Two Modes of Interpretation
As theology responded to the “Enlightenment threat” it generally chose one of two routes:
1. The hermeneutic of inerrancy: In some ways, the name says it all. One direction theology chose was to view Scripture as completely inerrant. The Bible was seen to be complete and perfect no matter what science or reason said. This mentality was a sort of battening down the hatches approach or a “we refuse to be influenced by this science and reason stuff.”
This school of thought basically settled on five fundamentals of the Christian faith–hence became known as the movement of fundamentalism. Those fundamentals are:
• The inerrancy of the Bible
• The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ's miracles and the Creation account in Genesis
• The Virgin Birth of Christ
• The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
• The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross
In my estimation, this is an intellectually untenable position based on several reasons: translation errors, the lack of original manuscripts, manuscript variances, historical reality, conflicting texts/laws/teachings/statutes in the Bible itself. However, many fundamentalists have been accused of being non-thinkers. I think this assertion is equally absurd. Many fundamentalists think and think deeply; however, I believe their thought is based upon faulty assumptions–the major one being the Bible is inerrant.
2. The hermeneutic of suspicion: This will require a little more depth to explain. This theological train of thought took the tools of reason and science and began applying them to the Christian faith. In a very real way, they accepted the authority of reason and science over theology and sought to make theology acceptable in the eyes of philosophers and scientists.
There are some valuable insights which have come from this group particularly seeking to understand the stories of the Bible as they were first understood in the historical context in which they were originally heard. Some fascinating insights have been discovered by using such a method; however, as with many things, like fundamentalism, the hermeneutic of suspicion has been pushed too far.
Perhaps the most famous scholar to appear in this vein of thought is Rudolph Bultmann. He was not the first to embrace some of the following ideas, but he has been very influential-especially in modern, liberal American Protestantism. Bultmann raised much suspicion regarding anything and everything miraculous recorded in the Bible. Such things were not compatible with reason and science, said he. (He was wrong, but we do not need to debate such matters here.) Therefore, we must take the stories about the miraculous and seek a different meaning using the story as an anecdote to portray a larger truth. Skepticism of the historical accuracy and reliability of the biblical accounts became the rule.
Of course, if the accounts of the miracles were not necessarily reliable and accurate, how could we be sure about the accuracy of Jesus’ teachings? This was another theme Bultmann picked up on–what was authentically, historically Jesus and what was not? Following in the footsteps of Albert Schweitzer, Bultmann traveled further.
Bultmann began with a very important assumption about how the Gospels were written, (please note, I am applying Bultmann’s thought only to the New Testament here.) asserting they were put together by communities of faith who were interested in conveying a particular portrait of Jesus. Much like fables and fairytales were gathered by certain communities, so were the stories of Jesus. Mark had a particular community he was trying to influence. Matthew, Luke, and John likewise. Various stories and traditions were used by differing authors to complete their picture of Jesus; some of that material was historical; some was not. The quest for the historian was to wade through that which was added and by some sort of criteria distinguish what was really Jesus and what was constructed by the communities of faith and attributed to Jesus.
In the 1990's a Third Quest for the Historical Jesus used many of these same methods to push the envelope even further. Perhaps some of you remember the Jesus Seminar? I certainly do as I was in theological training during these years, and much of this was big news.
Unfortunately, like the hermeneutic of inerrancy, the hermeneutic of suspicion suffers from some devastating problems. What criteria does one use to figure out what is real and historical versus what communities added? Much of the criteria is actually pretty subjective. Can we find corroborating evidence to verify the historicity of Jesus, much less any other particular figure from ancient history? Is it possible to construct a Jesus with as much staying power as the Jesus portrayed by the Gospels–a Jesus worthy of having a global faith based upon? Are the reconstructions presented by these Jesus scholars true pictures of Jesus or interpretations based upon these scholars’ biases? Why shouldn’t we be just as suspicious of these reconstructions as we are of the biblical accounts? These are just a few questions. There are some even more devastating ones which I believe make the hermeneutic of suspicion an intellectually untenable position. Again, as I said about fundamentalism, it’s not because people don’t think. There are some tremendous thinkers in this vein of interpretation; however, the basic assumption, I believe is wrong.