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The Divine Hermeneutic

(A Departure from the Divine Hermeneutics)
Marc Gibson

“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

It is no small task to define Modernism, even though the movement and philosophy has been around for some time. Various descriptions and definitions can be found in the abundance of sources on the subject. The problem is that modernistic thought has manifested itself in so many different contexts; therefore, it is hard to give one encompassing definition. Yet, we must try to identify the key facets of modernism so that we can identify it when it does manifest itself.

A good definition of a modernist is, “Broadly, one who makes the methods and results of modern thought and life the norms for judging the claims of religious traditions” (Bales 23). Modernism has become a name for certain types of “liberalism,” especially in religious studies. We understand the serious threat of modernism when we realize that “it is an attempt to fuse Biblical teaching with modern philosophical and scientific learning. In the process, however, the Bible is made to conform to the new learning” (Curry 6). It is the “belief that the proper response to modern thought is to make radical alterations in Christian doctrine” (Beckwith 438). In short, it is an attempt to adapt the Bible to modern thought. As one religious modernist wrote, “Unless the truth of the Bible is lifted out of the literalistic framework that captured it some two thousand years ago, that truth can have for modern women and men no meaning, no credibility, and no appeal” (Spong 133). This attitude is “a form of worldliness which tries to make Christianity acceptable through deleting those things which are offensive to the modern mind” (Willis 3). This tool of Satan is a serious danger to those who have put their faith in the Bible as the word of God.

History of Modernism

Modernism is not really a “modern” philosophy. Throughout history, numerous attempts to edit, change, ignore, and discredit the word of God have occurred. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempted Eve by calling into question the truth of what God had said (Genesis 3:1-5). King Jehoakim used a knife to cut a scroll into pieces containing the word of God as it was being read – his method of “editing out” the things he did not agree with (Jeremiah 36:20-25). Soon after Jesus rose from the grave, bribes were paid to finance a lie about the body of Jesus being stolen by His disciples to keep people from learning the truth about the resurrection (Matthew 28:11-15).

The apostle Paul described the emptiness of the “wisdom of this world” which regarded the preaching of the gospel message as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). The apostle Peter warned about scoffers who would “willfully forget” the testimony of Scripture and question the integrity of God’s promises (2 Peter 3:1-7). These ancient attitudes and philosophies permeate modernist thinking today.

The modern-day form of “modernism” got its start from the seeds sown in the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries with the philosophy of “Humanism” (“man is the measure of all things”). These seeds took firm root during the Enlightenment period of the 18th century when traditional religious beliefs were challenged by an anti-supernatural bias that infiltrated the “scientific” thinking of the time.

Some of the key figures in the rise of modernism include Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), David Hume (1711-1776), George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), David Friedrich Strauss (1801-1874), Albrecht Benjamin Ritschl (1822-1889), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), and Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). These men took varying paths that led them to deny God as a personal being, the scriptures as divinely inspired revelation, and the supernatural nature of miracles. Human reason was exalted and religion relegated to simply a product of the evolution of human thought. The Bible was viewed as one of many human records of this evolutionary process as exhibited in Judaism and Christianity. The rise of modernism was a result of a major historical shift in theological thinking and attitudes toward the Bible.

Other important historical moments in the history of modernism include Albert Schweitzer’s (1875-1965) book, The Quest For the Historical Jesus (1906), which launched a search for the “real” Jesus removed from the context of the mythical “Christ” figure. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) appealed for the “demythologizing” of the New Testament. Julius Wellhausen published his book, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1878) which reconstructed the Pentateuch with the “Documentary Hypothesis,” denying the Mosaic authorship in favor of a four-source theory (JEDP). The modernistic theories set forth in these formative years are now the standard beliefs of liberal scholars and commentators. After one studies the history of modernism, he cannot help but conclude as one author did:

Modernism exalts humanism, seeking answers in the mind of man rather than in the revelation and power of Almighty God. It finds the source of religion in man’s social fears and needs. It looks upon the Bible as the product of man’s reasoning and literary effort. It denies all aspects of faith which cannot be understood through natural science and philosophy” (Caldwell 3)

The Presuppositions and Beliefs of Modernism

Modernists do not have different Bibles than other people. They work with the same data that we do. The difference is found in their presuppositions in the approach to the Scriptures. Modernists approach the Bible with a presupposition that there is no such thing as inspired scripture or a supernatural, miraculous event. Knowledge can only be derived by the use of rationalism, the belief that human reason is the ultimate judge of reality. Such presuppositions will have an undeniable effect on the conclusions drawn about the biblical text and the interpretation of biblical events. Other aspects of the modernist’s presuppositions are naturalism, evolution, and the ultimate hope of human progress.

The ultimate end of modernism is the denial of the supernatural (miracles), verbal inspiration, the historical accuracy and inerrancy of Scripture, predictive prophecy, the virgin birth, the divine person of Christ, and the literal second coming of Jesus. There was no literal, bodily resurrection of Christ, and there will be no literal resurrection for us in the last day. An example of this is found in the teaching of John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop, on the virgin birth:

Am I suggesting that these stories of the virgin birth are not literally true? The answer is a simple and direct “Yes.” Of course these narratives are not literally true. Stars do not wander, angels do not sing, virgins do not give birth, magi do not travel to a distant land to present gifts to a baby, and shepherds do not go in search of a newborn savior... The virgin birth tradition of the New Testament is not literally true. It should not be literally believed (Spong 215).

He further demonstrated his utter disregard for the text of scripture when he commented upon the resurrection narratives:

Then later the concept [“Jesus lives!” mwg] was encapsulated into narrative about a tomb that was empty and a grave that had been escaped. The essence of the gospel is never found in the narrations [text of scripture, mwg], but all of the irreconcilable contradictions are. In the telling and retelling of the story, the facts were bent, twisted, and even changed (Ibid 225).

John Killinger, a former Baptist minister, took the same approach with modern science and the Bible:

Once I had entertained that first doubt about the absolute truthfulness of the Scriptures – that is, their factual truth in relation to the empirical truth of a scientific worldview – I began to look more critically at the conflict between biblical accounts of what happened in ancient times and the finding of modern science&ldots;I gradually came to an accommodation between my old literalist views of Scripture and an acceptance of certain scientific facts (Killinger 132-133).

As if this was not enough, the infamous Jesus Seminar, led by Robert W. Funk, took it upon itself to determine the real words of Jesus in the gospel accounts. They lauded those biblical scholars who “rose to the challenge and launched a tumultuous search for the Jesus behind the Christian façade of the Christ” (Funk 2). They determined that “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him” (Ibid 5).

When all is said and done, modernism leaves one with nothing to rely upon except his own human wisdom.

“Rejecting the revelation of God, the intelligent man has no standard, no basis in truth, from which to make intelligent moral and religious discriminations. Tolerance has become the only way of dealing with contradictory worldviews. Each is viewed as being equally valid and as a mere private opinion” (Jeremiah Project 6).

The words of Jeremiah seem appropriate here: “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23; cf. Proverbs 14:12). If God has not revealed His will to man, then we are adrift in the sea of modernistic confusion and unbelief. If we cannot understand what God has revealed, we are doomed to the chaos of “every man doing what is right in his own eyes” (cf. Judges 21:25).

The Inspiration and Understandability of Scripture

Contrary to the presuppositions of modernism, the scriptures are inspired of God. “All Scripture is given by inspiration (theopneustos – “God-breathed”) of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Old Testament prophecy “never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The New Testament is not a collection of “cunningly devised fables” (2 Peter 1:16), but the revealed mind of God given in “words” chosen by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:7-13 - affirmation of verbal inspiration). The fulfillment of prophecy, among other internal evidences, clearly establishes the divine authorship of Scripture.

These “words” from the Spirit of God were spoken and written to preserve the divine traditions of truth in which we stand (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We can understand this truth when we read what was written by inspiration (Ephesians 3:3-5; 5:17). Jesus affirmed that we can “know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). We are to study so that we may “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  If we are willing to love and hear the truth, we can know the difference between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). The Psalmist wrote, “Therefore all Your precepts concerning all things I consider to be right; I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:128). The human wisdom of modernism is to be rejected as false in light of the truth of God’s word. We should stand firm against this assault by Satan and affirm the integrity of Scripture, heeding the warning of Paul to Timothy:

"O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge – by professing it, some have strayed concerning the faith" (1 Timothy 6:20-21).

Danger Signs Among Brethren Today

Among our ultra-liberal brethren, there has been a movement afoot for several years to push Scripture aside in order to exalt the popular thinking of modern culture. Institutionalism and the social gospel movement have arisen because of the modernistic influences on past generations. Biblical authority and the means by which it is established (command, approved example, necessary inference) are constantly being questioned and rejected by those not content with following the simple pattern of the New Testament. We are seeing a “new hermeneutics” being promoted and used today, fed by the propensity of modernism to reject divine authority. This has also become apparent in recent years as ultra-liberals have led many headlong into the error of women preachers, contemporary worship, and open fellowship with denominationalism.

There is also concern about the growing number of brethren who are pursuing the higher religious degrees from universities whose religion departments are filled with modernist professors and philosophies. Our “scholars” that drink deeply of modernist wells will come out of these institutions with more than just advanced degrees. They come forth with “new ideas” and “possibilities” about Biblical interpretation that depart from the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Education is not wrong of itself, but “academic freedom” has become a cover in some places for error to be taught and defended. This is already having its influence on a generation of souls untrained in the word of God.

For a few years now, we have been told that we really cannot be sure if the creation account of Genesis 1-2 was fully accomplished in six literal, consecutive, 24-hour days. We are being encouraged to tolerate, or even accept, alternative views that would adapt the creation account to the theories and timetables of current scientific theory. The biblical text is forced to bow at the feet of modern thought. Incredibly, the “possibility” has also been suggested that the serpent of Genesis 3 was not a literal serpent, but only a metaphorical designation for Satan, a motif that was borrowed from the mythological culture of that day. (Please refer to the material on the Open Letter “Days of Creation Controversy” and the articles on “The Serpent That Was Not There” that can be found elsewhere in Watchman Magazine). Are these examples of the biblical text guiding our understanding of truth, or are these examples of the influence of modern scholarship attempting to adapt the literal historical details of the Bible to the modern mind? Why are these attempts being made to fuse Biblical teaching with modern theological and scientific learning? Modernists have long ago rejected the literal facts of the historical narratives of Genesis 1-11 as well as the facts and miracles recorded in other scriptures. Why are some brethren now moving toward this philosophy of biblical interpretation?

The continuing cry for the need to “progress” and “adapt” to the thinking of our culture today is nothing more than evidence of the influence of modernist thinking (e.g. feminist and homosexual agendas). This thinking will eat away at the foundation of the faith and our faith until nothing is left that would resemble what would please God. The authority of modernism will become our guide. Our religious experience will be reduced to a subjective experience – “what I feel” and “how I think.” Less “truth” will be deemed absolute, the church of Christ will be “just another church,” and no Bible doctrine will be “knowable” in the absolute sense. The teaching of unity-in-doctrinal-diversity will rule the day as uncertainty and a “lack of clarity” paralyze the people of God. Will future generations look back to our day and note some early modernistic tendencies among us that were apparent, but were ignored by so many?

Let us preach the word with courage and forthrightness. Then let us preach it again and again. We must not draw back in fear when dangers threaten the faith of God’s people and the integrity of the word of God. Modernism is not going away anytime soon – it will continue to deceive men along with post-modernism, paganism, atheism, liberalism, and other philosophies of human wisdom. Satan will never rest – this is a war to the end. Yet, victory is assured the faithful if they faint not (Galatians 6:9)!

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11).

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).

"And now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

Sources Cited

Bales, James D., Modernism: Trojan Horse in the Church, James D. Bales, 1971.

Beckwith, R.T., “Modernism, English,” New Dictionary of Theology, Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, J.I. Packer, eds., InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Caldwell, C.G. “Colly, III, “Moulders of Modernism,” Truth Magazine, October 12, 1978, 3-6.

Curry, Melvin, “The Attitude of Modernism Toward the Bible,” Truth Magazine, October 12, 1978, 6-9.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.

Jeremiah Project, Liberalism/Modernism, view_liberalism.html

Killinger, John, Ten Things I Learned Wrong from a Conservative Church, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.

Spong, John Shelby, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Harper, 1991.

Willis, Mike, “The Presuppositions of Modernism,” Truth Magazine, October 26, 1978, 2-3.

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