hermeneutic: noun, a method or principle of interpretation, especially of the Bible
Most liberal / progressive seminaries (and even some evangelical seminaries) teach a form of biblical interpretation known as 'higher criticism.' This approach to studying the Bible, also known as the 'historical-critical method,' came about after the Enlightenment and seeks to use the scientific principles to understand the meaning of the biblical texts as they were written in a specific time and culture.
NOTE: This essay is a little difficult, but it is of paramount importance in the current discussions within the UMC. In my opinion, this is the root of the real issues.
Where on earth is this going? The terms 'higher criticism' and 'historical-critical method' sound like some irrelevant, academic, seminary terms that don't affect us in the local church, right? Wrong. Here are just a couple of reasons to be cautious of such an approach...
First, because higher criticism seeks to be a 'scientific' approach to biblical studies, it works from an inherently secular perspective, denying any historic understanding of inspiration. While some adherents might agree that Scripture is inspired (2 Tim 3.16), what they mean by inspiration is not how the church has consistently understood inspiration for nearly 2,000 years. Instead, they consider the biblical authors 'inspired' in the same way we would talk about a poet or songwriter being inspired rather. As one liberal theologian wrote in the 19th century, "Inspiration applies to men, not to written words." This statement sums up view of higher critics well. In other words, the biblical authors were inspired, but their words were not.
Traditionally, inspiration has been understood to mean something similar to this statement from the 17th century, "Divine inspiration was that agency by which God supernaturally communicated to the intellect of those who wrote not only the correct conception of all that was to be written, but also the conception of the words themselves and of everything by which they were to be expressed." That's a difficult sentence! Put in more contemporary language, the church has consistently believed that the human writers of Scripture were not simply inspired about what ideas to include in their writings, God inspired the very words they used.
Second, higher critics also reject prophecy as traditionally understood in the church. As a result, adherents to the historical-critical method have come up with interesting ideas like the multiple authorship of Isaiah (two or three, depending on the scholar) to account for Isaiah's announcement to Cyrus (Is 45). They reason this way because (in their view) prophets cannot possibly tell the distant future with any real accuracy, so Isaiah could not possibly have predicted Cyrus' rule as he would have done if the prophet Isaiah actually wrote all of the book of Isaiah.
This brief intro is enough to recognize that adherents of higher criticism--liberal and progressive professors, theologians, and pastors--necessarily approach Scripture from a position of skepticism and doubt, rather than from a position of faith as the church has done millennia. Professors and clergy who believe in this approach are reading and understanding the Bible in fundamentally different ways than the majority of the church (clergy and laity alike) has read and understood the Bible for 2,000 years. It's a different ballgame with different rules...and different results.
For all their effort to appear 'sophisticated' and 'scholarly' (in order to avoid the ridicule and scorn of the intellectual academy and social elites), this approach to the Bible is one we've all heard before and are familiar with. In fact, I will concede that the historical-critical approach to reading and understanding the Bible comes from the very pages of Scripture itself! It goes back very nearly to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis 3 (a chapter they deny has any historic basis at all, by the way)...the progressive approach to Scripture is to read it and ask, "Did God really say...?"
Did God really say that Jesus is the only way to heaven?
Did God really say that the unbelieving masses are lost?
Did God really say that hell is real?
Did God really say that Scripture's commands should apply forever?
Did God really say this sin or that sin is actually still sinful?
After all, if they can create doubt in the minds of their hearers, it's a short move to assert that God's word doesn't actually mean what it clearly says. Genesis 3 shows how well that tactic works! This approach has been very, very successful since the beginning of time. The biggest advocate of today's higher criticism is the same as the one behind the serpent's question to Eve.
Putting it in New Testament context, St. John calls the spirit behind this questioning and doubt the spirit of the Antichrist. It is the spirit that has hold of the unbelieving world and speaks in the language, platitudes, and morality of an unbelieving world, delivering a message of doubt, uncertainty, and despair even in the church. St. John writes to encourage his audience in the face of the false prophets who speak in this spirit, "You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error" (1 John 4.4-6 NKJV).
Before you panic, read those verses again. Don't miss the end. Fear not! You can discern between the spirits of truth and error, not through the unbelieving scholarship of higher criticism or the ever-changing voice of the culture around you but through the word of the Lord which endures forever (Is 40.8; 1 Pet 1.25).