holds to a position that they believe is wrong. But thinking that we are right about key issues does not mean that we think we have all the answers in interpreting the Bible, or that our position is infallible. It should not mean that we think we have arrived at the ultimate truth about all matters biblical. In fact, the hermeneutical spiral is a recognition that we must constantly submit our thinking and doing to the light of Scripture. The Reformers understood this when they acknowledged that the Reformed church is always reforming. In this chapter I do not want to appear to be attacking groups who understand their evangelicalism differently from the way I understand mine. I recognize that I must submit to the scrutiny of Scripture as much as any other. Nevertheless, I want to highlight some ‘evangelical’ hermeneutical perspectives which I believe are not consistent with the gospel, and which we are all quite capable of adopting.
“These inconsistencies in our thinking are often taken on board because they are part of the tradition or subculture in which we have been nurtured. . . . The hermeneutical perfectionist will not contemplate the need to reassess some treasured approaches to the Bible.”
The rest of the chapter surveys eight evangelical aberrations that approach Scripture naively.
1. Quietism: Evangelical Docetism (pp. 168–69)
Loosely defined, Quietism is
“the tendency to overspiritualize and dehumanize Christian existence, including the way we use the Bible. We have seen it in the ‘let go and let God’ holiness piety. Overall, it is an inclination to downplay the function of our humanity in life, as if our relationship to God is almost entirely passive. It leads to strange aberrations, for example, in the matter of guidance. . . . The human characteristics of the biblical documents are ignored. Historical and biblical-theological contexts are regarded as irrelevant. If a text ‘speaks to me’ in whatever way, the careful exegesis of it is dismissed as cerebral intellectualism. The gospel is neatly eclipsed by what exists beneath a veneer of spiritual commitment.”
2. Literalism: Evangelical Zionism (pp. 169–71)
This section reveals Goldsworthy’s covenant theology and amillennialism (which, for what it’s worth, I don’t share).
“Some evangelical literalists use what is sometimes referred to as the ‘slippery slope’ argument—that is, a claim that failure to adopt this particular approach will lead to certain disaster. Thus we are told that if we do not interpret the Bible literally, the text can be made to mean anything we want it to mean. Hermeneutic chaos is predicted as the inevitable result. Yet literalism has seldom proved to be much protection against such a tendency. [Ouch!] . . .
“The New Testament clearly does not support such a simplistic hermeneutic as literal fulfillment of prophecy. . . .
“If the gospel is our hermeneutic norm, then while it is true that the interpretation of the New needs an understanding of the Old, the principal emphasis is on the way the gospel and the New Testament as a whole interpret everything, including the Old Testament. The literalist must become a futurist, since a literalistic fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy has not yet taken place. Christian Zionism not only reshapes the New Testament’s view of the future, but also affects the present period in which such a future is anticipated.”
3. Legalism: Evangelical Judaism (pp. 171–73)
“Legalism is something to which we are all prone, because it is one of the key tendencies of the sinful human heart. At its base it is an assertion of our control over our relationship to God. It is a soft-pedalling of the greatness of God’s grace to sinners. On the surface it may appear to be an exalting of the law, however the law is understood. Yet when we examine the nature of legalism, we find that the opposite is true. Once we imagine that we can somehow add to God’s grace or establish our righteousness by our deeds, we have in fact dragged God’s law down to our level of imperfection. If salvation is by faith in Christ plus some form of obedience, the gospel is diminished to the extent that we add to the principle of Christ alone. . . .
“Legalism is a subtle thing. Those who do not place the same emphasis on the law will be branded as antinomians, as against law, even lawless. But it needs to be emphasized that recognizing that God requires us to honor his laws and to be lawful is not the same as being legalistic. Sometimes the problem is cultural. Young converts often find themselves in a subculture that is strong in its spoken and unspoken taboos. In becoming more mature in the faith, they may realize that the safety of legalism needs to give way to the more risky business of being responsible to work out in the light of Scripture what is acceptable behavior. All behavioral norms need to be owned, or disowned, on the basis of their consistency, or inconsistency, with the gospel. Legalism is attractive because it is safe. It is easier to have a set of rules agreed on by the wider group than to have to make responsible decisions for Christian living. . . .
“The legalism I am concerned with here is a more uniformed piety that has not really reflected in any concerted way on the relationship of grace to law, of gospel to works. However, even largely unthought-out positions reflect a hermeneutic, and such unreflective evangelicalism can eclipse the gospel.”
4. Decisionism: Evangelical Bultmannism (pp. 173–74)
“A key evangelical belief is that people must be called to make a decision concerning the claims of Christ. Thus when people decide that Jesus Christ has indeed lived and died for them, they are often said to have made a decision for Christ. There are plenty of grounds for challenging people to repent and believe the gospel. That is not in dispute. . . .
“I have experienced and witnessed the effects of calls to ‘decide for Jesus’ that have been made when almost no reason had been given why anyone should so decide. Rudolf Bultmann applied his existential philosophy in such a way that for him the historicity of the events of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth is not the central issue. What matters is the telling of the story, which may or may not be historically factual, and the way this story helps us in our self-understanding and authentic decisions in life. While not endorsing Bultmann’s philosophy and historical skepticism, there are evangelicals who are so earnest in calling for decisions for Jesus that they seem to forget to tell people why they should decide for Jesus. . . . It seems that the decision can become everything. . . .
“The problem is not the call for a decision. The error of decisionism is to dehistoricize the gospel and to make the decision the saving event. To that extent it expresses an existential hermeneutic.”
5. Subjectivism: Evangelical Schleiermacherism (pp. 174–76)
“Friedrich Schleiermacher is regarded as the father of liberal Christianity. . . . [He propounded] a whole system of theology that centered on the notion of a feeling of absolute dependence on the divine. . . . From time to time one encounters evangelicals who are convinced of the centrality of Christ and the authority of the Bible, but who nevertheless seem to operate primarily on the basis of feeling. Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling’ is not simply subjective emotion, but rather intuitive feeling. In the same way, evangelical ‘feeling’ is not necessarily purely emotive, but may be an intuitive conviction that is popularly expressed in terms of what a person feels to be the case. . . .
“The problem arises when we assume the meaning and significance of words that are translated from Hebrew and Greek as ‘happy,’ ‘blessed,’ ‘rejoice,’ ‘peace,’ etc. We easily read into them meanings that are insufficient or misleading. . . .
“Here we have two related problems affecting evangelical hermeneutics. The one is eisegesis, reading into the text an assumed meaning rather than trying to ascertain how the word is used in the biblical text. The other is allowing the importance of emotion, and an idea of Christian experience, to dull the objectivity of the word. It is in fact a form of reader-response hermeneutics in which the reader, often under the guise of being led by the Spirit, determines the meaning of the text. Gospel-centered hermeneutics sees Christ as the determiner of meaning.”
6. “Jesus-in-my-heart-ism”: Evangelical Catholicism (pp. 176–77)
“Many evangelicals use the evangelistic appeal to ‘ask Jesus into your heart.’ The positive aspect of this is that the New Testament speaks of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:27); of Christ dwelling ‘in your hearts through faith’ (Eph. 3:17), and the like. It speaks of the Christian as having ‘received Christ the Lord’ (Col. 2:6). But it also makes clear that Christ dwells in or among his people by his Spirit, for the bodily risen Jesus is in heaven. Furthermore, there are no examples or principles of evangelism or conversion in the New Testament involving the asking of Jesus into one’s heart. In many cases this practice represents a loss of confidence in faith alone, for it needs to resort to a Catholic style of infused grace to assure us that something has happened. . . .
“When the legitimate subjective dimension of our salvation begins to eclipse the historically and spiritually prior objective dimension, we are in trouble. The New Testament calls on the repenting sinner to believe in Christ, to trust him for salvation. To ask Jesus into one’s heart is simply not a New Testament way of speaking. . . .
“Once again, we see that it is not always an outright error that we are dealing with. Rather, it is allowing something that is good and necessary (Christ present by his Spirit) to eclipse something that is of prior importance (faith in the doing and dying of Christ) and upon which the good thing we emphasize actually depends. The result can be disastrous.”
7. Evangelical Pluralism (pp. 177–79)
“I would suggest that an important hermeneutical question, if not the crucial one, is this: does God say contradictory or incompatible things in Scripture, or is it that some things may appear to us as contradictory or incompatible because we do not fully understand them in relation to the ‘big picture’ of the Bible? The fact that we can and do err, and that no interpreter of the Bible other than God himself is infallible, does not mean that God did not speak a unified truth in his word. If pluralism means that the Bible does not speak with the one voice of the Holy Spirit, then it is in error. But if it means that the gospel message, or even a specific text, may have different applications in different situations, I can see no problem. . . .
“If the descriptive and synchronic study of the Bible [i.e., systematic theology] is not checked by the diachronic holistic approach based on the recognition of the unity of the word of God [i.e., biblical theology], it can lead to a revision of the sense of the authority of the Bible.”
8. Evangelical Pragmatism (p. 179)
“Evangelical aberrations are often a dehistoricizing of the gospel. When the gospel is reinterpreted primarily as how God does good and useful things in our lives now, a pragmatic hermeneutic may take over. This can take many forms, but the same basic problem is the constant of these aberrations. Good and important biblical truths are allowed to crowed out the central truths of the historic events of the gospel. Theologically speaking, this usually involves allowing the present experience of the Christian, rather than the finished work of Christ, to become the hermeneutical norm. It means focusing on the continuing work of the Spirit at the expense of the finished work of Christ. It undermines the centrality of our justification in Christ. . . .
“Evangelical pragmatism takes on many forms and may include any or all of the matters already mentioned. Pragmatism is the view that what works is true. It ignores the issue of how we determine what kind of results we should look for. Thus, if it feels good it is true; if it brings people to church it is valid and right; if we get the numbers and a good cash flow our methods are correct. We conclude from good results that we must be acting biblically. Once again, it need only be said that the gospel hermeneutic does not necessarily support these views. Pragmatism is really a hermeneutical framework that is used to determine not so much the meaning of texts, but the meaning of events. . . . It is at its core a trinitarian error and a form of religious humanism.”
Goldsworthy’s Assessment (p. 180)
“The irony of modern evangelicalism is that many of its aberrations have occurred because of a siege mentality and an attempt to ward off the effects of the Enlightenment. When evangelicals become reactionary, they can often flee unwittingly into the arms of another enemy waiting in the wings. Most reactionary moves tend to compound the problem. Pietism and quietism were earlier reactions to either doctrinal or critical sterility. Other aberrations were simply attempts to protect the importance of personal faith, conversion and regeneration. . . . How easy it is for us, while priding ourselves on being people of the Book, to be quite unquestioning about cherished beliefs and practices in the interpretation of the Bible. . . .
“In modern evangelicalism we could mention current usage of the words that are quite far removed from their main function in the New Testament. . . . Other problems arise when a hermeneutical approach exalts doctrinal categories by muting the dynamics of biblical theology. Those matters raised in this chapter should move us to be more diligent in allowing the gospel to shape our hermeneutics, even if this means appearing to be somewhat tiresome in our questioning of some of the traditions of our evangelical culture.”