Christian Scholars’ Conference 2016

I’m looking forward to attending CSC this year. Along with the other board members of the Missio Dei Foundation (those who, among other things, oversee, I’ve had the privilege of organizing a number of sessions. I’m thankful that missiology will be represented among the pursuits of Stone-Campbell Movement scholars.

I also get to present a paper, which I’ve embedded here—a bit of my ongoing reflection on missional hermeneutics.


  1. This paper – specifically the yoking of missional hermeneutics as proposal for the Restoration identity crisis – has been a long time coming. Good job for stating it well. But the surprising bit for me was the tie to Ricoeur’s work. Fascinating indeed.

    You know I track closely with this line of thinking, so I won’t waste time elucidating my agreements. On a side note, you may be interested to know that I recently finished teaching an intensive course on Biblical Hermeneutics and structured the course as a continual modification to the hermeneutical circle, starting with a simplistic circle consisting of the basic exegetical steps, then demonstrating the weakness of such and adding reflection on theology (both biblical and systematic/historical) and reflection on our own biases/preconceptions/blinders. The final element we added to the circle was participation in the narrative, the hermeneutical purpose of which I summarized as the effective way to alter our preconceptions, thus allowing a fresh and more faithful reading of the text. We’re on the same page.

    With that said, allow me to highlight what I think are weaknesses, holes, or simply opportunities for further work. Probably none of these will be new to your thinking, but maybe it will help to hear someone else say them. Some are specifically in response to this paper, others to the missional hermeneutic agenda in broad.

    1. RM identity crisis is post-sectarian, as agreed by all in your brief analysis. To state it otherwise, the “we vs. they” (restoration vs. denominations) dichotomy that served identity has now become, to some extent, “we are they” or at least “we blurs into they.” This creates the angst regarding both RM tradition (Allen and co.) and distinctive beliefs and practices (Christian Affirmation), since both are potential tangibles to distinguish us from them. Enter missional hermeneutics, but at least as presented in this paper, MH is neither tied to nor concerned with RM tradition or RM distinctives as contrasted with other segments of Christianity. In effect, your proposal assumes “we are they” and provides a path forward for all who would call themselves disciples of Jesus and embark on a missional life – RM or not. In other words, you have effectively sidestepped the problem of RM identity, not provided a proposal for resolving it. An actual proposal for the identity crisis will have to deal head-on with both RM traditions and RM distinctives. The fact that Gorman can make a similar hermeneutical proposal without reference to the RM shows the disconnect. At best, as currently stated, MH can provide a methodology that RM (among others) can implement that may some day elucidate a path through the identity crisis. But that is not what your abstract or intro claimed to offer. Perhaps it is indicative that your conclusion does not return to anything concretely tied to RM identity crisis.

    2) The exposition of Ricoeur’s work leaves doubts dangling in me – someone who admittedly knows little of French philosophy. Two doubts in particular: 2a) The juxtaposition of second naïveté1 and second naïveté2 is provocative, but is it a legitimate reading of Ricoeur’s intention? How would he hear your juxtaposition? How indeed would current philosophical scholarship hear your juxtaposition? If there is legitimate connection there, who else has discovered it and written about it? 2b) To what extent are Ricoeur’s proposals demonstrably true/useful in the RM context, as opposed to this being a case of “I found someone smart who says things that fit with what I want to say”, thus bolstering acceptance of your MH proposal among those who are awed by the name Ricoeur? This is an impossible question to answer, obviously, and is a slippery-slope tendency in all scholarship, but bears especial caution in this context given that RM tradition has specifically shunned any connection to or foundation upon philosophy. If your proposal is meant to help resolve the RM identity crisis, you will have to speak to those who still hold anti-philosophical biases. To sideline them is not to help resolve the crisis but to deepen the divide between sides in the crisis.

    3) “Gorman includes various examples of missional practitioners” in an application-like linearity that, as you point out, undermines to an extent the whole idea of a missional hermeneutic – that our participation influences fundamentally our reading of the text in a “good infinite”. But the fact that he punctuates his book with practical examples highlights the need for similar examples in your corrective to his work. Sooner rather than later, MH will need to build up a body of real-world examples in which participation clearly alters the reading of the text in healthier ways than liberation theology was able to provide. Such examples will simultaneously clarify for your readers/hearers the proposal at hand and demonstrate the potential of such an approach. But if your proposal is actually tied to resolving the RM identity crisis, the examples will need to be more than individualistic and more than Christianity-wide. They will need to be examples of collective re-identification among those who consider themselves to be in the RM trajectory. Examples of specific congregations whose praxis in line with RM distinctives has in turn reshaped their reading of Scripture in such a way that their praxis has also to be rethought, all in the goal of increasingly faithful participation in the missio Dei. Without such examples at hand, the conversation remains esoteric.

    (3b side note) For those steeped in historico-critical approaches to the text and skeptical of the agenda of MH (think for example James Thompson in MD5.1), those practical examples will have to demonstrate the usefulness of participation as a means of hermeneutical manifestation of legitimate meaning in the text that historico-critical analysis can’t quite replicate. Why trust in Moses’s God when Pharaoh’s magicians can conjure the same results? But that is going to be easier said than done. Obviously, this is not just a simple power encounter (or truth encounter) between two approaches, not least since MH assumes historico-critical analysis as one of its non-negotiables. It is more akin to a Kuhnian paradigm shift that incorporates elements from previous paradigms. Still, to effect a paradigm shift, the new will have to demonstrably resolve problems that the old was always unable to resolve. In this case, MH will have to demonstrate the ability to do hermeneutically what simple exegesis (combined with contextualized application) was never able to do.

    There is more, especially to do with unity as a RM goal/means and how that might fit into MH, but I’ve got to quit somewhere. Again, good work, and if these critiques further the discussion at all, then God be praised.

  2. Super helpful comments, Danny. When I saw you had commented, I new I would be getting solid critical feedback. I don’t disagree with your concerns generally.

    Regarding whether I sidestep the problem of RM identity, I think the disconnect is twofold. One, the paper assumes the “tradition”—the peculiarity of speaking as “we” even when the conversation is about identity crisis. In this sense, the operative assumption is that whatever still holds us together is operative enough to make the particularity you want by virtue of “RM traditions and RM distinctives” a contextual reality in the outworking of mission. I see this sort of de facto tradition at the local level operating in mission as the only option, because an a priori appeal to some specific distinctives sidesteps the very problem of crisis. Whatever you or I would identify as the [extant] tradition with which we must deal head-on is already problematized by the claim of crisis. Which is why the project of retrieval is appealing—because all that is left is to say what the tradition _should_ be, not what it is. And retrieval provides a historical basis for identifying the “should” with the “was,” thus creating a sense of continuity, which is not strictly necessary but is, for many reasons, profoundly helpful and healthy. In the end, I have say I think the conclusion (which could have been longer, but the paper was already too long) does connect concretely to the RM identity crisis by assuming that the loss of its missional telos is the root cause of crisis. I don’t think it diminishes the specificity of this claim to note that MH generally should serve the purpose of identity formation. In fact, I think it is a particularly Restorationist move to note that a hermeneutic shared by many traditions would be the basis of a newly shared identity.

    The question about Ricoeur’s work is legit, and all I can say is that I developed the idea under the tutelage of a Ricoeur expert and have submitted the paper dedicated to elucidating the two second naivetes to the Society for Ricoeur Studies annual conference. Likely as not, I won’t get the chance to read, but my prof. thought it was worth a shot. As to whether the local congregant can accept that we have philosophical reasons for what we do, I guess I’m not that concerned. I would not teach MH in this way at the local level, but it’s a different question altogether whether there is a theory underlying what I would teach and whether that theory should be elucidated and critiqued in a setting such as CSC. I’ve listened to all kinds of sermons that are built on narrative theory (including Ricoeur’s). Even when preachers explain overtly how the narrative is supposed to affect the reader or issue an invitation to “participate in the story” (etc.), there is no need to explicate everything underlying such a move. But some hermeneutically general and very philosophical things do underly it (as they do CEI or any other move one makes). I guess I take it for granted at this point in our tradition that ignoring (or worse, denying) the philosophical bases for what we do is not a path we can take again, and to do so would be exactly to sideline the importance of the tradition’s antiphilosophical biases. Perhaps the difference is that I expect that choosing not to sideline the issue may well “deepen the divide” in some cases; I accept conflict as a hermeneutical inevitability. After all, Ricoeur did call it “the conflict of interpretations.” =) And no, I’m not just appealing to someone smart—I know you would not be overawed in that way. =)

    Regarding the need for practical examples: agreed. I look at my work on MH on the scale of a career, so I’ve given myself permission to work in little chunks on the level of a single paper. There are lots of things I don’t deal with here, most of which was intentional selection. My goal in the space of a very short presentation (I’ll have to skip almost all of section one in the reading) was to advance the notion that MH generally should become inherently praxeological, and that such a move meets a primary need in my tradition specifically. In this sense, the paper already takes the difference such a hermeneutic would make in a specific tradition as a hypothesis to be tested in a specific way (producing examples). Of course, the articulation of a hypothesis is better stated after the evidence is in, but I didn’t feel it was necessarily wrong to go ahead an state the theory in this setting. So, yes, my friend, I am Mr. Esoteric at the moment. But (Ricoeur would be relieved to know), I am _committed_ to seeing the theory tested. That will require a breadth and depth of work with churches that I can’t even begin to access right now, but I’m playing the long game.

    And, yes, there is a need for hermeneutical fruitfulness, but part of MH’s core claim is that “meaning” is not an abstract product of an interpretive method. Mission is the fruit, but mission is the hermeneutic. I would rather say that those committed to historical-critical “meaning” production bear the burden of proof: what good is “legitimate meaning” that has failed to shape the church into God’s missionary people? If they are happy with “meaning” that never completes the the circle with embodied participation—if that can even be meaning for someone—then identity crisis will not be a problem for them anyway. A big part of our crisis, in other words, is the endemic belief that meaning is by definition an abstract, determinate property of the text that interpretation is meant to render if we apply the right method. I think MH is more concerned with interpretation as an encounter with the triune God through Scripture rather than interpretation as a meaning-producing mechanism. That encounter is the proof in the pudding, and we know it for what it is if it makes us into the image of that missional God. In a sense, this is the big point of the whole paper: what our old hermeneutic was never able to do was the wrong aim in the first place. Identity crisis is a result of insisting that our hermeneutic produce “meaning” apart from commitment. To keep playing that game in order to score points against those who set the rules (and replacing CEI with historical-critical exegesis _is_ playing the same game) misses the point. MH is meant to be a game changer.

    Thanks for engaging so deeply! I count on your insightful pushback.

  3. A good paper indeed. I really like this statement:

    “Embodied justice, in other words, should become a hermeneutical agenda. The point here is not simply the observation that reading texts in light of missional experiences can shed new light on them, though that point is seldom enough made in the literature. Instead, the more specific claim of the present argument is that a missional hermeneutic that includes embodied participation as a constitutive element is precisely what the identity crisis of Churches of Christ calls for.”

    Given the autonomy of every local Church of Christ coupled with a loss of identity taking place among many congregations, the Churches of Christ have become a very disjointed fellowship theologically and pragmatically. So I have very little optimism for shaping the Churches of Christ for the embarkment of a missional hermeneutic as you propose. However, I do believe this reshaping can happen among some local Churches of Christ (and indeed is already happening). Among these congregations, such reshaping will begin with the confronting of what Alan Roxburgh calls “discontinuous change” as a way of explaining the questions and challenges that churches are now facing in a post-Christendom society for which the well-known answers and approaches for engagement no longer work. That is, the local church will need to accept the challenge rather than withdrawing and retreating, hoping that things will somehow improve when they come out of hibernation.

    So your nuance of a missional hermeneutic as embodied participation is good because the way forward will only be discovered in the process of engaging. In other words, as local churches engage the challenges, the answer of how do they read scripture and embody the gospel for these challenges will be revealed only as they seek to practice such embodiment. The street between theology and practice becomes a two-way street with one shaping the other even as it is shaped by the other and when a local church begins allowing their embodied participation to reshape their theology which in turn reshapes their participation, the way forward should become more clear. As more local Churches of Christ take the step of faith out into this unchartered water, then a new identity among the Churches of Christ will blossom.

    Any ways, I am interested in this because the question I am asking for my D.Min project is how does a local Church of Christ read/interpret scripture for participation in the mission of God.

  4. Hey, Rex! I’m glad to hear we’re working on similar questions. I will be thrilled to see your research. Though not likely specific to Churches of Christ, my dissertation will almost certainly be focused on missional hermeneutics, and my long-term goals are naturally more focused on the tradition (as this paper would suggest). I can’t agree more that, for us in particular, the question is how to make a missional turn at a congregational level. I just can’t help but think in terms of the whole tradition, even if the point of the identity crisis is that we have less and less cohesion as a social group.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *