“It ain’t that complicated.”
My recent series on “theological hermeneutics” may seem complicated. I may have made it look complicated. But I don’t think it is complicated at all.
The method for which I argued does call for inductive Bible study, reflection, contemplation, holistic thinking, attention to the plot (metanarrative) in the theodrama, prayer, communal dialogue, and participation in God’s story. The more difficult part is living out the story rather than understanding it. Complications most arise when our sinful natures resist embracing God’s intent for our lives or we look for something that is not there (expecting something that God did not provide).
Understanding the divine drama within Scripture and discerning the divine intent for our lives is as much a spiritual as an intellectual act. Our sinful natures blind our intellects and debilitate our spiritual sensibilities. Consequently, every hermeneutical adventure must begin with prayer.
Every hermeneutical act participates in the cosmic and spiritual struggle to embrace and embody God’s intent for us. Through it we seek to discern the kingdom of God at work in the world and in our lives.
The agent of this spiritual work of God is the Holy Spirit. The role of the Spirit in redemption is the application of that redemption to the life of the community and individuals, and this includes spiritual transformation. Good hermeneutics is part of that transformation. God created us for hermeneutics (see my series on that point), but chaos corrupted its goodness. The Spirit transorms our hearts and minds to read the Story “better,” that is, we understand, internalize, apply and live it.
We can hinder that process by our attitudes and heart, but the Spirit can also overcome our cognitively misguided hermeneutical conclusions by the power of his transforming presence. In other words, we might have a terrible cognitive hermeneutic, but yet live transformed lives. But the reason for transformed living is not found in how well we have understood everything correctly, but because God has been at work in us. The whole person reads the text, and the Spirit works on the whole person (volition, affections and intellect). Every aspect of the human person needs the transforming work of the Spirit, including our intellects as we read Scripture. Sin affects our minds and our minds need the Spirit’s redemptive work not merely to read Scripture but to know God more deeply.
Insight is something the Lord gives. For example, after Paul encouraged Timothy to “be strong in the grace that is Christ Jesus” and used various analogies to press his point upon his son in the faith, he paused to ask Timothy to “reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:6).
We read and then we reflect. In this hermeneutical process, God will give the insight. It is a synergistic or cooperative act between God and his people. God gives his witness through Scripture and we read the text. And then we reflect on the text relying on the wisdom God provides because we are assured that God continues to act through Scripture to give insight. God is active not only in the giving of Scripture but also in the interpreting of Scripture through the presence of his Spirit. God gives the fruit of wisdom to those who listen, to those who have ears to hear.
Many think this introduces too much subjectivity in the hermeneutical act. But subjectivity is part of the process; it is unavoidable. This is does not mean that there are no objective or empirical boundaries (see my “Created for Hermeneutics” series), but it does mean that discernment, internalization and application involve subjective dimensions of the mind and heart. There is a danger in both rationality and subjectivity, but locating the hermeneutical work of the Spirit in sanctification and transformation reminds us that it is a process of growing into the image of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Both rationality (cognitive thought) and subjectivity (personal reflection) need the transformative presence of the Spirit to lead us to God.
One of the objections to this understanding is that if the Spirit helps us read the Bible, then why don’t we all read it alike? The Spirit is our sanctifier and is at work in believers to lead them to holiness. But we don’t all have the same level of holiness. We should not expect more in the hermeneutical arena than we also find in the moral arena. Seeing hermeneutics as part of the broader theological topic of sanctification reminds us that we are all in process, that no one has it completely right, and there is always room for more depth, discernment and insight. There is always room for more growth in understanding as well as holiness. At the same time, there is also room to see a broad consensus or agreement between believers who discern the same theodrama in Scripture and at work in the world today. We confess, for example, that the Father created the world, the Son became incarnate for the sake of our redemption, and the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ. That is no minimal consensus but the structure of the metanarrative itself!
Simple or Complex?
At one level, I believe the hermeneutical process is quite simple. At another level, it is quite profound. The Gospel of John, for example, has many simply stated truths but they are nevertheless deeply profound in meaning. Just as the words and meanings of Scripture can be both simple and profound, so the process is as well.
But profund does not necessiarly mean complex or complicated.
I have argued in an earlier series that the “Command, Example, Inference” (CEI) method of Churches of Christ within the Stone-Campbell Movement is quite complex. It has all kinds of hidden rules about “binding examples,” implied commands, generic/specific categories, prohibitive vs. permissive silence, the law of exclusion, etc.
None of these “rules” are spelled out in Scripture. Rather, they are extraneous rules applied to the text of Scripture from a different hermeneutical paradigm than the literature of Scripture evidences. These rules do not emerge from the nature of Scripture itself, that is, they do not emerge from the genre of the literature. Rather, the rules emerge from the combination of (1) a Baconian framework, (2) a legal goal (what is “authorized”) that invokes a legal hermeneutic designed for legal texts, and (3) a constitutional literary model of Scripture.
I suggest that the understanding and application of those rules is a complicated process that is nowhere near “simple.” It is only “simple” to those schooled in the rules as if they grew up speaking that language; for them it is “common sense.” For those who were raised with CEI as a hermeneutical method the application of the method is as “simple” as speaking English and they can’t understand why those who speak Spanish don’t understand its simplicity.
But the history of Churches of Christ reveals the illusion. It is not simple. Our history is strewn with divisions over the application of this method–one or multiple cups at communion, Bible classes or no Bible classes, may assemblies be divided, handclapping, instrumental music, Bible Colleges, use of church treasury, kitchens in the building, etc., etc., etc. All involved the tweaking and use of CEI. The application was not so simple.
A More Simple Way?
My series has assumed that Churches of Christ are at a hermeneutical crossroads. On the one hand, we may continue the task of “constructing a pattern” out of the details (data) of Scripture and then implementing (obeying) the pattern. The pattern is not there per se. We must discern it, isolate the data, rearrange the data, and put it into a system (pattern) which we can duplicate. Thus, we have “five steps” of salvation, “five acts” of worship, and “three works of the church” (evangelism, benevolence, edification based on Ephesians 4:12).
We generate the true “marks of the church” such as membership rules, worship rules, polity rules, etc. None of these appear in the text as lists, systems, or rules. Rather, we construct them according to the hermeneutical process we know as CEI. These are the rules that are regulated by “positive law” (though we may no longer use that term in the 21st century) and are thus necessary for a faithful church, authentic fellowship and “sound doctrine.”
On the other hand, I have been suggesting that we do something which I believe is much more simple but yet also profound. I have suggested that we:
- Read Scripture to discern the theological substance (identify the metanarrative).
- Apply that theological substance to our context (recontextualize the metanarrative)
- Live that substance as participation in God’s story (participate in the metanarrative)
How does that work practically? Well, that is what I hope to illustrate in this series.
Through prayer, the transforming work of the Spirit, and communal dialogue, perhaps we can read Scripture in a way that enables us to participate in the theodrama to which Scripture bears witness. This is my hermeneutical goal and I hope this series will draw us into the story so that we might embody the metanarrative in our own lives for the sake of the world in which we live.
More to come next week (I hope)…..after a brief trip to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and the Hall of Fame game!