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Hermeneutics 10 – Existentialistic Interpretation

November 19, 2012

For Neo-orthodox men like Karl Barth, Scripture was not (or is not) God’s revelation to human beings.  Rather, Scripture is a fallible record of revelation.  The difference between the orthodox statement that the Bible is God’s revelation to mankind and the Neo-orthodox statement that the Bible is only a record of revelation is the reason their method of interpretation can be called existentialistic.  Essentially what this means is that men like Barth and Kierkegaard believed that God has not spoken to human beings through an objective written word, but rather speaks to people in a momentary experience.  The Bible was still read but the focus was on subjective experience rather than any objective meaning behind the words of the Bible.  In fact, these men would not say that the Bible is the Word of God.  Instead, they would say that the Word of God is a personal presence.  The emphasis was on the words becoming the Word of God to man only in the moment when God is illuminating the reader.  The Bible itself remained nothing more than the words of men who fallibly tried to relate their own infallible experiences with the personal Word.

Another key aspect of this Neo-orthodox approach to Scripture was the rejection of any doctrinal use of Scripture.  They, like the Pietists, believed that people should only read the Bible for a personal experience.  They denied that the Bible could be used to form any universal truths that are binding on all people.  On a side note, they also believed that if the Bible contradicted modern science in any way, it should be changed to fit the science.*

As I consider the principles of Existentialism I cannot help but to see its influence in todays churches.  Again, I do not pretend to have any authority by which to make the statements I will make, but only say them as a concerned brother in Christ.  How many times have you and I been guilty of making the Bible say something out of context because it spoke to our subjective situations?  I remember a time, probably about 6 years ago, when I was very impatient about not having a wife.  I was reading in the prophets and I came by the phrase, “her time shall come,” or something along those lines. Well, I knew this was God’s Word to me.  He was telling me that it was time, I was about to get married.  Needless to say, that did not happen.  It would be a few years before I would meet my wife.  Actually, I can’t remember the exact passage, but the passages I looked up that have that phrase or a similar phrase are speaking about the time for judgment on Israel.   But is this not a tendency that we have?  Don’t we take passages completely out of context and make them apply to our situation and then say that it is God’s Word to us and infallibly so?  When we do this we are not unlike the existentialists.

Now as I have said before, reading the Bible should have an incredible effect on us emotionally.  But the most spiritual and the most emotional experiences we will have with Scripture will be when we understand what it is saying in context.  Contrary to the Pietistic, Existentialistic approaches we are often taught, learning objective truths about God have tremendous impacts on us emotionally.  We do not need to misinterpret the Bible in order to have spiritual and emotional experiences with God.  We only need to labor to understand God’s Word to us looking for the meaning which God inspired the words to have.  We need to labor to know Scripture’s objective meaning, because that is its spiritual meaning.  It is when we have the objective meaning of Scripture that we will have the most emotional subjective experiences.  We cannot truly learn more about God without being affected internally.

* I must not my indebtedness to Lecture 8, of Dr. Talbot’s Hermeneutics class from Whitefield Theological Seminary for the definitions given.

From → Hermeneutics

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