A Consequentialist Hermeneutic

January 1, 2019 · 730 words · 4 minute read Hermeneutics   Philosophy   Consequentialism   Epistemology   Sola Scriptura  

Bad hermeneutics are commonly used and accepted in conservative evangelicalism today. This blog post is my attempt to diagnose why pastors and laypeople alike are comfortable with bad hermeneutics. I argue one of the primary causes is that we have a consequentialist hermeneutic. In this post, I define a consequentialist hermeneutic and identify some of the failures of a such a view.

“Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things…"1

A Consequentialist Hermeneutic

Defining A Consequentialist Hermeneutic

I believe that many conservative, evangelical churches today are comfortable with bad hermeneutics because because they suffer from “A Consequentialist Hermeneutic”. This disease is the attitude that any hermeneutic which leads to a true conclusion must be correct. According to this view, the validity of a hermeneutic is determined by the conclusions it produces. A hermeneutic that produces true conclusions must be valid; a hermeneutic that produces false conclusions must be invalid. One practicing a consequentialist hermeneutic will use any other hermeneutic which produces conclusions which are deemed to be true. A consequentialist hermeneutic is being practiced when people say things like: “You should pay day-laborers on the day that they work for you; it says so in Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:15”2. I may address consequentialist hermeneutics in a more thorough essay, but for now I’m going provide two reasons why a consequentialist hermeneutic is wrong and must be avoided.

Reason 1: A Consequentialist Hermeneutic Undermines the Authority of Scripture

A consequentialist hermeneutic erroneously assumes it is possible to determine whether or not the meaning of a text is true outside of the authority of the Scripture. If a hermeneutic is judged by the conclusions it produces, this presumes that it is possible to determine whether a conclusion is true or false without a hermeneutic and, therefore, without having understood the text (or at least without yet knowing if we have properly understood the text). It is a major tenant of Protestantism that the Bible, because of its divine origin, nature, and intention, is the “only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy [God]"3. To practice the consequentialist hermeneutic, one must assume that one already knows what conclusions are true and false before one even reads or interprets the Bible and this undermines the ultimate, epistemological foundation of Protestantism, namely the Bible.

To illustrate this, consider an adult who is regenerated and reads the Bible for the first time. While that person certainly knows something about the Gospel4, let’s assume this person knows very little about the Bible as a whole and very little theology. If a consequentialist hermeneutic were prescribed to this person, he/she would be told to read a passage of the Bible and, if his/her conclusion was right, his/her hermeneutic must also be right. But the glaring problem is that this new believer is not able to determine whether or not his/her conclusions are right (apart from using an objectively true hermeneutic to understand the authoritative Scriptures) and there lies the difficulty. A consequentialist hermeneutic presumes that one is able to determine whether a claim of the Bible is true or false largely without appealing or relying on the authority of the Bible and this is a faulty epistemology.

Reason 2: A Consequentialist Hermeneutic Fails to Differentiate Between Truth and Validity

Ignoring for a moment my previous objection that, in the protestant epistemology, we cannot know what is true about God and how to live in a way that glorifies Him without deriving it from divinely inspired scripture (which requires a hermeneutic from the very start), a consequentialist hermeneutic forgets (perhaps “ignores” is a better word, but I want to be generous here) that meaning, whether true or false, must come from the text. A meaning cannot only be classified as true or false, but it can also be classified as valid or invalid depending on whether or not it has been accurately derived from its ‘host text’5. For example, it would be inappropriate to read John 1:1 and conclude that 2 + 2 = 4. While the conclusion is true, it is invalid because this conclusion is not communicated by the text of John 1:1. Those who accept and teach (both the accepting and teaching are usually done implicitly) a consequentialist hermeneutic fail to realize that we must not only derive true conclusions from the text6 but also valid ones7.

Closing Thoughts

I hope to be writing more on the topic of hermeneutics soon; I will especially focus on what it means to have a right hermeneutic and providing some tests we can use to make sure we are properly interpreting the Bible.