Missional Hermeneutics (Revisioning the Hermeneutical Spiral Missionally 1)

The missional hermeneutics conversation has articulated at least four emphases (Husberger, 2009):

  1. The Missional Direction of the Story
  2. The Missional Purpose of the Writings
  3. The Missional Locatedness of the Readers
  4. The Missional Engagement with Cultures

George Husberger sums up his findings in this way:

Finally then, our collective sense of a missional hermeneutic . . . is taking shape thus far around at least these four questions:

  1. What is the story of the biblical narrative and how does it implicate us? (missio Dei)
  2. What is the purpose of the biblical writings in the life of its hearers? (equipping witness)
  3. How shall the church read the Bible faithfully today? (located questions)
  4. What guides our use of the received tradition in the context before us? (gospel matrix)

While I find this analysis helpful, I think it is possible to parse out some of the various sources’ contributions differently. In particular, I am interested in thinking about them in terms of the known aspects of the hermeneutical spiral. What do they revise? What do they contribute? What do they leave out? There are two areas that I believe are especially important to spell out more than Hunsberger’s construal does.

The first regards exegesis. In Michael Barram’s response to Hunsberger he continues to push a point he has raised for some time: “In the end, I’m still wondering, I guess, how concrete exegetical methodology relates to the notion of a larger, robust herementuic” (Barram, 2009; cf. Barram, 2006). Yet, in his 2007 Interpretation article, I think Barram has already spelled out the two most vital points for exegetical methodology (in addition to framing them within a very helpful discussion of the problematic facing the convergence of biblical scholarship and missiology):

First, the communities to which NT documents were written owed their existence to a missional impulse in early Christianity. God was active in the world, and the fledgling Christian communities found themselves caught up in that activity. Of course, the doctrinal struggles we find would never have arisen apart from a process of early Christian outreach. Second, the NT texts themselves are in some real sense missiological, inasmuch as they equip their original addressees for the community’s vocation in the world (Barram, 2007, 49).

This is the exegetical aspect of what it is to affirm that “mission is the mother of theology.” The formulations of Scripture itself (1) were born of participation in the missio Dei and (2) intended to serve the people of God in that context. To attempt to understand their original meaning outside of this rubric, as Barram calls it, is a methodological error.

I think it is helpful to distinguish this point from both (a) Husberger’s category of the purpose of the writings (advocated principally by Darrell Guder) and (b) Barram’s located questions. Regarding the former, there is a difference between recognizing exegetically what the author’s purpose was and affirming in the present what the canon’s purpose is. While I see the strong connection between the two on the grounds of (1) a continuous metanarrative and (2) Jim Brownson’s observation that the way biblical writer did theology is paradigmatic for us (Hunsberger, 2009), it is still important to make the distinction because of the methodological rigor of exegesis in biblical studies that Barram points out. In other words, those asking a methodological question from the standpoint of historical-critical exegesis cannot affirm that a passage’s function in terms of the present church’s reception of the canon is a concern proper to the realm of historical inquiry (even if those exegetes are willing to ask such questions subsequently).

For the same reason, Barram’s proposed located questions do not have to do with exegetical methodology, even though it is true that the questions a historical-critical exegete brings to the text cannot escape locatedness. That is to say, despite the recognition of locatedness, I am still advocating a struggle to understand the author in his location before turning to the present reader in hers. In that sense, I think missional hermeneutics needs to recognize clearly the significance of the two exegetical points Barram has made (in the block quote above) but also needs to make it clear that in another sense the answer to his lingering question about concrete exegetical methodology is: exegesis ought to relate to a robust missional hermeneutic as a part of the spiral, not by becoming fundamentally different methodologically. As a critical realist, I find historical-critical methodology still to be essential for the kind of continuity I seek hermeneutically between meaning and significance. (This raises a question about Western cultural influences that must be addressed.)

Second, Brownson’s response to Hunsberger correctly recognizes, I believe, that Barram’s located questions comprise the closest thing to an awareness of cross-cultural dynamics in missional hermeneutics. As the discussion of contextualization in my previous post indicates, it is missiology’s struggle with cross-cultural dynamics that constitute its unrecognized contribution to missional hermeneutics (unrecognized from what I can tell—I have a lot of reading to do; it is at least noteworthy that Hunsberger’s summary to date barely tips a hat to cross-cultural dynamics). As Barram states:

Perhaps it should not be surprising that sensitivity to social location is evident in recent missiological studies concerned with the character and function of the Bible. Given the historic and geographic scope of missionary activity, practitioners have explored issues of contextualization and pluralistic readerships for years. For that reason, missiological conversations regarding the process of multilateral and intercultural dialogue may be significantly more developed and sophisticated than analogous developments in biblical studies (Barram, 2007, 45).

Yet, Hunsberger lumps (1) Brownson’s (and Ross Wagner’s) observation about the paradigmatic nature of biblical authors’ theological m.o. in with (2) a passing comment on similarities to some of the most important missiological models developed in recent years. These are very different contributions to missional hermeneutics. One deals with exegetically illuminating the biblical author’s own missional hermeneutic (which is hugely significant), whereas the other has to do with the similarity between what seems to be the biblical author’s m.o. and what missiologists have been practicing for some time—precisely Barram’s point in the quotation above.

Therefore, one rich field for study is the missional hermeneutics of the biblical authors themselves. Assuming Barram’s missional rubric, what are the authors/editors of Scripture doing in the appropriation of existing Scripture? In other words, this sheds new light on intertextual interpretation. A totally different field for study is that of missiology, especially anthropology and contextualization. It seems common to refer to missiology in the missional hermeneutics discussion and thereby mean the missional church movement. Yet, missiology has much more to offer hermeneutically than working out David Bosch’s observation that the church is missional in nature (I acknowledge that missional church folks might not like that simplistic view of their work, but it’s the essence, I think).

A Basis for a Missional Hermeneutical Spiral

I propose the following four theses as a basis for revisioning the hermeneutical spiral missionally.

1. Mission was the mother of theology in the early church and Israel.

Exegesis takes into account that Scripture’s authors wrote in the crucible of participation in God’s mission. Their own formulations are attempts at contextualization, albeit not, of course, in the anthropological mode of current missiology. But the exigencies of mission did compel them to perceive and draw out new implications and articulate those in contextually and situationally appropriate ways. This thesis yields two distinct hermeneutical contributions. One, exegesis that attempts to understand an author’s intention without taking into account the missional context of the writing will fall short in its descriptive endeavor. Two, doing the exegesis in this way renders the authors mode(s) of operation as a paradigm for current missional theologizing. Specifically:

The authors’ original intention was to form readers for mission.

The authors make innovative yet cohesive articulations and determinations.

Insofar as these modes are paradigmatic, the exegesis can actually provide a signpost for doing hermeneutics (rather than producing prefabricated theological conclusions or principles). Hermeneutics should be done in service to the church in mission, imitating as far as possible the interpreters par excellence canonized in Scripture.

2. Mission is the metanarrative.

Biblical theology finds its continuity (or cohesiveness) in the metanarrative of missio Dei. The biblical worldview founded on this metanarrative can be explicated anthropologically and theologically as a synthesis of the biblical material. One of its fundamental aspects is teleological monotheism (Wright, 2006). This is a story of one particular God moving the plot forward toward a particular purpose. Yet, at the same time, the biblical worldview assumes pluralism and diversity (Brownson, 2009). As a metanarrative of diversity, it addresses, at least to some extent, the concerns of postmoderns who reject totalizing narratives (Bauckham, 2003, ch 4.). In this sense, the incarnational impulse of Christianity rejects an imperialistic understanding of transforming worldviews and instead seeks to understand transformation mutually as living in dialogue and tension with the distinctiveness of each cultural worldview, while affirming the normativeness of the biblical metanarrative.

The diversity of Scripture itself is a record of a variety of cultural worldviews in transformation (again, the texts were themselves attempts at cohesion, though deemed paradigmatic and normative after the fact). The unity of Scripture implies a shared metanarrative among the diversity of cultural worldviews. It is not totalizing, but it is transformative, especially in its teleological nature. All cultures are enlisted in God’s mission from their particularity. The canon exists as an expression of this particular unity, and the canon functions properly in service to mission. That is, mission is the way of life most cohesive with the canonical thrust of Scripture. The church can therefore only use Scripture rightly in mission.

3. Mission is the church’s praxis.

The lived appropriation of the biblical metanarrative is mission. God calls us and sends us to live incarnationally among other worldviews, understand and love them from the inside, and come alongside them relationally in dialogue with the biblical worldview. This is where Bosch’s observation that the church is missional by nature becomes hermeneutically relevant. Because the church is missional by nature, all of its praxis must be understood in terms of God’s mission. The church’s praxis is normed by the biblical metanarrative of God’s mission and cannot be legitimized apart from it.

4. Missional is still the mother of theology.

Missional praxis, rather than just any praxis, informs ongoing theology, because it is cohesive with the biblical metanarrative. Liberation theology gifted us the critical insight that praxis must inform theory, but it understood that praxis too narrowly. While solidarity with the poor is a vital part of the church’s participation in God’s mission, it is not the whole. Nonetheless, a missional hermeneutic recognizes that questions from the location of mission are epistemologically privileged, because the experience of mission uniquely reveals more about the metanarrative than the biblical theological (theoretical) reconstruction alone. To say that they are epistemologically privileged is not to say that they are canonized or normative, nor is it to say that all missional experience coheres equally with the biblical metanarrative. Rather, it is to say that missional hermeneutics affirms as a matter of methodology that intentional engagement in mission can shed light on the meaning of the Bible’s story of mission. Stated more simply, missional hermeneutics assumes that because the story of the Bible is ongoing, the interpreter is able to participate in it and therefore understand it more completely from the inside, rather than merely analyze it from the outside. But because the biblical story is the story of missio Dei, only participation in the missio Dei affords that hermeneutical advantage.

Moreover, only questions formulated through rigorous contextualization deal with deep worldview issues in the process of worldview transformation. Rather than merely privileging a location because it is vaguely missional, it is this transformational environment that missional hermeneutics appreciates as theologically generative. Located questions must be critically engaged on the level of worldview transformation to be of most hermeneutical value.

Barram, Michael. “The Bible, Missions, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic.” Interpretation 61, no. 1 (January 2007): 42-58.

Barram, Michael. “A Response at AAR to Hunsbergers ‘Proposals…’ Essay.” The Gospel and Our Culture Network. http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/response-aar-hunsberger-s-proposals-essay. Jan. 28, 2009.

Barram, Michael. “‘Located’ Questions for a Missional Hermeneutic.” The Gospel and Our Culture Network. http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/located-questions-missional-hermeneutic. Nov. 1, 2006.

Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Brownson, James V. “A Response at SBL to Hunsberger’s ‘Proposals…’ Essay.” The Gospel and Our Culture Network. http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/response-sbl-hunsbergers-proposals-essay. Jan. 28, 2009.

Hunsberger, George. “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation.” The Gospel and Our Culture Network. http://www.gocn.org/resources/articles/proposals-missional-hermeneutic-mapping-conversation. Jan. 28, 2009.

Wright, Christopher. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006.

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