Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Toward a community hermeneutic

I have been thinking about the Scriptures and how we interpret and apply them in the church, partly as a continuation of some thoughts from my post, How can anyone learn if they are interacting? and also based on the series Alan is doing, specifically the post A Healthy Diet For the Church – Food given directly from God.

I would hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura, that the Scriptures alone (and not tradition) are authoritative. Of course that raises the question, who interprets the Scriptures? You are not going to find many denominations or local churches that proudly proclaim “We don’t believe in the Bible!” and yet the variances among secondary doctrines and practices is enormous. So how do we decide what is right and what is wrong? This is where hermeneutics comes in.

There are a couple of prevailing hermeneutic methods in the church. The main hermeneutic in the various Protestant traditions is the professional quasi-academic hermeneutic where the pastor, who presumably has some formal clerical training, is the arbiter of the hermeneutic of his local church. In many ways this is merely a modification of the Roman hermeneutic where interpretation was restricted to the theologians and academics as well as the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Often this is simply assumed to be correct or at best given cursory explanation by pointing to a few verses like these:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

The reason these are invoked is because everyone knows that Timothy was an elder, so Paul’s advice to him is properly seen as “pastoral” advice to modern clergy. The problem with this of course is that nowhere is Timothy identified as an elder nor should we assume that Paul's advice to Timothy is not likewise great advice to every single Christian. In Paul’s letter to Titus we get a more credible defense of the professional hermeneutic:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9)
So doesn’t that say that elders should interpret Scripture on behalf of the church? Well no, not really. Two problems. First, there is nothing is what Paul wrote that indicates that this is restricted to elders. Second, the passage assumes that these men are already doing this before they are recognized as elders. They don’t start holding firm to the word once they are appointed, it is something that (as non-elders) are already doing! So I think that the clerical hermeneutic is deeply flawed and unsupportable from Scripture.

There was a time when I would have enthusiastically supported the clerical/academic hermeneutic. That has obviously changed pretty dramatically as I don’t find support for it from Scripture. Furthermore it is highly dangerous because far too many Christians accept at face value what they hear from the pulpit, especially if it is accompanied by a quote from a famous theologian, past or present, or better yet if it is accompanied by a discourse on the original Greek to demonstrate a superior knowledge base. Americans in general and Christians in particular are conditioned to accept what an authority figure says without question. That makes for a pliable population but not for a mature Body of Christ.

The other common and often simultaneous hermeneutic is private interpretation. Practically speaking, a privatized hermeneutic is one in which each individual Christian interprets Scripture as he or she sees fit in something of a vacuum. An individual Christian decides on doctrines a, b and c and then finds a local church that is in harmony with those positions as closely as possible, thus reinforcing their decisions each Sunday. Sometimes these doctrines are important and contentious, like baptism. More often they are something like music style, preaching style, architecture, how that person was raised, etc. Even setting aside 2 Peter 1:20 for a moment, there are huge issues with people in various stages of maturity and understanding coming to whatever interpretation they want on Scripture and we see the results of that in the highly individualistic society of the West.

So a clerical/academic centered hermeneutic is unscriptural and dangerous. As is a highly privatized hermeneutic. What is the solution? I would propose that there is a third way that I am coming to embrace more and more, the hermeneutic employed by many of the Anabaptists (underlining added)

The Anabaptists believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant that an illiterate peasant who had received the gift of the Spirit was a better interpreter of God's word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit. As a consequence, sola scriptura, 'scripture alone', was rejected in preference for 'scripture and Spirit together '. In its time, this was radical in the extreme, especially as most Anabaptists were the illiterate poor. The political authorities considered this politically dangerous and theologically irresponsible. But to the Anabaptists, discerning the will of God was something that all believers were expected to do.

I think a lot of that resonates quite strongly with what we see in Scripture (and what we don’t see) especially when examined in view of how the Scriptures see the church, as an adoptive family rather than a religious organization. It is, however reasonable it may sound, certainly jarring in an expert exalting culture. How in the world can some knucklehead with minimal education properly interpret Scripture? Shouldn’t we trust the guys with all of the initials behind their name or with the religious titles in front of their name, guys who have published lots of thick books with lots of endorsements on the back cover? Some guy who barely finished high school is going to give a better interpretation of Scripture than the PhD? Well, what about this?

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
That verse (and this post) are not a call for a strident fundie anti-intellectualism. Rather I think that what we need to recognize is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation and that formal education, while valuable in some circumstances and with a proper place in the Body, is no substitute for a local body of born-again Christians who interpret Scripture in community rather than a “top down” approach or an “every man for himself” approach. A community of believers, whatever their background, properly equipped and discipled within the community, with regenerate hearts and filled with the Holy Spirit is by any measure the proper interpretative mechanism for Scripture.

So here is the rub. How does that happen? This is one of those places where form really impacts function. I think it is awfully hard for a community hermeneutic to function in a traditional church, especially a larger evangelical church that is sermon and program driven. It is not impossible but it is harder. It is not invariably going to happen in an “organic” setting either. If the gathering of the church is little more than sharing time accompanied by a sing-along, little progress will be made. A community hermeneutic requires an intentional effort by the community. A community that devotes itself to prayer and the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). A multi-voiced community where prophecy is shared but also weighed and judged (1 Corinthians 14:29). A community where everything that is said is not accepted without question but compared to Scripture to determine its veracity (Acts 17:11). A community that above all else is actually a community, not a religious looking organization or an organic group that meets on Sunday. Until we get to real community, a community hermeneutic is impossible and we are left with professional or personal hermeneutic with all of their incumbent flaws.

The church is not about religion.

It is not about ritual or liturgy or sacraments or preaching.

It is also not about sharing or participation.

The church is about community, family, fellowship and ultimately about mission. If we miss community and mission, the rest is just religious fluff.


Jeremy Myers said...

Fantastic post. I've been doing a lot of thinking about this recently, and you really brought some ideas together for me. Thanks!

Arthur Sido said...

Thanks Jeremy, I am still working through a lot of this myself

Aussie John said...


I missed this one somehow. Excellent thoughts which reflect my own.

New followers of Christ have to be taught the fact from the beginning. I've found it almost impossible to convince older Christians. One said to me, "We pay you to tell us what Scripture is saying to us".

One new believer took it too far though: He would arrive at Bible studies with a suitcase full of commentaries and a Dake Annotated Reference Bible (along with its difficulties). He "authoritatively" corrected every person's thoughts.


Thankfully the Holy Spirit is available to every True believer in Christ, learned and unlearned. Even those today who may still be illiterate have The Word available in audio and video form. I am convicted that the will of the Father is that the Entire Body come together in community and Rightly Divide The Word of God! Thank you for this post.