Hermeneutics and epistemology
There is such a thing as Reformed epistemology (study of knowledge). We believe that God, who is the truth, has revealed the truth to us in such a way that the believer can clearly understand and know it. Although God is infinitely greater than man, and altogether unique, and incomprehensible in the infinite vastness of His power, knowledge and wisdom, and in all His holy attributes, God has revealed Himself to us distinctly and clearly in His Word, so that we may rightly know Him.
He revealed Himself to us, therefore we know Him. He revealed the truth to us, therefore we know the truth. Therefore the believer is not naive, arrogant, or scientifically backward when he confesses with an open Bible: I know God, and I know the truth.
This truth, which we know, is not only “Jesus is Christ”, or “Jesus saves”, but includes all the detail of God’s revelation in Holy Scripture, and regulates every aspect of our life. And as God is eternal and unchanging, so is the truth of His Word eternal and unchanging for all generations to believe and obey.
There is, however, in our day a postmodern hermeneutics (way of interpreting Scriptures) that builds on postmodern epistemology. It says that nothing can be known for sure anymore. In this way the Bible has become a very difficult and unclear book, so that an absolutely clear and firm exposition on any point becomes impossible. The hermeneutics that flows from this postmodern epistemology has become in our day the most prominent tool in twisting Holy Scripture under the pretence that the Bible is very unclear about this or that matter. It is not only a different way of interpreting Scripture; it operates with a total different view of Scripture.
Our interpretation of Holy Scripture is in every respect determined by our view of Scripture. In order to expose the errors of postmodern epistemology and postmodern hermeneutics we will therefore need to confirm first of all what Scripture says about itself. What, on the basis of Scripture, do we confess about Scripture? In the rest of this Sola Scriptura series we hope, therefore, to deal with the inspiration and authority of Scripture, its unity, clarity, necessity and sufficiency, closing the series, DV, with the Scriptural principles for Scripture interpretation to confirm Reformed hermeneutics and Reformed epistemology over against the deviations of our day.
In today’s article we will point out the presence and danger of an un-Scriptural epistemology which overthrows sound hermeneutics.
Postmodern epistemology in the church
In our previous article (Sola Scriptura 2) we mentioned the new way in which theology is practiced at the Theological University at Kampen (TUK) where our Dutch sister churches have their theological training. In this new theology postmodern epistemology and hermeneutics play a key role. Thereby there has come about a growing distance between God’s truth and our understanding of it. The growing distance has come, mainly, by a new hermeneutical process applied to Scripture in particular, and to all human knowledge in general.
Speaking about hermeneutics, Prof. A.L.Th. De Bruijne of the TUK says:
“It is about the ‘doctrine of human understanding’. In this subject (hermeneutics) theology and philosophy come together, as well as some other sciences (such as law, history, and literature). In theology this subject, hermeneutics, requires two central points of focus. The first focal point is about the way in which we are able to link the content of God’s revelation to, and apply it to, manifestations from our later context. In the second point of focus we deal with the question how much the context from which we operate in dealing with Scripture has (positive or negative) influence on our understanding of Scripture. In what we have now mentioned the emphasis is on Scripture, but similar questions present themselves regarding the doctrine and the practice of the church, as these may come from previous historical periods or originate from other cultural circumstances. Within theology hermeneutics plays a role in every point of gravity. Because theology finds itself in a gravitational field between God’s revelation, the practice of the church, and created reality, there is always a hermeneutical movement that plays around these gravitational fields. It is exactly an eye for these three poles, which are ever present, that brings hermeneutical awareness in the practice of theology.” (Gereformeerde theologie vandaag: orientatie en verantwoording, 2004, p 21 – my translation)
De Bruijne says further:
“If theology today wants to be truly a science, she needs to develop a greater awareness of the relative character of many of her pronouncements and results.” (ibid, p 24)
De Bruijne says that there is a difference between God’s truth and our knowledge of that truth, and that the distinction between God’s truth and our knowledge of the truth becomes even bigger when this knowledge is theologically scientifically processed, and then states:
“It does not rise above the sphere of fallibility and temporariness. And except for direct faith-pronouncements theology also contains hypothesis in process and uses theories and models of a temporal nature. This needs to be acknowledged and to be put into practice.” (ibid, p 24, 25)
That was in 2004. Evidently a new epistemology and a new hermeneutics were already in practice in the TUK (think also of De Buijne’s contributions in Woord op Schrift, 2002). Subsequently the new direction has manifested itself more clearly. Prof JM (Hans) Burger, newly appointed professor of Systematic Theology at the TUK, writes in a conference paper:
The question of this conference is: ‘how can we move beyond the Bible without leaving the Bible behind?’ The way Howard Marshall formulates the question, adds something to it: principles. He writes: ‘Is there a principled way of moving from Bible to doctrine?’
The imagery is spatial. We have the Bible as a certain solid place, we move from it to another position. Further, this suggests the Bible is a text, an active knowing subject is moving from it to another position, and this move has to be guided by principles, guaranteeing a right move. The result? True justified theological statements or moral rules.
My impression is that this way of formulating is influenced by the theory of foundationalism. (JM Burger, “Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology and Practice, biennial conference of FEET”, Berlijn-Woltersdorf, 24 Augustus 2012)
He continues in the same paper:
“I just want to offer an alternative to a foundationalist approach to see whether this works for understanding the move from Bible to theology or practice.
My starting point is the observation that the metaphor of a foundation in the Bible is no epistemological metaphor referring to the Bible. It is a soteriological metaphor, referring to Jesus Christ.”
And then comes to this:
“I don’t believe in principles for formulating good theology. From Polanyi we can learn that ‘all acts of coming to know are integrative and transformative, rather than deductive and linear. Moments of discovery come after times of indwelling. Living in Christ, in God’s story, guided by the Spirit, soaked by the Bible, participating in the new creation in Christ, we come to know God, his Son, his Spirit, and his Scriptures. Good theological theories and concepts help us to live in the reality of Jesus Christ, and to read and understand the Scriptures, and they do that here and now. They summarize, reconstruct, integrate, help us to orientate, in our own life. Consequently, they add something new. Good theological reconstructions, good theological concepts help to live and grow in Christ, in our own contexts. So good theology brings informed Christians to the conclusion: this is good, helpful theology. The influence of different theological traditions will remain, although the more we invest in making traditions meet, interact, learn, the more we will grow in theological unity I trust. At the same time, where contexts differ, theological theories will differ and have to differ.”
So then, according to Burger, informed Christians do not deduct their faith from Scripture in a linear way, but rather receive moments of discovery after being formed by the right influences and living – living in Christ, in God’s story, guided by the Spirit, soaked by the Bible, participating in the new creation – and come with other informed Christians, without fixed principles for formulating good theology, to a consensus of what good theology is. It remains, however, only theories, good theological theories, which need further adjustment and progress towards consensus, with the understanding that different times and contexts will result in different theories.
Towards the conclusion of his paper, after adding many more reasonings, Burger says:
“Is this a solution to controversial issues like the ordination of women, remarriage after divorce, homosexuality, questions of justice? It might be. In any case, my proposal implies a way forward. At the beginning of this way, we do not know what our final destination will look like.”
This theology starts without a fixed foundation, and moves towards an unknown destination. It is without fixed principles for deducting sound doctrine directly from Scripture, and it strives for the greatest consensus possible among informed Christians.
Prof. Burger’s thinking on epistemology becomes clearer where he writes in another paper:
“Reformed theology developed in the same period as modernism. Over against the Church and the authority of the Pope the Bible was placed in position. It is then tempting to characterise the Bible as an alternative foundation for sure and true knowledge. The same foundation model, with a different foundation. Just as in modernism much attention was given to epistemological questions. Thus it happened that the doctrine regarding God’s revelation received a prominent place in Reformed theology. The account of Christian certainty of faith was made loose from the doctrine of salvation and received a formal treatment at the beginning of dogmatics. How can there be absolute certainty? This question is resolved by making distinction between an objective knowledge principle (revelation and Scripture, with as underlying guarantee-condition the inspiration) and a subjective knowledge principle (faith, with as underlying guarantee-condition regeneration and enlightment by the Holy Spirit). Further, one tastes in the texts of Kuyper and Bavinck the angst of Descartes on the background.
Now the question is: what’s the problem with this? What is wrong with it to arm yourself with the weapons of your adversary? The answer is simple: foundation based thinking is foredoomed to fail (Dutch: het funderingsdenken is gedoemd te mislukken). Postmodernism can be understood as a crisis: the failure of foundation based thinking.
What then is the problem with foundation based thinking?
There is no foundation that is self-evident. Until now no one has succeeded in showing what the content of such a foundation will have to be. Each philosophical attempt to point out proposals of which it is directly evident that they are true, has failed until now. The certain foundation is nowhere to be found. Also the Bible cannot serve as absolute certain foundation. Already with regard to the preserved text, the translation, and the exposition of the Bible there are too many elements of uncertainty which makes the required absolute certainly impossible.” (JM Burger, “Theologisch doordenken over de praktijk” – my translation)
Compare this with Belgic Confession Art. 5 where we confess regarding the 66 books of the Bible that “We believe without any doubt all things contained in them…”
We are absolutely certain, without any doubt, of the truth of everything that God has revealed to us in the 66 books of the Bible.
And therefore we build our faith on the foundation of these books: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith” – Belgic Confession Art. 5 (emphasis added).
Thus our Reformed confession is that the Bible – the whole Bible and the Bible alone – is indeed the foundation of our faith. There is no true faith possible without this sure and certain foundation.
Burger continues in the same paper:
“The angst of Descartes is philosophically viewed not justified. Men do not need absolute theoretical certainty for their life or for their actions. Relative certainties satisfy excellently (Dutch: voldoen prima). It is not true that the alternatives are either objective knowledge, or subjectivism and relativism. Theologically viewed there is beneath the angst of Descartes a deep longing for certainty (houvast). This problem, however, cannot be epistemologically solved.
According to Burger, then, we have no reason to fear the absence of absolute certainty. We don’t need absolute certainty. Relative certainties are perfectly satisfactory.
He states further:
“Honest reflection on hermeneutical questions must of necessity undermine foundation based thinking and show its fiasco. They bite each other. That makes a conversation very difficult between followers of foundation based thinking and of a hermeneutical approach. The foundation based thinker will constantly think that the hermeneutical thinker is robbing him of all certainties. The hermeneutical thinker will constantly feel that the other tries to protect some theoretic certainty which cannot be done, and does not need to be done.”
Further in the same paper Burger states:
“In the first place theology is just as all other sciences no normative science.” And: “Men stand different in the world and understand their world in different ways. That belongs to our fallen world. The conflict cannot be solved with an appeal to a norm, and also not with an appeal to authority.”
Oh dear! Oh dear!
As Reformed believers we believe, on the basis of God’s own Word, that His Word is absolutely certain and true, clearly revealed, and the only foundation on which we build our entire faith. Without the firm and absolutely certain foundation of God’s Word no true faith is possible. Faith is believing God’s Word (Lord’s Day 7). Without the “sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word”, the “firm confidence” of faith is impossible, for the Holy Spirit works faith through the Word only. Without the sure knowledge of God’s revealed Word, we can have no sure knowledge of Jesus Christ, and no firm confidence in Him. When the foundation, God’s revealed Word, is no longer acknowledge as the only foundation of our faith, then every man has his own Jesus, or His own theories about Jesus; and the Jesus of the one will differ from the Jesus of another. Then to one man Jesus’ death on the cross will mean that our Lord Jesus Christ died in our place on our behalf as sin-offering to pay for our sins, but to another “informed Christian” another model and theory will be preferable.
To many theologians, who still call themselves Reformed, theology has become to a great extent theory and experiment, without a fixed and certain foundation, on an unpredictable journey. A postmodern “hermeneutical awareness” is applied that makes all theology contextual, time and culture bound. So, for example, does Prof. Burger judge the Heidelberg Catechism as a case sensitive and contextual document and concludes that we need a different presentation of the gospel for our day (JM Burger, “Gospel Presentation and the Structure of the Heidelberg Catechism”, 2013). His contribution in the publication, Cruciaal, 2014, serves as example of how this new epistemology and hermeneutics affects not only the gospel presentation, but also the content and meaning of the gospel (which we hope to deal with later).
Our next article in this sola Scriptura series will, DV, be on the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture