Toward a Research Agenda

In September, I begin doctoral study at Fuller Theological Seminary. I will be in the School of Theology, with a theology concentration and a New Testament minor concentration, but I will cross into the School of Intercultural Studies in order to work in missiology as well. The ability to do interdisciplinary research in this way was what made Fuller my first choice.

My primary interest is hermeneutics. I want to study the theological interpretation of Scripture from a missional perspective. In particular, I want to look at the role of worldview in theological interpretation through a rigorously missiological lens. Theological interpretation is itself already a bridging discipline between constructive theology and exegetical theology, so I’m going to be at the intersection of multiple conversations that look something like this:

agenda1

I’m currently reading Stephen Fowl’s Engaging Scripture, which connects many of the strands I would like to weave together. I think it may be an understatement to say Fowl has a lot to contribute to missional hermeneutics. What he advocates has been labeled “virtue hermeneutics,” on the analogy of virtue ethics. In developing a theological education program in Peru in recent years, I have been committed to the idea that interpretation is inextricable from spiritual formation, namely the practice of the classical spiritual disciplines. These were integrated into the curriculum from the beginning. The notion of virtue hermeneutics per se occurred to me later, however, while reading Glen Stassen and David Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics. Reading Fowl prompted me to look around and discover that, indeed, virtue hermeneutics is a term coined to describe a recent hermeneutical agenda.

Here is Fowl’s thesis:

The arguments of this book are not as much concerned with establishing boundaries as with making constructive use of the interaction of Christian convictions, practices, and scriptural interpretation. In this light, the central argument of this book is that, given the ends towards which Christians interpret their scripture, Christian interpretation of scripture needs to involve a complex interaction in which Christian convictions, practices, and concerns are brought to bear on scriptural interpretation in ways that both shape that interpretation and are shaped by it. Moreover, Christians need to manifest a certain form of common life if this interaction is to serve faithful life and worship. Further, because there is no theoretical way to determine how these interactions must work in any particular context, Christians will need to manifest a form of practical reasoning. This practical reasoning will enable Christians to bring appropriate convictions, practices, and concerns to bear on specific texts, in the light of particular circumstances, so that the prospects for faithful life and worship are enhanced rather than frustrated. This situation, combined with the variations in the temporal, cultural, and political contexts in which Christians find themselves, ensures that the precise shape of faithful Christian life and worship in any specific context, as well as Christian interpretation of scripture, will always be both ongoing and a matter of discussion, debate, and disagreement.1

I find Fowl’s argument compelling and hear the resonances of various hermeneutical concerns I share. As he develops these ideas, it becomes clear that the convictions and practices he has in mind are especially those that engender virtue:

What must be addressed are ingrained habits of perceiving and living in the world that cannot be changed by any theory of textual meaning.

Instead, what I can offer is an account of how Christian convictions about sin should play a role in their scriptural interpretation, enjoining them to maintain a certain sort of vigilance over their interpretation. Further, I argue that such an account entails that Christian communities maintain the practices of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in good working order. Finally, the good working of these practices will aid in the formation of virtuous readers who can exercise interpretive charity in the midst of interpretive disputes. The manifestation of charity will not eliminate disputes. It will, however, help them to be resolved in ways that enable Christians to live truthful, faithful lives. 2

My feeling is that Fowl’s thesis and virtue hermeneutics generally need to be brought into deeper conversation with missional theology. In particular, the practices of reconciliation need to be conceived more broadly than those internal to the Christian community—as the community’s practices in the world as ambassadors of reconciliation. The “ends” of Christian interpretation, in other words, are defined more fully in terms of God’s mission, and this teleological move places the community’s formation in its proper relationship to God’s purposes beyond the community. Formation in virtue is not therefore less important but more important, because these virtues are not merely sociological lubricant for the interpretive process but the strength that sustains the church in mission, thereby allowing the interpretation of Scripture as a missional people. In other words, virtue hermeneutics from a missional perspective is not about people who are good interpreting the text from their virtue but about people who do good interpreting the text from the praxis their virtue enables.

Another exciting dimension of Fowl’s proposal is its connection with philosophical pragmatism.3 To reiterate, “the central interpretive claim here is that our discussions, debates, and arguments about texts will be better served by eliminating claims about textual meaning in favor of more precise accounts of our interpretive aims, interests, and practices.”4 By looking to “aims, interests, and practices” for hermeneutical guidance, he moves toward “interpretive pragmatics.”5 That is, the “more precise accounts” of such interpretation attend to what we actually do with the text.

Having more truck with linguistics and cultural studies than formal philosophy, I walked in on American pragmatism through the back door: Wittgenstein (originally via Lindbeck). Once inside, though, I perceived a strong but essentially unexplored consonance between evangelical missiology and American pragmatism. I believe that, much as postmodern philosophy has nourished contemporary hermeneutics, American pragmatism stands to supply a tremendous amount of sustenance to missional hermeneutics, perhaps even more appetizingly for post-evangelical Christianity than continental philosophy has done. This is a possibility I will leave undeveloped for now. Suffice it to say that Fowl is already working in this direction.

Another set of overlapping hermeneutical interests, therefore, looks like this:

agenda2

If I were to create a three-dimensional intersection of these two sets of concerns, it would represent the constellation of research interests I bring to doctoral study in hermeneutics. If this seems heady, well, it will be; it’s doctoral work. But my commitment is to serve the fruit of the ministry of study at the congregational table. What we need, in Churches of Christ at least, is a real hermeneutical alternative to the defunct interpretive habits that haunt us, and that alternative should be rooted in participation in God’s mission.6 I care deeply about hermeneutics because congregations need to live missionally in the world through the biblical narrative. We need reading practices that help us to embody God’s purposes, both in the interpretive process and in word-and-deed proclamation of the kingdom. Where virtue, pragmatics, and mission meet, we have in view roughly two kinds of interpretive practices:

1. Practices that transform the church—actually making us who we are supposed to be, not just people who affirm the conclusions they are supposed to affirm.

2. Practices that transform the world—actually participating in the restoration of all creation.

If, in the next three years, I can make any contribution in this direction, I will consider myself deeply privileged. I thank God for the opportunity.

Soli Deo gloria.

  1. Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 8–9; emphasis added
  2. Ibid., 74–75.
  3. Now is not the time to explain the philosophical school called American pragmatism. If you think pragmatism is a dirty word, meaning something like “the ends justify any means,” go ahead and assume that is not what I’m saying. If you think it means focusing on strategies and “outcomes,” as some evangelical missiology has done, then note that too is a faulty definition.
  4. Ibid., 56.
  5. Ibid., n. 71.
  6. See Greg McKinzie, “Editorial Preface to the Issue: Mission and the Renewal of Restoration Movement Hermeneutics,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 5, no. 1 (February 2014): http://missiodeijournal.com/article.php?issue=md-5-1&author=md-5-1-preface.

2 Comments

  1. Looking forward to reading that dissertation when it eventually materializes. And you know I actually mean it.

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