Thoughts on “The Quest for Understandable Hermeneutics”

In a previous post, there appeared a book review of Hal Hougey’s The Quest for Understandable Hermeneutics, and one felt disinclined at that time to present points of critique or argument since the goal at that time was to present a brief book review in an impartial manner (as far as possible … different reviews have different goals). As far as Hougey’s work is concerned, during the work of exegesis there is an expectation of impartiality when dealing with history, language, and culture. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, may be considered more of art form, juggling and arranging factors such as preunderstanding, opinion, culture, and education to make application of historical text to contemporary context. Certain rules apply when doing hermeneutics, but the application of those rules may be brought forth with different stresses so that the application and instruction which are achieved may produce significant differences. Witness the conclusions reached by separate instructors using the same material. With this thought in mind, there were certainly conclusions reached by Hougey that this writer found askew (not that compete agreement is mandatory).

            First, one of the questions that a reader may raise is related to a short section, within the larger section considering commands and examples, in which Hougey examines whether the absence of an example prohibits. The idea presented is that when there is not an example of some method or mechanic being used the thrust of pattern hermeneutics is to pronounce the use of the method or mechanic for which there is no example wrong. A second example presented by Hougey to prove his point is this, “There is no example of an evangelist working with and paid by one congregation for an extended period of time. Pattern conclusion: Located preachers are wrong” (85). Regarding Hougey’s conclusion this might be said.

Looking into the record of Acts, we find between Acts 19:8-10, 22; 20:31 that Paul remained in Ephesus for a total of approximately three years. Yet, on the other side of the exegesis one finds that in the record of Paul’s discourse with the Ephesian Elders he purposely reminds them it was by his own hand that he supported himself and those working with him (20:34-35). Here then is the problem. How long must a preacher stay in a certain local before he is considered “located?” Hougey’s conclusion that according to pattern hermeneutics a located preacher is wrong can only be proved by the example Paul if the preacher stays in one location longer than 3 years. Further, the specific pattern of Paul would suggest that an evangelist staying at one location must support themselves (cf. Acts 18:3; 20:34) or receive support from a separate congregation (2 Cor. 11:7-9). At best, a conclusion based on strict pattern hermeneutics would force the application that evangelists may stay up to three years in one place as long as they support themselves, not that located preachers are wrong. Saying that there is “no example of an evangelist working with and paid by one congregation for an extended period of time,” without examining the labor of Paul (and perhaps even examining the work of Timothy later) is applying a conclusion that is not fully supported by exegesis of the scriptural evidence.

            A second instance of disagreement comes within a discussion of interpreting the New Testament (NT) non-legalistically, and the primary vehicle for Hougey’s thoughts at this point in the work center around the Sabbath. The overall emphasis is placed, and rightly so, upon the interplay between the authority of Jesus and the interpretive system of the Jewish elite of the time. Of course, we understand that the halakha rules regarding the Sabbath had become part of the must for the Jews, and the Pharisees in particular, so much so that to break any of the man-made regulations was the same as breaking the original command given by God (Exo. 20:8-11). Jesus, by his actions and instructions, showed an authority over the Sabbath and against the S&P Club by declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Hougey, to prove his point regarding the NT as a non-legalistic document, then appeals to an episode in the Old Testament (OT) recorded in 2 Chronicles 29 & 30 when King Hezekiah bent the rules (454).

Under King Hezekiah there was a great restoration of the people of Israel along with the place and rites associated with the worship. The Passover had not been held for quite some time and the reader of 2 Chronicles finds that King Hezekiah makes every effort to prepare the temple, the priests, and the people, but there simply isn’t any way to do all the necessary sanctification rituals necessary to come into compliance with the written code. Therefore, King Hezekiah makes the decision to postpone the feast for one month because, as Hougey points out, “the Temple was not ready for the prescribed observance” (434). Hougey then makes the observation that God did, through Moses, make a method of observing the Passover for individuals that were unable at the prescribed time (see Num. 9:6-14), but says King H’s situation was not the same since the Passover was for an entire nation, and that for this one year the “exception became the rule” (455).

Then Hougey’s conclusion, “From this we learn that when a person wants to obey the Lord but is prevented by circumstances beyond his control, God looks at the intent and honors it. The humble heart that is contrite is as acceptable to God as the external rite” (456).

The conclusion that a humble heart IS AS ACCEPTABLE as the external rite is a conclusion built upon what Hougey accurately sees as an episode where the exception was acceptable. Yet, this acceptable exception cannot be expanded into the general principle that when a heart is humble and sincere, even when circumstances are against the individual, God regards that heart with favor. One can certainly agree that there were times in the OT when God appears to make an exception to the rule, but two points should be remembered: (1) that in the OT period God used methods to reveal his will in such a way that an unacceptable behavior could be extinguished if desired, and (2) that in the NT period we have no such avenue of instruction, only the recorded words of the inspired writers. Do circumstances at times interfere with our ability to keep the instructions in the Word of God? Yes. Are there sincere and honest individuals that do their dead level best to be the person God desires and still are outside the will of God as revealed in the Word? Yes. Are we, as the children of God, able to inform those that have an honest and sincere heart that they can be released from the demands of the NT simply because of circumstance? No. Even Hougey recognizes that a blanket rule built from the exception is incorrect (456), but regardless if God accepts an exception WE have no right to infer that an exception is acceptable to God if circumstances appear to hinder. God can make that choice for his people; We cannot.

            Third, and likely the most important conclusion to consider, is the statement Hougey makes during a discussion that interpreters of the Scriptures come with presuppositions. Everyone has certain conceptions that make up the foundational cognitive map from which opinions and ideals stem, and so presuppositions play a part in one’s interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, it may truthfully be held that one’s presuppositions influence decisions that are made daily. Hougey relates 11 presuppositions that those of the Restoration Movement commonly share (377-378) and then proceeds to specifically comment on six of those presuppositions. Hougey’s last critique is the one to which we will turn our attention.

Presupposition Eleven: Biblical authority is determined by a hermeneutical framework of command, example and necessary inference. In our earlier discussion of this hermeneutical formula we showed that it is legalistic, inadequate, and of human origin (380).

One can certainly agree that a misuse of the CENI formula can produce legalistic results and therefore lead to inadequate hermeneutical conclusions; but, the more important consideration at this point is the statement that the CENI formula is “of human origin.” If this form of interpreting and drawing applicable meaning from the Scriptures is purely of human origin then one would not expect it to be used in the divinely inspired Scriptures. This part of Hougey’s conclusion, that CENI is of human origin, is mistaken and can easily be proven as error on his part from briefly examining the teaching and rhetorical style of Jesus.

Jesus obviously recognized the value of commands. When asked to identify the greatest command by a Pharisee, Jesus did not respond that the intentions of the heart were of more importance than the need to follow any commands, but instead directly identified not one, but two commands from the Law (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31), commands that are binding. Further, Jesus also not only identified commands as important, he also identified the fact that he gave commands and expected those commands to be kept – “You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14; Matt. 12:50).

Examples also played a part in Jesus’ method of relating to those around him. Perhaps the best known pericope where example played a central role occurred during the Last Supper and is recorded in John 13:1-17. Jesus takes the opportunity after the supper had ended to teach his disciples one of the most important lessons of his ministry – a lesson he exemplified just by taking the form of a man and sacrificing himself for us. Jesus assumed the role of the lowest servant and washed the feet of his closest followers. Why? Jesus sums up the lesson with the statement, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (v. 15). Jesus did not give a command to obeyed but an example to followed.

The logic process of implication also makes and appearance in Jesus’ interactions with others. When Jesus and his disciples were picking heads of grain as a Sabbath snack the Pharisees attacked them for doing what is not lawful. Jesus then provides two examples of breaking the ‘rules’ that surrounded the Sabbath: that David and his men entered the temple and ate what was not lawful, and then the fact that the Priests serving in the temple are actually doing work on the Sabbath. Jesus then makes the statement that “in this place there is One greater than the temple” (Matt. 12:6) making the implication that since he is greater than the temple he is also “Lord even of the Sabbath” (v. 8). From the facts considered, Jesus made a logical connection that had to exist from the evidence. Another interesting use of implication and the law of rationality occurs in Matthew 21 when the “chief priests and elders of the people confronted” (v. 23) Jesus about his authority. Jesus asks them about the baptism of John, whether it is from God or man. Of course, the conversation that occurs following Jesus’ question reveals the fact that rationality is a typical method by which men come to conclusion. Further, since we know Jesus knows the thoughts of men, he also would have known the thought process by which the chief priests and elders would have used to come to their conclusion. This doesn’t mean that using the law of rationality and coming to an implied conclusion is wrong, but it does mean that Jesus knew the method by which the human mind comes to conclusions.

As these examples from Jesus show us, the use of a CENI hermeneutic follows from the logical and regular working of the human mind. God made us in such a way as to think rationally and because of that we respond to regular and systematic thinking and reasoning processes. “’Come now, and let us reason together,’ Says the Lord …” (Isa. 1:18).

Finally there is a brief but significant statement made regarding the specific use of implication. Often through the work Hougey refers to the writings and thoughts of Alexander Campbell and in a section discussing how to define disputable matters records Campbell saying, “Speculations, conjectures, and inferences, alias opinions, never can have any religious authority.” Hougey then points out that “Campbell has rejected the third element of the Pattern Hermeneutic as authoritative” (520). Then, on the very next page, makes this observation regarding Romans 14:1,

Paul’s reference to “disputable matters,” necessarily implies that there are also some which are non-disputable. Only when we admit that some matters are disputable, and some are non-disputable, can we have any chance of dealing with them successfully” (521).

Hougey, in almost one breath points out that Campbell rejects inferences to enhance his argument against the use of a Pattern Hermeneutic, and then tells us that a conclusion is necessarily implied by a statement made in the Scriptures. One agrees that to say there are disputable matters implies that there are non-disputable matters, just as one agrees that when the early Christians are noted and commanded to meet together this implies that a place to meet is authorized by the Scriptures. Yet, to condemn the use of implication and inference in the pursuit of authority and then use implication and inference to prove an authoritative point is an inexcusable inconsistency one hopes was simply lost in Hougey’s haste.

So, what is the conclusion of the matter? Hougey’s work is not without merit. Many useful and important thoughts regarding exegesis and hermeneutics were presented and proven with skill. Hougey also discussed matters that have divided brethren in the church of Christ for many years and one values those discussions for the insights brought to the issues. Yet, one sees these points that have been discussed above and is left with a feeling of regret at the potential that may have been realized. There can be no doubt that the heart plays an important role in the discernment of Scriptural truths, but it should be equally recognized that there is a role for the mind as well. Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 for tithing of their dill, mint, and cumin, he condemned them for not also applying justice, mercy, and faith – both sides of the equation matter. “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”

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