October 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 4 · pp. 105–6 

In This Issue

Delbert L. Wiens

A number of years ago the pastor of a rural Mennonite Brethren church decided to preach through the book of Revelation. Though frightened even to name “heresies,” his first sermon outlined the various methods by which that difficult book has been interpreted in the past. He was surprised and amused, therefore, when at the conclusion of the service an old minister who had long been a leader in that church and in the conference came up to him and exclaimed, “That way, the one you called ‘allegorical,’—that’s the way we always used to do it!”


For that old man, for most of us in a simpler past, it was possible to read the Scriptures in any way that seemed appropriate. We could take for granted that our world-view, and the categories of understanding inherent in that world-view, had never been different. We could assume, therefore, that the way of reading that seemed appropriate was the way that men had always read. The Bible was God’s Word, and He spoke to us through it as He had always spoken.

The way in which one read Scriptures was not a problem. We were not aware that there were other “ways”—or even that ours was a “way.” The problem was rather that some men, reading as we did, came to different conclusions. Fundamentally, “heresy” meant “wrong doctrine.” Christians associated with other Christians on the basis of shared doctrine.


The pastor had been surprised because, in his time, the battle-lines were different. We had become aware of the work of the “critics” and had learned about methodology. The “critics” were those who used new methods of interpretation, methods which destroyed the “plain sense” of the Bible and which seemed to deny that it was God’s Word at all.

New battle-lines were formed. We fundamentalists, jealous for God’s Word, became very careful to remain uncontaminated by the discoveries of the critics. Our “literal” methodology was opposed to theirs as is light to darkness. Fundamentally, “heresy” meant “wrong methods.” Christians associated with other Christians on the basis of shared method. We Fundamentalists found it necessary to define a very limited number of common doctrines, but it was the common methodological assumptions that gave us our unity. Within the movement were groups which, in an earlier time, had never been able to cooperate—and this because of their great doctrinal differences.


The pastor told a younger man about his experience, and that young man reacted from yet another point of view. The lines have shifted again.

For this young man knew that not all of those who developed and used the new methods were “modernists.” When carefully used these methods proved to be powerful tools to help unlock the meaning of the Scriptures. Indeed, “critical” turned out to mean something like “analytical” rather than “destructive.”

On the other hand, evangelical scholars (it is symbolic that even for these “Fundamentalist” became a bad word) had so redefined the “literal” {106} methodology that “literal” did not really mean “literal” anymore. It now meant “the sense intended by the original author.”*

The lines have been broken down and we are disquieted. The fear and defensiveness from the now almost irrelevant battle are still with us. Insofar as this fear leads us to a reverence for the writings which God has given to us, this fear is a wholesome thing. Insofar as it keeps us from learning how to read them more profoundly, it will drive us to the heresy from which it was intended to be a shield.


During the next year Direction will present a series of articles which will help us to understand where the “battle” is now and where we stand in relation to it. This series begins in this issue with the article by Devon Wiens. He outlines for us the methods for the interpretation of Scripture which are available to the Christian. He also gives a brief assessment of the merits and weaknesses of each method and closes with a personal statement of where he has come as a New Testament scholar.

In the January issue we will address ourselves to what may very well be the real battle today. It is the logically prior question of the nature of religious language. Modern skeptics do not often deny that God exists. They are more likely to deny that the sentence “God exists” has enough meaning that it can be either believed or denied. What do words “signify”? It is crucial that churchmen understand this issue, which we will treat from the vantage points of anthropology, communication theory, and philosophy.

In the April issue we will present a history of the past use of Scripture in the Mennonite Brethren church. In the July issue we intend to publish the results of a study that is to be done on the present-day M.B. use of Scripture.

And in each issue we hope to offer help to those who, with us, sincerely seek to find how we today can better understand what God once spoke through holy men. We believe that these questions are important enough to merit your attention and your reflections and your response.

* See J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism and the Word of God,” Eerdmans, Pocket Edition, pp 102-106.