Created for Hermeneutics–Part IV (Practical Reflection)

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.

10 Responses to “Created for Hermeneutics–Part IV (Practical Reflection)”

  1.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    It took an act of extreme sacrifice by the Trinity, to inpart to the creation the true law of love, faith, hope, they have and are willing to share.

    Humanity didn’t get their sinful nature overnight, God chose one generation in which to explain the mystery first Corinthians 2.
    It’s up to the rest of all of us to try to understand just how deep these pre-dispositions of sin are.
    Thank God for Romans the eight chapter.

    Blessings John Mark
    rich in California

    By the way these last four posts are something that I do get.

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Ok, I have always been willing to extend grace to Wallace because I know he was in part, a product of his time. The more difficult question is whether such grace would be extended now to those Christians who are still embedded with racial hatred (amazingly, the first congregation I ever interviewed with for a preaching position had two men that we active members of the KKK).

    We all know about all of the problems that the Corinthian church had and yet Paul was willing to extend them grace rather than cast them off from fellowship. Yet there is one group that Paul was unwilling to extend grace towards, those guilty of grave imorallity which Paul describes as sexually immoral, greedy, idolotrous, dishonest, drunk, and/or a thief (1 Cor. 5.11-12). In that context, Paul’s justification for such hars judgment seems to be that the integrity of the gospel is at stake. If I am correct, then grace should be withdrawn from those whose conduct is so grave that it destroys the integrity of the gosel. That leads to a larger question of just when is someone’s conduct so devious that it compromises the gospel?

    The passage I referenced is an interesting passage for hermeneutic discussion because in our fellowship (as with most evangelical church groups) we seem unwilling to show any grace towards the sexually immoral while greed is given a full pardon every time.

    Anyways, I have no problem extending grace towards Wallace since he was part of a culture that still tolerated racial hatred. I cannot say that I as gracious towards a racist today where no one is surrounded by a culture (including church, media, schools, work environment, etc…) that promotes such bigotry.


  3.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Very thought provoking post. I’ve been away and unable to read the first posts in the series but will try to read them Monday when I have more time.

    The Wallace quote is sad. My grandfather scrubbed out a baptistry in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1940’s after baptizing an African American to avoid problems with the brethren. Shortly afterwards he left.

    Rex is right on about “covetousness” and greed being considered less serious than sexual sin.

    Shouldn’t a distinction be made between being gracious towards those with whom disagree, and participating in their practices that violate our conscience?

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    “Shouldn’t a distinction be made between being gracious towards those with whom disagree, and participating in their practices that violate our conscience?”

    Absolutely! Being gracious does not require a violation of one’s own conscience.


  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Clearly my counsel to “extend grace” is not fully explained or clarified in my post. So, I recognize there is some ambiguity there.

    I do not think “extending grace” entails condoning, participating with or encouraging the one with whom we disagree. But it does mean at least showing some compassion for their circumstances (situatedness) and some understanding about how they arrrived at the point they are. It is showing some deference to their fallibility, limitations and cultural shaping while at the same time engaging in a conversation about a “more perfect way.”

  6.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    There are clearly defined issues of sin.
    There are clearly defined issues of righteousness.
    Let’s say sin black
    let’s say righteousness white.
    I would say everyone walks around in gray.
    And speaks of black-and-white issues.
    Predispositions have preconceived concepts

  7.   RICH CONSTANT Says:


    On a bell shaped curve,
    on one end of the curve, put don’t honor God.
    On the other end of the curve, put don’t love your neighbor.
    In the middle the high point of the curve put Christ faithfulness to God and loving mankind.
    Then asked the question how aberrant am I.

    I hope I’m not defined by the incidence’s of my life
    that are clearly black even to me.
    I know one thing I am clearly not the person I was 30 years ago but then again I am clearly not the person that I want to be.
    And that’s enough out of me.

    Rich in California

  8.   rogueminister Says:

    John Mark, I think that this realization that we all read scripture through the lens of our setting and experience has done more for my growth as a Christian than almost anything. It has helped me show grace to other believers, be more open to other understandings, and has even directly led to some of my own views being altered.

    Thanks for this post because it really speaks to an issue of vital importance for all followers of Christ, not just those from our tradition.

  9.   tommiann hill Says:

    I have been struggling for quite awhile with “Christians” that embrace racisim. I have been frustrated with this prevelant attitude for quite sometime..especially in my career field which embraces cultural diversity. I realize we all “misinterpret” and sin. However, I get really tired of dealing with it on a day to day basis. I do not know if I can “show grace to other believers” that continuously harbor misguided resentment because of cultural lenses. I appreciate the thought provoking post and am thinking about not judging someone’s heart towards God that does not embrace cultural diverisity..however, I know I’m sinning by not changing my heart towards this issue..I continously struggle with this.

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    In the post I was speaking historically, but it does have application in the present. I think I would need a lengthier post to speak more directly to present concerns.

    I don’t think we need to show grace in the sense that we are non-confrontational, that is, we confront people with their ungodly attitudes with gentleness and kindness. We demonstrate a more perfect way in our own lives. We offer an alternative in conversation. We neither condone nor participate in the ungodliness, but we also converse with patience.

    I realize that it is very difficult, but it does not entail that we sanction or tolerate the abuse of other people. But, at the same time, we also recognize that “racism” is also an interpretative act and what we need is not polarization but dialogue.

    My suggestion of humility plus grace is no easy road to travel and I certainly do not travel it perfectly myself.

    Thanks for the comments, my friends. They are helpful to me.

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