filename : LIBERAL.TXT
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A LOOK AT LIBERAL INTERPRETATION METHODS
Author: Jim Hodge
Throughout the centuries, the methods of inter- pretation applied to
the Holy Scriptures has been a subject of great concern and
importance, yet there seems to be a diversity of opinions as to the
proper approach to be taken. The need for a set of standards
regarding the interpretation of the Bible is apparent when we see the
diversities of thought and culture among men. If man is to receive
the full value and worth of God's revelation to man, a sound set of
principles regarding Biblical hermeneutics must be achieved.
Only as exegetes come to adopt common principles and methods of
procedure, will the interpretation of the Bible attain the dignity and
certainty of an established science.
One of the most recent approaches to the interpre- tation of Scripture
involves that of the liberal school of thought. By this we mean the
radical criticism of the Scriptures that has reached its full tide in
the nineteenth century and has become a prevalent force in twentieth
century theology. The debate over the Bible in modern times is a
debate of rationalism versus authoritarianism. It can be said that
rationalism is the assertion that whatever is not in harmony with
educated mentality is to be rejected. The authoritarian position
asserts that if God has spoken, the human mind must be obedient to the
voice of God. It can be confirmed that there appears to be a blind
faith in a certain authority, yet it must be pointed out that this
subjection to authority is not necessarily uneducated or anti-
At the heart of liberal interpretation is their views regarding
revelation and inspiration. According to the liberal, all conceptual
thinking, even our knowledge of God, is conditioned sociologically,
culturally, and historically, and no exceptions can be made for
dogmas, Biblical propositions, or religious truths. The liberal
understands truth to be a pro- gressive, growing entity rather than
an unchanging collection of facts. This seems to imply that revela-
tion is progressive, open-ended, and partial in nature. Therefore, it
is not surprising that the liberal rejects all forms of verbal,
plenary inspiration and revelation is redefined as human insight into
religious truth, or human discovery of religious truths.
Another important theme of liberal interpretation involves a modified
view of the supernatural. When the liberal encounters miracles or the
supernatural in Scripture, it is simply treated as folklore,
mythology, or poetic elaboration. To the liberal, the supernatural
refers to that which is above the material order, or beyond mere
natural processes such as prayer, ethics, pure thought, or
immortality. Miracles are not viewed as being historical events, but
rather are seen as a myth with some inner significance for the reader.
This is sometimes known as existential interpretation. The liberal is
not asking about what happened but about what the story or miracle is
saying to our situation now. He is not concerned with the factual
content of a story, but seeks to translate into it a possibility for a
new self-understanding. What the liberal is really saying is that the
Scriptures can have different shades of meaning depending on an
individual's present circumstan- ces.
The method of existential interpretation can be a valuable tool in
interpreting the Bible as long as a traditional grammatical and
historical method of hermeneutics is applied. Ramm declares:
The Bible is not primarily history, although it contains history. It
is not primarily a theological textbook although it contains theology.
It is a book about existence, about life at its most comprehensive
expression, about God. To understand it at this level one must read it
existentially. By this existential reading the Bible may become the
word of God to the reader.
While an existential method can be helpful to the reader's
understanding of truth, we must realize that the Bible is the word of
God, regardless of whether we read it existentially or not.
Another error found in the liberal interpretation is the idea that the
Scriptures must accommodate the customs and cultures of the day in
which they were written, yet cannot have the same meaning in modern
society. For example, the only terms in which Paul could describe the
death of Christ were from bloody Jewish sacrifices. Thus Paul's
doctrine of the atone- ment is accommodated to the expression of his
time and these are not binding on us.
The liberal feels it is his duty to recast the essence of the New
Testament doctrine in the language of modern man, and in so doing must
take away the concepts and images of the Old and New Testament
Because the liberalistic method of interpretation is relatively new,
it has been greatly influenced by philosophers of the past. Immanuel
Kant's moral interpretation theory is one such philosophy which the
liberals have taken from. It is not uncommon to hear the liberal
speak of the value of the moral teachings of Jesus, yet in the same
breath disregard any passages referring to His virgin birth.
Therefore, according to the liberal, if the literal and historical
sense of a given passage yields no profitable moral lesson, he is at
liberty to set it aside, and attach to it the words such a meaning as
is compatible with the religion of reason.
It is easy to see that such a system of interpreta- tion, which
professedly ignores the grammatical and historical sense of the Bible,
can have no reliable or self-consistent rules. Like the mystical and
allegori- cal methods, it leaves every thing subject to the peculiar
faith or fancy of the interpreter.
Each method of interpretation employed may have some value regarding
the exegesis of Scripture. However, if the hermeneutical principles
are inconsis-tent and unwarranted, the result will be an improper
understanding of God's revelation to mankind. A proper method of
interpreting God's Word should produce God's intended purpose in the
lives of believers and the church that Christ founded. If no fruit
is apparently being produced, then it might be fair to assume that
the method of interpretation is faulty.
Mr. Richard Coleman gives an honest attempt to compare the thoughts
and methods of liberals and evangelicals in his book "Issues of
Theological Con-flict." In dealing with the different methods of
interpretation of both groups, he states:
Modernity can exercise hermeneutical authority over Scripture, just as
orthodoxy can, because both are incomplete if they do not return full
circle and let themselves be tested by the Holy Spirit speaking
through the biblical gospel. The final test of a theology is not its
starting or ending point, but the fruit it bears in the life of the
And again he writes:
The final test of biblical authority and inspira- tion, regardless of
the arguments made, is whether evangelicals and liberals will resist
the tempta-tion to possess and control God's Word and will instead
submit themselves to the Word. Each says he does and accuses the
other of not doing so; but the proof will rest in their actions, not
With these words in mind, we must honestly look at the liberal method
of interpretation and determine if it is indeed producing the kind of
fruit that the Scrip- tures speak of, and if it is not, then it must
be rejected as unwarranted.
Cauthen, Kenneth. Science, Secularization, and God. Nashville,
Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1969.
Coleman, Richard J. Issues of Theological Conflict. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.
Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Baker Book House, 1970.
Ramm, Bernard. Varieties of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Baker Book House, 1962.
Terry, Milton S. Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Zondervan Publishing House.
Compliments of the Manna System