Refusing Both Options: Scripture and the Via Media with Hauerwas & Brueggemann

Two sides of the same coin? A mercury dime, courtesy Wikipedia.
Two sides of the same coin? A mercury dime, courtesy Wikipedia.

“Indeed literalist-fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation by the church.”

-Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture

The Via Media has many detractors, which is kind of funny because there isn’t much of a definition.  As Evan Rohrs-Dodge has pointed out, it is more of a hermeneutic than a monolithic perspective.  Joel Watts has helpfully differentiated between the Via Media and the Third Way; at its best, the Via Media is not so much about picking the “middle” between existing options, but about emphatically refusing both and choosing something different.

This shows up in how we approach Scripture.  Both conservatives and progressives approach the text in quite similar ways.  The fundamentalist-modernist split of the early 20th century was not, as is often advertised, a divide between moderns and anti-moderns, but between different types of modernists who were ultimately kissing cousins.  Hauerwas, in his firecracker of a book on Scripture, puts it this way:

“…the debate between fundamentalists and biblical critics is really more a debate between friends who share many of the same assumptions. The most prominent shared assumption is that the interpretation of the biblical texts is not a political process involving questions of power and authority. By privileging the individual interpreter, who is thought capable of discerning the meaning of the text apart form the consideration of the good ends of a community, fundamentalists and biblical critics make the Church incidental.” (25-26, emphasis added)

In today’s UMC, the church is indeed incidental to how traditionalists and liberals read Scripture.  Both affirm the church insofar as it affirms their reading of Scripture, and reject the church insofar as it rejects their reading.  The individual interpreter – and their respective camps – is king.  True heirs of the Reformation, we Methodists are happy to each be our own Luthers, declaring our sole ability to take a stand on Scripture and close our ears to all other readings.  The shared attitude of liberals and traditionalists is thus:  power and authority are ‘mine,’ and the church only deserves either if and when she agrees with me.

This Enlightenment focus on the rational individual means that fundamentalists and modern critics are really allies.  As Walter Brueggemann tells it, this 18th century “text” dominates (however covertly) the reading of those who consider themselves opposites:

“The power of this text shows up [1] in an excessive theological conservatism that has transposed fidelity into certitudes that are absolutes about morality as about theology, as though somewhere there are rational formulations that will powerfully veto the human ambiguities so palpable among us. The power of this text also shows up [2] in overstated theological liberalism in which every woman and every man is one’s own pope, in which autonomous freedom becomes a fetish and all notions of communal accountability evaporate into a polite but innocuous mantra of “each to her or his own.” (5, emphasis added)

In other words: conservatives have no room for ambiguity, and progressives have no room for accountability, and both have a poverty of hospitality because of shared assumptions about how to properly read the Biblical text.  That sounds to me like exactly where the UMC is at present.  The Via Media rejects both of these individualistic, modern readings of the Bible because both are fundamentally modern (pun intended).

What is the alternative? That is a whole separate post, and probably more than one. A hint: something like a Barthian reading of Scripture, or a narrative reading.  I would suggest a view of Scripture that takes the text seriously, but short of bibliolatry and far away from demythologizing.  The Bible is not merely a list of rules or an outmoded, ancient list of rules (see: literalist and modernist readings) but a story.  That story is the narrative of a God known through the travails of Israel and the Church, and most particularly through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  A focus on the person and work of Christ as the primary hermeneutic lens through which to read Scripture thus upends the Pharisees on the left and the right, for whom the only lens is The Agenda.  The teaching and the way of Christ are best determined and lived out in the community of faith, the Church.

Hauerwas and Brueggemann give us ammunition for just such a rejection of the twin options of modernist Biblical interpretation.  The Via Media refuses to do an end-run around the Church, but bears with her, warts and fights and pitiful controversies and all, daring to listen to the discernment of the church catholic (small-c).  The resulting conversation is much more interesting than the alternatives.

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4 thoughts on “Refusing Both Options: Scripture and the Via Media with Hauerwas & Brueggemann

  1. If you think it’s weird to paint viamedia as a monolith, then why paint progressives or fundamentalists as monolithic camps?

    It seems the intent here is to discredit (to at least some extent) the two poles you see on the theological spectrum between conservatives and progressives, but instead of looking for the middle ground between the two (i.e. Third Way) , you want to offer an alternative. To me, what this looks like is turning a line into a triangle – a triple threat match if you will. Why is it incorrect for the other two camps to believe they are correct in their interpretation of scripture yet okay for you?

    1. You’ll notice that the metaphor in this post isn’t a spectrum, but currency. Fundamentalism and the critical project both trade in the same currency—the assumption that the disciplines of science and history have ultimate authority to define the nature of reality. They are “two sides of the same coin.” This post calls for a different currency. To look for a different currency is equivalent to searching for a money exchange in order to trade in the country where you find yourself. Drew is saying that the coin modern people have been using to trade for knowledge of the truths of which scripture speaks actually aren’t the right currency in the country scripture represents and communicates. He’s looking for the currency—assumptions about the nature of reality and how to know it—most suitable to the world of scripture. The way Drew has diagnosed the problem, it makes sense not to look for a “middle ground” between two poles. They aren’t as far apart as they seem; they share fundamental assumptions incommensurate to reading the Bible for what it is—a deeply human but also divine book.

  2. A positive answer to this question is exactly what I’m attempting through my dissertation on “witness” in the book of Acts. And yes, the way Barth uses the language of witness about Scripture is very helpful, but the idea comes from Acts 10:43. Surprise! Scripture can help us read Scripture!

  3. Thank you for your perspective on hermeneutics, Drew. I agree with Matthew that you are lumping fundamentalists, evangelicals, and traditionalists into the same “bucket.” Evangelicals do not approach Scripture the same way fundamentalists do.

    Evangelicals believe we can have certainty about some things, like the “life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus” that you say forms the center of the Via Media (and thus, you must also be certain of those things). Meanwhile, evangelicals grant a diversity of opinion on many nonessential matters (like modes of baptism or schemes of eschatology).

    Finally, evangelicals, as heirs of Wesley, do involve the church in determining doctrine and interpreting Scripture. Our affirmation of the ecumenical creeds and the doctrinal standards of the UMC portrays our continuity with church teaching and interpretation. Wesley repeated cited the authorities of church Tradition, quoting ancient fathers and mothers of the church, as well as those more contemporary with him. Our interpretation of Scripture is most often in continuity with the witness of the church through the ages.

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