27 Oct 2008

Robert Milligan: Hermeneutcis & Theology

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Books, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History

Robert Milligan (1814-1875)

Robert Milligan: Hermeneutics and Theology

What comes first the chicken or the egg? It is the proverbial dilemma. We know there is a deep and intimate relationship but which has priority? This dilemma finds its way into hermeneutics and theology too. Which comes first? Does our hermeneutic determine theology or does our theology predetermine a particular hermeneutic. I think in the case of the Stone-Campbell Movement that a case can be made that hermeneutic comes first.

Perhaps most basic to our historical hermeneutic has not been CENI but dispensationalism (i.e. that Scripture is divided up into “dispensations” like the Patriarchal, Mosaic and Christian). Thomas Campbell sowed the seeds in the Declaration and Address, his son worked the details out systematically in his “Sermon on the Law” and it seems this was a fundamental concern for Disciples of that generation. Robert Milligan assumes the validity of this hermeneutic and it has profound implications on his (and “ours”) theology. The hermeneutic and accompanying theology is both subtly altered and hardened in Milligan. Milligan gave the Stone-Campbell Movement one of its true classics, The Scheme of Redemption. The Scheme is divided into three “Books:”

1) Book First: God, Creation and Fall of Man
2) Book Second: Scheme in Development
3) Book Third: Scheme Developed in and through the Church

Book Two relates the development of God’s scheme from Genesis to the setting up of the Kingdom through Acts 2. It is not without significance that Milligan places Jesus’ ministry and the Gospels within the confines of Book Two . . . the process of “development.” Books One and Two take up a little less than half of the 577 pages of the Scheme of Redemption (284 pages). Of these Jesus gets forty four pages. Of these 44 pages “Christ’s Nature, Character and Personality” are discussed in 13. There is no discussion of Jesus’ life and ministry, rather we have “doctrine about Christ.” There is a brief discussion of six pages under the heading of “Christ our Example.” There is no discussion on how we live by the Sermon on the Mount, no mention of the Lord’s Prayer. By way of comparison the section on “Legal Types” is twice as long the discussion of John the Baptist and Jesus combined.

Milligan’s dispensational hermeneutic has relegated the life and actual teaching of Jesus to mere development. Jesus himself is not the climax of revelation rather that occurs in his apostolic interpreters. Thus when Jesus proclaimed the great commission the teaching of “everything” was not in the Gospels at all but, as Milligan says point blank, “everything in Acts – Revelation” (p. 473). The continuing shift away from Jesus to Acts and Epistles in apparent. Jesus’ ministry is really a prelude to the good stuff (my words not Milligan’s).

There is a shift in the way Milligan approaches the Hebrew Bible as well. The “OT” becomes miniature factoids and prewritten “proofs” of Christianity rather than a witness to God’s gracious acts in history. This manner of approaching the Hebrew Bible is, I believe, deeply imbedded in our collective spiritual DNA.

But I do not wish to be to harsh on Milligan. Milligan did not wish to marginalize Jesus ironically he did did just that. But certainly has a wider theology than many in mid-20th century Churches of Christ. There is much we can learn from Milligan and his emphasis on the story of redemption. And his book, when compared to T. W. Brents “The Gospel Plan of Salvation” is far and away more balanced. Brents devotes a whopping 306 pages to the subject of baptism and never once mentions the cross (in the entire book!)

If our hermeneutic drives us to place the person and work of Jesus on a secondary level theologically . . . perhaps that should cause us to question the hermeneutic.

Seeking Shalom,
Bobby Valentine

11 Responses to “Robert Milligan: Hermeneutcis & Theology”

  1. Steve Puckett Says:

    Milligan was the text used in one of my classes at Freed. Since I can remember I’ve felt that the OT/NT were never presented in a balanced format and certainly our need to combat all other religious groups deeply shaped our theology of salvation.

    I think Monroe Hawley’s “The Focus of Our Faith” is one of the better books in our heritage that presents Jesus as the center of our message.


  2. David Says:

    “If our hermeneutic drives us to place the person and work of Jesus on a secondary level theologically . . . perhaps that should cause us to question the hermeneutic.”


    Not only that, but if our hermeneutic (and the ‘issues’ we derive from it) drives us to belittle other brethren who are not as ‘enlightened’ as we are and live with a contentious spirt, this too should cause us to question the hermeneutic.

  3. kingdomseeking Says:

    “If our hermeneutic drives us to place the person and work of Jesus on a secondary level theologically . . . perhaps that should cause us to question the hermeneutic.”

    I whole heartedly agree!

    Amazingly, this misguided hermeneutic still has strong influence in some congregations. When I lived in Memphis I served with a congregation whose main preacher (preached 3 Sunday’s a month) devoted his entire preaching to this doctrine of the church that is completely separated from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. That is why the church could rail against instrumental music, forsaking the assembly, clerical titles for ministry staff, etc… and yet ignore the overwhelming amount of homeless people in their neighborhood and even tolerate blatant racism.

    -K. Rex Butts

  4. rich Says:

    to me bob it comes down to more of a cultural hermeneutic.
    Luther seems to have said this isn’t right. And so begins our quest for being right.
    And then there’s the printing press.
    And all of the technological advances that we share today.
    We can get it to ethics, which more or less what it comes down to, then what we have a finely tuned hermeneutic that is real close to being right.
    Depending on the zip code of your hermeneutic.
    The comfort zone of hermeneutics…
    and God says over and over again.
    I love you and care for you, and I will show you how much. When the rubber meets the road of hermeneutics.
    Would you rather be loved or would you rather be right.
    This is an interaction with the spirit of our God, who wanted to be loved if we could only learn that being right is secondary.
    God only knows that I’m not saying that there isn’t a tipping point here.
    God only knows that we’ve done a fine job being right. The church dang near alienated everyone.
    . but was that the purpose and a scheme that God had in mind, to alienate everyone. Or was it to draw everyone to him through the expressed love of his son. How could so many smart men go wrong.
    When all God was trying to do was share his divine nature.
    I think I’d rather be loved than right.
    But that has become by way of hermeneutics a compared to what .
    we’ed better get it right ….
    ha ha
    blessings, rich

  5. Danny Says:

    Great review Bobby. I was given an old copy of this book as a gift, but have never taken the time to read it. Now I will open it up.

    Hope all is well with you my brother. I think of you often.

  6. cwinwc Says:

    So true. Perhaps I would have never met the mean spirited brother who told me, “I hate error.” He did and he hated people as well.

  7. nick gill Says:

    Well-said, Bobby!

    I commend to your library The Mission of God by Christopher JH Wright. It is a beautifully written presentation of a strong and viable alternative to a dispensational hermeneutic.

    It is radically affecting how I read Scripture.

  8. Gardner Hall Says:

    I think your point that the person and teachings of Jesus (in the four gospels) have been sadly deemphasized by many in the Stone-Campbell movement is right on target. It’s almost like the “plan without the man” in some circles! However, we must remind ourselves that the solution is not to react by then deemphasizing his teaching given through the apostles in Acts-Revelation.

    I enjoy checking your always stimulating thoughts (and Nick’s) when I find some computer time, but that is increasingly tough to do lately. May God continue to bless you.

  9. preacherman Says:

    Wonderful words for us. I think it is so important that we look at the real meaning of the text instead of doing what many preachers have done picking and taking out the texts to prove points. So many have based theology on what they want theology to be. It is sad! 🙁

  10. Missionary's Missionary Says:

    I also recommend Christophe J. H. Wright’s book, the Mission of God.

    Thanks for the post, Bobby..always enjoy reading your blog.

  11. Joshua L. Pappas Says:

    Thanks for the work Bobby. My brother (in flesh and spirit) and I have talked long about Milligan (and the Scheme of Redemption). Your comments are interesting, and will certainly be in my mind.

    On the term “dispensationalism,” I have a question. Before I state it, let me say, I still believe in general periods that can be labelled (for rhetorical purposes, at least) Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian. I understand that the sharp divisions between these “stages” of the scheme are not really as sharp as most have stressed, but there is some value in identifying these three general periods in the unfolding of God’s progressive revelation over time.

    I was ignorant of the term “dispensationalism” being used for “premillennialism” until I was grown. I looked real silly in a conversation the memory of which is still not pleasant to me, because of this misunderstanding. 🙂 So, you use the term strictly for the three periods doctrine? It is also descriptive of premillennialism. Knowing that many of the restoration leaders were believers in some kind of millennium or another, my question has to do with the relatedness of the two doctrines.

    What is the history of the relation between the two? do you know?


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