The right understanding of the Scriptures has always been a challenge to the Church. Accepting the challenge poses a constant risk, because any human attempt to understand the Bible also opens the door to possible misunderstanding.

The Scriptures themselves suggest this to us. One need only recall the critique that the Old Testament prophets delivered against the misunderstanding that Israel maintained of its own election by God. Then there was the Pharisees’ distortion of divine law.

The right understanding of the Bible was in crisis in the Christological controversy of the ancient Church, and in the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius, to say nothing of the conflict with Rome in the sixteenth century. The Reformation can be explained only if we keep in mind the new insights that Luther and Calvin gained of the message of Scripture; both these great men kept themselves busy for their mature lifetimes with the exegesis of Scripture. And it was because they were opened by the Spirit to new light from God’s Word that the enormous work of the Reformation was done.

In our time we are obliged to give ourselves anew to intensive concentration on what is called the hermeneutical problem, that of the interpretation of Scripture. And with this, the Church finds many believers hesitant and even fearful. This is understandable. Has not everything been shaken up by what seems like an exegetical earthquake? What can believers be certain about? This question is very much alive in almost every denomination of Christ’s Church today—not merely in the closed studies of scholars but in the daily life of the congregations.

As people are involved with hermeneutics, they are of course very much involved with the Bible. And this can only be good. We are not to be satisfied with standing still and repeating traditional interpretations; we are to test the traditions with the Word. Despite all the hard and nettlesome questions now on the agenda, we must be thankful for the renewed attention being riveted on the Holy Scriptures.

If the men of the sixteenth century had been content to go along with tradition, we would never have known the blessing of the Reformation. Rome accused the Reformers of breaking with tradition, and with this, there came the strong judgment that the Reformers acted as ingrates in the face of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church.

The Reformers rejected this judgment. They had no intention of despising tradition, their own bond with the past, but they did want to test the tradition with the touchstone of the Word. This critical stance over against tradition was only a matter of establishing proper priorities. They could not let the authority of the Church have the last word. They came to the conclusion that many traditions could not stand up under the light of revelation and that some traditions had put a veil of misunderstanding over crucial portions of the Word.

Article continues below

Thus a new openness was created for the renewal of the Gospel’s power in the light of the Church. Many discoveries of new meanings were made as the men of God re-mined the Word of God. Scripture became increasingly a source of new surprises. Daily, the Reformers were at their Bibles, like the people of Berea (Acts 17:11).

Jesus too displayed a zeal for getting at the message of the Scriptures. Recall his meeting with the men on the road to Emmaus, and his explanation to them of the meaning of the Scriptures. (In Luke 24:27 we find the word that forms the background to our “hermeneutics.”) And recall how their hearts burned within them as the Scriptures were reopened to them.

The mistake of traditionalism is not its admiration and respect for tradition. Its mistake is its underestimation of the power of the Word as the sword of the Spirit (cf. Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12). The Reformation itself actually obliges us to take the hermeneutical question seriously. For the Reformation taught us that neither infallible tradition nor an infallible Church can ever have the last word; it taught us that only the Word itself has the last word for us. The Word has to be free to remake and reform the Church over and over again.

We are not, then, allowed the sad luxury of complaining about the appearance of new thoughts from and about the Bible. We certainly should not panic in the face of them. Surely, the mining of the Scriptures by fallible men opens the door to all sorts of new dangers. Indeed, those who search the Scriptures are tempted to listen to the voices of the world even while they read. A serious misunderstanding of the Scriptures is always a live possibility. But we may not be content to protest and complain about the new problems that hermeneutics raises. Rather, we shall have to be seriously, honestly, and intensely preoccupied with the Scriptures ourselves.

Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into the truth. But the Spirit does not lead us apart from the Word. He leads us through the understanding we gain of the Word itself. Peter, for instance, on the day the Holy Spirit fell strong on the Church, was very busy exegeting the Word of the Old Testament. The moment the Church loses interest in working the mines of the Word because it thinks it has seen all there is to see, that moment the Church also loses its power and its credibility in the world. When the Church thinks it knows all there is to know, the opportunity for surprising discovery is closed. The Church then becomes old, without perspective, and without light and labor of fruitfulness. Everything depends on whether the Church keeps on being the listening Church, whether it can find itself in the image of the young Samuel, who said: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

Article continues below

We may not sidestep the difficulties that listening to the Word puts in our path. We have received the Word of God in human words, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words. These words demand study and translation. They demand hard effort if they are to be understood in the way of the Spirit.

Those people who rest uneasy unless they can receive everything the way they have always received it are little aware of their real demands. If we want the Scriptures but refuse to deal with the problem of hermeneutics, which is nothing else than the question of how to understand the Scriptures aright, we are asking for the impossible.

If we demand that our reading of the Scriptures never bring us anything new, never raise up new problems, we are actually trying to be wiser than God, and more understanding than the Spirit. For it is the Spirit who summons us to build with him. And he who would build the Church must, through constant attention, hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.