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of says methodology is key to correct Bible interpretation

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The 19th-century controversy surrounding Crawford Howell Toy demonstrates that correct methodology when interpreting the Bible is critical to doctrinal soundness, asserted Paul House in an April 15 address at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Speaking at the Louisville, Ky., seminary’s Founders’ Day Convocation, House presented a biographical account of Toy’s life, giving particular attention to his method of interpretation which, according to House, led to the Old Testament scholar’s rejection of orthodox theology. Toy resigned from the Southern Seminary faculty in 1879.

“The weight of any theologian’s underlying hermeneutical presuppositions cannot be overestimated. That is, all interpreters must know why they believe what they believe,” House said. “It is not enough to believe the right things or even to come to correct conclusions without knowing why, since an individual who does not know why a belief is held may alter or abandon it at any time.

“Tragically, unawareness of this principle may render a person incapable of discerning when that abandonment came or even that it has come,” said House, noting Toy is a prime example of such a theologian.

House is professor of Old Testament interpretation at Southern, having joined the faculty last fall after teaching 10 years at Taylor University in Indiana. A two-time alumnus of the seminary, House earned master of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees from Southern in 1983 and 1986, respectively.

The Founders’ Day Convocation is held annually at Southern Seminary to commemorate the establishment of the school in 1859. As part of the observance, an academic paper is given reflecting on the historical importance of a key figure in the seminary’s history.

Toy, after earning a doctorate at the University of Berlin, was elected as Southern’s fifth faculty member, joining the school in 1869 as the first graduate to serve the fledgling seminary. The founding faculty members saw Toy as “the first fruits of their desire both to educate pastors and to cultivate first-rate scholars,” House noted.

Toy’s studies in Germany acquainted him with the trend-setting theologians, philosophers and historians responsible for what later became known as “higher criticism” which would revolutionize biblical scholarship, House said.

Toy’s inaugural address as professor of Old Testament interpretation is a key to understanding his later theological conclusions, House said. Presented on Sept. 1, 1869, Toy spoke on “The Claims of Biblical Interpretation on Baptists.”

Because Baptists do not have creeds, Toy stressed the importance of paying close attention to interpretative methodology, House noted.

In the address, according to House, Toy stated, “The gems of truth are indeed divine, but the casket in which they are given us is of human workmanship, and its key made and applied by human skill. To this human side of interpretation we may hold fast without weakening our grasp on the spirituality, which is its divine side.”

Toy’s “division between spiritual truth and historical truth could hardly be clearer,” House observed.

The address also reveals Toy’s weak view of biblical inspiration, since his comments on the subject offered “no statement on either historical or doctrinal accuracy,” House continued.

According to House, Toy said, “a fundamental principle of our hermeneutics must be that the Bible, its real assertions being known, is in every iota of its substance absolutely and infallibly true.” Although quoted often as a model of a strong view of biblical authority, the statement in reality shows the inadequacy of Toy’s view of inspiration, House said.

“What ‘real assertions’ does he mean?” House asked. “The context, though a bit ambiguous, indicates that he means the Bible’s true spiritual, not historical, statements. And later events bear out this reading of this passage.”

This “faith/fact dichotomy” employed in Toy’s hermeneutics was even more obvious by 1876, House said. Toy’s class notes indicate that although Genesis asserts a literal six-day creation, Toy believed “Genesis is simply wrong,” House said.

“This fact did not negate the Bible’s religious and theological value for Toy, though, since he did not think the Bible was written to make scientific claims,” House said. Although the Bible contained historical inaccuracies, Toy still held the “theological importance” of the Bible, House said. “As his methodology demanded, he made the spiritual principle secondary to the historical principle when determining what is true.”

By 1879, Toy’s controversial views led to his resignation, which the trustees of the seminary accepted.

Although Toy stated in his letter of resignation that he continued to hold to Southern’s “Abstract of Principles,” the seminary’s statement of faith, the scholar also admitted he differed with the faculty and the majority of the Southern Baptist Convention over “details of the subject.”

Such details included an “evolutionary view of Israelite history that means Moses did not write the Pentateuch … that he did not consider minor errors and discrepancies a problem for devout believers, and that he did not think it important that biblical claims of authorship are not always specifically true,” House said.

“The danger of Toy’s retreat to a history/faith dichotomy is illustrated by the fact that by 1890 Toy believed that the New Testament historical statements must be read to mean that Jesus is not divine,” House said, referencing other heretical views Toy held by that time.

The difference between Toy’s 1869 inaugural address and his 1879 letter of resignation “lies not in Toy’s method, but in his conclusions,” House said. “All that had to happen for Toy’s conclusions to change was for what he considered compelling historical data to emerge.”

Although then-President James Petigru Boyce knew that Toy could not continue to teach at the seminary in light of his theological views, House noted Boyce deeply regretted the forced departure of his longtime friend and colleague.

Holding out his right arm, faculty colleague John Broadus later reported that Boyce told his friend, “Oh, Toy, I would freely give that arm to be cut off if you could be where you were five years ago, and stay there,” House recounted.

“Sadly, it is not evident that Boyce grasped where Toy was five years before, or that Toy himself could see the potential results of his methodology,” House said.

While it is difficult to make applications because of the differences in time and circumstances, House suggested the most important application of the Toy controversy to theologians and seminarians today is “we must all recognize the weight of our own hermeneutics.”

“Not everyone who holds Toy’s interpretative methodology comes to his conclusions, though they must make a decision of where to stop short of his theological beliefs,” House said.

“Interpreters must develop an integrative methodology. It is necessary to determine how faith, reason, history, philosophy and theology interact with and are interrelated to one another. Undue separation of these elements, to say nothing of elevating new approaches to history, science or literature to the head of them, will lead to a schizophrenic methodology that forces interpreters into virtual hermeneutical nihilism.”

In addition to wishing Toy and the founders of Southern Seminary had stood against slavery rather than being “men of their day,” House also noted the importance of the original wording and intent of the “Abstract of Principles” for the seminary’s “long-term health.”

The grief of Boyce and Broadus over Toy’s departure is also a valuable application for the present day, House said. “Christian friendship and collegiality are precious, and they must not be lost joyfully.

“If this seminary wants to honor its heritage, it must always be a place where each person takes care to secure his or her system of interpretation on sound, evangelical principles. It must be a place where biblical affirmations undergird teaching, preaching and writing,” House said.

Southern Seminary, he said, “must be a place that produces ministers whose lives can bear the terrible, severe, yet glorious weight of the gospel ministry, not just for a few years, but until each one sees the Christ who claimed to be, and was, the eternal Word of God, God in the flesh, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

During the convocation, the seminary recognized its distinguished alumni for 1996: Glenn D. Armstrong, pastor of Beaver Dam Baptist Church, Beaver Dam, Ky.; Barclay M. Newman, senior translation officer with the American Bible Society, Springfield, Mo.; and Norman L. Townsel, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Hamilton, Ohio. A fourth honoree was unable to attend the service: William W. Causey, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Baptist Convention.

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