Evangelicals and the Hermeneutical Jungle -- By: Gerald Cowen

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 14:2 (Spring 1997)
Article: Evangelicals and the Hermeneutical Jungle
Author: Gerald Cowen

Evangelicals and the Hermeneutical Jungle

Gerald Cowen

Southeastern Baptist Theological College
Professor of New Testament and Greek
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, NC 27587

Faculty Lecture delivered at Binkley Chapel
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, NC, January 22, 1997

In his article “Can New Testament Theology Be Saved?” Robin Scroggs recounts the hermeneutical dilemma in which many modern New Testament scholars find themselves. Because of the encroachment of various types of 20th-century biblical criticisms, there is a prevailing pessimism concerning whether or not it is possible to understand with any degree of certainty the historical background of the New Testament documents. If we cannot “contextualize” the author, that is, place him in our times, and understand his culture (which includes his political situation, family structure, social mores, psychological dynamics, literary and rhetorical conventions), how can we understand the teachings of Jesus or the theology of Paul?1 Subjectivism and relativism have led to a skepticism among scholars that might be described as a kind of agnosticism.

Not only have many abandoned the attempt to reconstruct the historical background of biblical texts, but concepts such as “authorial intention” have been all but surrendered. It is argued that we do not know what Paul thought. We know only what Paul wanted the Corinthians to think he thought. This skepticism has been called the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The more radical skeptics are described by Scroggs as practicing a “hermeneutics of paranoia.”2

Form criticism, although still practiced by some, has ended in failure due to a lack of evidence that a large number of individual pericopes circulated prior to the writing of the gospels. Redaction criticism has turned into composition criticism, which analyzes the text as it is today. Narrative criticism treats the gospels as literary productions whose parts have no meaning apart from the whole.3

The discipline of hermeneutics, the science and art of interpretation, has suffered tremendous upheaval in recent years. As a result the literature on biblical

hermeneutics today is legion. Some of it is helpful, but much of it is destructive. It has become a veritable jungle of similar but competing systems.

The so-called modern movement in hermeneutics has its roots in the work of S...

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