Full Text for The New Hermeneutic Versus the Old Hermeneutics in New Testament Interpretation (Text)

THE SPRINGFIELDER January 1974 Volume 38, Number 1 The New Hermeneutic Versus the Old Hermeneutics in New Testament Interpretation T HE NEW HEHRlIENEUTIC IS ii DEVE1,OPMENT in con- tinental tlicology after World War 11. It has developed from the hcrnleneutics of Rudolph Bultmann.' In order to understand the new hcrmeneutic it is necessary to look at the thought of Bultmann. In the 1920's Bultmann joined Barth in protesting against the old liberalism. ii7hcn Earth published his famous Romerbrief ( 19 19) Bultmann wclcomed it as a breakthrough in Biblical in tcrpretation. However, the friendship with Barth did not last too long because Barth did not employ the historical critical method even though he was not in principle opposed to its use. Bultlnann had beell thor- oughly indoctrinated in critical methodology and his entire scholarly endeavor was shaped by its use. Buitmann took the position that nothing which contradicts science can be accepted even though clearly taught in the Bible. Bultmann's hermeneutics was thoroughly opposed to any form of supernaturalism, which in essence means cutting out the very heart of that which is distinctive about Biblical teaching, whether found in the Old or the New Testaments."ny doctrinc which goes against reason must therefore be rejected. Ob- viously miracles cannot be taken seriously. Doctrines like the incarna- tion, resurrection, ascension and a visible return of Christ are out of the question for any person who desires to be intellectually respectable. This rules out the concepts of prophecy and eschatology. Over against the Old Testament Bultmann took a very negative , attitude.:' Christians may entirely ignore the Old Testament or if they believe it should be used, then its value would be as law to show need for the Gospel. The Old Testament is a totally human document, at b~3t preparing the way for Christianity. For Bultmann there is no such concept and reality as holy history or theology of history, only events of salvation. Since Bultmann espoused existentialism early in his life, even before coming into contact with the existential- ist philosopher Heidegger, he rejects all precritical notions according to which man casts h~s religious experiences into the forill of an external, worldly, historical event.4 For the Marburg professor this is a myth and the interpreter must get rid of the form that the myth has assumed and yet retain the religious intention of the myth.Yn this respect, Bultmann differs from the old liberalism of Harnack, one of 3ultmann's teachers. With Kierkegaard Bultmann held that the inner side of experience was existentila\ in character; thus here he departs from be ~eeaiher twentieih-century tthd\o@ca\ libexah.'. The myth nm be of$ in order to find the existential meaning within it. Dr. Ram111 claims that i(~ltrnann'~ in turrl leads him to the notion that the Word of God nrust be addrcss lvllich sumnlons a man to decision either for or against the addrcss. I-lencc the message of the New Testament as ;iddress is kerygma. 'nlis jo turn must lead to powerful kerygmatic preaching from the sacred text."' Bultmann's theo.logical systcm is a synthesis of these cliffevent strands and enabled him to win away from Uarth the theological leadership of European scholarship as found in Germany and Switzer- land ." The herlnencutic has utilized all of Bultl~lann'~ contribu- tions. The proponents of the new hernleneutic are convinced that Bultmann's heremeneutic constitutes a new breakthrough in rela- tionship to the old hermeneutics, to which there can be 110 return.!' Hol-vever, the nclv hermeneuticians believe that Bultmann did not realize all the inlplications that must follow if his positions are valid. Ernst Fuchs, Gerhard Ebeling and Gadamcr are all convinced that the new hermeneutic is the answer to correct Biblical interpretation. Philoso~phically and theologically the new hermencutic is inore ~0111- prchcnsivc than anjltlling so far advocated. The older Biblical and sacrcd hermeneutics irlas too narrow in its understailding of the issues of the interpreting of a Biblical text.'" Earlier alrcady, it is claimed, Schlciermacher and Dilthey had suggested that interpretation was far more comprehensive than traditionally conceived and practiced. Historical-philosophical interpretation was inadequate according to this new school of interpretation. Miilhelnl Dilthey, greatly influenced by Hegel, claimed that the stream of history had to be experienced in one's self bcforc Vcrstehelz or coml~rehension could occur." E~'Kliir~drtg lvas placed in opp,sition to inere Verstehe~. It was thc philosopher Ilcidcgger who is supposed to have grasped this more comprehensive function of hermeneutics. The new herlneneutic follows Heidegger in its claim that lan- guage itself is interpretati~n.~Fuchs, Ebeling and their fol10,u~crs also claim that language is existential in character. When an individ- uiil sp~iks he is said to be interpreting, thus the language act is llcrmencut.ical. It is at this juncture where the problem arises for many st~~dents of the ncw her~ueneutic for they note that here a radical s]lift occurs. Hcrmeneutics is no longer fundanlentally the forth of by which the tent of Scriptures is under- stood, but a investigation of the hermeneutical fullction of speecll. In sonle instances the older hermeneutics is flnployed but tllerc is nlore involved in the interpretation of ancient Biblical texts. The new herei~~cneuticians wish to eliminate the older psycho- logism and llistoricism that has characterired the older theological liberalism that has been found wanting by Bultmann and the post- Bultn~annians.'~ Accorclillg to psychologtsm the text and events are interpreted in psgclrological terms; historicism on the other hand was guilty of explaining everything in terms of the law of causality. Both approaches ~7ere considered deficient because of the relativistic stance froill which they spoke. By understanding the word ontologically the new herlneneutic believes it has avoided this dilemma. 'The big problen~ in trying to understand the new hermeneutic is the manner in ivhich its proponents use the vocable "word." It is difficult to grasp the various nuances of this word. Sollletinles "urordV seems to mean existential truth which re.cleals itself in speech. At other times it means speaking itself; yet at other times it refers to the existential truth containecl in the text. Son~etimes "~vord" is said to be the 1,Vord of God that breaks forth froill a sermon. Some of the advocates of the new hermeneutic seem to imitate the procedure of the logical positivists who classify sentences into different categories. In reading the literature onc notes that some sentences are program- matic, that is, they endeavor to state the structure of hermeneutics and understantiing as such. Still o.ther sentences are existential be- cause they (lo not merely attempt to impart information but their purpose is to involve thc reader in participation and profound com- munication. Still other sentences are factual or scientific, their pur- pose is to infornl, whether it be on a popular level or a more theoretical (e.g., light is composed of rapidly moving photons). Other sentences are formal and only set forth relationships as in logic, mathematics, or grammar. It is within this context of ('word" that the new hermeneutic delineates its existential understanding of the- Word of God. For Ebeling and Fuchs, the Word of God is more a movenlent than an idea. \Yithin. the test of Scripture God communicates existentially; the Worcl of God must be dug out of the text by exposition and exegesis of the text. The CVord of God is received by the listener as such when he makes a decision and accepts it by faith. In describing the new hermeneutic Ranlm wrote: "Existential considerations per- meate each step of the procedure. For this reason the new hermeneu- tic is very critical of the socalled neutral, objective, scientific approach to exegesis as represented by Oscar Cullmann. No such exegesis is possible. The expositor must come to the text with existential under- standing of religious matters (Vorverst2ndnis)) but he may not come with a prejudice (Vorurteil) as to what the text must say (as alle- gorical exegesis) ." The new hermeneutic, following Bultmann, claims that faith cannot elaborate its content. Bultmann and the post-Bultmannians teach that the New Testament authors had true faith and that they are only witnesses to the Christ event. According to the new her- meneutic the New Testament ivriters were not exempt from error; in reporting the Christ event they introduced materials that cannot be accepted today. Bultmann insisted that the New Testament writings needed to be demythologized, that myth vitiated the reports of the information regarding the life of Christ. The foreign materials (foreign to the existential communication of the Word of God in the texts) must be criticized as to the contents (known as Sachkritik, content criticism), which is a characteristic of the new hermeneutic. In this respect Barth is much better than Bdtnlann and his followers. While Barth does not hold to the old Protestant doctrine of inspiration as held by Calvin, Luther and other reformers,15 he does believe the conteilt of the text. Barth, for example, believes in the existence of angels,"' while for the Bultmannians this simply cannot be accepted in a scientiiic age. Since people do not rise from the dead once they have become deceased, Bultnlann rejected the statement that Christ rose from the dead. Such a belief the modern interpreter may reject because it is contrary to the scientific under- standing of the way nature functions. Content criticism became an essential element in the demythologization program of Bultmann as outlined in his famous essay of 194 1. The content criticism of the new hermeneutic goes even beyond that of Bultmann's demythologiza- tion and is applied to the entire New Testament. Bultn~ann had made much of the proclamation of the kerygina in preaching. The new hermeneuticians extend the kerygmatic procla- mation of the New Testament to Christian preaching. According to this new school of interpretation the preacher must pose certain questions to the text, questions that man's existentialistic situation prescribe. The text in turn must ask questions of the interpreter. There must be an existential encounter with the text. Christian preaching, however, must also be relevant for not only the text but also the historical and cl~ltural situation of the hearers determines the kerygmatic proclanlation of the sermon. For the new hermeneu- ticians the esscncc of kerygmatic preaching is announcing God's love and forgiveness in Christ, and calls upon the hearer to decision of faith. The new hcrmeneutic is not limited to theology but claims also the areas of philosophy and other branches of human knowledge. Ebeling, Fuchs, Gadamer, Funk claim that the new hermeneutic should also be the foundation for the reconstruction of philosophy, for a new program in epistemology. The liberal arts need also to be built upon the new foundation furnished by this new system of interpre- tation. The new hcrmeneutic in thcology does not merely mean some additional insight regarding the science of hermeneutics; it is com- pletely revolutionary to the extent that its proponents claim it actually is a new theology. l7 EVALUATION OF THE NEW HERMENEUTIC ?Vhal shall we sa~7 of this new hermeneutic? A very important question in theology is the significant question: What is the source of theology? What is the source for religious authority? There is no more important question! We have grown accustomed to answering that Scripture alone is the source and norm of all doctrine. We believe that the Bible is God's TYord. On the pages of the Old and Ncw Testaments God has seen fit to reveal to us what He \vould have us believe concernin Himself, concerning His nature, con- cerning His acts, concerning His plan of salvation. Being God's infallible Word the Bible is the source of Christian doctrine, the only source and norm. FYc call this thc Sola Scriptura principle, a very important issuc in thc Kcformation, in the coiifessional writings that follotved, and in the writings of the seventeenth-century dogma- ticians." Ancl very closely related with this Sola Scriptura principle is its corollary; namely, since there is no higher authority than God's \\lord itself, and since there is 110 additional revelation to which we may appeal, the basic hermeneotical principal must be "let Scripture interpret Scripture," scripturn scripturanz i~ztcrp~etatur.'!' However, it is just at this yoir~t that the new hermeneutic moves away from the traditional position and goes in a completely different dircction. It calls the traditional view which we have outlined as. the static concept as opposed to the dynanlic. In fact, Ernst Fuchs, Ott and others have pone so far as to label the traditional r' rlew "a mani- festation of i~nfaith." If this objection were motivated from the con- cern that doctrine sonietiines has been simply taught for doctrinc's sake; if this criticism wouId be prompted because often doctrine has been intellectualized and not related to life, then we would be in hearty agreemcni with the criticism of the old theology as being static! But a reading of the literature advocating the new hermeneutic will show that Ebeling, Fuchs, Gadamer, Robinson and others are not merely interested in making the applications in sermons mare life- related, but they arc saying that the Gospel message itself needs re- formulating."' All those teachings of the Gospel message that modern man finds difficult to accept are to be trimmed away. It is actually a different Gospel that Ebeling, Fuchs, Ott, Bultmann, Robinson are proclaiming, in which all such external forms as faith in a pre- existent Jesus, the Virgin Birth, a physical resurrection of Jesus, a vicarious atonement, a second coming of Christ in the clouds must be removed." Even a hasty perusal of the new hermeneuticians will make it clear that it is this type of Gospel that men like Bultmann, Ebeling and Fuchs are convinced should be offered to our generation, a gospel that will not require them to accept the so-called mythological form of the New Testanlent message but only its basic contents, a gospel which will not require modern man to sacrifice his thinking! Bultmann has written: Let us think simply of the newspapers. Have you ever read anywhere in them that political or social or economic events are performed by supernatural powers such as God, angels or demons? Such events are always ascribed to natural powers, or to good or bad will on the part of man, or to human wisdom or stupidity . . . therefore modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the i-ational order of the universe. He does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into this lawful order. When a strange or miraculous accident occurs, he does not rest until he has found a rational cause.22 Bultmann's conclusion, followed by all the new hermeneu- ticians, is to scrap the supernatural because modern man cannot accept it. This means that for Bultrnann, Ebeling, Fuchs, Robinson, an(!. others the source of religious authority is Scripture and modern culture. According to these men the New Testament exegete or preacher is to begin with the New Testament kerygma, i.e. the faith of the early church, hut then this faith must be shaped so that it beclvnes acceptable to modern culture and philosophy. LVhen this new fornulation and message are ~roclaimed and men respond to it, then it is "language event" (so Ebeling); according to Fuchs it is "word event." They both agree on this, that when this refonllulation is made ancl men respond, then the message is 'CiVord of God; this is what for Fuchs and Ebeling represents a dynamic word versus a static word. For any Bible-believing Christian who follows the iiteral inter- pretation, this is quite different from the historic Protestant principle that Scripture is the only source and norm of Christian doctrine. It surely is not in harmony with the stance of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. Many scholars, thereforc, both in Europe and in Amer- ica find the new hermeneutic objectionable on the ground that it changes the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. In 19 5 2 at the assembly of the United Lutheran Church of Germany (the confessional grouping of Lutheran provincial churches) a pastoral letter condemned the theology of demythologizing as "false doctrine.'I2" This confessional stand by the bishops was then followed by an officially spo.nsored volume in which a number of theologians explained their views in greater detail. In response Bultmann and his German followers 1-e- torted by claiming that the Lutheran bishops had betrayed the Refor- mation and attempted tci show that Luther was on their side. No one will accuse the American theologian Nels Ferre as being a conservative theologian. In his book, Searchliglzts on Contemporary Theology, the Vanderbilt University theologian wrote: All attempts to claim that Bultmann has done away merely with an outworn cosmology, leaving the ontologv of the Gospel un- disturbed are stuff ond non-sense.2.' Bultmann is not merely "bringing Christianity upto-date by differ- entiating between outworn and indestructible events of the Christian faith. He is the pioneer of the most radical retranslation and trans- calculation of faith itself into existential categories. "'" S. H. Ogden, who appears to be sympathetic to some extent with the new hermeneutic, is ready to admit that the new hermeneutic is a revival of liberalism. He writes: We have aligned ourselves with that 'liberal1 tradition in Protestant Christianity that counts among the great names. in its history those of Schleicrmacher, Ritschl, Hermann, Harnack, and Troeltsch and inany more recently Schweitzer and the early Warth ancl, in part at least, B~ltrnann.?~ Walter R4arshall tIorton, in his recent publication 7'1uenticth Century Christianity classifiecl Bultmann and his disciples as Post-Barthian LiberaIs. It is quite evident that the new hhermencuticians have re- tained a residue of the Liberalism of the 19th cent~ry.~ Both liberals and cor~servatives are in agree~llent that the new hermeneutic is neo- Liberal. In othcr respects the new hern~eneutic is also deficient and in error when evaluated in the light of the interpretative principles used in the Lutheran Confessions. Thus in its restriction of its understand- ing of the supernatural it destroys yrophecy and with that any real sig- nificancc of the Old 'Tcstanlent for thc Christian Church, and thus is a return to the position of Marcion in the 211d century. By its em- phasis upon existentialism, most of thc traditional dogmatic teach- ings are elimrnated. By its interpretation that faith is purely a rela- tionship between persons and need not have a doctrinal content, the ~vhole foundation for Christian doctrine has been undermined. Dr. I<. liunia of Australia, in an essay delivered at the Annual Public Lccture of the Tyndale Fellowship of Australia, gave the following evaluation of Bultnlann and the new hermeneutic: In denying all this (the doctrine of the atonement) the new school of demythologizing performs one great destructive reduc- tion of the Gospel. Not only are all aspects that are not sus- ceptible of existential interpretation eliminated from the Bible, but those that are open to such an interprctation are reinter- preted in such a .way and to such an extent that the real Gospel completely vanishes into the midst of essential self-analysis. David Cairns has put it very pointedly in these words: "The actual result is to bring before modern man a gospel without the Gospels, so that not without justification we may quote Mary Magdalene and say: 'They have taken away nly Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.' "2s The only teachings of the Apostles' Creed that have remained intact, according to Bultmann, are the assertions that he suffered, was crucified, died and was buried. The Virgin Birth, the conception caused by the Holy Spirit, Christ's resurrection, ascension and visible return are all denied. While Bultnlann and his followers primarily operated with the Books of the New Testament and developed an approach that has revolutionized the understanding of the New Testament writings, yet it should be acknowledged that in some respects Bultmann was indebted to critical Old Testament scholars for some of the basic hermeneutical approaches he used. The rejection of the supernatural was not first promoted by Bultmann and his devotees, but dated back to the days of the Enlight- enment, when the uniqueness of the Old Testament was questioned and much of its historical data was reinterpreted as myth and saga. In some respects the antisupernaturalism of Bultmann was already adopted by the negative literary critics of the eighteenth and nine- teenth centuries. Old Testament criticism rejected the idea that the coming of the Messiah was foretold in many passages of the Old Testament, a stance the New Testament writers avcr time and time again. This was also the position of Christ, who claimed that in His ministry Hc was fulfilling direct Messianic predictions about His person and work. Bultmann is simply following critical Old Testa- ment scholars when he denies the existence of Messianic ~rophccy in the Old Testament. In fact, like critical Old Testament savants, Bultrnann rejects prophecy per se, because that would be contrary to what we know about the ability of men to. anticipate and kno~v the future and against the idea of a closed universe. It was Hermann Gunkel, a German Old Testament scholar, who developed the hermeneutical approach known as form criticism (German: Formengeschichte). As early as 1901 Gunkel had set forth his ideas on Form Criticism in the introduction to his com- mentary on Genesis. The ideas explicated in this commentary denied to Genesis any historical and factual value, but argued that in the Genesis volume there were different kinds of sagas employed. The Sitz-im-Leben for the different types of literature had to be deter- mined and then the interpreter had to try to understand h0.i~ the smaller units of literary types had been embodied into cycles of tradi- tion. Gunkel operated with myth, saga, legends. The character of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges and I Samuel was changed by Gunkel's new hermeneutic. Books like Jonah, Esther and Daniel were rele- gated to the non-historical category by virtue of the fact that all three were said to represent a special type of literary genre, which forbade them, as was once the case, from being understood as record- ing true historical happenings. In both Old and New Testament interpretation today the new hermeneutic is being employed. The result has been that there is being fostered in theological seminaries and school of religions an understanding of the Bible that has little resemblance to that once held by the various communions of Protestantism, by Ronlan Catholi- cism, and by Lutheranism as reflected in its confessional writings in The IZooF, of Concord of 1 5 80. FOOTNOTES 1. AIan Richardson, Religion in Contemporary Debate (Phildclphia : West- minster Press, 1966), pp. 90-91. 2. Carl Braaten, New Directions in Theology Today. Vol. 11. History and Hermencutics (Philadelphia : The Wcstminster Press, 19661. 3. Rudolf Bultmann, "The significance of the Old Testament for the Christian Faith," in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, edited by Bernard W. Anderson (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), pp. 8-35. 4. Cf. Hayrnond F. Surburg, "Rudolf Bultmann and the Old Testament: His Approach and Interpretation," The Springfielder, 30: 3-26, Winter, 1967. 5. Ibid., p. 14. 6. Herman Hidderbos, Bultmann. Translated by David H. Freeman (Grand llapids, Baker Book House, 19601, p. 9. 7. Bernhard Ramm, "The New Hermencutics," in Ramm and Others, Hermcncutics. (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1971 ), p. 132. 8. Ibid., p. 133. 9. Ibid 10. Martin Scharlemann, "Hermcncutic(sj," Concordia Theological Month- ly, 39: 614, October, 1968. 11. "Wilhelm Dilthey," in An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945), p. 228. 12. Hichardson, op. cit., pp. 81-88. 13. Ramm,op.cit.,p. 135. 14. Ibid., p. 136.