Mike Renihan On Hermeneutics And Confessionalism

Many of us were taught to read and comprehend documents according to a self-centered methodology that assumed that all literature is dynamic. We were taught to ask questions like, “What’s in this for me?” or “How am I to understand this in the present?” or “What is useful for me and what should be overlooked?” This is a reader-response method of reading and studying. With its roots in existentialism, this method implicitly believes that writings are there for the reader’s use. Written words are not understood as conveying truths according to the author’s intent. Therefore, many readers take their 21st-century understanding of the meaning of words and use ancient texts uncritically, waiting to be “hit” by some experience of understanding. Because of that experience-driven and subjective approach to texts, readers believe that they are free to understand and use ancient texts in new and “more meaningful” ways. They do not question this methodology because they see it as sacrosanct, i.e., as part of how they have been taught, or, in reality, mis-taught, to read.

Therefore, through inductive means readers come up with alternative plausible explanations and then confuse plausibility with the document’s meaning. The alternative understanding may seem to make sense out of selective data, but it may not be correct or orthodox. It may in fact only show the reader’s creativity.

Texts, however, have intended meaning. When we come to the Scripture, we should not be seeking some existential “aha” experience in which something jumps out at us – something never before seen. The reader should be seeking the meaning that God has assigned to the words – the Divine intent in revealing those things through the Spirit. The question in the back of the reader’s mind is not “what’s in this for me?” but “what hath God said?” and “how is this rightly understood and applied in the present?” Men get the wrong answers because they ask the wrong questions.

This same quest to discover what a text means apart from authorial intent is a significant part of how many misuse the Confession. They view it as just another work of literature that is to be read like all the others – asking the same wrong questions from the individual’s perspective. It is simply illegitimate to take an ancient document and remold it as a wax nose to fit the face of what we want to say.

The men who framed the Confession as their own summary expression of what the Scriptures systematically teach have many other published works to help the modern reader discover what they meant and what they intended to promote. They believed not only that “to be confessional about the Confession is to place the Confession under the scrutiny and authority of the Bible” but also that the Confession was a document that taught what the Scriptures systematically express. It was biblical to believe the Bible’s own system of doctrine and to convey it to the world by means of a confession. Chapter 1.1 is first, because it is the apology for what they did. It was the framers’ methodology. They compared Scripture with Scripture to paint a mural of what those Scriptures systematically taught. People might quibble about their presuppositions (e.g., Historicist view of Revelation or natural law) or their exegetical method, or their use of scholastic categories, but their confession is their attempt to present what the Scriptures taught. This is different from the methodology that seeks to affirm one’s beliefs inductively. The framers deduced from the Scriptures a systematic theology and presented that scripturally-based system in a confession. They saw the Bible and their summary of it in doctrinal form as two sides of the same coin minted by the work of the Spirit. The Bible was the source of doctrine and the Confession was a summary of that source.

The Confession was self-consciously published in its first edition to show theological unanimity with the Reformed theology of the day, especially as it had been codified in the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. Or, in the framers’ words, touching the Confession’s biblical character:

There is one thing more which we sincerely professed, and earnestly desire credence in, viz. That contention is most remote from our design in all that we have done in this matter: and we hope the liberty of an ingenious unfolding our principles, and opening our hearts unto our Brethren, with the Scripture grounds on which our faith and practice leans, will by none of them be either denyed to us, or taken ill from us. Our whole design is accomplished, if we may obtain that Justice, as to be measured in our principles, and practice, and the judgement of both by others, according to what we have now published (1677 Facsimile edition. To the Reader, pp 5f.).

These sentiments were expressed directly after the writer of To the Reader alluded to the Berean spirit that all who read the Confession should have. The framers were not embarrassed to ask others to search the written Word to prove the words written in the Confession. The early Particular Baptists saw an objective body of doctrine in the Scriptures and in the three confessions already existing (1st LCF, WC, Savoy). They published another confession to demonstrate to the world that they were in step with the march of the Reformation in their time and in their land. The Confession was not a tool to obfuscate theological discussion through subjectivity; it was an objective summary of what was commonly believed and practiced. They published it openly.

These questions remain: Is the Confession a dynamic or static document? Should we conduct ourselves as strict or loose constructionists when we read and interpret it? Does the meaning of the Confession continue to evolve? Or, does it contain a set of objective doctrines that stand or fall together? Is the Confession one homogeneous entity like the Scriptures? If you are taking the quiz for credit, the correct answers are: Static, Strict, No, Yes, and Yes! If we take this position as the baseline definition of what a Reformed Baptist is, together we could maintain a coherent and consistent definition of our own denominator. We cannot superintend all who use the title Reformed Baptist but we can be circumspect ourselves.

I propose that the Confession’s own propositions have set meaning. They are intended to convey biblical truth. The paragraphs are expressions of thoughts on a subset of a subject and its chapters cover all the subjects that they believed were necessary in order to demonstrate agreement with the Reformed movement. The Confession should not be taken uncritically into our age, but with discernment and a proper understanding of the context in which it was given. The Confession was a summary, not an exhaustive attempt to state all that the framers believed. Beyond the original biblical ideas in the Confession, grace ought to be given as charity rules among men.

Does one have to be an expert in the 17th Century to understand the document? No! But it doesn’t hurt to know something about the lives and times and additional writings of the men who penned all three of the confessions in the Westminster family.

The Confession and the Scriptures from which they are extracted are historical documents that deserve careful and honest scrutiny. They work together as standard and subordinate standard – as source of doctrine and summary. The Confession expressed systematically and objectively what is deduced from the Bible. When we talk of one we need the other.

Men do not understand the Bible innately. They need tools. There are very few innate ideas. Perhaps a case can be made for only two Christian notions: (1) the righteous requirements of the Law written upon the heart and (2) that the Law must have a Lawgiver who wrote the righteous requirements upon the heart. Beyond that, all of our learning is a combination of rationality and empirical experiences. Exegesis is needed to take out from Holy passages what the writers and Divine author intended; theologizing is necessary to coordinate the bits and pieces into a systematic and coherent entity. Practical theology then instructs how these objective realities are to be translated into practice. Historical theology then functions as a standard by which private or corporate interpretations of the Bible and theology may be judged. We need them all. Together they are the theological encyclopedia.

The right method is not exegesis over systematic theology checked by historical theology. It is exegesis with systematics and historical theology – each informing the other; one to test the content and cohesion of the truths asserted, the other to test their orthodoxy as compared to the work of the Spirit in the Churches. Therefore, a strict constructional understanding of the Confession and of the Scriptures is needed before we come to either text. There is meaning to be discovered.*

*Vol. 2: The Reformed Baptist Theological Review Volume 2. 2005 (2) (110–113). Owensboro, KY: Reformed Baptist Theological Review.


About lalvin1517

I'm married with two children and pastor McCall Baptist Church in McCall, Idaho.
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One Response to Mike Renihan On Hermeneutics And Confessionalism

  1. Pingback: Hermeneutics & Confessionalism – Mike Renihan | The Confessing Baptist

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