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The "Magic Wand of Scholarly Consensus" in Hermeneutics

Asked to preach on the topic of “pastor and scholar,” John Piper decided to tell a brief account of his own journey through academia, headed towards the ministry, so that the listener could decide for themselves whether he was a scholar, and whether this was a good thing.

I highly recommend the sermon “The Pastor As Scholar” especially to those who don’t know John Piper well, and want to know more about his ministry and his life. This sermon was also helpful to me as I pondered humility – there are few who model humility in their preaching ministry as well as John Piper.

For myself, the most interesting portion of his journey was his time in Munich Germany, earning his PhD. He describes it this way:

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What I saw in the theological educational system and state church life in Germany confirmed most of what I did not want to become. Here were world-class scholars that everyone on the cutting edge in America was ooing and ahing over teaching in away that was exegetically untransferable, insubordinate toward the Scriptures, and destructive to the life of the church. I sat in an ordination where the preacher announced his text from Q (the hypothetical document containing parts of Matthew and Luke, not shared by Mark).

I did my study of Jesus’ love command and worshipped in a lively Baptist church and led a small discipleship group every Friday night, and stoked my fires with Jonathan Edwards and God’s word. But what I saw in Germany could not come close to the theological and methodological goldmine that I had found in seminary. I used that to write an acceptable dissertation and left as quickly as I could. I did not have to work hard to protect myself from this system. I saw it up close and from the inside and found early on that this global king of biblical scholarship had no clothes on.

I was disillusioned by such scholarship.

  • Driven by the need for peer approval.
  • Using technical jargon that only insiders understand and that often conceals ambiguity.
  • A speculative focus in object and methodology (Formgeschichte, Traditionsgeschichte, and Redaktionsgeschichte, and Sachkritik) that gave rise to scholarly articles which began in the mode of Wahrscheinlichkeit and by the end had been transformed into the mode of Sicherheit by the waving of the wand of scholarly consensus.
  • Using linguistic skills to create vagueness and conceal superficiality.
  • Not pressing the question of meaning until it yields the riches of theological truth.
  • Not having the smell of heaven or hell, nor seeming to care much about lostness.
  • Not letting exultation into their explanations, and therefore not being able to show the reality of things that cannot be illumined except in the light of exultation.
  • Not seeing the incoherence between the infinite value of the object of the study and the naturalistic nature of their study. The whole atmosphere seemed unplugged from the majesty of the object.

I earned my doctorate. They mailed it to me a few months after I left. I took it out of the mailing tube to see if it was real in the Fall of 1974. I put it back in and have not looked at it since. It’s still in the tube in a bottom drawer at home, and no one has ever asked to see it. But, by God’s grace, it did get me my first job.

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All that he describes is typical of what I see as “Liberal scholarship” and hermeneutics.

He is very right to say that “the magic wand of consensus” is usually what is used to move “magically” from uncertainty to certainty. (E.g. “we don’t know exactly what this text means, this source says this this says this…etc….but most scholars agree that this is what it says….[later] the expert opinion is this, and not that…”)

This is exactly the sort of method which Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. It is also the method which dominated the Middle Ages, when theology became overly academic, and the route to truth was to quote the “experts” of old (Augustine and the Church Fathers), or to quote from the “scholarly consensus” on what the experts said (as represented by “The Sentences,” a standard text of quotations from the Fathers). The real innovation of the Reformation was the idea that Scriptures speak for themselves. This was not a half-hazard, highly-personalized enterprise: that is, it wasn’t for Luther and Calvin, although they certainly opened the door for many after them who would be irresponsible in their hermeneutics.

In the history of the church, there have probably been more major theologians turned from law than from any other discipline. Turtullian and Augustine had legal training, as did Luther and Calvin, among others. The reason, I believe, that training for the law provides such a helpful background to studying God’s word is that people are trained on reading a passage as it really is. When you read and study a will, for example, the lay-person may misunderstand and there may be several opinions about a particular clause: a lawyer is hired, however, to cut through the ambiguity, to understand the meaning of texts, and to declare authoritatively what is meant by the will.

Sweeping centuries of scholarly “consensus” aside, the Reformers studied the Scriptures themselves in their original languages, with the testimony of the Church Fathers assisting them in their work. The result was the Reformation, and a new awakening in understanding God’s word.

Unfortunately, very soon after the Reformation, theology once again became highly academic. In “Protestant Scholasticism,” theology became a highly complicated, scholarly task. Gradually, the importance of tradition (in a new, refined sense) became more important than the Scriptures themselves. Tragically, the very places where Luther’s great revival of Biblical truth were once strongest are now the bastions of Liberal thought, as Piper discovered.

In a previous discussion, Don said that the two options are either to trust a Rabbi/pastor, or to trust one’s own self for authoritative interpretations of Scriptures. I believe there is a third way – I think Scriptures really speak for themselves, when they are read correctly and honestly.

I need to do more reasearch and work in this direction however, before I can explain exactly how this works.

10 Comments »

  1. I do not know much German and so I would ask for translation of the words you used above if anyone used them.

    At some point a believer may wish to consider the relationship of the 4 gospels to each other, I find the following useful:

    Synopsis of the Four Gospels: Completely Revised on the Basis of the Greek Text of the Nestle-Aland, 26th Edition, and Greek New Testament, 3rd Edition, English Edition by Kurt Aland.

    A Synopsis helps one try to formulate a “harmony of the gospels” which can be useful and believers write books on how to achieve such a harmony.

    Q is a hypothesis, it may or may not be true; other schools have other hypotheses about how the gospels we have came to be and who used what when. I accept that John was written after the Synoptics and how we got what we have may never be figured out. But we have 4 gospels inspired by God.

    • What’s less important than the various hypothesese is the ASUMMPTIONS that we bring to the study. Most of the people whom I will call “Liberal” assume, at the outset, that 1) no supernatural activity took place at the authoring of Scriptures, and 2) God did NOT enter human history, to live and die for sin.

      What hypotheses they may come up with after that may be helpful and may actually have some helpful insights. However, they are seriously poisoned by this secular humanistic root.

    • If someone believes those 2 premises, then I do not see how they can be a believer. This does not mean what they say is not true, but it would not be coming from a believer’s perspective.

      • The important thing for you to understand – and I don’t really think I am qualified or able to prove this to you right here and now, but I just present it to you – is that when you start from the wrong place, EVERYTHING (or very nearly everything) you come up with will be wrong. For example, so much of modern Liberal thought is based upon an evolutionary model of theology and of human society. However, if truth was perfectly revealed in Jesus, such an evolution is impossible. We should not be looking forwards but looking backwards to Jesus, to Paul, and to the Apostles who laid the foundation for our faith “once and for all.”

        This is just one example. We do not look to secular scholars to tell us what the Bible says, because the gospel is foolishness to them, it is veiled to their minds, and they are unable to apprehend spiritual truths, and they (in their folly) compare themselves by themselves (instead of by God’s truth) and are like waves, driven back and forth by the continually alternating winds of doctrine.

      • One needs to be careful.

        Would I listen to an atheist about what some word meant in the culture, when that word is found in the Bible? Sure I would.

        Would I listen to an atheist about what it means to be a believer? No, they do not understand.

        Would I listen to an orthodox Jew about what some verses in the Tanakh mean? Sure I would.

        Choose to listen to somone based on the chance that they will say something helpful, or possibly helpful but which can be rejected, not because they fit into some category.

    • About the German: I just cut and pasted. I don’t know German. From the context, (and maybe he translated in the audio version…I can’t remember) I gathered that the German basically mean “probability” and then (after waving the magic wand of scholarly consensus) “certainty.”

      Not really sure why Piper used German without explaining it. Uncharacteristic of him, but I think the basic meaning is clear enough.

  2. I was so enjoying reading this and was right there with you until you said this:

    “All that he describes is typical of what I see as “Liberal scholarship” and hermeneutics.”

    Trying to transfer his contempt at the arrogance of classes and those who assign to themselves special privileges onto more of the churches attempts to divide and separate ruins the honesty of his observations. They were excellent observations.

    The problem is the idea that it’s OK to classify those you don’t agree with as beneath you.

    • I hear you. People throw around “Liberal” like it is a four-letter word. I am trying hard not to do that.

      When I say “Liberal,” think of it as mental cancer. It’s not so much that I hate a person with cancer as I hate the cancer itself: I definitely don’t want to say “all the Episcopalians are Liberals” and thereby insult/degrade the lot of them. Also, some people call themselves Liberal when what they really mean is that they are not ultra-conservative (e.g. my wife is “liberal” in that she wears pants).

      I DO hate Liberalism as an intellectual system of thought because it is humanistic atheism in Christian garb. It is cyanide being peddled as water: it is the quintessential wolf in sheep’s clothing of our day. I am especially hateful towards it because Satan has so triumphed over our institutions that most of our brightest and best are basically FORCED to drink at the poisoned wells of Liberalism before they will be considered for serious ministry.

      I have no intention of insulting anyone: where Liberalism is present, however, I want to warn and stand against it.

      • I’m in agreement with this. 🙂 And really dislike any humanistic atheistic belief systems as well.

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