O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
It is easy to overlook the importance of hermeneutic principles in any theological discussion. (Our English word “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek word hermeneuo which means “to interpret.” Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation.) Most disagreements over biblical interpretation arise when two people with different hermeneutic assumptions look at a text of Scripture and come to different conclusions. The differences do not come from the text itself. Both people read the same text. The differences come from the principles used to understand the text.
What is true of differences between individuals is also true of differences between entire theological systems. Theological systems are buildings constructed on a foundation of hermeneutics. Skewed hermeneutic approaches to the Bible inevitably cause skewed theological systems. The same issue applies to subcategories of theology. The debate among rival theological systems, at root, is about hermeneutics, the principles of biblical interpretation. Hermeneutics drive biblical understanding.
In the early church, after the fall of Jerusalem, there arose disputes in Alexandria about the nature of Christ. The Arians focused on Christ's humanity and ignored or denied His divinity. The Miaphysites focused on Christ's divinity and ignored or denied His humanity. The Conservatives accepted both Christ's humanity and divinity.
During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Conservatives won out and the Church has mostly discussed Christ's "two natures," human and divine, as being fully inseparable. Christ was and is 100% human and 100% divine.
During the 19th century and early 20th century, a similar dispute arose in the church, concerning the Word of God. The Liberals stress the humanity of Scripture and ignore or deny the divinity. The Fundamentalists stress the divinity of Scripture and ignore or deny the humanity. The Conservatives stress that both the human and divine aspects are fully inseparable. Like Christ, Scripture is 100% human and 100% divine.
Fundamentalists organizations, whether they teach Dispensational Eschatology or Young Earth Creationism will clearly state their primary hermeneutic, "It is sound advice that if the literal [plain] sense makes good sense, then seek no other sense." When paired with the Fundamentalist Doctrine of Inspiration, this hermeneutic actually implies that God wrote the text to the modern reader. How the modern reader, in his place and time understands the "plain sense" of the text, is how it is supposed to be read. This hermeneutic ignores the humanity of the text.
In contrast, a conservative hermeneutic, requires we take into account the human author and that author's likely audience. The Scripture is that author's testimony of what he saw or heard. That testimony is colored by what the author understood, by his culture, by his language, and by how much of that he shared with his audience.
It is difficult to understand a distant culture, whether it be distance or time. But Scripture gives us a 4000-year record of one culture through time. We not only see what was written about events 6000 years ago, we see glimpses into how those readers from that culture 2000 years ago understood those events.
A conservative hermeneutic can't be stated in a catchy sentence. Instead, it is a list of principles that must be applied and balanced. Principles such as, audience relevance, and Scripture interprets Scripture.
Fundamentalists may give lip service to these principles, but ultimately they ignore them. Instead they demand that Scripture answer questions that Scripture nowhere addresses, for example, Henry Morris once said,
But there is still the problem of the age of the earth and the geological column. If this could be settled anywhere, it would have to be in Scripture… It seemed impossible that God would have left such an important matter as this, with such profound ramifications in so many areas of life and study, unsettled in His Word… Surely God has the answer in His Word!
In contrast, conservatives do not demand Scripture answer questions like these. Instead, we search out the questions God and the human authors of Scripture intended to answer and we carefully attempt to understand their answer.
Portions taken from Appendix A of Beyond Creation Science, 3rd Ed., by Tim Martin and JL Vaughn