Modern Interpretation Of The New Testament: Retrospect And Prospect -- By: Calvin Mercer

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 10:1 (Fall 1992)
Article: Modern Interpretation Of The New Testament: Retrospect And Prospect
Author: Calvin Mercer


Modern Interpretation Of The New Testament:
Retrospect And Prospect

Calvin Mercer

Associate Professor of Religion, East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina

Patrick Henry pointed out that it is healthy for a discipline to be aware of where it is, how it arrived there, and where it might be going.1 Charting the course of New Testament study up to this century is relatively easy when compared to the task of understanding developments in the twentieth century and, especially, the post-war state of affairs. Predicting future developments is downright hazardous; however, since I agree with Henry’s judgment, I will suggest a past, present, and future for New Testament interpretation.

My goal is to sketch the large thematic contours of the story of modem New Testament interpretation, and to provide examples of modem methods and their advocates.

Theology

Until the modem period, interpretation of the New Testament was conducted almost wholly within the context—some would say confines—of the church. The New Testament was seen as a reservoir of revealed truth. Patristic, medieval, and reformation exegetical strategies were all dedicated to devotional and theological agenda. This is understandable; it is also appropriate as the New Testament is part two of the collection the church has judged to be canonical. On the downside, locating the hermeneutical enterprise solely in an ecclesiastical context can tend to limit the questions explored and the answers tolerated.

History

Modem interpretation of the New Testament began in full force in the nineteenth century. Its roots are in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment which, among other things, championed the power of human reason. Critical study of the New Testament, then, does not mean faultfinding; rather, it means bringing cogent reasoning to the study of the text. One examines the text by asking questions, evaluating evidence, and drawing conclusions, which are, ideally, not influenced by theological considerations.

Until roughly the last half of the present century, modern critical study of the New Testament was in the service of a historical paradigm. That is to say, the focus of New Testament study was on reconstructing the past, namely, the history of the early church and the documents it produced.

The prominence of historical criticism does not mean that theological concerns passed by the way. Rudolf Bultmann stands as a major example of a rigorous practitioner of historical criticism who was equally committed to setting forth a program for the application of the New Testamen...

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