Our Common Text? Part 2 (A Helpful Hermeneutic Proposal)

Bible Text by Petr Kratochvil
Bible Text by Petr Kratochvil

In the spirit of this blog, my hope is that we might seek a “middle way” between two ways these “camps” often view Scripture. While an examination of this particular topic would likely require a multi-volume work, I’ll suggest four starting points for us to begin working on common ground as it relates to Scripture:

  1. Humility – A while back, I taught Christianity and World Religions my Wednesday Bible study group. I began the first session of that series by writing “I don’t know” on the dry erase board, letting the class know that I’m in no position to judge the eternal fate of people nor am I qualified to speak authoritatively about other religions. I have since adopted that stance when teaching any Bible study. There is so much that I don’t know. That attitude is really helpful when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture. It also goes a long way in preventing me from deploying Scripture as a “weapon” against those with whom I disagree. I try to come to the Scripture open to correction, desiring instruction and wisdom. This assumes that I’m lacking in those areas. I have found that fundamentalist conservatives have trouble with humility when it comes to interpreting Scripture. Their interface with the Bible is built upon perspicuity, literalism, and inerrancy, assured that the meaning of Scripture is clear, literal, and absolutely correct. This approach is an obstacle to humility and, I’d argue, inspiration. When we assume perspicuity, literality, and inerrancy, we’ve closed the door on the Spirit moving in new ways through the text and it is typically assumed that our particular interpretation of the text is the only thing that can be meant by that particular text. Humility then is left behind, outrun by our own previously held assumptions about the text in question. On the other side, a number of those holding to the remnants of the historical-critical approach as well as postmodern approaches (both of which are deeply rooted in the academic discipline of “Biblical Studies”) often look down their noses at people who do not share their critical, philosophical, and/or literary assumptions about the Bible. Throw a controversial topic like homosexuality into the mix and it’s no surprise that common ground seems impossible. It is my conviction that we will not be able to move forward as a denomination unless we take Scripture’s calls to humility seriously, especially as it relates to our interpreting and teaching Scripture.
  2. Familiarity – At various points in my life, I have been by turns challenged, saddened, and despairing about the amount of Biblical illiteracy in the churches that I’ve had the blessing to be a part of. This is not true of a number of people in these churches, but people who are knowledgeable about Scripture are part of a shrinking minority. It’s easy to point a finger at “secular culture”, but that would be the church and Christians simply trying shirk responsibility. One thing that we can hopefully agree on is that Christians on both sides of any particular divide can always become more familiar with Scripture. Fundamentalist conservatives usually assume that they have the advantage, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I have met plenty of liberal/progressive/whatever you want to call the other side Christians who are deeply knowledgeable of Scripture. This might seem like a safe starting point, but it would be awesome if more people in our pews knew more about the Bible, even if interpretations inevitably differ. I would love to be able to talk about Gideon or 2 Timothy or Micah without receiving blank stares in return. And this is not elitism – it does not require a Master’s Degree or ordination papers to read Judges or Paul’s letters. It requires commitment and a desire to be faithful.
  3. Community – One consequence of the Protestant Reformation and its wrestling match/love affair with “modernity” is that in the American context Christianity has typically been understood as an individual undertaking. We elevate the individual in our theology, our worship, and ironically our ecclesiology to the detriment of the life of the community. The truth is that the vast majority of Scripture was written to and for communities, not individuals. Scripture is a book for people – not just individuals. The interpretation of Scripture functions best in community. And even though I do my exegetical work and prepare my sermons in relative isolation, I bring commentaries and resources from other people into the conversation. It’s not simply my voice. And my hope is the community will continue the conversation begun in the sermon – the preacher does not have the final word! There is much value in individual devotional study, but that must be balanced by hearing the voices of brothers and sisters who are also honestly engaging with Scripture with humility and expectation. Only hearing those voices that agree with your already-held convictions leaves you in a cul-de-sac that doesn’t allow you to actually move beyond your own limited views.
  4. Expectation – It is too often the case that we approach Scripture already assuming what we will find. And often our assumption is that we will find exactly what we are looking for. We often interpret Scripture in ways that validate and support our opinions and limited views. Our sense of holy expectation is then traded in for stale projection. When I think about the inspiration of Scripture, I think about the Holy Spirit breathing life into the text, even while I read. The words themselves don’t change or magically re-arrange themselves, but Scripture does (through the Spirit) have the power to re-arrange and transform me, if my mind is not already made up about what I will find. My personal goal is to read Scripture daily with a sense of expectation that God will speak to me through what I read in surprising and transformative ways. I have found that reading Scripture expectantly, even when reading in different ways (critically/academically, devotionally, liturgically, etc.), makes Scripture more compelling, more challenging, and ultimately more inspiring.

The bulk of my two posts was written a few days before the World Vision controversy. At this point, as it relates to Scriptural interpretation in general and homosexuality in particular, my hope for reconciliation and renewal between the two “sides” is dim.

It’s a good thing that reconciliation depends on God’s work and not us.

The starting point for us perhaps should be Romans 12:9-21 instead of Romans 1:24-27, Matthew 22:34-40 instead of Leviticus 18:22, remembering that God’s work and intention for all us is reconciliation through Christ made a possibility among us through the presence and power of the Spirit.

Rev. Wesley Smith is the co-pastor of Harrisburg United Methodist Church in Harrisburg, NC. His primary interests are spending as much time as possible with his wife and two children as well as being in ministry with the people of Harrisburg. His other interests are the study and teaching of Scripture, with special focus on the letters of Paul and a continuing interest in Wesleyan/Methodist eschatology. He is a graduate of the Candler School of Theology (M.Div.) and Duke Divinity School (Th.M. in New Testament Studies).

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2 thoughts on “Our Common Text? Part 2 (A Helpful Hermeneutic Proposal)

  1. Thank you for your post, Wesley. As an evangelical, I wholeheartedly endorse the four attitudes you lift up in our approach to Scripture. I would disagree with a word of what you advocate.

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