Response to “Hermeneutics and Conflict”

Adam Hill wrote a piece called “Hermeneutics and Conflict” that came out in Wineskins yesterday. Any time I see hermeneutics getting press among Churches of Christ, I get excited—especially when we call it what it is instead of trying to work around the technical1 jargon. We are facing a technical problem, among others, and I think we’re benefited by coming to terms with it as such.

I agree with the gist of Hill’s article, but I would push back at a few points as well. Hopefully, these thoughts contribute to the conversation in which he and I both hope to engage.

Points of Agreement

First, the big discussion we need in Churches of Christ is hermeneutical at root. We don’t need to focus on “issues.” The issues, which are diverse, need to become the opportunity for explicitly examining how we interpret and practicing new approaches to the text.

Second, the process of adopting a new hermeneutic is both slow and messy. It will require communal perseverance and mutual support, and many will balk at its difficulty.

Points of Divergence

First, in our tradition, the problem was always hermeneutics; as Hill’s reference to Behold the Pattern indicates, Churches of Christ have debated how the text means at more than one moment in our history, because we are a people constitutionally concerned with hermeneutics. Granting Hill is right that the debate is increasingly bent toward explicit hermeneutics at this juncture, I have to observe that this is not novel in itself. Rather, the novelty is the emergence of a real alternative. Previously, there was no real contender. A few key examples help portray the situation:

  • Liberalism was a move away from bothering too much with the text, but that didn’t amount to a new hermeneutic so much as an attempt to remove serious textual hermeneutics from consideration.
  • The anti-legalism that has grown in fits and starts over the last eighty years was a change of disposition resulting in a radical critique of the CEI hermeneutic, but it didn’t offer a substantial alternative, which has ultimately carried many congregations into an unconsciously subjectivist reading of Scripture.
  • The deeply exegetical orientation that our university Bible programs have produced in trained ministers is a gain that trades successfully upon our commitment to first-century Christianity without providing a way to bridge the twenty-century gap, thereby leaving CEI intact to serve that purpose even if the exegesis itself produces insights at odds with legal patternism.

In our postmodern moment, however, a real alternative seems to be taking shape—one that makes as much sense to a broad range of people as CEI did in the wake of the Enlightenment.

Second, I don’t put as much stock in pulpit preaching as Hill seems to do. In general, I’ll heartily second any call for “much better preaching.” But in terms of facilitating the adoption of a new hermeneutic, what gets modeled from the pulpit is relatively inconsequential (though obviously not irrelevant). The answer to Hill’s question, “Do we have room for this sort of practice and discussion in our services?,” is No, and we won’t if we’re trying to make our Sunday assemblies, and in particular our sermons, bear that kind of weight. This is because the sermon is neither the place for conversation nor the place for communal discernment, both of which are essential for the explicit formation of the community in the techniques of biblical interpretation; and it is because our times of communion and worship, not to mention the proclamation of the word, involve spiritual dynamics that deserve our full attention, upon which the hermeneutical discussion need not (and likely cannot successfully) impinge. It is only when we envision communal interpretive practices beyond our typical gatherings that we begin to imagine the magnitude of the difficulty we face. There is in view here a lifestyle change for congregations (much more than a homiletical change for preachers), the specifics of which are beyond the scope of this post.

Finally and most importantly, I have to disagree with the contrast between product and process. I fear it does injustice to the teleological sense of the narrative theology Hill advocates. The problem is basically that “struggle to really make headway with regard to our divisions” is the major concern instead of God’s mission. Our hermeneutic must be judged on the basis of whether it makes us a missional people—ultimately, whether it serves God’s ends in the world. Perhaps it helps to recast product as produce—fruit. I’m in favor of placing an emphasis on process, or on journey rather than destination, to change the metaphor. I think that’s healthy for lots of reasons I’m guessing Hill shares. But there is a purpose beyond the process, which we can judge to have been served. Unfortunately, a hermeneutic evaluated on the basis of “how well and how frequently and consistently it delivers the reader to surrender to God, reliance upon God, and bold trust in God” limits the effects of reading to the internal formation of the reader. Those are important, but we must consider the purposes of God beyond the reader (or better, beyond the reading community). For what are we formed? The answer to this question, in practice, is the fruit our hermeneutics must bear.

Hill and I agree more than we disagree, perhaps far more than his single post would indicate, and I only wish to carry the conversation a step farther. I’m grateful for his provocative and personal contribution.

Endnotes:

  1. By technical I make reference to a notion of technique:

    tech·ni·cal /ˈteknək(ə)l/ adjective : of or relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques.
    tech·nique /tekˈnēk/ noun : a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.

    These definitions lend themselves to the idea that biblical interpretation is a mixture of art and science, and the theory of interpretation—hermeneutics—is therefore a technical discipline in this sense. It is not merely technical in “academic” terms, which pejoratively (and wrongly) might connote needless technicality, but in terms of both performance and procedure skillfully and wisely undertaken.

5 Comments

  1. Greg,

    You make some really great points here. First, thanks for engaging my piece at all, and thank you for your critique. I also think that we agree more than we disagree.

    But for discussion’s sake, I would point out that my post was written within the distinct context of congregational and interpersonal conflict. Within that context, I still am willing to place a high level of influence on the minister. I think that preaching matters greatly, and the way that preachers continually (consistently, day-in/day-out) use the text does reach the community as a whole with an influential message about the nature and purpose of scripture. Granted, my argument rests almost exclusively (and by “almost,” I think I mean completely *grin*) on my own experience. My use of scripture becomes inductively (abductively, to borrow a MacLaren word) praxic of the hermeneutic that I hope the church community can embrace and emulate. But I will readily admit that this is not the only means by which hermeneutical shifts can take place.

    In addition, I regret a lack of clarity in my original post that implicitly suggested that the sermon is the locale for the shared communal imagination experiences within the service. You are right, that sermons are not the best place for that. I should have clarified that when I asked if we had space for engaging the text in communal discernment and collective imagination in our services, I really meant in our services alongside the other things like preaching that modeled a better hermeneutic. I was not trying to argue the sermon as the primary locale for communal imagination with regard to the text; rather that the service should incorporate opportunities for that in addition to a sermon and both should work towards a healthier way of reading. And I completely agree that churches will be even better served by communal interpretive gatherings well outside the traditional gatherings most churches have. But I found myself trying to tailor some of the practical steps to the “normal” church setting (for whatever that is worth).

    To your last point, I think you have a valid critique here that my process and product dichotomy may be oversimplified in the piece. That is probably true. And I am actually harkening to a distinction in the writings of Aristotle between poiesis and praxis–two variations of activity rooted in intrinsic and extrinsic worth. That said, I was overly committed to mutual exclusivity in my comparison. Still, at the same time, I am not sure that my comments completely vacate the teleological value of hermeneutics; rather, I would argue that the teleological value that is certainly present is not necessarily an end product. Rather the teleological fruit is an intrinsic experience. The teleological value is the everyday praxis of a new heremeneutic (not a structure or pattern built from these hermeneutical engagements… be they missional or patternistic, etc.). And by nature that praxis, I believe, is necessarily and always missional–it is lived out actively in God’s kingdom. My assumption is that missional praxis flows from personal formation–when one encounters and surrenders to the God of mission, one joins God’s people on that mission actively in a life of continual hermenetuical engagement with the witness of our God’s already/not yet redemptive work.

    I hope that was helpful. It may not be. I am pastoral at heart, and so my real purpose in all of this was orthopraxic–I want to help pastors and churches engage conflict with a better understanding and depth. I appreciate folks like you that call me to continually revise and restate. Be blessed, brother.

  2. Greg,

    I read Hill’s original post and your response to the question, ”

    “Do we have room for this sort of practice and discussion in our services?”

    This is very key–and I agree wholeheartedly with your critique. I think if we are looking for a new or alternative hermeneutic (or simply a space to discuss it freely)–it will only happen in a communal environment, which will require a more biblical model of ‘worship’ and community, i.e house church, small group, etc. If you will–one’s hermeneutic can be greatly influenced by form. Example– do not hierarchal relationships dissolve in small group settings? Does it not seem silly to argue over women passing of bread in such a setting or worship teams for example? Second example–communal environment perhaps lends itself to really involving ourselves in the lives of others, i.e. seeing their needs, talking to them, learning from each other, etc. It is here it seems that we can break new ground to deep, sincere conversations about lived Christianity. Moreover, it forces to rethink scripture in light of context.

    Interestingly, the above is exactly fertile ground for growth of the church–we are witnessing a plethora of other religious groups increasingly use a “restoration hermeneutic,” ie organic church, house church, emergent church, etc which actually borrows language from traditional church of christ/restoration movement and in many cases– doctrine, i.e. refocus on the sacraments, specifically baptism, the Lord’s supper, restoration, simplicity, etc. (which is super exciting to me!)

    Greg, you are right on—

    “It is only when we envision communal interpretive practices beyond our typical gatherings that we begin to imagine the magnitude of the difficulty we face. There is in view here a lifestyle change for congregations (much more than a homiletical change for preachers)”

    This change will/is hard-this changes may require us to be vulnerable open to a more intimate christ and mission-centered hermeneutic .

    -Mark

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