Missional Hermeneutics (Revisioning the Hermeneutical Spiral Missionally 2)

Based upon my last post in the series, I suggest the following diagram as indicative of a properly missional hermeneutical spiral:


1. We have to begin with preunderstanding. This includes whatever previous involvement in mission the interpreter may have, so I’m not trying to begin theoretically without praxis. “Step 1” is just the point at which we begin observing the spiral for heuristic purposes. Most of us began reading and interpreting before engaging in mission, so it is important to reiterate that all kinds of experiences are also shaping the worldview from within which we read. We are not blank slates. We are not objective.

2. Exegesis is our best effort at objectivity. We attempt to use the various methodologies of biblical studies to hear the author and allow the text to norm the subsequent theology. This is done with the humble recognition that we are not escaping our preunderstanding but attempting to submit it to the text.

3. Exegesis extends into biblical theology, where we attempt to place a particular text in the context of the biblical narrative. That narrative can be construed many ways depending on our preunderstanding of unifying themes etc., so this is also provisional.

4. This Bible study is a part of our lives in mission; indeed, it compels us into mission and sustains us. If we are engaging a context with intentionality, we will begin by assuming a relational posture of learning and service rather than immediately attempting to be “Bible teachers.”

5. Both the Bible study and the engagement with another worldview (or even our own of we intentionally engage it critically and humbly on a new level) reshape our preunderstanding. We are transformed. We reassess our assumptions and scrutinize our traditions. We are still not objective, but we are not entrenched.

6. In light of a revised perspective, we return to that big metanarrative framework that constitutes the methodology of our biblical theology in order to see what may have changed. Assumptions now challenged by our relationships or Bible study may need to be removed from our construal of the narrative, or new insight may need to be added.

7. Now we return to specific passages and listen to the authors with the metanarrative in mind. This is not intended to make the author conform to the whole but to place the passage in that larger theological framework as we endeavor to bring specific passages to bear upon life. There is still an interchange happening between the specific passage and biblical theology that may refine our understanding of either or both.

8. The next part of our intentional engagement with our missionary context is contextualization, by which we aim to bring the biblical worldview as we understand it (the metanarrative) into explicit conversation with our context’s worldview. The aim is, through engagement with the text—thus, specific passages—we seek to facilitate the same worldview transformation in others that, by God’s grace, is happening in us through our own critical engagement with the text (and submission to other teachers, etc.). Contextualization depends on both the previous biblical study and the previous incarnational solidarity as learner, because it is about, in large part, communication between the two worldviews and therefore requires a translator.

In order to describe the spiral, I still have to portray it rather more neatly and linearly than it really is. But the point remains, engagement in mission (4 and 8 ) are an integral part of the interpretive progression that circles back around to the text, affecting the outcomes of our interpretation and therefore our engagement and so forth.

What about systematic theology? It is conspicuously absent from this spiral. While some, like Osborne, see contextualization and systematics as virtually synonymous, I think that is a significant misstep. Systematics itself is the product of a cultural environment (speaking of macro-culture, i.e. “Western culture,” especially streams of the Enlightenment and modernity). In that sense, it is a specific contextualization, but it should not be generalized as a universal. That is a typically ethnocentric mistake. Thus, I subsume systematics under “tradition” in preunderstanding (as a Westerner) and under “historical theology” in biblical theology (because many doctrines defined systematically have affected my framework).

Yet, I also see that the issue in systematics is not necessarily the classical categories or methodologies so much as the endeavor to spell out biblical theology logically (granted there are different kinds of logics, there are also limits to that cognitive diversity that allow us to speak of human logic universally), often in terms of topics of interest. That will always happen eventually in some form or fashion in any context where Christians are invested in understanding their topics of interest biblically. The tension here, I believe, is still best described in terms of narrative versus proposition. While we have a basic need to rehearse and live in the narrative, there is nothing wrong with speaking propositionally. I think about this tension in this way:

Theology is implications.

Implications must be expressed propositionally, as logos.


The Logos expressed himself incarnationally, as story.

Story is metanarrative, the deep structure of worldview.

Because worldview ultimately determines perception of implications, they are inseparable.

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