Lately we’ve been hearing a fair bit about the so-called ‘new hermeneutics’ in our Dutch sister churches, the RCN (GKv)[i]. Basically it’s a different way of interpreting Scripture than the way the churches have done it over the centuries. What it does is to reinterpret the Bible using post-modern literary theory in order to make what the Bible teaches more acceptable to the views of today’s society.
Here’s an example of the way it works: In 1 Timothy 2 Paul says that it is not right for women to teach in church or to have authority over men. Using the ‘new hermeneutics’ Dutch RCN theologians argue that in Paul’s day women weren’t allowed to be in positions of leadership in society and that therefore Paul says it shouldn’t be allowed in church either because that might stop people of his day accepting the gospel. However, they say, in today’s western culture it has become quite acceptable to have women in leadership positions of authority over men and therefore we should allow it in churches too. That will also help make the gospel more acceptable to society.
Hereby we can see how the Bible can, through the new hermeneutics, be interpreted to mean the opposite of what is actually written.
Recently Rev E Heres held a speech about hermeneutical developments in our Dutch RCN sister churches. The following is a translated summary of that speech.[ii]
“Hermeneutical developments within the RCN” by Rev E Heres
I find no pleasure in speaking about the negative hermeneutical developments in the RCN. The RCN were and are dear to us. The LORD gave us much good there. We have a longing for those brothers and sisters. For years we prayed to the Lord for a turnaround so we could be one again.
But unity is impossible. The church deformation that quietly crept in is assuming increasingly serious forms. This is obvious to many. Foreign sister churches sent the RCN letters of admonition and these relate especially to the way of reading the Bible as advocated in particular by the Theological University in Kampen (TUK).
At a conference in Hamilton in January 2015 Canadian professors were united in their rejection of it. Prof. Dr C. van Dam said at an office-bearers conference of the Canadian Reformed Churches:
A central problem in my opinion is that in Kampen the authority of Scripture is not taken seriously. If Scripture is not honoured as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God, what then is left of Reformed normative scholarship? By not taking a strong position against unbiblical approaches, it is doubtful whether Kampen will ever again be able to offer resistance against unbiblical scholarship. When we consider the current developments the future does not look very promising, and this situation is very worrying. Kampen’s university exerts immense influence on the churches, especially by means of the ministers it trains. The way things go at that University will eventually be the way things go in the churches.
What is that other way of reading the Bible, that hermeneutics? Hermeneutics is about how you as a reader receive a text, a message. It is about the rules and method for its explanation. Hermeneutics is therefore important.
Hermeneutics has become difficult in the RCN. This is evident from the discussions around the position of men and women in the church, about creation or evolution, about ethical issues such as the Seventh Commandment.
One RCN professor, Dr de Bruijne, wrote in the magazine De Reformatie (January 10, 2014):
In the Reformed tradition we used to give special consideration to the correct way of interpreting a text. This was restrictive because it consisted, even until after the Reformation, on focussing on the writer(s), the readers and the reality around that text [in order to make meaning of the text]. Because of that restriction we experience hermeneutics now as something new. Moreover, new aspects were added. As modern people we began to reflect consciously about our own individuality and subjectivity and how these are involved in deriving meaning from a text.
This is precisely what it is about. The ‘old hermeneutics’ is consistent with the way the church of the ages received and read the Bible. Its defining characteristic is that all of Scripture is received as the authoritative Word of God.
Although the sixty-six books of the Bible have different human authors, there is only one great Author, the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1: 20,21; Ex 3; 2 Timothy 3:16). The Old and New Testaments form a unit. Whatever is still somewhat hidden in the Old Testament opens up and becomes clear in the New Testament.
That is first and most important reading rule, and we find it in the Bible itself: For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21 NKJV).
There is one divine Author. We may therefore not explain a specific text or a specific passage in a way that conflicts with the rest of the Bible. There cannot be a contradiction in God’s Word.
That’s why we must compare Scripture with Scripture and take note of their contexts. We do that, for example, by reading the OT history of Abraham along with Hebrews 11, and by reading Genesis 1 with whatever the Bible reveals elsewhere about creation. Taking into account the inner coherence of the books of the Bible and ‘comparing Scripture with Scripture’ are prerequisites for Reformed hermeneutics!
But what is the new hermeneutics? [iii] During the sixties and seventies of the 20th century people wondered whether after radical Bible-criticism it was still reasonable to speak about God. Can the gap between the ancient text of the Bible and today’s mankind still be bridged?
German theologians Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling seek to connect their hermeneutics with the philosophy of (Martin) Heidegger and (Hans-Georg) Gadamer. Their starting point is that the interpretation of texts should also involve the reading person himself and the meaning of life.
This hermeneutics has thus actually become a kind of all-encompassing philosophy that focuses on the ‘disclosure of the total reality’.
In the philosophy of Gadamer the emphasis lies on the subject, the I who acts and interprets. Compare that to Friedrich Nietzsche who stated: There are no facts, only interpretations. There never are objective facts; the reality is but relative. Truth comes into being through relationship.
Today’s interpretation of a Bible text can therefore well be contrary to the original intention. Its explanation changes with the people who are reading it and with their culture.
You might call ‘the world that has to understand the text’ a ‘horizon’. Thus there are two horizons, the one of the (Bible) text, and the other of the reading person in his culture. When these two merge the spark jumps, and you can do something with the application of the text at that moment.
Then the text of the Bible no longer has autonomous meaning. The reader has become the authority in interpreting the Bible and has set himself up above it.
This approach is already old. You can, for example, find it already with JS Semler in the mid-18th century. He distinguished between the genuine Word of God in the Bible and fallible portions without enduring authority. [iv] Then it becomes the task of hermeneutics to determine the distinction!
With Dr H. Berkhof, a theologian who had much influence on Dutch ecclesiastical developments, hermeneutics became the referee who determines which Bible passages are authoritative (or not) for us. He distinguishes four circles or areas.[v]
The inner circle lists the really important Bible sayings and stories. The outer circle contains Bible information that is neither important nor authoritative. It states, for example, what the Bible says about the position of the woman. By moving in our time material from the inner to the outer circle the Biblical vision can be made ‘harmless’. The new hermeneutics has in this manner become a science that determines what is and is not useful in the Bible for modern man.
It goes too far and is too massive to say that the RCN has completely fallen into the hands of the new hermeneutics. We will have to speak more nuanced, as prof. Van Dam does, who says that theologians in Kampen really do not intend to let go of Scripture and confession. But with good intentions you can still wander off and be fundamentally on the wrong track. The majority of lecturers at the TUK are in favour of women in office.
We should conclude that the principles of the new hermeneutics are being adopted by the theologising profession within the RCN. See for example the book Als vrouwen het Woord doen (When women preach the Word) by M Klinker-De Klerck, lecturer New Testament at the TUK. Klinker calls our western culture a part of the general revelation that is co-influential in the interpretation of Scripture and cooperates in opening the Scriptures. Characteristic of our western context is, for example, the profound change in the position of men and women.
Her study has undoubtedly influenced the report of deputies M/V in de kerk (Man/Woman in the church). This report argues that nowadays 1 Tim 2:12-15 means the opposite of what it literally says. That can only happen by applying the principles of the new hermeneutics. This, they say, gives the text a perspective that enhances the progress of the gospel. The next step is to give that perspective priority, even if it comes at the expense of the literal apostolic Word.
In this way regular Bible readers become dependent on hermeneutic specialists. And if the cultural context becomes decisive as the hermeneutics’ reading rule, the Bible will have to suffer even more. Just think of the deputies’ reports on marriage and divorce, and on homosexual relations.
Compare also the essay of Dr JM Burger, lecturer at the TUK, in the book Cruciaal about sacrifice criticism. [vi] In it he denies the New Testament’s teaching that Christ brought His sacrifice on the cross as payment for our sin. Burger says that the sacrifice of Christ was a sacrifice of devotion. Thus it was not to bear the punishment in our place and thereby earn salvation for those who belong to Him. Dr Burger does say he is being misunderstood but has not withdrawn his story in which contemporary culture plays an important role. For in today’s culture the idea of a bloody sacrifice to appease the wrath of God is no longer considered acceptable. Indeed, it is offensive. Evidently this is an important reason for him to read the Bible in a different way.
People within the RCN may well say that the authority of Scripture is not in dispute, but the reality is different. Outsiders speak of ‘dramatic developments’ at this point. Therefore we pray in DGK-church services regularly for a genuine turnaround for the better in the RCN. And we pray that the eyes may be opened for what is actually happening. When people set themselves up as judge over the Word of God, things will go from bad to worse. Then the faith of church members, parents and children is at risk. Let no one underestimate the seductiveness and gradual nature of the new reading rules.
To remain in Christ and to promote the impact of his gospel you must yourself first hold on to all of Scripture, also those parts that collide with the context, the feelings, the culture of our time. If that is no longer the case in your church federation you must be prepared to follow faithfully the voice of the great Shepherd of the sheep to the place where His Word is indeed being faithfully preserved.
This is a narrow path and you may well cause suffering. But also tonight I call on brothers and sisters in the RCN: Come join us and do as we do.
No, not because we are better people, or because DGK’s church federation is perfect, but for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of yourselves and your children and grandchildren.
Remaining reformed also brings its difficulties. But following Christ where He calls brings peace and thankfulness. Christ tells the church of Philadelphia: I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name (Rev 3: 8).
And Paul writes to Timothy: But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of.
Going that way we can sing: Your Word is as a lamp to guide my feet, a lantern shining on the path before me …
[i] Reformed Churches of the Netherlands – liberated (Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland – vrijgemaakt).
[ii] The Dutch version of this article appeared on the website www.ééninwaarheid.info 9 January 2016 under the title “Hermeneutic in Leeuwarden”. The article is a summary of a speech titled Hermeneutical developments within the RCN (GKv) Rev E Heres held in De Gereformeerde Kerk (DGK) in Dalfsen, the Netherlands, 25 November 2015.
[iii] I make use of volume 2 of Dr AW Zwiep’s Tussen text en lezer (Between text and reader)
[iv] Semler has been called ‘the father of German relationism’. See MJ Paul in Het gezag van de Bijbel (The authority of the Bible), page 43.
[v] H Berkhof, in Christelijk geloof (Christian faith) page 94. See also MJ Paul, page 45.
[vi] JM Burger and others, in Cruciaal, de verrassende betekenis van Jezus’ kruisiging (Crucial, the surprising meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion).