In this last post for this series (link to the first post here) I attempt to offer a balanced–both appreciative and critical–perspective on the hermeneutic that has dominated Churches of Christ for most of their history. It was only in the 1960s that this dominance began to crack as journals like Restoration Quarterly and Mission offered critiques and as individuals like Carl Ketcherside (see Twisted Scriptures and According to the Pattern) and others punched holes in it by pointing to its inconsistencies.
Ultimately, however, I believe the hermeneutic basically imploded under the weight of the institutional controversy. It appeared to many that the noninstitutional advocates were rigorously and as consistently as possible applying the hermeneutic but their own biblical-theological instincts could not agree with some of the noninstitutional conclusions (e.g., refusal to use money from the church treasury to help the unbelieving poor). The hermeneutic led to another division which disillusioned some and emboldened them to seek a different hermeneutical path.
At the same time a renewed sense of the historical meaning of the text and a return to a more rigorous historical-grammatical reading called into question some of the cherished understandings of particular texts. For example, is 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 intended as a normative pattern for every first day of the week free-will offerings by every faithful congregation of Christ throughout the history of the church or is it simply Paul’s arrangement to facilitate the contribution by the Galatians and Corinthians to the Jerusalem church? A return to the historical/contextual sense of the text raised questions about the conclusions of the “system” generated by a Baconian induction-deduction.
This hermeneutical discontent led to the discussion of the “New Hermeneutic” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But more about that in my next series to begin in a few days, Lord willing. For now I want to express appreciation for and offers some critique of the traditional Stone-Campbell hermeneutic.
My previous engagement with the traditional hermeneutic has probably failed to reflect how truly appreciative I am of its positive dimensions. I want to remedy that now.
1. History. I appreciate Campbell’s original intent to approach the text in a historical rather than scholastic fashion. Campbell reminded us that Scripture is primarily (4/5ths) history and that Scripture is itself part of history. Consequently, it must be read as any other human book that is written in human language by humans for humans. The historical character of Scripture and its historical situatedness must fundamentally shape how we read it. As a result, Campbell embraced the historical-grammatical method in contrast to the more scholastic and syllogistic methods of some of his fore-bearers and contemporaries.
2. Induction. I appreciate that an inductive reading of Scripture is the beginning point of the hermeneutic. The Stone-Campbell Movement has always emphasized reading the Bible and the hermeneutical method has always emphasized an openness to the inductive “facts” of Scripture. Part of this commitment is to begin with Scripture rather than with tradition or a creedal commitment, and that part of this commitment is to remain open to the inductive reshaping of our hearts and minds by what Scripture teaches rather than remaining entrenched in some traditional notions because that is the way we have always believed or that is the tradition in which we were raised. It has not always worked that way as is true of all human beings, but it is the commitment of the method to seek an openness to the text through induction.
3. Rational. I appreciate Campbell’s original intent and the continued emphasis in the movement to use the divine gift of human reason to understand Scripture. Their opposition to “mystical” or “enthusiast” readings of Scripture is important. They, of course, still practiced a devotional or sanctifying reading of Scripture but the interpretation of Scripture is mediated through the rational understanding of the words of the text rather than through subjective revelations or “inner light”. The text functioned as an objective boundary for meaning that could not be contravened by some “inner light.” And, yet, at the same time, through reading Scripture we “feel” after God and encounter him in sanctifying ways, even mystical ways. But these are part of the process and are acceptable as long as they do not violate the boundaries of text’s meaning just as our empirical experience of the world (‘there is a tree in my front yard”) should not be overruled by some subjective or mystical denial of our experience (“there is no tree in my front yard” when empirically there is one). The use of reason, then, is a positive dimension of the Stone-Cambpell hermeneutic. It becomes problematic, however, when we absolutize human reason and believe that human inferences are more significant and more binding than the contextual, historical statements of the text itself.
4. Sola Scriptura. I appreciate the central place that Scripture has in the Stone-Campbell hermeneutic. Sola Scriptura as a slogan is subject to a range of interpretations–many of which I would not accept. What I mean by the phrase is that Scripture is the “norming norm” (as Grenz, Franke, Vanhoozer among others tend to say) as opposed to other norms such as tradition or existential experience or even the living community of faith or some kind of paleo-orthodoxy. I will explain this more in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say at this point that I think a value of the Stone-Campbell hermeneutic is the priority of the text of Scripture as a word from God. Scripture is the ultimate standard for interpreting the world, discerning good from evil, and shaping the people of God into a community of faith.
5. Goal. I appreciate the original goal which Campbell’s new hermeneutic served. His intent was to provide a hermeneutical means by which people could find common ground or unity. His vision was not a uniformity based on his undestanding of the “ancient order,” but it was a unity that shared a common faith in Jesus and a common apostolic practice. These, according to Campbell, were explicit in the text and they were rather minimal (e.g., one fact, one act [immersion], and one day [assembling] in conjunction with a Christian character).
Embedded in my descriptions over the past five posts are some significant criticisms. I will not repeat them all here. Instead I will summarize some of the major problems of the traditional hermeneutic in several categories. Each of these could be considerably expanded (or perhaps a whole boring series devoted to them).
1. Enligtenment Hermeneutical Assumptions. The optimism of the Campbell’s hermeneutic imbibes the optimism of the Enlightenment Age and the progress of Baconian science. If everyone uses the same hermeneutic, then everyone will come to the same conclusions. The postmodern situation highlights that this optimism is deeply flawed because there is more to the hermeneutical process than the “objectivity” of the observer. Challenging some of these “modern” assumptions was the point of my recent series entitled “Created for Hermeneutics” (click here for the first post in that series). Another Enlightenment hermeneutical assumption germane to the Baconian project is that there are such things as “uninterpreted facts” (or, brute facts, or a facts that needs no interpretation). Indeed, it was a common maxium within some quarters of the Stone-Campbell heritage that the “Bible needs no interpretation.” This assumption can generate either naivete (interpreters do not recognize their own situatedness) or arrogance (“if you can’t see it the way I see it then something is wrong with you”) or both. That assumption is that we can remain fundamentally objective in our reading of Scripture as if we are unaffected by our situatedness. There are other assumptions, but these are sufficient–I hope–to make my point.
2. Baconian Induction of ‘Facts’. While induction is a necessary tool in the study of Scripture, Baconian induction tends to override the historical and contextual character of Scripture itself. This form of induction isolates the “facts” of the text and decontextualizes them by extracting “timeless” propositions which take on a new meaning as we put them into a different context than the narrative flow of Scripture itself. When we isolate “facts” we distort them. When we take a “fact” out of its context and place it in a syllogism, we give it a new context. This naturally distorts the meaning and this enables us to more easily manipulate the “fact” to our own interest or agenda–and this often happens unconsciously, that is, we think we are simply teaching “straight biblical truth”! This is not only a form of proof-texting but it is unfaithful to the narrative nature of Scripture itself whose “facts” are embedded within an interpretative matrix. Extracting them, propositionalizing them in the abstract, and then using them as part of a polemic for the sake of the perceived “system” is an abuse of Scripture. It twists and distorts the meaning of Scripture.
3. Ahistorical and Atraditional Reading of Scripture. It was a common maxim, inaugurated by Campbell himself, to value reading the Bible as if one has never read it before; to read the Bible with a “blank slate” (a Lockean tabula rasa). Supposedly, if people would read Scripture disconnected from their own historical situatedness, disconnected from their tradition, and disconnected from others, then the pure message of Scripture would be objectively written on their minds. But this is a myth; it can’t be done. Further, I am sure that it should not be done. Why should I read Scripture forgetting all that I have already read in Scripture? It is rather aroggant, I think, to read Scripture disconnected from community (the living community as well as the past community of interpreters). We learn from others–past and present, and we hear Scripture more clearly in community than as individuals. The Baconian method, however, extracts Scripture from its historical context, from the living tradition of the church and from the living community of faith to read it as a scientific, objective, even individualistic enterprise. It propositionalizes the text by isolating its teachings and divorces them from its own context and history as well as divorcing the process from listening to the traditions of the church. Certainly not all traditions are equal nor is the living community always headed in a good direction, but our individualism and supposed objectivity (thinking history does not affect us in our reading) will render us susceptible to isolationism, arrogance and self-deception. This end result is a natural consequence of the presuppositions and functioning of the hermeneutic.
4. Dependence on Inference and “Common Sense” as Hermeneutical Hinges to Determine Authority. One of the basic problems with CEI is that ultimately it all comes down to “I”. Binding examples are recognized by an implied command. Without inferring that a command lies behind the example, then the example is not binding. Binding examples are implied commands! It all depends on the inference. So, for example, we know–according to the hermeneutic–that the first day of the week is the exclusive day for the Lord’s Supper because there is an implied command to eat the Lord’s Supper and God would not command us to do something like that without telling us when to do it. Consequently, the practice of the church in Troas in Acts 20:7 becomes a binding example because we know that God must have commanded to eat on that day and only on that day since God must tell us somewhere in the New Testament (somewhere in the constitution) when to eat the Lord’s Supper. But we also know that it is not necessary to eat in an upper room or only at night (even though those are the only circumstances of eating the Supper we have in the New Testament–even Jesus himself ate at night in the upper room, but he does not count since it was before Pentecost anyway) because there is no implied command. How do we know the difference between whether there is an implied command or not? It seems it is either another inference (like “God would surely tell us about X”) or “common sense” (any person with a “good heart” can see the difference). Inference also shapes how we understand the silence of Scripture. It is not mere silence alone that prohibits, but silence plus an inference of some kind. Silence is prohibitive if we infer that the silence is intentional. Or the silence is prohibitive if we determine that the silence of Scripture regarding coordinates to explicit commands is intended to exclude (e.g., the coordinate of instrumental music to vocal music). The “law of exclusion” is itself an inference! And further it is not Scripture that defines coordinates–that is determined by human wisdom and inference as well…or by “common sense.” Of course, inferences are not necessarily bad; indeed, they are necessary. But the problem here is that inference becomes the centerpiece of “legal authority” rather than the explicit statements of Scripture. In the traditional Stone-Campbell hermeneutic they are the hinge that determines almost everything regarding authorization. Authority ultimately depends, then, not on divine statements but human inferences about divine statements. It is little wonder we have fussed about so many things in our history because all the fuss is about human inferences. And all inferences, according to Alexander Campbell, are opinions rather than matters of faith.
5. Ill-Suited to the Nature of Scripture. In the resources I have provided a link to Russ Dudrey’s Restoration Quarterly article which makes this point. What the Baconian hermeneutic plus a constitutional patternism seeks from Scripture belongs to a different genre of literature than is present in the New Testament. If Campbell was correct that we should read Scripture as it was given to us in human language for humans written by humans, then we must respect the nature of the literary genre in which Scripture presents itself to us. And the New Testament does not present itself as a legal brief or a legal constitution but as theologial biography, theological history, missional letters and apocalyptic vision. None of these should be read as legal texts with legal precision and a legal hermeneutic ill-suited for them. As Dudrey writes, “We must develop a literary model and a hermeneutic more truly suited to the nature of our texts.” If we would be faithful to the God of Scripture, then we must read Scripture as God gave it to us rather than frame our reading in some kind of Baconian/American/Puritan mold. Dudrey suggests–and it is not a bad suggestion–that we read “first as historians, then as missionaries, then as theologians.” And…I would add…never as lawyers. (Interestingly lawyers excelled at reading the New Tesament through the traditional hermeneutic in mid-twentieth century Churches of Christ, e.g., the several institutional-noninstitutional debates between Guy N. Woods and Roy E. Cogdill–both were lawyers and neither could agree withthe other!). Someone might object that it is God as king who is the single author of the New Testament and his written his law into the New Testament. But that is not the genre in which God has revealed his will for us. Rather, God revealed himself through the genres present in the New Testament and intended them (as Campbell argued) to be read as one human conversing with another human. That is, we read the New Testament as is–in its own genre and literary style because this is how God has revealed his word to us. To read it as a legal brief or constitution is to read it in a different way than how God gave it to us. This is fundamentally unfaithful to Scripture.
6. System Prioritized Over Context. Given the Baconian induction of facts that must be collated and systematized, the system attains a weight of authority that in practice stands above Scripture. So, for example, Acts 2:46 cannot mean that the Jerusalem believers ate the Supper daily because the system has already concluded (through example and inference; through induction-deduction) that only Sunday is authorized for such. Unfortunately, the induction excluded a contextual reading of Acts 2:46 and forced upon it a meaning previously determined by the system. Another example among some noninstitutionalists is the refusal to use the church’s treasury to help the nonChristian poor. The inductive-deductive system here yields a conclusion that is manifestly in opposition to God’s own heart who gave his Son for his enemies. It seems to me that if the Lord gave his Son for his enemies he would not mind using his money to help the poor who do not yet know him. These are but two examples that could be multiplied. The system consistently overrides a historical, contextual reading of the text and sometimes the basic theology of the narrative. Of course, this can happen in any hermeneutic, but it is highly problematic here because of the nature of Baconian induction-deduction with its Enlightenment assumptions and American constitutional model.
7. Constitutional Literary Model. Campbell used the metaphor of “constitution” because it was certainly a live metaphor with the recent birth of United States Constitution in 1787 and because it was the language Presbyterians (and others) used to describe their creeds. His use of the metaphor had a polemical point–his constitution is the Bible (specifically the New Testament) while others identified their creeds as constitutions. However, this metaphor also became a hermeneutical model rather than just a polemical retort. As a hermeneutical model, it is woefully inadequate since the documents of the New Testament nowhere near approximate the literary function of a constitution. A particular variety of “patternism” emerged out of the combination of the Baconian method with a constitutional literary model plus Reformed Puritan primitivism–it is the “blueprint” or “pattern” mentality with which most members of the Churches of Christ imbibed throughout the early and mid-20th century. It turns the Bible, particularly the New Testament, into something it is not and thus reads it for information which it never intended to yield. It attached to the New Testament an authority of silence that is more rooted in the constitutional model than the genre of New Testament documents.
Patternism and the Text: How Shall We Hermeneutically Construe the “Pattern”?
Recent and historic discussions within Churches of Christ have not generally been about whether there is a pattern, but what kind of pattern, how does one discern the pattern, how detailed is the pattern, and what belongs to the pattern. Risking oversimplification and generalization, I suggest that three types of “patternism” have been operative at one time or another in the conservative regions of the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Historical: The goal is to reduplicatethe church as it exists within the New Testament documents. The source of this pattern is the explicit historical witness of the documents (command or example). The pattern only exists in the explicit testimony of the documents. The pattern is historical in character. The mantra “it is safe to do what they did” fits this method. This is essentially Alexander Campbell’s intent though I recognize I have oversimplified what he is doing hermeneutically.
Constructed: The goal is to construct a pattern out of the data of the New Testament because the text itself neither explicitly details a pattern for the church nor provides a specific blueprint. Building on historical patternism, data from the New Testament is collected, collated, harmonized, systematized and arranged in its proper order to fully detail the pattern because there are implicit as well explicit particulars to the pattern. The pattern is the result of a systematic analysis of the data in the whole NT; it is a form of system-building. It is temple-building. This is essentially Lamar’s intent and was adopted by Churches of Christ throughout most of the last 150 years.
Theological: The goal is to explore the story of God in such a way as to participate in it. Rather than building a temple, this method explores the temple (Scripture) God has given in order to imbibe his mission. The pattern for the church is the redemptive work of God in history through Jesus Christ. The New Testament (in continuity with the Old Testament and only fully understood in light of the Old Testament) is a historical record of the mighty acts of God which call us to imitate God’s work in Jesus. The pattern is Christological in character and as disciples we follow Jesus in order to participate in God’s mission in the world.
I think the first (historical) is too naive–no one does exactly what the churches of the New Testament did and we all recognize that some things the churches of the New Testament practiced we don’t practice. The second (constructed) is too complicated, too dependent on human constructs (systems), and expects something from Scripture that does not fit the nature of Scripture itself. The third (theological)–well–that is the topic of my next hermeneutical series. I will begin that series in a few days, Lord willing.
I have not, of course, noted every possible appreciation or critique. But these are the ones that have risen to the top of my mind on this day. There are many sub-issues that could be pursued. For example, the nature and function of silence as prohibitive, permissive or incidental is something I have not discussed–perhaps another day. And there are others as well.
Nevertheless, I hope this gives sufficient pause to the wholesale rejection as well adoption of the traditional Stone-Campbell hermeneutic as utilized by Churches of Christ for most of the 20th century. I would not want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater but neither would I want to steal another’s baby and assume it came from God.
Roy E. Ward. “‘The Restoration Principle': A Critical Analysis.” Restoration Quarterly 8.4 (1965), 197-210.
Russ Dudrey. “Restorationist Hermeneutics Among the Churches of Christ: Why Are We at an Impasse?” Restoration Quarterly 30.1 (1988), 17-42.
Gary D. Collier, “Bringing the Word to Life: Biblical Hermeneutics in Churches of Christ.” Christian Studies 11.1 (1990), 18-40.
John Dobbs. “Finding Peace in the Hermeneutic Wars Within Churches of Christ.” This is for you Mr. Dobbs! I bet you didn’t know I knew about this article.