The so-called new hermeneutic of Ebeling and Fuchs was a synthesis of recent historical-critical studies of the Bible, the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, and the history of modern hermeneutical reflections, from Schleiermacher to Wilhelm Dilthey, and Martin Heidegger. This new trend was being heralded as a lively new option that overcame the hiatus between the Barthian and Bultmannian schools of theology. I saw it as an inferior alternative to that of Wolfhart Pannenberg, so I gave an address at the American Theological Society in Chicago entitled, “How New is the New Hermeneutic?” I started out by saying that more important than whether the approach of Ebeling and Fuchs is new is whether it is true. Publishers are looking for a profit so they need to market their goods to people with “itching ears,” for whom relevance to the new is more preferable than faithfulness to the old. In fact, in my view the theologies that turn out to be the most relevant are those that intentionally eschew novelty in favor of renewing the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3b).
–Carl E. Braaten, Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, p. 61.
I doubt whether any theologian who thinks like this, and is willing, as Carl Braaten has characteristically been, to make it known among mainline Protestants, can fail to end up in the right place. While Professor Braaten and I are not of a mind on what certain features of the renewal he mentions here might be, we certainly agree on the kind of spiritual and mental maintenance that must be done to think like a Christian–and upon the vigor with which what is not Christian must be opposed by those appointed to teach Christian doctrine. Neither my Doctorvater nor I are by nature the snarling tigers, itching for a fight, that many think us to be, but peace-loving men with developed senses of humor. Like all Christians who believe, however, that they have a responsibility before God and man to teach and defend the faith, we are obliged to make ourselves offensive to those we perceive to have declared war against it–and obviously we both believe that a clean shot between the eyes, whenever possible, is the best way to do it.
My central reflection here, however, begins with the surprising similarity of Carl’s preaching to my own, particularly on how it can be that a man who is thoroughly and decisively non-fundamentalist, believing we cannot go back to a pre-critical approach to the scriptures, can end up teaching and preaching as though “the scriptures cannot be broken,” with (usually) very much the same interpretive results as (sorry, Carl), the average Touchstone editor. And no, it is not a case of even a blind man’s hitting the target now and then, but the educated and deliberative intention of a Christian man–nothing like what we have all heard from theological liberals in whom Christian symbols, including the words of scripture, are used to represent a higher, progressive, truth under whose judgments they stand.
The conclusion I am reaching is something like this: belief in the truth of the gospel creates in the mind a pre-existing interpretational matrix from which one cannot depart without conscious (conscious, that is, until the mind is intentionally dulled and fogged) knowledge that a departure has taken place, a knowledge that creates an intolerable burden on the conscience until it is “dealt with” in some way. This exculpatory dealing is known to be a sin, in fact, a departure from the faith with all that entails with regard to the apostasy of one’s own soul. For many, the deal is made, the pottage purchased, ambiguity substituted for faith, and the call of the fallen teacher goes out for his Master’s debtors, who accordingly buy their own damnation in his reduction of their accounts.
For others, the conscience cannot bear this, and they reject the temptation for the “faith once for all delivered” which they heard at their Mother’s knee. They are left in the evangelical matrix, will not willingly step outside it (and become susceptible to the Nietzschean accusation of backwardness, cowardice, and reaction by those who have made their exodus to the heresies du jour). Their preaching and teaching, as worthless as they understand it to be apart from God’s use of it, intentionally stays within, as best they can manage it apart from their sin and fallibility.
The effect of the fundamental gospel’s matrix upon preaching and teaching is seen in evidence of belief that all must depend on a narrative that follows its pattern from ground-principles forward. The preacher may not believe everything that is in the Bible; he may have severe difficulties with certain traditional interpretations. But, believing the maternal creed, there are large tracts of it he believes to be true as surely and profoundly as he hopes for salvation. It is from those places he begins his narrative and attempts to develop it along lines that are true to the gospel, bringing in, as he begins to understand them and connect them to this line of thought, other passages of scripture he may once not have been able to believe, or which traditional interpretations made unpalatable, but now whose part in the whole he is beginning to understand–the whole of which is becoming more evident not as the restrictive canon it once appeared, but the appointed way forward into the unimaginable–the Narrow Way (shall we recognize it as the birth-canal?) of which the Lord spoke.
This process must continue while life remains to him, and is in fact exactly what the declared conservative must undergo, mutatis mutandis, who, in his approach from ground in which all that is written is presumed to be without error, must still labor through ignorance, unbelief, and tribal misprision to discover what it means.