Bible - Interpretation

4 - What is the Doctrine of the 'Animus Imponentis' and Why Is It Dangerous?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Like the hermeneutic of trust, the doctrine of the 'animus imponentis' places the words of men in authority over Scripture. Recent church developments show what great damage this can cause.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part four of a series. Read part three.

Adapted from Christianity and Neo-Liberalism.1

Like the hermeneutic of trust, the doctrine of the animus imponentis places the words of fallible men in authority over the Word of God. Recent church developments show what great damage this can cause.

As we noted in a previous article in this series, the hermeneutic of trust is a dangerous method of Biblical interpretation, first of all, because it draws attention away from Scripture. Grammatical-historical interpretation is, in marked contrast, sharply focused upon Scripture.

What is the Animus Imponentis?

It is not only significant that the hermeneutic of trust draws attention away from Scripture, but also that it draws attention to something that theologians have called the animus imponentis, or "the intention of the imposing body." Men of religious academia often use Latin phrases when plain English would suffice, and would make what they are saying much more intelligible to church members. Unfortunately, the use of the Latin may also impart an aura of special authority and significance to words of human wisdom, elevating them to something approaching the status of holy writ when they are nothing of the sort. Among some theologians, the doctrine of the animus imponentis holds such a standing.

The animus imponentis is not a new term. Speaking of it, nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge wrote this:

The question put to every candidate for ordination in our Church, is in these words: "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?" It is plain that a very serious responsibility before God and man is assumed by those who return an affirmative answer to that question. It is something more than ordinary falsehood, if our inward convictions do not correspond with a profession made in [the] presence of the Church, and as the condition of our receiving authority to preach the Gospel. In such a case we lie not only unto man, but unto God...such professions are of the nature of a vow, that is, a promise or profession made to God.

It is no less plain that the candidate has no right to put his own sense upon the words propounded to him. He has no right to select from all possible meanings which the words may bear, that particular sense which suits his purpose, or which, he thinks, will save his conscience.

All of this is worthy and true, and the reader hopes that Hodge will now direct our attention to the authority of Scripture. But he does not. He directs our attention instead to the authority of the visible church:

The two principles which, by the common consent of all honest men, determine the interpretation of oaths and professions of faith, are, first, the plain, historical meaning of the words; and secondly, the animus imponentis, that is, the intention of the party imposing the oath or requiring the profession. The words, therefore, "system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures," are to be taken in their plain, historical sense. A man is not at liberty to understand the words "Holy Scriptures," to mean all books written by holy men, because although that interpretation might consist with the signification of the words, it is inconsistent with the historical meaning of the phrase. Nor can he understand them, as they would be understood by Romanists, as including the Apocrypha, because the words being used by a Protestant Church, must be taken in a Protestant sense....

The Confession must be adopted in the sense of the Church, into the service of which the minister, in virtue of that adoption, is received. These are simple principles of honesty, and we presume they are universally admitted, at least so far as our Church is concerned.2

A Fatally Flawed Doctrine

In the essay quoted above, Hodge argues for the use of the animus imponentis as a means to prevent theological pluralism within a denomination. But with all due respect to Hodge, to use the animus imponentis as the fundamental guiding principle in establishing conformity to sound doctrine is to adopt a fatally flawed benchmark. Hodge himself indirectly admits this when he implies that the Roman Catholic Church has every right to establish its own doctrinal standards and its own animus imponentis, and to require its priests to swear allegiance.

The words of a confession must, according to Hodge (and the OPC's creation study committee, as noted in a previous article) be adopted in the sense that a visible church body chooses, Protestants as Protestants, Romanists as Romanists. By this logic, Rome's doctrine of justification and the Protestant doctrine of justification have equal standing. In fact, any competing doctrines that bear the stamp of approval of their respective "imposing bodies" would have equal standing. Each imposing body is, after all, its own "community of interpretation". This sort of thinking plays directly into the hands of those who advocate the hermeneutic of trust.

The Church: Built on Whose Words?

Furthermore, in the case of the Reformed church, Hodge calls the Westminster Confession of Faith "the system which, as the granite formation of the earth, underlies and sustains the whole scheme of truth as revealed in the Scriptures." That assertion is fundamentally wrong, but it is a logical outcome of the implementation of the animus imponentis.

The doctrinal standards of the church do not "underlie and sustain" the Scriptures. Quite the opposite! Scripture must underlie and sustain the doctrinal standards of any body that calls itself a church of Jesus Christ. The Church is built, not on the words of fallible men, but on the foundation of the Spirit-inspired words of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). To make the words of men the foundation of the true faith is to say in essence the same thing Rome says about its traditions.

This writer does not believe for a moment that this is what Hodge intended, but there it is, in his own words. Let us not hold the opinions of our fathers in the faith in such high regard that we are blind to their inconsistencies.

To be sure, the Westminster Confession is far closer to the truth of Scripture than the pronouncements of popes and their councils. But that is not the issue. The issue is the crux of the Reformation: Will the fundamental authority in the true church of Christ be the words of men, or the Word of God? If it is the words of men, a church is well on the road to becoming no true church of Christ at all. The principle by which we must "determine the interpretation...of confessions of faith" is not, as Hodge and the OPC say, the intentions of men, but rather the intention of Almighty God as revealed in His Word. The intentions of men of the church must be in subjection to God's.

A Recipe for Theological Disaster

The use of the doctrine of the animus imponentis has produced theological disasters in our time. Space permits us to mention but a few.

The OPC creation committee Report adopts the principle of the animus imponentis and merely carries it to its logical ends. What is important, according to the OPC, is not what Scripture says, and not even what the Confession plainly says, but the "intention of the imposing body," in this case the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Those intentions may change over time; even in the most faithful bodies they do change over time. The creation committee Report itself admits this:

For the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, this communal understanding of the church's constitution involves the sense in which it was adopted by the church in the second General Assembly in 1936 as well as subsequent developments in its corporate understanding of the phrase ["in the space of six days"].3

Those intentions are not only unsettled, they are also fallible. Those intentions, in the history of the church, have often become corrupted. What does not change is the Word of God. What is alone infallible is Holy Scripture.

The OPC also used this kind of wrong thinking to justify its acquittal of the heretic John Kinnaird, a ruling elder who taught (and still openly teaches) that it is necessary to be justified by faith-plus-works, rather than by faith in Christ alone. The General Assembly that acquitted Kinnaird backed the view that two polar opposite interpretations of Romans 2:13 (justification by faith alone, and justification by faith-plus-works) are both within the bounds of orthodoxy. The Assembly's minutes state: "There is strong evidence that it is allowable in the OPC to interpret Romans 2:13 (as Mr. Kinnaird does) as a description of something that will be done to the righteous at the day of judgment."4

This statement implies that such diametrically opposite views on salvation are allowable in the OPC but might not be allowable elsewhere. Here is the animus imponentis put into practice. This raises an obvious question that the OPC continues to ignore: Is there one authentic Gospel, or not?

Another logical result of the use of the animus imponentis is that individual presbyteries, even individual churches within a denomination, can give their own "intention of the imposing body" to the oath that men take as ministers and ruling elders of the church. Each body can decide what it means by the words of Scripture and its confessional standards. This is now the common operating principle in both the OPC and the PCA, and in many other churches.

The PCA has taken the further step of formalizing this de facto standard. Its 31st General Assembly (2003) approved an amendment to the PCA Book of Church Order permitting each of its seventy-five presbyteries to decide independently what constitutes the "fundamentals of the system of doctrine" when examining the doctrinal positions of men who are to be ordained to the ministry. Thus a man who is rejected by one PCA presbytery because he believes women should be ordained to church offices, or is a theistic evolutionist, or does not believe in a literal Adam, may be received as a minister by another PCA presbytery. Such things are actually happening.

The deadly combination of the hermeneutic of trust and the animus imponentis have likewise cultivated the ground for the spread of such false teachings as Sonship Theology, the Federal Vision, and the New Perspective on Paul.

What Is Vital?

What is woefully neglected in the entire discussion in both the OPC and PCA is (using another Latin phrase only to draw a parallel) the animus auctoris divini - the intention of the Divine Author. At the end of the day, what is vital is not what men say the Bible says, but what the Bible actually says. For that reason our starting point in sound doctrine must never be the secondary standards of the church, never the words of fallible men, but always Holy Scripture, the Word of God. It is Scripture that gives meaning to the words of confessional standards and doctrinal statements, not vice versa. The hermeneutic of trust and the animus imponentis pervert this fundamental order.

Next: The Poison of Perspectivalism

References:

  1. The material in this article is adapted from chapter eight of Christianity and Neo-Liberalism by Paul M. Elliott (Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation, 2005). This book is available in our online Resource Store.

  2. Charles Hodge, "What Is the 'System of Doctrine?'" in The Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 2, Number 9, August 1936. Reproduced at www.pcanet.org/history/documents/subscription/hodge.html.

  3. Report of the Committee to Study the Views of Creation, 1605. Emphasis added. The full report is available online at www.opc.org/GA/CreationReport.pdf.

  4. Minutes of the 70th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, page 35.

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