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Hermeneutics 9 – Rationalistic Interpretation

November 15, 2012

In the 17th and 18th centuries, rationalism reared its head with its own approach to interpretation.  Primarily, this was a movement of skepticism.  It saw men like Immanuel Kant arise with their ideas about the supremacy of human reason.  Essentially, all teachings were rejected that did not immediately fit within what they considered to be the educated mindset of their day.  All miracles in the Bible were rejected.  The teaching of a supernatural inspiration of Scripture was discarded.  All of this was because it did not accord with what they considered natural human reason.

Besides this anti-supernaturalism, rationalists taught about what they believed to be the proper content of religion.  They rejected any ideas about doctrinal norms in the Bible.  They did not believe that Scripture was to be used for developing ideas that were true about God for every individual.  According to Milton Terry, Kant believed if, “a given passage yield[ed] no profitable moral lesson, such as commends itself to the practical reason, we are at liberty to set it aside, and attach to the words such a meaning as is compatible with the religion of reason,” (Terry, Hermeneutics, 167).  We will come back to the last portion of this statement in a moment, but notice again the rejection of doctrine in favor of a sole focus on morality.  This is not unlike the Pietistic approach to Scripture we saw in the last post.*

So in conclusion to this brief overview of rationalism we see the rejection of anything supernatural or doctrinal in favor of human reason and morality.

As Christians, how do we think about these things?  How do miracles fit into our worldview?  There are two major considerations that render supernaturalism acceptable to the Christian mindset.  First, is the power of God in creation.  It has been said often that if a person believes Genesis 1:1, they will have no trouble believing any other miracles.  Second, is the supernatural work of God in the hearts of men and women which produces repentance towards Him and faith in the work of Christ.  When we take seriously Eph 2:1-6, that were are dead in sin, but God by His power and grace raised us to life, we have no problem believing in other miracles.  Note the centrality of faith in the Gospel to any biblically accurate worldview.  In sum, to quote Robert Reymond,

Grant, in other words, the fact of the infinite, personal God of Scripture and the [urgent needs] for mankind caused by human sin, and no philosophical or historical barrier stands in the way of the historicity of any of the supernaturalism and miracles of Scripture.  The distinct likelihood of the miracles of the Gospels follows as a matter of course as a natural aspect of Christian theism, (Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 557).

What about this supremacy of human reason?  How are we to think about this rationalistic proposal that we are to reject anything that does not immediately fit with what we perceive to be reasonable?  Can we as Christians be guilty of such an approach to Scripture?  I believe we can.  Have you not ever rejected a certain doctrine of Scripture because initially it was appalling to your intuition?  In other words, if we hear a teaching that opposes our current way of thinking or is offensive to the way we currently reason, isn’t it natural for us to assume it must be wrong?  What we forget is that even as Christians we are sinful beings.  Our minds and attitudes are in a process of sanctification, yet sin is still present in them.  We don’t naturally think and reason properly about God or ourselves.  Should we not expect that as we grow in our knowledge of God we will discover truths about Him that are offensive to the way we have thought our whole lives?  Do we expect that the truths about a holy and infinite God will immediately accord with the ideas we naturally want to hold as sinful and finite creatures?

In conclusion, I believe though we reject the explicit teaching of the rationalists, we must be aware of the rationalist inside of us.  We all, due to our sinful pride, have a natural tendency to think that our own subjective human reason is supreme.  May God grant us humility and grace and teach us about Himself.

 

* The definitions in the first two paragraphs are largely taken from Dr. Kenneth Talbot’s Lecture 8, from his Hermeneutics class at Whitefield Theological Seminary.

From → Hermeneutics

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