Two Simplistic Hermeneutical Presuppositions

By Michael G. Maness


1st—Priority of the Basic Meaning of the New Testament

2nd—Revelation Consistent in Progressive Understanding of Truth


1st—Priority of the Basic Meaning of the New Testament

The most basic meaning of any part of the N.T. (in its context and in the context of the whole Bible) applies to every culture and time, or the veracity of the whole all falls into an oblivion of relativity. That is not nearly as cut-and-dry as it would first appear, and the operative words are “in its context and in the context of the whole Bible.” So then, “sell your cloak” is applicable to all people everywhere, and all of the time. The real question is why “sell your cloak” does not apply as much as the absolute of “Love God,” and we know the answer a little: part of the difference is seen between our free-will options in choosing among wise non-absolute principles like “sell your cloak” on one hand and on the other hand the obligatory absolutes like “Love God” that we are supposed to try to follow all the time.

There is an application for all of the N.T. to all people everywhere, but the degree of application is moderated—at least—by whether the application is tied to an absolute. Some statements are easily universal like the Great Commandments on Love, the Great Commission, and the Golden Rule. But others are easily seen as conditioned by culture and social milieus, like “sell your cloak” or female silence in church: I have no need for a dagger, and no church can survive without the contribution of women. Where is the application? Sometimes the application can only be seen in an individual application.

Some people will make remarriage after divorce a sin—my God, have mercy on me, too, and make more biblical sense than a mere declaration.[1] What then is the universal application of the dagger and silent-women passages? I do not fully know. What I do know is that no church today keeps their women silent (doubt they did in Paul’s time, either), and that no church for two thousand years has helped people purchase daggers (except perhaps Constantine, the Spanish Inquisition, and other forms of Christian intolerance). What is clear? This is clear: the importance of daggers and the importance of silent women today are far below the relevance of biblically high and prioritized passages like the Great Commandments on Love, the Golden Rule, and the Great Commission.

To the fundamentalist, I say this: we cannot make “sell your cloak” or silent women a universal ethical law, because in part no one ever does this today and in part because the passages are not absolute. The application is more individual than not, it seems, for these verses have an ethical vagueness, in that they are not clearly linked to God’s nature and in that they have not been seriously enforced for 2,000 years with any kind clearly applicability. What, precisely, does “dagger” and “silent” mean? In the context of the whole Bible, the whatever meaning we can discern—in view of the hermeneutical principle of simplicity—that meaning has to be clear to all for that meaning to rise to a priority in ethical relevance. Who disputes the basic meaning of the Golden Rule? It is golden not merely in ethical value but also in its raw simplicity that can be translated into every culture known to humanity. No one of any religion disputes the Golden Rule’s value and Truth. We cannot raise the dagger or silent-women passages to the same level of biblical prioritization—in simplicity—because the Bible itself does not clarify with crystal clarity the meaning for us (the meaning is not self-evident) without much distraction for 90% or more of the Christian church. Only the radical fundamentalist knows the Truth, though they are only clear to themselves, and Love is rarely clarified.

The same is true for divorce and the taboo against remarriage by the radical fundamentalists who curse the divorced and even want to say remarriage is a sin. From the notorious case of David and Bathsheba, only a blockhead would prevent remarriage of a loving couple; yet even God sanctified David’s marriage to Bathsheba and made the marriage “right” at some point where that marriage could become a true and holy lineage for Christ the “son” of David. Therein, David’s marriage to Bathsheba became sanctified enough to be a valid marriage for it to be in the valid lineage of Jesus Christ, then any marriage or remarriage of a couple submitted to God in sincerity can also become sanctified and used by God. Hello there—even in soap operas today—has anyone heard of a more sordid affair than David’s beguiling and murder for Bathsheba? Who then became his … what 5th or 6th wife of record—how many was it?—and he took other wives later. See my book for the answer.[2]

Because of the radical fundamentalist, we emphasize the existence of universal application in the light of an inability to be as competent as Jesus (though strive we must).

Some will lift their own view of silent women to a status of simplicity, but that alleged status and link to biblical clarity and consistency is far from clear; and they never say anything about the dagger passage versus the premium status of Love God. Some even force “silent” to mean in a-round-about way that women should not be eligible to ordination.

A reading of the N.T. will discern a place for men and a place for women, a kind of gender-based “biblical significance” if you please, but that “biblical significance” is far from clarified in the N.T. itself. That “significance” (whatever it is precisely) does not prohibit the ordination of women in and of itself. To make matters worse, read the Bible, and then ask yourself: What is clear about ordination in the N.T.? Ordination itself is far from clear.[3] To take our 21st century church polity of a singular pastor (or senior pastor) and interpolate that polity into the N.T. as though our own current polity is as clearly N.T. and as clearly originating from N.T. as the Golden Rule—well, excuse me—that is an elevation of one’s own preferred interpretation to a status of “universal principle” far and away from a basic N.T. reading. That is a universal application of an unclear interpretation!

That is not all of the story on the dagger or silent-women passages. For us here, we have a problem that is of greater significance with respect to Bucher’s dilemma on whether or not to lie to save a life. What is important is that folks like Rakestraw and Geisler tend to backward mask their rules of engagement: Rakestraw nearly deifies Truth and makes mincemeat out of Love, and Geisler slays the language altogether in grading absolutes in order to support his own choice to lie. That kind of backward masking might work for children or theological toddlers, but it does not help real soldiers on the battlefield. It just makes the mud harder to trudge through.

Geisler and Rakestraw mask their stretching similar to the radical fundamentalists on the issues of ordination and women in ministry. Once the stretching has been accepted on an equal status with the Great Commandments on Love, the Great Commission, and the Golden Rule, the real loser is the treasure of the Great Commandments and the Golden Rule themselves—and with them, Personal Responsibility flies out of the window.

We take the absolutes of God far more seriously than that. And as a result, we guard the gates to the pavilion of absoluteness with great care and even heated rhetoric. Said in a heated manner: to allow any old interpretation the status of ethical absolute (as Geisler does with saving life and many do with their preference on ordination) is to blaspheme or become guilty of carelessly dividing God’s Word.

Dynamic Absolutism does not presume it can solve all differences, only that there are certain basic Truths that are indisputable. One Truth is the universality of application of biblical Truth, and another Truth is that no one alive today is as competent as Jesus in obedience in perfect Love and interpretation. Some of these indisputable Truths are the absoluteness of Love and Truth, the reality of the death, burial, and resurrection of the divine-human Jesus Christ, and the validity of our hope in a glorious heaven reserved for His children. There is only one interpretation that fully satisfies Love and Jesus Christ; Love is the greatest. Milton S. Terry says,

A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connections. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture… Hence that meaning of a sentence which most readily suggests itself to a reader or hearer, is, in general, to be received as the true meaning, and that alone [emphasis his].[4]

Whatever the differences that scholars perceive that a difficult Scripture passage might most readily suggests, surely there is a credibility—generally—for the interpretation that needs the least amount of extra-biblical rationale.[5] Some passages need little if any interpretation, like the Great Commandments, the Great Commission, and the Golden Rule—though their applications are manifold. From the easy passages to the application of complex passages like those on divorce and “sell your cloak,” whatever differences exist between interpretations, there is still only one ultimate meaning to the passage.

Within the variables of application of easy and complex passages, there is still the unique application by a unique person in a unique circumstance, where Love is applied uniquely in view of the competence of Christ’s perfect Love. No, this is not doing what one pleases, nor is it making anything one chooses or any interpretation a “right” choice. Far from it. Stealing is always wrong, and paying one’s way is always right. That is simple, and no one questions that. You do not steal, though, merely because stealing is wrong; the higher N.T. ethics demands more, that you do not steal because you to Love the other person; therefore, in that Love, there is not only an absence of stealing, but a uniqueness to your Love. Let me show you.

With respect to principles like the Golden Rule, there is a decidedly individual application to a unique set of life circumstances, with a likewise single and absolutely right choice in perfect Love. Even with the mighty Golden Rule applied with the best intentions and by the most honorable man or woman, and filled with good, the slightest variation from perfect Love is still short of the competence of Christ. In use of the Golden Rule or even in the simple choice to not steal, in either decision, there are no two decisions that are identical in thoughts and intents, and in future considerations; though there may be a similarity on the surface. In the heart no two decisions are identical when Love is involved and when perfect Love is our goal. That is another reason WWJD upgrades human competence to divine ability, downgrades Jesus’ holiness as something easily and fully obtainable, distracts from the Responsibility to the Great Commands and the Golden Rule, turns the person from the living relationship with God in Christ to superficial mantra, and in essence oversimplifies Christian ethics by marking down the pursuit of holiness to pennies for the dollar—nothing but the answer to a closed-end question.


b. 2nd—Revelation Consistent in Progressive Understanding of Truth

The second presupposition is that of consistency. The development of any doctrine, always with the hope of finalization, will always be continual, always a progression, as doctrines always have been. The suspicion of absolute finality in detail of any doctrinal expression will remain to some degree.

For example, the doctrine of the Trinity was developed over a century of debate, finally coming into expression at the Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325. Everyone inside traditional evangelicalism believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is a critical doctrine, and we reinforce its importance today. No one who truly believes the Bible doubts the Trinity. Yet we have yet to fully articulate the Trinity in unambiguous terms. Who fully understands the Trinity? What can or cannot be known of the Trinity this side of heaven? We believe it, and furthermore believe only one person, Jesus, fully understood it. We continue to grow in our understanding. Though we are short of perfected understanding, we continue since the Council of Nicæa in 325 where the Nicene Creed first developed and since the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 that re-affirmed the Nicene Creed and put an essential end to Arianism (which did not believe in the divinity of Christ).[6]

Through the guideposts of the most basic meaning and progressive though consistent nature of revelation—a perfection of doctrine is potentially attainable, theoretically there and ready to become fully understandable. This is so, for God is who He is and is Himself the ultimate Truth, and we only see through a dim glass.

We have refined a lot of theology since A.D. 1 and after the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and we shall refine theology until Christ comes again. John Newport in his erudite treatise on the philosophy of religion, Life’s Ultimate Questions, says:

It must be emphasized that the biblical worldview has a basic objectivism … The God who is the center … is fully perfect and complete… This means that his nature and revelation reflect norms and values that have permanence…

The biblical worldview also sees Truth as unitary. God and reality are what they are, independent of anyone’s perceiving, understanding, appreciating, or accepting them. The knower’s reaction to Truth is important, but the Truth is not dependent upon that reaction.[7]

In summing up Cornelius Van Til, Newport says,

A truly Protestant method of reasoning involves a stress upon the fact that the meaning of every aspect or part of Christian theism depends upon Christian theism as a unit.[8]

These go together: Truth is unitary and God is complete. Until the consummation, we will progress in knowledge of God and Jesus Christ and in knowledge of our grand and immeasurable inheritance (I Peter 1:3-9). Though complete, the dynamism of Love allows God Himself to have His own fresh experiences of us each day, even today, that He did not have yesterday. Our God is a living God. This is not a matter of God growing in knowledge, as though He was yesterday ignorant of today. God is big and powerful enough to create a world in which He, too, has unique and fresh experiences of Love each day, every day, and for all eternity. What this says is that God is great enough to have a genuine real-time relationship in which He can out of His own sovereign abilities relate today and respond today no matter what He knew yesterday of today. In the doctrine of God, there is nothing more important than the First Doctrine of God’s ability to have a genuine real-time loving relationship with us.[9]

We emphasize that progression does not necessarily mean change as much as its connotes improvement. And this is not Process Theology by any stretch of the imagination. There is an absolute finality about Christ’s fulfillment of the O.T. and about His resurrection being a precedent to the Christian’s resurrection. There is a finality about Jesus Christ’s righteousness being complete and Christ being our criterion for competence in Love and Truth. Some fundamental theses are indisputable and certainly not subject to very much change. Other developments are progressive and will remain so.

Not the least of these progressive understandings is the sensitive issue of women in ministry. We do have some guidance and have seen abuse, yet we have no contemporary, definitive, and thoroughly biblical statement that is truly satisfactory and settles the issue. I doubt there ever will be one. Women ministered in the Bible, minister today, always have, and they will continue to do so. This issue is very much in progression along with the more developed doctrines. It is clearly a mistake to exclude women from ministry, and as a prison chaplain it was a grave error for the SBC to stop endorsing women chaplains. Think about it. No women chaplains to minister to women prisoners! My God in heaven, what man on earth thinks he can minister to women better than another woman? Even though there may be a proviso (or one in the works) that will allow a woman to be a prison chaplain “for women,” that just makes the whole exclusion far more political and less theologically based, denies the realities of ministry, and slays the sanctity of ordination itself in Baptist life. Excuse me, but where is Love in this context of ordination exclusion and ministry restriction?

Shall we ordain ministry restriction?

This idea of progressive and consistent improvement has to be the case or the nature of God Himself becomes suspect and all of theology right along with it. God does not change in His essential righteousness: God is Truth, and the reality of the living personhood of God does not change with time. God is eternal. Even though God lives and changes in Love, even suffering with His children, even experiencing the more genuine side of the genuine real-time relationship that He has with His children, the Truth of His Trinitarian nature and His absolutely holy righteousness never change. We are the ones who change and grow in an understanding of our eternal God as the Truth, even as we grow in our personal relationship with God. So even though there is a permanent confidence in the Trinity, there shall never be a perfect theology of the Trinity in our understanding this side of heaven.

But we need to be mindful that the most important part of Truth is not so much in the past. For there is a living Truth that makes life juicy and turns our relationships into the most cherished possessions we have on earth (and will be so in heaven). We live for Love—yes we do—but not outside of the Love’s Truth. We live for Love because of our confidence that the Love we are experiencing from day to day is true and valid and real Love. We are in a relationship that is a living Truth.

We progress in our understanding of Truth on two levels: the static and the living. The Truth of the Trinity is a static Truth about which we still do not have a full and complete understanding. There is an ultimate Truth about the Trinity that we may progress in understanding, and we may progress for the rest of our lives—maybe even for the rest of our everlasting loving lives. I suspect that in heaven we will not need or worry about our understanding of the Trinity at all; we shall just enjoy God’s presence. And there is a living Truth about our relationship with God, and the most basic elements of our relationship with God are Love and obedience. We grow in our understanding of static Truth, like the unchangeable nature of God in Trinity; and we grow in our understanding of living Truth, like in our ongoing relationship with each other and with God. Along the way, we try to trust God (and our family and friends) in what we do not understand, believing all along that God is the author of Truth, is the Truth, as well as the Person with the more genuine side of loving relationship with Him.



By Michael G. Maness






[1] See my book, Precious Heart – Broken Heart: Love and the Search for Finality in Divorce (1999).

[2] In my book, Precious Heart – Broken Heart: Love and the Search for Finality in Divorce (1999), though devoted to helping the divorced grieve and overcome, I have a small chapter on the theology of divorce and the lineage of David.

[3] And please, do not insert here a male-exclusivity significance on ordination proper from Paul’s good words to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:13) that deacons be the “husband of one wife”; for marriage is not required for ordination (unless we excommunicate Paul himself). Being far from unambiguously settled in the same league as the Golden Rule and the Great Commission, we had better take heed before we lift passages out of their broader context and add to them a significance and add even a clarity of meaning that is not obviously present in the text or context.

[4] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, 2nd ed., (Zondervan, 1974: 1st edition c1890): 205.

[5] This comes to a watershed most clearly in the recent controversy regarding open theism in the Evangelical Theological Society and Roger Nicole’s strained rationale for Hezekiah’s extension of life vis-à-vis Nicole’s defense of God’s exhaustive-settled foreknowledge. You can see our critique of Nicole’s defense along with the internet locations of the Nicole’s work in our challenge to classical theism’s fixed-settled God in my Heart of the Living God: Love, Free Will, Foreknowledge, Heaven: a Theology on the Treasure of Love (AuthorHouse, 2004) and some of the original documentation at my web site at

[6] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (Harper, 1953): 153-165.

[7] John P. Newport, Life’s Ultimate Questions: 24.

[8] Ibid., 427; from Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955): 132.

[9] We detail God’s dynamic foreknowledge and sovereign abilities to respond today no matter what He knew yesterday of today in Heart of the Living God: Love, Free Will, Foreknowledge, Heaven: a Theology on the Treasure of Love (2004).