on Peter Masters and new evangelical interpretation

My friend Chris Anderson pointed me to a couple of sermons by Peter Masters that are available on Sermon Audio. I recommend both of them to you: A New Evangelical Downgrade (1) and A New Evangelical Downgrade (2). Peter Masters is the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England, the church formerly pastored by such luminaries as John Gill, John Ripon, C. H. Spurgeon and others. When pastor Masters took the church, it had dwindled down to a mere 30 members or so and was in what appeared to be its last death throes. Masters leadership rebuilt the church to a thriving preaching and publishing center. You can access many more Peter Masters messages at the Met Tab website. I have listened to a couple of them and appreciates pastor Masters’ evangelical fervor.

I want to focus on the second of the two messages I mentioned above. Its thesis is the damage the New Evangelical movement has done to biblical interpretation. Masters says what the new evangelicals have done is “to wreck the proper approach to Holy Scripture”. He goes on, “one of the things that the new evangelical teachers have done is to take Bible believing evangelicals ninety percent of the way back to the old German rationalism of the last century.” The new evangelical approach “encourages a most shallow anti-spiritual view of scripture. Spiritual exegesis, of the kind the Reformers held to … is scorned and spurned, and the traditional rules rejected. In fact you can say that if Charles Haddon Spurgeon had been trained in a New Evangelical seminary, and he had taken seriously the method of exegesis and interpretation which is taught, he could never have preached hardly any of his sermons.” The result of this approach, Masters says, are commentaries that are “dry as dust”, they are a bit of history, a bit of anthropology, a bit of sociology, but no message, “except here and there a very simple observation”. He says, “The Bible has its own rules for interpretation” – NEs have neglected them so long that they don’t even know what they are.

Having set that foundation, he proceeds to list these charges against the new evangelical hermeneutic:

1. The NE hermeneutic says the Bible must be treated like any other book when studied – they believe it is God’s word, but they treat it like it is merely an historical document. (He charges NE scholars with using this approach in order to get the respect of liberal scholars, by ‘playing their tune’.)

2. The NE hermeneutic has redefined the grammatical-historical rule of interpretation – the meaning of this rule is that in Bible interpretation, you give “the first crack” to the plain sense, the plain grammatical sense of the passage (unlike the fanciful interpretations of the Catholics prior to and after the Reformation) and secondly, you must observe the historical context [without being bound by it]. Here Masters charges the NE approach with robbing Scripture of its full meaning – limiting interpretation to a woodenly historical context so that you cannot discern all the Spirit has to say for every age. He quotes Walter Kaiser, “The sole task of the interpreter is to discover the meaning intended by the original human author to be understood by his immediate hearers.” Masters points out that Isaiah and Jeremiah didn’t themselves understand everything they wrote, so how can we arrive at real understanding if we insist on a woodenly historical approach? Masters says the g-h approach is only the first step. The writers of the Bible often said things “far greater than they understood.” Essentially, the charge here is that by limiting the writers of the Bible (especially OT prophets) to their historical context, you de-emphasize the role of God in inspiration such that the writings of the prophets become historical manuscripts with very limited broad application to believers of all ages. You may claim to believe in verbal plenary inspiration, but it will not profit you much in the ancient records of Israel.

He cites references in Acts to the preaching of the apostles who preach Christ from the Old Testament. The whole church was founded on this preaching. For example:

Acts 26:22 Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: 23 That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.

Masters asks, where do you find explicit references to the suffering of Christ, his resurrection, etc. in the Old Testament? Yet Paul says it is there. Obviously he is seeing more than the current grammatical-historical interpreter is seeing. The key to seeing this is in letting the New Testament interpret the Old. (See also Jn 5.46-47, Rm 10.5-6).

3. The NE hermeneutic says that the text of Holy Scripture only has one sense – single sense. The Reformers taught this to avoid the confusing array of Catholic interpretations of Scripture. The NE has taken this to an extreme which Masters calls ‘simple sense’, not ‘single sense’. There is no message or application in the commentaries of the New Evangelical, it has masses of data, but not much meaning. The proper view, according to Masters, is that the passage has one primary meaning, but may contain senses of meaning that apply to areas of truth that the simple sense doesn’t teach. He says you must scrutinize the text to get the ‘whole meaning’ that is there, the nuances of word order, meaning, implication, etc. “The meaning of Scripture is deep and profound.”

4. The NE hermeneutic says you must never interpret any passage by something revealed later. Here he is arguing somewhat against the idea of the progress of revelation, saying that NEs teach that you can’t read into an early passage the later developed meaning. So you can’t interpret Moses in light of the Psalms or the prophets, because the original author didn’t know anything about them. Masters calls that “the de-spiritualizing of the Bible.” Is the Bible offered by the Holy Spirit or not? Does it have, ultimately, one author or not? “You always look at Scripture as though God said it. The new evangelicals have taken that away in their semi-liberal method of interpretation.”

5. The NE hermeneutic says you must never bring any presuppositions to the text, otherwise you’ll never understand what the text is saying. Masters concedes that we do need to be careful about presuppositions, you can use the Scriptures in such a way as to ‘prove anything’. But we cannot and should not entirely divorce ourselves from presuppositions. The New Testament, for example, gives us a grid by which we are to interpret the Old Testament.

Now, I hope that I have accurately portrayed pastor Masters’ point of view on these matters. You can listen to the message itself to see if I have done a good job or not.

A few comments…

In listening to Peter Masters, I think it is safe to say he is a Covenant Theologian. In one message I listened to he said something like this [I’m paraphrasing from fallible memory]: “The Jewish Church in the Lord’s day had gotten something wrong about the Messiah, they expected him to be an earthly king, they didn’t understand the kingdom of heaven.” First, there is only one church, not two. There is no Jewish church or Old Testament church, there is only the church of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the Jews were not mistaken about an earthly kingdom, they were primarily mistaken about timing, as well as confused in thinking that they were actually in the kingdom by birthright instead of faith.

So I would say that Masters’ covenant theology leads him astray somewhat in his hermeneutics. He will speak about “the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures” and then overly spiritualize the meaning of Scriptural events. (“Overly” expresses, of course, my own opinion.)

Having said that, I think that in the main, Masters’ charges against the new evangelical methods has a good deal of weight. There is in even conservative commentaries too much weight given to form criticism, for example. I find that there is too much emphasis on chiastic analysis in the Old Testament (although there certainly is some chiastic structure, especially in poetical sections). There can be a tendency to demythologize or humanize the supernatural. The approach is not quite the same as the liberals, but too much credence is given to their methods.

I will only give one example, since I have gone on long enough. In Numbers 26.57-59, some genealogical data is given including the family tree of Moses and Aaron. To make a long story short, if you take the plain sense of the text, Moses’ mother, the daughter of Levi, would have been a minimum of 256 years old at Moses’ birth. ALL the commmentators I have on this try to explain this away. Most say there are missing members of the genealogy whom we do not know at one point or another in the genealogy. Given what we know about Hebrew genealogies, this is a possibility, but the language of the text seems to me to make that somewhat problematic in this particular case. My question is this, why don’t we take this novel approach, what the Bible says is so? What is so hard to accept about a 256 year old mother in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Yes, the age of long-lived folks is generally over. Yes, the Bible doesn’t highlight this amazing story specifically. But… could God have done it? Absolutely. Yet no evangelical commentator wants to make such a suggestion. That would be much to unscholarly, after all.

Conclusion

Evaluating Peter Masters’ point of view, then, I suggest that he has a good point to make concerning the new evangelical approach. I am afraid we are much too infected with that approach as fundamentalists also. I would not, however, go as far as Masters does in the ‘spiritual’ meaning of the Bible either. He goes too far with this approach in my opinion, though he is certainly a man of God who can be listened to with profit. But the warnings and charges he makes are well worth heeding and should temper somewhat our zeal for knowing all there is to know about the historical context of the text. God gave us the Scriptures, and they are profitable for building men and women up in the faith, whether we get all the history or not.

(And the history we have is always subject to interpretation and dispute. Just read Biblical Archaeology Review and you will find that we may not be all that clear on every claim of historical context!)

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Comments

  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Don, this post would get glowing praise except that you don’t get along enough. And that would be OK if you didn’t get along to the left, but you don’t get along to the right, and that is a boo-boo of the highest degree. And even that you would get away with, except that you don’t have the proper bloodline. If you write a best-selling novel or foil a terrorist plot, you’ll be on the A-List, however, my friend.

  2. Don says:

    Hey, Kent, it’s late, I’m not getting it. You’re too cryptic this time.

    I have been out interpreting the gospels for our Bible Reading Study Guide for our folks next week. Twelve pages of commentary on about 8 chapters of the synoptics. No best-selling novel there, so I guess I am still out of luck.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Kent Brandenburg says:

    I was saying it would receive glowing praise except you aren’t in the club of those who don’t have a club. You would be linked if you were left, but you are too right.

  4. Don says:

    Ahh… ok… I got it now.

    I would say “I can see clearly now, the sun is shining”, but I have put that life behind me and many are too young to get it anyway.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Jenson's Blog says:

    Peter Masters has published a book entitled “Not like any other book” where he expands on the topics at hand.

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