Hermeneutics is a big word. You may be unfamiliar with it, but it’s a necessary part of all Bible study.
Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting what an author has written. For Christians, it means following the appropriate rules for interpreting Scripture. And although the word “hermeneutics” doesn’t appear in the Bible, its practice is clearly described: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
In that verse, the apostle Paul provides the what and why of hermeneutics—accurate handling of God’s sacred Word. Right interpretation of what God has spoken to us means that we can rightly apply it to our lives, and rightly proclaim it to others. “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33, KJV) and He doesn’t present us with a smorgasbord of doctrinal options. If God wrote it, then all that matters is what He means by what He says, not what I think or want it to mean.
But today, in a culture dominated by subjectivity, an objective, authoritative truth has no place. That’s true even in the church, where, in the early days of the twenty-first century, postmodern theologians gained a significant voice. They called themselves the Emerging church, and argued, in effect, that certainty is overrated. Instead, they invented their own approach to hermeneutics.
Tony Jones, an early leader in the Emerging church, called it the “hermeneutic of humility.” The idea was to interpret God’s Word but stop short of coming to any definitive conclusions that would exclude alternative interpretations. It identified as “humble” what other eras of church history knew as confusion or unbelief.
And while you would think that promoting one’s own humility would be a self-refuting exercise, plenty of churchgoers were willing to jump aboard the Emergent bandwagon.
Jones explained his humble hermeneutic in an essay he wrote for the book, The Justice Project.
When faced with multiple interpretations of Truth, Justice, and Love . . . Christians must think carefully about our hermeneutical posture. Is ours the one, true interpretation? How do we deal with the diversities within our own Christian tradition? . . . Absolutist answers lead to fascism. But humble, circumspect answers lead to peace. This is also, arguably, the most Christlike posture as well.  Tony Jones, "(De)Constructing Justice: What Does the Postmodern Turn Contribute to the Christian Passion for Justice?," in The Justice Project, ed. Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Ashley Bunting Seeber (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 61.
In true postmodern style, Jones’s essay raises more questions than it answers. Did Christ lack humility when He spoke with authority? Is he saying that Jesus was a fascist for insisting that He was the only way to the Father? Was the Lord taking an un-Christlike posture when He made exclusive statements about Himself? Unfortunately, none of those questions were on Jones’s radar.
In reality, he argued against certainty and conviction. He conjures a notion of Christlikeness that holds all doctrines with a feeble, open hand.
We must move forward in this globalized world with humility. The first step is to recognize the all-encompassing nature of hermeneutics, to acknowledge that all our conversations about reality involve layers of limited perception and human interpretation, and are therefore open to question and correction. The Justice Project, 61.
So according to Jones, we can’t be completely certain about anything—except his assertion that we can’t be certain.
And lest we think uncertainty is confined to only doctrines of secondary importance, Brian McLaren reveals that even the most fundamental Christian beliefs are still unsolved mysteries: “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet. . . . I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy.”  Brian McLaren, "The Emergent Mystique," Christianity Today, November 2004, 40.
McLaren’s right insofar as he doesn’t know the gospel. But to speak on behalf of everybody else in church history is a mountain of arrogance weakly concealed by a façade of humility. His comments place him right in the crosshairs of Paul’s strongest condemnation:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Galatians 1:6–9)
Paul certainly had no compunctions about saying he had “arrived at orthodoxy.” He couldn’t possibly deliver such a strong warning unless the one true gospel was clearly knowable and plainly distinguished from every other imposter gospel. His pronouncement of damnation may have addressed the legalists in Galatia, but it applies every bit as much to those who question the very ground they stand on when they call themselves Christians.
The gospel makes exclusive claims and, as such, leaves no space for inclusive opinions. Jesus never invited a roundtable discussion on truth, nor did He defer to others’ views. He said He was the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and that the truth is knowable (John 8:32).
Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, and other Emergent leaders wielded significant influence for a time, even though all they had to offer were the theological musings of unbelievers. In fact, the history of the Emerging church was essentially the continual promotion of unbelief until there was nothing left to believe in. The Emerging church is now all but forgotten, lost to evangelicalism’s short memory.
So why pay any attention to Jones and McLaren when they no longer occupy the premium shelf space in Christian bookstores? While their movement has died out, their mistaken notion of doctrinal humility continues to thrive.
It lives on in colleges, workplaces, families, and even seminaries and pulpits! We see the hermeneutic of humility on display every time someone begins a sentence with, “Who are you to tell me . . .”; when our Christian convictions are met with “Well that’s your truth”; and every time a Bible study leader asks, “What does this verse mean to you?”
John MacArthur gives an accurate view from the front-lines of our culture when he points out:
The belief that no one can really know anything for certain is emerging as virtually the one dogma postmodernists will tolerate. Uncertainty is the new truth. Doubt and skepticism have been canonized as a form of humility. Right and wrong have been redefined in terms of subjective feelings and personal perspectives.  John MacArthur, The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 16.
As a result, the proclamation of clear propositional truth from Scripture is becoming increasingly maligned and rejected today. Firm answers are banished, doubt is championed, and any doctrine is fair game for reassessment, reinterpretation, and reimagining.
Worse still, teaching God’s Word with authority is widely perceived as arrogant. Modern pulpits are crippled by the fear of absolute truth, refusing to confront error, point out sin, or call people to repent.
This so-called humility is nothing more than unbelief, and it’s choking the life out of the church. In the days ahead, we’re going to take a closer look at the postmodern trends influencing the church today, and how they war against the authority of God’s Word.
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