I promise this post is more practical than the first three (1, 2, 3). Well, ok, as practical as I can be in terms of epistemological and hermeneutical theory. But stick with me here even if you are already turned off. Ok, I know I’ve already lost some…but give this a shot.
All interpreters are located in a historically and culturally circumscribed situation. We interpret with the tools we have been given, within the heritage we have lived, shaped by the culture that surrounds us, and convicted by the truths we have embraced either by tradition or “our own study”. It is precisely because we are each so situated that we ought to pursue humility and extend grace to others.
Below I highlight some negative dimensions of interpreting from within our own cultural frame, and there is a significant sense in which we cannot escape our cultural frame–or, at the very least, it takes considerable time, processing and communal interpretation to move beyond negative cultural influences in the hermeneutical task. In my next post, I will turn to some positive dimensions. Remember, however, that to acknowledge negativity is to recognize–on the positive side–that there is a way through the negativity and there are interpretative norms that identify what is actually negative.
We do not have to think very hard about the Stone-Campbell Movement to note startling applications of this point. We could–as in any other tradition–offer multiple examples: the defence of slavery by many southern disciples, the advocacy of blood by both southern and northern disciples where Christians kill Christians, the embrace of American imperialism and nationalism by segments of the Movement in the late 19th century, the adoption of ideal Southern womanhood as the “biblical” model (e.g., Lipscomb) including a construal of “silence” in certain biblical texts that eliminated the female voice from southern assemblies, exclusion of African Americans from Christian colleges, the wholesale embrace of right-wing politics during the “Red” scare of the 1950s, the fear of a Roman Catholic president in the 1960 election, and lack of participation in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Each of these positions–and those opposed to those positions–were defended with Scripture and detailed hermeneutical constructions!
Each of these positions were directly related to the situatedness of the interpreter. It seems to me appallingly apparent that this the case. But, at the same time, humility demands that I recognize that I probably hold some theological positions primarily because of my own situatedness. If I extend grace to myself for my own interpretative blindspots, then perhaps I should extend grace to others as well.
One of the more striking examples of blindness due to cultural and social influences within Churches of Christ is the famed incident between Foy E. Wallace, Jr. and Marshall Keeble. You can find the relevant materials at Hans Rollmann’s website along with comments from Don Haymes. Wallace is disgusted that a white woman would “so far forget dignity, and lower herself” to shake hands with Marshall Keeble, an African American preacher. “Her husband should take her in charge,” Wallace wrote, “unless he has gone crazy, too.” Wallace goes on to compliment N. B. Hardeman, a renowned white preacher, because he did not shake hands with “negroes” at his meeting or meet with them inside the meeting tent.
I recall this incident in our history for two reasons. First, I hope it is clear to everyone alive now that Wallace’s sentiments are contrary to the gospel. They do not imitate Jesus. It seems clear to me that his views arose out of a deeply embedded social understanding of segregation (and, if you read the article, you might hear a hint of jealousy that some African American preachers are drawing large white crowds). Wallace, I suggest, read the gospel through the lens of his cultural situation. Indeed, he would probably say that the gospel has nothing to do with segregation and divorce the gospel (which to him was the facts, commands and promises of Jesus–read “plan of salvation”) from such social issues as black-white relations. I suggest he read Scripture with the tools he had and within the culture he lived, and thereby arrived at his convictions. Yet, from our contemporary perspective, his convictions could not have been more wrong or more contrary to the gospel! According to the ethic of love criterion in my previous post, Wallace was dead wrong to censure Keeble in the manner he did and on the point he contested. And just as Paul rebuked Peter for acting contrary to the gospel in Galatians 2, there were some who stood up to Wallace’s racism (such as Ira Y. Rice, Jr.).
And there go all of us but for the grace of God. Who among us will cast the first hermeneutical stone? We all have the same problem. We all read Scripture with the tools we have and within the culture we live. And this is the second reason I used this illustration. Should we not extend grace to Wallace on this point if we desire and pray for grace for our own hermeneutical and life failures?
I don’t know Wallace’s heart. I have many disagreements with his theological positions (e.g., his denial of the personal presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer). But I do know that he tenderly cared for and loved his invalid wife till the day she died. His love for her–I heard stories from my father and have heard the testimony of others–was eminently imitable. He apparently knew the God of Scripture when it came to loving his wife. I trust–based on the testimony of others who knew him–that he had an authentic heart for God, wanted to obey God and sought God with his heart.
So, here’s my point–as finite, fallible, sinful, situated hermeneutical beings, believers are engaged in a process of transformation that is filled with many potential pitfalls. We all sin. We all misinterpret. We all draw the wrong conclusions. Yet, we are all–presumably–seeking God as our hearts are oriented toward him.
Consequently, we must all embrace humility and extend grace. If we are willing, due to his social location and the times in which he lived, to give grace to Wallace regarding his treatment of African Americans, it seems we should be willing to extend grace to those who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Wallace because of their social location on issues of seeming lesser significance such as the use of musical instruments in worship assemblies. Some are willing to condemn the instrumentalists while loving the segregationists in their past. Humility and grace permit us to love the segregationist due to their “times” even though we now recognize the evil of that system. Should the same not also apply to the instrumentalists?
But apparently this is not the case in our history or in the present. Some make some kind of distinction that enables them to be gracious toward Wallace’s segregationist ungodliness but at the same time ungracious (even hostile) to those who use the instrument in their assemblies. Why is that? Well…that is for another post…and I will address the question head-on when I write about Stone-Campbell hermeneutics more specificially in the near future. Until then….chew on it a while.