Created for Hermeneutics–Part III

Eventually I will move beyond this philosophical and epistemological level to reading the Biblical text and thinking theologically as part of the Stone-Campbell tradition, but it is important to lay some foundations as these considerations will impact what is said down the line.  So, bear with me for another post or two.

We are hermeneutical creatures but finite and also sinful (finite and sinful are not, however, the same thing). Our hermeneutical wiring is designed to bond us with others, value the diversity that enriches us, and draw us into community with one another. The interpretative act is not only necessary (we can’t think without interpreting–we are hardwired for it) and a created given (we interpret everything–and we are supposed to) but it is also a created good. That is a brief summary of posts one and two.  Whew!

Not every interpretation, of course, is a good one.  Some interpretations are power-plays; they are exertions of control and domination. So, valuing diversity does not entail accepting every interpretation as if every opinion is just as good as any other or just as true as any other.  The sinful human condition entails that some of our interpretations are sinful as well.

Smith’s Fall of Interpretation offers several lines for discerning between good and bad interpretations. They are helpful starting points and they provide some legitimate epistemological boundaries.  Within those boundaries there is room for significant diversity as varying perspectives are taken up into the communal interpretative act.

The first discerning line is empirical reality itself. There is a certain giveness to the world.  For example, my house has a front porch with a swing. While the meaningfulness and significance of a porch is relative to each interpreter, the reality that my house has a porch is something that norms every interpretation of my porch. Any interpretation that denies that my house has a porch would be false, but almost everyone would have a different interpretation of my porch relative to their own situation, needs, and perceptions (too large, too small, too open, who cares?, etc.). There is no normative interpretation (a single universal truth about my porch), but there are interpretative norms about my porch (it is there).

This is fundamentally a phenomenological criterion. It precludes an infinite number of interpretations but it does not prescribe a single, absolute, universally correct interpretation. This truth (what you think about my porch) is relative to the interpreter but it is not totally left to the interpreter’s private discretion because there is a front porch on my house.  As Smith points out, this is similar to Husseral’s “inter-mediacy,” that is, there is an objectivity to interpreted reality that norms any interpretation by a subject (there is something there) but nevertheless the subject still construes the object in a certain way (sees it “as” something, construes its meaning in a particular way). It is “inter-mediacy” because it is our subjective construal of an objective reality yet it is inter-subjective because we all construe the same object. Thus, the object provides the possibilities of intersubjectivity–a process by which we come to value how each other sees the object which we are all interpreting.  The reality of my porch imposes a truth upon the mind but that truth is then subjectively interpreted or construed in a certain way. This is the “language game” we all play because it is the only game in town.  But the game has rules and boundaries as we all play on the same field. There is objectivity and subjectivity. The interplay between them creates the opportunity for intersubjectivity as we live in relation with each other.

The second criterion that Smith offers is an ethical one–a hermeneutic of love. Smith suggest that interpretation is not so much about correctness as it is responsibility. The interpreter has the obligation to do justice to the otherness of what is interpreted. In Christian theology this ethical responsibility is rooted in the first and second commandments:  to love God and love our neighbors.  This love resists manipulation, power and greed as we engage others (or a text) through interpretation. We love God in our neighbors as we listen and learn about the world through them.  A plurality of interpretations is no threat if they contribute to the divine mandate to love God and love neighbor within the boundaries of empirical reality (creation itself).

A third criterion, according to Smith, is a hermeneutic of trust. This trust is, at one level, the trust of our senses–a kind of Reidian (Thomas Reid) acceptance that we believe unless there is reason not to believe.  Trust is an act of faith. A hermeneutic of suspicion is still legitimate in a broken world where power manipulates reality through interpretation but the more fundamental–created–hermeneutic is trust. There are reasons not to believe (thus suspicion has a role), but we believe till there are such reasons and we are fundamentally oriented to trust our created senses. Empirical reality circumscribes the suspicion because the interpretative act is normed by empirical reality (creation itself).

But trust goes much deeper than that.  It is not simply at the empirical level.  More fundamentally, trust is linked to pneumatology, the Holy Spirit.  God is at work in the world through his Spirit to guide his creation (are not the developments of science such as medical breakthroughs the common grace of God?) and God is at work in the human heart to transform, guide and empower.  Indeed, the Spirit is at work to sanctify our rationality and guide us in the use of reason.  Along with Anselm, I confess that we believe in order to understand. Trust (faith) precedes reason. Trust creates room for the Spirit to work and to work in diverse and multiple ways.  The Spirit creates, as Smith argues, space for diverse–and at the same time true–interpretations. The Spirit enables us to hear and value the diversity of the perspectives and angles with which humans view reality (and Scripture).

Not all diversity is good. But diversity that contributes to community and interdependent relationships in conformity to the divine goal is good. It is the work of God by his Spirit to fill his community with diversity and diverse interpretations.  When Babel sought to conform everyone to one thing, God reintroduced diversity for the sake of his goal. At Babel God reversed conformity with diversity.  Pentecost empowers diversity for the sake of the goal. The Spirit unites us by working n us but also gifts us in our diversity with diversity–including diverse interpretations (perspectives).

Hermeneutically, it is important to recognize that there are diverse but true interpretations–it is a form of perspectivalism.  Finite creatures have limited, situated perspectives. We see the Truth (God) from a limited angle and consequently we need the communal process of interpretation to help us see the fuller reality (the whole Truth).  We need each other–past and present. None of us grasps the whole Truth and the sum total of finite experience would never comprehend God (Truth) as he really is in himself.

Yet, we are on a journey of discovery–discovery of the world, each other and ultimately God. We need each other for that journey (none of us can see all or understand all). We need history (others have been interpreting the world–and Scripture–before us). We need tradition (others have practiced the faith before us). We need culture (others have formed us and given us the perspectives we believe are so important, but there are diverse cultures with addtional fruitful perspectives to which we need to listen).

Hermeneutics, then, is a pneumatically empowered process by which finite creatures discover their world, each other and God toward the goal of enjoying the unity of diversity and the diversity of unity.  It is a never-ending journey into the life of the Triune God who is the ground of unity in diversity, three in one and one in three.

10 Responses to “Created for Hermeneutics–Part III”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    “Hermeneutically, it is important to recognize that there are diverse but true interpretations–it is a form of perspectivalism. Finite creatures have limited, situated perspectives. We see the Truth (God) from a limited angle and consequently we need the communal process of interpretation to help us see the fuller reality (the whole Truth).”

    It would be interesting to see this teased out as it relates to specific biblical text interpretation. But the one problem is whether or not we finite people can own up to our reality as such. Our culture is becomming more and more polarized. This is not just occuring within Christian community and her theological field but is also occuring in the secular political and social spheres as well. As polarization sets in, it becomes difficult to recognize that 1) our view is but just a part of the whole truth and 2) the need for other viewpoints (especially those we completely disagree with) to begin understand the bigger truth. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to this.

    Great post!


  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Down the line–somewhere–I hope to tease this out a bit in application to theological topics as well as some biblical texts. I, too, have noted the increasing polarization in both the political arena and, more specifically, among Churches of Christ. It is difficult to listen to each other when we are solidly entrenched in our “truths.” Recognizing that we never have the “whole truth” on any topic or text should create listening, humble hearts as a minimum.

  3.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Let’s see’
    over the last 30 years technology by way of quantum physics and new devices for exploring our universe, have changed the world’s perception, and continues to change the concept of our environment.
    This does not exclude molecular biology, which continues to disprove the accepted worldview of secularism.

    I really do think God likes a level playing field of faith trust.
    It’s about time to set traditional theology and preconceived ideas by way its hermeneutics of truth on its ear. With some irrefutable insights from Saints endeavoring to seek the truth.

  4.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    or you could say REVERSE (John Mark) the trend of the status quo.
    I love that word reverse
    anyway time will tell

    blessings my brother

    Rich in California

  5.   RICH CONSTANT Says:


    And when I can hear you saying John Mark.

    It is” that’s right rich, he that laughs last laughs best”

    Hot dog oh boy off to work
    rich in California.
    Too much fun John Mark.

  6.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Two weeks ago in a local evangelical pastors (which includes both Calvinistic and Arminian trajectories) meeting we had an interesting discussion on whether we (who believe that God is Triune) would share communion with those who believe in Jesus but do not believe in the Trinitarian doctrine. Some were willing to share communion with non-Trinitarian believers and others were not. The discussion worked its way through both the Gospel of John (what does it mean to be in the Truth?), 1st Corinthians (what were the Corinthian heresies and why did Paul not sever fellowship?), and how much right doctrine must one understand to be a believer (i.e., what is the role of the Nicene & Apostle’s Creeds?).

    I think this is a good case scenario for the discussion of hermenutics. It seems like twenty years ago this most likely would not have even been a discussion.

    FTR, we normally never spend time discussing much doctrine as most of our time is spent in prayer and sharing how God is at work in our life. This discussion came as a result from something that occured during the National Day of Prayer prayer meeting (that I and two other pastors hosted).


  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    1 Corithians 8:6 contains a binarian confession: one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ. But some believers in the church at Corinth did not “know” this—the “weak” did not undrestand the binarian confession as they still thought some idols were gods and lords. Paul counsels the Corinthians that they should be careful that their knowledge does not result in pride. Instead it is those who love God rather than those who have all the correct knowledge about God that are known by God. Loving God is entrance into the church rather than knowing the correct confession.

    With Alexander Campbell, I would accept the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Lord of creation. I don’t think this necessarily entails any Trinitarian commitments, but it is a commitment to Jesus and the Father of Jesus. I think that is a sufficient starting point in relationship with God and with the communion of the saints.

  8.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    It would sure be nice to think that another letter or two might be dug up.

    There was an awful lot teaching going on maybe a flurry would be a better word around this time. There were some major persecutions going on. Something has to be credited to this type of faithfulness, but nonetheless the word was confirmed. and the sacrifice for the name of Christ. It really is amazing conviction that these first century believers had. The things they must’ve seen and heard. And we have but a smattering of the testimony that Paul gave and the apostles.
    Talk about necessary inference

  9.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Yes, I was one of those who was willing to extend fellowship to those who do not understand the Trinitarian doctrine. My friend who is a Disciples of Christ minister said, in a comical manner, that as a restorationist, I am expressing my rebellious theology towards the creeds.


  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Or, Rex, it might be a preference to the norms of communal fellowship present in Scripture. 🙂 I think I prefer that to creedal formulations by many perhaps more shaped by power and elitism than by Scripture or the faith itself. But I am quite willing to recognize that Nicea speaks what I regard as truth, but I am not willing to make it a line of Christian confession.

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