Hermeneutical Humility: New and Old

24 10 2007

There’s a lot of talk in the Christian world concerning humility and the handling of God’s Word. Prominent in this discussion are some of the statements emanating from America’s branch of the Emerging Church. According to this school of thought, humility as applied to Scripture entails a sense of uncertainty about Scripture’s meaning, message, or authority. Kristen Bell’s now famous statement in the November 2004 edition of ‘Christianity Today’ is fairly representative of this new brand of ‘humility’:

‘I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like like is big again – like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color’.

Such statements are always full of poison-candy charm. It sounds appealing, meek, and culturally sensitive to say that we don’t know, we’re not sure, we’re too humble to make positive or concrete statements. It sounds as though such an approach is an attractive alternative to the burgeoning certainty of those of us who describe ourselves as conservative evangelicals. It sounds as though this kind of ‘humility’ should resonate well with our culture, and should give it a unique selling point to a generation which doesn’t know where its centre of seat of authority is located.

Sadly, the truth is very different.

This ‘hermeneutic humility’ leaves the Church, and individual Christians, in exaclty the kind of moral and interpretative morass that theological liberalism effected a century ago. We are left with a Bible whose truth is suspect, whose authority is not only questionable but denied, and a faith whose epistemological basis is no more certain than the whim and fancy of the latest guru interpreter who might enter the ‘conversation’. It renders the Bible an intellectually suspect, devotionally compromised, theologically open document which has no more authority to speak to man’s heart or conscience than the latest edition of ‘Hello’ magazine – a hopelessly subjective source of non-certainty, non-authority, non-exclusive truth. It provides the Church with a Bible which cannot speak with any clarity in church life, public discourse, or personal discipleship. It is a Bible which will not work in teaching the heart, convicting the conscience, or engendering faith. It is a Bible which will make no sense in the ICU waiting room, in the hospice ward, or at the graveside of a loved one. It is a Bible which has no right to teach us how to live, or to view the world. It is a Bible evacuated of its power to convey the solid Truth of God to a generation floundering for want of certainty, and hungry for it. In short it leaves the Church and individual with a Bible which won’t speak at any meaningful level.

The hermeneutic humility articulated by J.C. Ryle in the introduction to his ‘Expository Thoughts on John’ is much more consistent, God-honouring and intellectually viable. His ‘humility’ is not the synonym for relativistic ignorance that Bell advocates – a humility which exalts man and situation over the text. Rather his is the humility of a finite mind brought low before the powerful Word of God; a conscience convicted of its own weakness and profound inability:

‘I believe that the inspired writers were infallibly guided by the Holy Ghost, both in their selection of matter and their choice of words. I believe that even now, when we cannot explain alleged difficulties in Holy Scripture, the wisest course is to blame the interpreter and not the text, to suspect our own ignorance to be in fault, and not any defect in God’s Word…I believe that the want of our age is not more “free” handling of the Bible, but more “reverent” handling, more humility, more patient study, more prayer. I repeat my own firm conviction, that no theory of inspiration involves so few difficulties as that of “plenary verbal inspiration”. To that theory I entirely adhere.’

Oh, for more of this kind of humility. Broken-hearted, bowed-knee, wounded-conscience humility which seeks certainty in spite of our fallen propensity to misunderstand, misinterpret and misappropriate. How we need it, how the Church needs it; how our sin-obsessed, moral freefall generation needs to see it embodied in our bold proclamation of ‘Thus says the Lord’!

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