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Hermeneutics 8 – Pietistic Interpretation

November 11, 2012

The 18th century saw the rise of the Pietist movement.  This movement gained momentum from reacting against the German rationalism of its day and the dead orthodoxy that was common in the church.  I will discuss the rationalistic approach to Scripture on Thursday but will mention a couple of brief comments about it to set the context for this Pietistic response.  The rationalists did not believe anything could be believed from Scripture that did not agree with the “educated mentality of modern man.”*  Rationalists rejected all miracles in the Bible and the inspiration of Scripture.  The dead orthodoxy of the day lacked evidence of a real, robust faith.

The Pietists believed that the primary goal of Scripture was edification.  They rejected the use of Scripture for the development of doctrinal theology.  They believed that the use of the Bible to form creeds hindered its use for spiritual development in individual Christians.  If a teaching could somehow cause dissension in the church, due to disagreement among members, it should not be talked about.  At the end of the day, the growth of the inner spiritual life by making personal application to Scripture became the only valid use of the Bible.

Now, most of us will agree that making personal applications from the teachings of the Bible is a good thing.  In 1 Cor. 10:6, after citing historical events from the OT, Paul says, ‘Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did,” (ESV).  Paul wanted his readers to know that they could be instructed about how to live godly lives as they reflected on the history of the children of Israel.  It should be clear that using Scripture for inner growth is important.

So, what are some of the problems that developed in this Pietistic movement?  What are some problems we may find ourselves having if we subscribe to this strictly applicational approach to Scripture?  For one, the Pietists rejected all “rules of grammar and the common meaning and usage of words,” (Terry,  Biblical Hermeneutics, 165).  Basically what that means is that they did not believe that the meaning of any given text was governed by what an author meant by His words.  You and I will recognize the importance of the context in which a word is used in order to determine the meaning of the word.  They did not believe such considerations were important to discerning the Holy Spirit’s meaning in a passage.  They relied on a “holy inward light” (ibid, 166) to guide them into their understanding of a text and denied that any other considerations were useful.  The result was that one passage of Scripture might have been said to have a host of different and irreconcilable meanings given by various men that all affirmed to have holy authority because the inward light had guided them to such meanings.  In the end every interpreter became, “a law unto himself, and his own subjective feeling or fancy [was] the end of all controversy,” (ibid,166).

What should be our response to these considerations?  I do not claim an authoritative or exhaustive response but offer the following thoughts.  First, we should not overreact to the problems that arose from relying solely on this “holy inward light” and say that the Holy Spirit is not necessary for our proper understanding of Scripture.  The Holy Spirit certainly must open our eyes and enlighten our minds as we read.  However, we must still recognize that the Holy Spirit authored Scripture through men who had specific cultural, historical and linguistic contexts.  The divine authorship of Scripture does not negate the human authorship of Scripture.  As I said in the first few posts, as we understand what the human author meant by his writings, we are understanding the divine meaning, and therefore the Spiritual meaning because they are one in the same.  Therefore grammatical and historical considerations are necessary to properly understand the Bible.  Lastly, we must be careful to let theological portions of Scripture to be theological and applicational portions of Scripture to be applicational.  If a portion of Scripture is intended to teach us a truth about God, it would be dishonoring to Him to claim that it is spiritually unnecessary or even harmful because it could possibly cause dissension.  I believe it would also dishonor Him to twist that Scripture around and make it teach something about man, when in fact it is intended to teach us something about Him.

I leave you with this last consideration.  I think part of the problem is we have allowed this idea to permeate the church that says that theological truths have no effect on our personal lives.  Somehow we think knowing more about God is harmful or unnecessary for spiritual growth.  We think we can only grow as Christians if we make every Scripture apply to our daily life.  What we don’t realize is that knowing God for who He is will have a profound affect on our daily lives even if we don’t try to apply a certain truth to them.  Doesn’t a better understanding of what took place on the cross, which is a theological truth, have a profound impact on your daily life?  Don’t we live life differently as we grow in our understanding about God’s power, might, grace, and love?  Why do we think it will be different for any other attributes of God?  I do not believe that any teaching of the Bible, whether practical of theological, can be properly understood without having a tremendous impact on our daily lives.  What do you think?


* Taken from lecture 8 of Dr. Kenneth Talbot’s audio lectures on Hermeneutics from Whitefield Theological Seminary.

From → Hermeneutics

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