Theological Hermeneutics I — Orienting the Task

This post begins a new series which will attempt to offer some of the bare outlines of a theological approach to the hermeneutical task. My first series “Created for Hermeneutics” laid some of the theological and philosophical foundations for thinking about hermeneutics. My second series “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics” provided a historical/theological context for the appreciation and critique of the hermeneutical tradition that characterized most Churches of Christ in the 20th century.

This will be a longer series, but with shorter posts (say, about 1000 words each?).  🙂  I will also space out the posts and intersperse other topics over time. I have no plan as to how long the series will extend (though there is a limit to my understanding of Roman numerals). Instead, I will take it one day at a time.  🙂

By “orienting the task” I intend to offer some presuppositions or contextualizations for this series. Below are a few of these. In addition to these, I think the “post” of “postmodernism” is an important context for this series. You might want to read my previous post on that topic as further orienttion to the hermeneutical task as I see it.

Stone-Campbell Context.  I write this within the context of Stone-Campbell history and concerns. It is theological hermeneutics, one could say, for people within the Stone-Campbell tradition. Of course, I would hope its principles have a broader application and I think they do. But the series is specifically located, as I myself am, in the tradition of Stone-Campbell discussion and thought (especially Churches of Christ). Consequently, my emphases, illustrations and goals are directly related to my conversation partners within Churches of Christ (traditional, progressive and emergent!).

Theological.  This is an intimidating word for many. It does not entail some kind of academic training. Quite the contrary, “theological” is primarily living life in connection with God and his story. It is the theological training of discernment, wisdom and compassion that comes from walking with God daily. Theology is fundamentally sapiential–about the wisdom to live with God in the daily moments of life. A God-formed heart with the desire to know him and love him is the key ingredient for “theologial hermeneutics.”

Simple. Reading the text of Scripture is, at one level, simple. But at another level it is quite complex. One may think of this distinction in theological terms (e.g., milk and solid food, Hebrews 5:11-14). But I am thinking primarily in terms of the hermeneutical task. Reading Scripture is simple in the sense that the broad outlines of the story, the fundamental redemptive tmomentum, and the central themes (e.g, love God and love neighbor) are accessible to readers at the most basic level. There are dimensions to Scripture that are as “obvious” as “there is a tree in my front yard” even with a naive (ahistorical) or flat (Baconian) reading of the text though there are subjective dimensions to integrating this into one’s own worldview. The scholar is unnecessary for the simple embrace of the central thrust of Scripture.

Historical.  The complexity of reading Scripture arises when we remember that these are historical texts. They reflect and participate in the culture in which they were written (e.g., they were originally written in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic!)–not only in terms of language used but also customs, clothing, conventions, etc. This introduces complexity because, at one level, to read these texts as intended we must read as them the message of God located in a specific historical culture because that is what they are. To read them otherwise or to read them in a way that totally ignores or even denies this is to read Scripture unfaithfully, that is, it reads Scripture in a way that undermines the mode in which Scripture is given to us. The scholar is necessary–at various levels–for this historical reading of the text.

Spiritual.  I wanted to use something like “postrational” or “metarational” but neither of these convey my meaning well. Reason is a gift of God. It is a tool for connecting with creation, people and God. But it is insufficient by itself and neither is it the ultimate formative influence of our lives. It is a necessary dimension of the hermeneutical task but if we limit hermeneutics to this box then it will truncate our spirituality. What I call “spiritual” here is a recognition that God encounters us through the text or in connection with the text in ways that transcend our rational categories. This, in fact, is more formative in our theological development that the rational (words, thoughts, ideas). It is a recognition that through the hermeneutical task we “feel” (Alexander Campbell’s word) after God and he encounter us; that the goal is wisdom rather than propositional data, love rather than knowledge. The one who forms this relationship, mediates it and gives it life is the Holy Spirit.

Communal.  I certainly believe everyone should read the Bible for themselves. Everyone needs to encounter God in this way (as well as other ways–I do not limit encounters with God to reading Scripture; e.g., we encounter God through the sacraments). However, I don’t think individual study is sufficient. Individualism breeds arrogance. Communal reading of Scripture–or reading Scripture in community–breeds humility. And with humility comes a theological hermeneutic, that is, a hermeneutic shaped by the heart of God, led by the Spirit and molded into the image of Christ.  Community means more than my local congregation though that is a wonderful place to start. It also means more than my small group or my particular tradition or denomination.  Communal involves the whole history of the church.  We need to read Scripture with the eyes of others as well without our own eyes since our eyes can deceive us. We recognize our own blindness by listening to others. Consequently, tradition (how the church through history has read and practiced Scripture) must play a significant role in our reading of Scripture. Otherwise, arrogance rather than humility will characterize our hermeneutical results and with arrogance comes a loss of the Spirit.

Ok, this is 1000 words. 🙂

11 Responses to “Theological Hermeneutics I — Orienting the Task”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    In my opinion, reading scripture communally is the most challenging for Christians in North American as well as for. Those of us who are heirs of the Stone-Campbell Tradition and Churches of Christ are no exception.

    We live and subsequently are influenced by a culture that has pursued radical individualism. Though the emerging culture seems to be more open to community than before, even this seems shallow. For the emerging culture is also an increasingly polarized culture where people are, at best, becoming more unopen to the criticisms and concerns of those they disagree with and, at worst, are increasingly demolishing the bridges that connect them to peopel who would challenge their understanding.

    Historically it seems that our tradition has been guilty of this. I recently had someone ask me why I would read books written by authors who do not belong to “the Lord’s church.” This is one example of this sort of problem. Thankfully, many in the CoC do not have such a qualm with who writes the books they read. However, I think reading scripture communally is far more than just reading what other writers (or speakers) say about scripture. If we are going to read scripture within the tradition of the entire historic church, the only way to possibly do that is to read scripture in the company of other Christians who represent the different historical trajectories that have developed within Christian history. One of the greatest enjoyments I have in Ithaca is participating in a bi-monthly meeting of other pastors where we read, share, and pray about scripture (but all of us recognize that this fellowship has never made its way into the rest of our congregations).

    This presents a problem though. The pastors group that I participate in is a more evangelical (not Evangelical) oriented group. That is, we all believe in the historic claims of Christianity when it comes to both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. There are, however, Christians (and pastors) in Ithaca who have become decontructionists and revisionists of the Christian faith in ways that look more and more like a wholesale sell out to contemporary culture. The problem I am getting at is how, where, and when do we draw the borders of the “community”? This is an age old question that many Christian traditions, including our own, has wrestled with but in a truly humanistic culture (as where I live), it is not a question that can be ignored.

    Sorry for the long comment! Great post!


  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I appreciate your comments on the communal dimensions, Rex.

    On one hand, I would not draw boundaries in terms of “community” when it comes to listening to others. I think we should listen to all trajectories, even those we regard as “unorthodoxy.” Listening never hurts, I would think.

    On the other hand, there are boundaries embedded within the narrative of Scripture, within the story, that seem to me demark a kind of “good hearing” of the story. Those boundaries within the text are like the boundaries that exist in the empirical world (“there is a tree in my front yard”). Discerning those boundaries and their nature is part of the hermeneutical task and to some degree there is a fludity that we must recognize as part of the human condition.

    But…perhaps…more on that as we move down further into the series. It is an important question.

  3.   Rex Says:

    I hope the following does not sound arrogant.

    I am certainly open with my boundaries as far as including those who clearly fall outside the realm of orthodox. But I am confident that by God’s grace I can discern the truth from a lie.

    On the other hand, there seem to be plenty of Christians that I am just not so confident in their ability anymore to “Test everything [and] hold on to the good” as Paul admonishes in 1 Thessalonians 5.21.

    I agree with you about the embedded boundaries within scripture. So perhaps the real problem is not know how, when, and where to draw the boundaries at. Perhaps the real problem is that there are more and more confessing Christian who no longer even know the basic framework of the Christian story. If that is indeed the real problem, it tell us how much work we have to do.

    Thanks for the post and the discussion.


  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Point taken, my friend. Knowing the basic framework of the Christian story through inductive exposure to Scripture and history is part of the problem.

    John Mark

  5.   rich constant Says:

    It would seem to me that there are certain psychological predispositions in every culture.
    Take for instance demons, angels, indwelling of the Holy Spirit, at one time or another throughout the history of the new covenant relationship.
    for these reasons and others psychological predispositions were formulated and instituted by subjectively applying a hermeneutic that valadated
    the superstitious nature of the culture. Which longi term becomes a psychological characteristic.
    This in turn becomes a perverted teaching, that is promoted by men deceiving people want to justify their aberance. Itching ears.
    So I would say most probably because of these psychological predispositions and characteristics through the formation of a legal hermeneutic.
    We have learned to cut off ears with a sword.
    And have no idea how to psychologically draw men by the grace of God that was manifested through the divine nature of Christ by faithfulness.
    Sowing the seeds of the right doctrine that we have and allowing God to give the increase.
    Of course this might take time and building relationships.

    Blessings just a thought
    rich in California

  6.   Matt Says:

    “And with humility comes a theological hermeneutic, that is, a hermeneutic shaped by the heart of God, led by the Spirit and molded into the image of Christ.”

    It seems to me that we need more then a New Hermeneutic, we need an encounter with God! I think one major challenge to any Hermeneutic in the churches of Christ is not just our addiction to Bacon but our resistance to a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit. Any approach to scripture with in our brother hood that actually depends on God’s some how directing us is met with a lot of resistance. (In my experience) I don’t know about you but I was taught some time around 100 AD, that the Holy Spirit became a hard back novel, leaving the “spirit of the age” in His place to come along side. Don’t mean to be cynical just wondering about how we make the jump. It’s one thing to replace one scientific approach with a better scientific approach, but to replace a scientific approach with a relationship with God, now that going to be something to see, and I pray with the Spirit that we do.

    God Bless

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think we are on the same page, Matt.

    On the one hand, we don’t need just another scientific method for reading Scripture. We need something more and God has always moved among his people with his Spirit to give wisdom, understanding and a “knowledge beyond knowledge.” Pneumatology is an important topic in this discussion and must not be ignored. I hinted that I will have something to say about that in the future in my “Created for Hermeneutics” series. Our reading of Scripture must ultimately be postrational, spiritual and theological (as I defined theological in the post above).

    On the other hand, we cannot escape the human dimention of the hermeneutical process. Scripture is given to us in human language and is read by humans. So, we need to give attention to how we read and how we participate in the hermeneutical process. This hermeneutic has changed over the centuries but some aspects of it are continuous and others discontinuous. Because we have Scripture in human form, we must read it as humans with the best methods we have available.

    So, it is a both/and. The hermeneutical task is a human one but cannot be truly accomplished without divine participation by the Spirit (empowerment, illumination, wisdom…whatever we might want to call it). The hermeneutical task is a synergistic act; a cooperative adventure in which we creatures seek God and God seeks us.

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Permit one further comment from a slightly different angle.

    A good hermeneutic–whether premodern, modern or postmodern–is not necessary for relationship with God. Trust in Christ is the mode of relationship, not some kind of scientific (or any other kind) hermeneutic.

    But a bad hermeneutic, however, can yield results that would hinder such faith or distort it in ways that are quite harmful to our walk with God.

    Consequently, it is important to think about our hermeneutic–not as a means of salvation, but as a part of our sanctification and growth into the likeness and image of God.

  9.   richard constant Says:

    That’s a thought that makes me very happy John Mark thank you so much, I’m going to think about that all day today.
    Give glory to God that he was faithful to his promise, through his son’s work in showing us the way of true righteousness by faithfulness.
    The word joy the word mercy toward patients the word of forgiveness the word of love the word of life

    Blessings my brother each in California

  10.   Nick Gill Says:

    I’m not sure how your last comment here fits with the titular theme of the “Created for Hermeneutics” series, JM. I need to chew on it more. It seems like your comment suggests that we can trust Christ without a healthy interpretation of his words into our situation. But I may be nit-picking…

    I initially only intended to recount my unsuccessful attempt to introduce (to a SCM discussion group) a hermeneutic of Humility, Integrity, and Community several years ago. It is ties like that when I wish I had you and Bobby’s training.

  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I see your point. I think I would offer a broad perspective to connect them.

    Faith saves, not our hermeneutic. A good hermeneutic means we might have a deeper understanding, but it would not mean it is any more saluatory. But the hermeneutical process is one designed by God for bonding, community, and humble approach to himself. It is because we are fallible and often erroneous hermeneuters that we are saved by grace through faith.


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