What is the connection between conservative
British evangelicalism suspicion of:
theology – the whole ‘be a Bible Christian not a system Christian’ type thing
– why do apologetics when you can do an exposition?
and social engagement – does the Bible really have anything to say about art or
contemporary politics, anyway?
Now, these are generalisations and there
are exceptions to those characterisations but I imagine those exceptions will
know the kind of thing I’m talking about. I think it’s hard initially to see
how those things relate and yet, one finds they do. Generally speaking, someone’s
position on one will tell you what they think on the others.
Recently, we had a discussion at college on
the topic of hermeneutics based on Jonathan Pennington’s excellent book Reading
the Gospels Wisely. The question we ended up discussing was how far, particularly
in the New Testament, does the original human author’s intent define or exhaust
the divine author’s intent? I think that the working assumption of most
conservative British evangelicals is that it does. If the human author didn’t
mean it, neither can the Spirit. Our catchphrase is, ‘it cannot mean to us what
it could not mean to them (the original readers).’
It’s this, I think, that connects the three
issues above. If the original author did not intend to outline a thorough
doctrinal treatment of the extent of the atonement, then the Holy Spirit does
not intend us to have one. If the original author did not intend to answer the
questions our contemporaries ask, then they can’t really be important
questions. If the original author did not intend their words to be applied to
public policy or the creative arts, then what right have we to do so?
As I say, I think this is the working
assumption of most British conservative evangelical hermeneutics. The question
is: is that working assumption correct? We’ll examine that question in the next