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No. 81: Hermeneutical Polytheism

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 81
January, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

A couple of decades ago, when I was a young Reconstructionist (instead of a middle-aged post-Reconstructionist), I coined the phrase "political polytheism" to describe how modern evangelical Christians approach matters of social law and politics. Christians want the Bible for Church and family life, but turn to other gods for society. Their social theory is syncretistic, a blend of the notions of Roman, Greek, and Enlightenment ideas like "natural law" and "social contract," not to mention the blurry and nebulous (and contentless) notion of "common grace." Gary North wrote an excellent first exploration of this whole question in his aptly named book, Political Polytheism, available from the Institute for Christian Economics, Box 8000, Tyler, TX 75711.

Sadly, the evangelical and Reformed world is also too much aflicted with hermeneutical polytheism as well. In this brief essay I want to encourage the reader not to be swept away by this tendency.

Hermeneutical polytheism occurs when the Bible is broken up into various "genres" or types of literature. The result of hermeneutical polytheism is that the various parts of the Bible are not properly interpreted because walls have been built between one part of the Bible and other parts.

What I am concerned with will be clearer if I give illustrations. In one recent book we find that there is one way to interpret the "historical" parts of the Bible, another way to interpret "poetry," another way to interpret the "gospel genre," and another way to interpret the "epistle genre." Another illustration would be the attention given to so-called "apocalyptic" literature in the Bible. Yet another would be the desire of the strict theonomists to divide the "moral law" from the "restorative law."

If these distinctions are only rules of thumb, then well and good: They can help us come to grips with the Bible. But when they are elevated into types of literature and rules are provided for each type, I believe there are real dangers.

Consider "apocalyptic." First of all, there is no apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Apocalypticism, originally a form of Jewish gnosticism, taught that the world is coming to an end and therefore we should retreat and wait for deliverance. (Apocalypticism is one of the major heresies of American evangelicalism, of course.) The prophetic passages of the Bible teach the opposite. They always teach that the world is coming to a new beginning, and therefore we must get to work.

What fools too many scholars is that the later prophetic books of the Bible (those of the Restoration and New Covenant eras; that is, the two phases of the Latter Days) are written in symbolic language, and so is apocalyptic literature. The large majority of commentators on these books misinterpret them seriously for two reasons.

First, they do not recognize that the symbolism in these books comes from the structures established in Genesis 1, the Tabernacle and sacrificial system, the Temple of Solomon, and especially the visionary and symbolic Temple in Ezekiel. In other words, by separating the "ceremonial law" from "apocalyptic" as two different genres, they cannot interpret these prophetic books.

Second, by and large the interpreters do not take into account the historical background of these books, and thus do not see the immediate relevance of them. For instance, several aspects of Zechariah 1-6, as well as Ezekiel 38-39, are fulfilled in Esther. But these scholars have Esther pegged as a "historical novella," and don’t link it with these prophetic books. Also, they don’t see the connection between the palace of Ahasuerus in Esther and the Temple of Yahweh. Similarly, they do not link the book of Revelation with the book of Acts, which they should do.

To take another illustration: the Law. The Law is a seamless garment, and is seamless with the rest of the Bible. To pigeonhole some parts of it as "ceremonial" and others as "moral" does violence to the text. You cannot understand the penalties in the "moral" law unless you connect them with the killing of the animals in the "ceremonial" law. Our tradition betrays us here, because it is common in evangelical and Reformed thought to say that the "ceremonial" law was fulfilled in Christ and thus is done away with. Rather, we should say that because Christ fulfilled it, it is now applied in a new and greater way in the life and worship of the Church. One of the greatest failures of "theonomy" lies just at this point, as I mentioned above.

One of the worst forms of hermeneutical polytheism comes from Meredith G. Kline and his notion that the so-called Old Testament is one "canon" and the so-called New Testament is another. Thus we have two canons, two rules of life. Not so. The Bible never hints that it is to be divided into two "testaments." There is only one Bible, a through-composed book, seamless and inseparable. And thus there is only one canon, one rule of life.

To be sure, Paul has one style, Ezra another, and Samuel another. And to be sure, each book is a unit with particular concerns. And to be sure, the books that were produced for one period or another have different themes and concerns appropriate to each stage of covenant history. It is legitimate to take account of these, but only if we always remember that God is the Final Author and that the Bible is one unified book.

There are no true "genres" in the Bible, because the Bible breaks all merely human molds. It is the written word of the Word of God Himself, and sui generis. So-called "genre criticism," whether practised by liberals or conservatives, is a red herring that diverts attention from the true structures in the Biblical text.

Ultimately, such approaches treat God as speaking with many different voices, and approach a kind of polytheism. At its extreme, hermeneutical polytheism actually pits parts of the Bible against one another. One evangelical commentator on Chronicles says that when the Chronicler tells that a king had many wives, he intends that as a sign of God’s blessing! Thus, the Chronicler contradicts Genesis 2:24, Leviticus 18:18, and especially Deuteronomy 17:17, all of which prohibit second wives, especially for kings.

Objection: God is Three and One, so we should be sensitive to various "genres." Yes, but it is also true that "all of God does all that God does." However pointedly different various parts of the Bible appear from one another, they are all part of one unified story.

Hermeneutical polytheism, like political polytheism, is a tendency, not a formal heresy. All the same, it is a serious error, and one we must be aware of, and beware.