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Need for Moderate/Liberal Hermeneutics

It is sometimes difficult to discuss scriptural issues involved in many modern debates simply because there is so little explicit liberal hermeneutic. It’s not that there is no liberal hermeneutic; it’s simply that so few people are aware of such a thing, and it’s so badly communicated to people in the pews. Moderates have succeeded in producing something they can use with varying degrees of success, but often this is simply exceptions made to the fundamentalist or conservative evangelical hermeneutics we encounter.

The problem, I think, results from simply telling people not to take the Bible so literally. In many churches, “literal” and “true” have become almost synonymous, and this statements sounds like saying not to take the Bible so seriously. Mainliners end up hanging between Biblical literalists on the one hand, and critical Biblical scholarship on the other, and are uncertain just what to do with scripture. Now I have no problem with critical methodology, but it has a major limitation. Once you’re done discussing the prehistory and history of the text in great deal, just what are you going to do about it?

This is where many of us fall flat in communicating what we’re doing. The Bible is important to me, but why is that so, and how do I manage to communicate that importance to others? More importantly, just what role does the Bible play in my life, and specifically in the way I answer life’s questions? It cannot play the same role as it plays in the life of a fundamentalist who is looking for specific commands in specific verses. That’s not the way I study or understand it.

To get a bit more specific, I am frequently asked about Genesis. How can I possible be a theistic evolutionist and still believe the Bible? Is what I practice “Biblical” Christianity?”

Let’s start with the term “Biblical.” I believe it is horribly abused as an adjective. One cannot answer the question of whether something is Biblical or not without establishing an interpretive framework–a hermeneutic if you please. Thus if someone asks me whether my views are “Biblical” or not, and they are dispensationalist, odds are that I will not appear Biblical to them. Frankly, were I as tense as they are, they would not appear Biblical to me, simply because I see dispensationalism as something imposed on the text from the outside without adequate justification. From my perspective, I’m quite Biblical, but to the dispensationalist, who does believe that dispensationalism is Biblical, and the appropriate way to understand the Bible, I don’t look much like it.

In response to the question about Genesis and theistic evolution, I don’t see any problem at all, because I simply do not see Genesis as narrative history, or any other form of literature that would make be believe that the events it narrates are historical. Thus I’m reading Genesis differently because of the type of literature it is. If I respond to this question by saying, “I don’t take Genesis literally,” then I really haven’t given much information. There are few literal interpretations that will work, but many non-literal. I have to be more specific.

So I would say that in order to interpret any piece of ancient literature correctly, you need to find out what type of literature it was, and hopefully what types of questions it was intended to answer, and then read it in that light. In the case of Genesis 1-11, we have largely the language of an origin myth, and these were written in the ancient near east not to preserved historical fact but to establish social order and legitimize governments.

Today I’m just going to make a few remarks about my view of hermeneutics. I may blog further on individual elements. I believe liberals and moderates need to be more clear about the way in which we get from text to action. If the Bible is important in my life, in what way is it important? How does it change the way I would otherwise act. Obviously I’m not talking simple exegesis here. It is not sufficient to determine what Paul meant to his first audience, but also to determine just how that can be applied in life now.

My understanding starts with seeing the Biblical literature as the result of a community living their faith. This doesn’t exclude divine inspiration, but divine inspiration operates amongst real people at a specific time and place. Communication with these people must occur in a way that they can understand. Since the literature results from a faith community, the way it is received and created and the way the community handles and transmits it become relevant to understanding it. If the Pentateuch is built from sources that grew up over centuries, I think this is significant. It tells us something about God and the way he works just as the actual text does.

A corollary to this is that I do not take God’s knowledge or God’s context as the basis for understanding the literature. If it was communicated to and in a community, it lived in that community and was understood by that community. I don’t believe they had a God’s eye view, and I know I don’t.

But the understanding of that community may not be of value to me today. For example, I believe the community that heard the stories of Genesis first was comfortable with a flat earth, round like a dinner plate, with the dome of the sky above it. That was their cosmology. I know better. Later generations may improve on my understanding. I do not suddenly reread the stories from my new perspective (without other necessary adjustments), on the basis that God already knew the earth was spherical.

Since the Bible was produced in and by a community, I am also interested in the continuity of community from that time to this, such as it is. In this way I keep connection and continuity in a changing world. I also bring in tradition in this way.

At the same time I recognize that I understand this through my own experiences, and that my connections to my modern community, especially my spiritual community (a United Methodist congregation) provide a framework in which I understand it. There are, however, ways other than revelation from which I get knowledge, and these are added in as well, by means of science.

Finally there are two elements that I believe work closely together. First is reason (also part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which some may recognize here in parts), which doesn’t seem to me to be a separate source of knowledge but rather the means by which we comprehend all the rest. Some Christians disdain reason, but you will form doctrines using your reason in any case. The only question is how well you do this. The second of these two elements is the Holy Spirit, guiding us into all truth. I think the Holy Spirit is more active than we often believe, and I think we need to be open to continuing guidance.

The result of this is often nothing at all like what a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical would get from the text. Yet in order to understand that difference we have to look at how we interpret and apply what what we read.

I hope to discuss these elements some more. This is such a brief look. As I said there is a great deal of quite good moderate and liberal hermeneutics out there. It just doesn’t seem to filter down to the pews as well as I would like.

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One Comment

  1. Philo says:

    This is where many of us fall flat in communicating what we’re doing. The Bible is important to me, but why is that so, and how do I manage to communicate that importance to others?

    I have to confess: I am a crass materialist (philosophically speaking).

    But the Bible has poetic value. Especially in the words of Jesus.

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