Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 29, 1956
NUMBER 46, PAGE 12-13

Biblical Hermeneutics (II.)

John T. Overbey, Albuquerque, New Mexico

In our previous essay we endeavored to show that the proper method of interpretation of the Scriptures is vital to the understanding of God's will to man; that people do not understand the Bible alike because there is not unanimity in the method of interpretation; that there have been three basic methods of interpretation employed by Biblical exegetes through the centuries, one of which is the "Mystic Method," or "Neoplatonism." We also pointed out that this method as a system has long been abandoned, but its influence still lives in the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture.

In this essay we propose to set forth and illustrate another method of interpretation that was very prominent at the time when the ecclesiastical hierarchy was at the very zenith of its power. This "system" of interpretation is called "The Dogmatic Method."

The Dogmatic Method

Two of the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers were Plato (429-328 B.C.) and his pupil Aristotle (284-322 B.C.), both of whom lived and taught in Athens, the capital and center of Greek culture. Plato specialized in pure philosophy and geometry and paid particular attention to the logical foundations of geometry. He conducted a school which was located in a grove or park near the city of Athens and is said to have placed over the entrance a notice which warned away those who knew no geometry. Aristotle took all knowledge as his field and came to be the recognized authority of his time and for centuries afterward.

Along about the eleventh or twelfth century his system of philosophy and method of logic began to find its way into the bosom of the church. His philosophy became the main pillar of ecclesiasticism, and his logic the main instrument of its defense. Thus by slow and sometimes imperceptible degrees did the leaven of his influence extend itself until his philosophy became indissolubly incorporated with the doctrines of the church, and "the philosopher who had lived and died without a line of inspiration, became the interpreter and the judge of the Apostles."

Concerning the internal history of the church during the eleventh century, Mosheim says of the learning and science:

"The philosophy of the Latin's in this century was confined wholly to what they called dialectics; and the other branches of philosophy were unknown even by name. Moreover their dialectics were miserably dry and barren, so long as they were taught either from the work on the ten Categories falsely attributed to Augustine, or from the Introductions to Aristotle by Porphyry and Averroes... But after the middle of the century dialectics first assumed a new aspect in France. For some of the works of Aristotle being introduced into France from the schools of the Saracens in Spain, certain eminent men of genius. ...following the guidance of Aristotle labored to extend and perfect the science." (ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY, Cent., XI, Part 2, p. 353.)

By the twelfth century the teachers of philosophy were divided into various conflicting parties. Mosheim says:

"There was a three-fold method of teaching philosophy. (1) The old and simple method which did not go beyond Porphyry and the Dialectics ascribed to St. Augustine, and which advised that few persons should study philosophy lest divine wisdom should become adulterated with human subtleties. (2) The Aristotelian which explained and elucidated the works of Aristotle. For Latin translations of some of the books of Aristotle were now in the hands of the learned; though these translations were crude, obscure, and ambiguous, so that those who used them in teaching often fell into strange incongruities and absurdities. (3) The free method, by which men attempted to investigate latent truth by their own ingenuity, aided however by the precepts of Aristotle and Plato. But those who pursued this method ...for the most part misapplied their ingenuity, and wearied themselves and their disciples with idle questions and distinctions." (IBID., Cent. XII, Part 2, p. 399f.)

In reality their philosophy was a collection of principles, the data of which was not secured through investigation and experience, but which was based upon proscriptive authority, i.e., the results of the labor and ingenuity of others taken in their concrete form without analysis, and applied as oracular texts for the deduction of truths. (Hampden) During this time the highest and profoundest achievement of genius was to maintain a point by resorting to "idle questions" and hair-splitting "distinctions."

Scholasticism, which was the dominant philosophy of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and which was basically Aristotelianism, assumes a thing to be true and then attempts its proof without investigating the facts upon which the assumption rests. This Dogmatic Method of interpretation has long been repudiated as a "system," but it continues to contribute its share to false interpretations of Scripture. For example: the sectarian goes to the Bible to find his doctrines; and lo, he finds them written upon every page! This method goes to the Bible to prove its contention, not to find truth.

The Re-Birth Of Dogmatism

In the recent Tant-Harper debate held in Abilene, Texas, Brother E. R. Harper introduced an argument, in the form of a syllogism, in support of the "sponsoring church type of cooperation." It was obvious that he was unfamiliar with the argument. It is seriously doubted that he had ever seen the argument before, much less used it. In fact, it was not his argument at all. It is the product of Brother Roy C. Deaver's mind. Brother Deaver evidently presented it to Brother Thomas B. Warren, and they in turn collaborated in giving it to Brother Harper. Brother Deaver used the argument in his debate with Hathaway in Munday, Texas in 1951. Hathaway could not and did not answer the argument because he did not know what Deaver was talking about.

Brother Deaver has a name for the argument: It is called the "constituent elements" argument. It runs like this:

The major premise of the argument is based on the Euclidean axiom: "The whole is equal to the sum of all its parts." The whole argument is a relic of Aristotelianism, as we shall see.

First, let us look into the background of Euclid's axioms. Two of the greatest mathematicians of the Alexandrian age and, for that matter, of all antiquity, were Euclid, an Alexandrian of Greek parentage, and Archimedes, a 'Sicilian Greek who studied and worked for some years in Alexandria. Of Euclid very little is known beyond the facts that he was born about 330 B.C. and died about 275 B.C.; that he spent most of his life in Alexandria; and that he taught mathematics there at the University and to private students for many years. He wrote books on a number of scientific subjects, but he was most famous for his works in the field of geometry. His books on geometry are referred to as "Euclid's Elements of Geometry."

Euclid is given credit for introducing to the field of geometry what is known as the "geometrical axioms and postulates." Axioms of geometry are of two kinds: general and specific. The general axioms, or "common notions," or "mathematical assumptions," as they were called by Euclid, which apply not only to geometry but to all mathematics, are as follows:

  1. Things which are equal to the same thing or to equal things are equal to each other.
  2. If equals are added to equals the sums are equal.
  3. If equals are taken from equals the remainders are equal.
  4. If equals are added to or taken from unequals the results are unequal in the same order as at first.
  5. The doubles or any equal multiples of equals are equal; and those of unequals are unequal in the same order as at first.
  6. The halves or any equal parts of equals are equal; and those of unequals are unequal in the same order as at first.
  7. Equal powers and roots of equals are equal.
  8. The whole is greater than any of its parts.
  9. The whole is equal to the sum of all of its parts.
  10. In any mathematical operation any thing may be substituted in the place of its equal.

Axioms (8) and (9) are called the "axioms of the whole." Axiom (10) is called the "substitution axiom." Now, if Brother Deaver had paid attention to Axiom (10) he would have never made the above argument; and if Brother Harper had reviewed his geometry a little he would have never used the argument in his debate with Tant.

In presenting his argument, Brother Harper used the elements in the Plan of salvation as an illustration of his major premise. It went like this:

Faith (plus) Repentance (plus) Confession (plus) Baptism (equals) Salvation

By the same token, one could say:

1 (plus) 2 (plus) 3 (plus) 4 (equals) 10 But,

4 (plus) 3 (plus) 2 (plus) 1 (equals) 10 As do,

3 (plus) 2 (plus) 1 (plus) 4 (equals) 10 But,

Baptism (plus) Faith (plus) Repentance (plus) Confession, do not (equal) Salvation.

Therefore, the axiom: The whole is equal to the sum of all its parts, is contingent on the proper order or arrangement of its parts, in so far as salvation is concerned.

But in the first place, these Euclidean axioms must be confined to "mathematical operations." (Axiom 10) Salvation is not a "mathematical operation," and furthermore mathematical elements can not be substituted for spiritual elements — they are not equal. Therefore, the major premise of the argument is not an axiom in the realm of spiritual things. Come again, Brethren Deaver, Warren, and Harper; but next time try supplying scripture for your major premise!

This method of argumentation is but shades of the long repudiated Dogmatic Method of interpretation; better known among theologians as "Scholasticism," or "Aristotelianism." Those who use this method of interpretation seek to prove their contention rather than find the truth. This is no less true of those who seek to justify the "sponsoring church type of cooperation." They are advocating a practice that is nowhere taught in the Scriptures, but like the Baptists, who find the doctrine of "Justification by faith only" written upon every page of the New Testament; they find their "sponsoring church" in almost every passage they read.

In our next essay we shall set forth and illustrate what in our judgment is the proper method of interpretation, which method, if adopted by all earnest students of the Bible will go a long way toward achieving unanimity in the understanding of the Scriptures.