Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 22, 1956
NUMBER 45, PAGE 10-11

Biblical Hermeneutics (I)

John T. Overbey, Albuquerque, New Mexico

There are two very important and basic factors connected with the proper understanding of the scriptures. Failure to recognize and apply them has resulted in the divided condition that exists among religious people in this age as well as in every age of religious thinking. One is the proper attitude and respect for Divine authority; and the other is the science of interpretation, or Hermeneutics. The later of these two becomes the subject of this and succeeding essays.

The Bible is conceded to be, by most people, a perfect revelation of God's will to man. On that hypothesis it is the only source of authority in matters pertaining to our spiritual welfare. But there are many people in the world — honest, to be sure — who can not understand why it is that intelligent people differ as they do in their interpretation of the Bible. That poses a very difficult problem — one that many people will never be able to fathom. But while some may never be able to fathom the problem, one may rest assured that there is a solution to the problem else the Bible is not a perfect revelation of God's will to man.

This writer has done some research in the field of Hermeneutics in recent years because he has been confronted with the problem more than once in his personal contacts with those who are not members of the Lord's church. More than once we had a person say to us, after we had attempted to show him that the New Testament requires him to obey certain commands in order to have his sins forgiven, "Well, how do I know you have given me the right interpretation of these things? I know a score of men, intelligent men, who are just as honest and conscientious as you are who interpret it differently. If smart men, men who have given their lives to the study of the Bible, can not agree on its interpretation, how do you expect me to come up with the right interpretation?"

I doubt that there is a gospel preacher living today who has not been confronted with this problem in some way or another in his dealings with those who are not members of the church. He has had to solve this problem to the satisfaction of the subject with whom he is dealing or else he failed to lead him to obey the Truth. But the problem apparently is not confined to those who are not members of the church; for in recent weeks a series of articles from the pen of Brother Roy H. Lanier has appeared in the Gospel Advocate in which he makes the following statement:

"Brethren are unsettled on the subject of congregational cooperation. Not only brethren who preach, but the rank and file of brethren everywhere earnestly wish to do what, and only what, is authorized by our Lord who has all authority in heaven and on earth. But since preachers are divided in their teaching on the subject, brethren generally are undecided. Preachers in whom they have confidence and on whom they have relied in years past for guidance are to be found on both sides of this discussion; they know not which to follow. It is an easy matter to tell them to follow the Bible instead of the preachers, but if the doctrine on this subject is so plainly taught in the Bible, why are preachers divided?

Brother Lanier does not pose a solution to the problem; he just states that the problem exists and lets it go at that. I doubt that Brother Lanier would have treated the problem thus had he been dealing with someone who is not a member of the church. He would have tried to show the man why people do not understand the Bible alike. So, the problem not only engulfs the religious world in general, but is likewise a problem with which many members of the church are grappling. Now, this writer may not be able to solve the problem to the satisfaction of everyone, but there are a few observations that I have made through the years which may help to solve the problem in a measure.

We shall begin this investigation by eliminating certain things on the ground that they are incompatible with an honest investigation of the Truth. Discrepancies in interpretation may be accounted for on the ground that those who profess to draw conclusions from the Bible are dishonest. Although this may be true in many cases, we shall rule it out on the ground that every man is honest until he proves himself to be otherwise. Other discrepancies appear because some people think the Bible is an unintelligible book, that is, it is a mystery and is not designed to be understood by the "rank and file" of men. We shall rule this out on the ground that the Bible itself claims to be a Revelation. If the Bible is unintelligible, it is not a Revelation. Others claim that the discrepancies in interpretation may be accounted for on the ground that there are alleged contradictions. This claim is rejected on the ground that the Bible is a book of truth, and truth does not contradict itself. The only plausible reason, therefore, for discrepancies in interpretation is the lack of unanimity in the method of interpretation. If students of the Bible could arrive at unity in the method of interpretation the problem that is posed in these essays would be solved to a great extent.

Many methods of interpretation have been employed through the centuries, but lack of space forbids our considering all of them. Tradition has played a very important role in the field of Biblical interpretation, and many of the traditional interpretations that are placed on various passages of scripture may be traced back to the "mysticism" which began to rise toward the close of the first century. Other traditional interpretations tan be traced to "Aristotelianism," or "Scholasticism."

The Mystic Method Or Neoplatonism

As New Testament Christianity began to spread through the Roman world, many learned men began to embrace it. Some of them were philosophers in their own rights; and when the Canon of the New Testament was near completion, they began to use their systems of philosophy as a method of interpretation. Mosheim, in his Ecclesiastical History says,

"Of all the different systems of philosophy which were received in Asia and in a part of Africa in the age of our Saviour, none was so detrimental to the Christian Church as that which was styled gnosis, or science; i.e. the way to the knowledge of the true God, and which we have above called the oriental philosophy, in order to distinguish it from the Grecian. For, from this school issued the leaders and founders of those sects which, during the three first centuries, disturbed and troubled the Christian Church. They endeavoured to accommodate the simple and pure doctrines of Christianity to the tenets of their philosophy; and in doing so they produced various fantastic and strange notions, and obtruded upon their followers systems of doctrine, partly ludicrous, and partly intricate and obscure, in a very high degree." (ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY, Cent. I, Part 2, p. 29a.)

About the close of the second century a new philosophical sect arose, which in a short time prevailed over a large part of the Roman empire. This sect not only swallowed up the other sects, but likewise did immense injury to Christianity. Alexandria, which for a long time had been the seat of literature and philosophy, was its birthplace. Ammonius Saccas was its founder, and its followers chose to be called "Platonics." Mosheim says,

"The ground of their preference for the name of Platonics was, that they conceived Plato had treated more correctly than any of the others, that most important branch of philosophy which treats of God and those things which are placed beyond the cognizance of the senses." (IBID., Cent. II, Part 2, p. 59a.)

Mosheim Says Of Neoplatonism:

"This new species of philosophy, imprudently adopted by Origen and other Christians, did immense harm to Christianity. For it led the teachers of it to involve in philosophic obscurity many parts of our religion, which were in themselves plain and easy to be understood; and to add to the precepts of the Saviour not a few things, of which not a word can be found in the holy 'Scriptures. It also produced that gloomy set of men called mystics; whose system, if divested of its Platonic notions respecting the origin and nature of the soul, will be a lifeless and senseless corpse." (IBID, Cent. II, Part 2, p. 61b.)

These "mystics" sought to harmonize the human philosophy with the teaching of the New Testament. Their rule of interpretation was: "Wherever the literal sense was not obvious, or not clearly consistent with their philosophical views, the words were to be understood in a spiritual or `mystical' sense."

As far as Neoplatonism as a "system" is concerned, it has long been abandoned, but its influence still lives in the interpretation of certain passages of scripture. Many passages in the New Testament that deal with the Holy Spirit and his work are treated as though they are "mystical." This writer once had a teacher who followed this line of reasoning on many passages of scripture, especially those that have to do with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. His conception of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was inexplicable. He believed and taught that the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart and life of the Christian in some sort of a supernatural manner separate from the word. When confronted with the fact that the Bible teaches us that the Holy Spirit dwells in us through his agent, the word; he would usually reply: "I don't understand it; it is mystical; I don't have to understand it; I'm glad I don't have to understand it!"

Another example of this method of interpretation is seen in the sectarian approach to John 3:5, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." In an effort to interpret "water baptism" out of the passage, they say that "water" doesn't mean "water." Some of them will say that water" has reference to a "physical birth," but when they are confronted with the fact that they have Nicodemus born twice, physically, they then run to verse eight which reads, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit." Such handling of the word of God is a relic of the old Mystic Theology of the second and third centuries.

When a man convinces himself that in a sense and to some degree he is inspired to know the hidden mysteries of revelation, he is no longer capable of reasoning out things by common sense. Every appeal to the Bible is of little value to him, for he has a secret meaning attached to it. If you dare to question his interpretation of any given passage, he begins to speak of the mysteries of the faith and the deep things that are beyond the reach of ordinary common sense. He knows he is right, for he can feel it in the upper left hand section of his thoracic cavity! It is almost an insult to question the correctness of the conclusions to which he has been guided under the glorious illumination of the mysterious Holy Spirit. Though most people of this day and age do not turn the whole Bible into a mystery, as did some during the first two or three centuries, they do bring mystery into the Bible.

This writer maintains that any doctrine of teaching revealed on the pages of God's word can be understood. When a thing is revealed in the Bible sense, it is no longer a mystery. A mystery is something that one time was concealed, but is now revealed. If a doctrine or teaching is made known by the word of God it is not "mystical."