“Read what it says” by T L Bruinius (about the new hermeneutics)

9

Read what it says, leave alone what you read! [1]

This is the old reformed starting point for how we should read the Bible. It is the most important rule. If we abandon it we begin to read the Bible in our own way. And then we go astray.

Today we hear a lot about the so-called new hermeneutics, about which there are many misconceptions. It would be good to say a thing or two about this before we start discussing such issues as, for example, the GKv report about women in office (‘M/V in de kerk’).[2]

Hermeneutics is not doctrine

What exactly is hermeneutics? It is not a ‘doctrine’. Hence when we speak about the ‘new hermeneutics’ we’re not exactly referring to a ‘false doctrine’ like, for example, the ‘doctrine of presumed regeneration’, which we know from the struggle for the truth at the time of the Liberation in 1944, or the doctrine of ‘common grace’ of Dr. Abraham Kuyper. No, hermeneutics refers to a method of reading the Bible, a way of interpreting God’s Word.

Hermeneutics is not exegesis

When we speak about the explanation of the Bible, the explanation of texts and parts of Scripture, we speak of ‘exegesis’.  Exegesis asks: what are we reading here? What exactly does it say? And once we know and understand what it says, the question arises: what is the Lord telling His people here?

That, then, is exegesis – explanation of Scripture. Ministers are busy with it every week. If done well, the exegesis is the basis of every scriptural sermon. Exegesis asks: What does the Bible say? Through the sermon, the Word of the Lord is presented and explained.

Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics, on the other hand, is the set of rules that decide how we are to read, how we are going to find out what the Bible says exactly – what the Lord said. Hermeneutics actually precedes both the reading and the exegesis – the actual explanation.

For example: I have a text in front of me, a group of words and sentences. I read for a while but it all seems rather uninteresting. Until I discover that it is not actually a piece of narrative text but a poem! This means I must read the sentences and the words in a certain way. And when I do, suddenly that boring featureless text becomes very beautiful. I see its poetic style and the text suddenly becomes alive. At first I used the wrong reading techniques; I applied the reading rules for a narrative text. I should however have followed the rules for reading a poem. And then I read something completely different. Then I read that text differently and explain it in a completely different manner.

This is roughly the relationship between hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is the method used to interpret a text while exegesis is the interpretation or explanation itself.

Reformed hermeneutics

In Reformed hermeneutics we adhere to a number of basic rules which the reformed church, the Bible-believing church, has upheld throughout the ages. Those rules can be traced all the way back to the time of the Great Reformation. They were derived from the Bible itself! We should stand firm on that conviction. Those rules are derived from what God’s Word teaches in several places on how we should treat that Word.

An important rule is that the Bible is one. To be sure, it is a collection of books, yes; but not a loose collection. Taken together, those books are the revealed Word of our God, given by our God Himself, and united into the one Bible by the Holy Spirit through the service of men.

That’s how these books are related to and interact with each other. That’s how they refer to each other and clarify each other. The individual books of the Bible never stand alone, but together they form the one rich gospel of God’s work of salvation.

Straightforward

Another important rule is that Scripture is straightforward. People can understand it; it is clear and apparent.

No, it does not mean that every text and word in the Bible is immediately understood by everyone. Most of us are unable to read the original languages of the Bible. And even then, there are many different manuscripts; and which one is the right one? Moreover, not everyone has received the same gifts from the Lord. Some read more easily than others. Not for nothing do we have ministers and commentaries. Not for nothing do we have education and catechesis and Bible Study Societies.

No, straightforward means that, even though we do not understand everything immediately, God’s will for every sincere reader is clear. If we just read what it says we have enough to understand what the Lord asks from us, and what He promises. We don’t always need to engage in difficult academic argumentations.  If you read carefully and faithfully, and just ‘leave alone’ what it says, you will just see the meaning unfold before your eyes.

Scripture alongside Scripture

A third and very important rule for reading and explaining the Bible is that Scripture interprets itself. This rule is related to the previous two. Notwithstanding the unity and simplicity of the Bible, there is enough to investigate and explain further in order to get an even richer and more powerful picture of the Biblical message. To this end the exegetes, the interpreters, must first compare text with text. Where else does the Bible speak in this way? Who refers to this text elsewhere? The Lord Jesus? An apostle? Which prophets prophesied about the same topic? Where else in the original language do we come across the same words? In this way many texts which at first we have difficulty with become much clearer and we can see how a text is linked to the continuous line of God’s revelation of salvation.

Fundamental

Also very important is the principle that the Word of God is inspired by the Lord Himself. True, he uses people, but people inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to be understood by people at all times right through to the Last Day. Bible books are not human writings but, as also God’s Word itself says, the words of our Lord.

There are more rules. For example, it is of course useful to know something about people’s customs and practices in Bible times; about the geographical situation; about the customs and religions of the surrounding nations. If we know what a ‘winnowing fan’ is, we understand also what John the Baptist says in Luke 3: 17. If we understand how high Jerusalem lay in the mountains, and how, travelling to the city, you could see all those mountains round about, we have a better understanding of Psalm 125. And if we know something of the Canaanite Baal worship, we will also better understand how terrible it is when the Israelites blend their worship of Yahweh with that of Baal.

Moreover – and this is yet another hermeneutic rule – it can also help us if we know whether a Bible passage is historic, a prophecy, or a song. The form in which a Bible passage is written can also be of importance for a better understanding of the text.

Faith

But these rules on the unity and simplicity of the Bible, that that the Bible is its own interpreter and, above all, that the Bible is God’s own inspired Word with exclusive and divine authority—all these are fundamental reformed hermeneutical rules.

We also confess these rules in Articles 5, 6 and 7 of the Belgic Confession of Faith. They have their foundation in the faith, the faith that holds all of God’s Word for truth.

Different meaning

And now about the ‘new hermeneutics’. How is it different?

First of all, we should not be too quick in thinking that the theologians who base their interpretations on those new rules of hermeneutics no longer want anything to do with God’s Word, or that they no longer want to assign any authority to God’s Word.

It may well finish up that way. In fact, it often does finish up that way. But also contemporary Bible expositors are frequently still willing to assign a certain authority to the Bible.

Only, the question is: what do they mean?

Sometimes they speak the same language as reformed theologians. They use the same words. But their content, the meaning of those words, is different. That’s why the new hermeneutics (which really is not that new, and for a long time – until the nineties – was rejected in the liberated Reformed Churches) often creeps in unnoticed. Concepts are gradually made to change meaning; theologians gradually change their thinking; language takes on a different meaning. That’s also why it is so dangerous; much more dangerous than proclaiming errors that are clearly contrary to God’s Word.

Context

In the new hermeneutics the context of a Scripture passage is elevated to great importance. It is made more important than other things; more important, we may say, than just reading what the text says. The context is the time when the Bible word was first spoken or written and includes the cultural and social circumstances of that time and the ways in which people at that time communicated with each other.

Context includes the method of documentation,[3] the manner in which the Word of God was written down at that time. In the new hermeneutics it is assumed that this is done for the Bible in the same way in which the heathen nations told and passed on things. Ways of telling, practised in the ancient East in which the author invented quite a lot, are then said to also apply to the authors of the Bible. This has a bearing on the events and stories in the Bible, but also on the way in which the commandments of the Lord were written down.

Those elements then come to dominate the way the Bible is read and influence the interpretation of what it says. It calls what we read in the Bible ‘time-bound’, or also ‘culture-bound’. The context, the circumstances in which a Bible text was written, and its form become more important than the plainness and unity of Scripture, more important than the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture, and more important than the straight-forwardness of God’s Word.

If you elevate that context above the interpretation rules which the Bible itself supplies, you begin to read the Bible very differently. Then the inspiration of the Bible and also the authority of the Bible receives a very different meaning. In fact, at deepest, you abandon that inspiration and authority.

Stooping down

But are those who employ this new hermeneutics then altogether wrong? Is it not true that the Lord spoke to His people in the language of their days? Is it not true that the Bible uses images which the people of that time knew and understood?

Yes, it is definitely true. The Lord is perfectly wise. He speaks to his people in a way they are able to understand. He stoops down to His people, as a father does to his young child, and explains something in the child’s language so that it may understand. We call this accommodation – adjustment. We find this term already with Calvin. But this does not mean that the context becomes decisive for the message. Not if it puts aside or dominates those other Bible-hermeneutics rules.

And that is what the new hermeneutics does. The context becomes decisive for the exegesis. Instead of being a help, it becomes the be all and end all. This results in the context governing the Word, and this has massive consequences!

Thus says the Lord?

If the context is seen as being so crucial we have a problem when applying the Bible because we are living in a very different context than the events in the Bible. One of the important criteria for the new hermeneutics is that what is written in the Bible cannot be applied straight out of the Biblical context into ours. The Bible message is no longer as straightforward as we always confessed. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In Exodus we read that in the seventh commandment the Lord forbids adultery and commands His people to be perfectly faithful in marriage, and never to break the bond He has give. It is a rule fit for that time. The Lord wants to teach His people that they are to distance themselves from the customs of the Egyptians. He is going to establish His people, build His church. And then the Egyptian customs must be unlearned. One man with one woman, for life. And we say yes. That’s how the Lord speaks. And He speaks thus also to us, today. That’s how we will do it.

No, says the modern hermeneutics. You can no longer automatically just say, “Thus says the Lord.” It remains a question. You can’t simply transfer that word of the Lord to our time. It isn’t that clear. Of course we want to listen to the teaching of the Bible. However, in our context, for example, we know many forms of cohabitation that are very different. And the motives for marriage and their arrangement are also quite different than in ancient Israel, or in pagan Egypt. And the context has a critical bearing on the exegesis. This warrants a major examination. Our society today acknowledges the registered partnership and the homo marriage, very different relationships between man and woman, and other views on the duration of a marriage …

Connect

Apart from the context, the modern hermeneutics works with yet another important idea: The Word of God has to be hearer-friendly: it has to connect with the hearer; connect with the environment; connect with people and general society. The hearer should be able to accept that Word. It should not immediately stimulate resistance. For if that happens, preaching and witnessing makes no sense.

The Lord Himself also made sure of this, people claim. And they have a look at the words of the Lord Jesus, and also at those of the apostles, and say that we should do the same, in our words and with our deeds, so that the Word is not rejected.

However, this reasoning forgets that the world has wandered away from God and is still moving further away. It ignores the fact that the antithesis intensifies all the time, that God’s gospel is a stone of stumbling to man, and that modern man is no longer able to understand the Word and live out of that Word. Not because times have changed, but because faith is missing. That’s what the Bible teaches.

Adapting the message of the Bible to make it acceptable to people today leads to its message being changed so that it is contrary to the revealed will of the Lord. The gospel is then made to suit people’s wishes.

A search

If by this reasoning the reformed hermeneutics is rejected and the new hermeneutics made the starting point, the situation becomes difficult. We can then no longer say:“thus says the Lord”. The exegesis of God’s Word for today then becomes a search, an ongoing search without any certainties.

The interpretation of the text of the Bible then changes with the changing circumstances. It then continues to changes all the time as people keep a permanent eye on the other context, the time in which we are living, because we must then watch out that if our context changes we do not stick obstinately to the old interpretation, since that would create distance with the world. Then the gospel and the practical life of the church would no longer be “in harmony with the times”. Then we become, together with the message of the Bible, weirdos and undesirables.

No, they say, we must always keep looking for the right interpretation within our context.

Postmodern

The new hermeneutics fits neatly in with the contemporary, post-modern perception of life – the spirit of postmodernism that slowly pervades everything.

That postmodernism also does not believe in abiding values. On the contrary, truths are changing and shifting, depending on the person and circumstances. Presumed truths are brought into discussion in a questioning manner. They become open to dispute. “Who says that you are right?” asks the postmodernist. “It may be possible that there are also different answers.”

Church

In modern hermeneutics it is the task of the congregation, the church which according to God’s Word must uphold that Word, to perform that search, to observe each time again the changing context and adjust the interpretation of God’s Word accordingly as much as possible.

The congregation is able to do that, it says, because it is enlightened by the Holy Spirit. In the end it is the congregation, the local congregation – preferably along with others but if need be autonomously – which determines what is good and true. Whether and how God’s commandments are valid and should be applied at this time. Whether a registered partnership is allowable. Or living together in a homosexual relation can be accepted. Or remarriage after divorce is allowed. Or the Sunday must still be kept sacred. Or the offices can be opened up for women.

Thus says the congregation

Adoption of the rules of modern hermeneutics leads inevitably to the replacement of ‘thus says the Lord’ to ‘thus says the congregation’, be it by the mouth of ministers or otherwise. Or by the mouth of professors. Sometimes with the help of today’s ‘great’ theologians.

Then what’s being read is not what the Bible says. Then the authority of the Bible is lost. Then the primary premise of faith of God’s Word being complete, straightforward, clear and self-explanatory is rejected. Then it is a matter of unbelief.

It is against this background that the developments in the GKv (the liberated Reformed Churches), the NGK (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken), in the CGK (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken), and other formerly conservative circles in the Netherlands, must be seen.

It is against this background that in the GKv the decisions about the Sunday, the seventh commandment and the open Holy Supper Table were taken. And it is against that same background that we must read also the report ‘M/V in de kerk’ (women in office).

Read what the Bible says, and leave alone what you read!

 

 


[1] Translation of the Dutch proverb ‘Lees wat er staat, laat staan wat u leest’. The article is a translation of the Dutch article ‘Lees wat er staat’ published in the Reformed journal De Bazuin, Vol. 7, No. 35, 9 October 2013, pp. 425-428.

[2] M/V stands for Man/Vrouw – translated: Man/Woman.

[3] How to put a story on paper.