Friday, December 28, 2012

The Relationship of Faith and Hermeneutics

A core presupposition of this specific post is that the most important literary project ever produced is the Bible. To be more specific, The Christian Scriptures are the single most important literary work ever to exist in human history. Another presupposition I hold is that genuine Christians receive Scripture for what it is, the very word of God and humbly submit to it. That is to say, true believers do not pick and choose which parts of God’s word they will receive while rejecting the rest. My goal in this post is not to demonstrate the truthfulness of this statement. It is to ask the question, “What does faith have to do with hermeneutics?” Is there a place for faith in the interpretive process of biblical literature? Moreover, if there is a habitation for faith in the interpretive process, what exactly is that place?

There was a time when the Word of God, the Word from God was scarce. Christians could not go down to the bookstore and purchase a Bible alongside a plethora of other books. Most of what people had of the Word from God came from oral tradition and from the elder on Sundays. When someone did possess a copy of Scripture, it was indeed a very special thing. In Modern culture, and especially in the West, and I would imagine in any culture where copies of Scripture are plentiful, there is a casual attitude about ‘the book.’ In the name of bibliolatry, the Bible has been downgraded in many churches to the point that it has become, for all practical purposes, just one more book. It cannot be disputed that ‘the book’ no longer holds the place of prominence it once held, at least in modern American churches. Many of the leaders in the “Emergent Church” in fact, have reduced the Bible to a collection of traditions created and passed down by ancient men who were anti-gay, oppressive to women, and interested only in a god who would keep them prosperous and powerful.

Suffice it to say, the disposition one has toward the Bible will have a serious impact on how they interpret it. Moreover, the faith position of a person will serve as the basis of their disposition toward the Bible. Hence, as I will show, there is an indisputable relationship between faith and hermeneutics.

“While a given interpreter may indeed be devoid of faith and the Holy Spirit and still understand some of the words in Scripture, he will lack the spiritual framework, motivation, and understanding to grasp a given passage in its whole-Bible context.” [KÖstenberger, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, 65]

 There are a number of criticisms leveled against Scripture in modern times, even in the Church, that serve to detract from the conviction necessary to have Scripture do the work in our lives that God Himself intends. For instance, there are criticisms against the miracle claims of Scripture, the teachings about women, the husband-wife relationship, an eternal hell, and the gay lifestyle. I have not even mentioned higher critical views that seek to dethrone Scripture at just about every turn. There are those who argue that the canon is an innovation of the church. Then there are the textual critics that claim that the various manuscripts contain so many variants we could never know with any degree of certainty that what we have now is what the first century church had then. Moreover, the deconstructionist argument against the metaphysics of meaning seek to all but destroy any hope of meaningful communication, not just in the text of Scripture, but any text whatever. In the text written to the ancient church in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul wrote these words, ὃς καὶ ἐνεργεῖται ἐν ὑμῖν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν. This phrase translates, “Which also works in you who believe.” What works in them? Here is the entire verse in English: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (I Thess. 2:13)

Here is the main point: God’s word is supposed to be working in us. Scripture was given by God, through human authors with perlocutionary intent. That is to say, God gave us revelation-by-proposition in order to change us. God gave Scripture in order to produce something in us and that something was not simply to increase knowledge.
We have looked again at the risk-taking nature of knowledge, this time in our understanding of faith and hermeneutics. Polanyi has shown that all knowledge is about personal commitment and risk, Barth that any statement of one’s exegetical conclusions will involve a risk-taking affirmation. All, including postmodernists, take a risk in holding their presuppositions, authorities and methods dear. So to adopt the authority of the church is no less academically respectable or philosophically rigorous than espousing any other authority. In terms of gospel interpretation, consistency and maintaining the appropriate relationship between text and community—with all the consequences and ramifications discussed—would point towards a distinct preference for ‘theological’ presuppositions not a necessity to apologise for them.[1]

 KÖstenberger writes, “Rather than adopting a critical stance toward Scripture, we should rather submit to it as our final authority in all areas of life. An essential quality required of the biblical interpreter is therefore humility.” [KÖstenberger, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, 63] One of the essential views of Scripture pertains to its nature. It is the Word of God. It is of divine origin through human vessels. If one fails to take into consideration the nature of Scripture, they are sure to fail in their endeavor to attain a sufficient understanding of its content. You may ask, “How does one know when they have arrived at a sufficient understanding of a particular text?” I think the Pauline text quoted above in his project to the ancient Thessalonians offers a clue. A sufficient understanding is one that produces the specific performance that God intended Scripture to have on the Christian heart. We all know that when it happens. While I am cautious about uncritical approaches to the text and especially in the area of exegesis, I am far more concerned with methods that approach Scripture from a purely rationalistic and radically skeptical perspective.

All too often in the Christian community, we fail to strike a balanced approach to hermeneutics. Christians are either reading the Scripture discursively and retaining absolutely nothing about it, or they are busy reading their own culture back into the text, or they have unwittingly adopted radically critical approaches that treat the Word of God like it has to pass their lofty standards in order to be received for truth. In many cases, Christians simply don’t read the Bible because pastors have been telling them for years now that doctrine doesn’t really matter. In other cases, professing Christians are ashamed to admit they believe the Bible, that they actually have faith in its content. In American culture, one of the most foolish things a person can say today is that they believe something because it is in the Bible. You don’t have to look any further than the young earth or the homosexual issue to recognize that the Biblical teachings on these issues has long since been regarded as, well, incredibly naïve if not down-right silly. It seems to me then, that when we talk about hermeneutics outside the context of faith, outside the context of the deep conviction that the text before us is sacred, is true, is actually the revelation of God Himself to His elect, we journey outside the bounds necessary to be successful at the very endeavor for which we strive: a right understanding of the Sacred Text.
So where are we? We know that hermeneutics encompasses matters such as, the nature of Scripture, the structure and formation of the canon, the process of determining or identifying the text itself (textual criticism), and a theology (philosophy?) of hermeneutics. Without a theology or philosophy of hermeneutics, the entire enterprise is an exercise in futility. When we begin a journey, we begin by pointing ourselves in the right direction. If we initiate our journey pointed ever so slightly in the wrong direction by even a fraction of an inch, then the longer our journey, the more off course we shall be. Beginning the journey of biblical interpretation without faith is one way in which to initiate that journey by pointing in the wrong direction.

I think about the critics of how the Sacred Canon came to its final form. I read the skepticism that pervades much of academia and recognize that most of what passes for scholarship is cleverly disguised philosophical bias, godless worldviews dressed up in Christian garb. These academicians are nothing more than educated-skeptics, reading each other’s books, writing and grading one another’s exams, and marking each other’s papers. I cannot help but ask why Jesus and His apostles were confronted with the same complexities we are with regard to their canon, yet they  preached, taught, and wrote with amazing confidence and passionate conviction about the revelation of God that was and is the Old Testament Scripture. I read the hype and sensational views of one Bart Ehrmann on the difficulty and even impossibility of locating the actual text of either of the testaments, especially the new. Once again, I am amazed that Jesus and His apostles had the very same textual difficulties we do and yet with amazing faith in what they called the Holy Scriptures, they thundered away, preaching and teaching about the things written in the Law, the Prophets, and the writings, as if they knew what the text was. Moreover, they did so with seemingly great certainty. If we did what Jesus and His apostles did, the skeptics club, which includes some supposed evangelical theologians, would accuse us of being the epitome of arrogance. The skeptics club has a great deal of faith in human reason, in rationalism, in well, the power of skepticism as a legitimate epistemological frame for understanding not only the world, but even the text of the world beyond.

You see then that the relationship between faith and hermeneutics is unbreakable. Faith is involved in every endeavor to interpret the text we call the Bible. Either you have faith in God, the One who gave us the text, who aided the believing community in their quest to recognize it and distinguish it from foreign substitutes, the One who made certain that what we have today is what He gave them yesterday. Or, you have faith in unaided human reason and your skills as an interpreter to be able, on your own steam to grasp the text like a wrestler his opponent and to grapple it into submission. To be sure, submission is a key component of hermeneutics. But are we to submit Scripture to our prior understandings and worldview, or will Scripture submit and subdue our godless worldview, performing its work in us as Paul commanded the ancient church of Thessalonica?

“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (I Thess. 2:13)

[1] Rosalind M. Selby, Comical Doctrine: An Epistemology of New Testament Hermeneutics (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), 163.

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