The Quest for Understandable Hermeneutics

Of all the goals a Christian can have, one that begs for importance is the ability to look into the Scriptures, read the very words of God, and discover and decide on the meaning and application for oneself. This need may be given over to one that has what others may see as an advanced position in the church, or one that is perceived as having more education, or even more spirituality; but, what a terrible waste to give over one’s right to read and understand God’s Word – especially in our society when interpretive tools can be readily accessed. In The Quest for Understandable Hermeneutics, Hal Hougey produces what is described by the back cover blurb as a “book about hermeneutics – not for the critical scholar, but for all of us in our effort to determine God’s will for us.” The book is a hefty 632 pages and contains a very useful Glossary, a comprehensive Bibliography, an easy to use General Index, and a much-appreciated Scriptural Reference section.

For those unfamiliar with hermeneutics, Hougey presents the working definition as that part of biblical interpretation which “encompasses not only the use of carefully formulated rules and principles of interpretation, but also the process through which the meaning of obscure texts is carried out to get their full meaning” (11). The book is presented in two major sections. Section one, entitled Restoration Hermeneutics Revisited, looks into those principles that the Restoration Leaders outlined as requisites for adequate interpretation and Christian unity. The Restoration Movement (aka Stone-Campbell Movement) began during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century and sought Christian unity based ultimately (1) the Reformation plea of sola scriptura and (2) the rejection of denominational creeds. The principles revisited in this section prompted the discussion of those methods of biblical interpretation the Restoration Leaders advanced to promote unity among Christians. Many of those Restoration principles were eventually distilled into what became the traditional tripartite interpretative formula of command, example, and necessary inference (CENI). This tripartite formula is also expressed by the descriptor of Pattern Hermeneutics, a formula that Hougey maintains has developed into a “legalistic approach to the Scriptures,” and behind this approach an “underlying presupposition that one merits or loses his salvation, at least partially, on the basis of his works” (56).

The second section, Old Subjects—New Slants, is a discussion of those long held beliefs of the Restoration Movement that have brought an increasing amount of division and angst within the church. It is within this section, in Chapter 17 – “Interpreting the New Testament Non-Legalistically” – that what appears to be the overriding theme of the work is expressed. When speaking about what makes the Worship Assembly, Hougey describes what may be considered the “functions that can be fulfilled in the multifaceted assembly” (459): fellowship, comfort and strength, meeting physical needs, teaching, exhortation, evangelism, learning about opportunities to serve each other, edification, and making announcements concerning the whole body. As noted in the book, some of these are activities are relegated to the worship proper while other activities are positioned in such a way as to be not part of the worship proper. Then the statement that somewhat summarizes the ideal expressed in the book.

So even our worship can be made common place, damaged by a legalistic approach to it. We focus on the externals, not on the heart, and the heart goes away empty and bleak and hopeless (462).

This sentiment finds voice throughout the entire work. Hougey takes many opportunities to remind the reader that the New Testament does not act as a legalistic document like the Old Law. The NT endeavors to address the heart in such a way as to produce motivation for right living from a love and appreciation for the great acts of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in our lives (a position that few would disagree with). Hougey maintains that because of this position there is a need to find a hermeneutic, a method of interpretation and application of the Scriptures, that shuns the legalistic foundation of CENI. As Hougey notes:

The NT bears no resemblance to a legal code. Not only is it not written as a legal code, but its emphasis is less on behavior, and more on the attitudes of heart that motivate the way one behaves (229).

            One should not be left with the impression that Hougey purposes some far-fetched or outlandish method for Biblical interpretation, this is just not the case. The arguments made against the rationalistic method of interpretation and those original insights observed by the Restoration Leaders are aimed at the results, not the method per se. The CENI method is soundly renounced, but the argument is made throughout that this rationalistic method has become an obstacle by creating hard-and-fast rules mentality that promotes a legalistic approach to the Scriptures and creates division among the brotherhood. Hougey presents several of the traditionally divisive positions and his understanding and application of those positions with an appeal to justice, mercy, and faithfulness as the key (see Mathew 23:23). It would be unfair to suggest that Hougey does not do due diligence to his considerations and present weighed and scholarly conclusions; yet, with an appeal to the Restoration Leaders, one is relieved that one is not forced to accept those same conclusions.

Some quotes from the work:

“Most of the controversies we have suffered have to do with our failure to distinguish between incidentals and items of moral or theological significance” (74).

“Tempting as it is, a valid system of biblical interpretation cannot be designed by predetermining what results we want, and then devising a hermeneutical system to get us there. Theology must always be preceded by exegesis” (155).

“A covenant? Yes. A law? Yes. A legal code imposed by external power? No. instead, the motivation is within, where the Spirit of the Living God has come to dwell” (228).

“A plea to ‘just let the Bible Speak for itself,’ relieves us of the study, research, and thought necessary to find the meaning of Scripture” (371).

“Whatever sins one may have done before his conversion, he starts anew when he is called. It is usually impossible to rectify a preexisting mess, so God accepts on in his present situation. He should begin anew, and sin no more” (483).

“To call one a Christian who is trying to serve God to the best of his knowledge, is not making a declaration of his destiny, but a comment on his commitment” (592).

“But we lost our way. Like most institutions, whether economic, political, or religious, we lost the vision, fervor, and focus of the first generations and institutionalized our position. In the first generation Unity was the ideal; later, Separatism to maintain doctrinal purity became the thrust of the movement” (618).


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