Post-Reformation Hermeneutics

In the last post, I talked about various contributions made to Christian epistemology through Church History. Upon the core of post-Reformation Epistemology is hermeneutics. The seminal feature of the Reformation was its emphasis on the importance of Scripture for determining the truth, and therefore the great determinant factor in such a context is the method of obtaining truth from the Scripture-Hermeneutics.

What Martin Luther initiated in his protracted struggle with the Catholic hierarchy was taken to its logical conclusion by John Calvin. Calvin is perhaps best remembered today for the so called doctrines of grace, or the five points of “Calvinism”, however his real contribution to Church history lies in his approach to Scripture. Luther had used Scripture to trim from the Catholic church that which was clearly unscriptural, and thereby created the Protestant “high church”, which retains many of the centuries old features of Catholicism by weight of tradition. Calvin, on the other hand, began to use Scripture as the exclusive source of truth. Scripture became a factual textbook from which one built the institutes of the Christian religion upwards. It was to be against Scripture which all things were measured. It is from this brand of Reformed thought that all later advances of the Church stem. It was uncompromising, but it also tended to be cold and rational.

John Calvin’s system reached it’s zenith in the English Puritan movement. At the core of the Puritan revival movement were brilliant young Cambridge scholars who applied Calvin’s system to every sphere of life and eventually turned the world upside down. The power of their ideas and witness eventually dethroned the King of England, established America, and established a permanent beachhead for Reformation Christianity. It is upon the Puritans which all Anglo civilization rests, and it is the treasure house of their theology which has from time to time been raided as a compass in the darker straights of ensuing history.

From a hermeneutical perspective, very little changed until the middle of 19th century when German higher criticism emerged. This system undermined the authority of Scripture and in so doing unhitched Germany from its Christian moorings, eventually leading to the moral bankruptcy which permitted the Holocaust. Germany’s pre-eminent position in Protestantism also provided a platform from which to infect the Anglo civilization. Although ultimately unsuccessful particularly in the United States, the cost paid by humanity for the embrace of these doctrines was immense.

In the United States an answer arose to Higher Criticism: Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism championed the literal meaning of Scripture thereby preserving the essential foundation of Protestantism. However, the fundamental system appeared to lose the deeper reading of the text which had been inherent to the Reformed perspective in favor a more literal, more individual, and more spiritual reading of the Scripture. D.L Moody was perhaps it’s founding father. Along with powerhouse thinker R.A. Torrey, he championed the idea that the Scripture was the “Word of God” and united this philosophy with dispensationalism. The weakness of this system was that its literalistic approach and exaltation of the text tended to put the Scripture “on” rather than “in”. The words themselves became very important while the principles slowly faded to the background. As the principles faded so did the emphasis on application and permeation of their truth into the rest of life. In many ways the evangelical movement fathered by Dr. Ockenga and Billy Graham starting in the 50’s moved away from the excesses of this movement while not essentially replacing the foundation.

The Pentecostal movement arose simultaneously as a branch on the same tree, and inherited many of the same emphases, but with the Spirit taking pre-eminence over the Scripture. This change was to lead to great confusion among Pentecostals throughout the 20th century as “every wind of doctrine” blew threw the church. Fortunately, many of the winds were good, and contemporary to the rise of the New Evangelicalism, God planted the seeds for a more Spiritual understanding of Scripture through the Latter Rain movement, the seminal work being George Warnock’s The Feast of Tabernacles. The typological or prophetic understanding of Scripture today traces largely back to this movement.

The Shepherding movement arose within the context of post-Latter Rain Pentecostal Christianity and had as a major thrust of its teaching the rebuilding of the architecture of Western Civilization, which they recognized as being essentially undermined by fragmented relationships. This understanding built the underpinning of a more principled approach to the Scripture and was carried to its logical conclusion by one of the leaders in the movement, Dennis Peacocke, who went on to become the leading Charismatic voice in Biblical Worldview. His approach to Scripture focused more on the principles which lay behind the text. Not only what does the text say, but what is assumed by the text, and what are the implications of the text when applied to a culture?

At the same time evangelicalism was experiencing a rebirth of Biblical Worldview through the enormously influential ministry of Francis Schaeffer. However, the weight of evangelical hermeneutics had unconsciously shifted to a blend of Higher Critical approach and Fundamentalist approaches to Scripture. While affirming the authority of the Word of God, grammar, background, and other extra-Biblical concerns gained greater and greater importance, making for a dry impractical reading of Scripture for which only the Scholar was qualified. This approach is common to nearly all of the Biblical resources popular today, and is very lean on personal application.

Most Christians are totally unconscious of their hermeneutical presuppositions, because they are so foundational to our understanding of reality. Understanding that such presuppositions exist, their implications, and the context in which they exist, bring us to the first step of choosing correct ones.

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